The Forgotten Hero of the Ottoman Empire: Memoirs of Sargis Torosyan as a Challenge to the Existing Order of things and History of Turkey. Part 1
Sargis Torosyan’s autobiography is a unique document. As an officer of the Turkish army during the First World War, he became its direct participant. The book consists of data and evidence which shed light on those “dark sides” of history, politics and diplomacy of that period of time which influenced the tragic fate of the Armenian nation. In parallel with different intrigues you can see the hero’s experience: his love story, true friendship, betrayals and disappointments. Sargis Torosyan’s memoirs challenge the current order of things and perception of the history of Turkey. The following are several chapters from his book.
The days of the First World War
The captain Torosyan was born in 1891 in the town of Everec, in the south of the Ottoman Empire. He was the captain of artillery, the officer of the surveillance, the commander of 60.000 Arab horsemen, the cavalry platoon commander within the Armenian legion under the command of French in Cilicia.
You may think, this is an adventure story, however that is not so. This is a true story of my life.
Although I was serving in the Turkish army, I am Armenian. I was one of those few Christians who managed to become an officer in the Turkish Armed forces.
Being in a state of an oppressed national minority in a country of ignorant people, whose minds have always been controlled by muezzins, we – Armenians, have always lived in an atmosphere of anxiety and secrecy. We were living in a country full of espionage, bloodshed, violence, atrocity and massacre. In our efforts to achieve autonomy, we were first deceived by imperialistic Russia, then by imperialistic Britain and at last by imperialistic France.
While the foreign imperialists were awakening inside us a strong national idea and were pushing us to rebel for it, the Turks, who were in despair and were afraid of our rebellion, decided to put an end to the Armenian question by organizing the most awful massacre since the First World War.
When I remember my younger years, it seems to me that the houses where we were living, the churches where we were praying, the schools we were going – were filled with something military. It seems that we were living in a military camp. The only difference was that we did not have weapons, as the Christian population in Turkey was prohibited to hold weapons, even a sword.
I was studying in a school which was like a fort: the schools, churches and houses were surrounded by the six meters high walls.
Our houses were built in a way to assure our safety: the walls were thick and high and there were a lot of rooms which were able to hold many families at the same time. Our only protection was in our cohesiveness. There was only one door in each house - big and heavy. There were underground passages and tunnels where the women and children had to hide unless the Turkish authorities stopped the organized pogroms. Armenians were fighting by stick and stones, the only “weapons” they had.
I was still young, when in 1908, after the rebellion of Young Turks against the Sultan, more than 30.000 my compatriots were killed in the Turkish region of Cilicia. After the massacre the sultan Abdul Hamid was thrown in jail, and we thought that everything would change. The Turkish threat and the Armenian question were supposed to stay in the past.
The Golden Days of Harems
It was almost impossible for an Armenian to become a true soldier of the Turkish army, if he was not called up for duty.
My life really changed when I was thousands miles away from my home. Thanks to my parents’ efforts, I entered the State college in Adrianople and since then my strange carrier started.
If you asked me many years ago to describe my life by a sentence, I would say that it started from the friendship in Adrianople and ended in one of the small gardens in Arabia.
Muharrem was an Arab. His father – pasha – was a brigadier-general in Constantinople.
During the first days of study we were just classmates, however, by our summer holidays we became best friends. Thanks to the letters which Muharrem was receiving from his family, I got familiar with his family and became so close with them that they invited me to spend holidays in pasha’s palace in Bosporus.
I was feeling really happy in pasha’s house. It was the place where my long and stressful journey started , which brought me to that small garden in Arabia, where the sorrow was waiting for me.
Have you ever looked into clean, black, shining, beautiful and gentle eyes which whisper something that cannot be said out loud? Jamila had such eyes. She was Muharrem’s young sister and was more coquette than Ferida, the older sister.
The years of study in the college of Adrianople passed like a moment. Those were careless and happy years after which Muharrem entered the Military Academy while I did not know what to do. Where should I study? Should I become a public servant? I think I chose the most impossible thing that could be for an Armenian: I became an officer of the Turkish army.
Muharrem was the first to speak about me, studying in the Military Academy together with him.
I was shocked by my friend’s courage, but at the same time I felt so disappointed and depressed when Pasha talked about strict Turkish laws. He also was disappointed, however, smiled and said that we shouldn’t lose our hope.
A week passed and we were informed that the Pasha was going to host a dinner in honor of the Prime-minister. Many high-rank officials were invited to that dinner. The Pasha was thinking that they could help him to accomplish his plans. During the dinner he asked the guests to help me – his second son- to study in the Military Academy with his son Muharrem.
I was shocked when I left the hall. I was already imagining the luxurious uniforms, smiling faces and cheers for us.
Two or maybe more weeks passed. I was wandering around the gardens of the palace , thinking about my future when I saw Jamila and wished to speak to him in secret.
Maybe it is old-fashioned, but at those times, it was embarrassing for a Turkish girl to speak to a young man, if she was not accompanied by an adult woman.
Nevertheless, there were lovers who were managing to bypass the rule, but we were not so lucky. The problem was not only the difference of our religions but the fact that I was indebted to the Pasha. Even so, I felt in love with those black eyes, sparkling like stars and looking at me over the Turkish veil.
Once, the Pasha came home, hugged Muharrem then me, so I realized that my dream came true.
I was the most diligent student in the Academy. I knew I was the pride of the Academy hence I was obliged to continue serving. How wonderful the world was! How bright my future seemed to me!
Led by the moonlight, in the shade of cypress, I managed to speak to Jamila. I was smiling every time when she was looking at me with her sad eyes. I knew well that she was thinking about our unknown future.
The Pasha was a great man and he was kind at the same time, Muharrem was more than a brother for me: I was born under a lucky star. I didn’t stop believing it even after the graduation.
While we were developing military skills, we didn’t have time to think about love, future or something else. Barely taken a break from learning, we joined the armed forces: Muharrem was appointed as an adjutant in the division where I was an instructor of the artillery. All that was so interesting, exciting and new, that we didn’t even pay attention to the hasty of our appointment.
What about my love? Writing her letters was all I could afford. I had no doubt that Jamila’s mother would read the letters first. However, I was sure that my darling would understand the words which I hadn’t written in the letter, as I could read thousands of her unspoken words.
I was passionate to return to Everec, wearing my luxurious uniform, with a sword on my belt and clean shoes. How proud my parents would be then!
I asked for a vacation, however they said that there was a war coming, hence I was appointed as a commander in the fort of Ertorgul, which was protecting the entrance of the Dardanelles. Muharrem was appointed as general Jevad pasha’s adjutant in the Dardanelles. At the very least, we were going to fight together.
The Pasha was concerned that we were sent to such a dangerous zone, while we were laughing. We were militants who were ready to demonstrate their courage. We were young and the war seemed a small adventure to us for which we were supposed to get awards and honor.
During the last breakfast Muharrem and I were trying to talk and to laugh, while the Pasha was sitting quiet. Muharrem’s mother and Feride were crying. Mu cute little Jamila was looking over her shoulders. Together with Muharrem we were feeling sorry, however I thought that such a panic was in vain.
The Battles at the Dardanelles
It was a foggy morning when I – a young officer, the second lieutenant and until very recently the student of the Military Academia – was taken to the Gallipoli Peninsula. For the first time, the war seemed to me something serious. I realized that it was not a joke. I was the commander of the fort, hence I had to get myself under control. The fort Ertorgul was noticeable enough and surely it was one of the most significant forts protecting the entrance of the Dardanelles.
With each passing day it was becoming obvious that the war was really disgusting. I was thinking about my parents in Eeverec, about Jamila and day by day my self-confidence was eroding. I stopped believing that I was born under lucky star.
I was thinking about whispers among officers that the situation in Turkey was very tense and the Armenian question was likely to continue to grow. The Turkish authorities had serious problems and they were looking for effective methods to put an end to the Armenian question by not traditional and fast way - via massacres.
Six years have passed since I saw my relatives last time: my brothers were in the USA while the parents, together with my younger sister were in Everec. What will happen with them in case I die? I had no doubts that while I was the officer of the Turkish army, nothing would happen to my family and they were in safety.
A shell impacted nearby during the fight and its fragments hurt my head and chest. When I opened my eyes, I realized that I was in of the hospitals of the town of Dardanelles. The real triumph occurred when Enver pasha and several officers visited the hospital. Getting informed that I had been wounded during the heroic battle, he nominated me the tittle of captain. I was not worried about my parents’ fate anymore and was making plans to see Jamila and boast my achievements.
When I was in hospital, I had much free time to think about the battles in which I had participated.
The Turkish military officials knew very well that the High command of the fleets of Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia) were informed about Turks’ difficult situation: the French and English Intelligence services were doing good job. I came to the conclusion that the Allies were playing for time. But why? Even a common Turkish soldier would understand that the enemy refused from the victory on purpose.
Let’s see what else happened by 18th of March. Russia managed to conquer Northern Turkey and to advance deeper. The Russian ships were located at the entrance of Bosporus and were waiting for the victory of the French and English fleets.
I think, French and English diplomats were trembling at the thought of seizure of Constantinople by Russia. I was thinking many times about the English and French diplomacy and the tragic consequences that had the refusal from the victory at the Dardanelles.
I think if the Allies passed the Dardanelles on 18th March, and seized Constantinople, the war would end earlier and we would avoid such suffering. And such a disaster that wiped the Armenian population of Turkey off the face of the earth never would have happened.
When I returned back, in mid-April, my lucky star showed up again: my detachment managed to sink a British submarine.
From the Dardanelles to the Slaughterhouse
The Turkish leaders, who were sure that the French and British were not afraid to seize the Dardanelles, were going to put an end to the Armenian question.
They talked that the authorities were organizing mass killings to eliminate the Armenian population or convert them into slavery. All those officials who had Armenian origins were expelled. As they said, they were going to deprive the officers of weapons and kill them.
I was receiving letters from my mother too rare, and started thinking about my future.
I was not very surprised when the commander ordered me to appear before him. When I arrived, the commander asked me to take a sit and reminded me of new policy of the Ottoman authorities towards Christian soldiers. He told me that he had letters from the Minister of Defense Enver pasha, and the latter wanted to see me immediately.
Only later I got to know, that the commander had tried to use his position in order to save me in his division. He had written that I was one of his best soldiers, and I was necessary for him. However, his requests were in vain: I was supposed to board in the evening in order to appear before the Minister of defense next morning.
So, here is the end of my adventures. Here is the reward for my loyalty and brilliant military service.
It was difficult for me to utter a word. My commander also was in the same state. When I was leaving, we hugged each other, shaked hands and barely smiled. Despite my incoherent mumbling, he knew how grateful to him I was.
The Defense Ministry building was situated in Constantinople. When I was getting close to it, I started thinking about those officers who were called there during the rule of Sultan and never came back. I was thinking about those Christians who were jailed and were waiting for their death.
I was directed to the Minister of Defense, however, before that I ended up in the cabinet of local military commander – a tall and tough Turk with cold black eyes. Suddenly he took the revolver. I will never forget that moment, as it seemed to me that I would die right there. He cried and ordered me to tell him who I am and why I went to the ministry with a sword and revolver.
Having ignored my words, he pressed the button .A sergeant and two guardsmen ran into the room. They squeezed my hands, took the sword and the revolver and dragged me to a room full of prisoners. The smell in the room was unbearable. The room was full of hundreds of hungry, dirty and half-naked Turkish scums.
Later I was said that those men were prisoners who had gained pardon by the minister of internal affairs Talaat pasha provided that they would serve within the country and undertake incitements of Armenians. They were demanding the blood of giaours and tenderness of their women.
I was still talking to them trying to understand their views and plans when the door opened and an excited officer broke into the room. He started apologizing and asking me to follow him. They returned me my revolver and sword and said that the Minister of Defense was asking about me.
I was accompanied to the waiting room where the secretary as soon as read my name , became affable and smiley. He extended the hand and said: “You are welcome, hero!”.
At that moment I realized that everything was fine.
He invited me to sit down and stated that the Turkish government was grateful to me for my great service and that the army was calling my actions at the Dardanelles “heroic”.
That was good news.
Then he explained that the Turkish commanding had called off all the Christian soldiers from the Turkish army, however that did not apply to me and I could continue mu duties as a commander at the Dardanelles or choose another position in the artillery.
I was brought to Enver pasha’s cabinet. His majesty was carefully examining me for a full minute, then he stood up and introduced me to his German advisors, calling me “the Armenian hero of the Dardanelles”.
I was a hero again. I already started believing it.
I was so warmly welcomed that I felt very comfortable.
Enver pasha started asking me questions concerning military tactics. When I was answering his questions, I noticed him smiling. I felt like an excellent pupil by whom they wanted to boast.
Saying goodbye, I honored and the Pasha himself walked me to the door.
I felt on top of the world.
Immediately after the meeting I sent letters to Muharrem, to my mother and the general Jevad pasha.
Lately, they were speaking more and more about the state of Armenian regions: the men older than 15 years were being killed, their wives and daughters were being captured, assaulted and deported far away from their houses.
In several days I got a message from my parents: they did not touch my parents and my sister as they were the family members of the captain Torosyan, fighting at the Dardanelles. It looks like all the talks about my heroism were not in vain.
The Military Actions at the Gallipoli Peninsula
The Turkish army was suffering losses, however was still holding the positions.
On 29th September, I got a message that Muharrem was badly wounded and wanted to see me. He was lying in bed, covered in bandages: only his sparkling eyes and swollen lips were visible. The doctor told me that he had no chance: the whole body was injured and he was bleeding inside.
I squeezed his hand in mine and smiled. Then I said that he would recover soon. Muharrem knew I was lying. He tried to smile. His sparkling feverish eyes pursue me by now. That bandaged body, that dying man was my close friend with whom we were inseparable for the best young years of my life. The monstrous brutality of the war stifled me and left me speechless.
– I would like to tell you the story of Jamila , – whispered he. – During the Armenian massacres in 1896, my father was the brigade commander near Mush. At the time he was upset about Turks’ despotism towards Christians. Once, when he was passing by one of the Armenian villages, he found a nearly two-years-old girl, who was wandering around one of the empty streets. There were no signs which would help him to find the girls’ parents, hence my father took her with him. However, my mother did not want her to have the cross-shaped scar on her left shoulder, so she removed that symbol of Christianity by acid: there is a scar of unusual shape on her shoulder now. I want you to know that she belongs to your nation and Allah from one side, and God from another – cannot separate you.
He died in two days. He died when I was sitting close to his bed and was squeezing his hand.
For three months the Allies were oppressing us and every operation was causing huge losses to Turks. I started thinking about tactics of Allies and again came to the conclusion that they did not want to seize Constantinople. That was not a war, that was a massacre in the name of diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Russians were invading deep into Asia Minor, winning the battles. Such large and flourishing towns as Van, Bitlis, Mush and one of the largest harbors on the Black sea – Trabzon – already fell under their control.
The advancing of Russians, however, was not supported by their allies, British. Moreover, on 29th April, 1916, fantastically, the English general Taunsend surrendered to the Turkish army which was three times less in number. He offered Turks 3000 pound sterling in return for freedom. The general promised that they would never bother the Turks again.
The sum was large, however, Turks refused from the proposal and Taunsend’s thousand-strong army became prisoners of war. The price that the soldiers of Britain army paid, has no equivalents in history. The diplomacy won one more point. First, they were divided based on nationality and then based on religion. Almost three thousands of them were tortured, subjected to abuse and humiliation. Hundreds of them were immediately killed. Only soldiers of Indian origin managed to survive.
The Secret of the Harem
After several battles on the Gallipoli, our division was almost destroyed. They should reorganize themselves. Moreover, new soldiers were necessary who would compensate the losses. I accepted the new commanding, however, before that I was supposed to go on a holiday for a week.
It was already afternoon, when I was wandering the streets of Constantinople and was expecting to see Muharrem’s family and Jamila in several hours. I was thinking about my parents. Why there is no news from them?
My thoughts turned into a chaos of growing doubts, fading hopes, bitterness and anger. I sent one more letter to my parents. Walking the streets, I noticed that in that once flourishing neighborhood much had changed. Women and children were dressed poorly, and even their very figure seemed exhausted and pitiful. Deprivation and hunger took their toll.
I reached by the neighborhood of Sultan Bayezit, where Emin bey’s café caught my attention. I found several groups of officers and Turkish officials there. Having decided to rely on my medals, which would justify my insolence, I came up to them and traditionally greeted them.
The medals did their thing. They stood up and answered: “Good afternoon”. Surely, they did not even suppose that I was Armenian. They were very interested when I said that I had come from the Dardanelles where I had been fighting against giaours.
When it came to Armenians, they became very impulsive. They hated Armenians not only for their faith, but also because the Armenians controlled most of the trade in Turkey. Moreover, they did not like that the holy day for Armenians was Sunday and not Friday. However, most of all they were irritated that rich Armenians were earning much more than rich Turks. And it did not matter that only comparatively few Armenian pashas and large merchants were so lucky.
With great pleasure they were discussing the measures which the ruling party was going to put in motion in order to eliminate the Armenian population. A person who is not familiar with their passionate fanaticism would have decided that the conversation was the raving of a madman. But most of all I was worried by their absolute confidence that in all areas the government had appointed special representatives who would bring that terrible plan into action.
Now I was more than concerned about the fate of my parents. I went to the pasha’s palace. Now I no longer felt so lucky.
It was so difficult for the Pasha to live with the grief of losing his son, that he decided to take his family and leave for Arabia as soon as possible.
I was asking myself, what was going on with my little world. My friend died. My parents’ fate is unknown. I was supposed not to see my lover for several months, or maybe years.
Finally I received a letter from my parents saying that they were all right, but the signature was suspicious: it was written “Madam Varduhi Torosyan”, while my mother always signed telegraphs “Varde Torosyan”.
On Friday I secretly meet with Jamila. I hugged her and kissed her. Suddenly, I did something I had never dared to do before: I lifted her sleeves and exposed her tender hands. The scar on her left shoulder was exactly as Muharrem had described me – a pale image of a cross on her acid-burned wrinkled skin.
On the way back she was silent. I was also silent. Then she burst into tears and begged me to do something so that we would not part.
It was the last day-off we spent together. A week later, the Pasha’s wife together with her daughters, went to Arabia.