Blood Upon the Sand: The Armenian Genocide in World War I
Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at email@example.com and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.
On April 29, 1915, sandwiched between advertisements for “Groves Tasteless Chill Tonic” and “Chamberlain’s Tablets” near the bottom of page two of the Thursday edition of the Pensacola Journal (column five), was a short report on the Turkish arrest of hundreds of Armenian residents of Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The obscure placement of the article must have made sense to the editors given other dramatic stories reported that day. America was at peace, but Europe and much of the world was in the ninth month of World War I. The small Pensacola paper dutifully relayed the developments in that week’s landing of Allied troops along the Gallipoli Peninsula in an attempt to wrest control of the Dardanelles from Turkish troops and seize Constantinople, a campaign designed to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war on the road to the defeat of that country and its ally, Germany.
What the Pensacola editors could not have known was that the arrest of the Armenians, which occurred on April 24, 1915, the day before the Allies landed at Gallipoli, marked the beginning of a campaign to exterminate Armenians living within Ottoman territory in what has become known as the Armenian Genocide. As this campaign unfolded and reports reached the United States of mass deportations, starvation, and massacres of Armenians, Florida newspapers, like the national press, reported these horrors and American efforts to provide relief to the suffering Armenians and other oppressed Christian peoples within the Ottoman Empire. Although these events occurred a century ago, the issues they raised—ethnic cleansing, war crimes, the challenge of providing relief to refuges, and the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East—are just as relevant today as they were during World War I.
Centuries before the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, the Armenians existed as one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. The Ottoman Turks gained control of the major portion of ancient and medieval Armenian lands with their conquest of the Byzantine Empire. While most of the Armenian territory was located in the northeastern area of the Ottoman Empire between the Black Sea and the Tigris River, the Russians eventually occupied Armenian land in the Caucasus, and most of that area makes up the current nation of Armenia, a former republic of the Soviet Union. There were also large concentrations of Armenians in Constantinople and other major cities within the empire.
As with other Christian and religious minorities in the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, the Armenians experienced periods of violent repression and a subordinate social and economic status within the Muslim ruled empire. By the nineteenth century, the Armenians achieved substantial economic improvement through their work in business and crafts. As Armenian demands for political and religious rights within the realm increased, Ottoman Muslim anxiety and resentment grew. The Ottoman government feared that the real goal of the Armenians was to establish a breakaway Armenian state free from Turkish rule. The 1890s presented a foretaste of the murderous anti-Armenian violence of 1915 as the Ottoman government encouraged Turkish and Kurdish attacks on Armenian communities resulting in the deaths of at least 37,000 Armenians and maybe as many as 100,000 to 300,000. As they would in 1915, Florida newspapers reported Turkish and allied Muslim attacks on Armenians with headlines such as “Riot in Constantinople,” “Armenians Slaughtered,” and “Armenian Martyrs” combined with accounts of American church relief efforts: “Armenian Relief,” and “To Aid the Armenians.”
There is not a straight line, however, between the atrocities of the 1890s and the genocide that occurred in 1915. Several developments created the circumstances for even greater slaughter: the continued economic and military decline of the Ottoman Empire, long known as the “Sick Man of Europe”; the rise to power of a nationalist reform movement popularly known as the “Young Turks”; the loss of Ottoman territory, especially in the Balkans, after a series of losing wars; the Young Turks’ promotion of Turkification of the empire at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities; and Ottoman entry into World War I on the side of Germany against Britain, France, and Russia.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire can be traced to the eighteenth century, but the nineteenth century brought the acceleration of that process as Russia, Britain, and France sliced off portions of the empire for themselves. As Ottoman fortunes seemed to reach their nadir in the first decade of the twentieth century, The Young Turks, a loose coalition of reform minded military officers and government officials, overthrew the old sultan, Abdälhamid II, replaced him with his younger brother, and produced a constitution. Much of the empire greeted this revolution with enthusiasm, including Armenians, other minorities, and women—many women began to walk the streets unveiled. The Young Turks, however, soon realized that they had promised more than the wretched state of the empire’s economy and institutions could deliver. They grew frustrated with popular criticism, especially from the Armenians and other Christian minorities, of their failing reform agenda. On top of these developments, the Young Turk government lost most of its remaining European provinces in the Balkan Wars and had to turn Libya over to Italy after a war with that country in 1911–1912. The new government answered criticism with repression and sought to consolidate support among the majority Turkish population by undertaking a policy of Turkification that promoted Turkish language and culture over the language and culture of the empire’s non-Turkish population, including the Armenians and the Arabs. Faced with these problems, the Young Turks turned to Germany, the greatest economic and military power in Europe, to reform and strengthen the Turkish army and develop the Ottoman economy through railroad building. Three months after the outbreak of World War I, the Young Turks led the Ottoman Empire into the conflict on the side of Germany in late October 1914.
The war did not go well. The Young Turks’ ambitions for conquest were unrealistic given Turkey’s weak economy and military: the soldiers were tough fighters but grossly undersupplied and, with a few exceptions, poorly led. By the spring of 1915, the Young Turks faced disaster. Their winter invasion of the Russian controlled Caucasus was a calamity that resulted in horrendous casualties and loss of territory. A Turkish army also failed to take the British controlled Suez Canal and had to retreat back through the Sinai with heavy losses. In February, British and French naval forces began a campaign to force a passage through the fortified Dardanelles with the objective of capturing Constantinople and knocking Turkey out of the war. After weeks of heavy bombardments and the loss of several warships, the Allies decided they would need to land substantial ground forces to seize the high ground above the straits, which would allow their vessels to pass through to Constantinople.
In the midst of these disasters, the Young Turks feared the Armenians, who looked forward to an Allied victory, and other minorities would launch an uprising from within the empire. The Young Turks decided on a policy of removing Armenians in the areas most threatened by the Allies: Constantinople and the eastern provinces close to Russia. As Allied troops landed at Gallipoli on the morning of April 25, 1915, the Turks rounded up leading Armenians in Constantinople in a campaign of repression that soon tuned into genocidal mass murder.
Within a couple of weeks, Florida newspapers began to report accounts of the atrocities. The early massacres were in Armenian villages around Lake Van in eastern Anatolia. On May 17, the Ocala Evening Star ran the headline “Awful Story From Armenia” and “Another Massacre In The Shadows of Mount Ararat,” a reference to the Biblical site of Noah’s Ark’s landfall that was sure to arouse the sympathy of American Christians. Another report in the Daytona Daily News cited “6,000 Armenians Massacred” in the same area. By October 1915, a picture of the tremendous scale of the killings emerged in reports from American missionaries returning from Turkey with the stark headline: “Armenians Are Being Exterminated.”
In an article entitled “Armenians’ Woes,” syndicated columnist Frederic J. Haskin gave a detailed account of the Armenians’ plight as the Turks removed them from their villages on forced marches into the Mesopotamian desert. “A million Armenians are today being driven into the desert by the Turks, there to meet almost certain death. A whole race of people is being turned out of its homes, and forced to make a 600-mile march into a strange and inhospitable land.” In another syndicated column, the Southern Missionary News Bureau (SMNB) called the Turkish policy of extermination the “Blackest Page in Modern History” and noted the deaths of 800,000 Armenians in a campaign that continued into 1916—many Armenian historians and other scholars argue that the terror went on through 1923. According to the SMNB, an eyewitness related the “‘mutilated bodies of women, girls, and little children made everyone shudder. . . . At the Euphrates the bandsmen and gendarmes threw into the river all the remaining children under fifteen years of age. Those that could swim were shot down as they struggled in the water. The fields and hillsides were dotted with swollen and blackened corpses that filled and fouled the air with their stench.’” Besides death through shootings, starvation, exhaustion, and disease, Turkish forces raped countless Armenian women and sold girls into slavery.
American missionaries’ concern for the Armenians was rooted in missionary activity in Anatolia during the 1890s, when missionaries witnessed the first series of largescale Turkish attacks on Armenians. Protestant churches and missionary societies led the popular relief response to the Armenian genocide during World War I. The official American governmental response began with a formal protest to the Ottoman government to end the slaughter (The Young Turks brushed aside the American protest and bristled at what they saw as American interference in their internal affairs.) This response was based on the advice of the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr., who received detailed reports of the massacres, which he then related to American and international missionary groups. Morgenthau’s sympathies were clear. He later entitled a chapter of his memoir about his time in Turkey as “The Murder of a Nation.” Over twenty years later, his son, Henry Morgenthau Jr., served as Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Roosevelt and urged the president to rescue Jews facing annihilation under the Nazis during World War II.
Informed by Ambassador Morgenthau on the fate of the Armenians, American missionary societies spread the news of the massacres to churches and communities across the country. Also important was the work of the National Armenian Relief Committee, which had formed in the 1890s. The committee organized a national “Armenian Relief Day” in 1916 to raise funds for Armenian refugees. October 1915 saw the creation of the Armenian and Syrian Relief Committee—the Turks had also attacked Syrian Christians within the empire. By September 1917, the American Red Cross estimated that American aid could prevent the deaths of over two million people in refugee camps across western Asia, and that life could be sustained on a minimum level for only ten cents a person per day. The relief campaign reached small communities such as Apalachicola, Florida, where residents organized an Armenian and Syrian relief drive that saw cars “draped in Greek [another oppressed Ottoman minority] and Armenian colors” stopping at homes and businesses to collect relief money. By the end of November 1918, with the war ended, President Woodrow Wilson called on Americans to increase relief aid to Armenian and other refugees of the Ottoman Empire. The U. S. government estimated that there were some 4,000,000 refugees and as many as 400,000 orphans in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter. Through the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, the United States hoped to raise $30,000,000 in relief funds. Florida was asked to raise $200,000 for this effort.
As the postwar relief campaign continued, the budding movie industry in Hollywood produced a film to highlight the terrible suffering of the Armenians. The movie, “Auction of Souls” (aka “Ravished Armenia), was based on the experiences of Aurora Mardiganian, a young Armenian women who survived the genocide. Ms. Mardiganian, who was not an actress, starred in the silent film that depicts Armenian life in Turkey before the war, the deportations and murders, and the sexual enslavement of Armenian women. The film was controversial for its scenes depicting the Turkish flogging and crucifixion of young women, and some states tried to ban its distribution. “Auction of Souls” reached Florida theaters in late 1919: versions of the film are available on YouTube.
The Armenian Genocide of World War I resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians, which was about half of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the war. While the atrocity received widespread press coverage during the war, the world hardly remembered the episode by the time World War II began in 1939. Depending on the world’s forgetfulness, Adolf Hitler is reported to have said when speaking about his plans to launch a war to destroy Poland: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The resulting deaths in World War II of six million Europeans Jews in what became the world’s most infamous genocide might have been avoided or alleviated sooner had the world adopted the now famous motto of “Never forget” in 1915 rather than in 1945.
Citations and Additional Sources:
Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Foundation. “Auction of Souls” or “Memorial of Truth” (http://www.genocide-museum.am/eng/online_exhibition_6.php).
Mayerson, Deborah. On the Path to Genocide: Armenia and Rwanda Re-Examined. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014.
Morgenthau, Henry. Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1918 (https://archive.org/details/ambassadormorge02morggoog/page/n11).
Rogan, Eugene. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2015.