Memoirs of Armen Dadian (1894-1975) - Dadian Armen

Chapter 2 (First Part):

What I Witnessed at the Battle of the Dardanelles

Prior to the war, students were exempt from conscription. But with the outbreak of war, this exemption was abrogated. I had just turned twenty, and I, too, was called up the army. If I completed a course of military training and passed my exams, I would be offered an officer’s commission that paid a set salary.

I signed up at the Pangaltı Military Academy in Pera District. The academy was unable to immediately provide me with a uniform. They didn’t have uniforms ready for distribution. For four or five days, I trained in civilian clothing. Then, one day, they told us to go pick up our uniforms, but the uniforms and the undergarments they gave us were not only coarse and ill-fitting, they were also extremely large. Two men of my size could squeeze into the uniform, shirt, and underpants I received. After trying on the uniform, I refused to take it, and they refused to give me another set. So I was forced to buy a second-hand set at my own expense.

The room I rented was in the Uskudar district, so one night I was tempted to spend the night at the academy. The bunk beds were planks without mattresses – just rectangular boards of wood fastened to long metallic poles.

The final roll call of the day was to be performed at eight, and we were to be in bed by eight-thirty. There were several hundred of us sleeping in the same room. We were to keep quiet, and to rise at six in the morning, wash up and be dressed, and after breakfast be ready by eight-thirty. Then, by nine o’clock, we would either be exercising in the field, or marching in military formation for two-three hours carrying our rifles and our field knapsacks. Those who did not wish to stay in the barracks at night could leave the academy at a pre-determined time, on the condition that they returned by a set time in the morning. The food they served there was tolerable, but the cleanliness always doubtful, as was the cleanliness of the men. I spent two nights at the academy, because to return to my lodgings involved traveling one-and-a-half kilometers, either on foot or by train, then another half hour on a steamboat, followed by yet another one-and-a-half kilometers through the hills of Uskudar, where I lived. To the cost in time had to be added the cost of the tramway and steamboat tickets. To honor us soldiers, the authorities exempted us only from the quarter-kurus toll required to cross the bridge…

I spent a month at this academy, and another month at the Haydar Pasha Academy, to which I was transferred to continue my training. There, I received the rank of sergeant. The food was plentiful and decent – always two types of meals, as well as meat. The rooms were airy and clean, at least in the first few days, and the beds had mattresses, as well as white linen. In short, it was like a boarding school. The training was conducted in recently constructed building with multiple rooms located a few paces east of the eastern entrance of the huge medical university building.

Haydar Pasha was one of the suburbs of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city, abutting Kade-Kyugh [Kadıköy] in the south and Uskudar in the north.

At nights, we were free to go back home to sleep and eat, as long as we returned in the mornings for training. I spent two nights at this academy, but Uskudar had a way of always luring me back, not to mention it was home to that beautiful young girl whose memory was already tormenting me. So I opted to walk a kilometer and a half every day, and relinquished the rank of sergeant, in favor of spending the nights in my room and paying for my own meals (which added up to a considerable sum), all in the hope of continuing to run into the girl I loved. Such is youth. About a month later, they lined us up and led us to a steamboat (used exclusively for travel between the districts). We disembarked onto the bridge and were led to the Ministry of War, located in the center of Istanbul and close to our university. My eyes welled with tears when I saw this building, from which I was supposed to graduate a year later, and start a career as a lawyer, a prosecutor, or a judge, whichever I preferred. The government had a great need for more people to serve in those roles, and was willing to pay enviable salaries to those who did. To finance my education, I had incurred great costs. To be more precise, my brothers had incurred great costs, as my father had been killed in the 1895 massacres, and had always remained a stranger to me, as I had been very young when he died. How long would this war last? Would I survive this calamity to return home and finish my education? The future was very uncertain for me, my loved ones, my nation, and in a broader sense, for all nations embroiled in the war.

Unfortunately, the worst fears of many were realized, especially in the case of the Turks and even more in the case of the Armenians. Not only did we lose more than a million compatriots, we were also expelled from our own homeland.

Inside the Ministry of War, we participated in a ceremony that lasted four-five hours, and then we were led out to the train station. We were loaded into the cars, hungry and thirsty, and the train set off towards its destination, leading us to the mobilization bases. The suburb of San Stefano (present-day Yesilkoy), where the open-aired Floria café was located, had been turned into a military rally point. A little later, the commanding pasha of our division paid us a visit, and ordered two lambs to be slaughtered and to be fed to us. Two or three hours later, we were served exquisitely delicious mutton with a side of pilaf. The meal satiated our hunger, and a large tent was pitched for us, under which the ground was covered with the canvas of yet another tent so that we could sleep. Two or three hours later, all of us were woken up, shivering in the extreme cold that had permeated the tent. We dismantled the tent so that we could use the canvas as blankets, but our efforts were in vain. We spent the night shivering in our cots, until dawn finally broke. In the morning, they split us into groups and ordered us onto trucks, which took the different groups to various locations and various headquarters. Eighteen young men and I were sent to the village of Kallikratia to join the 26th regiment. The village was four-five kilometers from our overnight stop, and was an old Byzantine settlement populated exclusively by Greek speakers. There was not a single Turk there. An ambulatory hospital was based in the village, under the command of an Armenian medical colonel and two Armenian medical majors, all of whom had been conscripted into the forces.

We were quartered in the attic of a small tavern that had been temporarily requisitioned by the army. Each of us received a quilt, a bed, and a wooden plank instead of the blanket. All that separated us officers from the rank-and-file soldiers was the fact that we slept separately from them and trained separately on horseback and with cannon. None of us had brought extra sets of undergarments with us, so a few days later, they allowed us to take the chariots back to the city. We were allowed to go home (for those who had homes) and pack clean underwear to take back to the base. On a set day and at a set time, we were to be back at the San Stefano train station, where the chariots would be awaiting us.

The colonel appointed his military attaché as our instructor and trainer. He was to teach us how to ride, march, salute, use cannon, etc.… The diet consisted of simple army food, but most of us bought food in the village, as most of us had the wherewithal and there wasn’t much in the village to spend one’s money on. Those who couldn’t afford their own food had to be satisfied with putrid oiled beans, dry oiled lentils infested with worms, or stews of buffalo or ox meat and cracked wheat that were served in large copper vats shared by several soldiers at a time.

The officers were not treated badly, and no distinction was made between Armenian and Turk. We Armenians were a tiny minority, and the deportations of Armenians had not yet begun. In that autumn, the two Turkish (originally German) battleships Geoben and Breslau attacked Russian battleships maneuvering off Sevastopol, thus igniting the war between Russia and Turkey. The entire incident was blamed on Russia by the Turks.

In early spring 1915 our regiment received unexpected orders to move out. We were ordered to take positions behind the nearby hills, because the Franco-British battleships had begun attacking the Strait of Dardanelles. Terrified, the Turks immediately moved some of the most valuable government assets and documents out of Istanbul and to Anatolia, fearing that the capital would be captured. Meanwhile, our division held a position behind the highlands on the western edges of Istanbul for months without seeing any action. The British and French battleships had failed to capture the strait. The attempt had cost them two or three ships, and had cost General Gouraud an arm.

The Strait of Dardanelles has a length of 30 kilometers, and at its widest point has a width of about 1,000 meters. At some spots, it is as narrow as 150 meters, and is very serpentine. At its southern entrance, on the Asian coast, was the town of Dardanelles, while its western entrance was dominated by the rough and rocky promontory called Sedd el Bahr. Both entrances were guarded by emplacements, which were very difficult to destroy and clear. Today, the strait could not be the fortress it was then, because its defenses would not withstand bombing from modern aircraft for very long. Beside these gun emplacements, the straits were also defended by an abundance of naval mines and other explosive charges. Given the narrowness of the strait, it was almost impossible for battleships to maneuver or move freely once they entered it. Therefore, the Anglo-French navies decided to resort to a new strategy. They landed 25,000-30,000 troops at the western end of the peninsula, on the Aegean coast, and succeeded in capturing several important heights that gave them favorable positions to attack the strait’s gun emplacements. Their objective was to render these defenses useless by capturing the western coast of the strait. The Turks did not have a single defensive position on the Aegean coast, nor did they have proper roads there. The British also tried to use several battleships anchored east of Mudros Island to support their assault, but the ships’ guns had long barrels, capable of launching shells over the peninsula and all the way to the Asian coast. They were unable to train their guns on the Turkish positions at point-blank range, and their shells whizzed over the gun emplacements and exploded in the distance. As for the soldiers who had landed on the beaches, they were unable to drag the large field guns, called “obus,” to their positions on the beachheads, in order to shell the fortified defensive positions. To counter this surprise operation, the Turks reinforced their positions with large numbers of infantry and sustained heavy casualties. They were eventually able to drive the British land forces back to the Aegean beaches, where they were protected by their battleships. These attacks and counterattacks lasted several months and cost both sides, especially the Turks, hundreds of thousands of lives. This peninsula, called Gallipoli, became a field of death. The City of Gallipoli and the other villages on the peninsula were razed to the ground, and their inhabitants either died or fled. But this was only the prelude, and the battle did not end there. Instead, it settled into trench warfare. There were no strongpoints in the area, and even the trenches had to be freshly dug. In the southern sector of the peninsula, the Sedd el Bahr heights became a battlefield, followed by the positions dubbed “Aru Bournou” Zemen-Tepe-Beoyuk Anakarta, and Kuchuk Anakarta. Beoyuk Anakarta was a vast valley near the western edges of the peninsula, bordered on the north by rocky hills. The military camp was established behind these rocks, under the command of Miralay Mustafa Kemal, who had not earned the title of pasha yet, meaning he had not yet earned the rank of general. But he was already a good military commander, albeit still unknown to the masses, and at heart an anti-Ittihadist [Ittihad or Committe of Union and Progress: the ruling party in the Ottoman Empire during the WWI period]. Of course, at this time the supreme command of the army was still in the hands of the German General Von Sanders and his staff, as I’ve already mentioned.

Here I must pause to describe some of the details of my service on the various hills overlooking the beaches of Marmara. The officer cadets in our regiment, after being supposedly instructed in the proper military regulations, the use of artillery, and primitive ridership, were one day told that they would have to pass an examination. It was a very rudimentary examination, and those who passed were given the rank of lieutenant and were recognized as officers of the reserves. We would receive a monthly pay of five Ottoman pounds, which was enough at the time to meet and exceed the needs of a medium-sized family. With that money, I was able to buy a new uniform and eat two types of food per day, prepared by a special cook. The food was both clean and quite delicious. Paper currency had been put into circulation, but the officers received their wages in gold coins. Initially, there were two other Armenians with us, who escaped and went to ground in Istanbul. One of them, Mihran Papazian, somehow managed to make his way to Greece, where, as a prominent Dashnak, he was killed by the communists. The other was also a Dashnak, and hailed from Moush. I believe his name was Smpad, and he was a student of the Central School. I later discovered that after the armistice he had made his way to America. When we were still in the village Kallikratia, this Dashnak would spend his free time gathering Greek children and teenagers on the promontory and teaching them Armenian revolutionary songs. One day, I and another Armenian officer cadet, Levon Hamapartsoumian from Istanbul, dared to point out to him that our superior officers could ask questions about these songs and he could find himself in trouble, as relations between Turks and Armenians had deteriorated. He responded to our reprimand heroically, and replied by cursing at us. I don’t know what force he thought could protect him, nor do I know why he thought he could benefit his nation by putting himself in such danger. Fortunately, the superior officers were not interested in politics, and our fellow Turkish officers were mostly good men. Many of them often expressed anti-Ittihadist and anti-war sentiments.

Four-five Turks failed the officer’s examinations, and together they appealed to the colonel, asking to be given their commissions by virtue of being Turks, but the colonel dismissed them with a strong reprimand. Among them was a brutish and zealous man, who had received only a primitive education, and who would loudly recite the regulation book for artillery while swaying back and forth on his bunk late into the night, in an attempt to learn it by heart.

One day, I remarked that his studies were disturbing our sleep. When he responded to me with mockery, I retorted that despite all his efforts, he would fail the exam, while we, without having put in nearly as much effort, would pass. He was indeed one of those who failed. When he and the others were summarily dismissed by the colonel, I saw my opportunity to have my revenge. So I approached him and reminded him of my earlier prediction. Enraged, he cursed his own government that had allowed Armenians like me to pass while failing the likes of him. Then he began wailing like a beast and beating his head. Generally, Turkish officers treated the men very badly, and in fact, the average Turkish conscript cut a pitifully ignorant and uncouth figure. Most of them functioned on an animalistic level. They could barely learn how to salute or to turn right or left while marching, let alone the techniques of handling artillery equipment. They couldn’t even learn how to answer direct questions. Most of them were simple-minded as animals, willing to obey any order, even if it meant jumping into fire and dying. They lacked all intelligence and reason, and when possible, tried to avoid being given any orders altogether. Patriotism was not a component of their worldview. Any order that came from their officers came from the Sultan, and they fought in the name of the Sultan and Islam, safe in the knowledge that if they died on the battlefield, their souls would go straight to paradise, where they would claim their 40 virgins, etc.

Most of them were peasants. Perhaps one or two out of a hundred were literate. Some of them displayed instincts even baser than those of beasts. Naturally, there was some among them who exhibited signs of inordinate intelligence and aptitude, but the majority were as dull as planks of wood. The few who had some mental capabilities would be made corporals and chavoushes [sergeant], tasked with enforcing the superior officers’ orders among the men with fists and curses. There were even some Armenians who achieved this position and earned the respect of the officers. These men were never beaten or verbally abused by the higher ranks. Here, the Armenian soldier wasn’t a gyavour [gavur, infidel, non-Muslim, Christian]. When I received my commission, Turkish soldiers began treating me with even more respect and deference, because unlike the Turkish officers, I didn’t beat them or abuse them. The other officers saw me as an equal, without any regard for my being Armenian, because just like them, I was willing to die for my country. And in fact, I would have continued serving alongside them, had certain events not intervened, and which I will describe in the forthcoming pages. Living in the hills far from the city, I heard of the exile of Armenians intellectuals on April 24 only in passing. The deportations had not yet begun when our regiment was ordered to move to Edirne, where we settled into barracks. There was a prosperous Armenian community in that city. During my free hours, I would sometimes go to the market, and in the process gained a decent knowledge of the local economy.

Edirne was located on the banks of the Maritsa River. The city had sustained heavy damage during the Balkan Wars while under Bulgarian occupation, but it had mostly retained its appearance.

We would collect grass for the draft horses of the artillery units from the fields on the banks of the river, near the Bulgarian border. On a few occasions, I was given horses and carts to fetch grass from these fields, and in the process offered up my share of blood to the mosquitoes that swarmed the area, especially when I had to spend nights in the fields. Bulgaria was still neutral, and the border with the Ottoman Empire was merely a line demarcated by the occasional rocks or signs. Any fugitive (Armenian or Greek) trying to flee across the border could easily disappear in the area. But I was never tempted to resort to such a drastic measure, worried of the consequences it would have for my brothers.

There was also the spiritual attachment I had developed with the young girl in Uskudar. We barely knew each other, but she always silently smiled to me, wherever and whenever we saw each other, and bade me not to forget her. I had not seen her for months, nor did I have any hopes of seeing her anytime soon, but the physical separation and my proximity to the battlefield where hundreds of thousands were being mowed down without mercy only served to deepen my attachment to her. Life becomes much more precious when the danger of losing it looms ahead… And one values life more when each day becomes a memory. I no longer considered myself to be the master of my fate. Instead, I was like a slave that was tied to a ship pushed into the current of a river.