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

Chapter 2 (Third Part):

What I Witnessed at the Battle of the Dardanelles

Let us turn back to the Gallipoli Peninsula, where I was stationed at the front. Sometimes, our daily duel with the motorboat would take place at night. One night, my corporal, unable to direct our fire with his field glasses, ordered me to order the men to manually move the tail of the gun a bit to the right, or a bit to the left, after every shot. When I relayed the order to the men, they asked to know who had issued it, and wondered loudly what kind of spotting this was. I told them the order had come from the corporal, but they insisted that I call him on the field telephone. The corporal came to the phone reluctantly, huffing out curses, and the officer in charge of the gun explained to him that physically moving the gun would have a huge effect on the aim (changes of hundreds of meters). The corporal stammered – “What can I do, effendi? I can’t see anything through the glasses.” The officer on the ground hung up, laughing. This was in late September 1916. One day, we were told that the British armada off the shores of Mandros was being reinforced with new ships, and therefore a second landing attempt was likely. This meant that we would have to spend the nights awake and keep careful watch.

My corporal, emptying a couple of glasses as was his custom, told me to make the appropriate arrangements and went to bed.

I, in my turn, called the officer cadet, and told him to sleep until midnight. I would keep watch until that time, then I would wake him and I would go to sleep.

I spent a few moments checking on the guns and the men, then went to my cabin, and lay down. Until that day, I had never felt so close to death, despite the daily shelling. Our position was steeped in funereal silence and a terrible darkness. The air was mild. I gazed at the enemy battleships through the field glasses that were set up in the trench at the summit of the hill, resting on a tripod. I recalled, in detail, a particular instance of shelling that had occurred a few days earlier, and that had targeted the area around my cabin. We had been shelled from our flanks by mountain artillery that was positioned near the nearby hill that we called Arslan Tepe [Aslantepe]. And in truth, the enemy had only deployed its artillery in that area to target our own artillery positions and our living quarters. I was sitting in my own cabin, and engraving the image of a galloping horse on a soft, smooth rock with a dull and worthless little knife with a wobbly blade. Suddenly, an unprecedented shelling began. A large shell landed right outside my cabin, right in front of the door, and covered me in bits of rock and dust, but did not explode and skidded along the ground, coming to rest a few meters away. If it had exploded, the shrapnel alone would’ve killed me. I owed my life to the fact that it had fallen sideways and had not detonated. I wasn’t as terrified at that moment as I was when anticipating the next possible landing that could happen that very night. The landing forces would surely have shock troops armed with bayonets, and would fall into our trenches and slaughter us. We had neither bayonets nor rifles to defend ourselves, only our artillery guns and a few soldiers, and the artillery was useless in close-quarters combat. The enemy forces would be able to skewer us without pity, and would do it as a matter of duty. After all, of what importance were the few thousand youth who would be the slaughtered in these trenches? What mattered was the comfort of the leading demagogues like Enver, Talaat, Jemal, and a few other pashas, who hosted sumptuous feasts and parties in their palaces and harems.

Still shaken by my recent brush with death, I crumbled onto a mound of dirt and tried to recollect the last few years. I remembered by mother, who was anxiously awaiting my return; I remembered my brothers, who had endured so many privations to send me 150 pounds to pay for my education (a sum equivalent to many years’ worth of income), hoping that one day I would join them, armed with a diploma. I relived summer nights, on the roof and under the stars, and winter nights around the warm fire, when we would gather and my brothers would recount Jules Verne’s Adventures of Captain Grant [sic], Hugo’s Les Miserables, Monte Cristo, Napoleon’s wars, the Odyssey, and other books I have forgotten, and which comprised the library my father had left to us.

I remembered our two courtyards, adorned with various trees and flowers, and where the water of the foundation always gurgled. I remembered the giant church of the village and the school adjacent to it. The nearby mountains, where we would go when the weather was pleasant with the entire family and spend joyful days enjoying good food, and where our songs would echo from within the caves like in a concert hall. I remembered the chirping of the birds; the delicious fruits of our orchards; the 8-10 almond trees in our nut orchard, which would be crowned by millions of flowers in the spring like brides; and finally the cascading and pure waters of Ayn Zlikha [Ayn Zeliha], a small lake that was home to a coffee house and a bathhouse in the summers, principally catering to Armenian youth.

How could I forget Uskudar with its wild but beautiful woods and terrain, and its beautiful and young girls, among whom was my own beloved who would not leave my mind, and who had been the hub around which my all thoughts had revolved for two years in these godforsaken hills.

In short, in those two or three hours I relived the previous 15-20 years of my life, all the good and the bad of my past in my native land and in Istanbul – the Gomidas concerts; Apelian, Zarifian, and Papazian; the Mnagian plays and Choukhadjian’s Lebledji Hor Hor Agha; Miss Lydia’s recitals, when she would so expertly play fantastic pieces from Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, Chopin, and other famous composers. These performances had become condensed into indelible memories buried deep in my consciousness.

These recollections naturally made life seem even sweeter, but the truth was that these very hills and valleys were the graves of more than 400,000 youth from both sides, most complete strangers to each other. This is the essence of the evil and tragedy of war, wherever or whenever it is waged, whether waged with glee and joy or with weeps and wails.

Why are we born into this sorrowful life?And what are we to do with it?

These musings risk putting both me and my reader to sleep, but at the time, I couldn’t go to sleep, so I shook off my dread and examined the armaments and soldiers with a critical eye. Unaware of the looming danger, the men were sleeping blissfully and without a care.

I roused the officer cadet and instructed him to stay awake, monitor the situation closely, and to inform me of any developments, whether close to our position or further away. I retired to my cabin and lay down on my drooping military cot, with the intention of resting for some time, naturally without even bothering to change. Barely two hours later, the officer cadet ran in and woke me up – “Effendi! Effendi! Come see how red the sky is!” And in fact, the southern portion of the sky was blood red, but all was quiet. There was neither shelling, nor spotlights.

The small, isolated pine forests that had once dotted this landscape had long ago rotted out or had been cut down by the soldiers for firewood. As for the villages and man-made structures, all trace of them had disappeared long ago. Dawn was still some time off, and there was no possibility of altering the cycles of the sun and stras. Unable to explain this phenomenon, I ordered the men to monitor the situation closely, and I went back to sleep.

Barely an hour later, the same cadet returned to rouse me. This time, a different section of the sky had turned red. I decided to call headquarters and ask for an explanation for this mysterious phenomenon. Their answer was that it must be the fires burning in the enemy’s camps. They knew nothing else of it. It was a riddle.

I went back to bed, but as soon as I had closed my eyes, the enemy battleships began shelling the entire length of the front ferociously. It was impossible to stick one’s head up. This had to be the prelude to a landing, perhaps a way to soften our resistance. The only thing to do was to reconcile with imminent death. And I did just that, because there was nothing else I could do.

As for the soldiers, they were unaware of the warnings of an impending landing, and already accustomed to the rain of shells. But the most unconcerned and most unfazed of all was the corporal, who went on snoring without a care, deep under the influence of brandy. I did not even try to wake him, as he was incapable of doing anything useful.

In reality, I felt that the most immediate threat to me was my own state of mind and psychological condition, rather than the physical danger I faced. If the landings had taken place, the enemy troops must have already reached the trenches that were a few hills away from my position, a distance of only one or two kilometers. Before the enemy reached us, there would have to be a few hours of fighting during which thousands would be impaled by bayonets or ripped apart by bombs. Only then would our turn come.  The only certainty in life is death, which no one yet has escaped, but the thought of dying in the prime of my life was much more painful. I felt like a man who was unjustly condemned to die, but did not know exactly when he would be led to the guillotine.

To keep it short, after about two or three terrifying hours, the shelling subsided, and then, around dawn, unexpectedly stopped altogether. I felt it necessary to get some news. An officer on the other end of the telephone line apprised me – “Our reconnaissance troops are advancing through the enemy trenches unopposed. It appears that the enemy forces have abandoned their positions and have left for good.”

This unexpected news pleased and displeased me at the same time. We had escaped danger for the moment, but the war was not over, and I wished the battles would continue on this section of the front and another few thousand Turkish soldiers would die, so that they would not be sent elsewhere where they would have to massacre Armenians, whether willingly or not.

This was the only way we could take our revenge.

On that day and the following days, I asked for my horse and visited the enemy’s abandoned trenches, all the way to the beach. Not only had the British soldiers vanished, they had also taken all of their fallen comrades’ corpses with them, with the exception of four or five that I came across. There were two or three caches of supplies that had fallen into our hands, containing preserved food, meat, confectionaries, sugar, twice-baked foods, raisins, figs, and pork. Naturally, when I spoke of corpses, I was speaking of those that had been killed recently. Prior to the British retreat, for a year and a half, the series of attacks, defensive actions, counterattacks, and retreats had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops, and their corpses had long ago rotted and decomposed, leaving behind only piles of bones.

Incidentally, I should add that after the war, the British, at their request, received a small plot of land on the battlefield, and built it a pantheon and a memorial to their fallen soldiers. This monument was fenced off with a wall and barbed wire, as a symbol of the battle, and included tombs and memorials to a few renowned officers and soldiers. The site is still visited by the families of the fallen and official delegations with their wreaths.

Many of the soldiers who died there were Indian, Brahman, Buddhist, and Muslim, alongside a contingent of Australians. The majority of the officers who led them in battle were British.

In the three or four months I spent at the front, much of what I witnessed consisted of dead soldiers and hands, feet, and jaws severed by the shrapnel of the shells. Almost all of the casualties I saw were Turkish. I once saw a shell land in the cooking pot of 4-5 soldiers who had gathered around it, blowing them to smithereens. I was reluctantly brought to tears by the sight. Is it possible to see such a thing and remain indifferent, regardless of the nationality or the religion of the victims?

Nowadays, I often relive that incident and many others like it in my dreams, and sometimes even when I’m awake, and I experiences once again the terror and anguish that I felt back in those days.

Fortunately, I was spared from the conflagration. The only mark it left on me was a scar caused by a shrapnel wound on my left thigh. But of course, neither I, nor those who lost arms, legs, and jaws were recognized as heroes by the government. Four-five days after the brilliantly executed retreat of the enemy, Mustafa Kemal was promoted to the rank of general and became Mustafa Kemal Pasha. He was lionized as the hero who had supposedly driven the enemy back into the sea, when in reality the enemy had voluntarily retreated at night, without suffering a single casualty, and had then landed the same troops in Salonika under the command of General Sarrail, in order to hold the port city against a force of Bulgarians and Austro-Germans.

As I have stated, Mustafa Kemal was rewarded generously, and was appointed commander of the Yildirim (Lightning) Army Group. He was proclaimed the victor of the Battle of Gallipoli. As for the 200,000 officers and soldiers who died on the peninsula, they were immortalized in the prosaic lyrics of a prosaic song, composed during the war –

Chanak Kale ichinde vourdoular beni

Eolmeden mezara koydelar beni…

These lines translate into –

They killed me in Chanak Kale

And buried me before I was dead…

And what was the reward of the surviving officers and soldiers? We were given three weeks of leave on the peninsula, and gorged ourselves on the vast amounts of preserved meat, pastries, sugar, twice-baked foods, tea, raisins, and cereals that had been spared by the fires and fighting. Turkish soldiers had not seen such bounty for years, and were completely unfamiliar with canned meat and pastries or twice-baked foods.

While wandering the abandoned trenches, I also found a few rifles that had been left behind. So I chose the two best British rifles, and took them, alongside a few boxes of ammunition that were strewn about.

Throughout these three weeks of leave, I would help myself to the cans of pastries, then hang the cans from the branch of a tree and use them as targets as I practiced marksmanship. I was more-or-less familiar with rifles manufactured in my country, but these rifles were rare and forbidden to us, and I was not accustomed to them. In fact, even in basic training, though we had learned how to operate rifles, we had never been allowed to shoot them. And so, I learned how to shoot using the enemy’s rifles.

I should note that when one is not accustomed to using them, shooting military rifles can catch one off guard with the recoil of each shot, leading to the bullet going astray, depending on the distance of the target from the shooter.

These three weeks of rest were also valuable from a military perspective. Who could guarantee that this retreat of the British forces wasn’t just a ruse, and that they wouldn’t attempt another landing? To preserve the peace, one must always be fully prepared to wage war, and one must never be taken by surprise. Feigned retreats are one of the tactics of war, and have been known to occur.

But in this case, the British retreat was not a ruse. Without heavy artillery on the beaches, a landing attempt would be doomed to fail, and the landing of heavy artillery required time and ships solidly anchored near the beaches. In those years, there were no tanks, self-propelled guns, machines guns, or giant mortars that could launch two- or three-ton shells over such a distance. There were no bomber aircraft, as I have already mentioned. The previous attempts by the British to land forces on the peninsula were always bound to fail. The only benefit of those operations had been the maiming of a few Turkish divisions, which mostly benefited the Russian forces on the Caucasian front. Today, in peacetime, the strait has a negligible value as a sea passage. If a war broke out, just a few bombers could completely raze the defensive positions on its shores.

The conclusion of military operations on this front was a sort of temporary ceasefire for us common soldiers and officers. We had no doubt that sooner or later, those who had survived would be transferred to other fronts. After all, the war was not over yet.

I will also mention that during this battle, soldiers were not provided with steel helmets to protect their heads from bullets and shrapnel.

It is also worth mentioning that in wars fought today, civilians face greater dangers than even soldiers engaged in the fighting, due to the destructive power of bombers and giant bombs.

One day, our respite finally came to an end, and we were ordered to proceed to Edirne. My memories of Gallipoli were limited to a few scenes of brutality, as well as a few exquisite images of the sea at night, under the full moon, which I would have committed to canvas if I had Aivazovsky’s talent. Most of my hours in those moonlit nights were spent lying on the ground beside the Ermir Hill, watching the reflection of the moon making its way across the water. As the moon began sinking, its reflection would become more elongated and transform into a lattice of diamonds of indescribable beauty, in which half-naked nymphs swam, smiling and blowing kisses to spectators from behind their delicate veils. This otherworldly beauty stood in sharp contrast to the terror and dread that ruled the peninsula in daylight. How could I possibly reconcile these contradictory images and impressions?

This was the reality of our life, articulated bluntly and starkly. Woe to those who refused to reconcile with or conform to the prevailing conditions.

We received our order and we set out on a pleasant spring day. The next day, we reached Keshan, and spent that night there. When we woke up the following morning, we were greeted by a new surprise – snow, or rather, a genuine blizzard, and extreme cold. The more we advanced, the harder the blizzard blew. Succumbing to the temptation, I handed my horse’s reins to a soldier and continued the journey sitting on the seat of a cannon. Despite the constant jostling, I soon sensed that I was about to sink into a deep and pleasant slumber. But I realized that if I had given in, I would have frozen to death. So I decided to walk for a little while, but that was entirely impossible, due to the terrible mud.

Our detachment was followed at the distance of a few hundred feet by a pack of wolves, ready to pounce on any soldier or horse that fell behind.

Two days later, we finally reached Edirne, which we had left a few months earlier. The day after our arrival, I went into the city, and was shocked and terrified by what I saw. The shops owned by Armenians were all shuttered, and the Armenians had been deported in an unknown direction. Their homes and businesses had been left to the Turks. Only one Armenian was left in the city, a dentist who was a fugitive from justice, and who was waiting for an opportunity to flee to Bulgaria.

Over the following days, I had the opportunity to speak to the German general who served as the military advisor of our regiment, and told him that it had been months since I had heard from my brothers. The general, eager to help, asked for my brothers’ names and their city of residence. I gave him the information, and he promised to immediately send a wire to Ourfa and request the pertinent information. He asked me to speak to him again on the following day. The next day, he handed me a telegram in Turkish that read “According to our inquiries, they have been deported to Dikranagerd [Diarbekir] like the rest of their kind.”

I started nervously rolling the telegram in my hands, and asked if he could possibly send another telegram to Dikranagerd. “Fine,” he said, “come back tomorrow.”

The response to the telegram came on the following day –

“Our inquiries indicate that there are no such people in Dikranagerd.”

I saluted the general and walked away from his office convinced that my brothers had been ruthlessly murdered.

This terrible realization was worse than the shells on the battlefield. So there were truly no more moral or material bonds linking me to the criminal government that I served. I went and sat on the bank of the Maritsa River and cried inconsolably like a child for about an hour.

How could I possibly take my revenge? Should I flee to Bulgaria? Should I destroy the two artillery guns under my command? Or should I make up an excuse to drag them away from the barracks, up a hill, and shell the governor’s house and then shoot myself? Or should I simply jump into the Maritsa and drown myself?

These thoughts were obviously very childish. I could lead the horses dragging the artillery out of the barracks, but I was no hero, and my soldiers would not obey me blindly and risk their lives for me, especially when the result of such obedience could have fatal consequences. Besides, my 7.5-caliber guns could scarcely damage the governor’s sprawling structure. Undoubtedly, such an act would only serve to cause me and the other Armenian soldiers and medics in the regiment great damage. Nowadays, a missile can be launched by pressing a button and can destroy giant buildings. Such weapons were unknown at that time, as were buildings built of reinforced concrete.

Each war gives birth to new, more destructive and more horrifying weapons, such as the atomic bomb, etc.

It was very easy to imagine and think out these audacious plans in the absence of any enemy opposition. But in all honesty, I could not imagine myself putting such plans into action even if there were no enemy forces to oppose me.

The only possible alternative was abandoning the army and fleeing the country. According to what I had heard, there were Greek villagers in the area who had helped fugitives escape on their boats at night, in exchange for a fee. But I had never heard of their helping single individuals, only groups, and only after prior arrangements and preparation. So I had to be patient and make the proper arrangements first.

There was also the possibility of swimming across the Maritsa River. This was a very dangerous proposition, as the river’s current was very strong and I was not a proficient swimmer.

A few days later, I received permission to go Istanbul on 15 days of leave. I boarded the train in the evening and reached Istanbul on the following day. I found my old room and my landlords just as I had left them.

It was winter, but the weather was mild and spring-like. But these were dark days for the city’s Armenians. Armenian intellectuals had been deported or killed, and the rest lived in a state of constant fear, afraid that on any given day, they, too, could be ordered to leave their homes, stores, and businesses, and be driven in unknown directions, labeled as dangerous and undesirable elements. All of this had already happened to Armenians in other cities of Turkey. Fortunately, mass deportations from Istanbul had not, and did not, take place. The city was home to a large number of foreigners, so it seems probable that the authorities were either too embarrassed or too scared to deport the city’s Armenians. Also, there was a large anti-Ittihadist element in the city, which opposed the anti-Armenian campaign launched during the war.

There was also another menace that threatened Istanbul. Most of the city’s homes, as well as the official buildings and a portion of the palaces, were built of wood, and even a stray match could result in a fire that could devour the entire city. It was very difficult, almost impossible, to prevent such fires. Istanbul had no firefighters.

During peacetime, I had witnessed several fires there, which had often consumed a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand homes in a matter of hours. So was it not logical to consider the possibility of Armenians angry at receiving the order of deportation dousing their homes in gasoline and setting them alight, rather than handing them over to the government and their Turkish neighbors? I had witnessed red-hot embers of fires jumping a hundred meters or more and starting new fires in nearby homes and neighborhoods.

In my opinion, Istanbul would long ago have become a pile of ashes had Armenian or Turkish revolutionaries resorted to arson as a desperate measure against the authorities. Naturally, the arsonists, too, would have been consumed by the flames. It stood to reason that deported Armenians would attempt such an act, preferring to die in their homes and taking a few hundred others with them, rather than being driven into the deserts and dying of hunger and disease, just as the Greek revolutionaries had done without hesitation in 1894-1895, blowing the fort they had captured, with them still inside of it, to smithereens.

Armenians have long been renowned for such heroic actions.

Within ten-fifteen days of my arrival in the city, I was informed of the heroic defenses of Ourfa, Shabin-Karahisar [Şebinkarahisar], and a few other cities, and the resulting annihilation of thousands of Armenians. These news strengthened my resolve to flee to Bulgaria.

For the first time ever, I visited the home of my beloved. She and her parents were surprised to see me alive and in the uniform of a Turkish officer. There was no sweet talk and no exchanges of tender words, since as an officer I was still in danger and I did not want to trouble this young and innocent girl’s mind and tranquility. I also considered the possibility of her rejecting me or remaining indifferent, which would have thrown me into despair.

It was winter, so the restaurant I used to frequent before the war was deserted, but I was sure that its clientele had dwindled even in the summers. The men were all at the front, the women were dejected and sad, and the cost of living had become exorbitant. Who could possibly afford to visit a restaurant and buy arak, beer, or food? Only two years earlier, the restaurant was so packed that it would run out of seats. As for me, I spent the 15 Ottoman pounds I had brought with me in 15 days and returned to the barracks of Edirne.

Eight or ten days later, we received a message from the military headquarters that informed us that Mustafa Kemal Pasha was to leave our division and wished to say a few words of farewell to his fellow officers. He was awaiting the officers at the headquarters.

At the predetermined time, I too arrived at the headquarters, where all officers who had taken part in the Battle of the Dardanelles had gathered.

A little while later, Mustafa Kemal Pasha appeared before us. He was tall and burly, with green eyes, slightly greenish skin, and Tatar features. His chest was bedecked in medals, he had a haughty gaze, and sported an arrogant expression. This hero, under whose supreme command I had been fighting for four-five months and whom I was meeting for the first and last time, now stood before me. He was not a civilian leader yet, he was still a soldier.

With a few boastful words, he recalled the Battle of Anakarta, where we had all fought together and had driven the enemy into the sea and off the peninsula. He reminded us that we had expelled the enemy from our land on that occasion, and he promised to continue the war in the same spirit until the enemy’s final defeat, etc. He then finally bade farewell to us and went inside. The sergeant beside me nudged me and whispered – “Did you swallow all of that?” I only smiled slightly.

Afterwards, some of the officers present suggested going all the way to the train station, inside the borders of Bulgaria, as on that day officers could cross the border without official permits and see of the Pasha at the train station.

So here was an opportunity to cross into Bulgaria without any difficulties or the need for trickery.