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

Chapter 3:

Towards Bulgaria

However, I still had two major concerns. First, I barely had a penny in my pocket, enough to last me only a day. Second, I had no way to travel back and forth from the barracks. My adjutant’s and my horses were not enough. Also, I didn’t know whether the Bulgarians would hand me back to the Turks as an officer. In such an eventuality, I could be 90 percent sure that I would be shot or receive a life sentence. Would I have to risk so much? Bulgaria was an ally of Turkey, and the two nations were fighting together. Would they refuse to hand me over to the Turks?

To rationally weigh these considerations, one would need nerves of steel. So I wandered up and down the avenue and the adjoining streets, waiting to run into a fellow officer from whom I could cajole a few pounds. More importantly, I was trying to steel myself. My whole body shivered uncontrollably like a man with a fever. I felt that I had gone terribly pale, and that I was facing a life-or-death decision. I came across an officer who was an acquaintance and took the last pound he had in his pocket with a pang of regret, knowing full well I was swindling him. I learned that one who attempts to swindle or steal from others for the first time is terribly shaken, something I experienced and recall to this day. The young officer was a good man. After my escape, I arranged for a message to be smuggled to him to let him know why I had absconded with his money, and to beg his forgiveness, in order to slightly soften the feeling of having robbed him.

As soon as I had taken the money from the officer, I turned my horse’s head towards the bridge. My adjutant, who had no knowledge of my state of mind and intentions, mustered the courage to ask me –

“Are we going to the station?”

“Yes,” I replied, “follow me, and on the double.”

Mustafa, who was from Kilis, and who had the dubious honor of being the adjutant of an Armenian officer like me, spurred his horses and followed me.

Our course took us thorough a wide and paved avenue leading to the Karaaghadj Station, a total distance of a kilometer and a half. We crossed the geographic border between the two countries, where border guards and soldiers with fixed bayonets were stationed on each side, at a distance of twenty-five meters from each other.

I had not reached the border yet when the Kemal Pasha’s convoy came through. He alighted from his car and spoke to the officers who were present, then he got back into his car and drove on towards the station. I dismounted and approached the officers, who had already turned their horses back, except for one bold colonel and his attaché, who continued on their way to the station without bothering to display any documents at the border.

Likewise, my adjutant and I got back on our horses and approached the border guard, who was saluting, waiting for our passage.

As a precaution, I asked where I could cross the border freely. The border guard confirmed what I had heard, that on that day, officers could cross the border and visit the station freely and without any permits.

We crossed the border with the border guard and his fellow soldiers presenting arms to us. Likewise, a few meters down the road, the Bulgarian soldiers saluted and stood at attention. I was being honored as a soldier one last time before abandoning my military career and my blood-soaked homeland, pale and with a racing heart as I rode forward.

Despite my best efforts, I experienced a slight mental breakdown. I was leaving the country where I had lived both as a child and as an adolescent. Countless pleasant and unpleasant memories were intractably associated with this country. I was also leaving behind the beautiful girl of Uskudar, and family members, perhaps even my mother, who were perhaps still alive, and probably wandering hungry and naked in the deserts of Raqqa and Der Zor, desperate for a bit of bread.

Eventually, I reached one of the neighborhoods near the Karaaghadj Station. I dismounted and handed my horse’s reins to my adjutant, and ordered him to wait for me there. I walked down one of the nearby streets, trying to find the Bulgarian military base, but first I wanted to find a local Armenian to guide me and interpret for me. Naturally, I did not know a single word of Bulgarian.

A few months earlier, when I had been there, I had read the names of Armenians on the store signs, but all the signs had been replaced and now only bore Bulgarian, while in Turkey Armenians were free to use signs in Turkish or Armenian.

I came upon a villager, and asked him if he knew a store owned by an Armenian. I made my way to a store, where three youths were sitting and chatting. When they saw me, they fell silent. I greeted them in Turkish and asked them if they were Armenian. They stared at me inquisitively and with surprise, and then replied, with some disdain –

“Yes, we’re Armenian, what do you want?”

“I’m Armenian too, and I want to escape the army. Whom can I speak to? Is there a way to do it?”

“We’ll take you to the Armenian school, then we’ll talk of the rest,” and two of them stood to their feet.

“Give me one moment,” I said, “I have some civilian clothing on my horse outside, I’ll fetch it and come back.”

I turned down the next street, where my adjutant was waiting, and grabbing the clothing in my saddlebag, I ordered Mustafa, my adjutant, to return to Edirne, and told him I would take the train back to the barracks.

The youth took me to the school, where there were 7-8 other soldiers on the run, including the young man who had come to Edirne to find smugglers and had succeeded. I took off my military uniform, and donned civilian attire.

Two or three days later, we were presented to the agha at the police station. He was satisfied with noting down the names of the other fugitive soldiers, but he subjected me to a more thorough interrogation, suspiciously asking me of the prevailing political, military, and other conditions in Turkey. I responded to the best of my abilities, and he recorded my answers. He told us to come back and see him on the following day, when he would send us off to Filibe (Philippopolis) [Plovdiv], where our eventual destination would be determined.

Two days later, we set off, under guard, to Filibe. Once there, we were quartered alongside men accused of petty crimes and thievery, under the watch of the police. The room was extremely dirty and putrid. We endured these conditions for one night, and then on the following day they allowed us to go down to the city and visit friends and loved ones for a few hours, if we had any.

The young man whom I knew from Edirne was a party member like me, so together we appealed to the local party organization and some prominent local Armenians, seeking to be allowed to remain in Filibe. But they replied that it was impossible, because the Bulgarian military authorities refused to allow fugitive soldiers to remain in Filibe, in order to avoid antagonizing the Turks.

Comrade Tavit knew an Armenian family from Istanbul, whose oldest daughter had studied in Switzerland, spoke German fluently, and had befriended the German wife of the city’s police chief. As soon as this woman learned of our predicament, she went and found her German friend, and asked her to intercede with her husband (meaning the police chief) on our behalf. The chief replied that the decision had been made to move the fugitives out of the city, but promised to bring me and Tavit back to Filibe within a few days.

We were led out of the city the following morning, and around noon we reached the capital Sofia. It was a lovely city, with neat and wide avenues. There, too, we found a party representative, whom I knew from Istanbul, but he was unable to provide any immediate help. A few hours later, we got back on the road, heading for the town of Vratsa, also very lovely and clean. It grew out like mushroom out of the fields at the foot of a high and rocky mountain. There were neither Armenians nor Turkish speakers there.

I was able to sell my military uniform and my sword, earning enough money to keep me for a few days. But what then? How was I supposed to live without money, without knowledge of the local language, and without any skills? But I still did not regret my decision. I was still young and I could still work.

Two or three days later, orders came from Filibe summoning me and Tavit back to the town. What did I do there? I tried to sell some things in the bazaar, but that didn’t work out. I tried selling cherries on a street corner, but failed. I tried to work as a teacher in the school, but there were no vacant positions. I worked in the tobacco processing plant for a month, but the work was heavy, and anxious of its impact on my health, I quit.

I found a few Armenian teenagers from Istanbul, and started giving them private lessons in my room. A few Armenian families from Istanbul had traveled with their passports to Filibe. They didn’t want to send their teenage boys to the Armenian national schools, because these were subject to state regulations and state curricula, and required to teach the Bulgarian language.

Life was becoming more expensive by the day in Bulgaria. Some items had become ten or twenty times more expensive, or had disappeared from the market altogether. All items of military usefulness had been requisitioned in exchange for vouchers which would be turned in after the war, of course only if Bulgaria won. Otherwise, the vouchers had no value. Clothing, food, ironware, copperware, soap, and other items had disappeared from the shelves. An active black market existed for everything. One had to procure bread with ration cards, and after waiting in line. Woe to those who were late. And let us not speak of the quality of the bread. Corncobs, stems and husk and all, were boiled and baked on rectangular iron trays in an oven, then the product cut into rectangular biscuits weighing about a kilogram each, and the size of a man’s head. If it was still warm and I bit into it, I could see hundreds of fibers, and the taste would be slightly sweet, reminiscent of the taste of panpanka.

And when the biscuit was cold, one would have to use a hatchet to cut it, or needed to have the jaws and teeth of a bison. And if one ran out and was desperate for food on the following day, one simply had to endure it…

Bulgaria was a society of farmers and cattle keepers, so where were its grain and cattle? They had been sent to Germany and Austria to feed its allies. Soon milk and yogurt also became scarce. The farm workers were being sent to the front, leaving behind only the women and children.

One day, they conscripted us, meaning the Armenian fugitives, into the army. But the Bulgarian government was able to convince the Turks to allow us to serve in the Bulgarian forces, instead of being turned over to the Turks. However, instead of arming the Armenians, the Bulgarians sent them to the factories. I, too, presented myself to the committee, but a famous master tailor who was there winked at me to leave the room, and was able to provide me with the identity card of a 19 year-old, and so I was able to escape conscription for another year. Naturally, abandoning a commission in the Turkish army only to be conscripted into the Bulgarian army would have been a terrible blow.

A year later, I turned twenty again, and was once again called up the army. There was a crier who had a small drum, and who beat his drum in the city square, calling out the names of those had been drafted and inviting them to the official recruitment stations. I immediately went home and altered the date on my identity card, and was exempted from conscription. My service in the army was uneventful, as I was not a Bulgarian citizen and the Bulgarian authorities were lenient with the Armenian soldiers.

One day, I had the idea of sending a card to Egypt via the Red Cross, to a prominent merchant from Aleppo, asking him to pass on the letter to one of my brothers-in-law, who was a client of his. Three or four weeks later I was surprised to receive an answer from my sister, who wrote of how my two sisters, my aunts, the three boys, and my five nephews were doing in Aleppo. This wonderful turn of events prompted me to daydream of them and to establish regular correspondence with them through the same channel.

The International Red Cross was truly a blessing, especially for Armenian refugees. But in later years I discovered that it had been exploited by some swindlers, especially in Aleppo.

The discovery that my two sisters, brother-in-law, and their children were alive in Aleppo naturally brought up memories of Turkey, and I relived all my past experiences.

In reality, what is a homeland? An indefinable, but extremely strong bond that connects the air, water, and soil of a place with one’s family and loved ones. A homeland is the repository of one’s memories.

One day, one of my cousins sent me 10 Ottoman pounds in the post, while some of my compatriots sold the clothes, wool bedding, and blanket that I had left back in Istanbul, and sent me five pounds. It would not be wise to sit idle and fritter away the money. I had to be more frugal and more enterprising. So I stopped teaching and wanted to learn a craft. I began apprenticing with an Armenian cobbler, who promised to teach me his skills in a short time, as this particular craft was relatively easy to learn. But within five or six months I realized that the man was a liar and had no desire to teach me anything.

The cost of living had become unbearably exorbitant, so instead of wasting all my money, I decided to resort to the black market. A bundle of thread cost two leva. A lev had been the equivalent of one franc, but now a frank was worth 40 leva. A pair of socks that used to cost a lev and a half now cost 30-40 leva. A meter of print paper that used to cost the 1.5 or two lava now cost 25-30 leva.

These items were no longer sold in the stores, and were secretly exchanged at enormous prices, while the stores were not empty, either.

In the black market, merchants were forced to sell their wares via trusted middlemen, and buyers, too, had to find middlemen in order to keep their identities concealed. Oftentimes, buyers and sellers did not even meet each other. A Jewish soldier would visit me two or three times a week and buy various items though me, compensating me generously in the process, naturally with the approval and knowledge of his superiors. The local youth, as soldiers and officers, were on the battlefields, enduring unimaginable horrors. People like me were left to act as black market intermediaries. Finally, after a few successful transactions, I began living and dressing like a human being again. In short, life began smiling at me, and I began smiling back.

I had also learned of the great political upheavals that had rocked the world, that a revolution had overwhelmed Russia and that the government had passed into the hands of the Mensheviks, but the latter had been defeated and had relinquished authority, which was now in the hands of the Bolshevik Party. The Czar and his family had abandoned St. Petersburg and had taken refuge in Siberia with General Kolchak, until the latter’s defeat and execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the situation in Germany and Austria had become dire since America’s entry into the war. Russia had abandoned its positions on the Caucasus front, and its Black Sea fleet, under the command of General Denikin, was engaged in battle against Bolshevik forces in the northern reaches of the Black Sea. All of this internal turmoil in Russia was a result of Germany’s diplomatic and military gambits in the Caucasus. The Germans had also forced Turkey to accept the creation of a joint Georgian, Tatar, and Armenian state.

But the Russian soldiers who had abandoned the Caucasus front had simply taken the road home, and the Turks saw their opportunity to advance all the way to Turan, crushing the tri-ethnic Transcaucasian Republic that stood in its way, especially Armenia.

All of these distorted and confusing news reached us from occasional travelers. Sometimes, they caused despair among Armenians, and at other times, they inspired hope. In those days, Bulgarian forces under General Sara’s command continued to fight in Salonika, but rumors circulated of the weakness of the county’s allies. In the Central Power countries, every commodity had become scarce, while thanks to America’s entry into the war, the Triple Alliance was swimming in abundance.  One day, we were able to obtain a French newspaper, Matin (if I’m not mistaken), which we read with great excitement. It said that the British Prime Minister, Asquith, had referred to the Armenians as the “Little Allies”. This comment thrilled us and spurred fantasies of the various possible outcomes awaiting the future Armenian state. Not far from us sat the old fox himself with his paunch, Puzant Kechian, the editor and proprietor of the Byzantium newspaper in Istanbul. He had fled to Bulgaria by permit a few months earlier, and sometimes frequented the coffee house to have his coffee. He turned to us and said –

“Don’t get too excited, boys. This comment means nothing for us.”

His throwing of cold water on our excitement elicited a violent reaction from those who knew him and from those who didn’t (I only knew him by sight). They tried to attack him, but a few others, I among them, intervened and explained to the angry crowd that the man was quite elderly, and that any attack could have serious consequences. The future would judge his words. And in fact, the future proved him right. We as the Little Allies got nothing out of the war. Our bigger allies let Turkey keep the blood of a million and a half Armenians and our lands, then they washed their hands of it.

I was acquainted with some of the views espoused by the Byzantium newspaper. I had a read a few issues that I had found in my father’s rich library, but at the time I was only a child, and almost completely ignorant of politics. While in Istanbul, the paper’s views had struck me as anti-revolutionary and conservative. I also knew that Kechian had once been assaulted for the views he had expressed during national rallies. As I have already said, time and unfolding events partly justified his views and of others who shared them.

Finally, in early November 1918, we read in Turkish and foreign newspapers that a general, unconditional armistice had been signed on all fronts. This inspired all of humanity with great hope, especially us Armenians.

I became convinced that people like me could not live in Bulgaria, and I rushed back to Istanbul at the first opportunity.

Much of the allied forces on Salonika had been brought to Istanbul on trucks, and they occupied the important sites around the city. American, British, French, Italian, Japanese battleships, alongside others, controlled the straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus, and had full command of the city and its port.

The Ittihadist government had collapsed, and its most prominent leaders had vanished.

The Allies had taken Istanbul and the straits without any bloodshed, but this was only a small portion of Turkey’s territory. The vastness of Anatolia remained firmly in Turkish hands, despite the armistice.

Had they prevailed in Dardanelles two years earlier, and had they taken Istanbul and the straits, the Allies would’ve found themselves in an untenable situation, because they would not have had enough forces to capture Anatolia. They had once made plans to land troops in Mersin or Ayas, but they never dared attempt those landings, as this would have required the commitment of at least a million troops and enough supplies to sustain them. The Mediterranean is vast, but for them it was a very dangerous pond. They couldn’t divert such forces from the other fronts, and they did not have the capability to supply such a vast army in the area.

After the armistice, France had occupied Cilicia, Britain had occupied Rhodes, and Italian troops had advanced all the way down to Antalya and had captured most of Konia Province. According to previous agreements, France would occupy Cilicia, Syria, Lebanon, and a large swath of land stretching east all the way to Mosul Province and encompassing the City of Mosul.

Britain would occupy the area stretching south from Kirkuk to Baghdad, Basra, and the area stretching west from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, including present-day Jordan and Palestine.

America, faithful to its former president Monroe’s doctrine of America for the Americans, retreated into its own borders, or in other words, its own shell. It was particularly uninterested in the disputes between Britain and France. This would later lead to the evacuation of Cilicia and of the accession of Mosul Province to Iraq.

It is said that during these colonial disputes, the French Prime Minister Clemenceau, known as The Tiger, was confronted by one of his expert advisors, asking how France could allow Britain to take Mosul when there was so much oil there. Clemenceau’s sarcastic answer was “Oil? But there is plenty of oil in the shops!” Clemenceau made these concessions in exchange for Britain’s recognition of French hegemony in the areas of Cilicia, Syria, and Lebanon. Britain professed to recognize French sovereignty in these areas, but perhaps it later encouraged Kemal to drive the French out of Cilicia. Such intrigues may have resulted, alongside other factors, in the battles of Ayntab, the evacuation of Ourfa and the massacre of the fighters there, as well as the massacres of Hadjin and Marash Armenians at the hands of Kemalist Turks (I only propose this as a possibility).

We must remember the statement made by the British Prime Minster Asquith in the House of Commons – that the Armenians were the “Little Allies”, etc. These losses were the first of the rewards we received from our “bigger” allies. The armistice with the Turks applied only to them. The Little Allies, the Armenians, were still being massacred under their noses, and one Turkish division, under the command of Ali Ihsan, attacked Armenia, with the goal of overrunning it, linking Turkey with the land of the Tatars and Baku, and realizing the Turkish plans to reach Turan.

The tri-ethnic republic having been dissolved, Armenia confronted the Turkish armies alone, and achieved victory at the Battle of Sartarabad.

I will add nothing to what more talented writers and historians have said of these events.

It is worth mentioning that when the Russian revolution struck and Russian soldiers deserted their positions, they left their weapons and ammunition behind. The Georgian, Tatar, and Armenian nations first used this materiel against the invading Turks, and later against each other. Groups of “Mauserists” arrived in Yerevan – Armenian, Georgian, Russian, and Tatar – and used these weapons against the local, peaceful population, killing and robbing even their own compatriots.