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Great Britain & the Armenian Question, 1912-1914 - Speech by Dr Tigran N Sarukhanyan - 4 May 2004

Dr Tigran N Sarukhanyan Ph.D, of the Institute of History of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, gave a talk entitled: "Great Britain & the Armenian Question, 1912-1914" on 4 May 2004, at Hayashen / Centre for Armenian Information & Advice, as the final CRAG event of the year's "April 24" observance.

Today, I am going to talk on the British policy towards the Ottoman Empire, and towards the implementation of the Armenian Reforms in the Ottoman Empire, in 1912-1914, in particular. This was the most important period for the fate of Armenians living in the Turkish Empire, as it leads to one of the most cruel crimes ever committed in the history of mankind--the Genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.

It still remains unclear in historiography, when and where the political and military top strata of the Ittihadist Party, the Party of Union and Progress, finally decided on the wholesale extermination of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

I have investigated the topic in the light of British policy towards the Armenian Question prior to World War I, in particular, based on the archival and research material which I have collected during my various research trips to the British archives and libraries.

I found many documents that indicated that long before the extermination began, the British officials and public were fully informed that as soon as an appropriate opportunity arrived, the Young Turks would try to get rid of their Christian subjects.

A British Consular record dated as far back as August 6, 1910, written by the British Vice Consul in Monastir, Arthur B. Geary, quotes from a speech of Talaat Pasha, which was delivered to a secret enclave of the Ittihadist leaders. The relevant portion of the speech reads:

You are aware that by the terms of the Constitution equality of Mussulman and Ghiaur [which means "infidel" in Turkish], was affirmed by you and all know and feel that this is an unrealizable ideal. The Religious laws of Islam, our whole past history and the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of Mussulmans and even the sentiments of the Ghiaours themselves…present an impenetrable barriers to the establishment of real quality…There can therefore be no question of equality until we have succeeded in our task of Ottomanizing the Empire.

Shortly after his speech, the Third Ittihad Congress in Saloniki took place (November 1 to 12) in 1910. At the Congress, Secret Resolutions were passed, in which one can already find the preliminary elements of the final solution to get rid of the Armenians of Turkey. 

Again British officials, as in the case of Talaat's speech, were aware of the secret deliberations of that Congress, the main objective of which was the forcible homogenization of Turkey.

According to Harry Lamb, British Consul General at Saloniki, most secret decisions were deliberated and reached after the end of the plenary sessions by five or six leading members (including Dr. Nazim). Dr. Nazim is described as the most powerful member of the local Committee by one source, and as the moving spirit of Ittihad's Central Committee by another, the extreme arm of which was prepared to order the massacre of Christians as a last resort. At the Congress, Nazim successfully pushed through the acceptance of budgetary allocations to enable him to undertake large-scale resettlements of Muslims from Russian and Austro-Hungarian border areas in the Balkans, as well as in the "six Armenian provinces," especially the Erzeroum area. Nazim was the chief advocate of completely "Turkifying" the country through massive Muslim resettlements, through coercion, and massacres.

A year after the above-mentioned Congress, on the 30th of September, the Fourth Annual Congress took place, where the previous deliberations on the brutal homogenization of the Turkish Empire were reaffirmed.

Saloniki's Acting British Consul General, James Morgan, for his part, sent two reports, while the actual Consul, Harry Lamb, sent one report on these events.

Both British official records and articles and extracts from various British periodicals prove that even in 1912 and 1913, before the commencement of  wholesale massacres, the British public was informed that something dangerous was going to happen to the Armenian inhabitants of Turkey, that these events would be even worse than those massacres organized by Abdul Hamid in 1894-1896, and worse than the Holocaust of Armenians in Cilicia in 1909.

The daily British newspaper Truth of the 13th of June, in 1913 wrote:

There is a fear of serious trouble in Armenia. Massacres on large scale have not yet been taken place, but assassination of Christians is proceeding piecemeal and quite unchecked.

The Westminster Gazette of the 30th of June, 1913, continues "Telegrams via Kars inform us that thousands of Kurds have overrun various parts of Van, where were pillaging and killing in the Armenian villages Gurants, Kurdchkan, and are being resisted by the besieged villagers. A catastrophe is inevitable if England remains indifferent to the interminable sufferings of the Armenian nation, protected by the Convention of Cyprus,"

In the British Press of the period of 1912-1914, one can easily find a great number of testimonies and articles, which indicate that the Genocide of Armenians started not in 1915, as most scholars accept, but earlier.

I would like to cite several more quotations to prove my point. During the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, the Turkish Government tried to experiment with the wartime situation as an opportunity for her future anti-Armenian measures. In an article of the British daily newspaper Daily News and Leader of August 6, 1913, a narration of wholesale massacres of the Armenians in Rodosto and in Malgara can be found. It reads:

After the Bulgarians gave up the town the Commissaire Miguirditch Effendi, a Bulgarian subject, and representing the authorities of that country, was cruelly assassinated. Some Turkish soldiers cut off his ears and took them to an Armenian woman, whom they threatened in the same fate, and pointed their bayonets at her. The poor woman was so terrified that she nearly died. At the same moment two Armenian gendarmes, Bulgarian subjects, were also murdered.

Then the volunteers divided into several parties, which, each having at their head four or five Bashi Bazouks, attacked the Armenians in the market place and massacred eight of them.

People working in the fields, among whom were some Armenian soldiers captured at Adrianople, were atrociously butchered by the ferocious populace. As everyone is forbidden to leave the town, a number of people, both men and women, came to us [European Officials and correspondents accredited to those regions] to-day to ask us to recover their children, dead or alive, whom they had lost for the last three or four days. Steps taken with this object were stopped.

Then the correspondent continues:

We went to the Armenian cemetery, where the corpses of the Armenians assassinated in the town had been gathered. To-day, from the environs of Rodosto, five corpses have been brought in on vehicles. They were in a state of putrefaction. One of the victims had had his hands cut off, another his feet, and in another case the skull had been split with an axe. It was a terrible spectacle, which several of the Consuls [the British Consul was also among them] were unable to look upon.

In the cemetery the men were gathered on one side and the woman on the other, weeping. Stifling my own grief, I felt hardly able to address a few words of consolation to those unfortunate people bowed down by indescribable despair. To-day, at a distance of one hour from the town, near the bridge of Tavanli, a man named Karnik Zavtarian and an Armenian soldier, who was captured at Adrianople, were murdered.

Towards evening news came to the vicariate that the authorities had told the men to bury on the spot the victims who had fallen in the fields, and then to clear off all traces of the murders. Thirty piastres (6s. 3d.) are being paid per corpse. It is persistently rumoured that some Mussulman scoundrels were going to fire shots at night in the Armenian quarter and then, by accusing our compatriots, provoke a massacre.

Then the article continues, We quote from the reports of the Consuls of the Powers in Thrace and from the Assistant Bishop of the Metropolitan of Rododsto:

"The Assistant Bishop was a member of a Commission sent out to investigate the charges of massacre, which early had begun to reach Constantinople. He had as colleagues for Christians, of whom two were Greeks and two Armenians, and a Turkish mufti. His report is dated July 25, and reached Constantinople on July 30.

"On July 17 the army commenced pillaging the houses of Christians. At evening a fire broke out, caused by bombs thrown into Armenian houses by Turks. Petroleum carts went about the streets all night, soldiers threw petroleum over everything. Panic occurred; people fled from the burning quarter to other houses, but were fired on by troops. Several fled to the bazaar, where thirteen Armenians and five Greeks were at once killed. At night the town was abandoned to the troops. The bazaar and many Armenian houses were burnt. The wind changed and burnt some Turkish houses. Nearly 300 houses, of which 67 were Greeks, 15 Ottoman, and the rest Armenian were destroyed.

"An eye-witness at Haskeny said that after the entry of the army he heard shots; many women and girls were caught by soldiers and were taken to a windmill. Afterwards they were stripped naked and sent away. A little later Moslem villagers arrived, and pillaged everything belonging to the Christians. Then fire broke out, and the village was burned.

"The Bashi-Bazouks had many dogs with them. They hunted refugees, and the Bashi-Bazouks shot them. Our informant saw Christe Lambro, a notable, who had had his eyes gouged out and nose slit because he would not say where his valuables were hidden."

The report gives details not unlike those of Haskeny, in regard to the villages of Thimitkeui, Kurtli, and Temberitkeui.

Seven villages paid each a ransom varying from 150 to 200 Turkish pounds to save themselves. They were only partly pillaged.

The Kaimakam of Malgara said "they deserved what they got, because they had sheltered Bulgarians."

At the Kariopolis houses were pillaged; many people were imprisoned and tortured. Notables were forced to give a declaration that the pillage and murder had been done by the Bulgarians.

At Huskeuy of Kariopolis an officer ordered the population to church and then his troops pillaged the houses. The Mouktar was ordered by the officer in command, revolver in hand, to choose for him three Greek girls. The Mouktar indignantly refused, but had to flee. In the evening all the women were gathered at a large threshing floor.

The report goes on to indicate the fate of these women, and adds that neither old age nor extreme youth was spared.

The Metropolitan of Rodosto reports that the evident intention of the Turks was to exterminate the Christian element.

In those days, during the critical months in the fall of 1912 when Turkey was suffering military defeats in the Balkan War and internal problems when Ittihad temporarily was forced out of power, the Allied Entente Powers with the leadership of Tsarist Russia once again raised the issue of the reforms in the Armenian provinces. This was a real and serious alarm for the Turkish nationalists; as in the case of the implementation of the Armenian Reforms, the Asiatic provinces could have been dismantled as had happened with her European territories.

Nor were the Armenians themselves unaware of the dangers looming on the horizon: the years 1913 and 1914 up to the Fall, when Turkey, joining the camp of the Central Powers, were for them periods of anxiety bordering on apprehension. Of particular significance are the threatening letters sent to the Armenian press and to the Armenian Patriarch at Istanbul. In a letter of November 12, 1913, the Patriarch was warned, "you Armenians…never forgot where you live…you accursed ones have brought many perils on the head of our esteemed government…paved the way for foreign assault…. You must know that the Young Turks have awakened now…. Turkish youth…shall not delay the execution of their assigned duties…." Some days later, a more threatening letter was sent in which was written: "The Turkish sword to date has cut down millions of giavours, nor has it lost its intention to cut millions more hereafter. Know this that the Turks have committed themselves, and have vowed to subdue and to clean up the Armenian giavours who have become tubercular microbes for us."  The author of the letter meant the international intervention of the Powers into the internal affairs of Turkey on behalf of the Armenians. Only after the end of World War I, it became clear that these letters were written by the Director General of the Istanbul Police, Huseyin Azmi, inspired by Dr. Nazim. Azmi played an important role in the preparation and initiation of the Armenian Genocide in Istanbul.

In December 1913, a number of British leaders had warned the British Government that Turkey was bent on destroying wholesale the Ottoman Armenian population in the event the Powers imposed upon Turkey the Reform Act. According to this account, on September 18, 1914, Aneurin Williams, who was a member of the British Parliament, the Chairman of the British-Armenian Committee, and at this time one of the champions of Armenians in Europe and in England, in particular, informed British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey of the prevalence in Turkey of a "great fear of massacre." Grey replied that the British Government had done all its best to urge the Porte to maintain peace, and would be unable to do more.

After two years of difficult ongoing negotiations the European Powers and Turkey reached an alternative and acceptable plan on how to carry out the necessary reforms in Armenia. The Russian-Turkish Agreement on reforms in Armenia was signed in Constantinople by Russian Chargés Gulkevich and Turkish Foreign Minister Said Halim Pasha. The Agreement divided areas of the seven Armenian-populated provinces of Erzoroum, Trabizond, Sivas, Van, Bitlis, Kharput, and Diarbekir into two sectors, each to be headed by two foreign Inspectors General appointed by the Porte with the approval of the Powers. The Inspectors would have authority over administration, justice, police, and the gendarmerie in their sectors and could have authority to dismiss "incompetent" officials and appoint lower-level bureaucrats, resolve land disputes, and dismiss judges in certain cases; they would also present nominations for high-level officials to the Porte.  Laws, decrees, and government disputes would be published in the local languages while the central Government would not obstruct the local communities' efforts to fund their schools. The Hamidiye paramilitary units would be transformed into military reserves. The inspectors would be empowered to enforce the equality principle in the police and gendarmerie forces as well as in the local administration.

The Russian-Turkish Agreement of 1914 was of great importance for the future of the Ottoman Armenians. Though the agreement would not grant self-government to the Armenians, for the first time the administration of western Armenia would be in the hands of European officials, who could secure the life of a common Armenian peasant from daily massacres at the hands of Turks and Kurds.

On April 15, the British Ambassador at Constantinople, Louis Mallet, reported that the Turkish Government, which was to pay their salaries, selected from the list offered by the Powers the Assistant Resident in the Dutch East Indies L.C. Westenenk and Norway's War Ministry Secretary General Nikolai Hoff. The employment contracts with the Inspectors were signed by the Turkish Government in May 1914, and the Inspectors were to take up their duties by July.

Westenenk and Hoff had barely reached their posts when World War I broke out, and the Turkuish government promptly denounced the contracts with them and suspended the Scheme of reforms, as the first step towards its own intervention  in the conflict. Thus, at the close of 1914, the Armenians found themselves in the same position as in 1883. The measures designed for their security had fallen through, and left nothing behind but the resentment of the Government, which still held them at its mercy.

Westenenk, in his diary, quoted Talaat as describing him and Hoff as "just our officials," with Hoff himself repeatedly expressing doubt about the seriousness of the Turkish rulers from the beginning. Interior Minister and Party Chief Talaat's two appointments were revealing in this respect, portending ominous developments for the Armenians. Diyarbekir Deputy Feyzi and Bitlis province Governor Mustafa Abdulhalik, Talaat's brother-in-law, were assigned to the staff of Hoff as deputies. Both men were subsequently to play pivotal roles in the destruction of the largest concentration of Armenians in southeastern and eastern Turkey, involving the provinces of Diyarbekir and Bitlis. Abdulhalik was later assigned to the post of Governor of the Aleppo province, directing the ancillary destruction of the remnants of the Armenian population who had survived the ordeal of an exacting forced trek from the interior of Turkey to the deserts of Mesopotamia in 1915-16.

According to a Turkish historian, Ismail Danismend, the contracts with the Inspectors General were signed on May 25, 1914, and provided for a rather unusual salary of 400 Turkish pounds in gold, plus a supplementary allocation of lodging.

The word "propitious" was used in those contracts. It is significant as it reveals a frame of mind geared to the advent suitable opportunity to proceed with the execution of a plan. In his account of the existence of such a plan, an Armenian deputy of the Ottoman Parliament, Kegham Der Garabedian, relates the following in his memoirs. He quotes Talaat as declaring, "Don't Armenians realize that the implementation of the reforms depends on us….  The Armenians are trying to create a new Bulgaria. They don't seem to have learned their lessons, all undertakings opposed by us are bound to fail. Let the Armenians wait, opportunities will certainly come our way too. Turkey belongs only to the Turks."

The program on reforms reached in 1914 met the same fate as its predecessors. From 1878 to 1914, British diplomacy successfully pursued the British Government's policy of preventing the Russian takeover of the Straits, Constantinople, and Western Armenia, but proved unable to force the Ottoman authorities to carry out reforms in Armenia or provide guarantees for the Armenian population in Turkey. In 1915, under the cover of World War I, the Young Turks began their preconceived plan of deportations and annihilation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, thus "solving" the question of reforms in Armenia and, generally, the Armenian Question.

After a year, one of the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, the Minister of Interior, Talaat Pasha was to declare, "There isn't an Armenian Question anymore, as there are no Armenians in the Ottoman Empire."

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