Excerpts from A British Source on the Armenian Question
By Prof. Türkkaya Ataöv
The First World War was a series of armed hostilities of the major world powers between 1914 and 1918, in which the Entente of Britain, France and Tsarist Russia (later joined by the U.S.A.) fought against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and some lesser states. The British and the Turks were, therefore, in the opposing camps. Engaged in combats in four fronts (namely, the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia, the Sinai and the Canal, Iraq and Gallipoli) and hard-pressed in the East, the Ottoman Government decided on the deplacement of sections of the Armenian population. This decision and the ensuing events caused much reaction on the part of the countries fighting or opposing the Turks.
Nevertheless, a British writer, C.F. Dixon-Johnson, published a book of 63 pages, entitled The Armenians, in the crucial year of 1916, to give the public, in his own words in the Preface, “an opportunity of judging whether or not the Armenian Question has another side than that which has been recently so assiduously promulgated throughout the Western World”. He adds that whatever hardships the Armenians might have suffered, the responsibility for them must to a great extent rest with those who “inspired their helpless dupes with impracticable aspirations which were bound to lead to disaster”. After preliminary remarks on the earliest history and ethnological characteristics of the Armenians, the author refers to the rule of the Seljuk Turks as being “mild and liberal”. He notes that the early Turks “greatly improved the condition of the country, restored law and erected many public buildings…” (p. 14-15). He later (p. 19) observes that Sultan Mehmet the Second (1444, 1451-81) of the Ottoman Turks “granted religious freedom” to the peoples in his dominion, organizing “all the non-Moslems into communities or millets under their own ecclesiastical chiefs, with absolute authority in civil and religious matters”.
The author quotes the following (p.20) comments of Sir Charles Wilson, in the latter’s article in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “This imperium in imperio secured the Armenians a recognized position before the law, the free enjoyment of their religion, the possession of their churches and monastreies, and the right to educate their children and manage their own municipal affairs…” He also cites “Odysseus” (Sir Charles Eliot) who in his book Turkey in Europe (London, E. Arnold, 1900) tells us that until the years succeeding the Turkish-Russian War of 1877-78, “the Turks and Armenians got on excellently together… The Russians restricted the Armenian Church, schools and language; the Turks on the contrary were perfectly tolerant and liberal as to all such matters. They did not care how the Armenians prayed, taught and talked… The Armenians were thorough Orientals and appreciated Turkish ideas and habits… (They) were quite content to live among the Turks…. The balance of wealth certainly remained with the Christians. The Turks treated them with good-humoured confidence…” (p.21) He also quotes Gratan Geary’s Through Asiatic Turkey (London, M.S. and R. Sampson, 1878), which records that the religious toleration of the Ottoman Government “was complete” and that the state “never in any way interfered with what the Christians did or taught in the schools or the churches. “Geary writes that” it was impossible to desire more absolute liberty of worship or teaching”.
“A few of the more educated Armenians hope to secure in some way the autonomy of the country in which they by no means form the majority of the population. Whether they could keep the Mussulman majority of the population in order we need not inquire…. Asia Minor is Turkish…. The Armenian Christians are the minority of the population.”
As this British writer observes even in 1916, (when his country and the Turks were engaged in battles on three fronts), the Armenians constituted the minority in Eastern Anatolia. Although there are several other British and French documents establishing the same numerical fact; I shall nevertheless limit myself to the text of C.F. Dixon-Johnson. He also quotes Fred Burnaby who expresses the following opinion in his On Horseback Through Asia Minor: “…. Should the Armenians ever get the upper hand in Anatolia, their government would be much more corrupt than the actual administration. It was corroborated by the Armenians themselves…” (p.28). He then cites (p.29) Sir Mark Sykes expose of the Armenians in his The Caliph’s Last Heritage (London, Macmillan, 1915):
“…They will undertake the most desperate political crimes without the least forethought or preparation; they will bring ruin and disaster on themselves and others without any hesitation; they will sacrifice their own brothers and most valuable citizens to a wayward caprice; they will enter largely into conspiracies with men in whom they repose not the slightest confidence; they will overthrow their own national cause to vent some petty spite on a private individual; they will at the very moment of danger grossly insult and provoke one who might be their protector… they will betray the very person who might serve their cause… The Armenian revolutionaries prefer to plunder their co-relgionists to their enemies; the anarchists of Constantinople threw bombs with the intention of provoking a massacre of their fellow-countrymen
…Writer C.F. Dixon-Johnson then dwells on the “Armenian atrocities” and asserts that they have a family likeness to the “Bulgarian atrocities”. Comparing the British Ambassador Sir Henry Layard’s dispatch to Lord Derby on the “Bulgarian atrocities”, dated 1877 with Sir Mark Sykes account of the events commencing with the disturbances at Zeitun in 1895, he says that they show how both happenings have originated and how both were “grossly exaggerated”. He points out that “every alleged massacre in Turkey is almost the same, whether we consider the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876, the disturbances in Sassun in 1896, those in Constantinople in the same year, or those at Van in 1915”. He adds: “In every case we find the same charges of connivance by local of officials acting under orders from Constantinople, the same gross exaggerations and the same stories of bestiality…” (p.32). Referring to “unutterable” forms of torture of which the Turks are freely accused, he quotes Odysseus: “These are often spoken of as being so terrible that the details cannot be given in print, but I believe them to be largely the invention of morbid and somewhat prurient brains. Medical testimony makes in certain that no human being could survive the tortures which some Armenians are said to have suffered without dying”.
Author Dixon-Johnson maintains that the suggestions of the pro-Armenians that these were “unprovoked massacres inspired by the Turkish Government” were false. He quotes the following passage from Sir Edwin Pears book: “As a friend to the Armenians, revolt seemed to me purely mischievous. Some of the extremists declared that while they recognized that hundreds of innocent persons suffered from each of these attempts, they could provoke a big massacre which would bring in foreign intervention.” Dixon-Johnson goes on to note (p.37) that in 1896, the revolutionaries having failed to stir up a general rise in Asia, were “determined to adopt desperate measures in Constantinople in the hope of forcing the hands of the Ambassadors. They attacked the Ottoman Bank with bombs and revolvers, killing twelve guards. They seized the European staff as hostages and threatened to blow up the building with all who were in it. The ambassadors appealed to the Porte, which allowed them to guarantee a safe conduct to the conspirators. Bombs were also thrown in the Grand Rue de Pera, and “some of the conspirators who had taken a position upon the roofs of the houses in that, the principal thoroughfare of Constantinople, fired upon the populace in the street below”. Dixon-Johnson continues as follows:
“There seems little doubt that the revolutionists had contemplated a series of attacks at different important points, to be followed by a more or less general rising of the Armenian population….
“A cry went through the city that the Armenians had risen in revolt and were massacring the other citizens. Many persons armed themselves with cudgels and, joined by a cosmopolitan mob from Pera and Galata, many of whom were Greek anxious to pay off old scores on their hated commercial rivals, wreaked vengeance on the Armenian population. The soldiers and police took no part in the killing. It is estimated that about 1,000 persons perished, including those killed by the bombs and revolvers of the conspirators. What happened in London and Liverpool after the sinking of the Lusitarma affords an idea of how the East End people of London, who claim to be far more highly educated… would have behaved if German desperadoes, after murdering twelve of the sentinels on guard at the Bank of England, had been allowed to escape free in deference to the representations of the American and Spanish Ambassadors, especially after the fears and passions of the mob had been aroused by German aliens shooting and bombing from the roofs of the houses…”
Dixon-Johnson also refers to the impressions of Sidney Whitman, who came to Istanbul in 1896 as correspondent of the New York Herald. His visit was in direct connection with the “so-called Armenian atrocities”, as he terms them. He reported from the Ottoman capital and also published his considered opinions and eye-witness accounts in the Turkish Memories (New York, Scribner, 1914). For some time, the diplomatic and consular representatives of the foreign powers in the Ottoman capital were sending alarming reports to their governments and these, supplemented by accounts from newspaper correspondents, had fanned a flame of resentment against the Moslem Turks. This was more particularly the case in England and in the U.S.A. Gordon Bennett, the proprietor of the New York Herald, had the “discernment to perceive that the Armenian question was in the main a political one” (pp.10f) and that the disturbances had their source in religious fanaticism directed against the Christian as such”. He wanted to give the Turks “an opportunity of making their own version of things known to the world”. He added: “In many cases it would appear that the matter sent to the papers by their correspondents in Turkey is biased against the Turks. This implies and injustice against which even a criminal on trial is protected”.
Correspondent Whitman states that the agitation on the part of the Armenian committees in the different capitals of Europe had been carried on to such purpose that there was hardly an American or English newspaper which had a good word left to say of the Turks, let alone their government. He observes: “A horde of adventurors of various nationalities, déclassés of every sphere of life, cashiered officers among the rest, who had left their native country for its good, were eking out precarious livelihood by providing newspaper correspondents, if not Embassies, with backstairs information. The agitation carried on in England by Canon McColl and the Duke of Westminster, backed by sundry fervent Nonconformists, had the effect of exhibiting the fanatical Turk as thirsting for the blood of the Christian”.
And yet, Dixon-Johnson remarks, not a single Christian other than the Armenians was molested. With regard to the Jews Sidney Whitman tells us how a Jewish money charger, mistaken for an Armenian, had been set on by the mob; when it was ascertained that he was a Jew, he was released but the crowd ran after him, and brought him back to collect his money, which was scattered on the ground. Dixon-Johnson asks: “Would any other mob in the world have acted thus under similar conditions?” (p.39)
Correspondent Whitman further says that in one hospital he visited he found about forty Turkish soldiers, who were lying there, wounded by Armenian bombs or revolver shots during the street fighting. The same day the police discovered a large quantity of explosive bombs in a Pera house, which, it was said, had been brought there with Russian connivance. Whitman underlines that although foreign correspondents were invited to inspect the find, which was afterwards publicly exhibited at Tophane (Arsenal), such was the general disinclination to admit any fact which could tell in favour of “the great provocation the Turks had received from the Armenian revolutionaries that hardly and publicity was given to this discovery of bombs”.
Correspondent Whitman tells us that after the news had spread to Europe of the attack on the Ottoman Bank and the events that followed, a number of artists of illustrated newspapers arrived in Istanbul, commissioned to supply the demand for atrocities. But the dead had been buried, and no women and children suffered hurt, and no Armenian church had been desecrated. A certain Melton Prior, the renowned war correspondent of the time, a man of strenous and determined temperament, one who wished to rise superior, “declined to invent what he had not witnessed”. Whitman adds: “But others were not equally scrupulous. I subsequently saw an Italian illustrated paper containing harrowing pictures of women and children being massacred in a church”.
Coming to the events of 1915, Dixon-Johnson writes: “Now… we find once more the same influence at work…. There is absolutely no reason why we should implicitly believe the reports which have been so assiduously circulated in the Press…. The exploiters of these stories are under the same disability, having only heard one side, and that an extremely biased one”. He adds that no Englishman would condemn a prisoner on the evidence for the defence. The Editor of the Economist says that “we must not allow our standards of proof to decline in judging reports of atrocities”. And this is especially necessary “when sensational stories are passed as authentic reports for the acceptance of a public prone to believe anything”. Captain Granville Fortescue, a war correspondent, gave an example of how stories were manufactured and disseminated by means of the press all over the world, in his book What of the Dardanelles?: “The rumours of a revolution in Turkey have been so many and frequent, that I must state they have not the least foundation in fact…. Time and again I have read long dispatches… which purport to describe the troubled condition in Turkey. I remember an item that told of a riot in Constantinople. Reference was made to the looting of the Pera Palace Hotel by a stop-the-war mob. On the date mentioned in the dispatch I was in this hotel. The whole story was pure invention…”
Lord Bryce, Noel Buxton or Aneurin Williams, who spoke about the events of 1915, would not willingly deceive the British and the world public, but “some well-known hand” has been deceiving them. May not this hand have been that of the wealthy Armenian Committees which are spread over Europe and America, and who have never hesitated as to the means chosen for the attainment of their objects, because with them the end justifies the means?” (p.43)
When the Earl of Crewe replied on October 5, 1915, in the House of Lords to the Earl of Cromer’s question as to whether H.M.’s Government had received any information confirmatory of the statements made in the press in relating to “renewed massacres of Armenians”, he based his information on a report of the British Consul at Batum, which in turn relied on a Tiflis newspaper, probably The Horizon, “an Armenian propagandist organ and therefore quite unreliable”.
Challenging the Lord Bryce statement that there was not the slightest basis for the report that the Armenians had themselves provoked the massacre by rising in conspiracy, Dixon-Johnson writes that “the facts… are otherwise”. He observes that the Turks had just sustained in the Caucasus a severe defeat. They needed every available man and every round of ammunition to check the advancing Russians. It is therefore incredible, he retorts, that without receiving any provocation they should have chosen a particularly inopportune moment to employ a large force of soldiers and gendarmes with artillery to stir up a hornet’s nest in the rear. He says that “military considerations alone make the suggestion absurd”. He adds:
“On the present war we have the overwhelming and convincing testimony of all rank, from Lord Kitchener downwards, that the Turks have fought gallantly and cleanly, and have treated our wounded and prisoners with kindness and humanity. It is inconceivable, therefore, that these same Turks without any provocation (and Lord Bryce himself has said that there was no religious fanaticism), should have committed the devilries of which they are accused, and in this connection we have the curiously illuminating observation by a celebrated correspondent, on his return from the seat of the last Balkan war, that paradoxical as it might seem, the Turks were the only Christians in the Balkans! This brief examination of the Turkish military and political situation, and of the Turkish character, ought sufficiently to refute the suggestion that the Turks were the aggressors and acted without provocation…. The Armenians themselves commenced the troubles by rising in rebellion.” (p.46)
Dixon-Johnson relates (p. 47) that bands of armed Armenian volunteers were already operating in the country as early as March 1915, and Lord Bryce as well as the “Friends of Armenia” were appealing for funds to clothe and equip them before these “alleged unprovoked massacres”. Furthermore, Tsarist Russia was also arming the Armenians and assisting in fomenting rebellion. For instance, the Armenians of Van believing, after the Turkish defeat at Sarikamis, that the complete victory of Russia was assured, thought that their opportunity had arrived. Urged by the Russian agents and their own revolutionaries, they rose in revolt, and, as a Times correspondent admits, in an unguarded moment, “finally captured the town of Van and took bloody vengeance on their enemies”. In June the Armenians betrayed the town to the Russian troops. Dixon-Johnson admits that “there were organized rising in other parts of Asia Minor also” (p.48). Henry Wood, the correspondent of the United Press Agency (U.S.A.) reported that the Armenians not only were in open revolt but were actually in possession of Van and several other important towns. He relates that in Zeitun when the Turkish authorities tried to enlist the young Armenians for military service, the soldiers were attacked and three hundred killed. Let us listen to the author’s further remarks:
“It appears obvious that the Turkish authorities, anxious for the safety of their lines of communication, had no other alternative than to order the removal of their rebellious subjects to some place distant from the seat of hostilities, and their internment there. The enforcement of this absolutely necessary precaution led to further risings on the part of the Armenians. The remaining Moslems were almost defenceless, because the regular garrisons were at the front as well as the greater part of the police and able-bodied men. Already infuriated at the reports of the atrocities committed at Van by the insurgents, in fear for their lives and those of their relatives, they were at last driven by the cumulative effect of these events into panic and retaliation and, as invariably happens in such cases, the innocent suffered with the guilty”.
The author declares (p.49) that the Turk never deigns to explain his own case while “the pro-Armenians always manage to hold the field, appalling the public by incessant reiteration and exaggeration as to the number of victims, and apparently valuing to its full extent the wisdom of the old Eastern proverb give a lie twenty-four hours start, and it will take a hundred years to overtake it”. Lord Bryce, speaking in the House of Lords on October 6, 1915, said that possibly 800,000 (later increased to one million) Armenians were destroyed. Dixon-Johnson adds, to this figure the 250,000 refugees in Russia for whom funds are requested as well as 13,000 refugees in Egypt, arriving to a total of 1,063,000 Armenians. He adds, on the other hand, that according to Sir Charles Wilson, the total Armenian population of the nine provinces was only 925,000. He mentions by way of comparison that the number of “Arabs killed by the Italian newspapers” in the Tripolitan war exceeded three times the population of the country. He also cites what he calls “the most extraordinary reports” from Mersin, that the same Lord Bryce has apparently furnished to the English newspapers. The Armenians sent from this city were reported to be “about 25,000”. Dixon-Johnson reminds that the total population of Mersin was 20,966 persons, of whom 11,246 were Moslems, 2,441 Jews and the remaining 7,279 Christians of various sects Greek, Armenian, Latin and Nestorian. He exclaims:
“How 25,000 Armenians could have been sent from Mersin out of a total Christian population of 7,279 (at least one-half of whom were Greeks), is difficult to understand” (p.50)
The Times report of Lord Bryce’s statement in the House of Lords quotes him as saying that at Trabzon, “the Turkish authorities hunted out all the Christians, gathered them together and drove them down the streets to the sea. There they were all put on sailing boats and carried out some distance into the Black Sea, and there thrown overboard and drowned; the whole Armenian population of from 8,000 to 10,000 was destroyed in that way in one afternoon”. The Times, in a leading article, adds the further information that “the Italian Consul who reports this enormity, saw it done with his own eyes”. Dixon-Johnson considers the number of sailing boats necessary to carry so many people “some distance” out to sea. Furthermore, the account of the same event, as given in the Messagero of Rome, is “entirely different the (Italian) Consul (Signor Corrini) being made to say that the banishment of Armenians under escort and wholesale shootings in the streets continued for a whole month”, while there is nothing about shipping out to sea and drowning en masse in one afternoon.
Dixon-Johnson compares the original accounts relating to the number of Bulgarians killed in the 1876 risings with the Armenians who lost their lives in the 1896 Sassun disturbances and concludes that only 6.4 per cent of the Figures originally circulated later proved to be correct. He states that Lord Bryce’s estimate is probably “similarly excessive” (p.51). He adds that “all the stories of Turkish misdeeds have proved on investigation to be gross exaggerations beyond the belief of any thoughtful person”. He relates the” assiduously circulated” stories to the “Armenian agencies acting undoubtedly under the instructions from a central Bureau”. He quotes Sidney Whitman: “Everything had been carefully prepared in Asia and in the Press of Europe and America before the Armenian outbreak (1895-96) to boom a second Bulgaria. Dixon-Johnson refers to “the Bulgarian atrocities” as affording a very good example of how easily a prejudiced sentimentalist can be deceived. He relates the case of Canon McColl’s visit, at Glad-stone’s request, to the Balkans to collect evidence. His guide, a Levantine, points out on the horizon a large number of erections, which he asserts were “hundreds of impaled Christians”. McColl’s report makes a great sensation in England as “irrefutable first-hand evidence”. But later proof comes forth that no Christian had been either massacred or crucified anywhere near that district, and further-more that the supposed figures were nothing but the common haycocks of the country, built around a pole, and which after the hay has been eaten by the cattle until only a few bunches are left might bear rather the appearance suggested by the guide.
Dixon-Johnson believes that the stories so circulated have a distinct object in mind: to influence the future policy of the British Government and to prepare the public mind for a desired settlement (p.54). Quoting Noel Buxton’s article in the Nineteenth Century, Walter Guinness’s (M.P.) description of his tour in Eastern Anatolia and a Times article (December 31, 913), he dwells on active Russian arming of the Armenians. The last-mentioned Times article had warned its readers that there was great danger of the introduction into Asia Minor of Macedonian methods with band-warfare-and all its attendant horrors. In short, Russia was arming the Armenians (pp.58-59).
The author also comments: “Some people, perhaps, will say that whether these stories of massacres be true or false, it is inopportune to defend the reputation of a nation with whom we are at war”. He replies: “If this argument were true, it would apply with equal force as a criticism of the officers and men who have written home from Gallipoli, giving spontaneously such whole-hearted and generous testimony to the bravery and chivalry of the Turks.” He maintains that such ” untrue assertions” should not be disseminated just because they “might be detrimental to an enemy”. He says that the neutral nations would be “influenced in our favour if we show ourselves fair minded”. He adds that the object of the propagandists “is simply to basis public opinion in this country still further against an already misjudged and badly maligned enemy”. He reminds the reader how critical the situation was for Turkey, “that for her it was a matter of life and death”. Unless the danger was removed, “the Turkish army on the Caucasus would have been hopelessly cut off and the Moslem population exterminated at the hands of the revolutionaries” (p.60).
*Dr. Ataöv is Professor emeritus of International Relations and a former Director of the Department of International Relations at the University of Ankara (Turkey). He is member of the Executive Council of the International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Geneva).