BY MICHAEL SOSIKIAN
In early 1915 Mikael Varantian, a leading intellectual of the Armenian independence and renaissance movement of the late-19th century, sent a proposal to the Russian, British, and French ambassadors on behalf of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Western Bureau for the formation of a 20,000 strong Armenian volunteer military unit.
The proposal suggested that the unit would receive military training in Cyprus and from their go on to Cilica to continue the war against the Ottomans. The ambassadors of Russia and Great Britain approved the proposal, but the French refused it, causing it to not materialize.
After the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, the Allied Powers started searching for a new front to encircle the Ottoman army and knock them out of the war. French military authorities felt that the formation of new additional fighting units was necessary, and their first choice were Armenian deportees – particularly those from Mousa Dagh.
Considering the developments, General Clayton (director of the US intelligence office in Cairo) proposed to the French Ambassador in London the formation of Armenian Units under the French flag but based in Cyprus. The proposal was approved by the Armenian National Delegation with the condition that the Armenian unit would fight exclusively in Cilicia.
Thereafter, on September 21, 1916, General Pierre Rogues (French Minister of War) dispatched an investigation team led by General Ferdinand Romieu, to check on the possibilities of establishing an Armenian Military camp in Cyprus. The investigating team was also responsible for registering the first 500 volunteer fighters.
The legion was finally formed on November 15, 1916, but counter to the demands of the Armenian National Delegation, it was initially called the Legion d’Orient. Although the legion was formed by French authorities the judicial status of the Armenian soldiers was not clear as they were considered auxiliary forces not fully incorporated in the French army.
After lengthy negotiation between all parties, the British authorities approved the establishment of the military camp in Cyprus. The commander of the Legion, General Romieu decided to build the camp in Monagra far away from Turkish and Greek forces. The Armenian Legion volunteers consisted mostly of recruits from USA, Egypt, France, Western Armenia and eight volunteers from Ethiopia.
According to initial negotiations, the legion was supposed to participate in the Cilician territories battle, but because the French army was very weak at the time, the Armenian soldiers were diverted to the Palestinian front.
When Minister of War General Peirre Roques, and the Minister of Navy General Marie-Jean -Lucien Lacaze signed off on the establishment of the Armenian Legion, they included the following conditions:
- The legion was to be stationed in Cyprus and would be commanded by French officers.
- Volunteers of the Legion would have the same status of French soldiers and would be under the French War Ministry’s responsibility.
- The Legion was to be deployed to fight in Cilicia and volunteers were to be recruited and organized by local Armenian committees and sent to Bordeaux and Marseilles (committees were to be reimbursed by the French Government for incurred travel expenses).
- The number of Armenian Volunteers consisted of six battalions, each containing 800 Volunteers, with an additional six battalions planned to be formed. Armenian committees were organizing recruitment of the soldiers in France and the U.S. By July 1918
- France registered 4,360 Armenian soldiers and 58 officers.
- Those volunteers who were from America were to have officially registered documentation from the representative of the Armenian National Delegation in the U.S. (Mr. Mihran Sevalsky). Volunteers from the Orient were required to have documentation from the French Embassy in Port Said in the Legion’s commanding office in Cyprus.
- The purpose of creating the Armenian Legion was to support the liberation of Cilicia, to encourage sentiments of national aspirations in support of rebuilding historic lands in Cilicia, and to become the core of the future Armenian Army.
In June 1917 General Edmund Allenby was appointed as the commander of the British-French troops, including the Armenian Legion, which would fight against 8,000 strong infantry and 130 artillery units of Turkish-German forces.
On September 18, the orders came to all forces and battalions that the next day, September 19 at 4 am the attack will begin. The volunteers of the Armenian Legion were celebrating. They would finally have the opportunity to fight their enemy of centuries – the enemy that massacred 1.5 million of their brothers and sisters and destroyed their churches and schools. They looked forward to the opportunity to liberate at least some part of their country.
Precisely on schedule and with full trust that the Armenian volunteers would fight with unprecedented passion, at 4am on September 19, 1918 General Allenby launched a major attack to seize a key position at the height of Arara as planned previously.
The Armenian Legionnaires were progressing slowly but with firm steps against the disproportionately large seventh Turkish army. Commanded by General Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish army unleashed fierce artillery bombardment from their fortified heights. Nonetheless, the Armenian Legion fought brilliantly, with total courage and with full faith that they will liberate Cilicia.
The Turkish seventh army was in full retreat on the first day of the battle and left their positions completely leaving behind hundreds of their fallen.
The Armenian Legion lost 23 volunteers whom they buried at Arara. In 1925, the remains of the 23 heroes were transferred to the Armenian Cemetery in Jerusalem where a monument was erected in their honor.
The Armenian Legionnaires, along with French and British troops went into Aleppo and Damascus. From there some of British troops continued to and captured Lebanon, while the rest (including the Armenians) went to Cilicia and liberated Adana, Aintab, Marash, Urfa and Hajin. The same historic lands that Armenians lost just a few years prior during the Genocide, were now liberated. The Armenian Legionnaires were dancing and singing in celebration of not one but two glorious victories. Just four months earlier Armenians defeated Turkish forces in Sardarabad, Bashabaran and Gharakilise and established the independence of the first democratic Republic of Armenia.
After the victory of the Battle of Arara, Legionnaire Manoog “Khan” Baghdasarian described the battle as follows: “According to the English, by their own confession, they had made three attempts to capture Arara, but had failed. Finally, it was destined for the Armenian Legion to capture that position and achieve a successful conclusion for the battle of Palestine.”
In his official dispatch to the Allied High Command, General Edmund Allenby commended Armenian forces stating, “On the right flank, on the coastal hills, the units of the Armenian Legion d’Orient fought with great valour. Despite the difficulty of the terrain and the strength of the enemy defensive lines, at an early hour, they took the hill of Dir el Kassis. I am proud to have had an Armenian contingent under my command. They have fought very brilliantly and have played a great part in the victory.”
Forty days after Turks and Germans lost the Battle of Arara, Ottoman Empire on October 29,1918 asked for armistice.
Glory and Honor to Armenian Legionairs who defeated the Turkish troops. May God keep the souls of the fallen heroes of the Armenian Legion illuminated eternally.