The Armenian hero Turkey would prefer to forget

The Armenian-Turkish officer Torossian was awarded medals by Enver Pasha

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Think Captain Terossian.  Confronted by the chilling hundredth anniversary of the genocide of one and a half million Armenian men, women and children at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915, Turkey’s government is planning to swamp memories of the Armenian massacres with ceremonies commemorating the Turkish victory over the Allies at the battle of Gallipoli in the same year.  Already, loyalist academics have done their best to ignore the presence of thousands of Arab troops among the 1915 Turkish armies at Gallipoli -- and are now even branding an Armenian Turkish artillery officer who was decorated for his bravery at Gallipoli as a liar who fabricated his own biography.

In fact, Captain Sarkis Torossian was personally awarded medals for his courage by Enver Pasha, Turkey’s war minister and the most powerful man in the Ottoman hierarchy.  The greatest hero of Gallipoli was Mustafa Kemal who, as Ataturk, founded the modern Turkish state.  But in view of the desire of some of Turkey’s most prominent historians to brand Torossian a fraud, the word ‘modern’ should perhaps be used in inverted commas.

Now these academics are even claiming that the Armenian army captain invented his two medals from the Enver.  Yet one of the most the outspoken Turkish historians to have fully acknowledged the 1915 genocide, Taner Akcam, has tracked down Torossian’s family in America, met his grandaughter, and inspected the two Ottoman medal records;  one of them bears Enver Pasha’s original signature.

Turkey, as we all know, wants to join the European Union.  I also, by chance, happen to think it should join the EU.  How can we Europeans claim that the Muslim world wishes to stay ‘apart’ from our ‘values’ when an entire Muslim country wants to share our European society?  We are hypocrites indeed.  Yet how can Turkey still hope to join the EU when it still refuses to acknowledge the truth of the Armenian genocide – and symbolises this denial by a scandalous attack on a long dead Ottoman officer?  Does Dreyfus’ phantom hover over such a moment?  For however much the Turkish government bangs the drum at Gallipoli in 2015, Captain Torossian’s ghost is going to haunt those 1915 battlefields.

His memoirs, From ‘Dardanelles to Palestine’, were first published in Boston in 1947.  Ayhan Aktar, professor of social sciences at Istanbul Bilgi University, first came across a copy of the book 20 years ago and was amazed to learn – given Turkey’s attempt to annihilate its entire Armenian population in 1915 – that there were officers of Armenian descent fighting for the Ottomans.  The eight month battle for Gallipoli – an Allied landing on the Dardanelles straits dreamed up by Winston Churchill in the hope of capturing the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and breaking the trench deadlock on the Western Front – was a disaster for the British and French, and the mass of Australian and New Zealand troops (the ANZAC forces) fighting with them.  They abandoned the beach-heads in January of 1916.

In his book, Torossian recounts the ferocious fighting at Gallipoli and other battles in which he participated – until, towards the end of the Great War, he found his sister among the Armenian refugees on the death convoys to Syria and Palestine.  He then turned himself over to the Allied forces, meeting but not liking T.E. Lawrence of Arabia – he called him a mere “paymaster” – and re-entered Turkey with French forces.  He eventually travelled to the US where he died.

The gutsy Professor Aktar, however – noticing his colleagues’ unwillingness to acknowledge that Arabs and Armenians fought in the Ottoman Army -- decided to publish Terossian’s book in the Turkish language.  Initial reviews were favourable until two historians from Sabanci University took exception to Ayhan Aktar’s work.  Dr Halil Berktay, for example, wrote 13 newspaper columns in ‘Taraf’ to declare the entire book a fiction and Torossian a liar, a view that came close to what Aktar calls “character assassination”.  “It is a ‘trauma document’ of an integrationist Armenian officer who fought in the (first world) war,” Aktar says.  ‘But his family were deported to the Syrian deserts in spite of the fact that Enver Pasha (the Turkish war minister and the most powerful man in the Ottoman hierarchy) had clear orders to the local governors not to deport officers’ families.”

Lower-ranking Armenians in the Ottoman army were disarmed and later massacred amid the genocide, in which women were routinely raped by Turkish soldiers, gendarmerie and their Circassian and Kurdish militias.  Churchill referred to the massacres as a “holocaust”.  Taner Akcam, the Turkish historian who discovered Torossian’s granddaughter, was stunned by the reaction to the Turkish edition of the book;  one critic, he says, even claimed that the Armenian officer did not exist.  “This book, along with Aktar’s introduction, pokes a hole in the dominant narrative in Turkey about the Gallipoli war being a war of the Turks.  As Aktar shows in his introduction, not only Torossian and other Christians played an important role in Gallipoli, but some of the military units were also composed of Arabs.”

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke at Gallipoli two years ago and gave a perfectly frank account of how Turkey planned to define the Armenian genocide on its hundredth anniversary.  “We are going to make the year of 1915 known the whole world over,” he said, “not as an anniversary of a genocide as some people claimed and slandered (sic), but we shall make it known as a glorious resistance of a nation – in other words, a commemoration of our defence of Gallipoli.”

So Turkish nationalism is supposed to win out over history in a couple of years’ time.  Descendants of those who died in the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli, however, might ask their Turkish hosts in 2015 why they do not honour those brave Arabs and Armenians – including Captain Torossian – who fought alongside the Ottoman Empire.

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