The Armenian hero Turkey would prefer to forget

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

Comments on this article have been closed for legal reasons.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Managing Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Affiliates & Partnerships

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This multi-award winning foreig...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Structural Engineer ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor