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The Armenian Massacres

In 1914 the Ottoman empire was home to at least two million Armenians, most of whom inhabited the six provinces in Eastern Glossary - opens new windowAnatolia that separated the heartland of Ottoman Turkey from the Russian Glossary - opens new windowCaucasus. As a substantial Christian minority in a Muslim empire, with their own vibrant culture and nationalist aspirations, the Armenians endured an uneasy relationship with the Ottoman government. State-sponsored persecution was often brutal. Between 1894 and 1896, more than 200,000 Armenians were massacred on the orders of Glossary - opens new windowSultan Abdul Hamid. In 1909 a further 30,000 were killed in the Mediterranean coastal province of Glossary - opens new windowCilicia.

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The wartime massacres begin

After the Ottoman empire's entry into the First World War on 29 October 1914, fighting between Turkey and Russia quickly spilled into Eastern Anatolia. After a series of Ottoman military setbacks, most notably at Glossary - opens new windowSarikamish (29 December 1914-3 January 1915), the Armenians were accused - in a few cases justly - of conspiring with the advancing Russian forces to ensure Turkish defeats. The legend of 'Armenian treachery' gave the Ottoman government the pretext to sanction measures designed to remove all traces of the Armenian population from the empire.

Beginning in April 1915, the Ottoman authorities rounded up tens of thousands of Armenian men and had them shot. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children were deported. Many Turkish historians have contended that these actions were a justified, or at least explicable, response to a serious threat to national security. They cite in particular the Armenian 'revolt' that began in the city of Glossary - opens new windowVan on 20 April. In fact, the 'revolt' was a desperate response to the persecution already underway - by 19 April, 50,000 Armenians had already been killed in Van province, and tens of thousands were being deported from neighbouring Glossary - opens new windowErzerum.

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Eyewitness accounts

Damning eyewitness accounts - ranging from German missionaries to consular officials from the Vatican, Italy and Greece - testify to the fact that similarly horrific acts took place throughout Anatolia during the rest of 1915. In Glossary - opens new windowBitlis, 15,000 Armenians were murdered during an eight-day period in June. A month later, rampaging Turkish troops massacred most of the 17,000 Armenians in Glossary - opens new windowTrebizond on the Black Sea.

The fate of those who avoided the mass killings was little better. An estimated 400,000 deportees did not survive the march south towards Syria and Mesopotamia. Armenian refugees flooded into Russia and the Mediterranean ports, where starvation and disease claimed further lives. An exact death toll is unknown, but Western historians now estimate that at least one million Armenians - and possibly many more - perished in this attempted genocide.

Poster for Armenian victims - opens new window
Fund-raising for the Near East

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News of Armenia's plight

Despite the half-hearted protests of its diplomats in Constantinople, Erzerum and Aleppo, the German government made no serious attempt to curb Turkish excesses. Armenia's plight received far greater publicity in the neutral United States, with its small but active Armenian diaspora, and in the Allied countries.

Armenian Refugees Fund - opens new window
Armenian refugees:
Lord Mayor's Fund (120k)

Russia, France and Britain issued a joint statement on 24 May 1915 condemning the Armenian massacres. Books and pamphlets such as Glossary - opens new windowArnold Toynbee's Armenian Atrocities: The murder of a nation detailed the methods and scale of Turkish crimes against a small and defenceless 'Christian' people. Organisations such as the Glossary - opens new windowArmenian Refugees (Lord Mayor's) Fund were set up to provide financial aid to those who had survived massacre and deportation.

As Glossary - opens new windowLord Bryce conceded in a letter to Glossary - opens new windowAsquith on 28 August 1915, more substantial financial support was urgently required. However, no Allied government wanted to divert precious resources into the hands of either the Armenian refugees or the Armenian soldiers who fought the Turks in the Caucasus for the remainder of the war. Armenia thus remained vulnerable to its two powerful neighbours, Russia and Turkey.

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Gone and forgotten
Even after the declaration of Armenian independence on 28 May 1918, Ottoman troops continued to kill with impunity thousands of Armenian civilians. The 'free and independent' Armenian state that was guaranteed by the Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Sèvres (10 August 1920) lasted less than a year. In March 1921, Bolshevik Russia and the new Turkish republic signed the Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Moscow, creating a new Turkish-Soviet border in the Caucasus and placing the Armenians once more under foreign rule. Barely a murmur of protest was raised in the international community. The Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Lausanne, the revised post-war settlement signed by the Allies and Turkey in July 1923, made no reference to Armenia at all.
Appeal for Armenian victims - opens new window
Aid for victims of
the Armenian massacres

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

FO 96/212: Various material on Armenia including Toynbee's book and illustrated anti-Armenian German propaganda booklets, 1915.
FO 115/1852: Various material from British embassy in Washington on Armenian atrocities, 1915.
FO 195/2460: Various material from British consul at Erzerum on impact of war in Armenia, 1914.
MT 23/436: Ministry of Transport refusal to allow British transport ship, The Suffolk, to be used to transport Armenian refugees from Antioch, Sep 1915.
T 172/239: Letter from Foreign Office to Treasury, requesting - unsuccessfully, on Lord Bryce's recommendation - £40,000 from British government to support Armenian refugees in Tiflis, Sep 1915.

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