British General Allenby entering Jerusalem after the surrender of the Ottoman Turkish Army, December 2017

Remembering the Armenian Victory at the Battle of Arara, September 19, 1918


By Barbara Merguerian

With so many events to commemorate this year — the centennial of the first Armenian Republic and the 30th anniversary of the massive Spitak earthquake, to mention a few — it is important not to forget other milestones that left a significant imprint on the modern history of the Armenian people.

Armenian Legionnaires in World War I.

One of these is the Battle of Arara that took place on September 19, 1918, during which a contingent of Armenian volunteer soldiers serving as a special unit of the French Army known as the Armenian Legion (or Gamavors) defeated a combined Turkish and German Army in the opening salvo of the Allied offensive that led a few weeks later to the complete surrender of the Ottoman Turkish Army and the end of World War I in the Middle East.

The victory at Arara took place at a time when the Armenian nation was in a desperate condition, reeling from the savage deportation of its people from their native villages and towns in Western Armenia to deserts in the south that left them homeless, impoverished, and almost without hope for the future. The situation was not much better for Eastern Armenians, struggling to maintain a small republic only a few months old that was facing dangerous enemies on all sides.

At this low ebb in their fortunes, the combatants at Arara demonstrated that Armenians were not always passive victims of war and genocide, but were able to take action in their own defense and to make an impact on their destiny. Though in the end, Great Power politics intervened to destroy the hopes and dreams of the volunteers at Arara, their victory was a cause for celebration and signaled the fact that, despite recent tragedies there was a future for the Armenians.

Members of the Armenian Legion fighting in trenches

Formation of the Armenian Legion

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Following a series of negotiations, the French and British governments, who were allied in World War I, and Boghos Nubar Pasha, president of the Armenian National Delegation representing the Western Armenian interests, agreed to form an Oriental Legion (Légion d’Orient) made up or Armenian and Syrian volunteers, led by French officers, to assist in the war effort against Turkey.

As part of the accord, the Armenians were promised “autonomy” (which was not clearly defined) in central and southern Turkey, an area that had been allocated to France according to the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement to partition the Ottoman Empire among the Allies. It was understood that after the war the Legion would form the nucleus of an Armenian army to keep peace in the area of the Ottoman Empire known as Cilicia, which had been the home of a large Armenia population.

The core of the Legion consisted of about 500 able-bodied men from Musa Dagh, an Armenian village in Cilicia that had managed to hold out against Turkish attackers during the Genocide until its inhabitants were rescued and evacuated by the French Navy to Port Said, Egypt. Recruitment took place in late 1916 and 1917 in Armenian communities around the world, as a result of which over 4,000 Armenian men were accepted into the Legion, more than 1,200 of them from the United States and others from Europe, South America, Egypt, and Australia.

Following months of training at a military camp in Monarga, Cyprus, and war maneuvers in Ismailia, Egypt, the men were marched north through the desert to join the Allied forces on the Palestine front.

Allied Forces on the Offensive

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, established by the British and French governments to conduct the war against the Ottoman Empire, had stalled, until the British General Edmund Allenby was appointed to head it. Arriving in Cairo in June 1917, the general planned and executed a brilliant military campaign that resulted in a series of victories in Syria and Palestine that culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in December. Although the Holy City was hardly a strategic location, its occupation gave a tremendous psychological boost to the Allied effort in the Great War.

General Allenby’s campaign came to an abrupt halt, however, when instead of receiving the expected additional men and supplies to continue his campaign, he was ordered to transfer large numbers of his troops to the European front, to counter a major German offensive in the spring of 1918. Only with the arrival of reinforcements in late summer, including units of the French Foreign Legion and the Armenian Legion, was he able to resume the offensive.

Finally, on September 18, 1918, Allenby launched a major attack northward. As a first step, the Armenian Legion was ordered to seize a key front-line position at the heights of Arara, located opposite Rafat and south of Nablus, in Palestine (present-day Israel). The Legionnaires faced strong artillery bombardment from the Turkish Seventh Army, firmly entrenched on the heavily fortified heights and commanded by General Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk), under the overall command of the German General Otto Liman von Sanders. The Armenians fought brilliantly and achieved their objective on the first day of the attack, September 19, 1918.

Legionnaire Manoog “Khan” Baghdasarian afterwards described the significance of the battle as follows: “According to the English, by their own confession, they had made three attempts to capture Arara, but had failed.” He continued, “Finally, it was destined for the Armenian Legion to capture that position and achieve a successful conclusion for the battle of Palestine.”

General Allenby was well satisfied with the victory. “The Oriental Legion, or Armenian Legion, played an important role in the great attack which took place on September19, 1918 on the Palestinian front,” he reported the next day. “Of this I am proud.”

The victory did not come without losses. On the day after the battle, the Legionnaires gathered together and in a simple but solemn ceremony buried their 23 comrades who had fallen in battle. An additional 65 men had been wounded. (In 1925, the bodies of the 23 Legionnaires buried at Arara were re-interred in the Armenian Cemetery in Jerusalem, where a monument was erected over a common grave.)

The Turkish Army was now in full retreat, and General Allenby’s forces met little resistance in their advance north to Aleppo, Damascus, and finally Beirut, which they entered on October 20, 1918. There the Syrian troops were separated and the Oriental Legion was renamed the Armenian Legion (Légion Arménienne).

Turkey withdrew from the war, according to the terms of the Mudros Armistice, signed on October 30, 2018. Soon after, World War 1 came to an end with the Armistice of November11, 2018.

The British and French now took steps to bring about the partition of Turkey according to the terms of their secret agreements. As a ready force familiar with the territory, the Armenian Legionnaires were sent immediately to occupy strategic positions in Turkey.

Over the next several months, with General Allenby in overall command and serving under French officers, the Armenian Legionnaires occupied the major population centers of Adana, Aintab, Marash, Urfa and Hajin. An estimated 120,000 Armenian civilians who had been forced out of their homes during the Genocide now returned, feeling safe under the protection of the Allied forces. The Armenian Legionnaires believed that they had finally realized their dream of defending and safeguarding part of the Armenian homeland.

Postwar Settlement

After the war, however, the Allied governments were unable to translate their brilliant military victories in the Middle East into a just settlement. Exhausted by their heavy losses during the war, they were unable to reach agreement on the peace terms. British troops withdrew from Cilicia in the fall of 1919, leaving French control. Finding itself overextended in postwar overseas commitments, France did not adequately supply these forces, and the Turkish Nationalists were quick to take advantage of the situation and mount armed opposition to foreign occupation.

As Turkish attacks intensified, French forces began to withdraw, beginning in Marash in February 1920. As the French withdrew, often with heavy losses, they also began to disband the Armenian Legionnaires in a process that was completed by September 1920. Finally in October 1921 France signed the Ankara Accord with Nationalist Turkey and agreed to the final withdrawal of French troops from Cilicia, leaving the Armenian population to the mercy of the Turks. Armenians were either massacred or forced to depart in this savage continuation of the Genocide.

Bitter, disillusioned, and disappointed, the Legionnaires gradually resumed their lives. Yet the ultimate failure of their hopes and dreams does not diminish their valor, sacrifice, and devotion to their nation. Their brave action offered a vivid demonstration that Armenians could successfully take their destiny into their own hands and make meaningful gains on their own behalf. The ideals that had inspired the Armenian participation in the Legion were never lost, and the Armenian quest for freedom and independence continued.



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