There have been many books on the Armenian genocide, some prompted by the centenary in 2015. Susan Pattie, a Dulwich resident, who is Director of the Armenian Institute in London but has also been Director of the Armenian Museum of America in Massachusetts, has now published a study of the Armenian survivors of the genocide who together with others from the Armenian diaspora, joined French and British soldiers to fight the Ottomans in the Middle East. Susan recently gave a talk on her book at St Barnabas Church. The book is based primarily on a collection of memoirs of legionnaires, most of which were written in Armenian and many never previously published. The legionnaires fought partly seeking revenge for the death of their relatives and friends and destruction of their towns and villages, but also with the objective of re-establishing an Armenian community and ideally an independent or at least autonomous state in the formerly Armenian provinces of eastern Turkey, specifically in coastal Cilicia, where the genocide had been most complete.
The Armenian legion was established as a component of the French Foreign Legion, with French senior officers and was assembled and trained in Cyprus, which had been captured by the British from the Ottomans in 1878 and incorporated into the British empire in 1914. The Armenian brigades then fought with General Allenby’s British army in Palestine, participating in the victory over Ottoman and German forces at the battle of Arara, near Nablus in September 1918. They then moved to Cilicia, where they were part of the French led occupying force. At the Paris Peace Conference, the Armenian National Delegation, led by Boghos Nubar, argued that the six eastern provinces of Turkey should become part of an independent Armenian state (an independent Armenian state had already been established in the Caucasus under the leadership of the Armenian nationalist Dashnak party, though this was to be incorporated in Soviet Russia after a Soviet occupation in 1920)
The American president, Woodrow Wilson, had proposed an autonomous Armenian state in Cicilia and in fact this provision was included in the treaty of Sevres of 1920. The French then demobilised the Armenian legion. However, the government of the new Turkish republic refused to endorse the Treaty and with the withdrawal of first British and then French forces, Cilicia together with the other ‘Armenian’ provinces of eastern Turkey were incorporated into the Turkish republic. Neither the US, the French or the British were interested in taking on a League of Nations mandate for Cilicia, the French taking the mandates for Syria and Lebanon, the British taking the mandates for Palestine and Transjordan. The US, who rejected Wilson’s League of Nations, returned to their pre-war isolationism. This explains why the Armenian legionnaires felt betrayed. From the Turkish nationalist perspective, the Armenians had supported their enemies, and consequently it is perhaps not surprising that many were obliged to flee their homeland, in some cases for the second time. The Armenian diaspora, whether in America, Cyprus, Syria or the Lebanon, has however maintained a healthy diasporic culture and memory, and Pattie, who has done much to contribute to the diaspora, has in this book, compiled not just a chronicle of the Armenian legion, but has produced a fascinating compendium of images - some 158 in total.The book is in effect a portable exhibition - most welcomed no doubt by the diaspora but also of great value to anyone interested in Armenian history or of the aftermath of the First World War.
The Armenian Legionnaires by Susan Pattie I B Tauris £25