The Bells of Sardarapat:
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The Bells of Sardarapat:

How the Battles of May 1918 Shaped Modern Armenia

In May 2017, Armenia commemorated 99th anniversary of the battles of Sardarapat, Bash-Aparan and Gharaklisa, known together as “mayisyan herosamart – the heroic battle in May”. Regional Post explains why the events of May 1918 are so important for Armenian collective memory.

Text : Mikayel Zolyan

 

“The Mad Ones Find a Way”
When American rock band System of a Down was playing in Ziggo Dome arena in Amsterdam on April 17 2015, most of their songs were in English, except one. It was an Armenian patriotic song, called “Sardarapat” (Sartarabad in Western Armenian pronunciation). A week later, when the band played the song on the Republic Square in Yerevan, the crowd joined in singing along:
When there is no choice or way out The mad ones find a way Thus was conceived The great battle of Sardarapat.

The song itself, is not a Diasporan Armenian or “Dashnak” song, as some System of a Down fans seem to think. In fact, it was written in 1968 in Soviet Armenia and is a result of collaboration of poet Paruyr Sevak and composer Edgar Hovhannisyan. Moreover, it was commissioned by the government of the Soviet Armenia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of Sardarapat, as a grand memorial was being built at the site of the battle. It was the architect of the memorial, Rafayel Israyelyan who suggested that Hovhannisyan and Sevak write the song. Probably, this is why the song contains a reference to “the bells of Sardarapat”: the memorial building includes an impressive bell tower. Interestingly, the battle of Sardarapat was one of the few episodes of history of 1918-1920, which by the 1960s came to be viewed in positive light in Soviet Armenia. Other aspects of the history of the “first republic” were largely seen in a negative light, since “Dashnaktsutyun”, which was the dominant party in the period of independence, was considered “anti-Soviet”.
It is not coincidental that the battle of Sardarapat in May 1918, when Armenian forces defeated advancing Turkish army, occupies a major place in Armenian national imagination. To be fair, Sardarapat was only one of the three battles between Turkish army and Armenian forces, which played out between May 21 and May 27. Apart from Sardarapat, Armenians also fought the Turkish army at Gharakilisa (Vanadzor) and Bash-Aparan (Aparan). The three battles are known together as the “heroic battles of May” or “the May victories”. Sardarapat is the most well-known of the three, probably because it was here that Armenians defeated the Turkish troops advancing in the direction of Yerevan and Echmiadzin.
The significance of the “victories of May” is difficult to overestimate. The consensus among most Armenian historians is that without these victories the Armenian population of Eastern Armenia could have been subjected to a genocidal campaign, similar to the one carried out in Western Armenia in 1915-1916. Moreover, arguably, the very existence of Armenia as a political unit (whether as an independent republic or as a “Soviet republic”) is to a large extent a result of “the victories of May”. Such an assessment of the “May victories” may seem somewhat exaggerated today, yet in spring 1918 Armenia and Armenians faced an existential danger.

October revolution and the Caucasus Front
By 1917 it seemed that the worst had already passed for Armenians, as the Russian army, having defeated Turkish forces, controlled most of Western Armenia. Some genocide survivors, who had sought refuge in Eastern Armenia, were even returning to their destroyed homes, protected by the Russian army. When in February 1917 a democratic revolution took place in Russia, at first, it seemed there was no cause for concern from the point of view of Armenians. The Provisionary Government, which was formed in Russia, ensured its allies that it would continue its participation in the war against Germany and its allies, including Turkey, and Russian forces, which included Armenian volunteer regiments, stayed on their positions in Western Armenia.

Yet, by the end of 1917 situation had changed completely. The October coup-d’état (or October revolution, depending on one’s point of view) carried out by Bolsheviks, became the turning point. Under the influence of Bolshevik propaganda of “immediate peace with no annexations and contributions” Russian soldiers started leaving their positions. In March 1918 Bolsheviks signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, by which Russia not only promised to withdraw from the territories it had occupied during the war, but also ceded new territories to Germany and its allies. Thus, by the Brest-Litovsk Russia ceded to Turkey the territories Russia had received as a result of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, namely the regions of Kars and Batumi.
Since winter 1917 Turkish army started advancing on the positions left by retreating Russians. To Armenians the arrival of Turkish troops meant almost certain death, so thousands of people, who had managed to escape the genocide in 1915-1916 and had returned to their homes, became refugees once again. Armenian volunteers and ethnic Armenians serving in the Russian army, formed the Armenian military corpse, led by General Tovmas Nazarbekyan (Nazarbekov), which resisted the advancing Turkish army. However, these Armenian forces were small in numbers, lacked equipment, and many Armenian fighters also lacked military training. In addition, the Armenian population of the region, where the fighting was taking place, had dwindled as a result of the genocide, while the local Muslim population was hostile to Armenians and helped the advancing Turkish troops. As a result, the Armenian forces, were not able to stop the Turkish offensive.

Transcaucasian Federation: an Attempt Doomed to Failure
Turkish advances had not just military, but also political causes, namely the political vacuum left by the Russian revolution. After the Bolsheviks seized power, most of the South Caucasus refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. Yet the future of the region remained unclear. In February 1918 a legislative body, the Transcaucasian Seym, was formed from the ranks of those deputies of Russian Constituent Assembly, who had been elected from Transcaucasian region (the Constituent Assembly had been shut down by the Bolsheviks by that time). On April 22, 1918 they declared Transcaucasia an independent federative republic.
Yet, Transcaucasian Federation was a stillborn political project. The three main ethnicities in the region, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis (at the time commonly referred to as Caucasian Tatars, or simply Muslims) had conflicting interests, especially when it came to the issue of dealing with Turkey. Armenians were reluctant to secede from Russia, as they still saw Russia as a bulwark against Turkish aggression. Georgians were hoping that it was still possible to reach a peace deal with Turkey through diplomatic means. Finally, most Muslims in Transcaucasia saw advancing Turkish armies as a friendly force. Armenian, Georgian and Muslim “national councils”, which claimed to represent the interests of their respective ethnicities, often clashed on the most important issues, making efficient decision-making in the Transcaucasian Federation virtually impossible.

Here is how the Transcaucasian Federation is described in his memoires by Gevorg Melik-Gharagyozyan (Georgi Melik-Karakozov), a contemporary and participant of these events, who later went on to serve as a minister in the government of independent Armenia: “the more the Turks advanced on the Caucasian front… the more obvious became the nominal nature of power of the Transcaucasian Seym and government, heterogeneity and even sharp contradictions of national-political orientations of the main Transcaucasian nationalities. Transcaucasian Tatars unequivocally wished for the arrival of the Turks; Georgians hesitated, choosing between diplomacy and war; while Armenians, knowing that no conciliation and peace was possible between them and Turks, were in a feverish state as they realized that they were completely on their own and faced a mortal danger”

From Humiliation to Victory
It was against this background that Turkish forces were advancing on the front. The Kars fortress was surrendered without a fight on April 25, 1918, in spite of the immense amount of weapons and ammunition that was stored there. According to historian Richard Hovhannisian’s assessment, there were 11 000 guns, 2 million bullets, 67 cannons and 19 machine guns and the fortress could have defended itself for at least two months. The surrender of Kars was a result of the disarray that existed in the Trancaucasian Federation both on the political and military levels. On May 15, Turkish forces entered Eastern Armenia’s second largest city, Aleksandrapol (Gyumri). They now directly threatened the heart of Eastern Armenia, the Ararat valley and Yerevan, which by that time were flooded by refugees from territories already occupied by Turkish forces. It seemed that ultimate military defeat and subsequent destruction of Armenian population were imminent, and only a miracle could have saved them. Indeed, what happened next, seemed like a miracle.
Faced by the threat of ultimate destruction, Armenians mobilized all the resources. There simply was nowhere to run to. The choice was between fighting till the end and perishing. Here is what the Catholicos Gevorg the 5th said at the time. “The Turk, our bloodthirsty enemy, has captured Aleksandrapol and is moving into the heart of our country, of our history, of our faith, into Echmiadzin. Our generals suggest that we leave to the enemy the Holy See of Echmiadzin, our shrines and find refuge in Byurakan. No, no, thousand times no, I will not leave the Holy See, which we inherited from our sacred ancestors. If our soldiers are unable to stop the advance of the enemy, if they cannot save our shrines, then let me perish right here” (“Azdak” newspaper, May 25, 1918).

It was this spirit of resistance, coupled with the expertise and experience of Armenian officers that allowed to stop the advancement of Turkish forces. This was the first time in the campaign that Armenian forces were able not just to stop Turkish troops’ advance, but also to force them to retreat. Strictly speaking, of the three “May victories” only two, the battles of Sardarapat and Bash-Aparan ended in a definitive Armenian victory. The battle of Sardarapat that started in the early hours of May 22, ended with the victory of Armenian forces commanded by Movses Silikyan (Silikov). On May 26 the Turkish forces had to retreat toward Aleksandrapol. In Bash-Aparan Armenian forces led by Drastamat Kanayan (Dro) defeated the Turkish troops, preventing them from threatening Yerevan from the North. Finally, in Gharaklisa the Armenian forces, commanded by Nazarbekov himself, had in the end to leave the town, but the fierce resistance they had offered the Turkish troops, forced the latter to halt their advance.
But by the end of May, the Transcaucasian Federation no longer existed, as the independence of both Georgia and Azerbaijan was declared and the Armenian National Council had no choice but to declare itself as the highest authority in Armenian lands on May 28, 1918. Armenians were left on their own against an overwhelming Turkish force, and, obviously, the risks of continuing the fight were too high. The leadership of the newly independent republic had to agree to extremely severe conditions of peace treaty, which was signed on June 4th in Batumi. Not only Armenia’s territory was limited to about 10 000 square kilometers, but Turkey also received the right to use Armenia’s territory for transportation of its military forces, as well as an ability to interfere into Armenia’s internal affairs. However, the main result of the treaty was that a state called “Armenia” appeared on the map. Since then, in the course of almost a century, the borders and the status of the political unit called “Armenia” changed several times. Yet, the possibility of the name “Armenia” simply disappearing from the map was averted, thanks to the “May victories”.