A Forgotten Past: Anzac and the Armenian Genocide

Journalist and historian James Robins writes about the Genocide of Armenians in Turkey during the First World War, and New Zealand's historic, but forgotten, links with this event.
Armenian residents being deported from the city of Harput, 1915. Photo / Supplied
Armenian residents being deported from the city of Harput, 1915. Photo / Supplied

On April 24, 1915, the day before Anzac soldiers landed amid a hail of rifle-fire on the beaches of Gallipoli, 250 Armenians were seized from their homes in the Ottoman Empire. Politicians, priests and poets, the essence of Armenian cosmopolitan life, would never be heard from again.

It was the warning shot for what would become the Armenian Genocide: the systematic and near-complete destruction of a people. Estimates vary, but at least one million Armenians (principal among other ethnic and religious minorities like the Assyrians and Greeks) would be dead by the end of World War I. April 24 is a memorial day in Armenia.

The desecrated Armenian cemetery at Jaffa, 1917. Photo / Supplied
The desecrated Armenian cemetery at Jaffa, 1917. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand soldiers witnessed the massacres and deportations firsthand. Some would be killed defending Armenian refugees. After the war, New Zealanders would give generously to the survivors, travelling to the Middle East to lend what expertise they could to alleviate the suffering.

Gallipoli has long been considered the fire in which this country was born. But as this forgotten story shows, a modern humanitarian movement was also born, and New Zealanders were essential to it.

How to destroy a people

For centuries the Armenians had been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, often used as scapegoats by the Sultan, then later the 'Young Turk' regime which seized power in 1908 and took Turkey into the war.

Armenians were initially allowed in the Ottoman Army. But after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Russians in the winter of 1914-15, Armenians were quickly demoted into labour battalions and became human cattle. At the same time, Armenian civilians were set upon by local authorities who accused them of being traitors.

But the killing had yet to start in earnest. That would begin with the round-up of the Armenian bourgeoisie, and it isn't just a quirk of history that it happened as warships loomed off the coast of the Dardanelles.

Historians Jay Winter and Taner Akcam have both pointed out the Gallipoli invasion was the match that lit the flame. "It seems to me no coincidence," Akcam writes, "that the decision behind the Armenian Genocide was made during the fierce battles of the Gallipoli campaign, when the Ottoman Empire's very existence seemed to balance between life and death. The hopeless situation into which Ottomans had fallen produced a willingness to rely on extraordinary acts of cruelty."

Listen: Journalist and historian James Robins talks to Newstalk ZB's Andrew Dickens about the Genocide of Armenians in Turkey during the First World War.

While the Anzacs were fighting for every foothold at Gallipoli, a distinct plan was being enacted by the Ottoman government. The usual pattern went something like this: Turkish troops would enter an Armenian village and order the able-bodied men and boys to the outskirts where they would be shot, hacked, burned or beaten to death. Young women were raped en masse. The rest were deported from their homes, marched from across the Ottoman Empire, funnelling down into the arid deserts of Syria. Some were carried on disease-ridden railways, others were forced to walk.

This was not anarchy, but deliberate, finely-tuned policy. The Press in Christchurch carried a report from its London correspondent in November 1915 which made the reality clear: "It is accepted as beyond doubt that crimes recently committed were engineered [by the government]."

But although New Zealanders were reading of these atrocities alongside war reports from Gallipoli, the story of the links between New Zealand and the Armenian Genocide does not really begin until August 8, 1915: the assault on Chunuk Bair.

'Til his spine was broke'

For two days, the heights of Chunuk Bair were a scene of success amid a mire of confusion, failure, and suicidal decisions. The Wellington Battalion held the hillside against incredible odds, fending off Turkish counter-attacks as both enemy and Allied artillery shells landed on them. Of the 760 men who had gone up Chunuk Bair, only 70 came back down uninjured.

But the rest weren't just wounded or killed - some were taken prisoner by Ottoman forces.

The New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli. Photo / Getty Images
The New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli. Photo / Getty Images

By the time British troops scaled Chunuk Bair on August 10, 23 New Zealanders were found in the hands of the enemy. Seventeen were from the Wellingtons, four from the Aucklanders, and two from the Otago Battalion. For the next few years, those two dozen men would see more killing than they had witnessed on the jagged cliffs and coves of the Dardanelles. They would witness the Armenian Genocide first hand.

Over the course of the war, 15 New Zealanders would spend time in captivity in a town called Afyonkarahissar (Afyon for short) at one of the many PoW camps. Afyon was once home to a community of 7500 Armenians. Those invisible bodies would come to haunt the Allied soldiers held there.

In an Armenian church forcibly cleared of its congregants, a number of British and Anzac officers were held. Thomas Walter White, an Australian captain, wrote in his diary that Armenians had been "turned into the street from their last possible sanctuary" to make room.

Sergeant John Halpin described Afyon as having "an atmosphere of desecration - the desecration of the House of Christ, and His martyred children of Armenia."

Captain White noted meeting a number of New Zealanders in the lengthy diary he kept.

White also recorded the deportations during his journey to Afyon, including "a large camp of Armenians herded together ... waiting to be sent on marches that had always the same ending."

White wrote about "numbers of women and children who had been driven in from far distant towns. They were brutally kicked and treated ... Some of the women through walking great distances with out [sic] boots had to crawl along on hands and knees owing to having such badly lacerated feet."

There were individual acts of pure cruelty in the town too: "An Armenian tailor seated on his doorstep with his back broken having had his head forced down till his spine was broke".

Scenes like these became regular as the genocide gathered ferocity.

This is but a sample of what those prisoners of war witnessed. New Zealander soldiers would have heard the same stories as White, would have seen those acts of cruelty. In Afyon, in other PoW camps and on the battlefields, they experienced the genocide in progress.

In November 1917, the Auckland Mounted Rifles entered the Palestinian port of Jaffa (the first time it had changed hands in hundreds of years). What they discovered was shocking: Turkish soldiers had systematically destroyed an Armenian cemetery, smashing headstones until barely anything was left. The New Zealanders arrived just in time to save a few of the graves.

It seemed that anywhere Kiwi soldiers went, either as fighting men or prisoners, the ghosts of Armenian lives would be there too.

The Rearguard

In 1918, when the first Gallipoli memorial services were taking place, a British general gave his name to a band of commandos tasked with seizing strategic areas in north-west Iran and the southern Caucasus. The Dunsterforce, comprised of New Zealand, Australian, Canadian, and 'Imperial' troops, failed miserably in their mission.

During their long retreat to British-held Mesopotamia, the Dunsterforce learned that Turkish troops were descending on a town called Urmia. The Armenian and Assyrian population evacuated. Of 100,000 locals, roughly 70,000 got away. An Australian, Captain Stanley Savige, went out with 22 men (including a handful of New Zealanders) to protect them.

Captain Stanley Savige. Photo / Supplied
Captain Stanley Savige. Photo / Supplied

According to Savige, this doomed column snaking across parched valleys, was 24km long.

There were "thousands in the valley," Savige wrote in his memoir. "Along the road they were still streaming in thousands more ... Terror and despair was deeply written on their faces.

"The unfortunate women folk were so overcome at the sight of the first party of British that they wept aloud.

"With lumps in our throats we ignored the cries of the helpless in our endeavour to save as many as we could."

But Savige couldn't save them all. He wondered later whether shooting them would be more humane than letting them die on the roadside.

With the Turks at their back, aided by Kurdish irregulars, Savige joined a minute number of troops at the rear of the refugee column as they trekked through hostile country.

On August 5, 1918 (almost three years to the day since the assault on Chunuk Bair) the rearguard were set upon by Kurdish militia troops near a small village called Chalkainan.

Outnumbered 10 to one, the small unit managed to force the Kurds back, but their Lewis machine guns were fast running out of ammunition.

Captain Robert Kenneth Nicol, a painter from Lower Hutt, sent out Sergeant Alexander Nimmo, a farmer from Mosgiel, to collect ammo from the village but they were attacked from the rear sides. Nicol did his best to give covering fire, but was shot and killed. The last person he ever spoke to was Nimmo.

Nicol's body was never recovered. His name appears on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's memorial in Tehran.

If any more evidence was needed of the Dunsterforce's bravery, a Royal Army Film Unit accompanied them. Incredibly, their reels captured the streams of the destitute and dispossessed, Anzac soldiers alongside providing what safety they could. These soldiers weren't obliged to protect the refugees, but they did anyway. It was a selfless mission, an example that would be followed when the war ended.

'Golden chain of mercy'

What happened to the Armenians was widely reported during the war, even in modest New Zealand newspapers like the Feilding Star and Oamaru Mail. But the suffering of the Armenians didn't cease after the Armistice.

With the Allied Powers reluctant to establish an Armenian Mandate, the duty to protect fell to humanitarians, internationalists, and churches. Their task was immense, the plight of those Armenians left behind becoming more desperate by the day: Only 150,000 Armenians had survived the deportations down to Syria. Half of them tried to venture back to their homeland. Disease and hunger were chipping away at the rest. The anguish of places like Aleppo, Raqqa, Diyarbakir, and Deir ez-Zor were repeated across Turkey, the Middle East, and Mediterranean.

New Zealanders were collecting donations to aid the victims as early as 1915. But the aid efforts began in earnest with the US-based Near East Relief fund. Between 1915 and 1929, Near East Relief would raise more than US$116 million in cash and goods (about US$1 billion in today's money).

Immediately after the war, Near East Relief sent out entire flotillas of ships with repurposed military equipment and platoons of doctors aboard to deliver aid to the Armenians. They established hospitals and refugee centres in place of the killing fields.

In 1922, Near East Relief chose a man named Lionel Wirt as one of their spokesmen after he had proved himself by establishing relief committees in every state of the US.

He was tasked with touring the Pacific to organise disparate funds and committees under the umbrella of the Near East Relief. He set out from San Francisco in February 1922, speaking and recruiting in Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, before arriving in Auckland on July 17.

The Auckland Star described him as "short, smart, dapper, with penetrating be-glassed eyes, and all the efficient push of the American business man, combined with the cultured manner of the American professional man".

Wirt immediately set into action. "We are trying to stretch a golden chain of mercy across the Pacific, with a link in every country," he declared. "I appeal to New Zealand to help us ... We do not want money so much as food and clothing ... Is it too much to ask for a 1000-ton ship loaded with produce and workers from New Zealand?"

Wirt would echo his call throughout the country, urging donations of food, wheat, wool, milk, blankets, old clothing and leather to be loaded onto the "Mercy Ship".

His Auckland lectures were attended by senior clergy, city councillors, and the mayor James Gunson. All ended with unanimous motions of sympathy passed and relief committees formed.

A week later, Wirt was "greeted with prolonged applause" at a civic reception in Wellington. Letters from the Prime Minister and Wellington's MP regretted not being able to attend. Again more motions were passed, and committees started. The pattern would be repeated in Dunedin and Christchurch.

On his final days in New Zealand, Wirt told a Wellington crowd: "My heart has been touched a hundred times by the generous and sympathetic response which the people of New Zealand have made to my appeal for the saving of our Armenian brothers." Wirt stated that both the governor-general and prime minister had good wishes for the "Mercy Ship".

Other visits were made to New Zealand for the Armenian cause - Reverend James Creswell toured the country in July 1923 for the Australasian Armenian Relief Fund, as did Armstrong Smith for Save the Children - but Wirt's tour left an indelible mark.
By 1923, huge amounts of food and clothing, along with hundreds of pounds, had been shipped (free of charge) to Sydney for the Armenian relief effort. As late as 1927 relief drives were being undertaken by the Red Cross and YWCA. Newspapers would regularly carry full-page ads encouraging donations for "Starving Armenians". "One pound feeds and clothes a child for a week," their taglines read.

Echoes of these phrases can be heard in relief campaigns today. Indeed, most modern aid organisations can trace their ancestry back to Near East Relief, and their attempts to save the Armenians.

'Come from God'

Amid a cast of thousands, two people perhaps best embody the internationalist ideal which emerged after World War I. They were New Zealander John Knudsen and his wife Lydia.

John Henry Knudsen was a blue-eyed, fair-haired alumni of Christ's College in Christchurch who was drafted into the war late, serving as a Captain in France. He married Lydia Davidson in Cairo in 1920 and joined the Near East Relief. He was posted to Syria-Palestine (then a British mandate), and oversaw the creation of an orphanage for Armenian children which the husband and wife duo would run for the next seven years.

Based in Antilyas, just north of Beirut (now the capital of Lebanon), the Australasian Orphanage opened in late 1922 and, although belonging to the Near East Relief, was run with funds and supplies raised in Australia and New Zealand.

Previously a paper mill, it initially housed 1700 Armenian children. They were fed, clothed, and taught trades like bootmaking, carpentry, and tailoring. Thousands of children were tended by the Knudsens' care, lost souls with no homeland to turn to, no nation that could accept them. By the efforts of the Knudsens and the humanitarians that supported them, the tide of genocide was, for a moment, halted at the Orphanage gates.

Reverend Creswell, an Australian, embarked on a mission through the Middle East and the Mediterranean in 1923. In February, he visited the Australasian Orphanage and was warmly welcomed by the Knudsens, later saying "there were no workers for whom he felt more appreciation".

John Knudsen took Creswell to an Armenian refugee camp near Beirut where more than 5000 "homeless wanderers gathered ... There are probably a thousand habitations, each one would make you laugh, unless your sobs beat your laughter to it."

Armenian refugees at a camp in Aleppo Syria. Photo / Supplied
Armenian refugees at a camp in Aleppo Syria. Photo / Supplied

During Creswell's time at the Orphanage, 11 Armenian boys arrived, part of a group rescued from the Turkish interior, a land still riven with killings and ethnic cleansing.

According to Australian historian Vicken Babkenian, the boys had travelled "several hundred miles in a few days and were perhaps a little frightened of their new surroundings. Whatever was taking place in the minds of these little children became clear when, while doing her rounds of the dormitories, Lydia Knudsen noticed that the 11 newcomers were huddled together like little puppies under one blanket. She felt hesitant to disturb them. By doing so, she not only got them comfortable for the night, she was also able to assure them of her own good intentions toward them, and the kindness of everyone in their new world."

Armenian Orphans 1918. Photo / Supplied
Armenian Orphans 1918. Photo / Supplied

Creswell would later write that "most the fellows were so much waifs of the world that they could not remember their parents and few of them even knew their own names. The smallest of all, when asked from where he had come, whispered confidingly to Mrs Knudsen, as he nestled her sleepily that he had 'Come from God'."

NZ soldiers rescued victims

These moving stories show that New Zealand soldiers were not just pawns in a game of empires, and nor were ordinary citizens isolated from traumas elsewhere. They rescued victims of the first genocide in modern history, the horror of which would move Raphael Lemkin to coin the term genocide in 1943 and begin building an international legal framework to outlaw crimes against humanity.

The powerful links between New Zealanders and victims of the Armenian Genocide are, however, cast in a different light because, despite the wealth of evidence presented in newspapers, diplomatic cables, trials, governmental archives, and the words of the victims themselves, the Turkish state - from 1918 to now - denies that a genocide took place.

This forgotten past, now uncovered, brings into question the special relationship that exists between Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. Can New Zealand state officials stand on a platform with Turkish officials at Gallipoli knowing that they actively refuse to acknowledge the truth of what happened to the Armenians? Knowing now that New Zealanders risked their lives for the survivors?

- NZ Herald

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