The Armenian hero whom Turkey would prefer to forget

Sarkis Torossian, an Armenian-Turkish officer, was awarded medals  for his courage by Mustafa Kemal

“Confronted by the chilling 100th anniversary of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915, Turkey’s government is planning to swamp memories of the massacres with ceremonies commemorating the Turkish victory over the Allies at the battle of Gallipoli in the same year. Already, loyalist academics have done their best to ignore the presence of thousands of Arab troops among the Turkish armies at Gallipoli – and are even branding an Armenian Turkish artillery officer who was decorated for his bravery at Gallipoli as a liar who fabricated his own biography,” Robert Fisk writes in an article published by The Independent.

In fact, Captain Sarkis Torossian was personally awarded medals for his courage by Mustafa Kemal, one of the Turkish heroes of Gallipoli who later, as Ataturk, founded the modern Turkish state. But in view of the desire of some of Turkey’s most prominent historians to brand Torossian a fraud, the word “modern” should perhaps be used in inverted commas.

Now these academics are even claiming that the Armenian army captain invented his two medals from the future Ataturk. Yet one of the most the outspoken Turkish historians to have fully acknowledged the 1915 genocide, Taner Akcam, has tracked down Torossian’s family in America and inspected the two Ottoman medal records; one of them bears Ataturk’s original signature.

“Turkey, as we all know, wants to join the EU. I also, by chance, happen to think it should. How can we Europeans claim that the Muslim world wishes to stay “apart” from our “values” when an entire Muslim country wants to share our European society? We are hypocrites indeed. Yet how can Turkey still hope to join when it still refuses to acknowledge the truth of the Armenian genocide – and symbolises this denial by a scandalous attack on a long-dead Ottoman officer?” the author rites.

Captain Torossian’s memoirs, From Dardanelles to Palestine, were first published in Boston in 1947. Ayhan Aktar, professor of social sciences at Istanbul Bilgi University, first came across a copy of the book 20 years ago and was amazed to learn that there were officers of Armenian descent fighting for the Ottomans.

The eight-month battle for Gallipoli – an Allied landing dreamt up by Churchill in the hope of capturing Constantinople and breaking the deadlock on the Western Front – was a disaster for the British and French, and the mass of Australian and New Zealand troops fighting with them. They abandoned the beach-heads in January of 1916.

In his book, Torossian recounts the fighting at Gallipoli and other battles in which he participated – until, towards the end of the Great War, he found his sister among the Armenian refugees on the death convoys to Syria and Palestine. He then turned himself over to the Allies, meeting (but not liking) T E Lawrence and re-entering Turkey with French forces. He eventually travelled to the US where he died.

The gutsy Professor Aktar, however – noticing his colleagues’ unwillingness to acknowledge that Arabs and Armenians fought in the Ottoman Army – decided to publish Torossian’s book in the Turkish language. Initial reviews were favourable until two historians from Sabanci University took exception. Dr Halil Berktay, for example, wrote 13 newspaper columns in Taraf calling the entire book a fiction and Torossian a liar.

Taner Akcam, the Turkish historian who discovered Torossian’s family, was stunned by the reaction to the Turkish edition of the book; one critic, he says, even claimed Torossian did not exist. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spoke at Gallipoli two years ago and gave a perfectly frank account of how Turkey planned to define the Armenian genocide on its hundredth anniversary. “We are going to make the year of 1915 known the whole world over,” he said, “not as an anniversary of a genocide as some people claimed and slandered (sic), but we shall make it known as a glorious resistance of a nation – in other wour defence of Gallipoli.”

“So Turkish nationalism is supposed to win out over history. Descendants of those who died with the Anzac troops at Gallipoli, however, might ask their Turkish hosts in 2015 why they do not honour those brave Arabs and Armenians – including Captain Torossian – who fought alongside the Ottoman Empire” Robert Fisk concludes.

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