Most Armenians know little about the history of the Armenian Legion, which fought alongside the Entente forces against the Ottoman Army. Yet, the Legion (Legion d’Orient) added many heroic chapters to the history of World War I. The Legion fought under the flags of France and Britain and contributed significantly to the Allies’ victory in the Levant.
In Gevork Gotikyan’s article “The Eastern Legion and the French Mandate in Cilicia” (“La Legion d’Orient et le Mandat Français en Cilicie”), the history of the legion is divided into three periods: the formation and equipping of volunteers—from September 1915 to November 1916; the organization of units—completed in October 1918; and a period of disappointment, despair, and distrust—ending in September 1920 with the disbandment of the legion.
In return for assistance against the Ottoman Empire, France promised to grant autonomy to Armenians in Cilicia. The Armenian Legion was not the only Armenian military unit involved in the fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War I; there were also parts of Armenian volunteers and Armenian militia. However, France reneged on its mandate over Cilicia, rendering all the sacrifices made by the legion in vain.
Understanding the formation of the Armenian Legion requires revisiting the Armenian Genocide, particularly in Cilicia. The history of the legion is tied to the heroic defense of Musa Dagh in August 1915.
During the dark days of that summer, when Armenians of Cilicia were being expelled from their homeland, the defense of Musa Dagh became an alternative to death for 4,000 Armenians. They were rescued by the French cruiser Guichen, which transported them to Port Said in Egypt. Ambartsum Ogandzhanyan, one of the leaders of the Musa Dagh defense, is buried in an old Armenian cemetery in Cairo.
The first battles involving the Armenian Legion took place on September 19, 1918, in Palestine. Subsequently, as part of the Anglo-French forces, the legion participated in battles for Syria and Lebanon. The history of World War I on the Middle Eastern front is inextricably linked to the participation of Armenian legionnaires.
After the catastrophic defeat at Gallipoli (April 1915 – January 1916), the Entente powers concluded that military maneuvers and operations in new territories would be extremely important.
Although France and Britain were military allies at the time, fighting together against the Ottoman Empire, which was on the side of the Central Powers (Austria, Germany, and Bulgaria), there was intense competition between them for control over the Levant.
The Armenian Legion consisted of 5,000 legionnaires and operated in various sectors and directions of the Middle Eastern front. On October 28, 1917, units of the Legion located in Sinai participated in a counteroffensive against German-Turkish forces along the Gaza-Beersheba line, forcing the enemy to retreat and abandon several populated areas, suffering heavy losses. During the counteroffensive, German and Turkish officers were captured by legionnaires.
On October 31, 1917, as part of an earlier offensive, battalions of the Arab and Armenian Legions entered Beersheba. From November 17, 1917, the Legion troops began advancing towards Jerusalem with the goal of capturing the city.
By December 9, 1917, units of the Armenian Legion, as part of Anglo-French forces, had expelled Turkish troops from Jerusalem. On this occasion, the most distinguished legionnaires were honored, and a memorial service was held in the Armenian church of the Armenian Quarter. By the end of November 1918, battalions of the Armenian Legion had breached the Turkish defense and fully occupied Cilicia.
It all began a year before the Armenian Genocide. In February and March of that year, Mikael Varantyan proposed forming a 15,000-20,000 strong unit of Armenian volunteers from the United States and the Balkans. The request was sent on behalf of the Western Bureau of the ARF Dashnaktsutyun to the ambassadors of Russia, Britain, and France in Sofia. After military training in Cyprus, they were to arrive in Cilicia and continue the war against the Ottoman Empire.
The use of Egyptian Armenians as combat units was the result of efforts by the Armenian National Delegation, which was formed in Egypt under the leadership of Poghos Nubar Pasha.
Nubar Pasha was ready to provide significant amounts of food, weapons, and ammunition for the Armenians of Cilicia. In a dispatch to the Catholicos of All Armenians dated July 27, 1915, Nubar Pasha wrote, “By the time we await the fall of Constantinople and the landing of allied forces on the Cilician coast, there will not be a single Armenian left in Cilicia. Preventing the killings and deportations of Cilician Armenians is a matter of life and death for us.” Sadly, the call of Poghos Nubar Pasha remained a cry in the wilderness.
Nevertheless, the decision to create the Armenian Legion in the French Army was finally made in 1916, after the disaster at Gallipoli. The French Ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, along with the English General Clayton in Cyprus, made the decision, which was approved by the Armenian delegation. Poghos Nubar Pasha accepted this decision based on the victories of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front, in which seven Armenian volunteer detachments were fighting.
The formation of Armenian units was, in some ways, analogous to Russian-Armenian battalions that would fight against the Ottoman Empire in the southern part of Cilicia. The Armenian delegation approved the proposal on the condition that the proposed Armenian Legion would only fight in Cilicia.
On November 15, 1916, the Legion was officially formed. For the sake of disguise and caution, it was called the “Eastern Legion,” but it was clear to everyone that this was indeed the Armenian Legion.
Interestingly, Syrian Christians also fought in its ranks. From the very beginning, Armenian legionnaires were placed in unequal conditions compared to French soldiers, despite official statements from the French authorities about the formation of the Legion. They were recognized as auxiliary forces and were not incorporated into the French Army.
After successful negotiations, British authorities gave their consent for the establishment of a military camp in Cyprus. Although the British were suspicious of the French presence in the region, particularly in Syria, the High Commissioner of Cyprus, Sir John Clausen, gave his approval for the camp. It was located in Monarga, 24 km from Famagusta. The camp was ready to receive recruits by January 1, 1917.
Due to water scarcity, the camp was situated in three locations. The first camp was located in the center and was built by Musadaghians and was named Sweida. The second was in the north and was called Monarga, covering the town of Monarga—reserved for officers.
The third camp was unnamed and was built near a new well to meet the water needs of the legionnaires. Significantly, it was comprised of Syrians. The shortage of water was a problem for the entire legion.
The legion’s expenses were covered by the French government. As for military leadership, command was entrusted to French generals and officers, who selected Armenian adjutants from among the legionnaires.
Junior officers of the staff were also Armenian: Jim Chankalian (USA), John Shishmanian (USA), Sarkis Pogosyan (an officer of the Ottoman army). Prior to enlistment, the legionnaires underwent rigorous medical examinations.
Although it was initially decided during preliminary negotiations that the Legion would only participate in battles on Cilician territory, by 1917 it became clear that the soldiers could be deployed on the Palestinian front, where the French Army was very weak.
In short, the formation of the Legion pursued both military and delicate political interests. However, the Armenian Legion particularly distinguished itself in the Battle of Arara in Palestine. In effect, its involvement secured a complete victory for the British Expeditionary Corps under the command of General Allenby.
In total, the legionnaires captured 212 prisoners, including 16 officers. The Armenian Legion lost 22 men, 80 were wounded, and four went missing. In a communique from the Armenian delegation on October 21, 1918, General Edmund Allenby highly praised the valor of the legionnaires on the battlefield:
“… Proud to report that your compatriots have played an effective role in our battles and victory. The French commander of the ‘Eastern Legion’ also notes the resilience and zeal of the Armenian warriors, whose loyalty to the Allies is beyond any doubt.”
On December 9, 1917, units of the Armenian Legion drove the Ottoman units out of Jerusalem. A memorial service was held in the Armenian church in Jerusalem in memory of the fallen soldiers. For a month, the Armenian Legion, without any support from allies, controlled all of Palestine.
Armenian legionnaires also participated in battles for Syria and Lebanon, moving along with the allied forces toward Damascus and Aleppo, and then through Palestine to Beirut, where after the separation of Syrian units, the “Eastern Legion” was renamed the “Armenian Legion” (Legion Armenienne).
However, by the end of 1920, the Legion was disbanded, even though it could have formed the basis of the Armenian national army. The political intrigues of the Entente did not allow for the revival of Cilicia…
Written by Knarik Avagyan, Ph.D. in History, Senior Researcher at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia: “The Mudros Agreement, concluded on October 30, 1918, between Great Britain and Ottoman Turkey, confirmed the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire and, according to Article 16, Turkish troops were to be withdrawn from Cilicia.”
From December 17-19, 1918, the “Armenian Legion” entered the long-desired region of Cilicia to take control and defend strategic points, including Armenian-populated towns like Adana, Aintab, Marash, Urfa, and Adzhn.
As a result, about 120,000 Armenians, who had been deported from Cilicia during the Genocide, returned to their native lands with the hope of peacefully rebuilding life under the protection of Anglo-French forces.
However, on November 1, 1919, English forces, and on January 18, 1920, French forces abandoned Cilicia, betraying the Armenians to their arch-enemy.
In 1920, in Marash, Sis, Urfa, Aintab (with a 314-day break), and Adzhn (8-month battle), Armenian soldiers and civilians put up heroic resistance against Kemalist forces, although the number of casualties was significant.
In accordance with the Franco-Kemalist agreement concluded in Ankara on October 20, 1921, France officially confirmed its withdrawal, leaving Cilicia under Turkish rule while simultaneously providing them with a large amount of weapons, ammunition, and equipment.
The devastation of Cilicia once again forced the Armenians to emigrate. Historian Leo wrote on this subject: “Cilicia is being deprived of Armenians just as Armenia itself had been devastated.”
Twenty years after the heroic battle of Arara, France handed over the last remaining stronghold of Cilicia under French protectorate, Alexandretta Sanjak, to Turkey.
Despite the fact that efforts to liberate Cilicia ultimately failed, the undeniable importance of the participation of volunteer Armenian youth from the USA in the military successes of the “Eastern Legion” stands out.
The history of the Armenian Legion is one of valor, honor, duty, and sacrifice. It shows how hundreds of Armenians of different backgrounds can unite for a higher idea and noble purpose. On the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, we must not forget the heroic deeds of our volunteer units, who fought to preserve Armenia.
We must also remember that the legionnaires left their homes, families, and peaceful lives to go to war in the hope of reclaiming at least part of their lost homeland. Over a thousand fighters from the USA served in the ranks of the legion. 400-500 people came from Egypt – these were survivors from Musa Dagh.
Every year in the USA, the Armenian community holds exhibitions dedicated to the heroes – the legionnaires. The latest exhibition took place on January 16, 2014. The Armenian museum in Washington presented the exhibition “Forgotten Heroes: The Armenian Legion in World War I.” The exhibition featured photographs, documents, and books from the museum’s collection. The exposition also included materials about Armenian volunteers and militia who fought against the Ottoman Empire.
Ara Agaronyan writes in the magazine La Lettre de l’ADL: Jim Chankalian was awarded the rank of captain in the United States Army for his service during the Spanish-American War of 1898, and later successfully and notably served in the Democratic Liberal Party of America, AGBU, and the Armenian Church, until his death on May 10, 1947.
Born in Tigranakert under the name Bedros Chankalian, James (Jim) immigrated to the United States with his family, completed American high school, and then entered a military academy to become a U.S. Army officer.
Being already an experienced soldier, Chankalian also became a well-known figure in the Armenian community of New York. After retiring from active service, he was offered an important position in Powers & Company.
He skillfully performed the work he undertook, which provided him with a comfortable life. In 1915, the Hunchak party decided to send Jim Chankalian on a special mission, first to Transcaucasia, and then to Van. Chankalian gladly accepted the offer, resigning from his high-ranking position and comfortable life.
Taking along a group of experienced volunteers who had come from Western Armenia, he reached Van on time and was greeted there by the leader of the heroic self-defense, Armenak Yegaryan. In 1917, Chankalian returned to the U.S., having fully accomplished his mission.
But upon learning about the formation of the Armenian Legion in France, Chankalian, who enjoyed unconditional respect and honor among the Armenian-American community and Armenian political parties, was appointed as the leader of a unit consisting of Armenian volunteers from the U.S., who were to join the Armenian Legion.
The main dream of Armenian soldiers was the formation of an autonomous Armenia under French mandate. On July 9, 1917, Chankalian, along with the volunteers under his command, boarded a French ship and headed to Marseille.
Realizing that the plan to have an Armenian state in Cilicia would remain unattainable, a disappointed Chankalian returned to the United States, but not before making a glorious mark in the history of the Armenian liberation struggle and World War I.
Subsequently, as one of the leading figures of the Democratic Party of America, Chankalian toured all the cities with a large Armenian community, especially California, in order to organize fundraising in support of the First Republic of Armenia.
And another biography. Movses Ter-Galustyan was born into an aristocratic Armenian family; his father was a prominent and popular writer and an active member of various Armenian organizations. Movses also had an interest in literature and wrote poetry. He loved mathematics and history in school, but from a young age, young Movses dreamed of only one thing: the liberation of his homeland.
On July 30, 1915, the Kaimakam of Antioch issued an order for the deportation of the people of Musaler, according to which the residents had seven days to leave the village. Over 6,000 people decided to ascend to the summit of Musaler and prepare for armed resistance.
The defense was led by the youngest fedayi, twenty-year-old Movses Ter-Galustyan. By July 21, the Turks decided to attack Armenian fortifications, but were completely routed; out of 200 Turkish soldiers, no more than 80 survived.
The Armenians managed to capture weapons and two cannons, which facilitated further defense. In less than three days, more than 3,000 regular army soldiers were sent to suppress the Armenians. Movses Ter-Galustyan convened a military council where a seemingly mad decision was made: to begin an attack on the Turks in the morning through the forest to catch them off guard.
In the morning, Ter-Galustyan’s squad attacked the Turkish camp and routed it, seizing Turkish weapons. The defense continued until September 12, 1915, that is, until French ships evacuated the defending Armenians.
On September 18, 1918, near the heights of Rafat-Arara, the Musaler battalion, without artillery preparation and with minimal losses, managed to break the stubborn resistance of parts of the Turkish army.
After this battle, Movses Ter-Galustyan was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After the end of the campaign, Movses Ter-Galustyan became the only Armenian of the legion to receive the rank of General. However, the allies did not keep their promise.
Movses Ter-Galustyan renounced all ranks and titles received from France and England and moved to Syria. In 1929, he established an Armenian center in Damascus, which focused on building Armenian schools and churches; by 1931, the Armenian communities of Syria already had their own cultural and religious centers.
In 1932, Movses Ter-Galustyan was elected to parliament, where he represented the interests of the Armenian population alongside the distinguished general of the Syrian army, Aram Karamanukyan. Ter-Galustyan served as a member of parliament until 1936.
He then moved to Lebanon and continued doing what he had been doing in Syria. In Beirut, in 1943, Ter-Galustyan became a member of the Lebanese parliament. It was Ter-Galustyan who inspired the character of Gabriel Bagradian in Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”
Note: The article uses materials from mgfedayi.info, Armenian Global Community
Translated Vigen Avetisyan