Remembering the Battle of Arara: September 19, 1918


Legionnaire Hovhannes Garabedian (seated)

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Armenians throughout the world remember August 5, 1920 as the 90th anniversary of the short-lived independent Armenian republic formed in Cilicia under French mandate.

During the same period, Armenians memorialize the 92nd anniversary of the Battle of Arara, on September 19, 1918, when the Armenian soldiers who comprised the Légion Arménienne (Armenian Legion) defeated a combined German-Turkish force to spur the final victorious campaign of the Allies in the Middle East during World War I.

The Légion Arménienne (1916-1920) was an all-volunteer regiment, organized under an agreement between England and France with the Armenian National Delegation President Boghos Nubar Pasha. Leaders of the Armenian Diaspora raised a volunteer fighting force of about 4,500 soldiers, commanded by French officers, who participated in the wartime operations on the Palestine front as part of the combined Anglo-French forces fighting against the Turkish-German army. In exchange for this support, France promised to give autonomy to Cilician Armenia.

The Armenian Legion received its military baptism in the Battle of Arara on September 19, 1918. The Legion was ordered to seize a key front-line position at the heights of Arara, located south of Nablus, Palestine (present-day Israel). They achieved their objective brilliantly, with a decisive victory over the enemy forces, thus reversing the course of the war. The Allied forces advanced northward unchallenged; six weeks later Turkey withdrew from the war (in accordance with the terms of the Mudros Armistice of October 30, 1918).

Troops from the Armenian Legion served as the advance guard as the Allied forces moved into Cilicia, occupying Adana, Aintab, Marash, Urfa and other centers. Displaced Armenians now began to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. Armenians quickly reasserted their leading roles in commercial, cultural and educational endeavors.

In September 1919, the first anniversary of the victory at Arara was celebrated with great fanfare.

While this anniversary serves as a reminder of the victory at Arara, it also continues to be an inspiration and challenge to inform future generations not only of the sacrifices made at Arara by these intrepid volunteers, but also an acknowledgment of the countless unnamed soldiers who fought to advance the cause of justice and freedom. It is one way of saying that Armenians have endured and will never forget.

To meet this challenge, it is useful to revisit these events by presenting the story of the Battle of Arara, as written by the Armenian Legionnaires who were there.

Marching toward Palestine

On August 23 we left Medjel (Egypt) and with 70 pounds of load on our backs started marching towards Turkish positions to face the enemy. It took us seven days (ten hours march daily) to reach our destination — the second line of Turkish fortifications.

— Legionnaire Hovhannes Garabedian

During the trek through the deserts it was so hot that the leather on our boots would parch, loosening the hobnails. Each man carried on his back the equivalent of 75-80 pounds of equipment, ammunition and his rifle. Only officers rode on horseback; the disabled were carried by donkey, as were supplies and additional ammunition. The only medication available was aspirin for internal problems and iodine for external problems. Water was scarce and brackish; boric acid or permanganate was needed to make it potable. The pay was equivalent to seven cents a day.

—      Legionnaire Aram Hovsepian

Eve of Battle

It was evening in the trenches. Intimate conversations and merrymaking had begun under the fig and olive trees; favors were asked by one comrade of another; others had formed a circle and were sitting around a table set with an abundance of tasty foods. To the toast ‘Let’s drink this glass for tomorrow’s victory,’ everybody emptied their wineglasses together. The evening passed in this gay, carefree atmosphere; for some, it would be their last.

— Legionnaire Sharam Stepanian

Entering the War Zone

One day, we began to move towards a place named Deir Al-Baut, barely two miles from the firing line. It was there that, for the first time, the Armenians volunteers would smell the odor of enemy gunpowder and at the same time hear the roar of the cannons and armored vehicles, especially the unending sound of the deadly machine gun.

The evening of September 18, 1918 is unforgettably etched in the minds of the Legionnaires. Instinctively, we felt that the time had come to face our enemy.

The Legion began to move and was positioned at the front near the heights of Arara, facing the Turkish positions. On September 19, the sunset had colored the nearby mountain horizon a flaming crimson. The order to engage in the fight came with the glorious sight of the dawn.

— Legionnaire Manoug ‘Khan’ Baghdasarian

Armenian Legion Is Victorious Soldiers Were Fearless

There was no position on the entire Palestine front, from the Dead Sea to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which was as difficult to cross and was perhaps as impregnable as the position on the western side of Arara that was assigned to the Armenian Legion.

The 600 soldiers of the Armenian Legion’s first line of attack were facing an enemy army of 1,600 men, 600 of whom were Germans and the rest, 1,000 Turks. The artillery of the enemy forces was disproportionately immense and the German tommy guns used by them were incomparably better than ours. Meanwhile, the artillery of the Armenian soldiers consisted of a few French 35-millimeter and English stock cannons which had been turned over for their use only on the evening of September 18.

The cannons roared, the bombs exploded with frightful blasts and opened huge craters on our positions. Nevertheless,the Armenian soldiers walked ahead undaunted.

— Legionnaire Dickran Boyajian

The Final Blitzkrieg

On September 18, we descended into our fortified trenches and waited for nightfall. At 3:30 a.m. the offensive began. Each commander, with his troops, followed the front-line intelligence and moved towards the enemy trenches — a mountaintop where they had placed their machine guns. Under the heavy burden of ammunition and provisions, we moved down the valley and, with the utmost caution, up the mountain from three different positions to encircle the enemy.

As we got close, the enemy detected our approach and opened concentrated machine-gun fire at our positions. A few minutes later, our artillery, wisely placed about a mile in the rear, responded with cannon fire. In response to this, enemy cannons started rumbling, sounding like a horrible clash of firepower, as if heaven and earth had collided in the darkness of the night. But for us [the Armenian Legionnaires], it looked like a wedding party; filled with a profound feeling of revenge against the Turks, each of us had become a wild lion looking for its prey. Perfectly aimed, bayonets firmly attached at the end of our rifles, we never felt any fear.

Our primary objective was to settle accounts with the enemy for the Armenian Genocide and bring to justice as many Turks as possible. As the enemy machine-gun fire was showering us like early spring hail, we moved forward without hesitation and fear. Under extremely difficult conditions, hanging between life and death for so many times, we finally reached the top of the mountain, and with a final blitzkrieg captured the enemy fortification.

— Legionnaire Hovhannes Garabedian

A Second Dardanelles

From a strategic viewpoint, Arara offered many natural advantages and, owing to modern German military genius, it had been rendered into a very strong position. It was the Turks’ second Dardanelles. In order for General Allenby’s overall offensive, which was planned for the Allied forces stretching from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean on September 19, 1918, to produce the expected result on time, it was necessary to seize Arara.

Editorial in Arara, a publication of the Armenian Legionnaires’ Association (Boston, September 19, 1923)

Destined for the Armenian Legion

According to the English, by their own confession, they had made three attempts to capture Arara, but had failed. Finally, it was destined for the Armenian Legion to capture that position and successfully achieve a conclusion for the battle of Palestine. The entire Palestinian-Turkish army was largely defeated.

—      Legionnaire Manoug ‘Khan’ Baghdasarian

Order of the Day

The Oriental Legion or Armenian Legion played an important role in the great attack which took place on September 19, 1918 on the Palestinian front. Of this I am proud.

—      British General Edmond Allenby, September 20, 1918

Burial at Arara

Suddenly the sound of a bugle reached our ears; it was the call for assembly, so we immediately ran toward the point of origin, and the entire army gathered together in a very short period of time. The order was given by the commander to gather up the corpses of our martyred comrades and put them together at a designated spot.

We placed our heroes on our tents tied to two rifles and began to transport them to the cemetery designated for their burial. Everybody was silent; they slowly approached the site from all sides, in groups, without hymns, without chorister or priest.

A large ditch had been dug, in which our immortal heroes would lie, embracing one another. There was neither incense smoking there, nor candles to burn; there were neither mothers weeping over their young braves, nor fathers and friends. Thus, holding our weapons perpendicular like unlit candles, we offered our deep military respects to our proud heroes who became martyrs, as worshippers of ideals, lovers of freedom, and fighters for the future betterment of mankind.

— Legionnaire Mihran Guzelian

Eulogy for the Combatants

Lt. Col. Louis Romieu, Commander of the Regiment

There was never a more noble demonstration of the tenacity of your race — which has enabled you to survive through your centuries-long travails — as in this instance.

On this soil, where only yesterday the smallest of gestures invited death, we have the proud solace of burying 23 Armenian heroes, all of whom fell on the first row, facing the enemy, as an example to others.

All of them are worthy of the Croix de Guerre, all of them defenders, saints of the Legion d’Orient.

Sleep in your glory; you opened the way for Justice and Right, which had been banished from these regions for centuries. It behooves us to be worthy of you so that this offering may be complete and lasting.

I swear, upon your tomb, that we shall render this place into a monument of glory and shall call it the Cemetery of Arara, in order to combine in this name the memory of our dead, their sacrifice, their victory and the horizon which that victory opens for the national aspirations of their compatriots.

— Lt.-Col. Louis Romieu Regiment Commander, September 20, 1918

Barbed Wire

The boys placed a barbed wire around the plot and wrote (with rocks), Mort pour la Patrie (Died for Their Country).

— Lt. John A. Shishmanian, Commander

Armenian Volunteer Forces in Cilicia The Heroes’ Grave

A period of seven years had passed since the Battle of Arara, yet no one had visited the heroes’ grave in that entire period. Armenian Legionnaires in Egypt and Jerusalem proposed transferring the heroes’ remains to Jerusalem and the idea was presented to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who immediately invited members of the Monument Committee, composed of Legionnaires and a few important individuals from the community, to a meeting. Agreement was total. It was necessary to secure the cooperation of the Palestinian government, French and British authorities, and local civil officials.

Legionnaire Hampartzoum Nazirian, who had taken part in the battle of Arara, and others who were familiar with the terrain were subsequently assigned the bitter and sad role of locating the burial place and exhuming the remains of the heroes. On November 6, 1926, the journey was completed; the remains were transferred and reinterred in the Armenian Cemetery in Jerusalem, in soil sanctified by the breath of Christ, in proximity to the body of the Lord’s brother, St James, for eternity.

— Dickran H. Boyajian

The Armenian Legion Historical Memoirs

One morning during the first days of June, we went to the cemetery adjacent to the monastery. It was an extensive site, established on Mt. Zion, with walls separating it from the Greek and Latin sectors . . . There are no ostentatious tombs here, nor are there any which are even memorable, more or less; placed here and there are plain simple stones and wooden crosses.

A solitary monument is visible near the center of the cemetery on a high elevation.

“That’s the Arara monument,” says my friend, Vosgan Sahagian, who is a former legionnaire too. We approach it. It is a monument made of white marble, more than three meters (10 feet) in height.

The tomb is made of smooth reddish stone, more than half a meter (one and one-half feet) high, with wide, rectangular and delicately rounded edges. In front, on the tomb, stands a cross with a white background, contained in a square, ornamented frame. On the tomb is a pedestal, from which the slender polished white monument gradually rises on four sides. Etched on the surface of the façade, from top to bottom, is a sword enveloped in hazel leaves. Immediately below, in a wreath, are a flame-throwing grenade, the bronze coat of arms of the Legionnaires Association, and the following simple inscription: To the Armenian Braves of Arara, September 19, 1918. On the plaque are these touching words: With longing for the Invincible Dream.

With longing for the Invincible Dream: This phrase is tragic and frightful, but it seems to me that it is the voice of the brilliant reading of our destiny, the deep echo. And that’s the way it must be. Nations, like people, cannot live without dreams; this is fundamental.

—      K. Mkhitarian, Tenth Anniversary Booklet of the Armenian Legionnaires Traveling Exhibit

In 2001 the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) opened a major exhibit titled “Forgotten Heroes: The Armenian Legion and the Great War.” Due to the enthusiastic response (and as part of its goal of a broader community outreach), ALMA commissioned a traveling exhibit, which has been presented at California State University, Fresno; Pasadena Public Library; University of Michigan-Dearborn; and Racine Public Library; currently it is on display at the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Chicago.

For further information about the exhibit, contact the Armenian Library and Museum of America, 65 Main St., Watertown, MA 02472; www.almainc.org.