Context &
 & Atrocities
& Demands 
The siege of Musa Dagh (Movsesin Lere) and the hiroic stand of the Armenians

n 1915 Armenians all throughout the Ottoman empire - disarmed, defenceless and terrorised - were being driven to their deaths: men were mostly killed locally, women and children struggling over steep mountain paths to the deserts beyond, robbed of all they had, beaten and abused - thrown away like refuse, to be devoured by the scavengers of the desert. Those who somehow survived were driven onwards in 2 directions: either towards Damascus, or to Deir el-Zor. The Damascus deportees escaped relatively lightly, many of them finding help and shelter in Arab villages; but a frightful fate awaited those who had to march through the deserts of Deir el-Zor. As Christopher J. Walker writes: "Only on a few occasions can the world have witnessed such a dense mass of suffering victims and such sadistic guards"

It is against this background of suffering that there was a brief beacon of light - the rescue of the people of Musa Dagh (the Mountain of Moses), situated in the southern part of Armenian Cilicia, on the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean (in what is today the Turkish province of Hatay).

There were 6 villages of Musa Dagh, and these lay west of the mountain. Even though these villages were so remote, they too were included in the Turkish campaign of pillage and massacre. The total Armenian population here was about 5,000.

On 13 July 1915 the order came: prepare yourselves for deportation in 8 days. What should they do? If they resisted, they would surely be killed - but the alternative was a parched, exhausted death in the desert, flogged by the Turkish gendarmes, with vultures flying overhead. The villagers had heard of the bloody events in Armenia.

Some of the villagers thought that it was no use resisting, and that perhaps they would not be forced into the desert death marches - so they obeyed the Turkish orders: they left, 60 families in all. None heard of them again.

The rest left their 6 villages in the foothills, and climbed up the mountain they knew it would be impossible to defend themselves on the ground against the mighty Turkish forces. They took with them their flocks (sheep and goats), farm tools, as much food as they could carry, and all the weapons they could lay their hands on - 120 modern rifles and shotguns, and about 350 old outdated flintocks and horse-pistols.

It took them a day to climb the mountain, and they immediately started to dig trenches and make barricades. Sharp shooters were placed at important positions.

By now, the Turkish government realised what the villagers had decided. On 21 July 1915 the first attack started: an advance guard of 200 Turkish soldiers attacked with modern rifles. Their commander allegedly boasted that that he could clear the mountain in a day. But the attack was a failure, and after suffering several casualties and being forced to abandon a mountaingun, the Turks were driven off.

But only temporarily. They regrouped and massed their full strength, "in order to sqash the Armenians who dared defy the Turkish order for their sun-scorched death" (Christopher J. Walker, on p. 224). This second time around, there were 3,000 regulars and a huge crowd of 'irregulars' who were "ready to complete in true Turkish fashion, the regulars' job of military victory with their own historic role of looting and massacre"

The Armenians knew that all would be massacred if something was not done quickly their scouts brought word that the enemy was all around, at every mountain pass. Small Armenian forces dispersed to oppose each of these concentrations, but the Turks poured through the most vital pass in great strength. Soon they occupied the high ground and threatened the Armenian camp; more and more kept pouring through, all equipped with sophisticated weapons. By the evening, the were 400 yards from the Armenians, separated only by a deep ravine.

A hasty, whispered meeting of Armenians took place, in total darkness. A bold plan was made: at the dead of that very night they would creep round behind the Turks and surround their forces, surprise them and do hand-to-hand fighting~ Silently, the men set out, crept through the thick, dark woods and encircled thE Turkish force. Suddenly they attacked. The Turks were thrown into total confusion, rushing, stumbling in the darkness, their officers shouting contradictory orders. The Turks thought that thousands of Armenians had attacked, and soor theor commander gave the order to retreat. By dawn, the woods were virtually clear of Turks.

Shortly afterwards, however, an even larger Turkish force was gathered, with yet more 'irregulars'. The Turks tried to starve the Armenians - full siege conditions operated. Soon bread, cheese and olives were exhausted, and they had to live on meat alone and, by late August, even that was sufficient for only another 2 more weeks.

Plans were made for escape. A runner was sent to Aleppo with a message f or the American consul - but he failed to arrive. A strong swimmer swam up to Alexandretta harbour, to the north, to see if an Allied warship was there - but there was none. On 2 September 1915, 3 swimmers were'put on permanent alert, to be ready to dive in and swim out to any passing boat or ship. And 2 large flags were made, one with a large red cross in the middle of it, and the other with the words, in,large black letters, in English: 'CHRISIANS IN DISTRESS: RESCUE'. These were tied to tall trees, and a dawn-to-dusk watch was kept. There was little hope, however, because it was the season of fogs and heavy rains - even if ships or planes passed by, they probably would not be able to see the signs.

Days passed. By now, the food was almost non-existent, ammunition low and the fighting men weak. The Turks attacked once again, but the Armenians put up a good fight and the Turks were, again, unsuccessful.

Then suddenly, on Sunday morning, 12 September 1915, the 53rd day of the siege, an Armenian man shouted that a battle ship was coming, and the Armenians, without wasting time, began waving the red cross flag. The ship had seen the distress flags, and was heading straight for them.

The ship was the French vessel "Guichen". As her boats were lowered, a few of the Armenians raced to the shore. A tough old villager broke through the Turkish lines and swam out to the cruiser. When the ship's captain heard of their plight, he tele,graphed the admiral aboard the flag-ship "Ste Jeanne d'Arc" which was close by, and that ship quickly approached, along with others. An English cruiser, too, was in sight. The French admiral was very moved by their story, and gave orders for the entire community to be taken on board.

There were 5 vessels (4 French and 1 English) which finally sailed the Armenians to Port Said (in Egypt), where they arrived in the middle of September. There are different estimates about the number of men, women and children saved  some reports say 4,200 while another says 4,058.

The people from the villages of Musa Dagh were eventually settled in a camp, which has become a village, at Ainjar, close to the Lebanese-Syrian border and just off the main road.

Franz Werfel has immortalised this story in his novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh"


Excerpt from a text Book
"Supplementary reading material for Armenian History"
Manoogian Armenian School, Sydney

Updated 30 September 1999 ..
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