The siege of Musa Dagh
(Movsesin Lere) and the hiroic stand of the Armenians
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- 120 modern rifles and shotguns, and about 350 old outdated flintocks
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
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
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"