One of the lesser-known stories about the experience of Armenians during World War I, the period of the most aggressive extermination attempts by the Turks, was the formation of The Armenian Legion: 1916-1920.
One of the women I interviewed spoke of her father’s decision to join the Allied Forces in the Middle East. She said he was frustrated that the Americans were not joining the war effort. His betrothed and many other family members were trapped under the oppression and extermination efforts. She spoke of him saying he wanted to kill the Turks who were killing the Armenians.
He wasn’t alone.
According to the display in the Armenian Museum in Watertown, MA, “The Armenian Legion was formed during the darkest days of World War I, when the Allies (France, England and Russia) faced a military deadlock on the European and Middle Eastern Fronts….. At that time the Armenians were facing the devastating aftermath of the Genocide of their people at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government.”
1200 Armenian men left their comparatively comfortable lives in America to fight and possibly die in foreign lands. Their explanation? How could they not, when their families and neighbors – if they had survived the actual genocide – were still under threat and domination by the Muslim Turks who despised the Armenians.
Many of the soldiers in photos of the Armenian Legion appear to be little more than boys. And perhaps that’s what they were. Their mothers and sisters and aunts and neighbors had disappeared—in the desert, in their village – and they had no way to know who, if any, were still alive. Most were not. But they knew they had to help stop the devastation. They had to kill Turks.
Along the way, they helped orphaned Armenian children and even adopted one boy as their mascot.
Their heroism reached its peak – literally and figuratively – in September of 1918, when they seized the hill at Arara.
It would be years in most cases, if ever, before they would learn the fates of their loved ones. Too often they just never knew.
But this story has a happy ending for at least one family. The woman I interviewed was proof. Her grandmother and mother survived the death march through the desert. When the Central Powers nations were defeated, with the help of the Armenian Legion, they were able to find their way to America and reunite with the men who had come before them. These surviving women went on to create home and family in America. The father survived the war and brought home a physical reminder of his time with the Armenian Legion–matching vases made from spent weapons, which my interviewee proudly displayed on her mantle.
Learn more about the heroic Armenian Legion at the Armenian Museum.