A Red Cross Flag That Saved Four Thousand -om191512

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DECEMBER 1, 1915


FROM the day that Turkey entered the war there had been much anxiety among the people of Zeitoun as to whether the Turks would treat the Armenians of those mountain districts with some new form of cruelty and oppression. Zeitoun is--we must say was--a city of seven thousand by many villages, also Christian, in the heart of the Taurus Mountains. I had been serving for year as the pastor of the Armenian Protestant Church in Zeitoun, and the narrative which follows is one of personal experience.

Early in the spring of this year the Government toward Zeitoun, summoning the elders and notables of the city and commencing an inquisition with the punishment of the bastinado. Absurd and impossible changes were made against the Armenians for the purpose of extorting money. Meanwhile some six thousand regular troops were quartered in the barracks above the city. An attempt to take the Armenian monastery by storm cost the Turks some casualties and failed of its object. The young men who were within stoutly defended themselves, and not until attacked by field artillery was the monastery taken.

Fifty of the leading men in Zeitoun were summoned to the barracks "for a conference with the commander." they were at once imprisoned and their families were sent for. Every one waited anxiously for these people to return, but after a while it was learned that they had been sent away to an unknown destination. A few days later another and larger group of families were ordered to the barracks, and were forthwith driven off with threats and curses of a distant banishment. In this way three or four hundred families at a time were sent off on foot, with no proper supply of food, by devious routes through the mountains, some northwest toward Konia, some southeast toward the hot and unhealthy place of Mesopotamia.

Day by day we saw the various quarters of the city stripped of inhabitants, until at last a single neighborhood remained. In addition to my duties as pastor I happened to be in charge of the Mission orphanage. The commanding officer sent for me one morning and told me to make ready at once for departure. "Your wife is also to go," he said, "and the children in the orphanage." We made our preparations hurriedly, for we were allowed to take but little with us. As we were leaving I looked back with an aching heart and saw our beloved church empty and lonely. The last company of our seven thousand people was streaming down the valley into banishment ! We had seen massacres, but we had never seen this before! A massacre at least ends quickly, but this prolonged anguish of soul is almost beyond human endurance.

The first day's exhausted all of us. In the dark, as we lay down upon the open ground, Turkish muleteers came and robbed us of the few donkeys and mules that we had. Next day, in forlorn condition, the children with swollen and blistered feet, we reached Marach. Through the earnest request of the American missionaries, an order was secured from the Governor for my wife and myself to return to my home town, Yoghonolook, near the sea, twelve miles west of Antioch. The governor granted this permit on the ground that my wife and I were not natives of Zeitoun. My heart torn between the desire to share banishment with some fragment of my congregation and the desire to take my wife to place of comparative safety in my father's home. But, order having once been issued, I had no alternative but to obey.

At Aintab we found the large Armenian community in the utmost anxiety, but at that time the order to leave had not arrived. Rumors reached us that the villages by the sea to continue southward, difficult though the journey was at such a time.

The last part of our way lay through a historic valley--the fertile plain of Antioch. It was here that Chrysostom preached in the fervor of his early ministry before he was called to Byzantium. And it was to a secluded chapel on our own mountain-side that he used to withdraw for prayer and communion with God. As a boy I had often looked with wonder and reverence at the massive stones of the ruins of St. Chrysostom's Chapel. IT was in this very Antioch that Barnabas and Paul labored with such spiritual energy, and here they set forth upon their momentous task of spreading the Christian faith. The Roman road by which they walked form Antioch to Seleucia can still be traced in the valley bellow my native town, and the stone piers from which Roman ships set sail at Seleucia are not entirely demolished by the storms and earthquakes of the centuries.

The city of Antioch, once so gallantly defended by the Crusaders, has long been under the rule of the Turks, and the minarets of Islam are ten times more numerous than the church belfries. In April, 1909, the Protestant and Gregorian congregations suffered one of the cruel persecutions in history.

The people of my own home town, Yoghonolook, are simple, industrious folk. For years past their chief occupation has been the sawing and polishing by hand of combs from hard wood and bone. Many of our men are also expert wood-carvers. In the neighboring villages the chief occupations are the culture of silkworms for producing raw silk and the weaving of silk by hand looms into handkerchiefs and scarves. Our people are very fond of their churches, and since the opening of schools by the American missionaries most of our children have learned to read. Every home is surrounded by mulberry trees, and many beautiful orchards cover the terraced slopes toward the south and west. Travelers who have been to southern Italy tell us that the villages near Naples very much resemble ours. The broad, rough back of Mousa Dagh (i. e., Mount Moses), known in Arabic as Jebel-el-Ahmar, rises up eastward back of us. Every gorge and crag of our beloved mountain is known to our boys and men.

I mention these facts about my village home so that you may feel something of the quiet, happy life which was so rudely and so completely broken up by this last attempt of the Turks to exterminate our race.

Twelve days after I had reached home an official order from the Turkish Government at Antioch was served upon the six villages of Mousa Daugh to prepare for banishment within eight days. You can scarcely imagine the consternation and the indignation which this order caused. we sat up all night debating what it would be best to do. TO resist the forces of the Turkish Government seemed almost hopeless, and yet the scattering of families into a distant wilderness raided by fanatical and lawless Arab tribes seemed such an appalling prospect that the inclination of both men and women was to refuse the summons and withstand the anger of the Government. All, however, were not of this mind. The Rev. Haroutune Nokhoudian, the pastor of the Protestant Church in Beytias, for example, came to the conviction that it would be folly to resist, and that the severity of banishment might possibly be modified in some way. He was in favor of yielding. Sixty families from his own village and a considerable number from the next village, agreeing with him, separated themselves from us and went down to Antioch under Turkish guards. They were shortly expelled in the direction of the lower Euphrates. (We have lost all track of them now and may never hear of them again.)

Our firm friends, the American missionaries, were cut off from us 120 miles to the north at Aintab. Communications with the outside world being practically severed, we were thrown upon our own resources, and we realized that our one hope was in the mercy of God. Fervently we prayed that he would strengthen us to do duty.

Knowing that it would be impossible to defend our villages in the foothills, it was resolved to withdraw to the heights of Mousa Dagh, taking with us as large a supply of food and implements as it was possible to carry. All the flocks of sheep and goats were also driven up the mountain-side, and every available weapon of defense was brought out and furbished up. We found that we had a hundred and twenty modern rifles and shotguns, with perhaps three times that number of old flintlocks and horse pistols. That still left more than half our men without weapons.

It was very hard to leave our homes. My mother wept as if her heart would break. But we had hoped that possible while we were fighting off the Turks the Dardanelles might be forced and deliverance come to the country.

By nightfall the first day we had reached the upper crags of the mountain. As we were preparing to camp and to cook the evening meal a pouring rain set in and continued all night. For this we were all prepared. There had not been time to make huts of branches, nor had we any tents or waterproof clothing. Men, women, and children, somewhat over five thousand in all, were soaked to the skin, and much of the bread we had brought with us was turned into a pulpy mass. We were especially solicitous to keep our powder and rifles dry. This the men managed to do very well.

At dawn next morning all hands went to work digging trenches at the most strategic points in the ascent of the mountain. Where there was no earth for trench-digging rocks were rolled together, making strong barricades behind which groups of our sharpshooters were stationed. The sun came out gloriously, and we were hard at it all day strengthening our position against the attack, which we knew was certain to come.

Toward evening we held a mass meeting for the election of a committee of defense which should have supreme authority for our six communities. Some favored an election by show of hands, but others argued that, as this was a matter of such vital importance, the regular congregational methods of choice by secret ballot should be followed. And they offered to get together enough bits of paper to carry out the ballot! Our people have become very much attached to these democratic methods taught by the missionaries. Without much delay scraps of paper, more or less torn and wet, were gathered and the ballot was cast. A governing council thus being established, plans were at once made for defending each pass in the mountain and each approach to the camp. Scouts, messengers, and a central reserve group of sharpshooters were chosen and were assigned their duties.

The summons from the Government had been served July 13. The eight day's grace had now almost elapsed, and we were aware that the Turks must have discovered our movements. The whole Antioch plain is people with Turks must and Arabs, and there is always a strong military garrison in the Antioch barracks.

On July 21 the attack began. The advance guard was two hundred regulars, and their captain insolently boasted that he would clear the mountain in one day. But the Turks suffered several casualties and were driven back to the base. When they advanced for a more general attack, they dragged up a field-gun, which, after some experimentation, secured the range and wrought havoc in our camp. One of our sharpshooters, a lion-hearted young fellow, crept down through the brushwood and among the rocks until he was in very close range of the field-gun, which was mounted on a flat rock. Having made himself an ambush of branches, he watched for a good opportunity. He was so near that he could hear the Turks talking to one another as they loaded the gun. Then, as one gunner stepped out into view, the young man picked him off with the first shot. With five bullets he killed four gunners! The certain thereupon threw up his hands in dismay, and , not being able to discern our sharpshooter, ordered the gun to be dragged to a place of shelter. Thus were we saved from a disastrous gun-fire on that day and several days to come.

But the Turks were gathering forces for a massed attack. They had sent word through many Moslem villages calling the people to arms. Army rifles and plentiful ammunition were handed out from the Antioch arsenal, until the mob of four thousand Moslems thirsting for massacre became a formidable foe. But the chief strength of the Turks was in the three thousand regular troops accustomed to discipline and inured to hardship.

Suddenly one morning our scouts brought word to headquarters that the enemy was appearing at every pass in the mountain. Here and there the Turks had already gained the cliffs and shoulders of the crest. Our reserve body of defenders was--very unwisely, as we afterwards realized--sent in small groups to these various points. No sooner had our ravine. All the other advances had been feints, and were not followed up. By the time our men discovered the situation and rallied from distant points the Turks had shot down our scouts and had poured though an important pass. To our dismay, we saw them already in full occupation of high ground, threatening our camp. Reinforcements kept pushing up the mountain, and as the afternoon drew on we saw that we were completely outnumbered. We saw also that the range of the Turks' rifles was far superior to that of our old-fashioned firearms. By sundown the enemy had advanced three companies through the dense underbrush and forest to within four hundred yards of our huts. A deep, damp ravine lay between, and the Turks decided to bivouac rather than to push on in the darkness.

Our leaders hurriedly took counsel together, whispering very quietly and not allowing any light in camp. Every one knew that a crisis had been reached. Finally a venturesome plan was adopted: to creep around the Turkish positions in the dead of night and thus carry out an enveloping movement, closing in very suddenly with a fusillade and ending with a hand-to-hand encounter. If this plan should fail, we knew that everything was lost. Through the dark, wet woods our men crept with extraordinary skill. It was here that our familiarity with those crags and thickets made it possible to do what invaders could not attempt. The circle was practically completed when, with a flash and a crash on all sides, our men delivered their attack, rushing forward with desperate courage. In a very few moments it was evident that bewilderment and alarm had thrown the Turkish camp into the utmost confusion. Troops were rushing hither and thither in the black night, stumbling over rocks and longs, officers shouting contradictory commands and struggling vainly to rally their men. Evidently the impression was given of a very substantial Armenian attack, because in less than half an hour the Turkish colonel gave the order to retreat, and before dawn the woods were practically clear of the troops. More than two hundred Turks had been killed and some booty taken: seven Mauser rifles, 2,500 rounds of ammunition, and one mule. There was no sign of any renewal of fighting. But we knew that our foes were not defeated; they were only driven off.

During the next few days they roused the whole Mohammedan population for many miles around--a horde of perhaps fifteen thousand. With this larger number they were able to surround and lay siege to Mousa Dagh on the land ward side. Their plan was now to strive us out. On the seaward side there was neither harbor nor any communication with a seaport. The mountain sloped directly into the sea. We were fully occupied in the care of our wounded and the reparation of the damage done in camp.

Special meetings were held to thank God for deliverance thus far, and to intercede with him for our families and little ones. Gregorians and Protestants were fused into one faith and fellowship by this time that my wife was confined and gave birth to her first child, a son. She suffered much in the flight down the seaward trail some days later, but I carried her and helped her as much as possible. Thank God, she is in good health now, and so is our little son.

When we discovered that our mountain was in a state of siege, we began to estimate our food resources. During the first week on the heights we had exhausted the bread, olives, and cheese that we had brought from home. Very few had been able to bring flour or other cereals, so for a month past we had been living on our flocks, using the goats' milk for the little children and the sick, and slaughtering a number of sheep and goats every day. This constant meat diet was not good for us, but, on the other hand, we were profoundly thankful that we were spared the suffering of starvation. We made a careful count of the flocks, and found that even with a reduced ration of meat our supply would last not more than two weeks longer. Under the pressure of this anxiety we began to think of plans for escape be sea.

Before the siege had entirely closed in we had sent a runner to make the dangerous trip, eighty-five miles through Turkish villages, to Aleppo, the capital of the province, with an appeal to the American Consul, Mr. Jackson, to sent us help by sea, if possible. But it is not at all likely that our messenger ever reached Aleppo. It occurred to us that possibly a battle-ship of the Allies might be in Alexandretta Harbor, thirsty-five miles to the north. So one of our young men, who was a strong swimmer, volunteered to creep through the Turkish lines and take a message in English strapped inside his belt. He succeeded in reaching the hills overlooking the harbor, but saw that there was no battle-ship, and returned. His plan had been to swim out to sea, circling around to reach the battle-ship, thus avoiding the Turkish sentries of the roads leading into Alexandretta.

We then prepared triplicate copies of the following appeal, and appointed three swimmers to be constantly on the watch for any passing ship to strike through the surf and swim out at such an angle as to meet the vessel:

To any English, American, French, Italian, or Russian admiral, captain, or authority whom this petition may find, we appeal in the name of God and human brotherhood:

We, the people of six Armenian villages, about 5,000 souls in all, have withdrawn to that part of Mousa Daugh called Damlajik, which is three hours' journey northwest from Suedije along the seacoast.

We have taken refuge here from Turkish barbarism and torture, and most of all from the outraging of the honor of our women.

Sir, you must have heard about the policy of annihilation which the Turks are applying to our nation. Under cover of dispersing the Armenians, as if to avoid rebellion, our people are expelled from their houses, deprived of their gardens, their vineyards, and all their possessions.

This brutal programmed has already been applied to the city of Zeitoun and its thirty-two villages, to Albustan, Geoksun, Yarpouz, Gurin, Diarbekir, Adana, Tarsus, Mersin, Deort yol, Hadjin, etc. And the same policy in being extended to all the one and a half million Armenians id different parts of Turkey.

The present writer was the protestant pastor in Zeitoun a few months ago and was an eyewitness of many unspeakable cruelties. I saw the highway, barefooted children six or seven years old by the side of aged grandparents, hungry and thirsty, their feet swollen from the toilsome journey. Along the road one heard sobs and curses and prayers. Under the pressure of great fear, some mothers gave birth to children in the bushes by the side of the road. Immediately afterward they were compelled by the Turkish guards to continue their journey toll kind death arrived to give an end to their torture.

The remainder of the people who were strong enough to bear the hardships of the march were driven on under the whips of the gendarmes to the plains of the south. Some died of hunger. Others were robbed along the way. Others were stricken with malaria and had to left by the roadside; and, as a last act of this dark and foul tragedy, the Arabs and Kurds massacred all the males and distributed the widows and girls among their tribes!

The Government some forty days ago informed us that our six villages must go into exile. Rather than submit to this we withdrew to this mountain. We now have little food left, and the troops are besieging us. We have had five fierce battles. God has given us the victory; but the next time we will have to withstand a much larger force.

Sir, we appeal to you in the name of Christ!

Transport us, we pray you, to Cyprus or any other free land. Our people are not indolent. We will earn our own bread if we are employed.

If this is too much to grant, transport at least our women, old people, and children, equip us with sufficient arms, ammunition, and food, and we will work with you with all our might against the Turkish forces. Please, sir, do not wait' until it is too late!

Respectfully your servant, for all the Christians here,


But days passed and not even a sail was seen. The war had reduced the coastwise shipping to a minimum. meanwhile, at my suggestion, our women had been making two immense flags, on one of which I printed in large, clear English:


This was a white flag with black lettering. The other was also white with a large red cross at the center. We fastened these flags to tall saplings and set a watch at the foot to scan the horizon from dawn to dark. Some days we had rain, and on others heavy mists and fogs, which are rather prevalent along our bit of coast.

The Turks again attacked us by several approaches, and we had some severe fighting, but never at such close quarters as during the first general engagement. From one the first general engagement. From one point of vantage we were able to roll boulders down the precipitous mountain-side with disastrous effects to the enemy. Our powder and cartridges were running low, and the Turks evidently had some idea of the straits we were in, for they began shouting insolent summons to surrender. Those were anxious days and long nights.

One Sunday morning, the fifty-third day of our defense, while I was occupied in preparing a brief sermon to encourage and strengthen our people, I was startled by hearing a man shouting at the top of his voice. He came racing though our encampment straight for my hut. "Pastor ! pastor !" he exclaimed; "a battle-ship is coming and has answered our waving. Praise God ! Thank God ! Our prayers are heard ! When we wave the Red Cross flag, the battle-ship answers by waving signal flags. They see us and are coming in nearer shore !"

This proved to be the French cruiser Guichen, a four-funnel ship. While one of its boats was being lowered some of our young men raced down to the shore and were soon swimming out to the stately vessel, which seemed to have been sent to us from God. With beating hearts we hurried down to the beach, and soon an invitation came to the captain for a delegation to come on board and narrate the situation. He sent a wireless to the Admiral of the fleet, and before a great while the flagship St Jean d'Arc appeared on the horizon, followed by other French battle-ships. The Admiral spoke words of comfort and cheer to us, and gave an order that every soul of our community should be taken on board the ships. The embarkation took some time, of course, and an English cruiser was invited to take part in the transportation to Port Said, Egypt. We were taken on board four French cruisers and one English, and were very kindly cared for. In two days we arrived at Port Said, and are now settled in a permanent camp which has been provided for us by the British authorities.

We are especially grateful to Mr. William C. Horn blower for the excellent organization of this camp and to Colonel and Mrs. P. G. Elgood and Miss Russell for their untiring efforts on our behalf.

The Armenian Red Cross Society of Cairo, recently organized, of which the Gregorian Bishop is Honorary Chairman, Mr. Fermanian, of the Kodak Company, Director, and Professor Kayayan, Secretary, has sent us a staff of three doctors and three nurses.

An accurate census has been taken, which shows that the survivors number:

Babies and children under four years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . .413
Girls from four to fourteen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .505
Boys from four to fourteen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 606
Women above fourteen years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,449
Men above fourteen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,076
Total number of soul rescued . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,049

After the Turks' first challenge, July 13, we had eight days' parley and preparation. For fifty-three days we defended ourselves on Mousa Dagh; and a two days' voyage brought us to Port Said on September 14.

We do not forget that our Savior was brought in his infancy to Egypt for safety and shelter. And the brethren of Joseph could not have been more grateful than we are for the corn and wheat provided.

With greetings to American, British, French, and Armenian friends, in the name of Christ under the shadow of those Red Cross we are indeed one people.

A hard copy of this article or hundreds of others from the time of the Armenian Genocide can be found in The Armenian Genocide: News Accounts From The American Press: 1915-1922

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