At the onset of World War One, the late Ottoman Empire, led by the Young Turks, enacted brutal persecution amongst its relearning non-Muslim population in Eastern Thrace, Asia Minor, and some parts of the Levant.

Armenians were a prime target of the wrath of the Ottoman state as growing propaganda and discourse over their ties to Imperial Russia became mainstream in the empire. Persecutions would heighten in 1915, leading to the Armenian Genocide.

Some Armenians who fought against the Ottomans fought independently, others fought with Russia, and one prominent group fought with the French, also known as the Armenian Legion.

World War One, Armenian Genocide, and Formation

During the Armenian Genocide, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire would gradually fight back against Turkish soldiers who were given shoot-to-kill orders. A bold defense at Musa Dagh would take place with the French navy rescuing besieged Armenian civilians.

Some of the fighting-aged Armenian male survivors of Musa Dagh would volunteer for the Armenian Legion, which was proposed by Boghos Nubar, supported by Britain, and armed, trained, and funded by France. The Legion was officially erected in Cairo, which was very symbolic as Boghos’ father, Nubar Pasha, was an Armenian governor of Egypt.

Picture from the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, dated 1915, which shows soldiers surveying the skulls of victims in an Armenian village via AFP

Battles Partaken

In 1918, the French Armenian Legion participated in the critical Battle of Arara. In then-Ottoman Palestine, the Legion supplemented British and French forces, using the rigid terrain of the coastal hills to gain a vantage point over the Turkish 7th army.

General Edmund Allenby, famous for his bravery as a commander in WWI and also known for his historic entrance into Jerusalem, would praise the Armenian Legion. Allenby stated his pride in having several Armenian battalions under his command, and their gallantry played an instrumental role in Arara.

The Ottoman Empire, now rapidly losing their province of Syria, would capitulate in 1918–giving way for the remaining imperial possessions to be divided between the UK, France, Italy, and Greece and a potential Armenian mandate.

Under the austerities of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and subsequent Treaty of Sevres, France was all modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and large swaths of lower Asia Minor around Cilicia. A potential Armenian state, independent from the Wilsonian (Western) Armenia concept, was proposed around Cilicia.

The Treaty of Sevres was considered to be a great humiliation for the Turks, as the Entente carved up the majority of modern-day Turkey. The proposed Turkish nation post-Sevres was left as a rump state, taking up much of Smyrna and Trebizond’s coastline, trade routes, and economic hubs.

The legion via Nevington War Museum

Scars of Betrayal by the French Empire

A decorated military officer named Mustafa Kemal formed a nationalist movement that called for the expulsion of foreign troops to cement a Turkish country. The Turkish militias that would ultimately form their army were now called the Kemalists, and one of their main targets was the French mandate in Cilicia.

The Kemalists’ primary goal was to attack the Armenian Legion more than the French army. With France preoccupied with the dismemberment of the German military and the Treaty of Versailles, the Kemalists found an opening to attack.

During the Battle of Marash, the Armenian Legion would hold strong against the incoming wave of Turkish troops. However, France had little will or desire to hold onto the city of Marash and would give orders to French command that would prove catastrophic.

Withdrawing in a hasty and disorganized manner (akin to the Greek army two years later), the Turkish garrisons in the city chased the French military and Legion for over a hundred kilometers. Numerous Armenian civilians from Marash trekked alongside the Legion and unfortunately perished in the unforgiving winter.

Armenians who were not able to flee alongside the French army and Legion faced fates worse than death. Undisciplined and ultranationalist Turkish mobs and Kemalist militia personnel enacted a scorched earth campaign on Armenian schools, churches, and homes, effectively continuing the Armenian genocide.

In 1921, without the will to fight and instead wanting to turn the Kemalists towards French interests, Paris agreed to the Treaty of Ankara and later the Armistice of Mudanya. Now that the Franco-Turkish War ended, the Kemalists could bring reinforcements to battle the Greek army, turning the tide of the other war.

The Armenian Legion, now with no funding or international backing, was left for dead and would later disband, albeit some volunteered in the Greek army during the Greco-Turkish War.

The French-back Armenian Legion is the prime example of courage and later betrayal that saw many ethnic groups in the Middle East hold a grudge against the Western Powers as they all fought against the Ottoman Empire for independence but were left discarded later on.