Fighting to Live: A Story About the Battle of Sardarabad

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In May of 1918, a tattered Armenian Nation on the cusp of oblivion collected the soldiers and farmers who remained and marched to Sardarabad. It was the last stop of the ravenous Ottoman Turkish army before reaching Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. This is a semi-fictional story about the Battle of Sardarabad.

The sun shone brightly that morning, and there was not a cloud to be seen in the pale blue sky. Manuk Hovhannisyan, however, could not focus on his surroundings as he sat clutching his rifle to his chest. He had woken up today with a pervasive dread in his stomach, and he had dressed quickly and stood solemnly outside, scanning the horizon for a sign, any sign. It had come to him later that morning, as he and the other soldiers stood quietly and watched the oncoming Ottoman army slowly materialize on the horizon. As he looked out at the advancing troops, Manuk knew that what he was looking at was not just the possibility of his own death, but the death of his comrades, his friends, and his family back in Yerevan. He could feel something dangling on the edge, precipitously close to pitching forward and being lost forever in a bottomless abyss. The oncoming black swarm made something drop to the pit of his stomach, and he swallowed and turned away.

His thoughts lingered on, of all things, the carpet on the floor of his home. He remembered the deep reds, the pale yellows. As a boy, he had laid down on that carpet for hours at a time, creating stories in his head. His daughters did the same now. He could only think of what it would be like to never see something so familiar again. He remembered looking at his mother’s feet as she had stood over him, how her laugh had rung out all throughout the house.

***

In the carnage of World War I, a series of military conflicts fades into the annals of history. Pitting the dying Ottoman Empire against its Russian foe, these battles dragged Caucasian countries into the military mix and ravaged the region.

The Battle of Sardarabad, in May 1918, emerged as a battle central to the continuation of the Armenian nation. For many, it is quite likely that there would be no Armenia today without this resounding military success. The Battle of Sardarabad, and its sister battles of Bash Aparan and Karakilis, all happened around the strategic point of Mount Aragats. For the Turkish army, securing the southern Caucasus would have to be accomplished by capturing a railway that led to Djulfa, located in Azerbaijan. Two divisions went south from Alexandropol (now Gyumri) by different routes around the peak of Mount Aragats. The third division of the army came from the south by crossing the River Araks. By the time the battle began at Sardarabad, twenty miles from Yerevan, the capital, only two of the three divisions of the Turkish Army that were supposed to be there had actually arrived. However, the Turkish army still vastly outnumbered the Armenian coalition.

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General Movses Silikyan took his time slowly pacing alongside the front flank of the 5th Armenian Regiment. The sky was the same searing blue that Manuk Hovannisyan was seeing, but there was a cold breeze that managed to cut down to everyone’s bones. One thousand riflemen. One thousand riflemen and a cavalry regiment was all he had against the Ottoman forces. He knew that the commander of the infantry, Daniel Bek-Pirumyan, was an excellent leader, and would do everything in his power to command his men against the Ottoman troops. He had all the confidence in the world in Bek-Pirumyan’s abilities, but as he walked down and looked into the faces of men who might not make it back home, whose minds at the moment were on their families, his nerves wavered. There was nothing left for them but this. They were the only hope, the only pillars who had to withstand the vicious onslaught that would be the Ottoman army.

It was best not to dwell on these things for too long, Silikyan decided. The battle would get these men’s minds off of what had been, and could be – if they only managed to survive this battle.

***

The Armenians began repulsing the Ottoman advance on May 22, and so far, Bek-Pirumyan’s men had been successful at keeping the enemy at bay. Manuk Hovhannisyan’s mind became attuned solely to what was going on in front of him, and while his thoughts could only manage to stay on what was happening to him at the moment, he realized that he wasn’t dead yet. But at times he felt that there was a chance this battle could go on forever. Day after day, year after year, as decades and centuries stretched to the end of time and the two armies remained locked in battle forever.

There had been a moment of hope for Hovhannisyan – Yakub Shevki Pasha’s forces had been forced back around 15-20 kilometers in a westerly direction, but the Ottoman had returned. The resistance put up by the Armenian men, however, was aggressive and fierce. Hovhannisyan had watched a man, blood pouring out between his fingers as he clutched his lower arm, get up and run towards the bank of the flank for a rag and water, all the time screaming at the men to pick up his rifle and make him proud until he could get back to his position.

In a moment of lucidity, Hovhannisyan understood something that only a few others had had time to realize—that there could be no surviving this. His fantasies of a battle raging on for all eternity were just as ridiculous as him becoming the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. It would all end in an all-out frenzy of fighting, something that would be decisive and conclusive. It was beginning to look more and more like a victory for the Ottomans, and Hovhannisyan’s mind desperately groped among the confusion of shouting and hurried shuffling behind him in the waning light at the warmth of his kitchen on a cool March night, his wife’s steady hand resting on his.

Another two days passed, and Colonel Karapet Hasan-Pashayan was stubbornly leading a flanking maneuver. His troops charged up behind the back flank of an Ottoman unit and struck them in a frenzy. Pashayan screamed like a madman, and every muscle in Hovhannisyan’s body strained as he doggedly ran, struck, crouched, and moved on again. The rest of the Armenian unit struck the front, and every inch of strength and courage and sheer dumb motivation left in the men came to the fore. Another Ottoman unit had been sent in from Talin earlier that day to help alleviate the pressure, but Hovhannisyan hadn’t had a moment to realize that the slowly tiring faces of the Ottomans were beginning to pose a greater and greater likelihood for an Armenian victory.

All he knew was that he might have found a moment of eternity in his movements, for he had lost all sense of time and just knew the physicality of his body and what was going on around him. He tripped over the dead body of a young Armenian soldier, still warm, and hurried off to his left. His only thought had been that the young soldier’s ears were large, and stuck out like large flowers from the shock of shaggy dark hair. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. It was only when he made it to a cluster of rocks and peered out, ready with his rifle, that he realized the Ottoman forces were retreating. He kept clutching the rocks though, and could only breathe in and out, in and out, each draw heavy and dragged, as he watched the tops of trees reach out to gently touch the sky.

***

The collapse of the Russian Imperial military after the Russian Revolution of 1917 put in danger the Russian wartime gains in the eastern Anatolian region known as Turkish Armenia. This manifested itself in the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk in March 1918, when the Soviet government restored not only eastern Anatolia to the Ottomans but also acknowledged the Turkish claim to the border districts of Batum, Ardahan, and Kars. The anti-Soviet administrations in southern Caucasian countries failed to stop the Ottoman military offensive, which made its way into Kars through Turkish Armenian provinces. It was at this point that the Turkish military decided not to stop at the boundaries set by the Brest-Livotsk Treaty but to push their offensive through and occupy all of Russian Armenia. They would then eventually move east toward Baku, an urban center rich in oil deposits and a city that was envisioned as a key link to the formation of a Turkic region that would extend from Istanbul to Central Asia.

The destruction of Russian Armenia, and the danger of experiencing the same fate that had befallen the Armenians in Turkey during the years of World War I which came to be the Armenian Genocide, seemed imminent in mid-May when the Ottoman military seized the railway juncture of Alexandropol and began to approach Bash Aparan and Sardarabad. Both of these cities lay in the direct path to Yerevan.

Armenians and their few allies – among them a Yezidi chieftain of the Zuqiri tribe named Cahangir Agha – were victorious at Sardarabad. Whether it was masterful strategy or undying willpower, overwhelming firepower was one thing it wasn’t: that was the Turks’ advantage. And it was through this unlikely but magnificent victory that Armenians were enlivened before their victories at Bash Aparan and Karakilis – and their march toward freedom.

***

There were celebrations, to be sure. Some men procured small instruments, there was roasting meat and a relative sense of calm after the defeat of the Ottomans. Every now and then, a contained burst of laughter would come forth from the little groups of men huddled around fires that dotted their side of the hill. For Manuk, his thoughts were scattered. Some men woke up screaming at night, others could not seem to find it within themselves to participate in the revelry. The understanding was that there needed to be movement soon, that others like him were struggling at Bash Aparan colored Manuk’s thoughts, and he found himself laying down for the night earlier than everyone else.

If he had been a younger man, his heart might have been lighter. But as he thought of his wife, and how she tended to squint at her needle, and how his daughters were beginning to reach the same height as their mother, he could only feel anxiety churning within him. Some of the younger men seemed happy, but there were others like him whose faces mirrored a darkness that could not been dispelled. They, like him, also laid down early, away from the muted merriment of the others. If only there was some release, he thought, before drifting off to sleep. Some release from the permanent knot in his chest and the tightness in his throat.

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