Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Was there an Armenian captain in the Turkish army?
In history lessons that I received during my secondary and high school education, I have never heard any “foreigner’s” name in the Ottoman army when our teachers talked about the Dardanelles campaign.
I did not even register this battle in my mind as a part of World War I. There was a Dardenelles campaign, which was led by Ataturk and we fought a heroic war against enemies.
So many years later, I was shocked to learn that not only was the Dardenelles campaign led by German military officers but also almost the entire Ottoman General Staff was under their control.
Ataturk was a war hero, as it was told, but he was just leading a battle in this or that front in the Dardenelles campaign.
Well, you are beginning to get an idea about the state of history education in Turkey.
What about the non-Muslim citizens of these lands? Were they in the military when the Ottoman Empire was fighting in the First World War? To be honest, I did not know anything about these subjects until I read Ayhan Aktar’s book “Captain Sarkis Torossian, From Dardenelles to Palestine” which includes the translation of Torossian’s memoir and a lengthy commentary by Aktar.
It was so exciting to read the memories of an Armenian soldier in the Ottoman Army who fought in the Dardanelles campaign. You see in the memoir how much he valued his profession and how heroically he fought for his country. And you see how things started to change for this military officer when he realized that his service to his country did not help his family to survive. Despite Torossian’s role in the military his family were forcibly expelled from their native lands and shared the destiny of one million other Anatolian Armenians.
All of these crossed my mind when my son, Can Ada, who is in his second year of the elementary school, asked me some questions about the Dardenelles campaign.
What he learned from the school of course was almost identical to what I had learned during my education as a young student. Namely, enemies were trying to invade Turkey from every corner and Ataturk led the war against them.
I calculate in my mind to what extent I can tell my young child the unofficial account of the events. I decided to limit myself. I need to tell him bit by bit when he is growing up. I just started to explain that the Dardenelles campaign was a part of World War I. Turkey had allies in this war as well as enemies that were fighting against it.
Maybe later on I will tell him that the commander of the Canakkale theater was not Ataturk but Otto Liman von Sanders, who was a German General. And after a while, I will tell him and his brother that not all the soldiers fighting for the Ottoman Empire were Turks. I will tell them the story of Sarkis Torossian, an Armenian captain who fought in the Gallipoli Campaign. From Torossian's story, I guess I will reach another point that once there were Armenians in this country who were massacred and dispelled from Turkey.
But as a parent, I have to find out at each stage how I could tell the real story of this country in an age-appropriate manner without traumatizing my children, without putting them in a position where they will carry an unbearable burden in the classroom in front of their teachers. Well, as you may appreciate, this is not an easy task and Turkey’s complicated history makes our lives difficult in unimaginable ways.