Armenians and Cheshire

By  Michael Jones

Armenia, a country hidden away in the Caucasus region of Asia, between the Caspian and Black seas. An ancient Christian land that is half a world away from the leafy, well-to-do county of Cheshire in ‘merry old England.’ During the First World War, Armenia had a new meaning, it became a land defined by execution and tragedy. The genocide that was orchestrated by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, claimed the lives of up 1.5 million Armenians, and it is recognised as the first genocide of the twentieth century by twenty-nine sovereign states. Although Cestrians were not as directly affected by the Armenian genocide as their Mancunian neighbours, there is a clear history of compassion shown by many communities across Cheshire during the First World War, and earlier.

 

The brutal genocide of 1915 was a product of decades of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian Armenians. American historian, Jay Winter has argued that the blueprint for the genocide had been in place for some time, and the First World War ‘provided the space in which genocidal crimes could and did take place’.[1] Prior to the genocide, the Ottoman Empire faced an existential crisis, the pre-eminence of the Anglo-French bloc threatened this empire which had been a cornerstone of European power for centuries. The Turks gradually became suspicious of the non-Turkish elements that were residing within the empire. They feared that these elements were plotting to destabilise the empire, so they could seek independence. Consequently, the Ottoman Empire went through a period of ‘Turkification’ which led to the categorisation of minorities based on ‘Türklük’ or ‘Turkishness’.[2] The Armenians and Greeks living within the empire were deemed unassimilable.

Dissidence within the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth century was eventually subdued. Muslim Turks and Kurds became united under one Ottoman identity, and the Christian Greeks and Armenians were regarded as different. The Ottoman government was suspicious of these ‘outsiders’ and allowed Muslim communities in Eastern Anatolia to attack them and confiscate their property.[3] A consequence of this was wide-scale persecution, which occurred as early as 1890. Constantinople saw the violence as a method of deterring the Armenians away from seeking independence. This pitting of Muslims against Armenians led to 300,000 Armenians being killed in what became known as the Hamidian massacres of 1896.[4]

Back at home, the British government and senior officials were appalled by what had happened. It was in Chester that William Gladstone, who was Prime Minister four times between 1868 and 1894, called on the Ottoman Empire to guarantee the ‘safety of life, honour, religion, and property of the Turkish Armenians’.[5] He appealed to the Christian commumity of Chester, stating that the Armenians were ‘one of the oldest civilised Christian races in the world’.[6] He also read out a letter from the Foreign Office which mentioned a cheque of £1,000, which would be donated to the Armenian Relief Fund[7]. The South Wales Daily News states that there was ‘a great demand for seats’ at the meeting and that Gladstone was ‘cheered enthusiastically,’ suggesting that many Cestrians were sympathetic towards the Armenians.[8]

Gladstone

William Gladstone: ‘A Friend of Armenia’[9]

Hawarden, about seven miles from Chester just across the border in Wales, was touched by Armenian refugees. Three refugees, Mr and Mrs Bedros and Mr Vartan travelled from London to Chester Railway Station in April 1895.[10] Mrs Bedros had fled the Sassoun massacre, which took the life of her three month old child, and she and her husband arrived in the United Kingdom in a state of destitution.[11] Gladstone requested the couple visit him at Hawarden because he was disgusted by the way they were treated in Turkey. The group presented a chalice from the Armenian communities of London and Paris to Hawarden Parish Church in honour of Gladstone.[12] The Armenian community in Britain also funded the installation of a stained glass window in the church.[13] As we can see, Armenia a country that is over 2,000 miles away from Cheshire touched the people who called this place home over a century ago. This compassion, sympathy and good will resurfaced during the First World War, when the people of Armenia faced their most desperate hour.

The early twentieth century the situation worsened for the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan Wars in 1912-13, led to the Ottoman Empire losing 85% of its European territory.[14] Muslims were expelled from their homes, and treated brutally by the armies of the Balkan nations. Consequently, many Muslims believed that they were being punished for failing to unite their nation. The government in Constantinople relocated the Muslim refugees to Armenian lands in Eastern Anatolia. Animosity between the two groups was intense, and sowed greater division. Many Armenians were merchants and lived comfortable lifestyles which many of the refugee ethnic Turks resented.[15]

The outbreak of the First World War in July 1914 led to an intensification of anti-Armenian sentiments. By the time of November 1914, jihad was declared against the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire.[16] A month later in December, a full-scale Ottoman military operation was triggered. The aim was to prise open the Caucusus, to make it easier to defend themselves against the oncoming Russian army. The Ottomans wanted to prevent the Russians advancing from the East, and with the Armenians being labelled as ‘historically unreliable,’ the Minister of War, Enver decided to send a force of 95,000 towards Russia. This move by the Ottomans was disastrous, they were not prepared for the Caucususian winter, and the remaining forces were annihilated by the Russians at Sarakamish. However, Garo Padermadjian, a Erzurum parliamentary deputy, or as the Turkish nationalists called him, ‘a terrorist’ was blamed for halting the Ottoman advance. The Battle of Sarakamish was a watershed moment as it ended the ‘pan-Turkic’ dream of military expansion. It would later be the Armenians who felt the wrath of many down-trodden Turkish nationalists.

The dawn of 1915 marked the beginning of systematic persecution of the Armenian people. Prior to this, the government incited violence against the Armenians, but now they were orchestrating it. As a consequence of the Battle of Sarakamish, all Armenians were removed from all military posts in the Ottoman Empire. By April 1916, Kurdish and Armenian communities were engaged in brutal battles with each other. Cevdet Bey orchestated vicious weapon searches in and around Van, and from this he concluded that there were signs of mass Armenian insurrection in the east. The Armenians later declared a provisional government in Van, as they knew the Russians were quickly advancing on the city. As a result, they were accused of supporting a Russian invasion, when in fact they feared what the Ottomans had planned for them.[17] Consequently, the foundations of the genocide were put into place on April 24th 1915. This was marked by the rounding up of 250 Armenian politicians and intellectuals.[18] By the 27th April, army and labour units were executed. By May 26th, the government ordered the deportation of all Armenians from Turkey. Many were sent towards the Syrian desert on death marches, and many others were massacred in their villages. In comparison to more rural parts of Britain, Manchester was fairly quick to provide relief with refugees arriving and church collections occurring as early as September 1915.

Britain was embroiled in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, but news had still reached Britain that the Turks were executing the Armenians that lived within their borders. In June 1916, news had reached Chester’s Christian community that the Armenians were being systematically executed. Bishop Crossley stated in the ‘Diocesan Missionary Festival’ which took place in Chester Cathedral on the 6th June 1916 that the people of Cheshire ‘have not thought much of them.’[19] He accused them of putting their ‘political exigencies’ before the Armenian people.[20] Unsurprisingly, as a religious official, he echoed the Christian plight of the Armenians in the same fashion as William Gladstone did some eighteen years earlier. He made a tribute to Armenia being the first country to officially adopt Christianity. Crossley also appealed to the ‘Englishness’ of Chester by comparing the martyrdom of Saint George to that of the Bishop of Armenia.[21] Notably, many religious officials and philanthropists were present at the festival, including the Archdeacon of Chester, and ‘Miss Gurney’ who was secretary of the SPG Women’s Work Committee. Crossley promoted the Lord Mayor’s Fund for Armenia, and encouraged Cestrians to hear the plight of fellow Christians.[22] He claimed that the respectability of Britain depended on it. If Britain chose to ignore Armenia, it would be be judged by other nations for doing so.[23] Here we can see again that the Christian message is emphasised in Chester. It is clear that despite their geographical and cultural differences, Cheshire felt tied to Armenia through their shared religion.

The Nantwich Guardian chose to report on the philanthropy that existed within Cheshire schools. A flag day was used to raise money for the Armenian refugees who were in Syria.[24] A committee was established within the school to help deal with these flag days, suggesting that these days of charity must have been more than a one-off.[25] The newspaper became more emotive as the world moved towards the autumn of 1917, as the full scale of these atrocities became more apparent. A primary focus of the article written in September 1917 was the children of Armenia. The Nantwich based newspaper reported that there were 30,000 orphans ‘wandering, half-clad, half-starved’, with many succumbing ‘to an untimely death.’[26] They claimed that they were making an appeal on behalf of the orphans to the British public, and called on them for assistance.[27] The article discusses in some detail that the orphans of Tiflis, stating that they are ‘terror-stricken,’ and can no longer depend on the Russians due to internal chaos within the country.[28]

The author of the article was Arshag Manashian, who was an Armenian living in Manchester, he was the secretary of Manchester Relief Fund. This organisation aimed to assist those in Armenia any way they could. They were appalled by the treatment of their countrymen. It is extremely difficult to find Armenia refugees who lived in Cheshire at the time of the genocide, but in Greater Manchester this was a lot more fruitful.

 

Armenians in Manchester

Meeting of 86 members of the Armenian community on top of either the Midland Hotel or the Y.M.C.A. on the occasion of collecting funds for Armenian refugees escaping from Turkey to other countries in the period 1918/20.[29]

It is clear from Ashag Manashian’s appeal in the Nantwich Guardian that the Manchester Armenian Relief Fund and the Lord Mayor’s Fund were carrying out charitable collections in Cheshire. Records have also been uncovered in the Altrincham area which suggest there were charity collections taking place there too. The Nantwich Guardian reported on 28th January 1917 that a fund was in place in Altrincham school, which was led by Mr. W. Llewelyn Williams in London.[30] From the evidence studied, it is clear the Cheshire as a county, assisted the Armenians mainly through charitable giving.

Although geographically it was a world away from Armenia, it is clear that the plight of the Armenians was heard loud and clear by the people of Cheshire. From the brutality that was unleashed upon the Armenian people in the late 1890s, to the systematic extermination that was inflicted upon them, the people of Cheshire put their war commitments to one side, so they could assist this ancient Christian people. Although difficult to find any traces of Armenian refugees in Cheshire during the First World War, the majority of refugees went to Manchester to immerse themselves within the city’s growing Armenian community. The charity that the Armenians received from Cestrians was great, even if they were criticised by senior religious officials for being too wrapped up in the politics of the time. It is clear that Cheshire, a county that was home to fewer than 400,000 people in 1918 stood by Armenia during its hour of need through their shared religious message.

Bibliography

Primary Source Material:

Cheshire Chronicle

Cheshire Observer

Nantwich Guardian

South Wales Daily News

Greater Manchester Lives, (Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives)

 

Secondary Literature:

Foot, Michael, William Ewart Gladstone, (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 2018) <https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ewart-Gladstone&gt; [accessed 14 March 2018]

George, Joan, Merchants in Exile: The Armenians in Manchester, England 1835-1935, (London: Gomidas Institute, 2002)

Levene, Mark, The Crisis of Genocide Devastation: The European Rimlands 1912-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Taner, Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006)

Footnotes

[1] Mark Levene, The Crisis of Genocide Devastation: The European Rimlands 1912-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p.38.

[2] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.119.

[3] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.119.

[4] Akcam Taner, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006) p.42.

[5] South Wales Daily News, ‘The Turks in Armenia,’ 7 August 1895, p.5.

[6] South Wales Daily News, 7 August 1895, p.5

[7] South Wales Daily News, 7 August 1895, p.5.

[8] South Wales Daily News, 7 August 1895, p.5.

[9] Foot, Michael, ‘William Ewart Gladstone’, (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 2017) https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ewart-Gladstone  [accessed 1st June 2017]

[10] Cheshire Observer, ‘Mr Gladstone at Hawarden,’ 20 April 1895, p.7.

[11] Cheshire Observer, 20 April 1895, p.7.

[12] Cheshire Observer, 20 April 1895, p.7.

[13] George, Joan, Merchants in Exile: The Armenians in Manchester, England 1835-1935, (London: Gomidas Institute, 2002) p.113.

[14] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.46

[15] Taner, A Shameful Act, p.42.

[16] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.139.

[17] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.138.

[18] Levene, The Crisis of Genocide, p.138.

[19] Cheshire Chronicle, ‘Diocesan Missionary Festival at Chester,’ 10 June 1916, p.2

[20] Cheshire Chronicle, 10 June 1916, p.2

[21] Cheshire Chronicle, 10 June 1916, p.2.

[22] Cheshire Chronicle, 10 June 1916, p.2.

[23] Cheshire Chronicle, 10 June 1916, p.2.

[24] Nantwich Guardian, ‘Flag Days’, 14 September 1917 p.5.

[25] Nantwich Guardian, 14 September 1917, p.5.

[26] Nantwich Guardian, 14 September 1917, p.4.

[27] Nantwich Guardian, ‘Armenian Orphans’, 14 September 1917, p.4.

[28] Nantwich Guardian, 14 September 1917, p.4

[29] Greater Manchester Lives, Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives.

[30] Nantwich Guardian, ‘School Collection’, 28 January 1918, p.5.

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