In my history lessons in middle school and high school, I never heard any foreigner’s name in the Ottoman army when our teachers talked about the Battle of the Dardanelles.
I did not even register this battle in my mind as part of World War I. There was a Battle of the Dardanelles, which was led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and we fought a heroic war against enemies.
So many years later I was shocked to learn that not only was the Battle of the Dardanelles led by German military officers, but also almost the entire Ottoman General Staff was under their control.
Atatürk was a war hero, as it was said, but he just led a battle in this or that front of the Dardanelles Campaign.
Well, you’ve started to get an impression about history education in Turkey.
What about the non-Muslim citizens of this country? Were they ever in the military when Turkey was fighting in World War I? To be honest, I did not know anything about these subjects until I read Ayhan Aktar’s book “Captain Sarkis Torossian, From the Dardanelles to Palestine,” which includes a translation of Torossian’s memoir and a lengthy “comment” by Aktar himself.
It was so exiting to read the memories of an Armenian soldier in the Ottoman army who fought in the Battle of the Dardanelles. You see in the memoir how much he was attached to 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 survive. Despite Torossian’s role in the military, his family was forcibly expelled from its native lands and shared the destiny of millions of other Anatolian Armenians.
Then I saw that Aktar’s book was attacked by some historians, some of whom, as you can guess, were official historians, and some of whom were quite on the margins in their official understanding of Turkish history.
When I glanced at their criticism of the book, I was a little surprised to see that they looked at Torossian’s memoires as if they were written by a historian. They were trying to see that much consistency.
If I tried to write what I did a couple of years ago in a particular context, my memory may fool me on some details and Torossian was writing about extremely stressful, traumatizing memories.
To be honest, when I read his memoires, I thought that he literalized some aspects of his story. I felt that he might have changed some things, especially when he talked about his private life. But I never suspected the main aspects of the story he told. I believed he was telling us a genuine story of an incredible life.
Apparently, historians who attacked Aktar’s book believed that inconsistencies between the stories told in the book and some historical facts made the whole memoir a lie. I do not agree with them. If they try to read Torossian’s book as a personal diary with some literary contribution, and not as a history book, they will find the real value of the book.
I am glad to see that a whole new book was just published by Bilgi University on this subject titled “History, Autobiography and the Truth: Discussion of Captain Torossianand history writing in Turkey.”
In short, there were non-Muslim soldiers in the Ottoman army and their stories tell us a lot about the history of this country.