Tehcir Law | 27 May 1915

General Joffre has found a new favourite word, and the Italians continue bumbling across the border.  However, our main focus today is the Ottoman Empire, where we’re examining the legislation that underpinned the Armenian Genocide.


Today, General Joffre includes the word “usure” (“attrition”) in a letter to Millerand, the Minister of War, in a description of his strategic thinking. This is one of the first usages of that word in Entente strategic deliberations. It’s an important landmark in the changing conception of the nature of the war among senior commanders. No longer is this a conflict that can be won or lost with one grand breakthrough battle. The possibility of marching all the way to Berlin for afternoon tea is beginning to recede gently into the distance. Large actions will still be fought, but with more modest objectives, with the concept of piling victory upon victory until the enemy can’t fight any more.

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Tehcir Law

“Tehcir Law” (“Deportation Law”) is the usual short-form title for the Dispatchment and Settlement Law that the Ottoman parliament has just passed, at the prompting of Talaat Pasha, the Minister of the Interior.  One of the main planks of the Young Turks’ regime is an attempt to save the Ottoman Empire from dissolution, by recasting the sprawling multi-ethnic empire of provinces and vassals as a unified nationalistic, Turkic, Muslim state.  The empire’s sizeable non-Turkic populations have been worrying Talaat for some time.  Now the war, the Battle of Sarikamis, and the Defence of Van have given him his excuse to take extreme measures.

The measures are quite cynically cloaked with talk of military necessity, defence of the homeland, and acting in accordance with the rule of law. (Indeed, modern denialists continue to use those cloaks.) Yesterday Talaat wrote a rather revealing letter outlining these fig leaves, and also implying very strongly that he and others have been planning this for some time.

…While deliberations were underway as to how to prepare and implement the means for eliminating [the Armenian problem]…in a manner that is comprehensive and absolute…

The temptation at this point is to call this language reminiscent of the Nazis’ “final solution to the Jewish question”.  But, of course, this is 1915.  It’s the Nazi language in 1942 that should be called reminiscent of Talaat’s.  Incidentally, in line with contemporary parlance, for the last forty years English speakers have been referring to “the Armenian question”.  There’s also a truly singular parallel between the wording of the Tehcir Law, and that of the Barbarossa Decree formulated by the Wehrmacht nearly 26 years later, which nobody sane attempts to defend as an act of military necessity.

What the Armenian Genocide lacks is a direct equivalent to the Wannsee Conference. There is no one single well-documented meeting where senior Ottoman government figures sat down, twirled their moustaches, and explicitly recorded their approval of a plan to murder the Empire’s minority subjects and the Armenians in particular. Instead, the evidence has to be brought together from disparate documents and letters, often with some interpretation required to decode the euphemisms and the half-references, as above. (The most comprehensive modern works on this are from the Turkish historian Taner Akcam, who has made a career of translating and collating documents from the Ottoman government’s archives. Incidentally, he currently lives and works in the USA, at least partly for his own safety, and he’s been harassed while re-entering the country by border agents for no reason given.)

And, as the sufferers of the Holocaust include also Poles, Roma, gender and sexual minorities, Communists, disabled people, and anyone else the Nazis found inconvenient; the Tehcir Law also swept up Assyrians, Ottoman Greeks, and so on. The Armenians may have been the primary victims of the genocide, but by no means were they the only ones. And I would also just like to reiterate that there’s a reason that the word “genocide” was invented primarily to describe what’s going to happen in the Ottoman Empire over the next few years, yo. Sadly, I must also note that denialism is alive and well and openly supported by the government of the modern Turkish state, which I intend to treat with about as much respect as Holocaust denialism.

Right, back to the Tehcir Law itself. Here are the important parts. It claims to be aimed at targeting insurgents and rebels.  It provides the government with a comprehensive licence to deport anyone it wants, to wherever it wants. It also contains a blanket provision, authorising the deportation of entire villages and towns when a member of the population has been caught by the law.  (Let’s remember here the recent round of “searches for weapons”, aimed at manufacturing evidence of insurgency and disarming the population.) It also claims to be a temporary measure and will expire in about nine months.

Deportation orders making use of the new Tehcir Law are being prepared for towns, villages, and communities all through the Empire. More soon.

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Italian Front

The Duke of Aosta has now taken command of Third Army, prodding his men further forward.  Requests for engineers and bridging materials are pouring in from Italian units all along the River Isonzo.  Of course, there isn’t nearly enough of either.  Meanwhile, General Boroevic has returned from the Carpathian front, with reinforcements and orders from Conrad von Hotzendorf to organise the defence.  He’s quickly taken stock of the situation, and as a renowned turtle, may well have rubbed his hands with glee.

The orders that he’s issuing are simple and obvious.  The men’s current positions are exceptionally strong and must be held as long as possible, in many cases to the last man and last round.  Fallback lines will be dug as soon as the front line is complete (by the end of the month).  More barbed wire must be put out in front of the trenches; Boroevic sets a target of five belts of wire.  Breakthroughs will be responded to with counter-attacks from reserves, not by men falling back elsewhere.  The man does deserve his reputation as a defender, but the thought does occur that his current task won’t be too difficult.

Herbert Sulzbach

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, Herbert Sulzbach is mildly peeved.  His leg is inflamed, so he’s going back into hospital at Vouziers; he does find it very hard to be around infantrymen with serious wounds.

Kenneth Best

Kenneth Best goes to visit what passes for a hospital on Gallipoli.  He finds something extremely worrying, but it’s not among the wounded.

Very few wounded.  Mostly sick, swelling and rheumatism.  Saw what looked like small green yacht upturned.  Found it was Majestic, torpedoed last night within 200 yards of shore, right amongst transport.  A dozen stokers or so were drowned.  Majestic, Triumph, Goliath, all lost in a few days.  Last time I was down, the sea was swarming with gunboats and shipping of all kinds.  Now it is practically deserted.

Troops advancing by 50 yards or so, mainly by sapping forward.  In one place our sap met a Turkish one.  Both retired in a hurry.  Steady flow of casualties.  Had a refreshing bathe on X Beach.  Swam out to lighters; soon after, they were shelled.  At night I was called up to bury officer of 5th Manchesters.  There, found Fletcher had already taken the burial.  We have to walk past sentry with hands up.  Much questioning, necessary after a recent case of German officer spying.

Yes, U-21 has struck again, and another battleship has gone down. (Regular readers of the Daily Telegraph might be interested to know that Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the paper’s Gallipoli correspondent, was on the ship at the time and will be fished out of the water a couple of hours later.) The Admiralty has had enough, and withdraws all ships from the vicinity of Gallipoli.  Offshore fire support will now only be provided at times of greatest need instead of being on call, and the ships will not be allowed to lie at anchor while firing. This will reduce their accuracy to approximately that of a ten-pint drunk trying to piss on a tree from five yards away.

Actions in Progress

Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
Armenian Genocide

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day.  Worth a look.  I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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