We’ve traveled to many continents to visit the various genocides committed by the Great Powers at the dawn of the century. Now we return to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Musa Dagh Armenians were, as legend has it, miraculously saved from the so-called “first genocide of the 20th century” in the nick of time by the French navy, which just happened to be passing through.
“Even children no longer hoped for a warship to pass along the Syrian coast. And if by some unbelievable miracle, against all reason, a warship did appear on the horizon, who would be stupid enough to believe the ship’s watch would even notice that ridiculous handkerchief hanging on a pole atop the Dish Terrace?”
“For many months no one in Alexandretta had seen even the shadow of a warship far out at sea.”
“First, there were no French warships of any description in the Northeast Mediterranean.”
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, David R. Godine edition, 2012
Was the Clician coast really that devoid of French naval traffic in the summer of 1915? Let’s see what the commander of the French fleet there had to say about that. This is from Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet’s book Souvenirs de guerre d’un amiral 1914-1916, “War Memoirs of an Admiral, 1914-1916.” Plon, 1920. pp. 33-43.
The French fleet was omnipresent in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Bay of Alexandretta, in particular, “drew it like a magnet.” There was nothing miraculous about the Guichen showing up just when the Musa Dagh rebels needed it.
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On July 9, we anchor at Castelorizo. This small island, between Rhodes and the Cape of Gelidonia, is an important maritime trade hub.
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Back at Port Said on July 12, we had quite a serious alarm on the 14th.
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On August 12, the Jeanne d’Arc arrived at Jaffa.
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During the end of July and the whole month of August , the British seaplane carriers Anne and Raven salled the entire coast. Chalakdere bridge, Adana, and Mersina were bombed anew.
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In accordance with the orders of the commander in chief, we blew up the German ship Syria in the port of Beirut on August 15.
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On August 21, I assembled in front of Beirut the Jeanne d’arc, the d’Estrées, the Jauréguiberry, the Charner, and the seaplane carrier Anne.
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Seizing Rouad Island (September 1 1915)
On September 1 at 9:30 AM we landed a party of 90 men…As the city notables who came on board the Jeanne d’Arc on August 30 had predicted, the population greeted us with joy.
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Rescue of the Armenians of Musa Dagh (September 1915).
In the first days of September, the cruiser Guichen, skippered by Frigate Captain Brisson, was cruising along the coast of Antioch, when it saw signals on land…
Here is how another naval officer in the same fleet described their mission:
“At the outset of the war, our colors flew in all the ports of the coast: Antalia, Mersin, Alexandretta, Latakia, Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Akko, Caïffa, and Jaffa, while our religious protectorate had united around the French flag the Maronites, the Melkites, the Syriacs, The Armenians, and the Chaldeans, an immense clientele to which were added, in Lebanon, the Metoualis and the Orthodox.”
-Paul Chack, Marins à la bataille: Méditerrannée 1914-1918. Gerfaut, 2002. p.141
Chack, who was an ordnance officer in Admiral Du Fournet’s Mediterranean fleet, also expresses the Great Power interest in attacking the Berlin-Baghdad railway at its weakest point, Alexandretta, a stone’s throw from Musa Dagh:
“The Gulf of Alexandretta is truly a sensitive point of Turkish lines of communication. Its wonderful shore and its well-sheltered port seem to invite troop transports to anchor there.
Very early on, as a first warning, the admiral of the British navy in Egypt sent the cruiser Doris there, whose demolitions team blew up locomotives, demolished bridges, and gutted the railway. Excellent work.”
The Spy Ship Doris and Other Allied Ships
British intelligence and sabotage ship HMS Doris in the Bay of Alexandretta. Misnamed a “light cruiser,” she was lightly armed. Two other British ships of similar design, the Philomel and the Proserpine, assisted her.
Paul Chack was well informed. The British intelligence cruiser Doris, hosting the semi-famous British spy Harry Pirie-Gordon, was the most important British asset attacking the Ottoman Achilles’ heel, the stretch of the Berlin-Baghdad railway near the Bay of Alexandretta. The Doris’s logbook was classified until 1966, as it contained the names of many agents landed by the ship on the Cilician coast, as well as ordnance for the Armenian insurgents. In Military historian Edward J. Erickson’s accounts of the Doris’s missions, the second trip beginning January 7, 1914 involves the landing of an “Egyptian spy” and the taking of several prisoners for interrogation, most of them Armenians who volunteered for the position. There are also encounters at Alexandretta with the French cruiser Jauréguiberry, which apparently failed to land the spy and passed him on to the Doris, and the French destroyer Requin, which brought a “proclamation” to be distributed in Tripoli, no doubt calling on Arabs to revolt.
The German-built iron railroad bridge over the Ceyhan River at Çakaldere was one of the favorite targets of the French, British, and Russian warships visiting the Gulf of Alexandretta.
Erickson contends that the Doris’s activities targeting the Baghdad railway on the Cilician coast were the single most important factor that pushed the Ottomans to station 7% of their forces there merely to guard the railway against saboteurs, weakening the more active fronts, as well as to order the deportation of the Armenians in the region, who were induced and forced to collaborate with the British landing forces and spies. 
There is however an obvious discrepancy in Erickson’s reasoning, as the Doris was pulled out of the area and sent to Gallipoli in March 1915, whereas the Armenians were deported in August 1915. The reason for the Armenian deportation wasn’t the British navy, but the French one that replaced it, the same one that “miraculously” appeared in front of Musa Dagh to save the Armenians.
Maybe some readers expected me to say that Erickson was wrong because the Armenians posed no threat. They certainly would have preferred not to and the Ottoman authorities would have preferred that they continue leading their productive lives right where they were, but too much had been done “for” the Ottoman Armenians of Cilicia by their western “protectors” over the decades for them not to collaborate with the imperialists (in the illusion that they would achieve independence).
Unlike Erickson’s account that has the Doris performing just three missions from December 1914 to March 1915, the British Navy’s professional journal The Naval Review relates a much more sustained activity during that period, ending with a bombardment that took a very heavy toll on a garrison defending the railway, after which the flag was passed to the French ship Jauréguiberry: 
The Russian cruiser Askold, unable to return to Russia when the war broke out, was part of the Great Powers fleet pounding the Ottoman Mediterranean coast with her twelve 152mm guns and her impressive 24-knot top speed.
Even the smallest French warship in the Eastern Mediterranean, the coast guard cutter Requin, had far greater firepower than any of the British so-called “cruisers.”.
graph unit. A mirror aimed at the receiving party is used to send Morse coded messages.
Not only was the Doris much more active than Erickson suggested but it was reinforced or relieved during its coaling trips to Port Said by the light cruisers Proserpine (10-25 January 1915) and Philomel (5-17 February 1915) . The log books of the Proserpine also show the non-logged arrival of the HMS Philomel, as well as the presence of the HMS Doris, the USS Tenessee, the Russian cruiser Askold, the French cruisers Amiral Charner and Dentrecasteaux, and the French warship Requin. The log books of the Philomel indicate that it exchanged written messages with the shore on three separate occasions, the messages being transmitted by boat parties from the shore carrying white truce flags. Armenian Ottoman troops and functionaries willingly surrendered to the British and offered up information , as did Arabs further down the coast. A signalling device called a heliograph was found hidden in the reeds, just after a suspicious Armenian’s capture  near the strategic Payas bridge, regularly targeted by the Great Power navies prowling the Gulf of Alexandretta. The bombardments and attacks by landing parties on the railway skirting the coast, the roads, and all other visible infrastructure, as well as the troops defending them, were uninterrupted.
Although the British mischief on the Cilician coast was greater than Captain Larkin’s capers with the little Doris, it was still just a 3-month affair involving what the British optimistically called “light cruisers” (Doris’s previous sail-powered namesake was correctly called a frigate) that didn’t pack anything bigger than a couple of 100 or 120mm guns. In contrast, even the French coast-guard vessel Requin had two walloping 274mm guns and six 100mm ones. On February 3, 1915, she would knock out two entire Ottoman divisions attacking the Suez Canal. The number of ships and the firepower that France deployed in Cilicia was several orders of magnitude greater than Britain’s desultory efforts for the simple reason that the Lord of the Admiralty Churchill had staked his career on punching through the Dardanelles with his ships alone rather than allow Lord Kitchener’s army to land at Alexandretta and neatly snip off the entire raison d’être of the Kaiser’s war, his wild hope of taking Suez and seizing the British Raj.
Unfortunately, the French navy logs are not as readily available as the British ones. What I know of their activities is second-hand, through the memoirs of officers like Admiral du Fournet or the naval historian and former destroyer captain Paul Chack. They make no bones about what they were doing in the Levant, however. They weren’t there in such force to fight the nonexistent Ottoman navy, bombard the few paltry coastal military installations, or even to starve the Ottoman army out with their embargo. They were there to whip up a fifth column.
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Jihad was declared in the mosques of Istanbul – a frightening declaration for the 1.5 million Christians who make up two-thirds of Syria’s population. Instinctively their thoughts turn to the open sea. Will the French come, as they always have?
Arwad (Rouad) Island, a former Crusader stronghold facing Tartous, became a French naval and intelligence base for the colonization of the Levant.
The French intention of co-opting the civilian Ottoman populations that they had seduced with their schools and churches to compensate for their lack of manpower, which they had frittered away by the millions in the trenches of the Marne, was a familiar leitmotif of the Balkans and Middle East. The British were marshaling Greek forces to reinforce their troops at Gallipoli and bribing the Bedouins and other Arabs to rise up against the Ottomans. The French were trying to regroup the Serbians and send them back to Serbia in order to cut off the Berlin-Bagdad railway there. They also had plans for the Christians of Syria and Cilicia, whom they considered their “clientele.” Initially, they used them as spies. In August 1915, just before rescuing the Armenians of Musa Dagh, the French fleet occupied Arwad (Rouad) Island, facing Tartous, Syria, and turned it into a spy base. Just as French and British battleships in the Gulf of Iskenderun communicated with spies on shore, French military personnel on Arwad directly controlled spies in Tartous.
French spy chief Father Antonin Jaussen with T.E. Lawrence at El Wedj, an Ottoman port that they helped capture on the Arabian side of the Red Sea.
French and British ships also landed a variety of agents from different ethnicities to conduct and organize subversion and sabotage further inland. As the French consuls, military attachés, and other officials running this spy menagerie before the war were unavailable with the commencement of hostilities, the task fell mainly to the missionaries, who were militarized, just as the British militarized their scholars and journalists in the Middle East. The head of the French spy ring was Father Antonin Jaussen of the Dominican order. Father Jaussin’s intelligence reports at the Vincennes naval archives  reveal the thorough co-option of Ottoman minorities by the French:
- “Rapport de Negueditc Krikorian” – Report of (Armenian) Neguedich Krikorian
- “Renseignements fournis par Mich Ibn Isaac Sunaa grec-orthodoxe de Kérak” – Intelligence provided by Mish Ibn Isaac Sunaa, a Greek Orthodox from Kerak
- “Interrogatoire de Léon Cassarian” – Debriefing of (Armenian) Leon Cassarian
- “Rapport de Radji Ibrahim” – Report of Raji Ibrahim
Carving Up the Turkey
The Infamous Middle East carve-up map signed by Sykes and Picot in May 1916. Most of it is red, i.e. British, because the whole idea was Baronet Mark Sykes’s in the first place. He coined the names Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, designed the red-green-white-black “Arab” flag, and planted a (Yellow) Jewish state in the middle of the mess he created, afterwards dedicating a monument to himself pictured as a crusader with the words “Rejoice Jerusalem.”
The fate of the Armenians of Musa Dagh and Cilicia was decided not so much by the German general staff and their Ottoman underlings but, as was the case for all Ottoman peoples, by the Great Power carve-up of the Ottoman state. Weakened by the reactionary Janissaries and their Ulama allies, the Ottomans were declared “the Sick Man of Europe” (they were considered European then) and the squabbling began not on how to cure the Ottoman state but on how to butcher it. All the squabbling parties – British, Russian, French, and even Egyptian – would pretend at one time or another to “help” the sick man onto his feet, only to tear a piece off of him. This is, after all, what the Great Powers had been doing throughout the 19th century all over the globe.
Britain, the top global power, was constantly in fear that its far-away source of riches, India, would be torn from its grasp. Its lines of communication with the Raj were vulnerable. The new power in the East, Russia, wanted to send its navy into the Mediterranean and the Turkish Straits were blocking the way, which was exactly how Britain wanted things to stay. Britain tried unsuccessfully, with the help of the Ottomans and French, to stop Russia’s naval ambitions with the Crimean War, and when it failed, switched from open war to proxy war and diplomacy.
The Balkan wars were such a proxy conflict where Britain and Russia set up rival client-states, while blocking the path of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Drang Nach Osten at the expense of the Muslims and Jews, who were ethnically cleansed. Right afterwards, the Kaiser got Austria to create a pretext for invading Serbia and relaunched his railroad into the Ottoman east – namely by sacrificing the unpopular Archduke Ferdinand, regarded as too soft on the Serbs. Germany’s European enemies then decided that the long Ottoman limbo had served its purpose and the time had come to destroy that state and chop up its territory. As Marks Sykes bluntly told Lord Kitchener, “Turkey must cease to be.”
As the battleships lined up before Gallipoli, the partition negotiations began between Britain, France and Russia, which demanded and obtained first dibs on Istanbul and the Dardanelles. Then the Dodecanese Islands and Adalia (Antalya) were offered to Italy to motivate it to attack Austria. Finally, France presented its claim on the Levant, and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that wrought havoc with the Middle East was penned. While their spies incited rebellion promising freedom and independence, the Great Powers had already mapped out their new colonies. France got a surprisingly good deal out of the Sykes-Picot bargain, landing a large colony in Cilicia, frustrating Armenian hopes for independence, as well as Syria. The catch, however, was that France had to supply troops for a ground offensive from Egypt, after the defeat at Gallipoli. France could only rustle up a mere 6200 of its own troops to add to Allenby’s ten British divisions but with the addition of the Armenian Legion, its contribution grew to divisional strength rather than a paltry regiment.
That, in the end, had been the aim of France’s actions all along. The French navy’s activities in Cilicia, intensive though they were, did not stop the Ottomans from using the railways near the Cilician shores to mount an assault on the Suez Canal. They did not disrupt Ottoman communications, so vulnerable to the massed French navy, to a significant degree. The French effort to regroup the Serbian army and use it to cut the Berlin-Baghdad railway in the Balkans also serendipitously “failed.” Severing the tenuous German lines of communications with the East would have allowed a swift British victory, leading to the loss of the Levant for France, as Mark Sykes and his mentor Lord Kitchener had no intention of letting France have a cut of the Middle East pie  .
Therefore France didn’t push very hard at all against Churchill’s misguided Gallipoli plan and allowed the Ottomans to continue shifting troops and matériel to the Middle East, where Ottoman and German forces dealt the British forces in Mesopotamia the most crushing defeat in the Empire’s history, taking their commanders prisoner. As Britain’s losses grew in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia, so did its need for France’s assistance, and the price it would have to pay for it. What the French did instead of slashing the Ottoman arteries at Alexandretta was to create the conditions for raising an Armenian army, which they deployed in Palestine, as a bargaining chip to secure from Britain their Levantine colonies on the lands that had been promised to the Armenians and Arabs.
The French Mediterranean Squadron’s cannonades, landings, and spies weren’t so much a military operation as armed propaganda, designed to impress the Armenians and Arabs with France’s power and convince them of France’s inevitable victory. France’s blockade of the Mediterranean coast that caused famines wasn’t directed so much against the Ottoman military as against the civilians, who were forced to collaborate with France to avoid starvation. The subversive activities by France’s collaborators on land weren’t as significant militarily as they were politically, leading the Ottoman government to treat its minorities with increasing distrust and harshness, thus pushing them into the arms of the imperialists.
Musa Dagh was the culmination of these French efforts. The Armenians of Musa Dagh were first radicalized by Hunchak and Dashnak agents either brought in by the French and British navies or infiltrated through other networks such as the Protestant missions or even the Singer company’s sales network  . When these foreign shenanigans and the local agitation they produced, like the February 1915 Zeitoun uprising, sufficiently alarmed the Ottomans, they produced the desired behavior, viz. an increasingly brutal crackdown. The Musa Daghians, already harangued by Hunchak and Dashnak militants, were further radicalized by the government crackdown, and tensions rose to the point where the Germans and Ottomans both decided that the Armenians had to go. The Musa Daghians then put up a fight with French arms and with the cannons of the French navy supporting them, completing their transition from peaceful villagers to France’s colonial soldiers.
As the underdog of the “Entente cordiale,” France’s stealth strategy of hanging on to its interests in the Levant at Britain’s expense worked well. Lord Kitchener and Mark Sykes had intended to cut France out of the Ottoman carve-up altogether. A German mine took care of Kitchener and the crushing cost of Churchill’s Gallipoli follies forced Sykes’s hand. France shrewdly obtained the command of the Eastern Mediterranean after saving Britain’s bacon at the Suez Canal by blasting the attacking Ottoman army to bits. It then studiously avoided causing any serious disruption to the Ottomans’ fragile rail links at Alexandretta until General Townshend’s Poona division from India was destroyed, leaving the British no option but to attack from Egypt, where France could also join in, both in the action and the spoils. How fortunate that the Musa Daghians were already right there in Port Said to provide the troops for this undertaking!
France played its limited cards right and the Armenians were back in their homes with minimum losses under the tricolor flag before long. Then came the fatal mistake that caused both their downfall and France’s defeat: Instead of disbanding the Armenian Legion or giving its troops civilian jobs, France opted to use them to police its new Cilician colony. Instead, they went on a revenge rampage, causing the local population (mainly the Kurds of Marash) to take up arms against them and the French. When the French finally disbanded the Armenian Legion in 1919 and reassigned the Armenians as railway guards, they refused to comply and continued their attacks. The result, as U.S. High Commissioner Admiral Mark Bristol reported , was a catastrophe for all involved:
The self-inflicted French defeat in Cilicia, caused by the blowback from its radicalization and exploitation of the local Armenians as a fifth column against the Ottomans, was the watershed event that brought about the victory of the Kemalists, who were even firmer than Enver and Talat’s C.U.P. in the belief that Turks could not coexist in their country on an equal footing with other etnicities. This not only brought about the total ethnic cleansing of Armenians, who fled Kemalist-occupied lands in droves, and Greeks, who did the same in the Aegean, but of Kurds as well, who were forced to reliquish their autonomy, language, history, and wealth to the Turks.
French forces handed over their arms to the Turks, to be used against the Greeks, who were Britain’s equivalent of the Armenian Legion. This convinced Lenin to override Stalin’s (prophetic) objections against aiding the treacherous Turks and turned the Turkish nationalist fortunes around with generous donations of Bolshevik arms, gold, and military advisors. After his final victory, Mustafa Kemal strode into Cilicia, cleansed of its Armenians, and told the local merchants in Adana:
 Edward J. Erickson. “Captain Larkin and the Turks: The Strategic Impact of the Operations of HMS Doris in Early 1915,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 151–162, January 2010.
“Captain Frank Larkin’s voyages in command of HMS Doris in the winter of 1914–15 had an effect out of all proportion to their duration and scale. Larkin’s activities were so actively consistent and aggressive that the Ottomans came to believe that a British amphibious invasion was being coordinated with and supported by an imminent Armenian insurrection in the vicinity of Dörtyol. Unintentionally, Larkin played a key role in driving the Turks to some very poor decisions.”
 “Three Months off the Syrian Coast,” The Naval Review, 1915, Vol.3, Issue 4
 By this time Armenians had already become “usual suspects” because of the spate of Armenian rebellions and terrorist attacks during the reign of Abdulhamit II, including a very bloody attempt on his life with a VBIED. The Armenians were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t now since they were almost invariably punished at every incident they were involved in, even as mere bystanders. Accordingly, the railroad employees who surrendered to the Doris’s crew requested to be taken away to avoid punishment. The Ottomans were pushing the Armenians into the imperialists’ arms almost as hard as the Great Powers were pulling them.
 Erickson, op. cit. p. 158.
 Paul Chack. Marins à la bataille, Tôme III: Méditerrannée 1914-1918, Gerfaut, 2002. pp. 141-142.
 Eugene L. Rogan. Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan 1850-1921, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 239.
 Jan Karl Tanenbaum, “France and the Arab Middle East
1914-1920.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol 68, Part 7, 1978. p. 7
 The US-owned Singer Sewing Machine company, which exclusively employed and catered to Armenians and Greeks, was directly implicated in the 1905 assassination attempt against Sultan Abdulhamit II. After Krisdapor Mikeilian, one of the three founders of the Dashnaktsutsioun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), blew himself up in Bulgaria while trying to build the bomb for the assassination, the Singer company in Istanbul brought in the famous Belgian terrorist Edward Joris for the job. The VBIED that he built killed 26 people. Joris, like other foreign-backed terrorists caught by the Ottomans, was saved from prosecution by foreign pressure. Abdulhamit then ordered Singer to dismiss all its Greek and Armenian employees, an order that the company and U.S. Ambassador Morgenthau resisted. In February 1915, Agop Basmadjiyan the Singer company cashier in Kilis, the junction of the Berlin-Baghdad and Hejaz railways, was tried and hanged as the regional chief of the Hunchak organisation.
 Hratch Dasnabedian, History of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun 1890/1924. OEMME Edizioni, 1989. p.116
 Stanford Shaw, “The Armenian Legion and its Destruction of the Armenian Community of Cilicia.” in Türkkaya Ataöv, Ilber Ortaylı (ed.), The Armenians in the Late Ottoman Period, Turkish Historical Society, 2001, p. 188.