Winston Churchill and the Armenian Genocide, 1914-23

Winston Churchill and the Armenian Genocide, 1914-23

Excerpt­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, Sep­tem­ber 2020. For the com­plete text, an appen­dix of Churchill’s words on Arme­nia, more illus­tra­tions and end­notes, please click here.

The age-long mis­for­tunes of the Armen­ian race have arisen main­ly from the phys­i­cal struc­ture of their home. Upon the lofty table­land of Arme­nia, stretch­ing across the base of the Asia Minor Penin­su­la, are imposed a series of moun­tain ranges hav­ing a gen­er­al direc­tion east and west. The val­leys between these moun­tains have from time immemo­r­i­al been the path­ways of every inva­sion or counter-attack between Asia Minor in the west and Per­sia and Cen­tral Asia in the east…. After the rise of Rus­sia to pow­er, the strug­gle for pos­ses­sion of the Armen­ian regions, as con­tain­ing the nat­ur­al fron­tiers of their own domains, [it] was con­tin­ued by Rus­sia, Per­sia and the Ottoman Empire. —Win­ston S. Churchill, The After­math (1929)

Ger­man ethno­graph­ic map of Asia Minor and the Cau­ca­sus, 1914, show­ing areas of Armen­ian set­tle­ment in blue. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons, pub­lic domain)

The Armenian Tragedy

For nine years after the out­break of war in 1914, Turk­ish gov­ern­ments con­duct­ed sys­temic geno­cide among the Armen­ian peo­ple. It was not the first assault on those who had inhab­it­ed their lands for mil­len­nia. The First World War brought fur­ther atroc­i­ties. When the Czar’s forces threw back Enver Pasha’s assault on Tran­scau­ca­sia, some Arme­ni­ans sup­port­ed the Rus­sians. The Ottomans said they were “trai­tors, sabo­teurs, spies, con­spir­a­tors, ver­min and infi­dels.” This incite­ment led direct­ly to what its vic­tims and their descen­dants describe as the Armen­ian holocaust.

For years the dead­ly comb swept back and forth through Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ties. Depor­ta­tions to out­ly­ing parts of the Ottoman Empire began in May 1915. Armen­ian prop­er­ty was seized, men were mur­dered, woman and chil­dren round­ed up. In the slave mar­kets of Syr­ia and Mesopotamia, women were sold, vio­lat­ed by Turk­ish sol­diers, or left to die. Twen­ty-five con­cen­tra­tion camps exist­ed with­in Turkey prop­er. Through 1923, between one and one and one-half mil­lion Arme­ni­ans died. In Amer­i­ca, Theodore Roo­sevelt described the almost dai­ly reports of mur­ders as “the great­est crime of the war.” Up to then, he had a point. Hitler’s assault on the Jews had yet to come.

“The moral sense of Liberal Britain”

The young Churchill was aware of Armen­ian suf­fer­ing. In 1894-96, Abdul Hamid’s Hamid­i­an mas­sacres killed between 100,000 and 300,000. “What­ev­er hap­pens,” he wrote his moth­er, “it is evi­dent that we pose as cham­pi­ons of human­i­ty in gen­er­al and of Arme­ni­ans in par­tic­u­lar alone and unas­sist­ed. But that is after all entire­ly in accor­dance with prece­dent.” The “prece­dent” was Prime Min­is­ter Glad­stone’s out­rage over an ear­li­er pogrom in the 1870s. Speak­ing in 1946, Churchill recalled how “Mr. Glad­stone stirred the moral sense of Lib­er­al Britain.”

Dur­ing the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres in Spring 1915, the hor­ror of Ger­man poi­son gas broke upon a shocked world. It is well estab­lished that Churchill sup­port­ed use of dead­ly gasses only after they were used by the ene­my. Ypres was the tip­ping point. By Octo­ber, reports of Armen­ian mas­sacres, shoot­ings and depor­ta­tions were mount­ing, while at Gal­lipoli, few Allied pris­on­ers were alive. Grim­ly, Churchill addressed the War Cabinet:

I trust that the unrea­son­able prej­u­dice against the use by us of gas upon the Turks will now cease. The mas­sacres by the Turks of Arme­ni­ans and the fact that prac­ti­cal­ly no British pris­on­ers have been tak­en on the [Gal­lipoli] Penin­su­la, though there are many thou­sands of miss­ing, should sure­ly remove all false sen­ti­ment on this point, indulged in as it is only at the expense of our own men.

After the war, the Treaty of Sèvres guar­an­teed an autonomous Armen­ian state, though Arme­ni­ans con­tin­ued to suf­fer out­side its bor­ders. Churchill described “mas­sacring uncount­ed thou­sands of help­less Arme­ni­ans, men, women, and chil­dren togeth­er, whole dis­tricts blot­ted out in one admin­is­tra­tive holocaust…beyond human redress.”

Peace to end peace

“It seemed incon­ceiv­able,” Churchill wrote, that the vic­tors would not make their will effec­tive” against “Armenia’s per­se­cu­tors and tyrants.” So in March 1920, they offered a man­date (trustee­ship) to shep­herd Armen­ian inde­pen­dence. No pow­er would take it, nor would the League of Nations. “Unsup­port­ed by men or mon­ey,” Churchill believed, the League declined “prompt­ly and with pru­dence.” U.S. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son might take a man­date “if left to him­self.” But an iso­la­tion­ist Con­gress blocked Wilson’s inter­na­tion­al predilections.

Churchill con­clud­ed: “The ghast­ly fate of the Arme­ni­ans has yet to be record­ed.” At the same time, he added, the vic­tors’ atti­tude towards Turkey “was so harsh that Right had now changed sides.” Defeat in war was one thing. The “destruc­tion and death of the Turk­ish nation” were things no Turk could countenance

Churchill’s atti­tude toward Turkey eased after he became War Sec­re­tary in Jan­u­ary 1919. He found British forces stretched thin as the armies reced­ed dur­ing demo­bi­liza­tion. A “mas­sacre of the Arme­ni­ans” would fol­low with­draw­al from the Cau­cusus. Yet Churchill wished to remove British troops from Turkey.

Repercussion and republic

Events soon test­ed Churchill’s instinc­tive sym­pa­thy for the Arme­ni­ans. In Sep­tem­ber 1919 Sir Hen­ry Wil­son, Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff, warned him of trou­ble in the Caucasus:

The Arme­ni­ans, feel­ing that we were their friends, have mur­dered every Turk man, woman and child they have been able to lay their hands on, and not only mur­dered them, but have prac­ticed the most dev­il­ish hor­rors such as peel­ing unfor­tu­nate peo­ple alive. That such brutes as these should be saved from the vengeance of the Turks is an affair which I per­son­al­ly think is not our busi­ness but which the Amer­i­cans or some oth­er phil­an­thropists might with advan­tage take on.

While shar­ing Wilson’s hor­ror, Churchill thought of the much broad­er tra­vails Arme­ni­ans suf­fered. “We must not,” he replied, “make dif­fi­cul­ties in small things and must facil­i­tate any bona fide effort to sta­bilise the Armen­ian situation.”

The First Repub­lic of Arme­nia, declared at Yere­van in May 1918, last­ed only two years. When Yere­van fell to Turk­ish nation­al­ists. Churchill wrote:

…as in Cili­cia, anoth­er exten­sive mas­sacre of Arme­ni­ans accom­pa­nied the mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. Even the hope that a small autonomous Armen­ian province might even­tu­al­ly be estab­lished in Cili­cia under French pro­tec­tion was destroyed. In Octo­ber France, by the Agree­ment of Ango­ra, under­took to evac­u­ate Cili­cia com­plete­ly. In the Treaty of Lau­sanne, which reg­is­tered the final peace between Turkey and the Great Pow­ers, his­to­ry will search in vain for the word “Arme­nia.”

Hope and tragedy, 1920-23

Ever the seek­er of  just out­comes, Churchill’s eye fell on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Churchill saw in him the poten­tial for a demo­c­ra­t­ic Turk­ish state. Sol­dier, rev­o­lu­tion­ary, found­ing father and first pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic, he was “a Cap­tain who with all that is learned of him, ranks with the four or five out­stand­ing fig­ures of the cat­a­clysm.”  In 1921, Turk­ish forces oppos­ing the Greeks threat­ened to march on British gar­ri­son at Chanak. Churchill urged “a friend­ly peace.” (This is inci­den­tal­ly the oppo­site of that bel­li­cose atti­tude his crit­ics say he habit­u­al­ly adopt­ed.) In 1923-24, Atatürk signed the Treaty of Lau­sanne, which estab­lished the bor­ders of mod­ern Turkey.

Although Lau­sanne marked the end of Armen­ian pogroms, the country’s short-lived inde­pen­dence end­ed quick­ly. The Red Army advanced unop­posed into Arme­nia in Novem­ber 1920, pro­claim­ing a Sovi­et Repub­lic. Allied pol­i­cy, and the paral­y­sis of Pres­i­dent Wil­son, had thrown togeth­er two nat­ur­al ene­mies, the Turks and Rus­sians. The result, Churchill declared, was “a series of tragedies.”

“The ire of simple and chivalrous men and women”

Final­ly in 1991, sev­en decades after the Bol­she­vik inva­sion, Arme­nia seced­ed from the Sovi­et Union and regained her inde­pen­dence. Could things have been bet­ter, soon­er? Yes, Churchill thought, but with great difficulty:

The Armen­ian peo­ple emerged from the Great War scat­tered, extir­pat­ed in many dis­tricts, and reduced through mas­sacre, loss­es of war and enforced depor­ta­tions adopt­ed as an easy sys­tem of killing, by at least a third. Out of a com­mu­ni­ty of about two and a half mil­lions, three-quar­ters of a mil­lion men, women and chil­dren had perished….

Opin­ions about them dif­fered, one school dwelling upon their suf­fer­ings and the oth­er upon their fail­ings…. Atroc­i­ties per­pe­trat­ed upon Arme­ni­ans stirred the ire of sim­ple and chival­rous men and women spread wide­ly about the Eng­lish-speak­ing world.


Thanks to Howard Kaloogian of the Hills­dale Col­lege Devel­op­ment Depart­ment, whose queries about Churchill’s views on Arme­nia inspired this essay.

Further reading

See Churchill’s lengthy account of Armenia’s unfor­tu­nate geo­graph­ic sit­u­a­tion, par­tial­ly quot­ed at the top of this arti­cle, in The After­math, Chap­ter XVIII.

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