Chapter VIII

April 23rd To April 25th

 

Following the destruction of the Hamud Ahga barracks on the 23rd of April, the Turks again subjected our positions to violent artillery and rifle fire. However, the baptism by fire experienced by the Armenian population, during the past several days, had steeled them with courage and any inclination to panic had disappeared. Our fighters were standing up to the enemy with unexcelled prowess and calculated contempt. Late in the afternoon Turkish assaults came to a stop. They had not been able to advance one inch, and our losses were small, considering the violence of Turkish efforts; five or six fortification workers lost their life and several children and women fell victim to stray bullets and shells in the streets.

To compensate for the violent shelling of our Sahag Bey and Tovmazian posts, our fire brigade set fire to several Turkish strong points in the vicinity. Teacher Dikran was the genius of this brigade; his plans were clever enough to catch the Turks by surprise and always were crowned with success. With necessary variations dictated by circumstances, his plan was to approach the building unnoticed, dig a hole in the wall and spray the underside of the wood floors with kerosene so the inflammable liquid would be set on fire by bullets or a grenade. The spray pump was a homemade affair, designed and manufactured by Dikran himself. Where the terrain did not afford safety, they would tunnel into the building and accomplish their work unmolested.

This strategem of destroying Turkish strongholds by fire proved of immense value in our scheme of defense. It struck terror among Turkish soldiers, caused considerable loss of their fighting strength, and forced them to retreat to other, less strategic positions leaving behind quantities of arms, ammunition and food items, all desperately needed by us. As the fighting progressed, more brigades were organized by the Defense Command. Teacher Dikran, Kevork Jidechian (chairman of the municipal council), Nishan Jamakordzian and several crack well diggers were entrusted with the execution of the plans. Besides its disasterous effect upon the enemy, these conflagrations lifted morale, especially among the non-combatants. At night they created a holiday spirit of joviality; people sang and danced while the band trumpeted tunes of victory.

From the daily communiques issued by the Defense Command, it appeared that Turks had suffered extensive losses during the fighting of April 23rd to 25th. Twelve were killed at the Tovmazian defense and one gunner; six were killed at the Chavoosh Bashi defense and two at the Tutunjian and Shan Tagh defenses. Also, unknown numbers of Turks were killed in encounters at Haji Bekir barracks, Vizviz, Khach-Poghan, Ayij-Oghlou and Shahbenderian defenses. (Shahbenderian post was reoccupied by us after the demolition of Hamud Agha barracks).

On the 25th of April, Armenians succeeded in setting fire to Turkish (Harazyn) strongholds across from our Sahag Bey defense; Turks fled leaving several dead. Three Turkish strong points were set on fire in the Arark sector killing four Turks. We suffered no casualties in the merciless bombardment of our Arark and Shahbenderian defenses on the 25th of April.

During the six days of fighting, April 20th to April 26th, our Tovmazian defense had been completely isolated. Unable to contact the Defense Command or any of the other defense posts due to the superior advantage of the Turkish posts, they carried on a most desperate fight. This handful of inexperienced young men had nothing but their own courage, cunning and endurance, along with fast disappearing stock of ammunition, to fall back on. “It all seemed like a dream,” said one of them after they were relieved. We thought all of Aikesdan was in ruins like our barricades. It seemed so strange to see that buildings were still standing, men still fighting, children playing and women and old men still praying to God. The enemy peppered us with tens of thousands of bullets during the six days of fighting and showered us with an average of a hundred shells a day. I cannot explain how we were able to resist or how we kept on fighting. There were nine of us, all without experience in the arts of war. For some, it was the first time to shoulder a rifle. A few had little training at Varak, but that was not the real tragedy as we soon got used to it. The lack of ammunition was the real tragedy. While the enemy was lavishly wasting its ammunition, we were sparing ours to the extreme. At the start we each had one-hundred fifty rounds of ammunition, and forty or fifty rounds were left. During the last days we had lost all cover. The second story of our building was demolished the first day, as were the two outside walls. We used the privy as a barricade but the infidels shelled it to rubble. There was nothing left of the massive Tovmazian home on the last day, only heaps of rubble here and there. There was one small section of a wall left standing which served us well. For some time, the enemy did not detect us and we were able to pick off their gunners one by one from behind the wall. The last day our last barricade was also reduced to ashes. We lacked both men and tools to try and reconstruct our barricades. At night the fusillade was continued by the Turks, who were stationed in the orchard. No escape was possible and we experienced no particular fear of death; we longed for hand to hand fighting, but they denied us the opportunity.

Miserly about our ammunition, we were very improvident about our food supply. Tovmazian's home was well furnished with provisions which were to be buried soon under the rubble and we never thought of the length of time we might be severed from the rest of you. Two chickens were our source of food if we could discover where they laid their eggs.

Aram Shaljian was our leader; a goldsmith by trade, he was a brave fighter with steel nerves. The real spirit of the gang was Vagharshag Shirvanian, a tradesman, yet a real daredevil who caused us many an anxious moment. He was at the most endangered sites, exposing himself to attract enemy fire. He sang, danced and teased the Turks. At one time a shell fell at his feet; fortunately it did not explode. He picked up the shell and tossed it towards an enemy gunner yelling, “Hey, brother gunner, try this again, it did not do any good the first time.”

It became a game with us to tease and enrage the enemy so the ammunition would be wasted. Thus, when they momentarily stopped shooting, we would throw brick bats and wrapped excreta at them, accompanied by concerted and nervous laughter. The few teenage students, barely eighteen years old, proved themselves worthy fighters. As superb as everyone was, none could equal Aram Tovmazian, the owner of the building, in courage, calmness, ingenuity, and devotion. He was a teacher and became a renowned humorist under the pen name of Ler-Gamsar.

During these six days, none of us had a chance to sleep. In fact, sleep did not appear to be a physical necessity anymore. The Defense Command allowed us two days leave. Our weapons were given to others who came to relieve us. In this group were a few experienced men along with several students. They came up through a trench that was started at our Sahag Bey defense, thus establishing communication between the two posts.

Later on the Tovmazian defense was wrecked and reconstructed many times. This beautiful family home was transformed into a ugly, yet efficient, sort of fortress.