The scarcity of ammunition was seriously worrying both the Defense Command and the combatants themselves. For this reason the first order issued by the Command was “Use your ammunition sparingly.” Everyone fully realized its critical need and therefore cherished it as treasure. At times this niggardliness in the use of ammunition meant jeopardizing lives. Turks derided us for this on all fronts. It had become customary for our defenders to use brick bats, etc., wherever possible.
It was realized, however, that this restriction was, at best, only a half-measure. The end of the fight was nowhere in sight. It was only a matter of time when our ammunition would be depleted through constant attacks against our positions. The inventive genius of the Armenians of Van was called upon to remedy the situation. During the first week of the struggle, large shops were established to produce first black powder and then smokeless powder. The most competent artisans contributed their skills for the purpose. Among these were goldsmiths, engravers, gilders, and mechanics as well as teachers and intellectuals. Most noteworthy were the contributions of Professor Michael Minassian and his associates, Vartan Babigian and Haroutiun Gakavian, who perfected the technique of producing smokeless powder. Necessary chemicals were either produced in the laboratory or procured, where available, from drugstores. Fifty people were engaged in the production of gun powder, supervised by master goldsmiths.
Every evening the empty cartridges were collected and delivered to the Defense headquarters; from here they were dispatched to the powder shop for refill and the following morning they were returned ready for use, and distributed to the various posts. The shop had several departments such as powder production, casting of bullets, loading and capping, etc. The work had to go on night and day as long as lead, nickle and chemicals were obtainable. Vosdanig, Arshag, Avedis and Karekin Shahbaghlian proved themselves very competent in this work.
The daily capacity of the shop was approximately two thousand rounds per day, nowhere near enough for the eighty defense positions. Without exception, every Armenian family in Aikesdan participated, in whatever useful manner they could, in the furtherance of these efforts; they donated any and all articles containing lead or nickel, not sparing their favorite Samovars. The efforts on the part of the children showed marvelous courage and dexterity. Unmindful of danger, they would dash out to pick up spent bullets wherever they could be found and bring them to the headquarters.
Powder production was hampered by the meager supply of potassium nitrate. People were asked to collect the white crystalline material about their barn yards, dung heaps, and cellars. Also, attempts were made to mine it in Varak mountain where a deposit was supposed to exist.
Several accidents occurred. On the 30th of April, eight pounds of powder exploded through carelessness. Luckily no one was harmed. This was considered a real calamity and was bewailed by all. Several rifle barrels also burst due to faulty powder or its measurement.
A separate weapons repair shop was set up to repair, make needed parts, and clean rifles and pistols. But the most interesting invention was the homemade cannon, designed and constructed by Gregory of Bulgaria. He had been devoting all his spare time to its building and perfection. Many were his failures, but the quaint little cannon was finished and dubbed Gregory’s cannon. It was a small caliber and used long shells weighing about two pounds. This “odd” artillery piece, which was put into action during the last week of the fighting, was nevertheless a symbol of the ingenuity, untiring sacrifice and uncompromising determination of the people of Van.
It was first tested in front of our Der Khachadoorian defenses and found to have fairly good range, the shell exploding and making the noise of a real cannon. That day was a festive day for the people. Next it was placed to bombard Turkish barracks at Toprak Kale. It landed several shells causing great consternation there, as they thought the Russian army had already arrived.
A shop was set up to produce shoes for the combatants. These were light shoes, more like slippers. About forty pairs were produced daily and distributed among the combatants, upon written requisition from the leaders. The shoe factory was under the supervision of the Supply Committee which supplied them with leather and other necessary items.
Since the Defense Command was fully occupied with responsibilities of its own, a separate police force was organized on the 1st of May to maintain order among the populace, now increased by the influx of many thousands of peasant families. In order to acquaint the people with the duties of the new organization and to reinforce its authority, the Defense Command issued the following instructions:
“To the police department of the national defense”
“Under prevailing conditions it is imperative to maintain complete harmony. To insure this harmony it is necessary to forestall offenses and to remove causes for dereliction.
“It is evident that in our present congested situation any negligence of hygienic rules must be regarded as grave misdemeanor as it can jeopardize the lives of the people. Those guilty of this and similar misdemeanors will be tried by the police court and punished.
“To minimize losses caused by enemy shelling, people shall not be allowed to congregate in the streets.
“Those who spread false rumors, whether good or bad, will be arrested and punished.
“Police court will have jurisdiction to try and pass sentence in cases involving a misdemeanor. The more serious crimes shall be referred to the Defense Command.
“Necessary measures will be instituted to insure harmony among families having to live in the same house and guard the safety of vacant buildings.
“Profiteers in food and clothing will be punished and their activities reported to the proper agency.
“This is a general outline of your duties and responsibilities. You shall be alert, at all times, to prevent any untoward acts from taking place.”
May 1, 1916
The police headquarters was located at Guloghlian’s house in the Norashen ward. Gregory Jonian was appointed chief of police, having served in the same capacity as a member of Turkish police force. The force was comprised of fifty men, corporals and sergeants included. Most of them were young students. All carried a red band on their arm and were furnished with a short club. The community respected them and gladly carried out their orders and recommendations. Aside from trivial offenses, no major crimes were committed during the entire duration of the struggle. Regulated by the Defense Command, it had close relations with other administrative bodies such as the court, the Supply Agency, and the Mayor.
At the same time, a court was instituted to adjudicate all litigation, past or present. Shivanian’s house became the new courthouse. Judicial functions were shouldered by Hovhannes Mugurdichian-Guloghlian (teacher), Hrant Kaligian (attorney), Ruben Shadvorian (former member of Turkish civil court), and Arsen Hatzakordzian (an itinerant teacher) as the court clerk.
The new Administrative Council had the responsibilities of safeguarding the public health, establishing and enforcing fair prices, care of the needy families, etc. Bedros Mozian was appointed Mayor, with Khachig Zenopian and Ghevont Khanjian as his assistants. They also had their own organization and, like all others, were subject to the authority of the Defense Command.
The Armenian Women’s Union of Vasbouragan formed soon after the establishment of the constitutional regime in Turkey and by the efforts of Aram and Mihran Terlemezian, contributed their whole-hearted cooperation. They started a sewing shop where the maidens of Vasbouragan made shirts and underwear, and knitted stockings for their fighting brothers. Most of the material they procured from their own homes; what they lacked they got from others. The Supply Agency also assisted them to the point that they were able to supply the military and hospital needs in that line. Some of them collected food items for the defenders, others visited the fighting fronts to keep up morale, and many joined the “Sisters of Mercy” to help in hospitals, day and night.
One Sevo (Swarthy), a seventeen year old girl, an orphan and a beggar, never participated in the womanly tasks. A fiery amazon with flying black basses, totally indifferent to danger, she would rush from one post to another carrying messages, or, with a pistol slung from her shoulder, she would spy on the enemy, or substitute for a wounded fighter until replaced.
Prominent among the Women’s Union were Salome Jerpashkhian, Anna Terlemezian and Misses Zarouhie Shaljian, Ripsime Nalbandian, Araxie Safrasdian, and others.