A true or false story by Torossian

MAXIME GAUIN
Published 02.10.2015 00:00
Updated 02.10.2015 02:09
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

Filled with absurd scientific, historical and chronological errors, Torossian's book about the so-called Armenian genocide attempts to increase tensions between Turks and Armenians

Among the recent attempts to renew the approaches to the Turkish-Armenian conflict, one of the most controversial was the re-discovery of a book finished in 1929 but published in 1947, "From Dardanelles to Palestine: A true story of five battle front of Turkey and her allies and a harem romance" by Sarkis Torossian. Torossian was an Armenian-American who presented himself as a former captain in the Ottoman army from 1914 to 1916, who, having discovered the "massacre" of his family, joined the British from 1916 to 1918 and later the French armed forces from 1919 to 1920. Torossian also claimed that he had been decorated by these three armies, but the medals were never shown and research in the British archives to corroborate Torossian's claims has been fruitless. In Turkey, the main participants in the controversy concerning the reliability of the book are two sociologists, Taner Akçam and Ayhan Aktar, and four historians, Halil Berktay, Edhem Eldem, Hakan Erdem and Burhan Sayılır on the opposite side. In spite of recurrent criticism, Akçam and Aktar insist most recently in a book that can only damage the reputation of its publisher Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.

I became interested in this dispute while doing my doctorate in history about relations between the French Republic and the Armenian committees from 1918 to 1923. My interest increased after allegations that Torossian received an official endorsement from Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who uncritically used them in a letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and international coverage by British journalist Robert Fisk. I was surprised, as I have never seen any officer named Torossian in the thousands of archival documents and various books I read for my research, and as none of the supporters of the authenticity of Torossian's book used any French source. I decided to use my years of experience for fact checking. First of all, Torossian claims that he became an officer in the Eastern Legion in January 1919 after his brothers had joined this unit during World War I. However, in the lists of officers in the Eastern, later Armenian, Legion, there is no Torossian, according to the lists from May 1918, November 1919 and May 1920. These documents are in the Service historique de la defense (SHD), the French military archives, 4 H 38, dossier 2; 4 H 42, dossier 3 and dossier 6; all the files of the SHD I am using here have been scanned and are available at www.e-corpus.org.

'HIS'TORY

In the beginning of his book, Torossian reproduces a certificate of decoration that is definitely a fake. He is presented in the document as "chef de platon." The problem is that "chef de platon" never existed in French military history, according to the "Nouveau dictionnaire militaire published in Paris by L. Baudoin in 1891. In French, the word "platon" is only the name of Greek philosopher Plato, according to "Larousse universel en deux volumes" published in Paris in 1922. Correspondingly, it is written that Torossian received the French commemorative medal of the Great War, but this medal was awarded only to those who fought under the French flag between the German declaration of war with France on Aug. 3, 1914 and the armistice signed by Germany on Nov. 11, 1918.

There is more. The syntax in the second half of the certificate is by no means the one a native-speaker of French, still less an officer, would have used, and there are spelling errors, such as "le officier" for "l'officier," and "angage" for "engage," errors that, once again, could not have been committed by a French officer. Equally problematic is the word "compatriot" used in the middle of the so-called certificate: Torossian himself never claimed that he took French citizenship. The chronology is also highly problematic. Indeed, the document is dated Oct. 7, 1920, and supposedly comes from the Armenian Legion. However, this unit was disbanded on Sept. 1, 1920, as given in the order of General Dufieux, Aug. 15, 1920, in 4 H 42, dossier 3 and 5, and the date of the document also raises a serious problem of internal coherence, as Torossian claims on page 219 of his book that he left Cilicia for the U.S. in spring 1920. The heading of the paper also says that the document was written in Adana and came from the Levant Army, more precisely the 1st brigade of the 1st division, but this brigade was based in Ceyhan, not Adana. The alleged author is Lieutenant Brossier, commanding the depository company of the Armenian Legion in Adana. Adolphe Brossier actually commanded this unit at the very end of the Armenian Legion's existence, but he was a second lieutenant, not a lieutenant and so could not have signed any document with this rank.

The document also contradicts one of the most of Torossian's extraordinary claims on page 206 of his book: "I had never signed any agreement and was free to leave at will." Being an "engage volontaire" precisely means that you have signed an agreement, not that you are the only officer of French military history who is "free to leave at will."

SIR! FICTION IS DETECTED, SIR!

Torossian's ignorance is as big as his arrogance. On pages 200, 201, 203 and 205 of his book, he refers to "Colonel Romeo," the officer commanding the Eastern Legion. As Erdem has already observed, his name was not Romeo but Romieu. Moreover, Louis Romieu was not a colonel but rather a lieutenant colonel. Similarly, nowhere in his account does Torossian mention the separation of the Eastern Legion into the Armenian Legion and a Syrian one at the beginning of 1919, i.e., when he allegedly joined the French, and more generally, Torossian seems completely unaware of the chronology. On page 203 he mentions Romieu as commanding the Armenian Legion in 1920 and writes on page 209: "Colonel Romeo was succeeded by Colonel Phlissed-Mari." Actually, Romieu left as early as February 1919 and was succeeded by Chief of Battalion Pauget. Pauget was succeeded in June by Colonel Flye Sainte Marie, absurdly spelled "Phlissed-Mari". Correspondingly, Torossian claims that he led a unit of volunteers distinct of the Armenian Legion by February 1920, but these volunteers briefly existed in the summer of 1920, not the winter, two seasons that hardly can be confused in Adana. See the weekly intelligence report dated Sept. 22-29, 1920, in SHD, 4 H 58, dossier 2.

His ignorance of the military issue is equal to his ignorance of the political and administrative ones. Indeed, he asserts, on page 202: "The French Governor of Cilicia stepped down from his official position and appointed a Turkish successor." In fact, no Frenchman was ever governor (vali) of the province of Adana; this charge was constantly assumed by a Turk. The chief administrator, Colonel Edouard Bremond, who arrived in 1919, was replaced in September 1920 by Lieutenant Colonel Capitrel, not by a Turk, and nobody who knows about Bremond could imagine him "appointing a Turkish successor." Equally unlikely is Torossian's claim on page 205 that at the end of 1919 he proposed to the Armenian National Union (UNA) of Adana a plot "to seize all French officers and to escort them out of the province." At that time, the Armenian Legion had been reduced by purges, never mentioned in Torossian's book, colonial units had arrived, and such a coup, as a result, was impossible. Anyway, there is no trace of this beginning of a plot in French intelligence bulletins. Torossian's description of the UNA leader as passive is equally far from the truth. Mihran Damadian, who never mentions a Torossian in his recollections, and Mushegh Seropian were veterans of Armenian agitation. Actually, Seropian was even sentenced in absentia by a French military court for terrorist activities in April 1920, a fact Torossian never discusses. Correspondingly, Lieutenant Colonel Capitrel's first important decision in September 1920 was to expel from Cilicia the biggest number of UNA leaders he could, seeing them, and not without good reason, as dangerous troublemakers.

Beyond these unbelievable stories and unlikely omissions, it should be noticed that Torossian writes on page 202 that İzmir and Antalya were occupied as early as autumn 1918. In fact, the Greek forces landed at İzmir on May 15, 1919, and the Italians at Antalya on April 29 of the same year.

This article is far from exhausting the incoherencies and inaccuracies I found in Torossian's book, but the ones exposed here are already enough to prove the chapters on the alleged time of Torossian in Cilicia as fictional. The Torossian controversy should have ended more than two years ago, as the book is full of errors and absurd claims. The persistence of a debate on such an unreliable source underlines not only the recurrent use of falsifications and distortions by Akçam to support the charges of the Armenian genocide, but also the more than regrettable state of Turkish studies in France, as well as the excessive focus of the French military on national and Western European issues. I would be glad if my intervention incited more historians to contribute their own expertise to the analysis of Torossian's fiction.

*MA in History from Paris-Sorbonne University

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