The Great Retreat from Vasbouragan (June-July 1915)


Map of exodus from Van

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the English translation—by Garabet K Moumdjian and Ara Sarafian—of Ado Adoian’s Book, “The Great Events in Vasbouragan, 1914-1915, Yerevan, 1917 (Ադօ Ադոյեան, Մեծ Դէպքերը Վասպուրականում 1914-1915 Թուականներին, Երեւան, 1917), which is currently under publication by the UK based Gomidas Institute.

After two and one half months from the April-May battles, just as the new Armenian government was starting to operate, the Russian command suddenly—and without any explanation—decided to retreat from the areas it was occupying.

During the 2 months after the battles, Aykesdan and the old city had become construction sites. Khach Poghan square was being rebuilt in Aykesdan and a new bazaar in Aykesdan was becoming a new commercial hub replacing the bazaar in the old city. Everyone was in the mood for building a city that was even more beautiful than the one that was destroyed.

Rebuilding was also the mantra of the day at the Kuchuk Kendirji sector adjacent to the Khach Poghan Square. Homes were rebuilt, doors and windows were being replaced, and shops were reopening. All this showed how determined the Armenians of Van were in rebuilding their city and enjoying normal life again. One had to be in Van in those days to see with his/her own eyes how a destroyed city was being transformed.

While Van was being rebuilt, the Russian army units were moving forward along the southern route of Lake Van and reaching Tadvan, which became the new center of the army. It was from here that Russian army units attacked on Bitlis and Mush. Khech, one of the commanders of the Armenian volunteer units was killed in the battle to take tadvan. His body was brought to Van and it was interned at the Ararots cemetery on July 11. His funeral was a national affair and thousands participated. The people were eagerly awaiting the fall of Bitlis and Moush to the advancing Russian army.

Gathering of orphans and lost children during the Van exodus

The situation changed completely on 14 July. News arrived that the Russian army, which ahd entered Bitlis and Moush victoriously, had halted their movement, and had retreated to Sorp and Akhlat. At the same time, news also arrived that Kurdish tribal formations were seen on the borders of Mogs and Shadakh.

The news was sobering for Armenians in Van.

A popular meeting was called in Van. 300 young Armenians registered as volunteer fighters to go and aid their brethren in Mogs and Shadakh. On 15 July about 100 of these fighters were on their way south to Shadakh. The fighters of Van had gained experience during the April-May battles. The youth were eager to join their fellow fighters in Shadakh, which was now under Kurdish menace.

The Armenian fighters soon noticed that the conditions were different now. They were not allowed to define the plans of battle and take heroic actions. They were now to be directed under orders from the Russians. The same was true about the Armenian volunteer units under Russian command. This command chain, which was to be honored at any rate, meant that no personal initiative could be taken. Thus, the fighters of Van were now waiting for orders which were never to arrive.

The fighters didn’t know what was happening on the battlefield in Mogs and Shadakh. Regardless, the news emanating from the counties were not good…

On the route of retreat from Van

The condition of Aljeviz was especially problematic. Many Armenian survivors from Moush had relocated there with the retreating Russian army. News was reaching that a massacre of Armenians was eminent in Aljivaz and Arjesh; how and why something like this could happen were questions that remained unanswered. News that ottoman army remnants had coalesced and were fighting the Russians reached Van.

Van was in very depressive mood between 15 and 17 July. News that the whole Caucasian front could collapse were circulating within the population.

-The Muslims had entered the Caucasus through Olti.

-The enemy is already in Ardahan.

The Ottoman armiy has already taken Gaghzevan- Olti and is advancing toward Yerevan.

-The Muslims are near Tiflis [Tbilisi]; the Caucasus front is in real danger.

These were the kind of news that was reaching Van during the three day period.

What would become the fate of Van and Vasbouragan Armenians if this news were true? If the Ottomans and really reached Tiflis, this meant that the Russians would retreat and Armenians will be defenseless…

It was under these conditions when the order was given for the Russian army to retreat.

What would the Armenians do?

The Russian command wanted the population to retreat with the army.

-where are we going to retreat to, asked the van Armenian? We won’t go. We will remain and fight. We are sure that we won’t let the Muslims enter our parameter. At least this was how the young fighters thought. The Armenian volunteer unit soldiers and their commanders were thinking along the same line. The Armenian government of Van also seconded the plan to stay and fight. Van was now even better supplied to withstand the enemy then it was in April. Thus, it was not surprising that the locals were ready to stay and fight rather than to retreat.

However, the Russian command’s decision was final. The time was right to approach the commander of the Russian army and ask for clarifications and the possibility of the fighters—including the volunteers from the Caucasus—to remain and to fight. This was the situation on the night of July 17.

The Russian commander was totally against the volunteers remaining behind. As to what concerns the people, the commander once again reiterated that it was better for them to retreat with the army in two days time. The commander however stated that if the people don’t want to retreat, that would be their prerogative and that he would understand it.

Thus, the final decision to have the population retreat remained to the Armenian leadership to decide upon.

The news about the Caucasus being taken by the Muslims turned out to be nothing but a hoax. It was true that the Ottomans had some units near Olti, Sarikamish, and Alashgerd, however, it was not that asy for them to advance and take over the southern Caucasus. The question remained as to what source was disseminating such news. The answer to that riddle had to be extracted from the policy of “Armenia without Armenians” that the chanceries of some states were trying to implement…

The misinformation had already done its damage. The people were in fear. People in high positions who had been advocating remaining and fighting as the youth had demanded now changed their decision…

On the morning of July 18 an order was given to prepare for retreat and to take 5 or 6 days of food rations only.

A rampage to be the first to leave started. This movement became known in history as the “Grand Retreat from Vasbouragan.” This was a retreat that was to cause the death of thousands on the route and the death of yet another wave of thousands more due to disease and famine in the hot and arid Ararad plain. It was to become one of the major ambiguous decisions of the time.

A city that only yesterday had some semblance of peacefulness was transformed. Defending the homeland was not an option anymore. The rumors had done their damage. The verdict to retreat was already a given.

The shops closed. Confusion became commonplace. Women started to make preparations for the arduous journey ahead. Men started hiding valuables in specially prepared hiding places. Many weren’t able to do even that. The route to Pergri was to be closed in three days time. What uncertainties might arise after that? These were the issues that Armenians of Van and its environs had on their minds at the moment. Homes and valuables lost their meaning and value. The issue of survival was the utmost concern.

Fright and terror were overwhelming. No one could rely on another person. Each person was on his/her own now. No kind of organizing could take place under such circumstances. The sick and elderly had no means of transportation provided for them. Weapons were not distributed to guard the caravans that were hitting the road. It was utter and complete chaos. Tens of thousands hit the road like heard of sheep with no Sheppard to guide them. The Grand Retreat had started…

To retreat and/or to migrate: The words are easy to say but much, much harder to implement or even to envision. If one has not lived the condition—even for one hour—he/she would not even surmise what it meant…It meant to be uprooted, bewildered on the road, not even care about people dying around you…

The army was to lead the retreating people from the front and behind. Lucky were those families who possessed a cart or a donkey or mule to carry their belongings. Children, women, and elderly people were walking as fast as they could. A cloud of dust was rising as people roamed the dry, earthen road. The sun set down and the moon came out. And then people noticed that a huge fire was roaring behind them. Van was set on fire by its own inhabitants. The fire was burning the same homes that had just been rebuilt or were in the process of rebuilding. Van was literally being killed behind…

Sunday, July 19 was on us now. The caravans are on their way now. The city was almost empty by now. Some remained behind. People left their sick and elderly because the latter had told them to do so. They didn’t want to leave and were, it seems, ready to be massacred. That was to be their destiny and they somehow were ready for it.

People from counties to the east of Van had hit the road beforehand and were now the vanguards of the moving column of people that had no end in sight. Others from counties such as Gevash, Hayots Tsor, Mogs, and Shadakh had remained behind. No one knew if people from those areas would be able to join the Grand Retreat. This is how D Baghdasarian, one of the heroes of Shadakh describes the situation:

“It’s 17 of July. We heard that Kurdish tribal fighters had entered Mogs and the people had moved to Vosdan. We also were informed that the Russian army and the Armenian volunteers are retreating from Bitlis to Vosdan. Whatever really was happening outside our area we didn’t know? Armenian soldiers in Shadakh are keeping their positions. But the people want to move ahead…

On July 18, in the afternoon, a letter arrived from Vosdan with the following information: Aram informs that there is a general retreat. Let Shadakh Armenians move to Tagh and from there to Van. It was as if we were struck by a lightning rod! What were we to do? To retreat, retreat to where and why? We remained dumbfounded until someone gave me a circular announcing that the people will start to retreat in one hour…

At 4 in the afternoon the circular was on all the walls in Tagh. People had started to move without any organization. Night came and Tagh became a deserted place. The only sounds were those of a whistle blown by a gendarme. I am going around like a crazy person who knows not where he is going. I go to the government center. There is no one there. I pass by the old barracks. I exchange some words with the guards. I go to see my friends. They are all sad. They want to talk and explain to me what is really happening. They can’t. They are ready to cry…

The night of July 19 was a long night indeed. Finally, the sun came out and the whole plain was now lit. What will happen to this plain when we leave? At noon, just before we are to leave too, we once again took a last walk in the streets just in case a family had not left yet and could be left behind. We found one blind man, one sick Armenian and one sick Assyrian. We were ordered to shoot them on the spot…Those were the last rounds fired from our rifles in Shadakh. Our group was now ready to move. I say farewell to my mountains, valleys, our Shadakh, our beloved martyrs. I envy you, since you are not seeing what I am seeing right now…

We press on. We shoot elderly and sick people who are left behind. What is this? We are shooting our own people just as we were shooting at the enemy only two months earlier…”

This was a vivid picture of what the times were like in those days. This was what became known as the Grand Retreat.

The route of the retreat extended from Van all the way to Russian boarder and whence to Ikdir, Echmiadzin, and Yerevan. But to reach the Russian border one had to pass through Van, Avants, Keuylu, Janig, Panz, Pergri, bayazidagha, Sovuk Su, Geavresh, Tapariz Mountain Pass, karakent, Kiziltenze, Karabulak, Chankli Mountain Pass, Ork[ov], and finally Ikdir. The route was an up and down one and passed through destroyed villages and towns. It was more than 200 kilometers long to be crossed under abnormal conditions with little or no food or water.

The human caravan resembled a river that moved as slowly as a snail.

The caravan would barely stop in some places so that people could catch their breath. Now we are at Keuylu, a mixed Armenian-Muslim village in Timar County. It was a shamble of destroyed houses and burned fields. People try to stop at the only water source. There is no place for all to stop at once. But they keep pushing each other. The caravan then continues on. It is night now. Small fires are seen here and there. Most people are just sleeping on the dirt.

The walk continues the next day. Now, one can see piles of dead people on both sides of the road. We think of them as if they are asleep. But we continue to walk. Children are crying. It seems as if the whole caravan is one sick body.

We reach Pergri Gorge. We pass through the destroyed bazaar. Turkish soldiers are stationed on the upper ridges of the valley. Antranig and Tro are leading the people so that they are not in the line of fire of the enemy. We see some people with darkened faces in rags. These are Armenian survivors from Aljivaz and Arjesh counties who are coming to join the caravan from Van. They tell us that other Armenians had passed from here two days ago. They were tired and they had stayed to rest a bit. We continue on. Suddenly we hear shouting from behind: ‘Open the road.” Some Russian army units pass by us. They can’t slow down.

We pass through Tavdersh, the Plain of Abagha, Sovuk Su and then climb to Tapariz and Kiziltize. We still climb to Chinkil and then start to go down. It has been ten days on the road now and people have no more food left. But they move on hopping that they will reach their destination soon. A piece of bread or a cup of water can really save a life here. It is utterly impossible to describe the situation. I don’t think that human language had reached such sophistication that one can write an exact account of what was transpiring in front of our own eyes.

On 24 July, Turkish units moved from Arjesh to Pergri. Although the Russian army was in retreat, but it was retreating and engaging the enemy formations at the same time. People were still passing through Pergri when they became the target of enemy artillery. Bewilderment followed and people started to run back to the town leaving their belongings on the road. Then Kurds attacked the caravan and Armenian volunteers had to come over and push the marauders away.

The main Ottoman attack on Pergri happened on July 25, when Russian units and Armenian volunteers were trying to lead the people at the plain of Abagha. Many fell victim to the Turkish invasion. The Kurds had the Pande bridge of Pergri under their control and were firing on the caravans too. A massacre ensued. According to eyewitness accounts many savageries were conducted there. Men were massacred while woman and girls were abducted. It was for this reason that people started running back to the town of Pergri and to the Bezdig Keugh plain. Many women threw themselves into the Pergri River so as not to be taken by the Kurds. Many eyewitnesses told us later that some 1000 Armenians were killed there…

The Pergri Gorge was closed for 3 to 4 days. Many of the retreating Armenians, especially those from Shadakh, Narduz, Gevash, and other counties to the south of Van and who had started the retreat later than the population of Van proper, had to detour and enter northern Persia, where they had to remain until opportunity arose for them to return. A new massacre was being brewed, since Kurdish marauders were following those Armenians that detoured into Persia. It must be stated that the retreat of the Russians awakened a huge moral boost within the Kurds, who attacked the Persdia bound Armenian deportees near Sara. Once again hundreds of Armenians became victims. Men were massacred and women and girls were abducted. Almost 600 perished during the debacle.

It was at this time that the Russian Army evacuated Van on July 28. The governor of Van, Jevdet, returned to the city with some 400 to 500 chetes and massacred those who had remained in the city and in Avants. Soon however, the Turkish formations were defeated in Olti, Sarikamish and Alashgerd. Russian units returned all the way to Van and engaged Jevdet and his bandits. Russian artillery pounded Jevdet and his forces. A cowardly Jevdet escaped once again. The Russians took over Van again. This time, however, they took it when there were no Armenians left in it…The policy of “Armenia without Armenians” was being implemented on the ground…

The Russians brought most of Vasburagan under their control. But the real inhabitants of Van were by now migrants in Yerevan and the plain of Ararad. The deaths from famine and disease now made the Pergri Turkish and Kurdish attacks seem like triviality.

The deportees were now relocated on the plain of Surmalu. The lack of clean water was a main source for diseases to spread. The deportees, in search of food and water started going in several directions; they filled the squares, churches, and any official buildings they could enter in Yerevan. Deportees were seen on the pavements.

Yes, some 150.000 deportees swarmed Yerevan and its environs. These came from Khnus, Bulanikh, Manazgerd {Manzikert], the plain of Moush, Akhlat, Aljivaz, Arjesh, and several counties of Vasburagan as well as Mogs and Shadakh. It was impossible to have bread for the multitudes of desperate people. Famine started and was followed by contagious and infectious diseases. Hundreds and even thousands died on the streets of Etchmiadzin, Ikdir, and Yerevan. In order to give the reader a taste of the magnitude of the calamity, we quote here from descriptive reports that appeared in Horizon, a newspaper of the times:


People are falling down like birds do in groups affected by the cold fall weather. The dead are on the route and in the streets. The specter of death has passed through here.

All one could see is nude and thirsty faces with no childish expression on the faces of the children. Sad eyes and wrinkled foreheads are the norm. Their bodies ravished. Thousands of them are on the streets from one month old and up…


Many are inflicted with diarrhea and are lying under the trees. The smell is rotten. The summer sun is sending its scorching rays through the leaves of the trees. They look at you with daunting eyes and raise their bonny hands as if to ask for help.

Here is a middle aged woman; with a herculean effort she tries to feed her breast fed child. She is pleading for help to her son with her tearless eyes. We pick up the child and hand him over to the orphanage that is adjacent to a makeshift hospital of sorts. The mother falls to the ground motionless. She knows that she won’t see her child again…

A young girl in tattered rags is almost naked. How beautiful is her hair and how markedly attractive her eyes are. She is there all alone. Doesn’t she have a relative or someone who knows her? Where are her relatives? She is dying for God’s sake.

Four young children surround the corps of their mother. They are crying. We try in vain to make them understand that the mother is gone. Their childish spirits don’t want to understand what they are being told. We pick them up and take them to the orphanage. They keep on crying. Here, in the orphanage, how many lost children are there? There is no smile on their faces. They are children with no futures…

3-Etchmiadzin, July 28:

Humanism is lost. All you see scattered groups of young people asking for water and a piece of bread. Thousands of such miserable souls have filled the seminary’s courtyard; “Bread” they are all shouting. There is no bread. The sick and the dead are on top of each other; ‘My young boy died while shouting bread…” cries a young mother. The needs are huge…

4-Etchmiadzin, August 28:

We are having a small walk in Dante’s Inferno…at the huge door of the seminary a group of mothers and children are fighting their last battle against death. Their cries fill the air. We enter into the courtyard and a rotten smell surrounds us. I count six corps just in a small circle I am in the middle of.

The Nersissian Lake has become the source of contagious diseases. The banks are filled with corps.

I go down to the forest. I am disgusted at the dirty conditions people are living here. They are practically living with their unburied corpses.

Corpse are scattered in front of St. Kayane Church too.

The reported of the newspaper writes from Etchmiadzin about the number of deaths he is witnessing on a daily basis:

21 August 131 deaths

22 August 168 dead

23 August 204 dead

24 August 234 dead

25 August 280 dead

26 August 268 dead

27 August 347 dead

28 August 357 dead

29 August 300 dead

30 August 314 dead

In ten days, the number of dead was 2613 and this only in Etchmiadzin. What about the numbers of dead in Ikdir, Yerevan, and the surrounding villages?

Death uprooted with its sickle the population of Vasbouragan…The brain has stopped. The body can’t function without a brain…

An example of one of the sad songs by Varsenig Aghasian that she sang in utter melancholy during those days goes as follows:

They came in wave after wave
With hunched backs and shivering hands
There is no laughter on their faces
Nor any heavenly smile to note

Old and young are sad with sorrow
They cry in a silent mood
They try to relate their deep sorrow
To passersby and the world

The bride searches for her lost love
The mother for a lost child
The sun is setting
In the distance unseen

Hearts are worn out, spirits are crushed
From this bloody retreat
I now can’t even recognize
A song for love or missing want


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