At 6:00 A.M., April 20th, scattered shots were heard from the direction of Urpat creek, signaling the commencement of hostilities. The following written report by the area commander was delivered to the Defense Command by their courier:
“Peasant women of Sikhga village who had taken refuge at Shooshantz village attempted to slip through the Turkish cordon to reach our dugouts. Exactly at six o’clock, when it was almost daylight, we heard terrified voices crying for help. They were caught and abducted by Turkish guards along Urpat Creek. Two of the women attempted to escape and were shot by the Turkish guards. Our men rushed to intervene, but unfortunately, without necessary precautions, they were killed at once by a volley of Turkish bullets. These were Yeghia Nakhshoonian and Hagop Turzian. We were forced to accept the fight in the open field. The Turks retreated leaving one killed. The women were freed. The fight has spread to the rest of defenses along the line.
“In a matter of minutes the fighting at Ourpat Creek spread to all of Aikesdan. There was panic in the streets; most were praying, frozen in fear, some were stamping their feet in uncontrolled despair; yet others were crying hurrahs as young men made their way through swarms of people to man their positions and face the enemy.
“On the heels of the first fusillade at Ourpat Creek the barracks of Haji-Bekir belched thunderous fire with their artillery; cannons placed at Toprak Kale and the barracks of Hamud Agha followed suit. From every direction and at every ten paces of the periphery of Aikesdan the crescendo of rifle fire could be heard.
“The somewhat somber, vacillating attitude often sensed in the corridors of the Defense Command building now vanished. Everyone was engaged in feverish activity, determined and hopeful. This spirit of hopeful optimism and feverish activity overflowed the headquarters of the Defense Command to inspire all fighters and infuse the public.
“There was constant traffic of messengers to obtain and transmit instruction to the various positions. The rifle shot had served as as signal for the Turks to take the initiative by attacking on all fronts. Everywhere they met with stubborn resistance.
“On the same day a proclamation was issued and circulated among the Turkish population, which read;
“To our Turkish compatriots;
“The blood thirsty Albanian governor who has exposed the country to all the miseries of war and, through his senseless tactics, has caused the loss of ten thousand of our soldiers at the front is now trying to cover up his blunders behind the red curtain of Armenian blood.
“He has withdrawn soldiers from the fighting front with the expressed purpose of exterminating a guiltless and innocent people. Bear in mind his own confession that he owns but one horse here and, therefore, can well afford to shed the blood of both of our people, delivering you to the enemy who has crossed our borders, while he escapes on his horse. You know that this governor fells the whole tree in order to sever a branch. You two are a branch of this tree and can well understand that we will perish together. Therefore, refuse to be a party to this unjust war which safeguards neither your safety nor your rights, nor those of your posterity. Otherwise, an awesome chasm will be created between our two peoples.
“Besides jeopardizing your own lives, you will, in the very future, render yourselves responsible for today’s happenings and suffer tragic consequences. If you desire to save our country and to be happy, then get busy at once. Tell Jevdet that, while governments are transient, people are permanent; tell him it is not good to create conflict between us. He is only a guest here so demand that he remove himself. Demand that he put an end to the present state of seige and stop the incidents taking place in outside districts and villages. If you fail to do this, consequences are bound to be extremely tragic for both our people.
“Armenian Populations of VAN”
Our defense positions at the Sahag Bey and at Tovmazian houses were the first targets of Turkish bombardment. Turkish soldiers were in ambush some twenty paces away, directly opposite our defenses. An hour later a vicious cannonade was let loose from the heights of Toprak Kale and the barracks of Haji - Bekir. In addition to shelling our defense positions, the Turks dropped shells on unprotected buildings, in the streets, and in open squares. The attack was aimed at knocking out our defenses at Sahag Bey and Tovmazian, thus breaking the spirit of resistance and divide Aikesdan into two parts.
The messenger from Sahag Bey seemed very nervous. Immediately Aram took him to one side to question him, whereupon he consulted the Defense Command and joined them in an investigation. The group consisted of Aram, Gaidzag Arakel, Panos Terlemezian, Teos Deghdrigian, Hrant Hiussian, Vagharshag Berberbashian, Barkev Banirien and Onnig Mukhitarian.
It proved impossible to proceed through the streets, where bullets whined incessantly, and shells burst at the top of poplar trees, scattering shrapnel into the streets. Teos chose to lead us by way of the orchards; we followed silently. It did not prove any safer this way. Bullets hailed upon us from the former British Consulate, now a Turkish fortress. By taking shelter behind trees, watching and waiting, and crawling long distances on our bellies, we managed to approach the court of Sahag Bey’s house. There we found half a dozen unarmed young men waiting to substitute for anyone that might be killed. One of these men had been killed by a piece of shrapnel and another wounded lightly just before our arrival.
We had ascended to the top story but the stairs had been demolished. We had to help each other up. It was hard to see or to breathe in this place, thick with dust, and smoke with the irritating and inebriating smell of gunpowder. And there was the smell of blood... Near the stairway lay a giant of a man. No one knew him by name, but all knew he had disregarded the leaders order to take cover and kept on firing at the enemy until a shell struck him down. Later he was identified as a peasant from the region of Aghpag.
Aram’s presence revived their spirit; like carefree children they began to sing and dance about him. In only a few hours fighting, they already had lost one-third of the force. Only eight men were left to carry on. I could not help wondering and worrying as to what was in store; how long before darkness would bring surcease or how many would be left to face the enemy hordes tomorrow?
The top story was fast becoming untenable; it was necessary to get down to the first floor. Two shells shook the building causing one corner of the roof to cave in; another shell hit just above the opening through which the men had been firing. Panos Terlemezian, a crack shot and talented painter, examined the position of the artillery through the hole and fired a couple shots to silence it. Soon another officer manned the gun with increased ferocity. In the terrible melee two more of the defenders were killed and two others wounded.
Aram and the rest of us were unhurt; he promised to send reinforcements within the hour, praised their bravery, and kissed them as we left to visit the defenses at Tovmazian.
It proved impossible, although only about sixty yards away. Vagharshag and Hrant volunteered to crawl but had to retreat due to vigorous volleys. Aram ordered trenches to be dug between the two defense positions for communication. While thus preoccupied we could hear the voice of martial songs coming from Sahag Bey, from the few remaining intrepid defenders.
Forced to return to the headquarters for necessary arrangements we were met by a large crowd, cheering and singing, accompanied by the student’s band.
“Everywhere death means the end,
Man must die but once,
Blessed be he who sacrifices
For the freedom of his land.”
The animating spirit of the crowd was a teacher of Armenian language and history in the central high school, a man bent under the weight of years, an ardent follower of the revolutionary tenets of Mugurdich Portugalian and a colleague of such leaders as Avedissian, Bedo and Mardig, Ohannes Guloghlian. He addressed the crowds, saying:
“The day of destiny is upon us, my countrymen; the hour to die with honor is here and now.
“Only twenty years ago the same enemy attempted to destroy your parents but failed, thanks to their heroic resistance.
“Once again this ungrateful foe shall meet with your resistance and be itself annihilated in the devilish web of treachery of its own making.
“Remember 1896; recall the noble sacrifices of your fathers, follow the example of your matchless leaders, the late Vramian and Ishkhan. Swear never to betray your ideals; swear, if you must die, to die the most glorious of deaths.
“Forward, then, to man the ramparts. Forward to freedom. Forward to eternal life.”
Hearts overflowed with emotions. Most eyes were wet. A giant chorus of hurrahs went up and as the band struck the national anthem, all joined in singing...
“Our fatherland shall be freed
By the sacred blood of her valiant sons.”
The fighting became more intense in the late afternoon. The artillery fire from Haji-Bekir had a devastating effect upon our trenches in the plain. Our defenders were forced to abandon them and fight in the open. Digging foxholes, fighting and retreating, they managed to get behind the protection of some fence walls after several hours. They lost two men, and several defenders from nearby positions were killed by shells.
Severe fighting was going on at Khach Poghan area. The house of Garmirmoroukian was one of our strongest positions. Under protection of intense shell and rifle fire, a large Turkish force rushed out from Lalo, the Turk’s house across the street. Unable to hold out against the overwhelming force, defenders set fire to the building and retreated to Zervandian’s house close by. In the meantime the homes of the well-to-do Armenians were pillaged and burned along Khach Poghan. Also in the St. Hagop ward, Armenian property, as well as the church, received the same treatment. Luckily, the inhabitants had already taken refuge in the American and German mission compounds and the interior sections of Aikesdan.
The fires burned throughout the night of the first day of fighting. Tongues of fire piercing through dense clouds of smoke cast an eerie light, over the city. This coupled with the veritable inferno during the day, helped to depress the people to the point of panic, inspiring doubts of the outcome. True, both sides had suffered considerable losses, but the Turks had not succeeded in subduing a single one of our defenses.
Later in the evening of April 20th, Turks stopped their attach abruptly. Silence reigned for half an hour while conflagration continued its destructive work on abandoned homes from Khach Poghan to St. Hagop wards. In the temporary calm one could hear the distant thunder of cannon fire, a sure sign that our brethren in the walled old city, at the foot of the Castle Rock, were standing up to the Turks. Some surmised that the Turks had given up the idea of overrunning Aikesdan and were pouring their fury upon a handful of Armenians in the old city. The Defense Command and Aram agreed; the silence was ominous. Urgent instructions were conveyed to all positions to be on the alert through the night, to forestall any surprise attacks. Fresh and experienced defenders were dispatched to our most important stronghold, Sahag Bey.
The assumption that the silence was sinister proved correct. It was terminated by a concerted and furious attack against our positions. The full fury and the deafening tumult accompanying the attack defies description. People closed their eyes and plugged their ears to avoid its effects; some thought this to be a mirage, a mental aberration, instead of the deadly fact that it was.
“This is an attempt to strike terror among us,” commented Gregory of Bulgaria.
“Are you sure Sahag Bey’s defenses can hold out?” asked Aram.
“Nothing to worry about; Panos Jamochian is there,” said Gregory.
“Shall we go?” queried Aram.
“Whereto, to Sahag Bey, of course,” said Aram.
“Let us wait here for the situation to clear up; I do not believe there is imminent danger,” noted Gregory.
Between the constant barking of the cannons and the cracking of rifle shots, one could hear the national anthem reverberating from our defenses.
Soon a messenger arrived from Sahag Bey; Aram and Gregory were anxious for the news. He reported all was well there, no casualties; damaged barricades have been repaired and Panos and the comrades send their salutations. “Any casualties?” asked Aram. “None at all” was the reply. “The Turks are trying to frighten us, but are not having any luck. We have been ordered to shower them with brickbats to save ammunition. It seems to work just as well.” We all laughed at the last comment and a joyful optimism filled us all. (From my diary of April 21.)”
The joyful optimism was not shared by the non-combatant populace. The unexpected frenzy of the attacks led them to believe that, indeed, Jevdet was going to destroy Aikesdan within twenty-four hours. Some tried to take refuge at foreign missionary compounds; others fell victim to flying bullets in their pellmell rush for safety. The most undaunted were of the opinion that the Turks would follow with frontal attacks, breaking through our defenses and starting wholesale massacres.
“Dardanelles,” our most important defense point in the plains, was subjected to vigorous fire and violent attack, at night. An eyewitness in describing the encounter said, “One could read and write from the light, so intense was the fire and so dense the bullets.” Ales Barsamian, Harootiun Lordo, Mihran Khranian, Krikor Pazigian and others among the best revolutionary fighters were manning the defenses.
At midnight, the Turks attempted to break through our Sahag Bey and Tovmazian defenses and met with violent resistance. They withdrew after suffering many losses.
Similar attacks were made against two of our defenses at Khach Poghan, and both failed.
Shahbenderian defenses at Hanguisner were caught in unyielding Turkish crossfire. They were forced to desert it and to withdraw to a second line of defense. Noticing this the men in nearby defenses rushed the Turks and drove them out with murderous volley of their Mauser pistols and hand grenades. Throughout the night, Turks incessantly maintained a devastating fire against our positions. This was the baptism of fire for our combatants. Soon, all trepidation yielded to cool confidence, courage, and cunning stratagems. This transformation was accelerated by the constant contact among combatants, their leaders, and the Defense Command. The men sang patriotic and triumphal songs as they repelled the enemy; every defense point became a chorus to prove to the Turks that their attempts at intimidation were as futile as they were insane. The student band, moving from one to another (especially the most endangered posts) was an important factor in cheering and raising the spirit of defendants.
Many of our strongholds had been damaged or demolished by Turkish shells. It was imperative to reconstruct and reinforce them at once. This task was assigned to Hovsep Kouyoumjian and his men. During the first infernal night, he succeeded in having the trenches cleared and extended, and repairing the ramparts or building new ones.
The following proclamation was issued by the Defense Command on April 21st to explain the meaning of the last night’s violent fusillade and to establish confidence and calm:
“The sole purpose behind the numerous shells and hundreds of thousands of bullets wasted by the enemy last night was to intimidate our people. We have not lost a single fighter nor surrendered a single defense. We have not deigned to return their fire. There is no cause for alarm.”