On April 21st, the Turks continued their assault with unabated fury, and artillery shells continued their devastation. Mostly due to carelessness, half a dozen men, women and children were killed in the streets. One of our fighters, Khachig of Nazli, was killed at his post by enemy fire. He was a veteran guerilla fighter.
Stubborn fighting was concentrated particularly in Hanguisner, Khach Poghan and Arark wards. The night of April 20th, furious hand to hand fighting took place at the Shahbenderian defenses. Turks succeeded in entering and occupying the post. The same night Armenian fighters from other posts drove the Turks out.
On April 21st, Turks repeated their violent attack against the same post. Again, Armenian defenders were forced to yield. A group of combatants rushed the building armed with hand grenades and their Mauser pistols. They were unable to dislodge the enemy. This temporary success cost the Turks the lives of more than ten soldiers, and two gunners. Our sacrifices were two defenders, natives of Vozm.
The military police and gendarmery who had barricaded themselves in the British consular building kept up a continuous and fierce fusillade. The commanding position enabled them to stop movements in the orchards, the streets, and even the trenches, completely disrupting communication between our defenses in the area.
The Turks wanted to take full advantage of this strategic position. On April 21st, they smuggled many more soldiers and ammunition in, by diverting attention with concerted attacks against our positions every two hours.
While the Turks were busy reinforcing this post, the Armenians were perfecting their plans for its destruction. Gregory of Bulgaria, Kevork Jidechian, and Nishan Jamakordzian contrived to dig a hole in the basement wall and soaked the underside of the first floor with kerosene. A homemade pump was used to force the inflammable liquid into all parts of the wooden understructure. In the meantime, nearby defenses were alerted to keep the Turks busy until the fire had a good start. Then they were to mow down all who attempted to escape. More Turkish reinforcements were busily climbing the walls to reach the building. They suffered heavy casualties in the crossfire of our defenses. Several dozen Turks lost their lives in the burning building. Nishan of Kordzot, leader of the Yavrouyan-Maksabedian post, was so carried away that he rushed into the street alone, chasing after the fleeing enemy.
The Armenians thus fully avenged the burning by the Turks of their defenses at Garmirmorookian on the 20th. The burning of the British consular building relieved the several defenses in the area of the serious and constant Turkish menace. It instilled cheerful confidence among the population.
The Defense Command decorated eight men for outstanding valor during the two days of fighting which had just passed. Crosses of Honor and tricolor ribbons were awarded with a note stating, “The Defense Command of Armenian Self-Defense respectfully bestows upon you the enclosed Cross of Honor in recognition of your valor and services in our struggle for freedom.”
April 20th, 1915
Following were the recipients of decorations; Ales Barsamian, Commander of the Arark area, leader of “Dardanelles” defenses, Melkeset Eiynatian, Commander of the defense area Hanguisner to Khach-Poghan, Missak Armenag Tokhmakhian, Dikran Yaghjian, Panes Jamgochian, as commanders and leaders of the Sahag Bey and nearby posts, Nazaret Boumoutian, leader of the Shahbenderian defenses, and Nishan of Kordzot.
As the fighting progressed, many more were decorated with the Cross of Honor.
The relentless fighting of these several days impressed the Defense Command with the paramount importance of the control and regulation of all factors connected with the defense effort. Separate groups were entrusted with the task of procurement and distribution of food items, and rebuilding of barricades destroyed by enemy shells, maintenance of discipline among the non-combatant population and relocation and care of incoming peasants.
There was a pressing need for construction workers. The Turks were able to destroy our strongest defense after a few hours of bombardment. To avert the eventual tragedy, it was imperative that new defenses be erected and the older ones repaired. Some of our vital defenses were reduced to rubble, several times a day. It was also necessary to dig an extensive system of trenches along the eastern periphery as well as through the orchards to secure contact between the various defense positions, comparatively safe from Turkish shot and shell. Several groups of construction squads were immediately set up under the supervision of the Defense Command and headed by Shavarsh Hovivian and Azad Khorenian; the task of supplying the necessary tools was entrusted to Gregory Banerian.
Volunteers from all kinds of trades presented themselves, but most were masons and well diggers. The former were to reconstruct damaged ramparts and the latter to dig underground passages for the purpose of destroying Turkish barracks. Merchants, tradesmen, and shopkeepers, unable to bear arms, swelled the ranks which, towards the final phases of the struggle, amounted to about eight hundred men, most of them peasants.
Equally important as the armed forces in the defense scheme, these men, armed with pick axes and spades, performed their duties with unsurpassed heroism. Despising death that dogged them at every step, they made it possible to yield not one inch of ground to the enemy. They suffered heavy losses.
It was not uncommon for our defenses like Sahag Bey or the Tovmazian, Hotel, or Arark to be wrecked six or seven times a day. Just as often, these men succeeded in repairing and reinforcing them.
On April 21st, the Defense Command asked people to report to the headquarters so arms could be issued to those desiring to participate in fighting but lacking weapons. An enormous crowd of men all ages surrounded the headquarters the same day. After a cursory selection, a few were issued arms and the remainder were detailed for sentry duty.
In order to expedite matters in an explicit manner, the Defense Command issued the following orders;
“All your requests and requisitions must be in writing and must be concise.
“Try to verify all reports and hasten them to the headquarters. All such reports must be signed by the leader. Word of mouth messages will be ignored. Leaders are to be held accountable for unfounded rumors.
“Return shovels and picks. Never waste ammunition aimlessly. Each bullet must find its mark. Whoever disregards these rules will be severely reprimanded and/or otherwise punished.
“Return all empty shells.
“You are forbidden to use wine or whiskey excessively.
“Never revile the religion of the enemy.
“Sgt. The Defense Command”
On April 22nd, the fight continued with the unabated fury of the previous two days. In the precinct of Arark, Armenians occupied Turkish strong points through surprise attacks. Turks fled leaving behind a considerable quantity of ammunition. At Hanguisner, Turks rushed our defenses and the savage encounter lasted more than one hour. The enemy had several casualties and was forced to retreat. Smaller clashes, took place at our defenses at Chachal Mirza, Piroumian, Haji-Bekir and Sassoun. At the Haji-Bekir barracks Turks subjected our defenses across the street, to serve rifle fire as cover for two of their arsonists who were approaching our positons. They were discovered and dispatched in good time. As if to add grim humor to the struggle, a clever Turkish brigand in the Toprak Kale Area set his sheepskin hat on top of a rock inviting us to waste our bullets. A twelve year old Armenian orphan from the German orphanage crept up the hill, under the barrage of Turkish rifle fire, and snatched the hat, returning safely to our lines.
Squatting in the middle of Armenian defenses on the northeastern sector was the mammoth barracks of Hamud Ahga. With its commanding position it was a great menace to our defenses and Jevdet had placed here his most trusted and capable sharpshooting brigands. These sharpshooters would enlarge our peep holes, barely two inches in diameter, into gaping window sizes, rendering them useless as barricades. Worst of all was its tie with the armory at Toprak Kale, where two mountain pieces had been emplaced. It appeared to be a matter of days before this Turkish force, supported by artillery, would overcome our defenses with a daring assault.
The Defense Command was very much concerned about this situation. It was out of question to try and capture the barracks. It had neither the men nor the necessary ammunition. Yet about sixty of our best defenders were standing guard, in the neighboring house, sleepless and inactive, not being able to harm the foe appreciably. As a symbol of Turkish despotism and bestiality, this barrack evoked deep seated hatred and revulsion in the hearts of the Armenian population of Aikesdan. Its destruction would not only relieve our front of the constant threat, it would also instill courage and confidence among the people.
From the very start of hostilities, Gregory of Bulgaria had realized the imperative necessity of destroying the Hamud Agha barracks. This modest and taciturn revolutionary had, for many days and nights, tortured his brain and taxed his ingenuity and cunning for a means to accomplish this purpose. As soon as he came up with a feasible plan he revealed it to Aram and the rest of the Defense Command. The plan was approved.
With the help of experienced well diggers, he started tunneling from the Armenian position, some five-hundred paces away; Melkesst Eiynatioan, the area commander, was informed of the plan and received necessary instructions. After two days and two nights of incessant work, the diggers had completed their job and crawled out. Gregory placed needed amounts of dynamite under the four corners of the foundation, set the caps, and lit the fuses. He crawled out softly, whistling a tune. The fuses were cut to detonate the charge in half and hour. Our fighters were instructed to open fire on fleeing Turks as soon as the explosion took place. After half hour had passed, there was no explosion; anxiety and fear of failure gripped everyone except Gregory who kept on smoking his pipe unperturbed.
Then from the Turkish barracks cries of derision went up; “Hey, you Armenians, your bomb proved to be a dud.” Armenian fighters replied with less confidence than vigor, “You will hear from us tomorrow.” Gregory was searching for an answer; maybe the dynamite had deteriorated or maybe it was buried too deep. Anyway, he instructed the men to be on the alert all night and left them still ruminating on the causes of the apparent failure.
As the night came on, rifle fire and battle activities came to a stop. There was an ominous lull. At midnight, Hell let loose. The skies in the northeasterly direction brightened with tongues of crimson flame, topped with black clouds of smoke rolling hither and yon in the otherwise pitch black night. Above all the tumult and confusion, one could hear the chorus of cries, “Hamud Agha barracks are burning.”
The cause of the apparent failure was now evident. The charges had been buried too deep in the soft soil. Their explosion had only slightly shaken the building, but had succeeded in setting fire to bales of straw that were stored in the basement. Unaware of this, the Turks suddenly found themselves engulfed in raging flames. They attempted to put out the fire, but failing, they ran out to face the bullets from Armenian defenses. Some of the more fearless brigands preferred to stay and fight and were consumed by the fire. Some three dozen Turks lost their life while fleeing through Shahbenderian’s orchards. One Armenian defender, Dooman Dikran, chased after the foe and was killed.
Inebriated by the success, many Armenian combatants started on an offensive of their own by pursuing the enemy. Area commander Melkesset Eiynation and his leader Hovhannes Zaparian chased the enemy through open fields at Hanguisner to the heights of Toprak Kale. Here they met with stubborn resistance by overwhelmingly larger Turkish forces. A curt order by the Defense Command was necessary before they yielded and returned to their post.
The following morning Armenians set fire to the three-storied buildings of Hamud Agha complex after plundering its contents. Most of the loot was handed to the Supply Agency; the rest was distributed among the various defense posts. Some of these articles, unmistakably, were Armenian property looted during the massacres of 1896. An old lady implored to be given a token of something that Hamud had despoiled her of, so that her curse on him may have been fulfilled. The sight of the conflagration that night inspired the Armenians to joyful demonstration everywhere, even at the American and German missions. A large crowd gathered at the headquarters of the Defense Command in excited jubilation. The following morning the band struck the tunes of the exhilarating song “Our Fatherland” and both marched to witness the smoldering ruins of the hated barracks.
The Defense Command issued the following commemorative circular;
“During the past four days of fighting, our inhuman foe has thrown at us thousands of shells and hundreds of thousands of bullets; their fanatical forces have attacked us in frenzied fury on all fronts without letup, but have failed miserably in the face of our indomitable will to survive and our desire to sacrifice all for the sake of freedom. From Aiej Oghlou to Khach Poghan, from Arark to Hamoud Agha at all of our defense posts, our valiant fighters are proudly and victoriously facing the enemy. The overwhelming superiority of the enemy forces does not make us cower; neither are we fearful of the certainty of our death, because we revel in death that is glorious and is divine. Let the rest of the civilized world know, after this World War, that the ancient and noble Armenian race, in the depths of Anatolia, prized honor and freedom above everything else and sold its life very dearly indeed...
“Fellow Armenians, we will carry this fight that has been forced upon us, to the very last drop of our blood or until the bestial enemy is vanquished. Keep up your courage, fellow Armenians, the eventual victory will be ours; let the heroism of our combatants pervade your hearts; support them in every way you can. Every one of you, young or old, maiden or mother, has a duty to perform to help your brethren behind the barricades and to participate in the many labors so essential for the success of our struggle and winning new victories. We are not in this fight only for our self-preservation, we are also fighting so that truth and justice may prevail.
“Onward then! With redoubled enthusiasm and courage, let us prepare for the coming day, the glorious day of our Renaissance and Liberty.”