For much of its history, Armenia has been a pawn or a bargaining chip for larger empires, and during the First World War, one of the most tumultuous times in Armenian history, the Armenians, as well as other peoples in the Middle East, naturally came to be used by the Allies, specifically Great Britain, for their own ends.
Dr. Artin Arslanian gave a lecture on this subject, titled “The Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Arabs and Jews: The British Colonial Ethos After WWI,” during his visit to Fresno State on February 20, 2014. Dr. Arslanian is a professor of History and International Relations at Marist College in New York, specializing in British and modern Middle Eastern history as well as U.S. missionaries in the Middle East, and has published books on each of these subjects.
Dr. Arslanian was initially more interested in studying the Russian Civil War, but as he dug deeper, the plight of the Armenians and their betrayal at the hands of the British during and after their occupation of Transcaucasia caught his attention.
Dr. Arslanian began his lecture by explaining the context in which England entered World War I. The generals who led the War had little idea what they were getting themselves in for when it came to the deadlock at the Western front, trench warfare claiming the lives of thousands just to advance a few yards. Soldiers who promised their loved ones they would be back by Christmas were sorely mistaken.
England knew it would need help to win the War, and was depending on their ally Russia, to defeat the Ottoman Empire. To do this, the British promised the Arabs their own, independent kingdom if they overthrew the Ottoman government and helped bring supplies to Russia. When this caused concern to France, as this arrangement would leave England with a lot of power after the war, England promised France that the two countries would divide the Middle East between themselves, contradicting what they’d promised the Arabs. As Dr. Arslanian put it, quoting an old Arab proverb “the drowning man will grab for a snake.” England was only telling its allies what they wanted to hear so that they’d serve their interests.
The Armenians became of interest to the British when the Bolshevik uprising took Russia out of the war in 1917-1918. Knowing that it would be disastrous if the Ottoman Turks advanced into Baku and gained access to its oil, the British offered aid to the Armenians, who suddenly had to fend for themselves in Russia’s absence.
England promised the Armenians an independent state, with all of its historical territories intact, if they prevented the Turks from reaching Baku. England also wanted to station its troops in the Caucasus in order to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Georgia and Azerbaijan both had allegiances with the Central Powers, so Armenia was the only nation in the area that welcomed British aid. While in control of the area England did not interfere in the territorial disputes which plagued the area, promising that all border disputes would eventually be solved at the end of the war.
Unfortunately, however, once the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War, the Caucasus ceased to be very strategically important to the British Empire. With problems brewing in India, Egypt, Palestine and Ireland, England pulled out of the Caucasus and focused its attention elsewhere; many British generals rationalized their broken promises to the Armenians, Arabs and others with racist attitudes, saying they no longer wanted to waste money “trying to civilize people who did not want to be civilized,” claiming that all the people in the Middle East were not worth the life of one Englishman. Soviet propaganda would exploit this when eventually annexing Armenia, saying that capitalist nations were untrustworthy and that Armenia now had to rely on the Soviet Union.
Dr. Arslanian’s lecture was an eye-opening look at World War I and its aftermath from a perspective we don’t often get from history textbooks and the media; how promises made by a desperate British Empire influenced the war’s outcome, but did not come to fruition once the war was over.