Oh, What a lovely war!

Posted on July 15, 2012


You cannot hit the point of a needle with a fist – Armenian Proverb

It is hard as a Western European not to think of the First World War as one of two things: The futile, bloody battles of the Western Front, immortalized by Wilfred Owen, and suffered by many of our Grandfathers and Great Grandfathers.[1] Or the shameful slaughter at Gallipoli, a slip of sand that entombed the flower of Anzac youth, half a world from home.   For us, The Great War is forever couched in the rhetoric of youth and beauty, it is a poetic war, sound-tracked by melancholy scores, imagined in black and white and reckoned in unimaginable numbers.  For my Grandfather, an Irishman, who made the hard decision to fight for the British with the Irish Guards, and who survived the Somme (at one point being buried alive), the post-armistice life was one of silence but not peace.  How can you describe the indescribable?[2] And yet reading his war record, there are moments so surreal as to be worthy of Blackadder Goes Forth. At one point for instance, he was sent off to Belgium with toothache to be seen by a dentist.   At another, he was sent to the Belgium coast for a holiday. Oh we do love to be beside the seaside!

So, from a Western perspective (or maybe I’m alone in my shamefaced ignorance), Yervant Odian’s personal account, Accursed Years, is a history lesson as well as a bearing witness to the brutal consequences of nationalism and prejudice.  Through a series of articles written on his return at the end of WWI, Odian charts his deportation and that of his fellow Armenians from Turkey (then the heart of the Ottoman Empire) into the deserts of Syria and Iraq.  Many women and girls were forced into marriage with Turks and Arabs, many Armenians were forced to covert to Islam. Armenian children were bought by childless Turks. Many more were massacred or tortured or beaten to death.[3]    All of this is described by Odian in disarmingly simple language. Odian, himself, says, ‘that is the story of my three and a half years in exile. The reader will of course have noticed that I wrote in the simplest way and in an unliterary style. Before everything else I wanted it to be a truthful story with no fact distorted, no event exaggerated.’

His account is indeed plain and simple but also extraordinary in its lack of bitterness and blame.[4] Not all Turks are portrayed as bad, nor all Germans for that matter, and not all Armenians are good. Odian receives kindnesses and cruelties from the most unexpected sources. In some cases it’s hard to tell what good or bad might even mean under such circumstances.  Odian recounts one incident which describes the appalling choices made by those in exile. I hate to think that these kinds of decisions are probably still being made somewhere on our planet.  In a camp in Aleppo, Odian comes across a woman drowning in a latrine. She is being watched over by a man and a woman.  Odian condemns them for their cruelty. The man tells him to listen to their story and then judge.

“My wife, daughter, sister-in-law and I reached Serbil almost completely naked, without even one para, hungry and thirsty. It was certain that we should all have died here if we hadn’t met a family the members of which were our friends. They took us into their tent, dressed and fed us and are looking after us even now. There’s not enough space or beds in the tent. We are forced to sleep in close groups of two or three. Under these circumstances my sister-in-law caught dysentery very badly. There’s no doctor or medicines. As you know, dysentery is a contagious disease. The family looking after said that either we take the sick girl out of the tent, or we all have to leave. For my wife, daughter and I to leave the tent is simply to go to our deaths. Four people would have died instead of one, for no reason. My wife and I thought and thought and found no other way out. Crying we brought my sister-in-law here at night and threw her in…Life is sweet.”

Throughout Accursed Years you believe Odian when he says he’s telling the unembellished truth in as plain a language as possible. Out of this simplicity, the ordinariness of mass-destruction, the admin of it, verges on farce. The deportees have to find money for their own conveyance into exile and pay for the police to escort them – this usually means a whip-round.  If a deportee is put in prison and wants a bed, they have to pay for it. Literally. They have to buy a bed at the market and have it delivered. Local officials apportion justice according to the size of a bribe or their desire for pettiness or revenge.  Of course at the end of the war, these same officials are falling over themselves to claim that they were good captors weren’t they? And please, sit in first class.

There’s another Armenian saying, ‘There is no reason for war that reasonable men can’t settle.’

And on that note…Nap-poo, too-dle-oo, goodbye-ee.

[1] At the Somme it was a case of ‘given them an inch and after 6 months and 623,907 deaths later you’ll take back 6 miles.

[2] Robert Hughes in Shock of the New puts this far better than I can. “In the Somme valley, the back of language broke. It could no longer carry its former meanings. World War I changed the life of words and images in art, radically and forever. It brought our culture into the age of mass-produced, industrialized death. This, at first, was indescribable.”

[3] Depending on which report you read, the death toll has been put at between 600,000 and 1.5 million, mostly in a 12-month period between 1915-16.

[4] We can forgive Odian the odd outburst of Armenian pride when he comments, for instance, that only Armenians can run the railways or set up a decent coffee shop.