The True Story of Musa Dagh

As we have described previously, Franz Werfel’s 1933 classic, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, helped to raise awareness for the plight of the Armenians on Musa Dagh who had managed to resist the deportation orders of the Ottoman Government and escaped the genocide in 1915. Despite the novel’s importance, the line between fact and fiction was often blurred in its portrayal of the events it described. Here, we reproduce an account of the defence of Musa Dagh by the Pastor of the Armenian Protestant Church of Zeitoun, Dikran Andreasian, who was among those saved from the mountain and served as inspiration for the character Aram Tomasian in the novel.

After having escaped the deportation train of the 7,000 Armenians of Zeitoun, Andreasian and his wife returned home to Musa Dagh. This is the story he told, as reported in The Nottingham Evening Post (December 20, 1915):

Twelve days after I had reached home an official order from the Turkish Government at Antioch was served upon the six villages of Mousa Dagh to prepare for banishment within eight days. You can scarcely imagine the consternation and the indignation which this order caused. We sat up all night debating what it would be best to do. To resist the forces of the Turkish Government seemed almost hopeless, and yet the scattering of families into a distant wilderness raided by fanatical and lawless Arab tribes seemed such an appalling prospect that the inclination of both men and women was to refuse the summons and withstand the anger of the Government.
Knowing that it would be impossible to defend our villages in the foothills, it was resolved to withdraw to the heights of Mousa Dagh, taking with us as large a supply of food and implements as it was possible to carry. All the flocks of sheep and goats were also driven up the mountain side, and every available weapon of defence was brought out and furbished up. We found that we had 120 modern rifles and shot-guns, with perhaps three times that number of old flint-locks and horse-pistols. That still left more than half our men without weapons. It was very hard to leave our homes. My mother wept as if her heart would break. By nightfall the first day we had reached the upper crags of the mountain.
At dawn the next morning all hands went to work digging trenches at the most strategic points in the ascent of the mountain. Where there was no earth for trench-digging, rocks were rolled together, making strong barricades behind which groups of our sharpshooters were stationed. We were hard at it all day strengthening our position against the attack which we knew was certain to come.
Suddenly one morning our scouts brought word to headquarters that the enemy was appearing at every pass in the mountain, and as the afternoon drew on we saw that we were completely outnumbered. We saw also that the range of the Turks’ rifles was far superior to that of our old-fashioned firearms. By sundown the enemy had advanced three companies through the dense underbrush and forest to within 400 yards of our huts. A deep, damp ravine lay between, and the Turks decided to bivouac rather than to push on in the darkness.
Our leaders hurriedly took counsel together. Everyone knew that a crisis had been reached. Finally a venturesome plan was adopted; to creep around the Turkish positions in the dead of night and thus carry out an enveloping movement, closing in very suddenly with a fusillade, and ending with a hand-to-hand encounter. If this plan should fail we knew that everything was lost. Through the dark wet woods our men crept with extraordinary skill. It was here that our familiarity with those crags and thickets made it possible to do what invaders could not attempt. The circle was practically completed when, with a flash and a crash on all sides, our men delivered their attack, rushing forward with desperate courage.
In a very few moments it was evident that bewilderment and alarm had thrown the Turkish camp into the utmost confusion. Troops were rushing hither and thither in the black night, stumbling over rocks and logs, officers shouting contradictory commands and struggling vainly to rally their men. Evidently the impression was given of a very substantial Armenian attack, because in less than half an hour the Turkish colonel gave the order to retreat, and before dawn the woods were practically clear of the troops. More than 200 Turks had been killed and some booty taken: seven Mauser rifles, 2,500 rounds of ammunition, and one mule.
During the next few days our foes roused the whole Mohammedan population for many miles around—a horde of perhaps 15,000. With this larger number they were able to surround and lay siege to Mousa Dagh on the landward side. Their plan was to starve us out. On the seaward side there was no harbour nor any communication with a seaport; the mountain sloped directly into the sea. We were fully occupied in the care of our wounded and the reparation of the damage done in camp. Special meetings were held to thank God for deliverance thus far, and to intercede with him for our families and little ones.
We prepared triplicate copies of an appeal, and appointed three swimmers to be constantly on the watch for any passing ship, to strike through the surf and swim out at an angle so as to meet the vessel. The appeal stated:
To any English, American, French, Italian, or Russian admiral, captain, or authority whom this petition may find; we appeal in the name of God and human brotherhood.
We, the people of six Armenian villages, about 5,000 souls in all, have withdrawn to that part of Mousa Dagh called Damlajik, which is three hours’ journey north-west from Suediye along the seacoast.
We have taken refuge here from Turkish barbarism and torture, and most of all from the outraging of the honour of our women. The Turkish troops are besieging us. We have had five fierce battles. God has given us the victory, but the next time we will have to withstand a much larger force.
Sir, we appeal to you in the name of Christ!
Transport us, we pray you, to Cyprus or any other free land. Our people are not indolent; we will earn our own bread if we are employed.
If this is too much to grant, transport at least our women, old people, and children, equip us with sufficient arms, ammunition, and food, and we will work with you with all our might against the Turkish forces. Please, sir, do not wait until it is too late!
Respectfully your servant, for all the Christians here.

Dikran Andreasian.

But days passed, and not even a sail was seen. The war had reduced the coastwise shipping to a minimum. Meanwhile, at my suggestion, our women had been making two immense flags, on one of which I printed in large, clear English, “Christians in distress; Rescue.” This was a white flag with black lettering. The other was also white with a large red cross at the centre. We fastened these flags to tall saplings, and set a watch at the foot to scan the horizon from dawn to dark.
The Turks again attacked us by several approaches, and we had some severe fighting, but never at such close quarters as during the first general engagement. From one point of vantage we were able to roll boulders down the precipitous mountain side with disastrous effects to the enemy. Our powder and cartridges were running low, and the Turks evidently had some idea of the straits we were in, for they began shouting insolent summons to surrender. Those were anxious days and long nights!
One Sunday morning, the 53rd day of our defence, while I was occupied in preparing a brief sermon to encourage and strengthen our people, I was startled by hearing a man shouting at the top of his voice. He came racing through our encampment straight for my hut. “Pastor, pastor,” he exclaimed, “a battleship is coming, and has answered our waving! Thank God! Our prayers are heard. When we wave the Red Cross flag the battleship answers by waving signal flags. They see us, and are coming in nearer shore!”
This proved to be the French Guichen, a four-funnel ship. While one of its boats was being lowered, some of our young men raced down to the shore and were soon swimming out to the stately vessel which seemed to have been sent to us from God! With beating hearts we hurried down to the beach and soon an invitation came from the captain for a delegation to come on board and narrate the situation. He sent a wireless to the Admiral of the fleet, and before a great while the flagship Ste. Jeanne d’Arc appeared on the horizon followed by other French battleships. We were taken on board four French cruisers and one English, and very kindly cared for.
An accurate census has been taken which shows that the survivors number:
427 babies and children under four years of age,
508 girls from 4 to 14,
628 boys from 4 to 14,
1,441 women above 14 years of age,
1,054 men above 14.
4,058 total number of souls rescued.
After the Turks’ first challenge, we had eight days’ parley and preparation. For 53 days we defended ourselves on Mousa Dagh; and a two days voyage brought us to Port Said.