In 1918, soon after enduring the horrors of the genocide, Armenians had to thwart further insurgency by the Ottoman army into historical Armenian land, territory that used to be part of the then fallen Russian Empire. It is to this area that hundreds of thousands of Armenian refugees had fled. The Battle of Sardarabad (Սարդարապատի ճակատամարտ) that took place in May 1918, near Sardarabad, Armenia, 40 kilometers west of Yerevan, was where the triumphant Armenians showed their strength and unity.
As we celebrate the centennial of the First Republic of Armenia, the implication of the battle of Sardarabad becomes so much more significant in Armenian history. Not only did the victory hinder Turkish advance into the rest of Armenia, but it prevented the complete destruction of the Armenian nation. Had the Armenians lost the battle of Sardarabad, author Christopher J. Walker, has said: It is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.
Two months after signing the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918), the Ottoman Empire took the offensive. Turkish forces, in violation of the Treaty with the Russians, crossed the border in May 1918, and attacked Alexandropol (Gyumri). The Ottoman Army’s goal was to crush the Armenians, seize Transcaucasia, as well as the oil wells of Baku (Azerbaijan).
The Ottomans succeeded to take control of Alexondropol. They then moved into the Ararat Valley – the heart of Armenia. Armenian General Tovmas Nazarbekian, with the help of Trastamat (Tro) Kanayan took the positions abandoned by the Russians, and created a small Armenian army.
Catholicos Kevork V, distraught over the plight of his people, ordered the bells of the mother church in Etchmiadzin, and those of all Armenian churches to ring all day, calling his people to the aid of the fighting soldiers, and to participate in the defense of their fatherland. Yeznik Vartabed, took a group of young clergy and members of the Etchmiadzin congregation to the front to fight the invaders. Bishop Karekin Hovsepian (later Catholicos) rode on horseback and eloquently inspired the troops to fight. Armenians from all walks of life, villagers, poets, blacksmiths, and clergymen organized and formed military units. Young girls and boys carried water, food, and ammunition to the soldiers by foot, on donkeys and in ox carts.
On May 21, after taking over Sardarabad, Turkish forces advanced toward Yeghegnut. On May 22, the Armenians launched an offensive ordered by General Movses Silikyan and led by commander Boghos Bek-Pirumyan. The 5th Armenian Regiment and a special cavalry succeeded in stopping the Ottomans as they fought the Ottoman troops in a three day battle at Sardarabad, as well as Abaran and Karakilisa, until the enemy was forced to retreat 20 kilometers westward. After reorganizing, the Ottomans attempted to cross the Araks River but were met with fierce resistance by the 5th Armenian Regiment.
On May 27, an Armenian force commanded by Colonel Karapet Hasan-Pashayan and the rest of the Armenian forces struck Ottoman positions. In spite of reinforcements sent to help, the Ottomans bore heavy losses, and their commanders ordered a general retreat as the surviving elements of the Ottoman army fled.
Two days after the victory of the battle of Sardarabad, on May 28, 1918, the Armenian National Council in Tiflis proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, which lasted until the Bolshevik occupation of Armenia in November 1920.
Fifty years after the battle, the Sardarabad Memorial, the magnificent symbol of pride and survival, was built in Armavir, Armenia. Its entrance is flanked by huge winged oxen made of pink duf stone. The stairs lead to a square where a 26-meter-high bell tower rises. It has a trellis structure with nine bells. The bells ring every year on the day of the historic victory. The monument is guarded by colossal winged lions and is surrounded by a memorial garden for Karabakh (Artsakh) martyrs.