Thirteen previously unseen photographs of the Armenian Genocide have been discovered in France by Peter Dye, President of WW1 aviation historical society, Cross & Cockade International. The images have now joined Cross & Cockade’s archive of First World War aviation photographs and documents where they will be preserved for future generations. The original aerial photographs are in excellent condition and show new evidence of the scale of the destruction with images of abandoned villages full of roofless homes, their owners either dead or deported.
The photographs were taken between May and November 1917 from an Albatros C.III operated by a joint German/Ottoman squadron over the Armenian Highlands. They are now the earliest known images of this remote and inaccessible area. The images reveal new details of the fighting between the Ottoman and Russian armies, rarely mentioned in histories of the First World War. Modern satellite imagery has allowed us to identify a few locations, but many remain “unknown.”
Peter Dye explains, “I purchased these images in two job lots from France. I have no idea how German photographs of Turkey ended up in France! Looking at these destroyed Armenian villages makes similar scenes in Ukraine, less than 600 miles to the north, appear both familiar and distressing. It seems that we haven’t learnt much in one hundred years. They are also the first visual evidence for the destruction of entire communities during the Armenian Genocide, which is still disputed by Turkey. Through collaboration with American and German Armenian scholars, we have been able to identify the human cost for each village destroyed – based on the pre-war population and the number of households.”
The photographs were taken from one of five Albatros C.III’s flown by 3 German pilots and 4 Ottoman observers as part of the 10ncu Tayyare Böluk (10th Aircraft Detachment) who supported the Ottoman 2nd Army. The unit set up a landing ground in the village of Sursuru (present-day Olgunlar), close to the town of Mezre/Mamuret-ul-Aziz (present-day Elazığ), in the valley below Harput and performed reconnaissance flights and occasional bombing raids against Russian camps and depots.
The pilots faced extremely difficult flying conditions with poor and unpredictable weather. The crews had to fly at high altitude to cross the mountain ranges, enduring severe cold and lack of oxygen. The limited supply of spare parts including propellers and tyres caused constant maintenance problems. Engines were unreliable, but there were few places where a safe emergency landing could be made. Poor maps and the threat of airborne attacks, as well as being regularly fired upon from the ground, further increased the strain on the aviators of both armies.
Lt Westfal, who commanded the 10th Aircraft Detachment in 1916 wrote* at the time, “I am not exaggerating when I say that the locals, who had never seen a flying machine in their lives and had never heard of the art of human flight, hurried to the square in droves when they heard the roar of the 160-horsepower Mercedes engines. Old and young, men, women, and children, anyone who could move, ran out to see the German aviators… they sat from morning to noon to see the big birds. Shortly before noon, I flew for the first time and circled above the old venerable city, on whose flat roofs the locals swarmed like ants. The dirty, yellow water of the Tigris flowed lazily past, and the city seemed to be brooding in the heat. In the north rose the great, snow-capped summits of the Armenian and Anti-Taurus mountains. In the distance glistened the smooth surface of Lake Göldjik [Lake Golu], nestled in the mountains… Upon our return [from the region], which included a landing at headquarters, we were rewarded with Iron Crescent medals.”
Interested readers can find more details about the campaign and read Lt Westfal’s full narrative on the Cross and Cockade International website: The Air War in the Southern Caucasus 1916-17 (crossandcockade.com)
*The full article, titled “Ein Aufklärungsflug im Kaukasus,” was published in the German aviation magazine Flugsport on 31 January 1917. It is attributed Lt Westfal, who commanded the 10th Aircraft Detachment in 1916.
It is thought that between 800,000 and 1.5 million men, women & children died in the Armenian Genocide. Many were killed when their villages were destroyed, and others died from sickness on forced marches or malnutrition in relocation camps. The Turkish government continues to deny that a genocide took place, arguing that the deaths were a necessary outcome of war with an enemy force. The term ‘genocide’ is becoming more widely accepted though and as recently as April 24, 2021, President Biden issued a statement saying, “The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide.”
To find out more, read The Air War in the Southern Caucasus 1916-17 by Peter Dye