On the 31st of August at Kew cemetery in Victoria leaders of Assyrian and Australian organisations together with the Australian Army will conduct a wreath ceremony in honour of Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige.
As Captain Savige AIF in 1918 he was attached to Dunsterfoce, a “hush hush” detachment comprised of the elite members of British and colonial forces, their objective was to make contact with Christian Allied elements in the Caucuses. A rigorous selection proses was undertaken to ensure those selected had the “right stuff”. Captain Savige was selected for his courage and determination, he joined the Australian Army in 1915 as a private, in the same year at Gallipoli was awarded a field commission and commanded the rearguard party during the evacuation of Gallipoli, he was one of the last to evacuate the peninsula, in 1917 he was promoted to Captain and was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle of Bullecort. As a young man his ambitions was to become a Church minister but fate altered his ambitions to become a prominent figure in Australian military history and a saviour of Assyrian refugees.
On the 5th of July 1918 the following letter from Major General Dunsterville was delivered by plane to General Agha Putros commander of Assyrian and Armenian Forces at Urmia, the pilot Captain Pennington made a daring flight from Miana, the furthest out-post held by the British, to Urmia.
Ksavin, July 5th 1918.
To Agha Petros, comm. Urmia.
Compliments from the General commanding British forces in Persia.
The British Government with a sincere and earnest desire to help you and your people in your heroic struggle for liberty against the savage Turks, are sending twelve Lewis [automatic] guns, with seventy thousand cartridges for these guns, also forty thousand cartridges for French [Lebel] rifles to you. These guns and cartridges are now on their way from Hamadan to Bijar, and they will be sent on to Sain Kaleh where a party of your people under a trustworthy and responsible officer should meet the British party and receive the guns.
You must first expel the Turks from Sauj Bulagh so that the road to Sain Kaleh may be open to you. I am relying on you to do this and you must understand that the British force cannot go beyond Sain Kaleh to meet you.
As soon as you receive this letter you should send a reply stating on what date your representatives will be at Sain Kaleh. As soon as this is known, the British party will advance from Bijar to Sain kaleh to meet your representative and hand over the Arms to him. I wish you to understand that the British Government will endeavour to help you in every possible way. You should communicate with me whenever possible and inform me of the state of affairs in Urmia and let me know what further assistance you require.
In addition to the ammunition mentioned above about thirty thousand rounds of ammunition for Russian “three line” rifles is been sent to you. Also five tins of special petrol for aeroplanes, which should be carefully kept in case the aeroplane sent with this message has no sufficient petrol to fly back with.
Commanding British forces Persia
Agha Putros replied on the 7th July and set a date for the rendezvous at Sain kaleh to be the 22nd of July 1918. General Dunsterville replied on the 12th of July agreeing to the date of the meeting and warned in his reply “I am sure you will not even think of leaving your country to the ravages and cruelty of the enemy, which might result in the massacre of all your people”.
Here it must be said that even though Agha Petros was a brilliant strategist in gorilla warfare he made two serious mistakes in dealing with a regular Army. Firstly his defeat of the Turkish forces at Sauj Bulagh was brilliant as described bellow but failed to allow for the time needed to defeat the enemy and arrived at the rendezvous eleven days late. Secondly, after his victory, he failed to detach a force necessary to keep the road open from Urmia to Sain Kaleh and send a small detachment to secure the supplies from the British, instead he moved south with all his troop leaving the way open for the Turks to return to their previous positions and cause havoc among the refugees.
After carefully mapping out his route and drafting his plans, Agha Putros decided that he would move south in three columns, each separated by some miles of rough country. It was then decided to attack during the night, and force the enemy to fall back on his base, and into the hands of the mounted force. The whole plan worked without a hitch. The column moving without mishap, got into touch with the Turks and formed a line, and in the dead of night, the whole line moved forward to the accompaniment of intense rifle fire and shouts of victory. The Turks were bewildered at this unexpected attack at such an unexpected time. Their stand was feeble and they were forced to retire in a disordered state to Suldaz, to find waiting for them a mounted force in such positions that the Turks were completely annihilated.
The British force assigned to meet the Assyrians contained two detachments, a supply column comprised of mostly ANZAC’s [Australian and New Zealanders] of which Captain Savige was a senior officer, and an escort of British Cavalry the 14th Hussars commanded by Colonel Bridges. This force left Bijar on the 18th of July and arrived at the rendezvous on the 23rd [a day late]. Not hearing from the Assyrians they decided to wait in the hope of receiving some news. On the 25th the British Colonel commanding the Cavalry decided to withdraw complaining that his horses were running low on feed, his duty was to escort the supplies until relieved by Agha Petros. His decision to abandon the Assyrians roused indignation among the ANZAC’s, Captain Savige protesting that “they were not giving the Assyrians a chance”, his troop volunteered to the last man to ride forward and meet the Assyrians at lake Urmia, the Captain stating that “they would survive on dry rice if they had to”. This proposition made by Captain Savige was denied and were ordered to mount and withdraw, with troubled thoughts the ANZAC’s obeyed orders. The idea of reaching the Assyrians, as Savige later stated had never left him; he continued to make his objections to the British Colonel until he finally agreed to a plan of making camp at Takan Tepe fifty miles south of the rendezvous point and raise a local Levy force to reach the Assyrians. General Putros in the meantime arrived to meet the British detachment at Sain Kala eleven days late, only to find they had retired, knowing he could not return to Urmia empty handed he continued to Taken Tepe and arrived there on the 3rd of August.
The first meeting as described by Captain Savige:
On August 1st we were told by a native who had ridden down from the north that he had heard that the Assyrians and Armenians were fighting the Turks in a great battle south of Lake Urmiah. We pretended to be quite ignorant of the existence of any such people, but knew that this was the first move on the part of our friends. At dawn next morning the whole camp was dismantled, gear was packed and the whole party, in high spirits in the knowledge that the show had not fallen through, were on the road once more. That day we travelled until late in the afternoon. On arrival at a stream we pitched our camp, with the idea of moving forward with the first streak of dawn. The tents had hardly been erected when away ahead, through the long valley, a cloud of dust could be seen, which grew in proportion as it neared us. Within a mile or so of our tented camp, a group of horsemen rode ahead, one of whom carried a large red banner with a white cross worked on its face. On reaching the rise over our camp they dismounted and scanned us for some little time through their field glasses. We signalled to them that we were friends, and although not apparently sure, they rode towards the camp. Their fears were soon set at rest when we shouted to them that we were the English. One galloped back to the main party, while the others rode into camp. As some of them could speak English they expressed their delight at joining us in no half-hearted manner.
Shortly after this their leader, Agha Petros, rode into the camp, and there we awaited the arrival of his forces. Of all the sights that one was privileged to see, these horsemen winding along the valley was one never to be forgotten. They came along in an orderly, soldierly fashion, split up into groups of about equal size to our own troop of cavalry. Ahead of each group rode the leader, and behind him, came his standard bearer, who carried a large red flag across which was worked a white cross, the flag of Agha Petros, the Commander-in-Chief, being the gaudiest of all. It was made of silk, fringed with gold with the usual white cross in the centre, over which was worked the Assyrian words, "Trust God and Follow the Cross!"
At dawn, the entire troop, the Assyrians and ANZAC’s rode north for Urmia towards dusk the first day they negotiated the last of the hills on the south sides of Sain Kala, then swung off the road to the poplar groves and orchards near the river where they had decided to camp. Captain Savige was riding with two other officers at the head of the column. On arrival at the camping ground they saw a crowd of people dressed differently from those they had seen in the town before. Amongst them were a number of women clothed in bright print dresses, without face coverings-an unheard of thing in Mohammedan’s lands. they were at a loss to explain their existence in that part of the country. Shortly afterwards Agha Petros rode up. On seeing these people his face blanched. For a moment or two he was unable to speak. Then turning in his saddle, he said, '.My God! Here are my people! What calamity has happened during my absence?"
On questioning the refugees, sufficient information could not be obtained from them as to the reasons for leaving Urmia. Troops were left behind to protect the refugees whilst Captain Savige, Agha Petros and Assyrian and ANZAC troops rode forward to recce the situation. On witnessing thousands of refugees scattered as far as the eye could see it became apparent that Urmia had fallen and the whole nation was on the move. An erroneous decision at this point was made by officers in charge; with night falling they decided to camp and tackle the situation at first light, forgetting they had in their charge irregular troops not disciplined to regular Army methods. The Assyrian troops became restless and objected to been ordered to rest opting for riding forward and searching for their families. This decision caused the Assyrian command structure to brake down and the Army to disperse.
At first light, the ANZAC’s [six men] and Agha Petros could only muster 50 men to accompany them to the rear of the refugee column. On meeting an Assyrian Doctor they had learned from him the reason for the collapse of the front in Urmia, Captain Savige explains “That night an Assyrian doctor rode in and told us the whole story of the evacuation.
It appeared that there were fifty or so Russians who had remained behind after the Russian evacuation. These were chiefly officers and men who knew that if they returned to Russia with its new government, they would have a very short shrift. The Armenians had been driven back to Lake Urmiah from Lake Van and thousands of Christians had flocked into the town from the surrounding sent forward mounted messengers with orders to ride back when it was ascertained that Agha Petros and his forces, who were chiefly Assyrians, had broken through the Turkish army and opened up the road that led to the British. This news was sent back to the conspirators, who immediately took steps to evacuate the town.
Dr. Shed, the American Missionary, had been left behind to conduct affairs in the absence of Agha Petros. He noticed that the Armenians were evacuating their line north of the city. When questioned as to the reason of their strange behaviour, they stated they were simply moving from their camp to a more healthy position. This did not seem at all feasible to Dr. Shed, who told them that he thought they were lying and that their intentions were to desert the Assyrians. They assured him that this was not the case, and after his asking them if they contemplated such an act, to remain for at least four days, he rode back to the city, on their giving him their promises. They apparently waited till nightfall and then continued their march southwards, with both the Russians and mountaineers. The Turks very soon received intelligence of the fact that the northern portion of the line, held by the Armenians, was unoccupied, and, together with the Kurds, moved down on the city.
Small parties of Assyrians moved out to intercept them and delay their advance until the inhabitants had sufficient time to load their wagons with supplies of food for the journey together with what valuables they had.
Even after all the mistakes made by both British and Assyrians, the Assyrians at Urmia could still have held on if not for the above unpleasant incident. It was here that Captain Savige faced with this appalling situation made a decision that only a man of his calibre would make.
His orders were to supply the Assyrian Army and not risk his supplies to fall into enemy hands, confronted with this dreadful state of affairs many officers would have simply returned to the safety of British lines, they would have done their duty, what was expected of them!
Captain Savige was no ordinary soldier; he was not only courageous but companionate as well, accompanied by six of his men and fifty Assyrian Cavalry he rode to the rear of the refugee procession, described as been thirty miles long and one mile wide, he defended the rear for six weeks placing his command in grave danger and holding on to defensive positions for as long as he possibly can until almost surrounded, before extracting his command only to place himself in another position, he repeated this action time and time again, loosing one of his men did not deter him from his humane mission. By his actions he gave the refugees [those that were able] sufficient time to flee. “We could not save them all” he said, with lumps in our throats we ignored the cries of the helpless in our endeavour to save as many as we could”.
Captain Savige was awarded the D.S.O. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the retirement of refugees from Sain Keleh to Tikkan Tappah between 26th and 28th July 1918; also at Chalkaman on the 5th and 6th August 1918. During WWII he was promoted to Lt General and commanded the Australian forces in New Guinea, post WWII he founded the Legacy foundation to assist War widows in Australia and was knighted for his efforts.
Our ceremony at his final resting place in Kew, Victoria is in a small way of saying thank you for his part in protecting Assyrian refugees, and for being a witness to the slaughter. At 8.30 A.M on the 31st August we will hold a wreath laying ceremony in his honour; guests include Australian and Assyrian community leaders, the Returned Services League and the Australian Army. The Late General was a witness to the exodus.