Support The Stories!

Do you like these stories?
Please help me to continue bringing them to you.
A contribution, no matter how small will help.

31 October 2018

John Arakelian D.C.M. Public Service Beyond Question - Dignity in the Face of Adversity

Last year I was fortunate to work with CAIA, the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice in London on their UK Armenians and WW1 project.

One of the stories I uncovered was about John Arakelian, his work with the British Intelligence in the Middle East and how he came to save 380 orphaned Armenian boys and girls in Baghdad. The original post can be found on CAIA's website above.

Following the project's completion I reproduce the story here on my blog because there is a Armenian Calcutta connection. (Please note the hyperlinks in [square brackets] do not work in this blog, please go to the end of the story to see the appropriate link.)

John Haig Arakelian D.C.M., M.M.

How did I end up here?
In a jail in Wales.

On a cold November morning in 1914, John Arakelian found himself being detained by the Chief Constable of Newport Police as an ‘unregistered alien’, the underlying accusation being that he was a German spy[1]. Held for several days in a local gaol pending further enquiries, one can only imagine how he must have felt. He could be forgiven for allowing his mind to drift off and think about home; the warm breezes blowing across his land, the golden hues of a setting sun reflecting on the surrounding hills and mountains and the beautiful sweet smells hanging in the air, gently wafting up from the successful family farm growing 84,000 fruit trees. And yet as he lay in his cell, he had faith. Protesting he was not Turkish but Armenian, recounting his already extraordinary military service in the British Army, that faith was, eventually proved.

After exhaustive enquiries by the Chief Constable into John’s life which revealed nothing untoward, John was released without charge[2] and allowed to return to what he did best. Serving in the British Army. He was in Wales with his regiment, the 3rd Dragoon Guards, going about his military business and following orders. It was his background, accent, looks and his ability to speak six languages that made authorities twitchy. Yet, his future military actions would prove unequivocally that he was loyal, trustworthy and dedicated to the Crown. It’s just a shame the British Government took so long to recognise this extraordinarily unique, fearless yet humble Armenian when it came to his application for citizenship of the country he had served for 17 years.

Born on the 1st April 1886 in Broussa near Constantinople, one of 10 children[3] (he had two brothers and seven sisters), this staunchly Armenian family owned considerable property and land. A large warehouse was used for the manufacture of silk and the Arakelian’s ensured their workers had sufficient housing, dedicating one large house, four smaller houses, eleven other houses and a large bath house solely for their use. The family also grew several thousand grape vines and fruit trees. It was a long establish and profitable farm, and they helped the local community by employing as many people as they could between their fruit and silk businesses.

John’s father, Onig but also known as John, passed away when he was seven years of age in 1892. The property and assets became the sole responsibility of his mother Pilazou neĆ© Andonian but the family soon fragmented and split up. His two brothers Bedros and Vahram and two of his sisters as well as an aunt went to England to live in 1894. John remained behind and attended the local protestant school. Four years later his brother, Bedros returned to the family farm from England and made arrangements for John to go and live there with him. By 1900 both John and Vaham were in London, and with the guidance of their brother Bedros, John was quickly enrolled at Professor  Garabed[4]   Thoumaian’s School, completing his education at  Clarence School at Weston-Super-Mare. He took an apprenticeship in 1904 with an established and well respected firm of builders, Foster & Sons of Bath to learn machinery. He stayed for a year and moved to Glasgow finding employment within the engineering department of a large company. He quickly realised this was not the path he wanted to follow and boldly set about joining the Scottish military by applying to the Royal Scots Greys. His first posting was to the depot in Edinburgh. For the sake of clarity, he ensured the military authorities were aware of his nationality and that he wasn’t a British Subject. This wasn’t something they were particularly concerned about and being impressed by his physique as well as having the correct credentials, John was posted to Tidworth Camp near Salisbury. Whilst there he caught the eye of a General who complimented him on his “smart appearance and good horsemanship[5].”  

By 1908 John was sent to India to serve and transferred to the 1st Royal Dragoons at Muttra in Agra, his multitude of languages made him stand out from other soldiers and he was able to converse locally in Hindustani. One day, the Regiment Sergeant foolishly bet that if he could ride a particularly wilful and stubborn horse without being thrown off he would be given a month’s leave. John accepted the challenge with relish and, needless to say, accomplished the ride with ease. He was soon planning his month’s leave to Calcutta.

John Arakelian and the Calcutta Armenians

In Calcutta John would no doubt have gravitated toward the Armenian Church and the thriving Armenian community of the city.  It wasn’t long before he was approached by a well known local Armenian coal mine owner, C.L. Phillips[6] of Kusunda Nayadih Colliery, near Dhanbad.[7] Phillips was impressed by John and offered to purchase his discharge from the Army. John agreed and went to work for another Armenian coal firm Martin & Co in the Asansol/Dhanbad area, where he stayed until 1912. The Regiment Sergeant must have been kicking himself at the loss of such a versatile and talented soldier. But India was never going to be his last destination and after four years there, John was keen to return to Broussa and to the family farm so that he could take it over.  He requested six months’ leave from Martin & Co and sailed from Calcutta at the earliest opportunity.

Constantinople – A Strong Bond

John felt the pull of home more than ever and, rather than returning to India as he had planned, he found a position in Constantinople as a PT instructor at the American College. He wanted and needed to be close to home.

In 1912 John purchased the shares and assets of his mother and siblings and became the sole owner of the family farm, property and lands in Broussa. (Later, during WW1, whilst he was serving in the British Army, the whole of the family property was destroyed by the Turks because the Turkish authorities discovered he was serving with the British forces.)

In November 1912 the Balkan War brought him to the attention of British born barrister Sir Edwin Pears in Constantinople via Major Graves The Times correspondent of that city. Sir Edwin enquired of John as to whether he would be willing to obtain information concerning the Balkan War for English newspaper correspondents. John agreed and having met with the newspaper representatives at the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople he was, in John’s words:

“immediately arrested by the Turkish authorities (at the instigation of a Greek spy), and after five days confinement, was brought before the Turkish authorities War Minister, Nazim Pasha, who was rather partial to Armenians.  After questioning me as to my dealings with the English, he said that was it not for the high esteem they had for my late father he would have me shot. However, he admonished me and advised me to devote my abilities with the sword in instructing the Turkish officers.  On my release I was followed by two detectives, but after outwitting them, I went to the British Consul who arranged for me to be sent immediately to Egypt.”

It is remarkable that John survived that close shave with the authorities, it is even more remarkable that once in Egypt, his desire was still so strong he continued to want to help the British where possible. With his Secret Service work in Constantinople behind him and holding an introduction to the British Consul at Alexandria, he was quickly appointed to the Egyptian Police Force. Once again he made a good impression, this time of the Chief of Police and received praise for his work. John spent only a year in Egypt, he was anxious to return to Constantinople and he did just that in December 1913. With the assistance of Sir Edwin Pears by way of another introduction, this time to the Standard Oil Company, John was given the position of Assistant Engineer with the firm based at the Dardanelles. He was responsible for a workforce of 200 men in road-making that needed to be sufficiently well built to withstand heavy machinery for the company. On one occasion and ever the observant professional, he spotted Turkish forces in the distance moving heavy guns and military equipment. He immediately informed Standard Oil Company and he was instructed to close down the operation and return to Constantinople. He immediately relayed this important piece of surveillance to the British.

A Second Period in the British Army

At the outbreak of War in 1914 John was strongly advised by an English friend in Constantinople to re-join the British Army. He registered at the British Consul and was sent to England with a number of others also wishing to join.  After reporting to Whitehall he was sent to Newport in Wales where he joined the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He had only been in Newport for a fortnight when he was suspected of being a German spy and arrested. Three Court appearances and 22 days later he was cleared and released. Remarkably, he chose to continue to serve in the Army and was sent to Canterbury in Kent soon after this episode. Whilst in Canterbury he, and a number of others, went before the town Mayor to swear and sign a declaration. John believed this to be a naturalisation process, and little did he know that this misunderstanding would once again cause him no end of trouble 10 years hence.

Extracted from his Naturalisation application, a recount of some of his military career.

On the 3rd April 1916 an attack was made on the first two front trenches at HANNAH position.  We advanced about 3 miles the same day and captured FULAHYAH Redoubt and a communication trench.  I was responsible for taking the communication trench, and seven prisoners who I handed over to General O’Dowda. After this engagement I was promoted Sergeant. After the engagement at SANAIYAT on the 9th April 1916 I was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry to attending to, and bringing in wounded under rifle fire in front of the enemy’s trenches. (See London Gazette, 14th November 1916).

At SHOOMRA BEND, I was in charge of the snipers and listening posts in no man’s land, where I was successful killing one of the enemy snipers – a Sergeant. Near this position, the late General Maude came to see me in the front trenches, and complimented me for the good services I had rendered. At SHOOMRA BEND I was asked by my Commanding Officer (Lt. Col. B. Macnaughten) if I would signal the advance of the battalion from the parapet of the trenches when the attach was launched. I volunteered to undertake this duty, and I stood in full view of the enemy’s position for about six minutes to give the pre-arranged three signals for the battalion to advance.

The late General Maude was kind enough to give permission for me to search the villages for any Armenian children held in captivity by the Mohommedans.  By this means I collected about 380 Armenian boys and girls at BAGHDAD, where an orphanage was formed by the Americans for their welfare.

On one occasion when in BAGHDAD assisting the Intelligence Department, and collecting Armenian children, I discovered a large quantity of machine guns, ammunition, explosives, searchlights etc., hidden by the Germans and Turks in one of the houses.

I volunteered to go to KUT and get into communication with General Townsend to receive information and return to the British lines, but General Beach, Chief of the Intelligence Staff considered the undertaking was too hazardous and would not consent.

On another occasion in BAGHDAD some 150 persons were collected together contrary to orders, trying to create a riot.  When I arrived on the scene, I found an interpreter and British Military Police with fixed bayonets endeavouring to arrest the offenders.  Intervened and suggested to the officer in charge that the police be ordered to unfix their bayonets and return to their quarters.  I then coerced 75 of the principal offenders to accompany me to the Police Headquarters.  They were eventually tried, five of the leaders being sentenced to 18 months hard labour, and the remainder to one month’s hard labour, and deported from the country.

Again in BAGHDAD I collected about 40 Turkish officers and Turkish government employees, who by proclamation should have surrendered.  I brought them to the Military Police headquarters, where they were transferred to the Prisoners of War Camp in India. 

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum London. Men of John's regiment, the 6th King's Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment bathing in a creek near Basra during the summer of 1916

John recalls:

I joined the British Army in 1914 and was demobilised 5th October 1920 at Constantinople. From here I was sent to Armenia and served under the Armenian government. On the 11th June 1921 I arrived at Baghdad and reported to the British Headquarters where I was employed on intelligence duties under Major W.J. Bovill and transferred later to S.M. Section under British government for supplying electric power and water to Baghdad. On 5th November 1921 I went to Calcutta (India) and was a student at the French Motor Company Calcutta until March 1922.  I returned to Baghdad 23rd April 1922 as motor engineer but was unsuccessful in business. On the recommendation of Colonel W. Dent I was employed by Iraq Aircraft Dept Royal Air Force where I served until 1924. I was then transferred to Navy Army and Air Force institute and resigned my position in August 1924 to return to England but unfortunately I fell and broke my arm and owing to financial difficulties I was compelled to remain in Baghdad until I left for England in May 1925. I have now nearly completed 12 months in London since May 1925 but in all as my history shows I have been about 17 years in England and in the British Army and with British companies. 48 Cornwall Road, Harrow – May to June 1925. 134 Fellings Road, Goodmayes – June 1925 to March 1926.

I have served under the British since I completed my education in England in all, about 17 years, therefore I feel more British and my record in the British Army is not in vain, I hope.

Naturalisation, Compensation, Honour, Acceptance - Disappointment

Initially, at the time of John’s application for naturalisation in 1925, he hadn’t lived in England for the minimum qualifying period of five years, and his application was put back. However, because his “public services were beyond question” it was suggested by a reviewing officer that he should wait a year and apply again. John’s urgency for a successful application was compounded by the fact that his personal circumstances were now desperately dire. With a wife and young baby he was barely scraping a living as a window cleaner at the Savoy Hotel in London. He couldn’t apply for his War Compensation because he wasn’t a British citizen.  Even the reviewing officer felt John was a most deserving case

“I am sorry for this man, who has deserved well of this country, and would be reluctant to stigmatise him for all time as a “window cleaner”. He was an engineer, but in hard times he is not ashamed to do any work he can get.”

John was finally granted naturalisation in August 1926 at which time he applied for his War Compensation. Unfortunately he was notified that it was too late and his application was rejected. This would have been a bitter blow.

He and his wife Angel, whose first child was born in Baghdad in 1925, went on to have at least 2 more children who were born in London.

Following the death of his wife Angel in London in 1933, John spent some time living with his son and daughter-in-law in Hertfordshire. In 1959 he made one last voyage to the Middle East. No further trace of him can be found.

He was a man of great loyalty, dedication, commitment and dignity in the face of adversity and, in his own words…..


Recommended for a Victoria Cross which is the highest award in the UK honours system. He ended being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest award in the honours systems. He was also awarded the Military Medal As well as the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal 1914-1920 and the Victory Medal 1914-1919.

Sources used for this blog entry:

AGBU on Flickr
British Library
California Digital Newspaper Collection
Digital Library of India
Families in British India Society
Find A Will, Government Website
Forces War Records
Hathi Trust Digital Library
Imperial War Museum
London Gazette
National Archives Kew
British Newspaper Archive
Wellcome Trust Library

My thanks to Diane John for assisting with document acquisition.

[1] Western Mail, 3 November 1914, P.3
[2] Western Mail, 17 November 1914, P.3
[3] British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 for John Haig Arakelian – Personal Statement
[4] In June 1893 Professor Toumaian, who was also an Armenian Pastor was teaching at the American-Armenian Christian College, “Anatolia College”  in Marsovan. He and a number of other Armenian intellectuals were detained by the Turks who believed there was an “insurrectionary movement among the Armenian Christians”. During the trial, it has been expected that Professor Toumaian and fellow teacher at the college Mr. Kayayan, would be quickly released. Even with little or no evidence to suggest they were involved, both men were in fact condemned to death. On hearing the news the Professor’s wife, Madame Toumaian vigorously lobbied in the Houses of Parliament trying to get assistance from the members for their release. Perhaps bowing to external pressure, by August 1893 the Turkish authorities pardoned Professors Toumaian and Kayayan and expelled them from the country. Toumaian returned to England and settled in Essex with his wife and children. During WW1 Toumaian’s son, Armen signed up and fought in France against the Germans for the British.
[5] British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920 for John Haig Arakelian – Personal Statement
[6] Armenian Settlements in India by Anne Basil, P.85.
[7] Indian Engineering Vol. 31 by Patrick Doyle 1902.