I first became interested in my family’s history when my father introduced me to his great aunt’s memoir, We Walked Then Ran, by Alice Muggerditchian Shipley. The memoir traced Alice and her family’s escape from Diarbekir during the Armenian Genocide. However, Alice’s father, Thomas K. Mugerditchian, was largely absent from the narrative. Mugerditchian served the British Consulate in Diarbekir from 1896 to 1914, when he was forced to flee the Ottoman Empire for allegedly spying on behalf of the Entente powers.
I knew little else of Mugerditchian’s career until I stumbled upon his name in several Armenian and European memoirs from the Diarbekir and Kharpert regions. I realized he must have played a significant role in his community and decided to further investigate his career. Around the same time, my grandmother passed away leaving behind a trove of family documents, pictures, and letters that shed light on Mugerditchian’s life. I was enrolled as a graduate student at Fresno State University and decided to write my masters thesis on Armenians in British intelligence during World War I using the career of Mugerditchian and fellow Armenian dragoman Arshak Safrastian. I have since then been conducting my research in the British National Archives as well as the personal archives of my relatives.
The demography of the Ottoman Empire was very complex, with a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups residing within its borders. Because of this, the British consulates throughout the Ottoman Empire employed “native” agents, such as Armenians, who were able to understand the local customs and languages of the land. Mugerditchian first became involved with the British consulate in 1896 when he helped distribute American and British relief funds for Armenian refugees of the Hamidian massacres. Vice Consul Hallward of Diarbekir then employed Mugerditchian as his dragoman (liason between Europe and the Middle-East) because he was the “only man who could speak English, Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish.” Hallward recognized that an Armenian agent would be better able to establish ties with locals than a European agent, thus increasing his chances of extracting useful intelligence.
As a dragoman, Mugerditchian reported on Turkish military movements, the activities of Kurdish tribes, atrocities against Armenians, the topography and demography of local provinces, and more. He was periodically left in charge of British interests in Diarbekir as the Acting Vice Consul between 1898 and 1914.
At the outbreak of World War I, Mugerditchian fled to Egypt upon learning of a warrant for his arrest and was promptly debriefed by British agents. Due to the fast paced nature of the British war effort in Palestine, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) needed intelligence officers to accompany their mounted troops to interrogate prisoners and decipher documents. Mugerditchian was attached to the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division in the EEF where he served as an intelligence officer. He was granted British citizenship after the war for his 24 years of service, which he remembered as the “best experience and enjoyment” of his life.
Mugerditchian’s wife and 6 children survived the Genocide, though they split up during their escape. Alice, her two sisters, and her mother resided in England for several years under the sponsorship of Emily Robinson, founder of the Armenian Red Cross and Refugee Fund, and wealthy London Armenians. Mugerditchian reunited with his family in Fresno California in 1921, where he continued to correspond with British consulates in the United States. He believed that the British Empire was the best hope for the creation and safeguard of a free and independent Armenian nation.
Michael Rettig is working on his research on Armenians in the British Intelligence Service during World War I at California State University, Fresno. </em