Armenian irregular units (Armenian militia, Armenian partisans, or Armenian Chetes), better known by Armenians as Fedayee (Ֆէտայի, from the فدائيون, fidā'ī, literally "one who is ready to sacrifice his life" ), are Armenian guerrillas who voluntarily (thus, the naming kamavor (կամավոր), meaning "volunteer") leave their families to fight for Armenians.
The term Fedayee was first used in the Ottoman Empire although Fedayeen was used by Arab fighters earlier. Armenians, like other minorities such as Greeks and Assyrians were persecuted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. They did not possess the same rights as the Turkish citizens of the empire because of their religion and the distrust Abdul Hamid II had for them. Frequently, Armenian villages were pillaged and its citizens murdered by criminals, Kurds and Hamidian guards.
These conditions, and the fact that Armenia was still under Ottoman Empire control prompted Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to form guerrilla organizations and bands. These guerrillas were called Fedayee.
Their main goal was to defend Armenian villagers from persecution and at the same time, disrupt the Ottoman Empire's activities in Armenian populated regions. However, their ultimate goal was always to gain Armenian autonomy (Armenakans) or independence (Dashnaks, Hunchaks) depending on their ideology and degree of oppression received on Armenians. This can be seen in the Dashnak slogan "Azadoutioun gam Mah", which literally translates as "Liberty or Death". These bands committed sabotage activities like cutting telegraph lines and raiding army supplies. They also committed assassinations and counter-attacks on Muslim villages. They helped Armenians defend themselves during village purges by Ottoman officials. They were supported by Armenians and quickly gained fame, support and trust by them.
Some fedayee groups joined the Ottoman army after the Ottoman government passed a new law to support the war effort that required all enabled adult males up to the age of forty-five to either be recruited in the Ottoman army or to pay special fees (which would be used in the war effort) in order to be excluded from service. As a result of this law, most able-bodied men were removed from their homes, leaving only the women, children, and elderly by themselves. Most of the Armenian recruits were later turned into road laborers, and many were executed prior to the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
The genocide gave way to the return of the fedayees. Apart from thousands of Armenians who were drafted or volunteered in several different armies fighting against the Ottoman empire, and apart from those who were drafted in the Ottoman army prior to World War I, the fedayees fought inside Ottoman borders.
During the first year of the new republic, Armenians were flooding from Anatolia to safe havens. Roads were clogged with refugees. Further southeast, in Van, the fedayees helped the local Armenians resist the Turkish army until April, 1918, but eventually were forced to evacuate it and withdraw to Persia. The fedayees soon merged with the Armenian army. General Tovmas Nazarbekian took command of the Caucasus front and another fedayee, Andranik Toros Ozanian took the command of Armenia within the Ottoman Empire. They fought in numerous successful battles such as the Battle of Kara Killisse, the Battle of Bash Abaran and the Battle of Sardarapat. Meanwhile, Drasdamat Kanayan, another well-known fedayee, led the battle in the Georgian-Armenian War.
The total number of guerrillas in these irregular bands was 40,000–50,000, according to Boghos Nubar, the president of the "Armenian National Delegation":
In the Caucasus, where, without mentioning the 150,000 Armenians in the Imperial Russian Army, more than 40,000 of their volunteers contributed to the liberation of a portion of the Armenian vilayets, and where, under the command of their leaders, Antranik and Nazerbekoff, they, alone among the peoples of the Caucasus, offered resistance to the Turkish armies, from the beginning of the Bolshevist withdrawal right up to the signing of an armistice.
Note that Boghos Nubar, as a part of the Armenian Delegation, had the intention to expand the borders of the independent Democratic Republic of Armenia. Thus, he might have elevated the number of Armenian fedayees who were able to fight in order to show that the Armenians are capable of defending an eventually large Ottoman-Armenian border. In reality, their numbers at that time were much lower, considering the fact that there were no more than a few handful of fedayees in most of the confrontations between them and Kurdish irregulars or Turkish soldiers, even according to foreign accounts. Moreover, many of the fedayees were the same and reappeared in various places and battles. One should also note that many Armenian irregular fighters died defending regions of Western Armenia during the genocide.