|Links in my life on land and sea |
TREASON AND MASSACRE
Hobart's idiosyncrasies - The Black Sea and Danube - Russian gold - Muddle and roguery initiate the war - Abdul Kerim, Serdar Ekrem - A human monster - Abandon naval reporting and take to the Army - Dirty trick of a fellow war correspondent - Circassians and Bashi-bazouks - Massacres - My servant hanged as a spy - Attacked by sheep-dogs.
TO pass from the tragic to the comic, in almost a few minutes, is a common experience in life. Not that my next adventure was purely comic, for behind its absurdity was the tragedy of a betrayed country and the ruin of thousands of homes. However, that is an aspect of the matter that never enters into human calculations. I said Hobart had asked me to take a run with him in the Imperial yacht, the object of the trip being to ascertain if the Russian Fleet was on the move in the Black Sea, which, however, we were all quite well aware was not the fact, as otherwise I do not think we should have gone. In fact, I felt so sure - through information privately obtained through my friends in Pera, who knew everything that was going on in Russia - that the sea was clear, that I was negotiating for the hire of a tug to go out alone and see what ships there were in Sevastopol, Odessa and other Russian ports. But these negotiations for the tug fell through by reason of the
monstrous cupidity displayed by Hobart, through whom I could alone procure coal for my tug, that article being a contraband of war and only obtainable for use in the Black Sea through the department of the Admiralty under Hobart. I believe it would have cost him twenty to twenty-five shillings a ton ; people behind the scenes said it would cost him nothing, and he wished the Times to pay £5 a ton. I felt this was too much even for the resources of my newspaper, and declined. So thus it came about that I went with Hobart. But knowing what to expect at his table, I took the precaution of sending some very good claret on board for our joint messing, which, if I remember right, was to cost me £2 a day. We got under way in the evening, stopped for the night off Khandali, where Hobart lived, and were out of the Bosphorus early in the morning. At our midday breakfast Hobart 's steward gave me some execrable claret - absolutely poisonous - and I naturally requested him to bring me some of my own.
"Oh!" said the man, talking excellent French, "His Excellency ordered me to take your three cases up to his house last night and bring off this," with a gentle chuckle Adding, "Ce n'est pas absolument mauvais."
Of course I could say nothing, but I told Hobart I preferred my own wine.
We got across the Black Sea without adventure and no greater danger than having to drink Hobart 's wine. The state of the yacht was typical of the whole Turkish fleet. The stench between decks was beyond belief, and the general filth of the ship, from stem to stern, staggering. But the most astonishing part of the whole affair was the little respect in which the crew evidently held Hobart himself. To me - to whom an admiral was a demi-god - it was not only incredible, but painful. But it was some time before I discovered that he was little better than a
BLACK SEA AND DANUBE
charlatan, and for some days, like many others, took him at his own valuation. But later I quite understood why, when he came to England after the war, Lord Beaconsfield declined to see him. Of his personal courage, however, there never was a doubt, but somehow he always managed to convey the idea that he was a first-class sailor - of the old type, Benbow, Drake, Dundonald, rolled into one - whereas in reality he was nothing but a windbag, and the worst administrator in the Turkish Service.
I next found myself up the Danube, or rather at its mouth, at Sulina, and here the hopeless condition of the Turkish Navy was still more painfully in evidence. Two or three of their ships managed to get blown up, whilst the Russian armies crossed the great river in perfect security and unmolested. I have not a doubt there was treachery here - in fact the Turkish Commander-in-Chief, Abdul Kerim - a huge, ponderous, old monster, who could not rise off the ground without two or three men to lift him on to his feet, and who was reported to eat a whole sheep of the small Balkan breed every day - openly admitted that his strategy was to allow the Russians to cross the river, and then cut their line of communication. There was only one thing got across the Danube easier than Russian troops, and that was Russian money.
And now another comical war incident occurred. A Turkish man-of-war, the Luftigelil, blew up ; a Russian officer, by name Romanoff, claiming the distinction of having fired the shell which destroyed her. He hurried back to St. Petersburg and was decorated by the Czar's own Imperial hand. As a matter of fact, the ship had been withdrawn miles out of range of any possible Russian gun two days before. The evidence of the Turkish captain and the survivors, though naīve, was quite beyond refutation. The ship's magazine door was open and some of the ammunition was being restowed: the crew so
employed were smoking cigarettes and going about with naked lights.
The incompetence of the Turkish General was beyond belief. The Danube at its mouth splits into numbers of channels, and receives into its bosom three large rivers, the Jalomnitza, the Sereth, and the Pruth. At Turtukai, opposite Oltenitza, there is an island which practically defends the river and bars its passage. This was pointed out to the aforesaid monster, the Serdar Ekrem, and he was begged to place guns on it. He requested to be shown a map, when, after infinite labour on the part of his staff and his English military adviser, he learnt for the first time what the Danube meant. He took three days to think over it, after which he delivered himself of this profound decision--
" What is the use of bothering ourselves about such a little piece of land ? Surely our Empire is big enough for us not to care for a mile or two of mud ! "
His idea was that it was merely to retain the island itself for the Empire that guns were to be placed on it. Soon after this it became one of Russia's chief stepping-stones across the Danube.
But I could multiply similar incidents to weariness ; and it must be remembered I am not writing a history of the war. There is one story, however - actually official - too funny to omit.
This ludicrous Abdul Kerim, Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish Armies, was also Admiral of the Danube and Coast Fleet, and, from his safe position in the fortress of Shumla, would issue edicts of detail after the manner - as he supposed - of the great Napoleon. Of course, he frequently went wrong. He elected once to decide that a certain gunboat on the Danube would be all the better for an Armstrong gun, although already her decks were so crammed up that there was no room to move. He
wired to Tophanié - the Arsenal at Constantinople - for the gun to be dispatched to Varna, from whence, with enormous difficulty, it was sent by rail to Rustchuck, on the Danube, where the Serdar had ordered the gun-boat to wait for it. When the gun got there the gunboat had been ordered off to Tultcha, on the Lower Danube, miles below any of the Russian positions which this precious gun had been destined to destroy. So back went the gun to Varna, where it was shipped on board a man-of-war and sent to Sulina, to be again transhipped into a small merchant steamer. I happened to go up the river in company with this unhappy piece of artillery, and - when we finally found the gunboat - was amused to see the simplicity with which it was transferred from one deck to another. The process consisted in placing spars between the two ships and dragging it across with ropes. It was a miracle it did not tumble into the river. When they got the thing on board and mounted it on its carriage it was found there were no bolts in the deck strong enough for the recoil, and no port from which it could be fired ; for when the gun was run out in the firing position the muzzle lay on the port-sill, pointing up into the sky. Months after that this overloaded gunboat found its way back to Constantinople to have the necessary alteration made : and there she lay until the end of the war.
As there was nothing to see I left the Danube and returned to Constantinople, where everything was going on as if there were no war. Intrigue to obtain the posts offering the greatest facility for plunder was the chief - almost the sole - preoccupation of all the officials, especially the post of Minister of War. Hobart was also back again. He could not live out of the atmosphere of Pera : a pack of cards was dearer to him than all the strategy and all the fighting under the sun.
I saw a good deal of Sir Austen Layard, and was
AN UNSEEMLY QUARREL
chiefly struck with how much he knew of Babylon and how very little of the Eastern Question. On one occasion, when I was dining at the British Embassy, there was an amusing fracas between the Duke of Edinburgh - whose ship was at the Dardanelles - and Hobart. Both had dined rather better than the occasion actually necessitated, and a heated discussion arose between them as to the ineffectiveness of the Turkish Fleet. Hobart got very angry, and twitted the Duke with the equal inactivity of the Russian Fleet. From argument they came to personalities, until Hobart at all times rather a violent-tempered man said : "Look here, your Royal Highness, you are an Admiral in the Russian Navy ; why don't you go and bring your ships out and show fight, instead of skulking behind the forts of Sevastopol?" It made every one feel very uncomfortable, especially the Duke's cousin, Princess Henry of Reuss, who was amongst the guests.
Meanwhile the Russians were pouring across the Danube practically unhindered, the Serdar Ekrem still keeping his wonderful plan up his sleeve and doing nothing, the Bulgarians now openly in revolt and, in their turn, murdering and ravishing the Turkish population under the protection of their deliverers, the Russians. Things began to look lively, and even amongst the dancing, flirting, intriguing, gambling lot at Therapia - for the Therapia season was in full swing - there were persons who began to look on things with seriousness and alarm. The idea that the Russians would really get within sight of the walls of Constantinople - which, at the beginning of the war, seemed ridiculous - was assuming ugly proportions, especially as the traditional policy of the Powers which, though so widely divergent on other points, had hitherto been considered sound on that of keeping Russia out of the Bosphorus, was known now to
be shaky, and that the actual Turkish Empire itself was being undermined by intrigue in some of the Foreign Embassies : precisely as it is to this day.
But, finding here nothing which concerned my work for the Times, and being now convinced that there would be no sea-fighting, I determined to plunge into the war itself, and, telegraphing home that most important events would shortly take place on the Balkans, where the paper was unrepresented, I started off for Adrianople in time to push on with the army under Raouf Pasha, which was to join that of Suleiman Pasha - coming from Albania - to advance on the main Russian army beyond the Balkans.
I at once found myself in the centre of all the horrors of one of the most hideous wars of modern days. In every village there had been massacres and reprisals, and so recent that neither had there been time for man to cover up these sickening sights with the merciful earth, nor for the ravenous dogs and wolves to devour them. Schools burnt, children lying brained or bayonetted amongst their school-books and toys : men and women in a like condition, often half-charred : streets strewn with pillage, churches and mosques still smoking, hordes of Bashi-bazouks, and still more ruffianly Circassian horsemen prowling about searching for loot, regiments of half-starved, bare-footed, ragged soldiers toiling along the roads, mixed up with artillery, and miles of country carts, hordes of half-perished, wholly famished refugees crowding every station, forbidden to enter the trains, and left to starve or trudge off on foot God knows where.
But it is an old, old story this too, and there is nothing new in it, from the records on the burnt-bricks of Nineveh or Babylon, down to our latest newspaper reports. At Tirnova, on the Kiver Maritza, I met a well-known correspondent for the ---- ----. He was going the opposite way - that is, back to
AN ARTFUL DODGER
Constantnople having organised an admirable system of obtaining news without the slightest personal risk to himself, or any great expense to his employers. If what I learnt soon after was true - and the head of the Imperial Telegraph at Pera swore to me it was - his method was extremely simple. Knowing, for certain, that his paper at that time had no one on the spot I was puzzled to discover how, for some time, this enterprising correspondent could forestall the information which I daily wired - at immense cost and with infinite trouble - to General Eber, our correspondent at Vienna, who transmitted it to Printing House Square by private arrangement. Mr. ----- had arranged to tap my messages, to delay mine for twenty-four hours, and wire the contents as his own. Later on, of course, I got up to all these dodges of the wily correspondents, many of them poor, starving creatures, paid only so much a line by their papers, and having to live as best they could. Nor I did not know at first that this man's way was considered quite fair and smart amongst my confrères. After that I used the Times cypher, but it is a laborious and crippling process, when you come in from witnessing some great fight, and are hurriedly endeavouring to crystallise into brief and coherent form the tangled reports you received. Another difficulty I had also to contend with was that the aforesaid General at Vienna frequently held views about particular incidents at variance with mine - strategic or political, and that he would garble my message as it pleased him, taking it for granted that a mere sea-faring tyro like myself would submit to it. So I wired to MacDonald that he must stop the Austrian playing the fool with my telegrams or I should come home. The fooling stopped dead.
I remained in Adrianople a few days, a very interesting place, and the second in importance in the Ottoman
Empire. I had time to visit some of its wonders, the Eski Serai - the palace of the Sultans until Constantinople itself fell under their dominion - now a vast ruin, also a magnificent mosque, its minarets with bands of different coloured stone work. There is no more thoroughly oriental city, not even Damascus itself.
It was crowded with refugees and surging with troops. Almost hourly carts were bringing in the victims of massacre or outrage, all Mahommedans, for naturally the Bulgarian population were left to die, or to be eaten by animals as Providence might please. The Vali - Assim Pasha - was particularly anxious I should be able to bear witness that not only were peasants and others who might be supposed to have fought and defended themselves, being bayonetted, but peaceable and harmless people of the better class, and with this object he had me escorted into several of the Turkish harems, amongst them that of Achmet Pasha, where I saw wounded women and children with my own eyes.
I was very busy, organising my own line of communication with Constantinople and preparing for the front, for of course one had to shift for oneself independent of the army. I hired several men, amongst them a cross-breed Greek-Bulgarian, who was to come to me next morning and help pack. My dragoman - Stamos, a Greek - a clever, trustworthy, excellent man - seemed doubtful of this gentleman's fidelity, and came to me, late at night, begging me to get rid of him. However, the question solved itself ; for going out next morning almost before it was daylight, I saw in a corner a man standing on his tip toes, as I thought - for he seemed immensely tall - and going up to him recognised my Bulgar-Greek : hanging by his neck from a tripod of strong timber. He had been seized in the night as a Russian spy - which no doubt he was - and with that promptitude
DESTITUTION AND MISERY
which the Turks displayed on such occasions was forthwith hanged. He looked most unpleasant with his head lolling on one side, and his toes touching the ground. But many such street decorations were to be seen in Adrianople, whilst at the railway station six or seven Bulgars were all hanging on one branch of a small tree. It was not nice to be a Bulgarian just then.
I left Adrianople that day, and got to the station with great difficulty, and after much delay found myself, my horses and my traps, all huddled together in a horse box, which I had been able to secure by bribing the station master. Several very long trains were standing on the rails ready to start, packed tight with hungry, dusty, sweltering soldiers, all in anyhow, artillery, cavalry, infantry, jumbled up together, whilst their arms, horses and piles of ammunition still blocked the platforms, and were to come on after them. The confusion was incredible, and in the midst of it stood the tall, Frenchified General, Raouf Pasha, wringing his hands and issuing orders to which no one attended. On the down side of the station were collected hundreds of starving refugees, an inchoate mass of wailing misery, many wounded and still bleeding, trying to tie up wounds with strips of their own garments torn off anyhow. In a vast number of the cases these unhappy creatures were the survivors of families that had been massacred, so that women stood about without husbands, and numbers of little children wandered in and out of the crowd in a hopeless search for parents who probably lay dead far up country amongst the ruins of their homes. There was no food to give them, and even water was almost unobtainable, nor were they allowed to go off and look for it themselves, being hedged in by a cordon of soldiers, whose bayonets prevented them straying. For the officials were endeavouring to protect
THE LESSER BALKANS
them from the ferocity and brutality of the Bashi-bazouks and Circassians who hovered like obscene birds of prey on their outskirts to see who they could plunder or outrage. Before my train left I saw that many of these unfortunate people had died on the platform, and when a number of railway trucks was finally brought up to take them away to Constantinople many of them were crushed and injured in this final rush for safety. To my dying day I shall never forget the misery and agony of those unhappy, unoffending victims of Russia's brutal, unquenchable thirst for territorial acquisition.
It was late at night before my train reached its destination - Eski-Sara, but it was not long, thanks to the indefatigable Stamos, before my camp was all right. But the soldiery, pitch-forked out anyhow, were wandering about without arms or supper. The wonder was how well they behaved. The little town itself had recently been in the occupation of a flying column of Russians, who, under Gourko, had crossed the Balkans, but were now falling back before the overwhelming advance of the Turkish Army. Here, too, there were crowds of wounded soldiers and of refugees, men, women, and children, all packed together in trains and in trucks en route for Adrianople. It was the same story, and I remember a particularly sad incident, a woman dying in a truck - surrounded by numbers of men and women - having been just delivered of a baby. In the next compartment several soldiers lay dead, and I could not help pondering on this tragedy of life; souls crossing each other on its threshold, time and eternity as it were jostling each other. I went into the town. Ruin and desolation, burnt buildings, piles of garments and of household furniture were on every hand. Patrols of Turkish soldiers were moving up and down the narrow streets, though for what object as it was too late to
AN ATTEMPTED RESCUE
protect life or property - was not discernible. Huge, half-maddened dogs prowled through the bazaars, and with blood-stained jaws fought over human remains. I came near losing my life in a lonely and deserted part of the town, being set on by several of these terrible animals. I got my back against a wall, and with all the desperation which the frightful situation called forth fought the brutes with a stake I managed to pull out of a fence. I knew if they once got hold of me all would be up, and the thought flashed on me that I should certainly die of hydrophobia or blood poisoning if I sustained only the slightest scratch. Just as I was beginning to feel completely worn out a Turkish patrol providentially came round the corner and dispersed my enemies. I felt so shaky after this that I could hardly walk back to camp.
On another visit to the place - some few days later - in rambling about in the outskirts of the town I came across about a dozen men, thirty odd women, and a number of children - all Bulgarians - who, trusting to the protection of the regulars and hoping to get away to places of safety, had crept back to the town from hiding places in the forests, or from remote villages. They were all in the most piteous condition, practically starving, many too weak to rise off the ground where they lay in a sea of mud, for it had been raining incessantly for two days. Another European was with me, and we decided that Raouf Pasha must be at once informed of their presence in order that he might place a guard over them. For that they would be massacred and outraged if any chance Bashi-bazouks or Circassians discovered their whereabouts was quite certain. So my companion rode off to headquarters, and I remained hoping to be able to protect them if by chance they were attacked. I did not feel in the least comfortable in the situation, for I knew that it would not have very much
THE TUNDJA VALLEY
troubled any of the Circassians or Turks to knock me on the head as well and get rid of me : and that no one would be any the wiser. But I could not desert these poor, despairing people, who thronged round me, beseeching me as I well knew by their gestures to save them. I think it must have been three hours before at last we heard the tramp of horses coming along at a gallop, and for a few minutes we were all alike in a state of great alarm as to whether it might not be Circassians, for the road was hidden by a belt of trees. But to our intense relief the first man we saw was my friend, and behind him in another minute a squadron of Turkish Cavalry. Raouf Pasha had acted with great promptitude, and before night-fall these wretched people - having been well fed - were packed off in trucks to Adrianople. Leaving them in charge of my friend and in the safe custody of the regulars, I started back to camp, and was again attacked and followed by dogs, but only by the ordinary bazaar pariah, and not the large sheep-dog breed so formidable in those parts. Still, it was unpleasant, and I was glad when we came across some dead bodies of men, apparently only recently killed, on which my assailants instantly fastened, leaving me in peace.
That night my dragoman had found a little girl of six or seven entirely alone and deserted, and had brought her to our camp. She was a curious, wild little person, and after being washed, re-clothed, and fed up became most fascinating. I seriously thought of sending her home to my wife to adopt her, but wiser counsel prevailed, and instead of that Stamos managed to get her safely transferred to the care of the wife of a well-to-do Greek lawyer in Pera. These people being childless adopted her, and she grew up and was left a large fortune. Strange vicissitude of fate: every possible inquiry was made as to her parents, but nothing was ever discovered
A HORRIBLE MASSACRE
of them, whilst the child did not even know her own name or from what village she came.
About this time, towards the end of July, a strong force - under Raouf Pasha - made a reconnaissance near a place called Geula-Mahalise, accompanied, of course, by a cloud of Circassian horsemen and Bashi-bazouks.
But when Raouf returned with the regulars to our camp, the irregulars who had remained in and near the town which was only inhabited by Christians - set to work and massacred all they could lay hands on and looted the whole place, carrying off over a hundred young women, whose subsequent fate was never ascertained. The terrified people fled to the church, a curious building, its floor-level some eight feet below the ground outside, forming a kind of sunk pit. Through the windows the irregulars fired volley after volley until the dead lay in piles huddled against the screen. They then broke open the doors, and, rushing in, finished off any that were moving with their knives. It was simply a repetition of Cawnpore.
Colonel Lennox and Lieut. Chermside, R.E., military attaches, together with Drs. Leslie and Meyrick, of the Aid to the Sick and Wounded Society, entered the place a few hours after and brought out 175 bodies and some eight or ten people in whom some vestiges of life were still left. Outside the church there was a ghastly heap of dead and dying, and even whilst these humane Englishmen were going about the town endeavouring to afford succour, murder and outrage were going on in many parts of it. Indeed, these ruffian irregulars so greatly resented the presence of the English officers, that a Circassian took a deliberate pot shot at Dr. Meyrick from behind a hedge, but fortunately missed him. I was there next day, with others, to try and rescue some of the people who had succeeded in hiding
THE TUNDJA VALLEY
themselves in cellars, ovens and pigsties. With great difficulty we got some of them to the train - many of them quite insane with terror, and many wee mites of children without parents. We might have discovered a few more in hiding, if we had had time, but evening was coming on and it was necessary for us to get back to headquarters. Moreover, a shameful panic amongst the soldiers, sent as guard for the train, nearly ended in our having to leave behind even those we had rescued. For one of these warriors catching sight of some Bashi-bazouks who had been plundering in a village some way off and mistaking them for Russian scouts, yelled out " Moscoo ! Moscoo ! " - the name by which the Turks designated the enemy - when every man jack of them who were on the platform and hanging about the station fled precipitately for the train, headed by the officer in command - who, by the way, was more than half-drunk - shouting to the engine-driver to go ahead the instant his foot touched the foot-board. It was with the utmost difficulty that my companion - Scarborough of the Standard - and I succeeded in detaining the train for a few minutes whilst we got these wretched people into the horse boxes and luggage trucks : and even then we knew that some had been left behind.
<-Previous Chapter - Next Chapter ->
^ back to top ^