Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Memorials of the Great Fight - Traces of Turkish Days - The Joy of Early Morning - Shipka Village - How the Russians Behaved after their Victory - Glimpse of the Plain of Thrace

IT was in the Pass of Shipka, on the first Balkan range, that the most savage fighting took place between the Turks and the Russians in 1877.

The Pass is a narrow gully of a road over black rocks. The country is wild and woody. Here and there, though you must look for them, are weedy trenches from which the rivals poured fire into one another. On slopes are patches bumped with hillocks, as though giant moles had been at work - the graves of the soldiers. There is one cemetery; but the wall has been broken and never mended, the crosses are aslant or fallen, the graves are all covered with rank grass, not a flower is anywhere. Plentiful tears were shed when the officers were laid to rest; now they are forgotten.

Obelisks, stunted and white, points for the eye in the mountains, tell in Russian of the valour of the Russian troops, and commemorate the heroic stand of famous regiments. There are many of these monuments proclaiming the bravery of the Russian soldiery. But not one did I see to the memory of the brave Turks. None can say which are the Turkish burial places.

Not the whiz of a bullet, but the call of a bird,


is the sound you hear as you slip from the saddle after long hours of hard riding in blazing sunshine, and seek the shelter of a clump of trees.

For the better part of a day I rode through Bulgarian villages. The houses were low, and had roofs three sizes too big for them - they stretched far over, and provided rich shade. Festoons of vines put their arms across the little streets. I had only to rise in my stirrups to help myself, on the invitation of the peasantry, to bunches of grapes. Along the crooked paths were hundreds, thousands, of trees bearing their burden of plums - tart and cool, and cleaning to a dust-smeared mouth.

Remnants of Turkish days were there. The costume of the peasants was more Turkish than European. Tinted turbans were worn. The people, though Bulgars by race, were often Mahommedan in religion, a relic of long-ago compulsion. The Turks compelled the conquered people in these parts to embrace Moslemism. Succeeding generations became Moslem as a matter of course. Now the Turk has gone and the Bulgar is free; but hereabouts he clings to the Mahommedan faith, and hates his brother Bulgar who is a Christian.

So I got to Gabrova, a Turkish-like town, with more mosques than churches. It is an energetic place, doing much trade in leather and woollen manufactures.

The inn where I stayed was dirty, and the charge of three francs for the bedroom was probably excessive. There was difficulty about food, for a Church fast-day was on. However, I got a kindly


old Turk, who cared naught for Christian observances, to get me some fish-four wretched sprats; but these, with a chunk of bread and a pint of wine, served as supper for myself and attendant.

Five o'clock in the morning, and a hammering at my door. In ten minutes I was down in the inn yard, where were the four horses I had hired overnight. The best, a ramping stallion, I selected for myself, gave my attendant the next best, and left the guide to decide which of the other two he would ride, and which should be the pack-horse. No breakfast but a tiny cup of coffee which would fill about a couple of thimbles. Then into the saddle and off at daybreak. My saddle was Turkish. During that day I appreciated there must be something different about a Turk's anatomy from that of a Briton. The high pommel, the brass-plate ornamentation, the shovel-like stirrups are picturesque in a painting; but for use they are not to be commended. Plain pigskin is the best.

But the joy of early morning, even in a Turkish saddle and with no breakfast, brings song to the lips. We sang as we cantered. We tossed greetings to the peasants in the fields. We encountered bunches of them coming in to market - the men driving the goats, the married women wasting no time, but weaving wool 'twixt finger and thumb as they tramped along, the young women with red flowers in their hair as an advertisement that they were willing to be wooed and won.

We rode hard, for I wanted to get the worst of the climb over before the heavy heat. Four hours'


going and we were at the foot of the Pass. A wayside inn provided a mush of eggs and black bread for breakfast. So off again.

At first the way was broad and easy. Then it narrowed, became rugged, and the horses were in lather. At places we dismounted and walked. There were rude paths through the woods, made in times of battle so that the troops might be moved beyond sight of the Turks on the heights. I rode over a knoll where were the Russian headquarters. I climbed a precipice where, with mighty labour, cannon had been perched to sweep the Pass.

All silent now in the drowse of glowing forenoon. The eye wandered beyond the dark, cypress-cloaked ravines. The world was an impressive panorama of tumbled hills. Distance was lost in the haze of heat.

Twenty-eight years ago the echoes were roused with thunderous cannonade. Russians to the north, Turks to the south, met on this mountain road. Terrible struggles took place in the hollows of the hills. Positions were lost and won and then lost again. The Russians, fearless of death, pushed their advantage; and the Turks, heedless of life, held their ground. One battle lasted for seven days. Then a fortnight of breathing time. On came the Turks again; they captured Mount Nicholas, the commanding position in the Pass. But they were mastered by the Russians, and with terrific slaughter fled to the southern ravines. There they waited till winter. The last great fight was in mist and blinding snowstorm. The Turks were outnumbered.


They struggled in desperation. It was useless. All that were left of them, 32,000 men, unconditionally surrendered. The Russians poured down the southern slopes to Shipka village.

There stands a bedizened, gorgeous, Russian-Greek church to commemorate the victory. The massive cupola, surmounted. by a cross, is of burnished gold. You can see the sun glitter on it from twenty miles away. But there is no record of the pillaging, the rapine and drunken orgies of the Rdssian troops when they laid hold of Shipka village.

An old man told me sad stories. "Ah!" said he, "the Turks did wrong things, but never anything so bad as the Russians." "But you are glad," said I, "that the Turk has been driven away, and that Bulgaria is now free?" "Not so very glad," he replied; "when the Turks were here taxes were light, and now they are heavy. Then we had a wider market for our goods; we had all Turkey. Now we are a separate country they try to keep out our goods. Bulgaria is a little country, and other countries tax our things. Perhaps it was best in the old days."

My guide was garrulous, and had tales to tell of the old days. It was common for Turkish brigands to despoil Christians of their trousers, and then, to save themselves from qualms of conscience, at the pistol mouth compel the breekless ones to declare "Allah giveth."

Standing on the summit of the range, with wooded lands behind me and bare ochreish sweeps


before, down even to Shipka village, I got my first glimpse of the Plain of Thrace - unrolled in verdant sweep till busked in a far-off glimmer of mist. It was high noontide. But the heat was tempered by a gentle breeze. I rested my lathered horse and looked over the silent, shimmering, basking land. Pity 'twas it had ever been desecrated by the horrors of bloody war.

Down the broken path we went, which crunched and burnt like hot cinders. The baked rocks threw out heat that struck the cheek like an oven blast. I was smothered in dust, and my mouth was like an old glue pot. On the level; a dig with the heel into the ribs of my horse, and in a couple of minutes we were in the village slaking our thirst with bunches of grapes.

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