War in Eastern Europe
John Reed
 

15. TOWARD THE CITY OF EMPERORS
 

The handsome great sleeping-cars bore brass inscriptions in svelte Turkish letters and in French, 'Orient Express' - that most famous train in the world, which used to run from Paris direct to the Golden Horn in the prehistoric days before the war. A sign in Bulgarian said 'Tsarigrad' - literally 'City of Emperors' - also the Russian name for the eastern capital that all Slavs consider theirs by right. And a German placard proclaimed pompously, 'Berlin-Constantinopelí - an arrogant prophecy in those days, when the Constantinople train went no farther west than Sofia, and the drive on Serbia had not begun.

We were an international company: Three English officers in mufti bound for Dedeagatch; a French engineer on business to Philipopolis; a Bulgar military commission going to discuss the terms of the treaty with Turkey; a Russian school-teacher returning to his home in Burgas; an American tobacco man on a buying tour around the Turkish Black Sea ports; a black eunuch in fez, his frock coat flaring over wide hips and knock knees; a Viennese music-hall dancer and her man headed for the café concerts of Pera; two Hungarian Red Crescent delegates, and assorted Germans to the number of about a hundred. There was a special car full of bullet-headed Krupp workmen for the Turkish munition factories, and two compartments reserved for an Unterseeboot crew going down to relieve the men of U-54 - boys seventeen or eighteen years old. And in the next compartment to mine a party of seven upper-class Prussians played incessant 'bridge': government officials, business men, and intellectuals on their way to Constantinople to take posts in the embassy, the Regie, the Ottoman Debt, and the Turkish universities. Each was a highly efficient cog, trained to fit exactly his place in the marvellous German machine that ground already for the Teutonic Empire of the East.

The biting irony of life in neutral countries went with us. It was curious to watch the ancient habit of cosmopolitan existence take possession of that train-load. Some ticket agent with a sense of humour had paired two Englishmen with a couple of German embassy attaches in the same compartment - they were scrupulously polite to each other. The Frenchman and the other Britisher gravitated naturally to the side of the fair Austrian, where they all laughed and chattered about youthful student days in Vienna. Late at night I caught one of the German diplomats out in the corridor gossiping about Moscow with the Russian teacher. All these men were active on the firing-line, so to speak, except the Russian - and he, of course, was a Slav, and without prejudices ....

But in the morning the English, the Frenchman, and the Russian were gone - the breathing-place between borders of hate was past - and we fled through the grim marches of the Turkish Empire.

The shallow, sluggish, yellow Maritza River, bordered by gigantic willows, twisted through an arid valley. Dry, brown hills rolled up, on whose slopes no green thing grew; flat plains baked under scanty scorched grass; straggly corn-fields lay drooping, with roofed platforms on stilts starting up here and there, where black-veiled women squatted with guns across their knees to scare away the crows. Rarely a village - miserable huts of daubed mud, thatched with dirty straw, clustering around the flat dome of a little mosque and its shabby minaret. Westward, a mile away, the ruins of a red-tiled town climbed the hillside, silent and deserted since the Bulgarians bombarded it in 1912, and shot off the tips of the two minarets. The crumbling stumps of minarets stood alone on the desolate flats, marking the spot of some once-living village or town whose very traces had disappeared - so quickly do the ephemeral buildings of the Turks return to the dust; but the minarets stand, for it is forbidden to demolish a mosque that has once been consecrated.

Sometimes we stopped at a little station; a group of huts, a minaret, adobe barracks, and rows of mud-bricks baking in the sun. A dozen gayly painted little arabas slung high on their springs waited for passengers; six or seven veiled women would crowd into one, pull the curtains to shield them from the public gaze, and rattle giggling away in a cloud of golden dust. Bare-legged peasant hanums, robed all in dull green, shuffled single file along the road, carrying naked babies, with a coquettish lifting of veils for the windows of the train. By the platform were piled shimmering heaps of melons brought from the interior - the luscious green sugar-melon, and the yellow kavoon, which smells like flowers and tastes like nothing else in the world. An ancient tree beside the station spread an emerald shade over a tiny café, where the turbaned, slippered old Turks of the country sat gravely at their coffee and narghilehs.

Along the railway, aged bent peasants, unfit for the firing-line, stood guard - barefooted, ragged, armed with rusty hammer-lock muskets and belted with soft-nosed bullets of an earlier vintage still. They made a pathetic effort to straighten up in military attitudes as we passed....But it was at Adrianople that we saw the first regular Turkish soldiers, in their unfitting khaki uniforms, puttees, and those German-designed soft helmets that look like Arab turbans, and come down flat on the forehead, so that a Mohammedan can salaam in prayers without uncovering. A mild-faced, serious, slow-moving people they seemed.

The brisk young Prussian who got on at Adrianople was strikingly different. He wore the uniform of a Bey in the Turkish army, with a tall cap of brown astrakhan ornamented with the gold crescent, and on his breast were the ribbons of the Iron Cross, and the Turkish Order of the Hamidieh. His scarred face was set in a violent scowl, and he strode up and down the corridor, muttering 'Gottverdammte Dummheit!' from time to time. At the first stop he descended, looked sharply around, and barked something in Turkish to the two tattered old railway guards who were scuffling along the platform.

'Tchabouk! Hurry!' he snapped. 'Sons of pigs, hurry when I call!'

Startled, they came running at a stiff trot. He looked them up and down with a sneer; then shot a string of vicious words at them. The two old men trotted off and, wheeling, inarched stiffly back, trying to achieve the goose-step and salute in Prussian fashion. Again he bawled insultingly in their faces; again, with crestfallen expression, they repeated the manoeuvre. It was ludicrous and pitiable to watch....

'Gott in Himmel!' cried the instructor to the world in general, shaking his fists in the air, 'were there ever such animals? Again! Again! Tchabouk! Run, damn you!'

Meanwhile, the other soldiers and the peasants had withdrawn from range, and stood in clusters at a distance, mildly inspecting this amazing human phenomenon....Of a sudden a little Turkish corporal detached himself from the throng, marched up to the Prussian, saluted, and spoke. The other glared, flushed to his hair, the cords stood out on his neck, and he thrust his nose against the little man's nose, and screamed at him.

'Bey effendi - began the corporal. And 'Bey effendi - he tried again to explain. But the Bey went brighter scarlet, grew more offensive, and finally drew back in good old Prussian fashion and slapped him in the face. The Turk winced and then stood quite still, while the red print of a hand sprang out on his cheek, staring without expression straight into the other's eyes. Undefinable, scarcely heard, a faint wind of sound swept over all those watching people....
 

All afternoon we crawled southeast through a blasted land. The low, hot air was heavy, as if with the breath of unnumbered generations of dead; a sluggish haze softened the distance. Thin corn-fields, irregular melon patches, dusty willows around a country well were all the vegetation. Occasionally there was a rustic thrashing-floor, where slow oxen drew round and round over the yellow corn a heavy sledge full of laughing, shouting youngsters. Once a caravan of shambling dromedaries, roped together, crossed our vision, rocking along with great dusty bales slung from their humps - the three small boys who were drivers skylarking about them. No living thing for miles and miles, nor any human evidences except the ruins of old cities, abandoned as the ebbing population withdrew into the city or Asia Minor beyond.... And yet this land has always been empty and desolate as it is today; even at the height of the Byzantine Empire, it was good policy to keep a barren waste between the City and the countries of the restless barbarians....

Now we began to pass troop-trains. English submarines in the Sea of Marmora had paralyzed water transport to Gallipoli, and the soldiers went by railroad to Kouleli Gourgas, and then marched overland to Bulair. The freight-car doors were crowded with dark, simple faces; there came to us incessant quavering nasal singing to the syncopated accompaniment of shrill pipes and drums. One was full of savage-eyed Arabs from the desert east of Aleppo, dressed still in sweeping grey and brown burnooses, their thin, intense faces more startling for the encircling folds.

Tchataldja was feverishly active; narrow-gauge little trains loaded with guns, steel trench roofs, piles of tools, puffed off along the folds of the hills, and the naked, brown slopes swarmed with a multitude of tiny figures working on trenches against the eventuality of Bulgarian invasion....

The sun set behind, warming for an instant with a wash of gold the desolate leagues on leagues of waste. Night came suddenly, a moonless night of overwhelming stars. We moved slower and slower, waiting interminably on switches while the whining, singing troop-trains flashed by.... Toward midnight I fell asleep, and woke hours later to find one of the Germans shaking me.

'Constantinople,' said he.

I could make out the dim shape of a gigantic wall rushing up as we roared through a jagged breach in it. On the right crumbling half-battlements - the Byzantine sea-wall - fell suddenly away, and showed the sea lapping with tiny waves at the railway embankment; the other side was a rank of tall, unpainted wooden houses leaning crazily against each other, over mouths of gloom which were narrow streets, and piling back up the rising hill of the city in chaotic masses of jumbled roofs. Over these suddenly sprang out against the stars the mighty dome of an imperial mosque, minarets that soared immeasurably into the sky like great lances, broken masses of trees on Seraglio Point, with a glimpse of the steep black wall that had buttressed the Acropolis of the Greeks upon its mountain, the vague forms of kiosks, spiked chimneys of the imperial kitchens in a row, and the wide, flat roof of the Old Seraglio palace - Istamboul, the prize of the world.
 

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