2. THE WAR CAPITAL
Nish. We took a tumble-down cab - whose bottom-board immediately fell out - attached to two dying horses and driven by a bandit in a high fur cap, and jolted up a wide street paved with mud and wide-set sharp cobbles. Round about the city the green hills rose, beautiful with new leaves and with every flowering fruit-tree, and over the wide-flung Turkish roofs, and the few mean plaster buildings in the European style, loomed the bulbous Greek domes of the cathedral. Here and there was the slender spire of a minaret, crisscrossed with telephone-wires. The street opened into a vast square, a sea of mud and cobbles bounded by wretched huts, across which marched steel poles carrying hundreds of wires and huge modern arc-lights. At one side an ox lay on his back, feet clewed up to a wooden beam, while peasants shod him with solid iron plates, as they had done it for half a thousand years.
Austrian prisoners in uniform wandered freely everywhere, without a guard. Some drove wagons, others dug ditches, and hundreds loitered up and down in idleness. We learned that by paying fifty denars to the government, you could have one for a servant. All the legations and consulates were manned with them. And the prisoners were glad to be servants, for there was no decent place for them to live, and scant food. Now and then an Austrian officer passed along, in full uniform and with his sword.
'Escape?' said one government official we interrogated. 'No, they do not try. The roads are metres deep in mud, the villages are depopulated and full of disease, there is no food.... It is difficult enough to travel by train in Serbia - on foot it would be impossible. And there are the guards all along the frontier....'
We passed a big hospital where pale prisoners leaned from the windows upon dirty blankets, dragged themselves in and out of the doors, and lay propped up on piles of drying mud along the road. These were only survivors; for out of the sixty thousand Austrians captured in the war, twelve thousand were already dead of typhus.
Beyond the square was the street again, between rough one-storey houses, and we were in the market-place. A dull roar rose from the haggling of hundreds of peasants in ten different national costumes - homespun linen embroidered with flowers, high fur hats, fezzes, turbans, and infinite varieties and modifications of Turkish trousers. Pigs squealed, hens squawked; underfoot were heaped baskets of eggs and herbs and vegetables and red peppers; majestic old men in sheepskins shuffled along with lambs in their arms. Here was the centre of the town. There were two or three restaurants and foul-smelling cafés, the dingy Hotel Orient, the inevitable American shoe-store, and amid cheap little shops, sudden windows ablaze with expensive jewellery and extravagant women's hats.
Along the sidewalks elbowed a multitude of strangely assorted people: gypsies, poverty-stricken peasants, gendarmes with great swords, in red and blue uniforms, tax-collectors dressed like generals, also with swords, smart army officers hung with medals, soldiers in filthy tatters, their feet bound with rags - soldiers limping, staggering on crutches, without arms, without legs, discharged from the overcrowded hospitals still blue and shaking from the typhus - and everywhere the Austrian prisoners. Government officials hurried by
with portfolios under their arms. Fat Jewish army contractors hobnobbed with political hangers-on over maculate café tables. Women government clerks, wives and mistresses of officers, society ladies, shouldered the peasant women in their humped-up gay skirts and high-coloured socks. The government from Belgrade had taken refuge in Nish, and a mountain village of twenty thousand inhabitants had become a city of one hundred and twenty thousand - not counting those who had died.
For the typhus had swept the town, where people were living six and ten in a room, until everywhere the black flags flapped in long, sinister vistas, and the windows of the cafés were plastered with black paper death-notices.
We crossed the muddy Nishava River on the bridge which leads to the heavy, arabesqued gate of the ancient Turkish citadel, which was Roman before the Turks, and where Constantine the Great was born. On the grass along the foot of the great wall sprawled hundreds of soldiers, sleeping, scratching themselves, stripping and searching their bodies for lice, tossing and twisting in fever. Everywhere about Nish, wherever there was a spot of worn grass, the miserable people clustered, picking vermin from each other.
The stench of the city was appalling. In the side streets open sewers trickled down among the cobbles. Some sanitary measures had been taken - such as the closing of cafés and restaurants from two o'clock until six every day in order to disinfect them - but still it was an even chance of typhus if you stayed in a hotel or public building. Luckily the hospitable American vice-consul, Mr Young, took us in at the consulate and introduced us at the Diplomatic Club, which had dining-rooms over an abandoned restaurant, and where good food was to be got when half the town was starving. The entrance was through a pigsty, after stepping across an open sewer; and when you opened the club-room door, your astonished eyes encountered tables, decorated with flowers and covered with silver and snowy linen, and a head waiter in smart evening dress, an Austrian prisoner by the name of Fritz, who had been head waiter at the Carlton in London before the war. To see the British minister sail majestically past the pigsty and mount the club stairs as if it were Piccadilly was a thing worth coming miles for.
Such was Nish, as we first saw it. Two weeks later we returned, after
the rains had altogether ceased, and the hot sun had dried the streets.
It was a few days after the feast of St George, which marks the coming
of the spring in Serbia. On that day all Serbia rises at dawn and goes
out into the woods and fields, gathering flowers and dancing and singing
and feasting all day. And even here, in this filthy, overcrowded town,
with the tragic sadness of war and pestilence over every house, the streets
were a gay sight. The men peasants had changed their dirty heavy woollens
and sheepskins for the summer suit of embroidered dazzling linen. All the
women wore new dresses and new silk kerchiefs, decorated with knots of
ribbon, with leaves and flowers - even the ox-yokes and the oxen's heads
were bound with purple lilac branches. Through the streets raced mad young
gypsy girls in Turkish trousers of extravagant and gorgeous colours, their
bodices gleaming with gold braid, gold coins hung in their ears. And I
remember five great strapping women with mattocks over their shoulders,
who marched singing down the middle of the road to take their dead men's
places in the work of the fields.
We were received by Colonel Soubotitch, chief of the Red Cross, in his headquarters. He described the terrible lack of all medical necessities in Serbia, and painted us a graphic picture of people dying in the streets of Nish only a month before. I noticed a handsome peasant blanket on his bed.
'My mother wove that for me,' he said simply, 'in the village where I live. She is a peasant. We are all peasants in Serbia - that is our pride. Voyvoda Putnik, commander-in-chief of the army, is a poor man; his father was a peasant. Voyvoda Michitch, who won the great battle that hurled the Austrian army from our country, is a peasant. Many of the deputies to the Skouptchina, our parliament, are peasants, who sit there in peasant dress.' He stared at the bed. 'And on that bed, on that very blanket which you so admired, I stood here where I now stand and watched my son die of typhus, two months ago. What will you? We must do our duty....'
He threw back his shoulders with a visible effort. 'So you want to see a typhus hospital? Ah, they are not interesting now. The worst is over. But I will give you a letter to Stanoievitch, at Chere Kula.'
We drove to Chere Kula, a mile out of town, late one sombre afternoon in the pouring rain. The name is Turkish, meaning 'Mound of Skulls'; it is literally a tower of skulls of Serbian warriors, erected near the site of a great battle fought more than a century ago, as a monument to the Turkish victory. Lieutenant Stanoievitch, in command of the hospital, unlocked the Greek chapel which the Serbians have built over the holy spot. In the dim light it loomed there, completely filling the chapel, a great round tower of clay with a few grinning heads still embedded in it, and draped with wreaths of faded flowers.
Around this sinister memorial were grouped the brick buildings of the typhus hospital, and the wooden barracks where the overflow was lodged. The wind set our way, carrying the stench of bodies sweating with fever, of sick men eating, of the rotting of flesh. We entered a barrack, along whose walls cots lay touching each other, and in the feeble light of two lanterns we could see the patients writhing in their dirty blankets, five and six crowded into two beds. Some sat up, apathetically eating; others lay like the dead; still others gave short, grunting moans, or shouted suddenly in the grip of delirium. The hospital orderlies, who slept in the same room, were all Austrian prisoners.
'I have been put in charge of this hospital only three days,' said the lieutenant. 'Before I came it was pretty bad. Now we have only twenty deaths a day. There are eight hundred patients - you see, we have no room for even these.'
We passed through fetid ward after fetid ward, smelling of decomposition and death, until we were wrung with the helplessness of these big men, and our stomachs were turned with the stench.
Later, we dined with Stanoievitch and his staff of young doctors and medical students. The good red wine of the country went around, and in a gay and lively argument about the war we forgot for a moment the poor devils dying on the other side of the wall. Stanoievitch, flushed with wine, was boasting of how the Serbians had smashed the Austrian army.
'What are these French and English doing?' he cried impatiently. 'Why
do they not beat the Germans? What they need there are a few Serbians to
show them how to make war. We Serbians know that all that is needed is
the willingness to die - and the war would soon be over ...!'
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