War in Eastern Europe
John Reed
 

9. ZALEZCHIK THE TERRIBLE
 

It was on the other side of Zastevna, where we stopped beside some ruined houses for a drink, that we saw the Austrian prisoners. They came limping along the road in the hot sun, about thirty of them, escorted by two Don Cossacks on horseback; grey uniforms white with dust, bristly faces drawn with fatigue. One man had the upper left-hand part of his face bound up, and the blood had soaked through; another's hand was bandaged, and some jerked along on improvised crutches. At a sign from the Cossacks, who dismounted, they reeled and stumbled to the side of the road, and sullenly threw themselves down in the shade. Two dark-faced men snarled at each other like beasts. The man with the wounded head groaned. He with the bandaged hand began tremblingly to unwrap the gauze. The Cossacks goodnaturedly waved us permission to talk with them, and we went over with handfuls of cigarettes. They snatched at them with the avidity of smokers long deprived of tobacco - all except one haughty-faced youth, who produced a handsome case crammed with gold-tipped cigarettes, declined ours frigidly, and took one of his own, without offering any to the others.

'He is a Count,' explained a simple, peasant-faced boy with awe.

The man with the wounded hand had got his bandage off at last, and was staring at his bloody palm with a sort of fascination.

I think this had better be dressed again,' said he at last, glancing diffidently at a stout, sulky-looking person who wore a Red Cross arm-band. The latter looked across with lazy contempt and shrugged his shoulders.

'We've got some bandages,' I began, producing one. But one of the Cossacks came over, scowling and shaking his head at me. He kicked the Red Cross man with a look of disgust, and pointed to the other. Muttering something, the stout man fumbled angrily in his case, jerked out a bandage, and slouched across.

There were thirty of them, and among that thirty-five races were represented: Tcheks, Croats, Magyars, Poles and Austrians. One Croat, two Magyars, three Tcheks could speak absolutely not a word of any language but their own, and, of course, none of the Austrians knew a single word of Bohemian, Croatian, Hungarian, or Polish. Among the Austrians were Tyroleans, Viennese, and a half-Italian from Pola. The Croats hated the Magyars, and the Magyars hated the Austrians - and as for the Tcheks, no one would speak to them. Besides, they were all divided up into sharply denned social grades, each of which snubbed its inferiors....As a sample of Franz Joseph's army the group was most illuminating.

They had been taken in a night attack along the Pruth, and marched more than twenty miles in two days. But they were all enthusiastic in praise of their Cossack guards.

'They are very considerate and kind,' said one man. 'When we stop for the night the Cossacks personally go around to each man, and see that he is comfortable. And they let us rest often....

'The Cossacks are fine soldiers,' another broke in; I have fought with them, and they are very brave. I wish we had cavalry like them!'

A young volunteer of the Polish legion asked eagerly if Rumania was coming in. We replied that it seemed like it, and suddenly he burst out, quivering:

'My God! My God! What can we do? How long can this awful war last? All we want is peace and quiet and rest! We are beaten - we are honourably beaten. England, France, Russia, Italy, the whole world is against us. We can lay down our arms with honour now! Why should this useless butchery go on?'

And the rest sat there, gloomily listening to him without a word....
 

Toward evening we were rattling down a steep gully between high cliffs. A stream plunged down beside the road, turning a hundred water-wheels whose mills lay shattered by artillery fire; shacks in partial ruin shouldered each other along the gully, and on top of the eastern cliff we could see disembowelled trenches and an inferno of twisted, snarled barbed wire, where the Russians had bombarded and stormed the Austrian defences a month before. Hundreds of men were at work up there clearing away the wreckage and building new works. We rounded a corner suddenly and came out upon the bank of the Dniester, just below where the tall railroad bridge plunged into the water its tangle of dynamited girders and cables. Here the river made a huge bend, beneath earthen cliffs a hundred feet high, and across a pontoon bridge choked with artillery the once lovely town of Zalezchik lay bowered in trees. As we crossed, naked Cossacks were swimming their horses in the current, shouting and splashing, their powerful white bodies drenched with golden light....

Zalezchik had been captured, burned, and looted three times by two armies, shelled for fifteen days, and the major portion of its population wiped out by both sides because it had given aid and comfort to the enemy. Night was falling when we drove into the market-place, surrounded with the shocking debris of tall houses. A sort of feeble market was going on there under miserable tilted shacks, where sad-eyed peasant women spread their scanty vegetables and loaves of bread, the centre of a mob of soldiers. A few Jews slunk about the corners. Ivan demanded a hotel, but the man smiled and pointed to a tall crumbling brick wall with 'Grand Hotel' painted boldly across it - all that remained. Where could we get something to eat?

'Something to eat? There is not enough food in this town to feed my wife and children.'

An atmosphere of terror hung over the place - we could feel it in the air. It was in the crouching figures of the Jews, stealing furtively along the tottering walls; in the peasants as they got out of the way of our carriage, doffing their hats; in the faces of cringing children, as soldiers went by. It got dark, and we sat in the carriage, debating what to do.

We bestowed upon Ivan a two-rouble piece, which, after biting, he put away in his pocket with hoarse sounds betokening gratitude. And we left him sitting on his vehicle in the middle of the square, gazing at nothing.

An 'Apteka' - apothecary shop - stood on the corner, comparatively undamaged, with a light inside. I found the druggist alone, a Jew who spoke German.

'What are you?' he asked suspiciously, peering at me.

'An American.'

'There is no hotel here,' he burst out suddenly. There is no place to stay and nothing to eat. A month ago the Russians came in here - they slaughtered the Jews, and drove the women and children out there.' He pointed west. There is no place here -'

Then,' I said, 'the military commandant must take care of us. Where can I find him?'

'I will send my assistant with you,' he answered. His face stiffened with fear. 'You will not say to them what I have told, noble Herr? You will not -'

The entry of two Russian soldiers interrupted him, and he rose, addressing me insolently for their benefit:

'I can't drive you out of the shop. It's a public shop. But remember, I assume no responsibility for you. I didn't ask you to come here. I don't know you.' For, after all, we might be undesirable people.

When we came out of the Apteka Ivan was still there, hunched over in the same position, and an hour later, when we issued from the colonel's headquarters, he had not moved, though it was quite dark. What was passing in that swampy mind? Perhaps he was trying to remember the name of Novo Sielitza, his home - perhaps he was merely wondering how to get there....
 

We sat long over dinner with the genial colonel and his staff, chattering politics and gossip in intensely fragmentary German. Among other officers were a young Finnish lieutenant and an old Cossack major with a wrinkled Mongolian face like the pictures of Li Hung Chang, who were very much excited over the sinking of the Lusitania, and sure that America would go to war.

'What can we do for you?' asked the colonel. We said that we would like to visit this part of the front, if there were any fighting going on.

'That, I am afraid, is impossible from here,' he regretted. 'But if you will go to Tarnopol, the general commanding this army will surely give you permission. Then you must return here, and I shall be glad to accompany you myself. A train for Tarnopol leaves to-night at eleven.'

Could he give us any idea what was happening along the front?

'With pleasure,' said he eagerly, telling an orderly to bring the maps. He spread them out on the table. 'Now here, near Zadagora, we have ten big guns placed in these positions, to stop the Austrian flanking column that is rolling up from the Pruth. Over here, near Kalusz, the Austrians imagine that we have nothing but cavalry, but in about three days we'll throw three regiments across this little stream at this point -'

I remarked that all those maps seemed to be German or Austrian maps.

'Oh, yes,' he replied. 'At the beginning of the war we had no maps at all of Bucovina or Galicia. We didn't even know the lay of the land until we had captured some....'
 

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