The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces


ADRIANOPLE is left behind, with its magnificent mosques built in the days when Turkey was great (they have long since lost that art), and dirty crowded streets full of squalid humanity, and we have seen the last of the miserable soldiery - for which praise be to Heaven. Not the very last of them, perhaps, but at least for the time being.

The train is speeding swiftly up the valley of the Maritza, and we are entering Bulgaria. There is the first village, clean, snug, and with an almost visible atmosphere of contentment and safety. Ye gods, how different from the villages we have been visiting of late, with their doglike inhabitants, every spark of manliness ground out of them, mere apologies of the human race; and yet it is the same race here as there.

We pull up at a station. Grey-coated, flat-capped gendarmes board the train, and John, our servant, throws his fez into the corner of the carriage, producing mysteriously a European peaked cap from the depths of a pocket. We hear him heave a sigh of contentment as he sets it jauntily on his head, and the burly gendarme smiles appreciatively, as he respectfully asks for our passports. What a different stamp of man he is too, compared with his colleague across the border. Well-fed and clothed, with smiling face despite his official air; his salute too is smart and soldierly, not the


cringing salaam or imperious insolence which the Turk can change at will.

"Look, Bulgarian soldiers!" cried John enthusiastically, and we see masses of infantry marching lustily along the highroad. A little farther, several squadrons of cavalry are exercising on the greensward, then more infantry diligently drilling. All are hard at work, and again our thoughts fly back to Turkey, whose soldiers spend their time in sleep and slovenliness, considering drill an unnecessary evil.

'Tis as if we had left Turkey thousands of miles behind in that short hour.

At Tirnovo we pass the Customs; some little formality we have apparently neglected, and officials become stern, till John remonstrates at length, telling of our troubles in Turkey and more particularly of the early morning experience at Adrianople.

"Are we still in Turkey?" he concludes indignantly.

The officials relax and dismiss us at once. One comes to our carriage and bids the gendarme in charge of the train look after our wants.

It is very pleasant to be treated as human beings once more, and not as intruders to be annoyed.

And so we proceed to Phillipopolis, clustering prettily under the grey rocks, a town twenty years ago under the ban of the Turks, now clean, sweet, and modern.

Everywhere is the same bustling activity. Infantry, cavalry, and artillery march through the streets from their morning drill, keen men all, with a sense of the danger before them, yet with confidence in their every movement. That is the right feeling on the eve of war: not the bombastic cry, "A Berlin," but a stern determination not to be beaten.

These were my first impressions on re-entering Bulgaria,



for I know the country from former visits, - and they were shared by every observer fresh from a sojourn in Turkey last autumn. Before judging of the relative merits of Bulgaria and Turkey, it is necessary to spend a few weeks in the one country and immediately enter the other: it does not matter which is visited first. It is only thus that a true opinion can be formed.

There was a correspondent in the Balkans last year, an officer of the British army on leave, who declared after a cursory inspection of the Bulgarian army that it would be beaten - it was too small. He visited Turkey, spending some weeks there, and soon modified his previous opinion, saying, that if Bulgaria had good generals it would win. Again he re-visited Bulgaria, and this time thoroughly inspected the army; his final verdict eliminated even the necessity of good generals.

But Bulgaria has good generals, and the plan of campaign is already prepared, and an excellent one it is.

Last summer, had Turkey forced a war, Bulgaria would have lost Roumelia, and been compelled to defend the Balkan passes. In the autumn the valley of the Maritza would have seen the brunt of the fighting. Now I doubt if a single action will be fought on Bulgarian territory.

Much has been said of the inherent dread that the Bulgarians have of Turkey. To anybody who knows the character of the Bulgarians this theory is laughable. They showed no fear when Russia came to help them, and, untrained and down-trodden as they were then, they still fought gallantly with their deliverers. At Slivnitza they signally defeated the Servians, and could have marched on Belgrade, had not Austria stopped them. Then they were but eight years old.


That the insurgent bands show no inherent dread of the Turks must be admitted by all, and the men who form these bands are Bulgarians.

As for the spirit of the officers and men alike, let the following little episode speak, insignificant as it may appear at the first glance.

I was driving from Koestendil to Dubnitza, on the western border, a week or two after my arrival in Bulgaria. About halfway at a little village there was a battalion of infantry route-marching and halting for an hour's rest. Right and left of the road rows of piled arms lent an additional picturesqueness to the scene.

Hundreds of the men were idling on the market-place, and before the humble inn, where we also stopped to rest the horses.

Hardly had I descended when a private soldier accosted me, asking in German if I was of that nationality. I replied that I was not though I spoke the language, whereat he was greatly pleased. He spoke German fluently, and soon told me that he was a Government clerk called up as a Reservist. Meanwhile John had entered into conversation with some of the officers, who, on learning my profession, immediately came forward and introduced themselves. The news spread like wildfire that I was a British correspondent fresh from Macedonia: the other officers came, and soon the little square was densely packed with the soldiers.

The Major in command, to whom, oddly enough, I had a card of introduction, ordered wine; benches were brought, upon which we took our seats, and in a few minutes a hundred men were lustily dancing the "Horo" (national dance) and other quaint but most strenuous dances. Soldiers produced bag-pipes (not at all unlike the High-




landers'), and soon the square was full of different rings, "horo" dancing. Many of the men were in heavy marching order, yet they sprang and jumped as nimbly as if valises and great-coats were but air.

More wine was ordered, and now a huge captain jumped up and led a "horo" hand in hand with the men. There was a pause when he ceased till the battalion bugler leapt into the ring and waving his cap, shouted, "Macedonia! "

The mighty cheer that went up was something worth hearing. There was no false enthusiasm about that. Again and again that magnificeent roll of sound crashed out - for there is no more contagious and inspiriting sound than of men cheering from their very souls.

It is not always melodious music that excites us most - a roll of drums will do more to inspirit a man at times than the finest orchestra.

The recollection of that morning - I spent three hours with the battalion - was one of the pleasantest of a host of pleasant experiences in Bulgaria.

How those soldiers danced, after a long march, and with another before them, and what fine fellows the officers were; great bearded giants, as hearty in spirit as in body!

Never shall I forget the look of amazement on the faces of two other correspondents - we had met in Monastir - who suddenly arrived as we were in the act of drinking the "stirrup cup" just before the departure of the troops.

It was the same everywhere. When I arrived that evening in Dubnitza I was promptly haled off to the officers' mess of the local garrison - the same in Koestendil, the same in Samakov. Everywhere I found the same hearty men, good fellows every one: no bombastic talk, but a genuine longing for war, such as every true soldier should have.


Could any one help contrasting these men - most of whom spoke English, French, or German - with the Turkish officers, who talked of "six hours to Sofia" and "the fear and trembling of Bulgarian border guards," etc.; men who often could not read or write, and who were but little better than savages? The conclusions were obvious.

And what was the reason of these receptions, accorded not only to me, but to all the other British correspondents? Simply this: England has twice befriended them and saved them from their "friend" Russia. England is in their eyes the cradle and home of liberty. They look to England as the one nation who can help them in the coming crisis.

"If only we have England's sympathy we can go to war to-morrow," was a remark constantly made to me. And there is no reason why England should not give this brave little people at least her sympathy. They are not seeking self-aggrandisement, whatever may be maintained to the contrary, they are simply doing what the U.S. did when suffering Cuba could stand no more, and what England did in the Transvaal. Was it not the cry of the Uitlanders in Johannesburg - our flesh and blood - that caused us to go to war with their oppressors? And how much worse is the case of Bulgaria and Macedonia, door on door, so that the wails of the tortured are heard by the Bulgarian border guards. This is no idle phrase of sentiment. I was told by an officer in command of a frontier post, how they often heard at night the screams of the Christian peasants in the villages but a few yards across the border.

Let us glance back at the history of the Bulgarian nation to understand better the character of this people. At the present time it may prove instructive, the more so as present Macedonian and past Bulgarian history form a striking


parallel. For more than five hundred years Bulgaria as such ceased to exist. Firstly, it was crushed by the Turks, as is Macedonia to-day, and what spark of nationality was left was ruthlessly extinguished by the Greek clergy, who wantonly burnt their libraries and records. Greeks drove out the native priests and the vernacular scriptures, and aided the Turks in the oppression of the Bulgar, precisely as they are now doing in Macedonia. Even the Cyrillic alphabet was abolished.

A few abortive risings were attempted in the fifteenth century, but it was not till the nineteenth century that Bulgarian nationalism began to awake. Again history has repeated itself in the fact that it was left to the so-called bandits to revive the almost extinct patriotism. Bands scoured the land formed of despairing Bulgars who could stand no more, and, as to-day, the Turks were powerless against them. To-day the stories of their doings are sung in many a stirring ballad, and we hear how the villagers welcomed these brave "Haidutin" (the Haiduks in Servia performed the same deeds), who protected the weak and defied the mighty Turk in their rocky fastnesses.

But it was not till 1835 that the first Bulgarian school was established, and that the native language began to displace the Greek. To a Russian named Vidolin, who wrote a history of Bulgaria, the Bulgarians of to-day owe this first important step. It awakened their dormant patriotism, and led to the expulsion of the Greek priests, and finally to the severance of the Bulgarian Church from the Greek and the establishment of the Exarchate in 1870. It must be admitted that the Turks themselves helped in this national movement.

Within thirty-five years the Bulgarians regained their


nationality after, roughly, five hundred years of extinction. This alone speaks wonders for their virility.

The advancement in the last thirty years is even more remarkable.

In 1875 an insurrection in the Herzegovina broke out and set the whole of Eastern Europe ablaze (as I venture to predict will happen in 1904 in Macedonia). The stolid, hitherto peaceable Bulgarians caught the infection and rose against the Turks. The result of this feeble rising is modern history: how the Turks crushed it with their usual ferocity, so that a wave of righteous indignation spread over Europe when it heard of the massacre of Batak. To-day, it is true, we listen to such tales with indifference, but perhaps we were more humane a quarter of a century ago.

Those wretched peasants were sacrificed on the altar of freedom, but in this case not in vain. Russia came to their help, and Bulgaria in 1878 became a free country once more, at any rate in name, for Russia's yoke proved well-nigh harder to bear than the Turkish.

But again the Bulgarians rose to the occasion. Russia was ejected and the country learnt to walk alone. Within eight years, at the moment Russia left the country to its fate, withdrawing all her officers from the scarcely organized army, Servia declared war. Bulgaria crushed Servia in one blow, to the amazement of Europe.

Since then her history has been marred by some terrible crimes, but these are more than outweighed by the enormous strides she has made towards civilization. We cannot expect, in common justice, that an Eastern people should become in twenty-five years a model state, yet Bulgaria today is not far away from this goal.

There is not a foreigner in her service; Bulgarians teach



in her high schools, Bulgarians rule the country, and Bulgarians lead her army. And only sixty years ago the Bulgarians re-learnt their own language.

It is a truly marvellous record. No wonder the Greeks view the Bulgarian Macedonians with such hatred, born of fear; for what their brethren in freedom have done sixty years ago the same ignorant, down-trodden peasants as they are to-day, and more so - they can do to-morrow.

In spite of the hatred which Bulgarians inspire, they have always won the respect of their adversaries. What we do not fear we despise, but we do not hate.

A prominent Greek merchant in Salonica once told me, after a most virulent attack on the Bulgarians, that, after all, one Bulgarian workman was worth five Greeks or Turks.

Sir Frank Lascelles told the Bulgarians before he left Sofia that they possessed more common-sense than any people he knew; and it is perfectly true.

There is no Balkan state, not even excepting Montenegro, that should appeal more to England than this little country, which has made itself in twenty-five years.

To expect a high standard of civilization is absurd. Servia, with a hundred years of freedom, has stained itself for all time by a crime committed on the very brink of its centenary. We must not forget that the Eastern character is very different from ours. Human life is held more cheaply, and no wonder, when Turkey, the late master of these lands, lets murderers go unpunished to-day. If an Oriental, be he Serb, Bulgar, Montenegrin, or Albanian, has an enemy, the simplest remedy in his eyes is to remove him from this world. But Western civilization is slowly working its way into the Balkans, and in no country more than in Bulgaria.

I have met there the most courteous and polished gentle


men, who have conversed in faultless English learnt at the Robert College at Constantinople, and it has been a great effort to realize that their fathers were rude peasants, like the Macedonians of to-day, as a diplomatist once laughingly told me. Many of the officers, Macedonians by birth, spick and span in neat uniforms, and in no way different in bearing and conversation from the smart Continental officer, have related stories of their childhood in squalid Turkish towns or villages. These men have migrated in thousands to Bulgaria, entered that country's service, and travelled for study in other lands. It is to this love of travelling in the interests of learning that the modern Bulgarian owes so much. The men who fill the learned positions have all studied either in Vienna, Paris, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.

A Macedonian I met in Monastir who spoke excellent German, had learnt that language in Leipzig, where he had lived many years as clerk in a merchant's office. Yet he had thrown up his berth and returned to his country because it had need of him.

On another occasion a major in one of the Bulgarian border garrisons asked me, - after a delightful evening spent in his company, during which he had beguiled the time by singing well-known Italian airs, accompanying himself most exquisitely on the mandoline, - if I knew a certain village in Macedonia. By chance I had once visited it, a typical Turkish village, peopled by typical miserable Macedonian peasants, and I told him so.

"It was my birthplace," he answered quietly, and began singing, "Ah! che la morte."

I have met Bulgarian officers on lonely border posts laboriously teaching themselves English from a grammar,


and once a brother correspondent and myself conversed many hours in a little far-away provincial town with the local judge, a young man, yet who "speaks better English than we do," as my comrade laughingly and truly remarked, for he had an amazing knowledge of legal technical terms.

These are but a few examples picked at random. They must show that the stuff the Bulgarian is made of is of the right sort. I shall doubtless be accused of prejudice, though I can be borne out by many of my countrymen who have met the Bulgars as I have done - not in Sofia, but in the provincial towns, where one sees the inside of a nation far better than in the invariable atmosphere of reserve which pervades a capital.

Of all the Balkan nations they are undoubtedly the finest, and will ultimately succeed. The Servians, whom I know least about, do not inspire confidence, though once they were the greatest nation. A famous historian (de la Jonquiere) called them "a brave, poetic, careless, frivolous race" who "have never attempted to assimilate the remains of ancient culture." But this is certain; that such a crime as was committed last June in Servia could never have occurred in Bulgaria to-day. Montenegro I love, but it is the love for a race of warriors and natural courtiers, who also have done much to improve themselves the last twenty-five years, but, there, alas! poverty and corruption still go hand in hand. Mr. Miller has made a comparison between Bulgaria and Montenegro, with which, however, I do not entirely agree. "The Montenegrin is the exact opposite of the Bulgarian. Put both in a drawing-room, and the Montenegrin, who has never bowed his neck to a foreign master, will look and behave like a gentleman, while the Bulgarian... will look and behave like a boor. But put the two upon a


waste plot of ground, and the Bulgarian will convert it into a garden of roses, while the Montenegrin will look on." The Bulgarian, however, makes himself into a perfect gentleman the moment he travels, for, adept as he is in converting waste ground into rose gardens, he is equally capable of adopting the manners and instincts of civilization. My meaning would be made still more clear could, for instance, a minister of Montenegro and a minister of Bulgaria be put in a drawing-room.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]