The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces

Reminiscences. III



RIGHTLY or wrongly, the Turkish army of last century had a tremendous reputation for courage and other fighting qualities. There are many who still hold that belief to-day. It is a commonly accepted theory when comparing the respective chances of another army with the Turkish that the latter is and always has been a splendid fighting machine, even if unkempt and dirty. As far as the latter belief is concerned it is absolutely and painfully correct, for a more disreputable looking rascal than a soldier of the Imperial Ottoman Army can scarcely be imagined, except perhaps in a Portuguese colony or a Central American Republic. His face is stamped with evil lusts and cruelty, and is a confirmation in itself of the tales of his atrocities.

Regarding his past reputation as a fighter, he has certainly given his enemy much trouble, though purely through acting on the defensive. That is doubtless his great if not his only military virtue. Put a Turkish soldier in a fort and tell him to stop there, he will do so-unless there is dynamite about. But I cannot remember, at any rate during the last century, any instance where the Turk has assumed the offensive against an equally determined foe with success. The Turco-Greek war cannot be quoted because of the abject cowardice of the Greeks, who nowhere made a stand. But


witness little Montenegro, which defied the Ottoman Empire at its zenith for five long centuries and was never beaten.

Even in bygone centuries, when the Turkish Empire carried all before it, the pick of the army who bore the brunt of the battles were the corps of Janissaries, who were not Turks at all, but whilom Christian children trained to war practically from infancy. When this famous corps collapsed, Turkey's power began to wane, and it has been steadily deteriorating ever since.

To-day the Turkish soldier is utterly demoralized - like the whole nation. Whatever the common belief is of his prowess in bygone times, he is to-day by no means the valiant, reckless soldier who marches joyfully into battle conjuring up visions of paradise. On the other hand, he is a most abject coward, and has displayed it scores of times in fighting these handfuls of insurgents. Perhaps he may think that being blown to pieces by dynamite does not constitute a free pass to the arms of his houris. At any rate there has been no instances of his cheerfully sacrificing his life when the bombs are in the air; he prefers rather the seclusion of the adjacent mealie field, or prays for quieter times, immersed to the neck in water the while.

It was near Uesküb that the above actually happened. The European engineers were summoned hastily to the nearest bridge over the Vardar, where bombs had just been thrown, and found the guard especially placed there to protect the bridge conspicuously absent. It took the engineers as long to discover the mine as it did to hunt out the guard.

Yet in day-time they are brave enough - in a way. It was the morning after the above incident had occurred that a Turkish battalion passed through the station Selanik, close to the bridge. On the platform lay


the corpse of a soldier killed the previous night. There were also five Bulgarian platelayers and the European station-master. With a howl of rage the battalion descended and chopped up the five innocent platelayers, while the station-master went mad at the sight. I passed through the station a day or two later.

To show the uniformity of the Turkish army in their fear of dynamite I will repeat a tale as told me by an engineer on the Adrianople line - the other side of European Turkey. It was just after the dynamite outrage at Kuleli-Burgas, and a whole company of troops were detailed to watch the line just outside the station. One night there was a loud report and a stampede. When the railway officials went out to see what had happened, there was not a soldier to be found, and it took over an hour to collect them. Next day, however, two harmless peasants were seized, bound to posts and kept so throughout the blazing hot day, while soldiers alternately beat them with the butts of rifles. "Towards the end of this performance," so concluded my informant, "we became very sick." That evening, however, the peasants proved their innocence, were unbound and allowed to crawl away.

The railway officials tell many a merry tale of the confusion and muddle, to say nothing of the discipline of the Turks when they are transporting themselves about the country by rail. It is one of the neatest tricks of the insurgents to start a fresh outbreak at absolutely the other end of the country. Not only is the whole Turkish army disorganized thereby, but the expense is enormous, since the Oriental railway declared "money down or no trains."

A special train conveying troops is preceded by a pilot engine. The idea is that the "pilot" should blow up any


mine and save the train. This is clever enough in its way; but, as insurgents have often smilingly pointed out, the engine precedes the train by ten minutes, i.e. it leaves the station ten minutes before the advertised departure of the troops, but Orientals cannot and never will be punctual, with the result that the "pilot" is often an hour or so ahead, and ten mines could be laid with the greatest of ease. There was one time when the "pilot" came in six hours ahead, because the regiment stopped its own train at midday, got out, and cooked its dinner, oblivious to the express orders from higher quarters "to push on without delay."

Thousands of troops were guarding the line, it is true, but it was simply lack of enterprise or part of their tactics that the insurgents did not blow up every bridge and viaduct in the country. Why they did not is not for me to say, but it seemed to me unaccountable.

At eventide the Turkish soldier's courage fades with the light. On the Bulgarian borders the soldiers lock themselves in their blockhouses till daybreak, and then the Porte remonstrates severely with the Government at Sofia for aiding and abetting the insurrectionary movement. M-yes! but when crossing the Turkish border at night is as easy as crossing the road, the retort is somewhat obvious.

Similarly it is as easy to blow up any bridge or tunnel in the heart of Turkey itself.

The following little incident will explain better what I mean. It occurred not far from Monastir last August. The insurgents, more, I think, to prove their capability than anything else, had blown up a small bridge, which was as promptly repaired. As a guard there was a company of infantry under the command of a captain a few hundred


yards away, and a little farther down the line was another small detachment commanded by a sergeant. The bridge, however, was carefully left unguarded, and the railway engineer after completing the repairs pointed out this omission to the captain.

The captain hummed and hawed till the engineer angrily told him that it was his duty to provide a guard.

"But I have too few men," pleaded the officer.

"Well, get some from the sergeant," roared the engineer very indignantly, for he wanted to get back to Monastir before dark.

"If the sergeant gives five men, I will detail another ten," said the officer, and the engineer, thinking the matter settled, climbed on the engine and went home.

At daybreak he returned and found to his very pardonable disgust, the bridge totally unprotected. As soon as it was fully daylight the soldiers of the two posts collected at the bridge, rejoicing that it had not again suffered at the hands of those thrice-accursed Christian dogs.

The engineer saw the matter in a different light, and angrily demanded of the captain why his instructions had not been carried out. He also asked him if he thought he was going to rebuild this bally bridge every day just because his men were too tender to stop out all night.

Quoth the gallant officer with pride

"My ten men were ready, but the sergeant never sent his five."

The worthy non-com. became so indignant and retorted so hotly that captain and sergeant were with difficulty restrained from blows.

The confusion entailed when the troops are being moved about is almost indescribable. Empty trains are


telegraphed for and proceed to certain stations. Here they wait, for no troops are there, till they return empty in disgust, or if the troops are there, the order is countermanded. I remember when the insurrection broke out in Razlog, some sixteen battalions were concentrated along the line at Monastir and Sorovic. Suddenly four battalions left Monastir by road for Uesküb, and trains were ordered to go down to Sorovic and take on several regiments to Demir-Hissar in vilayet Salonica. The railway staff worked all night putting the trains together. Next morning off they went but came back empty at night. Similarly the marching battalions were recalled when half the distance had been covered. Three days later it was all done over again, and this time carried out, dislocating the whole traffic, for I went down to Salonica that day, of course leaving Monastir at 2 p.m. instead of 8 a.m., and arrived at Salonica past midnight, after a most unenviable night journey spent in praying that the insurgents would not mistake my train for a troop train.

Their army maps are most inferior and the ignorance displayed by staff officers simply extraordinary.

When Krushevo was in the hands of the insurgents, several batteries of artillery were dispatched after the infantry had left to support them. They arrived four days late, because the commanding officer had mistaken the name of the town for Kirchevo two days' march in another direction.

Talking of artillery reminds me of an amusing and instructive conversation held with a certain Pacha.

One of us had seen a battery on the march and complimented the Pacha on its smart appearance.

"But," remarked another correspondent, "they never


fire a round in practice. What would happen in the case of war?"

"Oh," responded the Pacha blandly, "the non-commissioned officers know how to handle the guns, and in war time we shall call in the men who fought them through the Greek war."

Another young artillery officer who was asked why the Turkish artillery when they once attacked a village invariably battered it to pieces, even though every one had been killed or had fled, responded

"We are only too thankful for the chance of a little practice."

And it is precisely the same with the infantry. They never fire even blank cartridges, let alone "ball." It is most amusing, or extremely annoying if the stranger is a late sleeper, to reside in the vicinity of a barrack square or drilling ground.

At daybreak in summer drilling commences - if the commanding officer be of an energetic disposition - and in the event of firing exercise it is the buglers who blow lustily to mark "fire." The soldiers do not even ease springs at "the present." Similarly no aiming drill is practised. This maybe different at Constantinople, under the auspices of foreign instructors, but in provincial garrisons, and particularly during the active insurrection, practically all drill was suspended.

As I travelled by rail once through the vilayet of Salonica, a particularly smart young lieutenant entered my compartment. He began reading a German novel, and we soon got into conversation. He told me that he had come straight from the field of operations at Razlog, and that previously he had been attached to a regiment of Russian infantry.


Of course we talked of the fighting, and the lieutenant was exceedingly bitter against the insurgents.

"You have no idea how hard it is for me;" he said. "Just back from the law and order of Prussia, I am supposed to turn my knowledge to account with my own battalion, but as long as the insurrection lasts I am powerless. The men won't be drilled."

He added that the recruits received only the barest possible instruction.

It was on the same line on an earlier occasion that I met a colonel and acting brigadier. He was to take his brigade up to Razlog the next day and was full of their praises. As it happened, he had been engaged near Monastir for the past few weeks during my stay there, so that I was able to follow his accounts fairly accurately, though he little guessed my identity.

In answer to my question if he had had much fighting, he staggered me considerably by remarking

"We often saw a band, but we never fire first unless our position is very favourable. Usually we let the band depart in peace."

This confirmed what I had often heard from the insurgents themselves. Unless they were surrounded by an overwhelming force the Turks never attacked. I think the story of the battle of Smilevo one of the most striking examples of this kind. A certain consul and myself succeeded in verifying it fully by comparing both the Turkish and insurgent accounts.

At the very commencement of August (1903) a force of some twelve hundred insurgents took up a very strong position on the heights round Smilevo, a village some four hours distant from Monastir. Each eta or band held some




more or less inaccessible crag, and the only approach for attack was up a high-lying ravine under the very rifles of the defenders. On August 2 a considerable force of Turks "reconnoitred" the insurgent position, and finding it not to their liking, returned to Monastir. Twice this daring act was repeated, though not a shot was exchanged - neither side cared to commence - and the second time the Turks were so close to the most advanced insurgent post that the latter distinctly heard an argument between two colonels.

Both insisted that the other should commence the attack, and neither would accept the onerous duty. Ultimately, on the 27th of the month, seven battalions and one battery returned, and this time it was business. The infantry deployed, firing commenced, to the great disadvantage and loss of the Turks, and then the guns got to work. Very gallantly the Turkish infantry stormed the hillsides under cover of their guns, and captured the insurgent position. But the insurgents were all gone, and not more than twenty dead bodies were found. At the first gun the insurgents had retreated in capital order, as they invariably do when artillery is available, for they never face shell fire, after defying an army corps for twenty-eight days and causing thousands of fresh troops to be poured into the vilayet.

The Turks were so annoyed that the nearest village, ill-fated Smilevo, was sacrificed to the infuriated soldiery. That episode I have told elsewhere.

There is another characteristic of the Turkish army of to-day besides their bad shooting and hatred of hand-to-hand fighting, and that is their appalling waste of ammunition. It is dangerous to witness a fight from any point, for


bullets fly even at complete right angles, as a German officer once told me after a most unpleasant experience.

Their one idea is to blaze away and make as much noise as possible.

The attention of a high Turkish officer was once drawn to this utter lack of marksmanship and waste of good powder, but he pooh-poohed it, saying, "Our soldiers don't care for shooting; they love to use the bayonet." So they do, if the man is dead, or in a massacre, as any one will testify who has seen a man murdered in the streets by soldiers. Likewise the most gallant and fiercest charges are made at manoeuvres - when bayonets are flashed and brandished literally in the faces of the friendly foes.

Yet the Turks show the greatest reluctance to close with even the smallest handful of insurgents. Whenever a band is localized in a village, a mass of troops surround it and bombard it for hours from a respectful distance - there are always those accursed bombs to be considered.

When the insurgent fire is finally silenced, the troops close in cautiously and sack the village, usually discovering that somehow or other the little band has given them the slip.

During last August a case in point occurred at Banitza, also in the vilayet of Monastir. The village was held by thirty-five Bulgars and successfully surrounded at daybreak by two battalions. At 11 a.m. the Turks began pouring a hail of lead into the village. Towards one o'clock the band broke out, twenty-one got away, but the other fourteen were caught in a small hollow.

For another three hours the Turks concentrated their fire on the unhappy Bulgars, and ultimately ceased at 5 p.m. Of course the little band was literally shot to pieces, probably in the first ten minutes.


Another (this time a purely comical case) happened at Amatovo, a small station on the Uesküb-Salonica line. Close by, a band had made an extensive marsh its headquarters for many days, and the Turks getting wind of this, dispatched a small army, with guns, to effect its capture.

For a whole day the Turks bombarded that swamp with shell and rifle fire, to the detriment of the stationmaster's windows, when one shell burst too near and broke them. But the band had left the night before.

This was perhaps the most amusing episode of last year's summer campaign. Several thousand rounds of ammunition had been wasted on a barren stretch of swamp and rushes. It was more or less the same everywhere, reckless expenditure of cartridges and a minimum loss of life from this mode of fighting.

On the other hand, indiscriminate shooting is rife and accounts for many unlucky peasants. A patrol thinks nothing of "potting" a man working harmlessly and all unheeding in his field. Corpses strewed the melon-gardens and remained unburied. Riding once a short distance from Monastir, I met a gendarmerie patrol marching along the high road beguiling the monotony of the way by discharging a rifle alternately at about every hundred yards. They did not trouble to point their rifles in the air, but fired point blank across the fields, all of which were under cultivation.