The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces

Reminiscences. IV

THE TURKISH ARMY (continued)

THE Turkish army is divided into various classes, as, indeed, are all Continental armies raised by conscription. The last chapter dealt practically only with the "Nizam," or regular army, the backbone of the Ottoman Empire. There are three more classes, viz., the Redifs, or reserves; Ilaves, or second-class reserves; and Mustaphis, or "Landsturm." It is true that these names are now officially abolished, and the more euphemistic term, Redif second and third class, substituted. Turkey was, as usual, very subtle in this change of names; they sound better, and a few European statesmen were hoodwinked once more. The only people who suffer are the few decent redif regiments, who naturally share the local odium caused by terming this ill-disciplined and badly-armed horde "redifs." Then, we still have the gendarmerie, or military police, a force that Europe is so thoroughly determined to reform. That they want it is obvious to any one who has studied the ways of these uniformed blackmailers, but it is like operating on a man's finger when his arm is diseased to the shoulder.

There are now a goodly number of foreign officers employed in the very laudable attempt to reform this force,


and it will be curious to see how long the farce will last. Last summer there were only two foreign officers, Scandinavians, who were attempting this Augean task singlehanded. They arrived last May. In August their first primary reform had still been carefully ignored, viz., to pay up the men. As long as the men are unpaid, or partially so, the crying evil will remain: that these protectors of life and property will help themselves wherever they go, and, in the words of the advertiser, "will see that they get it." Furthermore, the foreign officers were sternly confined to the towns, and never under any pretext whatever allowed to visit country posts, where their presence was most imperative.

The introduction of Christians into the gendarmerie was a great cruelty to these persecuted races. These unfortunate men were always in a minority to their Mahometan comrades, who made their lives a hell. In Albania they were, and are still, being ruthlessly murdered. Often have I heard these men's bitter complaints, and very pitiable it was to listen to them, predicting sooner or later their own sudden death.

Besides this, their presence was only an encumbrance to the reform officers, because, being Christians, and consequently utterly ignorant of the use of firearms, they were more than useless as armed men.

This same remark applies equally to a vast number of the redifs, second and third class. They were men originally exempted from military service in their youth now suddenly called up for active service without any previous training whatever, and at an age when to learn is an impossibility. Men of fifty and even sixty can be seen anywhere, and the average age can be put down at forty.



Of course many of them have possessed or handled rifles in their youth, but there have been plenty of instances, as with the Christian gendarmes, where they have not known which is the business end of the rifle just served out to them. But they make an imposing show on paper, and when we read that twenty more battalions of redifs, second class, have been mobilized in one district, and thirty more somewhere else, we pity the handful of insurgents and admire Turkey's energy. Likewise, we realize the hopelessness of little Bulgaria ever trying to conquer this mammoth. The consuls, however, think very differently, and the presence of any exceptionally large number of these official Bashibazouks in their respective towns invariably calls forth energetic remonstrances to the local governor. They are the men who will one day head the massacres, but as for fighting Bulgaria, they will only be of use if Bulgaria is conquered. Then they will eat up and murder whatever is left by the victorious army. However, there is little fear of that, but all the more for the Europeans residing in the bases.

There is something to be said for the Turkish soldier, too, be he nizam or any class redif. They are supposed to receive about 3s. 6d. a month pay. I say "supposed" advisedly, for it is very rare that they get it, in spite of all statements to the contrary. The money may have been sent from Constantinople for this purpose - and certainly I have seen orderlies removing sacks of silver from the branches of the Ottoman Bank on one or two occasions - but it never reaches the private soldier. Sometimes they are paid up a few months' arrears from the previous year, but that always leaves a goodly balance to their credit. When they are out presumably "working" the mountains


for insurgents, they do not mind so much - there are the pleasant valleys, where many happy days may be spent in the villages with sport, food, and loot galore; but as for prolonged residence in the big towns, that is a very different thing. They may not even kill a man there, nor steal unless they are very careful - and there are always those prying Christian dogs of consuls about, whom the law actually requires them to salute.

The only people who get paid in Turkey are the high officials through whose hands the money must pass, the Oriental Railway Company, and the army contractors. The latter require to be paid in advance, and as usual in every country, make an excellent profit. They absolutely refuse to issue a loaf of bread unless it has been paid for, and it is by no means a rare occurrence for the troops to go four or five days without rations.

That they steal openly, even breaking ranks to do so, is obvious, and, humanly speaking, excusable. This happened at Prilep whilst I was in Monastir, when a redif battalion, marching through the bazaar, deliberately broke ranks and swept the shops bare. And there are many other authenticated instances. Then, as for murder and cruelty; it is natural for a fanatical people, called away from their homes for an indefinite period of most unpleasant and dangerous work, unpaid, ill-fed, whilst their families may half-starve without the breadwinners, to vent their pent-up feelings on those they imagine to be the cause of all their sufferings the Christian inhabitants.

Of course, this is no excuse for the bestial immorality of this depraved rate, and the inhuman barbarities practised on their wretched scapegoats. Many of their deeds may never be mentioned, but they are known and proven.


When I was at Kirk-Kilisse a Christian gendarme told me many instances of horrible cruelty, because the vilayet of Adrianople suffered even more than the others. I will select the least repulsive. The gendarme on duty in the town one day - he was a Greek, by the way - saw a few cartloads of wretched prisoners. In one cart he noticed that a prisoner had sunk to the floor, evidently dying or seriously ill, whilst a soldier was stamping with his booted heel on the sick man's manacled hands. The gendarme went nearer, and recognized in the moaning prisoner a brother Greek, and remonstrated with the soldier.

"Dost thou not see he is dying, and cannot get up " he said to the soldier. " Cease torturing him,"

With a look of fury the soldier paused a moment.

"Art thou another Christian dog? Wait, thy turn will also come." And he resumed his pastime.

This gendarme trembled when he related the story. "For," he said, "my days are numbered. He will not forget."

Admirers of the Turks and haters of the Bulgars, please note that this was a Greek story.

Even amongst the Turkish soldiers there are some who sicken at the sights they see. There was a young officer once employed in exterminating the Bulgars in Monastir, who threw up his commission in the army and fled, utterly horrified. He had been at Armensko.

I can quote another instance that I learnt at Adrianople from a young merchant who had been called out as a redif. He returned to his home with many pounds of silver, most of it loot from the churches.

"As long as we only looted I did not mind," he naively remarked; "but later the order came to kill, and then


it was awful. The butchery absolutely sickened me."

Oddly enough, England has no representative at Adrianople. It is a great pity, and a mistake I hope that will be rectified. The result of this omission, as far as I am concerned, was that my accounts of the horrors committed in that vilayet were the only ones discredited by our Foreign Office. As long as my telegrams were confirmed by consular reports I was believed; but had I wished to stay longer in Turkey after my Adrianople reports, it would have been impossible. The Porte would have secured my expulsion, as I subsequently learned. Yet all my information was gleaned from the Greeks, and it was a Greek schoolmaster who told me one of my most discredited stories.

He swore to having seen Albanian soldiers displaying pickled women's breasts and ears as trophies when they were on their way home. This horrible statement I sought to shake by most cunning cross-questioning on two occasions, but he remained firm, even repeating the soldiers' remarks. And this Greek even admitted a hatred for the Bulgars.

Adrianople is a large vilayet, and the chief town, where a few foreign consuls reside, is on the confines. At large towns like Kirk-Kilisse and Tirnova there are no European consuls, but simply a few consular agents, native Greeks of the towns.

Consequently, the Turkish soldiery had a free hand, and even embarrassed the local authorities, as witness the hasty removal of the Albanians.

Throughout the vilayet the soldiers deserted in bands and constituted themselves into highwaymen. This was of course after the land had been gutted. These highwaymen soldiers respected no one, and Mahometans were robbed


as well as Christian wayfarers. I remember an old Turk, a well-to-do merchant at Adrianople, on hearing that some cartloads of his merchandise on the way to the city bazaar had been looted and destroyed by insurgents, clasping his hands over his head and exclaiming -

"It is not the insurgents who are doing these things, but the soldiers."

There is another weak point to-day in the Turkish army, and that is the officers' corps. The old fighting lieutenant of former times who rose from the ranks has largely disappeared, and exists only in the more deserted garrisons. All new vacancies are filled by cadets from the Military School at Constantinople. Some of them may possess more scientific knowledge, but physically, and doubtless morally, they are characteristic specimens of the modern Turk. The fine old race, the Beys, are no more. They have been beggared or absorbed into Constantinople. These pasty-faced, weak-kneed young gentlemen are their offspring, rotten with vice, inherited and acquired. Many have had no training whatever. I saw scores of them arriving daily in Monastir, resplendent in new uniforms and accoutrements.

Europe by no means realizes the deterioration of the Turk, which is but the natural result of centuries of corruption and bad government. I have quoted the remarks of a Prussian trained lieutenant whose men would not drill, and of the war-grizzled brigadier who never fired first. Let me add two more examples.

It was at Kirk-Kilisse that I was joined by several young officers in the hotel dining-room one evening. They began relating stories of their prowess in the field in terms of most boastful idiocy. One, fresh from the Bulgarian border, told of the cowardice of the Bulgar frontier guards; how,


had he occasion to speak with the officer, the Bulgar came trembling and with shaking knees. I greatly doubted this statement at the time, and later, in Bulgaria, had ample opportunity of proving its nonsense.

If I may digress a moment, I would wish to point out another falling off of the Turk. Many of them now drink wine, for the most part strictly forbidden by the Prophet, and drink it like Christians. This I consider a most significant sign of the times. But to return.

I once spoke to an elderly Turkish captain at Adrianople on the railway. As usual, I asked him what he thought of Turkey's chance against Bulgaria. He smiled indulgently.

"How long will it take you to reach Sofia?" I continued.

"Six hours," he replied. (The direct express takes twelve.)

"But," quoth I, to lead him on, "there are three million Russians there to help Bulgaria."

Then we shall take twelve hours!"

By the way, it may also not be commonly known that a vast number of officers can neither read nor write. They receive the title of "Aga." "Effendi" signifies a man who can do both, and is by no means common.

Most of the high commands, or one may safely say all, are held by Palace favourites, men, as a colleague once neatly put it, who have learnt tactics in the palace gardens. These men know absolutely nothing of the country they are suddenly sent to command, and have no military knowledge.

Nazir Pacha was a striking example of this kind. To sit and talk an hour with him was a trying ordeal, though he had spent three years in a Prussian regiment of the Guards


in bygone days. His favourite remark was that yesterday, or the day before, as the case might be, he had dispatched so and so many rebels to Paradise. He did not even lie as neatly as Hilmi Pacha, for instance, but roughly and clumsily, like the butcher he was.

There was another Pacha holding a high military post at Uesküb, who got drunk regularly every evening on champagne, and played cards, cheating so obviously and clumsily that no European would play with him. He was, I believe, the youngest general in the Turkish army.

Good men, up to their work, and honest, are invariably exiled sooner or later, but, after all, these facts are common property with those who know Turks to-day.

The lack of cohesion and organization is most amply illustrated in the officers' uniforms. Each clothes himself according to taste, in brown, blue, or black tunics, in white canvas or khaki. Once I saw an officer tastefully attired in a yellow silk tunic, of which he was immensely proud. Likewise, their swords are highly interesting collections, ranging from a modem German regulation sword to the ancient scimitar. Doubtless, readers whose knowledge of Turkey is confined to Constantinople will imagine I am exaggerating, but the troops stationed there are Turkey's corps d'elite.

It will be remembered that when the German Emperor visited Palestine, the local troops received an entirely new outfit, at great cost to the Porte.

Many of the redif battalions have no officers at all, and it is extremely hard to get them. As for the Albanian regiments, when they are occasionally mobilized, Turkish officers absolutely refuse now to serve with them. A Greek consul once related to me, after returning from a tour


of inspection in Kaza Kastoria, how he had heard an Albanian regiment singing songs every evening, deriding their officers. Also, I heard of many cases where they murdered them.

When they are moved about by train, the engine drivers, who are compelled to wear fezes, as are also the brakesmen, have instructions to go through large towns at full speed, and one told me, on one occasion his "train" became so unruly and threatening that he quietly uncoupled his engine and left his burden standing in a desolate spot.

There are hosts of these anecdotes, ranging from the greatest insubordination to the other extreme of long-suffering. The latter instances, however, only occur with the Anatolian troops, and with even these long-sufferers there are often signs of mutiny.

Before long, perhaps ere these lines are printed, Europe will have an opportunity of judging the merits of the Turkish army of to-day. They will fight, and probably in some places fight hard, but they will make a hopeless muddle of anything like combined action, and a well disciplined, homogeneous army will walk through them.

The last war with Greece did much to rob the Turkish soldier of his fanaticism, odd as this statement may appear at first sight. So many thousands of the troops died from sickness, lack of nourishment, and needless exposure, that the others have not forgotten it. To die on the field of battle is for the Mahometan an inducement to fight, though this characteristic is less apparent to-day than formerly; but to rot away in hospital is quite another thing. There is no guarantee of Paradise there, and the percentage of the faithful who presumably went straight to heaven during


that war was very small. And on these things the Turks ponder much.

To conclude, I will quote just one more conversation held with a common Turkish soldier in a tramcar in Salonica. He held in his arms the top of a shower bath, and, seeing my curiosity, he addressed me in English. After explaining the mechanism of the "shower," he commented on the badly paved street through which we were passing.

"Now, in London there would be a double-lined tramway and good streets. Here it is very bad. Everything is bad in Turkey."

Noticing my increasing surprise, he informed me that he had been a fireman on an English steamer plying between England and Turkey, but had been recalled for his military service, much to his disgust.

"England is a great country," he concluded. "Look at their government, and" - he was preparing to descend now - "look what she has made out of Egypt."

That's just it. Every educated Turk has Egypt ever before him, and compares. He also ponders.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]