The Russo-turkish Frontier - Kurds And Armenians
( Originally Published 1923 )
Cross the Aras — Reception at Khagizman — The town — The general situation — Omar Aga, the Kurdish brigand — Interview—Return to Zivin — Position in Olti District — Camp in the Olti Hills — Eyeeb Pasha — Moslem refugees — Robbers' punishment -- Machine-gun practice— Kurds going into action — Our car attacked and corporal shot — Return again to Zivin
ON leaving our friend Hussein Bey's last village, we had still ten miles of the wildest of passes to descend before reaching the main Aras River. Our road was good, and on reaching the river, followed the bank to the west for about ten miles, when it crossed a very modern-looking bridge of iron, showing once more how much trouble and expense had been incurred by the Russians in preparing their strategical roads, so as to permit of a rapid concentration of their troops on the Turkish frontier.
Once across the bridge, we were confronted by an Armenian cavalry regiment, or what was meant for one, drawn up on the river-bank to receive us, and having halted I got down and shook hands with the commander, afterwards, at his special request, inspecting his men. The Armenians were very civil, and told us we had now to climb four miles, up the steep valley to the south, to reach Khagizman, the principal town in that part of the Aras Valley, where their headquarters were, and where the town authorities had prepared an official reception for us in the square, where the garrison of about 400 Armenian infantry had also been paraded. In the centre a space had been kept clear, and to this we were directed on our arrival. Here we found a large table covered with a white linen cloth, on which was set out a large loaf of bread and some salt, of which we were expected to partake. Here also were the Governor of the town and the chief priest waiting to deliver addresses, the former attired in what he evidently considered to be the absolutely correct official European costume, and the latter in ancient and magnificent priestly vestments.
In order that the reason and object of all this ceremony may be understood, it must be borne in mind that Khagizman has for long been a Russian town, and, being remotely situated on the frontier, has been the centre of Russian activity in the road-making and other developments undertaken by the Imperial Government in those districts. When, therefore, the Allies announced that Kars Province was to be handed to the Armenians, the latter flocked to Khagizman and took possession of the town itself, many houses, and much other property which had previously belonged to the Russian inhabitants and officials who had returned to the north on the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution.
As we were the first party of the Allies' forces to visit the place since the Armenian occupation, the population were anxious to give us an official reception, and to deliver addresses of welcome to us, and of thanks to the Allies, to whose decision as to the future ownership of the whole province their own occupation of the city was due. On reaching the centre of the square we halted, and I descended and shook hands all round, accepting at the same time the bread and salt, the tendering of which is the immemorial custom of the country. Our hosts were certainly people of astonishing appearance, and were all in the highest state of excitement, so that it took a considerable time to clear a space and to obtain some degree of silence to permit of the Governor audibly delivering his address. During this time we were gradually reduced to a state of hysterical laughter by the amazing appearance of the crowd around us, whose garments were quite beyond description.
In order to convey some rough idea of what we may call the 'incompleteness' of their attire, it will be sufficient to say that if a gentleman found himself with one entire leg to his trousers he was quite exceptionally well dressed. Few, indeed, could boast a costume of such pretensions to completeness, and some fell very far short of that ideal. We were, above all, anxious to be in no way uncivil, and to behave ourselves as became the representatives of the Western Powers, but we had a hard struggle to maintain composure, and on the appearance of the Governor we incontinently succumbed one and all, and were convulsed with uncontrollable laughter.
I shall retain to my dying day a vivid recollection of the official in question, and I experienced a distinct feeling that it was unfair of him not to have shown himself until the last moment, when we were all of us already exhausted by our previous efforts to keep up an outward appearance of that gravity which was suitable to the occasion, and also until I was stuck out by myself, for the purpose of being addressed, in full view of the assembled multitude. The result was that my stock of solemnity proved inadequate to the demand made upon it, and that tears rained down my cheeks in my endeavours to contain myself during his doubtless very emotional address, which lasted about half an hour, and of which neither I nor any of my party understood one word.
His Excellency the Governor, for the occasion, had donned a pair of flannel trousers which in the dim and distant past had once been white, but were so no longer. There were other remarkable shortcomings about these trousers besides their uninviting colour, a comparatively unimportant one being an entire absence of buttons; but they were mercifully worn under what had once been a frock-coat, and these two garments constituted, apparently, the entire official full-dress of his department, as he wore no other garments of any description, with the exception of a hat, which, however, was the gem of the whole collection.
In days gone by it had once been a 'billycock', and though the crown still retained vestiges of its original form, the brim had not been so fortunate, only a very small portion remaining at one side, by which His Excellency, at the most affecting portions of his speech, was able to lift it from his head in solemn and polite salute. He, of course, could not realize how irresistibly his appearance and gestures recalled the immortal Charlie Chaplin, but each salute caused as fearful spasms of hilarity; these, in conjunction with our streaming eyes, were providentially received by all as evidence of our deep appreciation of the unknown but doubtless harrowing tale which was being unfolded for our benefit.
When at last His Excellency concluded his impressive but incomprehensible address, he was followed by the head priest a 'beaver' of the first magnitude, who, with great consideration, 'let us off' with a short twenty minutes' discourse, and we finally were able to retire to very excellent quarters, provided for us in an old Russian house. Here, after manfully resisting many pressing invitations to a banquet prepared in our honour, we were at last able to get some sadly-needed rest, in spite of the echoes of the joviality of the banquet, which lasted deep into the night and reverberated through the whole town.
Next morning we were early afoot, and, borrowing a horse, I rode round with my interpreter to gather information, long before the heroes of the banquet had sufficiently recovered to permit of them appearing on the scene. The result of my inquiries revealed a rather peculiar position then existing in that part of the country; for whilst the Armenians, with a force of not more than 400 men, had taken possession of the town itself, they were unable to go outside its precincts except as an armed force, the open country round the town being watched by parties of Kurds from a tribe farther down the river, who saw to it that any Armenian who ventured forth alone never returned. Evidence of the fate of such as had left the town singly or in small parties was easily to be found in various directions even within a mile of the centre of the city.
It appeared that the tribe in question occupied all the mountain country on the south side of the Aras River, between the river and the Turkish frontier, which latter follows the crest of the range to the westward until the Persian frontier is met on the summit of Mount Ararat, seventy-five miles distant. These Kurds, under their Chief, Omar Aga, had cleared the whole country of live-stock, and driven all the animals to one of the higher valleys, where their own summer camp was established, close under the snow, and from which they were able to pass their loot over the frontier and dispose of it to the Turks.
In the face of this very unsatisfactory state of affairs, I decided if possible to arrange a meeting with the great Omar Aga, and to judge on the spot what steps it might be advisable to recommend in my report with regard to the local position generally. I therefore sent a message to him to the effect that I would come to the foot of his valley on the banks of the Aras the next day at 2 p.m., in the hope that Omar Aga himself would ride down and meet me there.
Next day, on arriving at the mouth of the valley, an imposing array of mounted Kurds was awaiting us – fifty at least, all apparently leading men, magnificently mounted, and armed with efficient modern weapons. They were apparently rather nervous, and did not move to meet us, but remained mounted and drawn up under some trees in rather an ominous-looking line. I there-fore halted about fifty yards from them, and having brought two cars with me, and six reliable men in addition to my interpreter, I drew the cars up broadside to the Kurds, so that they could see their armoured appearance, and had the gun-ports open and the guns trained in their direction. Having completed this manoeuvre, I then advanced towards them, when the chief's nephew, whom I had previously met, came to meet me and presented me to his uncle.
The latter needs a description, as he was a most unprepossessing-looking ruffian. About sixty-five years of age, his features wore an evil expression, and he evidently possessed a fiery temper, of which the other Kurds were obviously terrified. He received me with just the barest civility, and we sat down on bundles of osiers which had been cut for the purpose on the river bank, and commenced our conversation. He began by asking me what the devil I was doing in his country, and what the Allies meant by announcing to the Armenians that in future his country was to become theirs. Without allowing me time to reply, he then said that, though he was prepared to submit to a mandate being granted to any of the Great Powers, yet he would never submit to any Armenian authority, but would cut the throat of every Armenian who came within his reach, and intended, if they did not leave Khagizman, to attack them there and kill them all. This was a pretty good start, I thought, and as he was working himself into a rage which made him appear more of a murderer than ever, I took the precaution of glancing at my men before answering.
I saw them standing steadily to their guns, ready to `let fly' on the first sign of trouble; and I felt a comforting certainty that they held the life of every Kurd present in their hands; so I turned to this ferocious villain with considerably more confidence than would otherwise have been possible, and told him that I noted his views, and the spirit in which he put them forward, and that I came to his country to see what was the real state of things existing there, so that a proper report might be rendered, in order to enable the Great Powers to arrive at a correct decision in the face of' the many conflicting reports hitherto received from other sources, and, further, that a decision would certainly be come to as soon as reliable reports were forthcoming.
This he took in good part, but I then went on to say that if in the meanwhile he continued his practices of wholesale murder and robbery all over the countryside, the only real certainty, amongst many uncertainties, was that, whatever European Power might eventually undertake a mandate for that part of the world, their first action would be to round him up and shoot him! This caused general uproar, and Omar Aga half rose from his seat, at which my N.C.O. leapt from his car and stood well out in front, ready to give the order to fire. This action was observed and immediately understood by the Kurds, and had a steadying effect on them. all. So, pointing to the cars and machine-guns, I went on to explain that they were 'covered' by the guns, and that my men had orders to fire without further instructions from me if they judged me to be in danger.
That kind of attitude was appreciated at once, and things then quieted down and became much easier. A little while afterwards the old fire-eater became quite friendly, and eventually consented to come and stand with a selection of his supporters by one of the cars to be photographed with me under the British flag. So all ended peaceably, and we went our several ways, each, no doubt, having learned more of the other's ways in one short hour that afternoon than years could have achieved by any other means.
We left Khagizman next morning to return to our railway camp at Zivin, about 15o miles distant; and on my arrival I found many reports that a state of open war between the Kurds and Armenians existed along the' frontier to the north. I therefore arranged to proceed into the higher mountains in the north at once, and, for that purpose, had to recross the main pass, the only access for vehicles to the northern portion of the wild frontier district being from Kars Plain.
The northern half of the Province of Kars consists of a mountainous frontier country known as the Olti District, which has an exclusively Kurdish population. In the plain below, however, the majority of the inhabitants are Tartars, although many purely Armenian villages are to be found scattered over the plain. The Tartars are Moslems of the same 'Sunni' sect as the Kurds and Turks, but differ from them both, as they belong to no definite tribes, but have gradually dribbled into the country from the East in comparatively modern times.
These are the people whom we have seen in the earlier chapters, incited by the Turks and drilled by German instructors, massing to attack Armenian refugees at Alexandropol. Their plans were then defeated by the dispatch of a British brigade from Tiflis to Kars and the arrest of the Moslem Parliament, or 'Shura', which the Tartar population had set up there, with the object of establishing a new and independent Moslem Republic. The arrival of this British brigade was followed by the announcement that Kars Province had been allotted by the Supreme Council of the Allies to the Armenians, and that announcement having been made, the British troops were then completely withdrawn, and Armenian occupation commenced. Hence all the trouble; for the Armenians at once commenced the wholesale robbery and persecution of the Moslem population on the pretext that it was necessary forcibly to deprive them of their arms. In the portion of the province which lies in the plains they were able to carry out their purpose, and the manner in which this was done will be referred to in due course; but on approaching the Olti District, which lies in the mountains, they found themselves face to face with the true Kurds of the Olti and Ardahan Mountains, under their Chief, Eyeeb Pasha, who at once occupied the frontier of their own territory in force, and brought the advance of the Armenian armed rabble – soldiers only in name – to a sudden and very definite halt.
Such was the position when we started for Eyeeb's country, and it was quite evident that the trip was going to be extremely instructive and interesting. At that time I had not the pleasure of Eyeeb's personal acquaintance, but I knew much about him, and had little doubt that if I could once get into his country, without having any trouble whilst passing through his line, I should probably be well received by him, and should learn much upon which to base an opinion as to the possibilities of the future.
We therefore left Zivin about midday, and, going through the pass, proceeded out on to the plain as if bound for Kars. About ten miles from the mountains, however, we left the main road in the dusk and turned north across country, swinging back towards the mountains so as to strike them about twenty miles north of the pass, at a place where large yailas existed on the upland plateaux upon which all the Kurdish tribes would surely be encamped at this season. The boundary of Eyeeb's Olti country is a ridge of hills which rises out of the Kars plain and forms the edge of the upland country; this ridge rises steeply about 1,200 feet above the plain, and we ascended it by moonlight, following an insignificant goat-track, which, after infinite difficulty, we succeeded at last in successfully negotiating.
This particular ascent was the most difficult I have ever success-fully undertaken with motor cars under their own power. The track was in places so much inclined on the hillside that it was necessary in order to keep the cars upright on their wheels to attach a rope to the upper part of the car bodies; this, held by men higher up the slope, served to prevent the vehicles turning over sideways and rolling down the hill. This method was adopted as I could not allow the men to endanger their lives by attempting to support the cars from the lower side. The ropes, however, proved very successful, and having finally reached the yaila, we soon found a spring, and camped in the open close to it, just as dawn was breaking. Having then carefully hoisted our British flag at the top of the tent-pole, all hands were soon fast asleep, having perfect confidence that 'George' would give us instant notice of the approach of any stranger.
The sun had been up some hours when I awoke and sallied forth, to find the rest of the camp all peacefully sleeping, whilst about a quarter of a mile away was a party of mounted Kurds, driving some sheep and evidently watching .for the first sign of movement in our camp. On my appearance they at once advanced, saying they came from Eyeeb Pasha, who, having heard of our arrival, bid us welcome to his country and sent six sheep as a present, asking, at the same time, at what time it would be convenient to me for him to call and pay his respects. This was a most welcome and much appreciated civility on his part, and, it then being past ten o'clock, I sent back a message that I should be very pleased to receive him at any time convenient to him after 4 p.m. I then woke the men, and all went busily to work to render our camp presentable.
Our good carpets were spread, and some chairs, which we had this time brought from our train, were got out, and, our arms and cars having been cleaned, by afternoon the camp presented quite an imposing appearance. The site, which we had chosen the night before, turned out in daylight to be a magnificent one, with the rolling green uplands at the back and the plain spread out below, visible for many miles; whilst beyond, in the blue haze of the far distance to the east, was dimly traced the faint outline of the great snow-covered peaks of Georgia. Towards 4 p.m. we observed a body of cavalry approaching, in line and in good order, over the hills to the north west of us; they numbered about 250, and in advance of them rode four Chiefs. On their approach I went to meet them, and knew Eyeeb at once from the many descriptions I had received of him.
Among the many fine Kurds I have met, this Chief is the finest specimen of all. Not more than thirty years of age, he stands six foot eight inches in his bare feet, is extremely active, and very intelligent, and the better I got to know him the more I appreciated the good-fortune of his tribe in having at their head a man so capable of safeguarding their interests in the extremely difficult times through which they must have to pass in the immediate future. The Pasha was very civil, and introduced me to his two uncles and a cousin, who, though none of them quite so tall as he was himself, were yet all cast in the same mould.
We then all sat down and had a most interesting conversation, from which I learned that he had upwards of 2,000 men then actually under arms, and was holding the frontier of his upland districts against the Armenian troops, who, having pillaged and destroyed all the Moslem villages in the plain, had announced their intention of acting in a similar manner with respect to his hill-country, which was to be included in the territory placed under Armenian control by the Allies. Eyeeb declared that he and his people were prepared to defend their country with their lives, and that volunteers were daily joining them from other Kurdish tribes, who were ready to lend all the assistance in their power, foreseeing that their own fate would probably be dependent upon the success of his defence. Caravans of refugees were in the meanwhile constantly arriving from the plain, from which the whole Moslem population was fleeing with as much of their personal property as they could transport, seeking to obtain security and protection within his lines.
He further told me that in those Moslem villages in the plain below which had been searched for arms by the Armenians everything had been taken under the cloak of such search, and not only had many Moslems been killed, but horrible tortures had been inflicted in the endeavour to obtain information as to where valuables had been hidden, of which the Armenians were aware of the existence, although they had been unable to find them. He then strongly urged me to go myself to certain named villages recently attacked to verify his statements and to obtain evidence of the horrors which had been committed there. This was straight talking indeed, bearing out exactly the reports I was receiving from Kiazim. Pasha, and I therefore determined to go down into the plain and to see for myself what was the position there at the earliest opportunity, and told Eyeeb Pasha at once that such was my intention.
The whole party bivouacked round us that night, and the Pasha's two uncles expressed a wish to sleep in my tent — as a guarantee of my safety, they said. I, of course, accepted their offer with every appearance of gratitude, though it was a courtesy with which I could have very well dispensed. Eyeeb himself gave the old Scriptural excuse that he 'had just married a new wife', and returned to his own house, about ten miles off, saying he would ride over next morning, as in the afternoon we were to have an exhibition of their national game of 'Djerrid'.
Next morning I had a long talk with Bekir Bey, the eldest uncle, and learned from him the different localities in which it would be advisable to search for evidence of the atrocities lately committed in the plain, after which we had out my own machine-guns, and I gave them an exhibition of what my men could do with them. This created an astonishing impression on the whole band, both on account of the accuracy and rate of fire which were achieved, and many were the quaint grunts and snorts uttered as a rock on the hillside, 600 yards away, at which we fired, rapidly. disintegrated under the heavy and accurate shower of our bullets.
Soon after midday, whilst we were resting preparatory to the afternoon's entertainment, Belo.- appeared in a great state of excitement, saying a caravan of Moslem refugees was just coming up the hill from the plain, seeking refuge in Eyeeb's lines, having been warned that an Armenian force had started from Kars with the object of `disarming' their villages. I should therefore be able to look and judge for myself of their condition.
Shortly afterwards the head of the miserable column appeared. There were in all about 20o persons, mostly old men and women and children, with a few ox-carts, ponies, and donkeys, carrying all their worldly possessions, except a few sheep that they were driving before them. Their leader interviewed Bekir Bey, and was told to keep farther on into the hills, where he would be able to cross the frontier into Turkey unmolested by his enemies.
Whilst listening to their conversation, there occurred an incident which strikingly illustrates the absolute authority wielded by the Chiefs of these old Kurdish tribes.
Bekir, without a word of warning, suddenly dashed away from my side and ran towards a spot where a group of his men had suddenly collected, calling at the same time to his younger nephew and yelling out orders. He then returned and apologized for leaving me so suddenly, saying he had seen some of his men catch a sheep belonging to the refugees and cut its throat, and that it was necessary for him to hurry, or it would have been all cut up and distributed before he could have stopped it. `You will see now,' he said, `how we treat a robber who robs amongst his own tribe, for these refugees are our guests whilst passing through our country, and are therefore sacred.'
A procession then appeared of three parties, each consisting of four men. Each party carried a pair of rifles lashed close together, whilst between each pair of rifles protruded the naked feet of one of the robbers who had been caught in the act, and who were thus dragged forward on their backs with their feet in the air. Bekir Bey then himself took a heavy stick nearly as thick as his wrist, and as each pair of feet was lifted shoulder-high by its bearers, the Chief laid into the soles of each of the robbers' feet just as hard as ever he could hit, whilst the rest looked on in silence, saying only `Khirsizlar' (thieves). When the old Chief was tired he gave the order to cast them loose, and then began a torrent of language from the robbers of which I was only able to understand a part. It appeared that these men did not belong to Eyeeb's own tribe, but to a neighbouring one, and were in the nature of volunteers come to help Eyeeb's men in the defence of their country; they therefore considered their treatment shameful. Bekir, however, 'went for' them like a tiger-cat, and cursed them in a hill vocabulary quite new to me, telling them that they had broken the law of hospitality common to all Kurds, and had got off much lighter than would have been the case had Eyeeb himself been present.
Two of the culprits took this very quietly, and had nothing to say; but the third, a very burly-looking ruffian, said he would not remain, but should go off and call his tribe to arms to avenge him. This sally was received with jeers, and, somewhat to my surprise, he was told to go if he wished. On hearing this he made off on his hands and knees over the grass up the steep hill behind the tent, his feet being for the moment 'out of action'. When he had succeeded in painfully climbing up about 100 yards, Bekir called four of his men by name and gave them an order, on which they promptly lay down and commenced firing at the man, hitting the ground close to and all round him, whilst Bekir called out to know if it still was his intention to try and go and raise his tribe against them, or whether he was prepared to come back. On which he at once turned round and crawled back. This incident, so illuminating as to the methods by which discipline is enforced amongst these wild tribes, then closed and was promptly forgotten.
In the afternoon Eyeeb arrived, and all was made ready for the national game of 'Djerrid'. We were all in the very middle of this most exciting pastime, when, quite suddenly, all riders stopped dead, as if turned to stone, every face at once becoming wreathed in smiles – a wonderful sight, absolutely characteristic of these tribes, and one which could only be produced by the prospect of a fight. The cause in this case was the sound of gunfire which suddenly echoed through the hills, indicating that a battery was in action somewhere within a mile or so of our playground.
Instantly every man flew to his arms, and within five minutes the troops were away up the hill, every man's face lit up with joy at the imminence of a fight, all singing their war-song, which to be justly appreciated must be heard as sung by those fighting robbers amongst their own wild .echoing hills as they go into battle.
In the meanwhile our position became somewhat difficult, for it was evident the Armenians from the plain were attacking the Kurdish line with artillery, with probably a large force in support. And therefore, much as we should have wished to join in, I decided to strike camp at once and make the best of our way back to the railway camp, trusting on the way there we should meet our other car returning, which we had that morning sent in to bring out supplies.
Reaching Sarikamish, the Armenian frontier headquarters, about thirty-five miles from our late camp in the Kurd country, just before nightfall, we found our other car there, and were furious to hear, from the driver, that Armenian troops had attacked them and shot the corporal, afterwards proceeding to loot the car, which, as was evident from the many bullet-holes in it, had been subjected to a severe fire at short range. The driver had, as soon as he could find an Armenian officer, requested to be taken to their headquarters, and the wounded corporal had at once been dispatched from Sarikamish by train to hospital at Kars.
As he was there in good hands, I dispatched a telegram to the Armenian Commander-in-Chief, to the effect that he would be held responsible for the undisciplined and barbarous actions of his troops, and made all haste to get back to Zivin, where I feared we should find the whole situation had now reached its climax, and that 'all the fat was in the fire'.
Adventures In The Near East:
The Russo-turkish Frontier-trouble Brewing
The Russo-turkish Frontier - Kurds And Armenians
Turkish Armistice A Fiasco — Foundation Of The Nationalist Party
In Kemalist Turkey (november, 1919, To November, 1921)
London And Constantinople
Anatolia In Winter
Erzeroum In 1920
Exchange And Home
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