Anatolia In Winter
( Originally Published 1923 )
Trebizond in winter — Camp at Hamsikeui — The Zigana Pass — Our house at Gumush Khaneh — The Vavok Pass — My men exhausted — Bivouac in the snow — Reach Baiburt — Start for the Khop — Our Turk mountaineers — Their Chief and their oxen — The climb — Bivouac on the summit — Christmas night -- Sunrise amongst the peaks — Casualties on the road -- Reach Erzeroum
OUR first duty on landing in Anatolia, on December 6th, was to advise the Turkish Army Commander of our arrival, and to request facilities for reaching his headquarters at Erzeroum. There-fore, the day after landing at Trebizond, I visited the Military Commander of the district and handed him a copy of my military orders from the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Black Sea, requesting him to communicate the same to General Kiazim Karabekir Pasha, and at the same time to ask that our journey might be duly authorized and assisted by the Military Authorities.
This duty performed, it was necessary to await a reply, and in order to profit by the delay the men were daily exercised in travelling under the conditions obtaining in the country at the time, so that they might be thoroughly familiar with their jobs before reaching the snow-line, after which every task would, of course, have to be carried out under much more difficult conditions than those existing on the coast. Although, in December, all the upland districts of Anatolia are under snow, the coast districts then enjoy a nearly perfect climate. The extreme low temperature in the upper air produced a peculiar clearness in the atmosphere and an absence of all humidity. This makes the weather particularly invigorating and healthy, and at the same time offers no resistance to the sun's rays, which, without having the fierceness of summer, yet serve to supply a genial warmth in daytime, and to render the months of early winter in these districts the most agreeable of the whole year.
On the 14th our authority arrived; and at the same time we were informed that a house at Gumush Khaneh was at our disposal, and that another house was ready for us at Baiburt, a town some fifty miles farther on, on the far side of the Vavok Pass, which rises to 6,500 feet, in a very exposed situation. We were also informed that snow now lay deep both on the Vavok Pass and in the plain of Baiburt beyond, and the next pass, the dreaded Khop, 8,300 feet high, had already been for some time impassable, but that arrangements were being made to give us assistance in our endeavour to force our way over it. This news, though by no means encouraging, was in no way a surprise, and, in fact, it was a relief to me to find that it was no worse. On December 15th, the day after the authorization arrived, we started on our really arduous journey.
Leaving Trebizond at 8 a.m., the first six or seven miles are fairly level, but after that the climbing begins, and is both long and severe, the rise in under twenty-five miles being 3,500 feet. Owing partly to the bad state of the road, but more still to the inexperience of three out of four drivers, night was coming on before we reached the head of the last valley, at the foot of the upper pass, only thirty miles from Trebizond. Here we pitched our first camp, in which operation the men had now far more experience than they had of the difficult driving which these terrible roads necessitate. Many times during the day did I long for my old experienced drivers who had been with me over this road before; but though three of the new ones needed constant assistance, I was fortunate indeed in the fourth, who was at least as good as any that I had had before. This man, Ankers by name, had volunteered first of them all, although he was at that time on his way home for demobilization, having previously been through all the campaigns of the Salonika Expeditionary Force, including the first retreat through Serbia, and had therefore already had an unrivalled experience of rough tracks and difficult conditions.
Ankers, whom I had promoted corporal before leaving Constant, had been brought up by his father as a butcher, so in that line also his experience was most valuable to us; but far more valuable still was the stout heart of his rather diminutive body, which never failed him in the face of any adversities, and again and again later on cheered and encouraged his comrades at moments when such encouragement was invaluable, and many times his unfailing courage earned my deepest gratitude.
We were afoot at daylight the next day, and on tackling the upper pass the men got their first experience of snow at high altitudes. Although they had been frequently told what to expect, I am sure the facts exceeded all their expectations, when they finally found themselves really face to face with these vast frozen solitudes, where no outside assistance is to be expected, and where all have to rely entirely upon their own efforts. On leaving camp, we had a sheer climb of 3,000 feet to the summit, entering the snow immediately on breaking camp. On this occasion I travelled last myself, to be in a position to render help to those that needed it, and to see that no one fell behind by the way. This was a very necessary precaution, and we travelled much faster in consequence, but it was ten o'clock that night before I brought the last cars into our resting-place, only forty-two miles distant from our camp of the previous night. Our halt was at the house which I had obtained the use of, just west of the town of Gumush Khaneh, on the banks of the Kharshut River, at an altitude of only 3,300 feet, seventy-two miles from Trebizond, close to the beautiful orchard which had made us such an ideal camp in the summer-time.
On this occasion even the low-lying valley was under snow, though of no appreciable depth compared with that on the Zigana Pass at 6,600 feet which we had crossed on our way. We remained at this camp three days, doing slight but very necessary repairs to our cars, and collecting all available information as to the state of the country immediately in front of us. During this time snow fell intermittently, and I felt that, as heavy falls might now be expected at any moment, it was necessary to push on with the least possible delay.
On the third night the snow ceased, and as it froze hard we made all our arrangements to start next morning at the first peep of day, before the sun's rays had a chance to soften the upper crust of the snow on the lower ground. We knew that, as we had to rise to nearly 7,000 feet at the summit of the Vavok Pass, we should there, at any rate, be sure to find the snow hard enough to bear the weight of the cars, even at midday, although at the lower levels the surface would soften as the sun gained in power. We therefore got off in good time, and, the climb being long and gradual, the first twenty-five miles were done fairly easily, during which we climbed 2,500 feet in a constant ascent through snow which was hard, but gradually getting deeper.
We were now confronted by the open snow-slopes of the rounded hill-tops which form the Vavok Pass, the summit being about 500 feet above us and two miles distant. Here we were well over 6,000 feet high (the summit being actually 6,56o), and were in deep snow, exposed to the full fury of a really icy wind, and so for the first time my new volunteers found themselves really 'up against it'.
While nothing could have been better than the behaviour of three or four of the men, I was sadly disappointed in the others, who were inclined to be hopeless, and whom it was difficult to induce to struggle. Each car, of course, had to be 'man-handled' one at a time through the snow these two terrible miles to the summit, and it was only by the greatest effort on the part' of the whole party of twelve that we were able to achieve this very arduous task, it being long past nightfall before the last car finally reached the summit, the whole party by that time being blue with cold and physically exhausted. There then still remained over twenty miles to negotiate before we should reach the town of Baiburt, on the plain below, where we were expected, and where I hoped to obtain assistance next day, in the case of being unable to reach its shelter that night.
In the meanwhile it would have been madness to have stayed on the exposed summit as long as there remained any chance of reaching lower ground. We therefore started the engines and undertook the descent, my orders being for the leading car to go on as far as it could before halting, and that I would bring up the rear. There were many minor casualties and mechanical troubles on the way down, all of which were successfully surmounted, but after about ten more miles had been covered the occupants of the leading car came back on foot and met me at 11 p.m., to announce that they could go no farther, as they had lost the road, and their car could not climb the slope in front of them, the snow having there drifted to a depth of many feet. By the lie of the ground I knew that we must be within not more than ten miles of our destination, but it was evident to me that our bolt was shot, and that my men were at last 'clean-beat'; and, much as I should have liked to have got over the slope ahead, from whence it would be all downhill, and so have got them into shelter for the night, it was evident that they were most of them 'all in', and that we must therefore stop where we were for the night. I therefore at once gave orders to stop the engines and empty the water from the radiators, which is, of course, under such circumstances, the first and most important precaution, any neglect of which will certainly result in cracked cylinders and hopeless engine breakdown.
In the meanwhile, with infinite difficulty, I worked my car through the deep snow from the rear to the head of the column, and, instructing the invaluable Ankers (whose spirit, although he was at least as tired as the rest and had done far more work all day, was still as high as when he started in the morning) to keep the water in the radiator of our car, and run his engine at intervals to keep it from freezing, I then made a circuit of the cars, to see what sort of weather my inexperienced 'children' were going to make of it, to lend a hand, and out of my long experience to assist them in making the best of a situation that was proving an 'eye-opener' for them.
In spite of many protests, I had got them all into their high India-rubber 'gum-boots' before starting in the morning, so that we had no wet feet to contend with, and therefore less chance of frost-bite; I now personally saw that in each car a primus stove was lit and a kettle put on, the sail-cloth covers being well pulled over the cars, the edges being then heaped up with snow to keep as much wind out as might be possible. I then stopped at each car till they had all had a boiling cup of strong cocoa, and left them with the strictest orders to lie as close together as was possible, and to put as much under them as they did over them, using coverings of every sort of description for the purpose; after which, I waded back to my own car and got in, where I found my faithful batman, Leadbeater, with Ankers' assistance, had our own lamp lighted and primus going, so that I had a real good cup of boiling cocoa myself, which I felt to have been pretty well earned.
We three spent the night in my car, running our engine at intervals, to keep the water from freezing, for we knew that we should want the water at daylight, and it is a terribly long and tedious job to thaw snow enough for an engine over a primus, as each kettleful is apt to freeze again before the next is thawed. It was my intention to endeavour to get on to the town at day-light, and to send back oxen from there to bring in the remainder of the party.
That night was hardly a pleasure party, but I have known many worse, and although we were all pretty well worn out, yet the two gallant fellows with me would have scorned to admit it, and their officer was certainly not going to do so. We passed the night sitting as close together as possible, dozing and talking, and starting our engine every ten minutes, keeping it then running for at least two minutes on each occasion, till the sky at last began to grow grey before the dawn. Then we all three got down with spades, and turned to with a will to clear a way for our car through the drift ahead, so that we could get on into the town and send back assistance. After about an hour's hard work, we dug a ramp (slope) out of the cutting where the drift was, on to the higher ground at the side, where the weight of the wind had partially cleared the snow, and, going back, got the car and started on our voyage of discovery before the 'children' in the other cars had commenced to move, and long before there was any sign of the sun, which would surely later on melt the frozen crust and so make any movement of cars under their own power very difficult if not quite impossible. After many difficulties we reached the military outposts of the town by z z a.m., and carried straight on to the offices of the Military Governor. He, we found, had had every-thing prepared for our reception the night before, but, as we had not appeared, he had concluded that we had been unable to get over the pass, and that we had remained in the Kharshut Valley. He now undertook to send cavalry to the assistance of the remaining cars and to bring them in, after which we proceeded at once to the house reserved for us, where we found fires and food, both of which were most acceptable. After that, we were soon asleep, so that we got an hour or two much-needed rest before the other can turned up in the late afternoon, towed by oxen, their occupants being in the last stages of exhaustion and discouragement. They both needed, and received, a good deal of attention from us, and a general rather forceful 'bucking-up' also, before they were capable of presenting a proper appearance, as British soldiers, before the Turks, who are pretty keen judges, and unbelievably hard and tough themselves.
We remained in the town of Baiburt, which is situated at an altitude of 5,300 feet, for three days, very comfortable in the good house provided for us. Here I received a cipher cable from the Commander-in-Chief at Constant, instructing me not to go beyond Erzeroum without further orders. This was the first indication I received of any serious trouble being expected. We also received daily news of the condition of the dreaded Khop Pass, which lay about twenty-eight miles ahead of us, the summit at an altitude of 8,300 feet. The information we obtained as to our chance of forcing our way over before the pass became finally blocked was far from encouraging. We, however, decided to make the attempt, and, having notified the Military Authorities on the previous day of our intentions, we left Baiburt at daylight on Christmas Day, all determined to do our best to achieve success.
The first twelve miles out of Baiburt were fairly easy travelling, but in the early afternoon we were forced to stop, unable to get on without assistance, being then still two miles short of the commencement of the upper pass, where a strong force of men and oxen had been instructed to meet us.
I at once sent on some Turkish soldiers, whom we had brought with us from Baiburt, to the foot of the upper pass, to bring back the oxen to the drift where we were then badly held up, and seized the opportunity to feed the men, who were by no means as bright and as gay as I could have wished in view of the kind of entertainment which, as I knew, lay immediately before them. However, hot cocoa and food did them heaps of good, and an hour later about fifty oxen turned up, accompanied by the same number of real tough mountain villagers, who were immediately put to work clearing a passage through the drift. We then had rather a curious incident, which may seem strange to our English ideas, but which is typical of the country, and particularly of the Turk, and of the only treatment which he understands and respects.
Having put the diggers to work, I came back to the oxen, in order to divide them among the cars, and found them peacefully eating, and the men in charge of them already nicely 'snuggled down' in the snow, having evidently no intention of moving again that day. They assured me that those were the orders of their Chief, who on arrival had himself immediately disappeared into a hovel, where he had promptly lit a fire, and was making himself at home for the night.
This was altogether too much for my patience, as I knew that, although it was now fine, snow might begin to fall again at any moment, and I could imagine that quite probably our only chance of forcing the pass was in danger of disappearing, without any effort being made in the few hours during which the ascent might be successfully undertaken. I therefore sent two Turkish soldiers with strict orders to bring the great man to me, by main force if necessary, saying that the English Pasha commanded his presence. Presently he turned up, and casually told me that 'he could not think of allowing his oxen to ascend the pass that day, as it was then too late, and that we should have to wait till next morning'.
He had entirely mistaken his man, and before he had finished speaking I had him by the throat, and there, before all his own men, I cursed him with all the Turkish oaths I could think of, and shook him again and again till his teeth rattled. The moral effect of this manoeuvre was excellent, for though he was stuck all over with knives, daggers, pistols, etc., he dared to touch none of them. The atmosphere instantly and entirely changed, and not only were my orders from that time on instantly obeyed by the mountaineers, but my own men were considerably heartened up also, a still more desirable result.
We now got going immediately, and soon covered the two remaining miles to the foot of the zigzags of the upper pass. Here we were confronted by about the most serious climb I know of on any road which has any pretensions as such. The rise is 2,000 feet and the total distance three and three-quarters of a mile, long portions of which average one in twelve; of these, many stretches are too steep for an empty Ford van to climb even when the road is dry and free from snow, without at least three men pushing to help the motor.
On this occasion the snow lay very deep on the zigzags, and although a track had been dug, yet the surface of rammed snow in this track was as bad as it could be, and the walls of snow on either side reached far above the roofs of the cars. The only favourable point was that, as we should be tackling the ascent in an icy wind and during the night, we could count on the surface everywhere being frozen as hard as iron, with no danger of meeting the soft surface which results from the sun's rays in daytime, and which would have certainly rendered our task impossible.
We hitched twelve oxen to the first car, and ten to each of the last three, as the first has generally the most difficult task. I, as usual, travelled in the last car, to be ready to assist in case of trouble, and also to keep them moving, as night was already falling before we started on the climb. Many were the troubles that we met with, but all were surmounted in the end, the worst being a badly damaged steering on the last car, caused by a very deep drift, after two-thirds of the distance had been covered. The leading cars had here worn through the frozen crust of the drift, and the last car nearly disappeared altogether in the icy slush, its steering being damaged during the lengthy and difficult process of its extraction. This occurred about ten p.m., and, of course, at about the most exposed corner of the whole ascent.
At last we were able to start again, and we reached the summit at midnight, finding that the others had already been there some time, and had all sought refuge in a kind of underground hovel, which I had told them existed there, with an earthen roof heaped up high to carry the snow. In this they had lit a fire, and were packed tight together fast asleep long before we arrived. We therefore backed our car against the back of one of the other cars, and, having lowered the tail-board of each, covered both the cars entirely with our large sail-cloth sheet, and so prepared to spend our Christmas night, as best we could, in the open.
Our first step was to light our little oil-lamp, and then our primus, on which we made some cocoa and fried some bacon, the fumes of the latter, cooking in this confined space, making us cough incessantly, though no one had any idea of lifting even the smallest corner of the canvas cover, as the wind was now blowing sharply, and was of a temperature quite beyond description. We were, however, quite cheery, though grimly contrasting our Christmas cheer with the experience our comrades were having in other less exposed positions; and although thoughts of home were uppermost in all our minds, yet no one dreamt for a moment of referring to a subject which could only serve to make the already difficult task of keeping up our spirits infinitely harder still.
That night was certainly the coldest it has ever been my lot to experience, and I trust that I am not fated to go through any in future that will in any way compare with it. We lay down on the floor of the car, as close together as possible, for the sake of the warmth, each having round him every sort and kind of covering upon which he could lay his hands. My letter, written a few days later, says 'I had on my British warm, my big waterproof, and over all those my big fur coat, with my fur gloves and fur cap on, as well as my snow-boots, the whole being enveloped in a large fur rug, inside all of which I felt as if I was standing in an icy wind with only a silk vest on' . I do not know if that gives a realistic impression, but it really was exceedingly cold – too cold, in fact, to sleep for more than a few moments, as under such circumstances it becomes necessary constantly to move one's limbs, and to make quite sure that there is no numbness creeping on.
When at last daylight appeared, the wind dropped, and the snow having ceased to drift and cut one's skin, we sallied forth, to meet, to our surprise, the most glorious sight I have ever witnessed – that is, the sun rising on an absolute fairyland of rose-coloured snow. The 'col' which forms the summit of the pass is 8,300 feet in altitude, surrounded by a succession of peaks (all extinct volcanoes), which were close to us in the range we were then crossing, whilst below, to the south, snow-ranges extended in interminable succession to the far horizon. All these snowy giants, which average in the neighbourhood of 14,000 feet in height, become, as the sun first touches them, a rosy-pink colour, as delicate in shade as it is beautiful in effect, and everywhere the snow shines and twinkles in the hard frost as if scattered all over with brilliant diamonds.
After enjoying for a few all too short minutes this magnificent demonstration of an Oriental mountain sunrise, and running up and down vigorously to bring back the circulation after our not altogether luxurious Christmas night, Ankers and Leadbeater started to prepare, one the cars, and the other some breakfast, whilst I braved the truly stifling atmosphere of the underground retreat occupied by the remainder of our party. These sleepy-heads were soon roused up, and came blinking out into the brilliant sunlight like a lot of moulting owls, but the magnificent air outside put new life into them, and we were soon away, hoping to get the worst part of the descent over before the sun's rays had time to melt the crust of the snow. We made good progress, behind our oxen as before, till the afternoon, when, as the snow was no longer so deep on the lower slopes and the gradients there were all favourable, we finally dismissed our Turks and their oxen, with substantial rewards, and continued our journey under our own power.
There is a small village, rejoicing in the name of Pirnikapan, at the foot of the pass, at 5,600 feet, forty-six miles from Erzeroum, and, arriving here in the late afternoon, I was obliged to leave two cars, as they were both in need of repair. Their crews were also badly in need of rest, neither cars nor men being in fit condition to continue the journey. I, however, continued myself, with two cars only, having every intention of reaching Erzeroum that night if possible. One car, however, developed bad trouble on the way in the big-end bearings of the engine, and I was obliged to leave it at Ilija, a village only eight miles short of the great fortress-city, where I eventually arrived myself with one car only, accompanied by Ankers, Leadbeater, and my interpreter, the Russian, Polakoff by name, at 10.30 p.m. As may easily be imagined, we were all pretty well tired out, though still cheery and going strong, after two successive days, each of which had necessitated over seventeen consecutive hours of strenuous effort.
I had telephoned to the Army Commander from Ashkala, the first military post east of the Khop, thirty-five miles from Erzeroum, to say I expected to reach the town that night, with the result that we were met at the entrance to the fortress by some of his Headquarters Staff, who escorted us to the house allotted to us, of which we took possession, and, finding some food already prepared by the Turkish guards who had been appointed to attend us, we enjoyed a much-needed repast and a well-earned rest in our new quarters, where we were destined after-wards to remain so long and to suffer so severely.
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
Read More Articles About: Adventures In The Near East