Erzeroum In 1920
( Originally Published 1923 )
Our house — The Army Commander — His orphan military school — The climate — The food -- The wolves — I send some of my party in sledges to the coast — Our arrest — Destroy my papers — Surrounded by a mob — Play chess — Turk preparation for a military offensive — Kiazim Pasha Ieaves for the front — He is succeeded by Kiazim Bey — Teach the men Morse signalling — Make and plant a garden — Peace terms are announced — Our cars are taken — Our officer is withdrawn— Our guards steal our food — We become ill and weak — Our Irish driver joins the Turks — Our Christmas festivities—We are removed to the prison
IT was on the night of December 26th that we reached Erzeroum, and within the next few days we got our stragglers in who had been left on the road. The house allotted to us was not at all bad. It had been before the war the 'Ajemistani' (Persian) Consulate, and, except for being short of windows and woodwork generally, it was in fair condition — at any rate in winter, when the snow was down and there was six feet of it on the earthen roof. The stairs were always rather a difficulty, as the banisters -- and all other easily removable woodwork — had long ago been burnt for fuel. There was, of course, no- furniture, but in a kind of outhouse on the ground floor was a chimney, under which we at once proceeded to build a fireplace and construct an oven, luxuries un-known in those parts, where cooking is done over an open fire, very rarely of wood, and generally of tezek (dried cow-dung), which not only gives very little heat, but also imparts its own . peculiar and very unpleasant smell to any food cooked on it.
General Kiazim Karabekir Pasha, the Army Commander, received me very well. I think he was really pleased to see me again, and we had many long talks, he telling me of happenings in his part of the world during my absence at home, which I reciprocated by giving him the news of Europe. After having presented to him my official military orders, and explained to him my duties, I told him privately that I was anxious to get in touch with Mustapha Kemal, who, he informed me, had left Erzeroum immediately after the Conference and gone to preside at another Conference at Sivas, 275 miles farther west, after which he had continued to Angora, about the same distance farther on, where he was establishing the headquarters of the Nationalist Revolutionary Government. He, Kiazim, promised to let Kemal know that I wished to have an interview with him when opportunity offered, but it was agreed that a journey to Angora from Erzeroum was out of the question at that time of the year.
Kiazim Pasha is very pleasant company, and we had at this time many discussions with reference to Russia and her future, and although it was evident that, in case of trouble with Europe, the Turkish revolutionaries would of necessity be thrown into the arms of the Bolsheviks, he did not disguise from me that they would greatly prefer to establish friendly relations with the Allies, and especially with the British Empire, as any lasting agreement between Turk and Russian, whether Bolshevik or not, has always been, and always will be, an impossibility.
Erzeroum at this time of year (midwinter) is arctic in its climate, and subject to sudden storms, which in America would be termed blizzards, but are here called tépis. The wind during these storms is of a force and quality which render it as much as a man's life is worth to be caught in them when out of reach of shelter. In consequence, as soon as a storm commences, all houses are shut up, and no one moves out of doors till it is over. Sometimes two, or even three, days may elapse before the wind drops and the driven snow finally settles down; all then come out smiling, and begin cheerfully to dig out the entrances to their homes, often covered by many feet of snow. The calm after such storms is delightful, with a bright sun ever shining; the only precaution which it is necessary then to take is to smear the nose and cheek-bones with soot or some dark substance (the natives mostly use mud for this purpose), as, in the absence of sun-glasses or the above precautions, the effect of the glare is to cause a splitting headache, and eventually snow-blindness, a really terrible affliction.
Soon after our arrival we all began to suffer in our digestions from the black bread, made from flour which is full of impurities, as much grit, mostly from the millstones, is absorbed with the bread, causing intense internal irritation and consequent suffering and weakness. Within three weeks we were all of us so suffering, and my young heroes soon began to lose flesh a great deal faster than they liked or expected. We were, however, pretty well off for stores, as I had brought all that our cars could carry, and at this time, though some of them thought they were undergoing great privations, the conditions of our life were by no means really hard.
I was at this time in regular communication by cipher-wire with Constant, and although I received no official warnings, yet I had no difficulty in 'sensing' an atmosphere of approaching trouble. The elections to the new Turkish Parliament having now been held (at the request of the Allies), the new members (all Nationalists) had all gone West, and were now in session at Angora, instead of at Constantinople, as had previously been the established custom. This new departure did not at all meet with the approval of the Allies, who intimated that the Parliament should meet at Constant, and be opened there with the usual ceremony of the Sultan's speech, as they were not prepared to recognize the new assembly at Angora. After considerable hesitation, a proportion of the newly elected members had agreed to go to Constant, under the leadership of Réouf Bey, and to take their seats there, and they were already, during February, actually on their journey to the capital.
Knowing Réouf Bey's opinions, and also his character and fearless patriotism, I felt sure that the position would become critical on their arrival in Constantinople, and I therefore decided to reduce the strength of my party at once to the smallest possible dimensions, retaining only two drivers and one machine-gunner in addition to my batman and interpreter. On March 2nd, with the Turkish authorities' consent and assistance, I dispatched two drivers, two machine-gunners, and one non-commissioned officer, in sleighs to the coast, at which decision these men themselves were much relieved, but I doubt greatly whether their relief in going was as great as mine in seeing them go! Immediately on their departure I made every preparation myself to be ready to get off with the remainder, at half an hour's notice, immediately on receipt of a warning hint of any kind from Constant, which I believed was now to be expected at any moment.
This was the state of affairs when, on the night of March 16th, I had just finished working at an up-to-date map of the country, which I was drawing to show the new roads, railways, and other communications constructed during the war, when I heard the tread of many men outside and the rattle of arms, followed immediately by my door being flung open and the entry into my room of the Governor of the fortress. As he stood in the doorway I could see in the gloom that the hall and staircase behind him were filled with soldiers with fixed bayonets, and I could also hear words of command being given outside, so that it was evident that the Turkish Army was present in force.
I, however, rose at once and, with, I trust, proper politeness, invited the Colonel commanding the fortress, whom. I knew by name and repute only, to take a seat by the stove (then, as I thankfully noticed, burning brightly), and offered him a cup of coffee, at the same time inquiring to what circumstances I was indebted for the honour of his visit so late at night.
To this very courteous reception he replied, I was glad to observe, by taking both a seat and the coffee, telling me at the same time that he was sent by Kiazim Pasha to express his Chief's regret that he was unable to come himself in person, and also that the Pasha had that evening received important and disquieting news from Angora to the effect that, on the meeting of the New Parliament at Constant, on Réouf Bey, the Nationalist leader, officially declaring, as was his duty, the policy of the party he had been elected specially to represent, he and his principal supporters in the House had been arrested by the Allies, and were to be sent as prisoners to Malta forthwith! The city of Constant had also, it appeared, been occupied in formal military manner by the Allied troops, and under these circumstances he was requested by the Pasha to inform me that it was believed that as soon as this news became generally known in the town my party would not be safe, and troops had therefore been detailed for our protection !
To assist in the pacification of the population, he told me he was instructed to request that I should order my men to surrender their arms, and to haul down the British flag which floated so proudly over our quarters, in order to avoid the aggravation of the feelings of the public which would result, under existing circumstances, from its continued display and our immunity from any form of reprisal. This intimation, as may be imagined, in no way lost in gravity from the extremely courteous manner in which it was communicated, and I at once expressed my regret at the deplorable course which events had taken in Constant, of which up to that moment I had been in entire ignorance.
Whilst expressing my warm appreciation of the concern of the Pasha for the safety of my party, and acknowledging the insecurity of our position in the quarters we then occupied, I at once took exception to the suggestion that we should surrender our arms and haul down our flag, putting forward the alternative proposal that we should move immediately to the citadel with all our belongings, where, in the centre of the Army Headquarters, we should be quite safe from any exhibition of popular feeling. I expressed my readiness to carry out that move during the night, so that at daylight our present quarters would be found to be unoccupied.
To this I received a still courteous reply to the effect that my visitor, being a soldier, could do nothing but carry out his orders, which he had already the honour of communicating to me! On that I drew his attention to the excellent terms upon which I was, as he well knew, with the Pasha, and requested him to be good enough to submit my proposal to his Commander, so that at any rate he should be aware of my opinion before the matter proceeded further. To this end I immediately began to put my suggestion in writing before any more could be said. To my great relief; the Colonel consented to do me the favour of personally handing my note to his chief, who occupied a house less than one hundred yards from my own, and on going out for this purpose I heard his word of command to the troops outside to stand fast and to await his return.
I had, of course, not the least doubt as to what would be the result, but I had by my alternative proposal at any rate achieved the vitally desirable object, which at first appeared to me to be so difficult, if not impossible, as I had got the man out of the room for a few invaluable moments, to my own infinite relief. Hardly had the door dosed upon him before I was hard at work collecting all my papers, orders, dispatches, and especially cipher-keys, and was cramming them into the stove, so that when, in ten minutes' time, he returned, a vast amount of priceless destruction had been effected, which fact afforded me the greatest possible gratification all through my long subsequent imprisonment.
On his return he told me that the Pasha could not consent to my proposal, but that he was authorized, if I so desired, to demonstrate to me the fact that the house was surrounded in force, and to beg me, on behalf of the Pasha, to resign myself to the fortune of war, adding at the same time a somewhat complimentary statement which has no place here. I therefore accompanied him to the window of my room, and afterwards to other windows, commanding all four sides of our isolated house, from whence I was able to convince myself that there were at least two battalions in position all round it – a fact which, as I remarked to the fortress Commander, I took as a great compliment to the four British soldiers whom I had the honour to command. Then, with quite indescribably bitter feelings, such as I trust never again to experience, I proceeded myself to haul down the British flag, which I reverently folded and placed in the breast of my coat, where it remained, in the only safety which it was in my power to command for it, until at long last I was eventually hoisted over the side of one of His Majesty's ships of war, after twenty long months of suffering and peril. That flag now forms one of my most valued treasures, and hangs above me in my English home as I write.
This painful ordeal over, I sent for Corporal Ankers, and ordered him to surrender our arms, for which the Commander of the fortress undertook to give me a formal receipt. The latter then left me, saying that he would see to the posting of his troops, and return to take leave of me when he had done so. After about half an hour he returned, saying that he had detailed a strong guard to hold the house and an officer to command, and that the ground-floor windows were then being wired with barbed wire as a defence against any sudden attack. We were told we were to consider ourselves as confined to the house, but that the officer was authorized to effect purchases, with our money, of anything we might need, and on that he finally departed, having carried out his most unpleasant duty with courtesy and restraint, upon which I made a point of offering him my congratulations, whilst assuring him that his behaviour was adequately appreciated by me, and, under the circumstances, did him infinite credit.
The next day I wrote formal letters of expostulation as to our detention, which I had no doubt was destined to last for a long time, for the claim that it was for our protection was obviously only an excuse, and I was anxious to put it at once on record that I claimed the protection of the flag of truce under which I had been officially received as the representative of the British Army. All these representations, however, produced nothing, though I did receive an official receipt for our arms, including my own two dearly cherished machine-guns, which had done such long and valuable service.
A few days later an incident occurred which largely bore out the Army Commander's statement as to the temper of the population and the feeling existing among all classes in the surrounding country against the Allies. I was at first rather tempted to consider that the demonstration in question was one 'got up' for our benefit, with the object of influencing any communications which I might subsequently have the opportunity of making to our Headquarters, but as it developed there were many indications of its genuineness, the most remarkable amongst these being the attitude of our guards. The following is an account of the incident, which I trust may be found of interest, though I am quite confident that under no circumstances can the reading of the incident excite even a small proportion of the sensations which it actually afforded us at the time.
About 2 p.m., several days after our confinement commenced, I was sitting writing in my room on the first floor, when I became aware of a remarkable muffled roar outside the house, and at the same time of a certain commotion downstairs, where our guards were quartered. Onlooking up through the window without leaving my seat, I saw that all the flat snow-covered roofs of the houses round were black with a collection of the most villainous-looking ruffians that I had ever seen, who appeared capable of, and anxious to commit at once, unspeakable atrocities of every description, and also that a crowd of several thousand other 'gentlemen', of even more forbidding aspect, were spread over all the open spaces amongst the ruins immediately surrounding our house.
The noise came from all these far from pleasant-looking neighbours, who were hooting, and cursing, and shaking their fists, and altogether demonstrating a decidedly antagonistic, or rather an actively hostile, attitude towards us. It has never before been my privilege at any time or in any place to hear a more unpleasant sound than that which this very repulsive-looking crowd were then making, for it reminded me most realistically of the commotion in which, during my childhood, I ever took the greatest interest. This may always be oberved at the Zoo at any time when their food is brought in to the lions and other similarly pleasantly dispositioned animals. At the Zoo, however, the animals are safely shut up in their cages and their prey is brought to them, whilst in our case it was ourselves who were shut up in the cages all right, but the safety was problematical only, as we seemed destined ourselves to represent the prey, especially as we were without arms of any description, and the attitude adopted by our guards towards the hungry-looking 'gentlemen' outside was far from encouraging to us.
However, as there was nothing to be gained by any kind of demonstration on my part, I quietly continued my writing in full view of the excited murderers on the roofs opposite me, as if quite failing to realize that I was myself the succulent joint which they were expecting to be served up to them, or that I was in any way concerned in the proceedings.
Shortly afterwards the officer in charge of our guards burst into my room in a state of considerable excitement, and requested me to come downstairs at once to the guard-room, as he had no confidence in the behaviour of his own men, and was, I was delighted to hear, personally responsible for our safety. He assured me, by way of encouragement, that he had telephoned for further support, and that he had every hope reinforcements would arrive before any disaster occurred. As I entirely shared his sentiments in this respect, I at once followed him downstairs, in a manner which, I trust, appeared entirely unconcerned, and therefore I saw no more of the entertainment provided, though I noticed that the expression on the faces of our guards who were posted at the front door was far from showing that genial spirit towards us, and anxious concern for our safety, which I could have desired to observe at that particular moment.
I found my men also in the guard-room, and was, as I expected to be, entirely satisfied with their attitude of calm self-possession; in fact, I am convinced that far more emotion was shown by our guards than by any member of our party. Soon after this we heard the noise greatly increase, and, to our considerable relief, were told that a large force of Turkish police, armed with revolvers, had arrived to support our guards in their half-hearted defence, and very shortly afterwards the unpleasant mutterings died away and I was escorted back to my room, some months subsequently elapsing before we were again treated to a similar highly sensational entertainment.
During the next few months our life was monotonous in the extreme, but not too arduous, as we had permission to use the backyard of our house for exercise; and as I had a certain supply of money hidden away, and as an officer was then permanently stationed in the house, we were able to purchase food without being robbed in too extortionate a manner. I also had a certain amount of seeds of vegetables, which we planted in the backyard, after clearing away the ruins there and digging the ground to make a garden, where we might hope to grow our vegetables, and so to prolong the time which our money would last us in the purchase of food. To this object, from the very first moment of our confinement, I devoted my greatest attention, being well aware that our lives would in all probability eventually depend upon our care in husbanding our meagre resources.
My party now consisted of Corporal Ankers; my batman Leadbeater; Private Carter of the Machine-Gun Corps, a worthy representative of that justly famous corps; Driver Mahoney of the A.S.C., of whom more hereafter; and Polakoff, the young Russian interpreter.
My own room was on the first floor, with a small room next to it, where Leadbeater and Polakoff slept, and where we did our cooking, such as it was, on a primus. The other three men were downstairs, in a small room next to the Turks' guard-room. It now became vitally important to keep ourselves constantly occupied, and as at this time we were permitted to move freely about within the house, I devised all kinds of means of occupying ourselves, especially in the evening, the preparation of our garden taking up most of our time during the day.
As time went on, however, we all began to suffer in health, chiefly from privation, for we reduced our expenditure to the very lowest possible amount and suffered accordingly, all being pretty constantly ill with fever and dysentery, and becoming gradually weaker. Ankers undoubtedly suffered by far the most, though, in spite of the great pain which he constantly endured from his wounded hand (of which the thumb was amputated in July), I never at any moment heard a complaint from him, nor ever saw the least sign of any faltering in the steadfast courage with which he faced every adversity.
At this time we still had our cars in the backyard, and kept them ready for use at any moment; but as the summer came on we learnt from our Turkish officer that there had been a Conference at San Remo, where the enlightened 'Supreme' Council of the Allies had decided and announced that certain portions of Eastern Anatolia were to be given to the Armenians. Of course, to us, who were in a position to know the utter futility of such a proposal, the appalling results which must of necessity follow such an announcement were clearly evident, and from that time onwards there were constant signs of preparations for a military offensive by the Turks.
About this time General Kiazim Karabekir left Erzeroum, to take command at the front, leaving a Colonel Kiazim Bey in command of the fortress. This officer, who was more German than Turk, I knew before my incarceration, though I never saw him afterwards. His assumption of command initiated a series of events which could never have occurred had the energetic personal supervision of General Kiazim Karabekir not been withdrawn from the Erzeroum garrison, and we soon commenced to experience the deterioration in the military discipline of the garrison resulting from the departure of that enlightened and efficient Commander.
On June 15th I received a visit from an officer of the new Head-quarters Staff, who demanded the surrender of our cars, handing me at the same time a letter from the new Commander informing me that they were needed for the use of the Turkish army. I replied that I was, of course, unable to resist this demand, but that .at the same time we yielded only to force; and during that night I took effective steps, as it was, of course, my duty to do, to render them unserviceable, although the Turks were as unable to obtain any evidence of this, as they were incapable of locating, and remedying, the highly technical causes of their unserviceable condition. The following day a party of their transport-drivers arrived, headed by an experienced mechanical transport officer and we then passed several very agreeable hours watching their ineffectual efforts to start the cars, which eventually were removed in tow, a pair of bullocks being required for each car.
On this occasion I first became aware of the horrifying possibility that there might be found amongst our party any man who could prove capable of disgracing the uniform which we were all so proud to wear, by giving assistance to the enemy; for although I pointed out to the Turkish expert the cause of the trouble in starting the cars was due to the worn-out condition of the electrical ignition devices of the motors, replacements for which I assured him I had ordered from Constant, our one Irish driver Mahoney did his best in every way to assist the Turks in their endeavours at repair, though the other men quite properly refused to afford them any assistance whatever.
I am anxious here to state that under the command of Kiazim Karabekir we had been treated with every consideration, and, an officer being quartered in the house, I had been at liberty to communicate to him any points, with regard to our confinement, to which I might wish to draw the attention of his superiors, I had also been permitted at any time to write to the Army Commander, with the certainty that my complaint would not only reach his hands, but that it would with equal certainty receive all reasonable consideration from him. From this time onwards, however, the treatment accorded to us was entirely different; our resident officer was withdrawn, and our guards consisted subsequently of the lowest class of ignorant Turkish recruits, under the orders of a corporal, at whose mercy we were left, and who was . careful to see that none of my complaints reached his superior officers, who ceased either to inspect, or even to visit, our quarters.
The consequence of this neglect of supervision was that the food and necessaries which we were able to purchase were taken from us by our guards, who waxed fat as we starved, and that it became necessary to pay them fantastic sums to obtain a tenth . part of their value in food. Our health, therefore, gradually began to deteriorate, and we became so weak as to be incapable of the least effort, and also, in the absence of proper nourishment, we suffered severely from fever, dysentery, and general emaciation.
In early August the first Bolshevik troops arrived, and were greeted by more demonstrations, torchlight processions parading the town in their honour; the Turkish officers at the same time adopted the Bolshevik marks of rank on their uniforms in place of their own, and all became (for the time at least) 'Tavarish' (the Russian term for Citizen-Comrade). At this time, also, the Turkish officers were all paid in Russian gold, Russian ten-rouble gold pieces becoming more common in Erzeroum than golden sovereigns were in London before the war.
On August 4th Mahoney, the Irish driver, was taken to hospital at his own request, as he had neither the courage nor the desire to make any effort in the face of the conditions we were called upon to endure. At the same time I applied for the issue of rations to my party, alleging that I had no funds remaining upon which to subsist. About mid-August the first rations were issued to us, consisting of terribly inferior black bread and the odd remains of the army commissariat meat, after the Turkish soldiers' rations had been cut up and distributed.
On this we might just have subsisted had the quantity which was issued for our support ever reached us, but our guards saw to it that we obtained only the barest amount which would suffice to keep us alive, and at the same time the oil which was issued for our light and the wood for our fuel provided the maximum of light and warmth for our guards, whilst we were forced to dispense with such luxuries. We now became very considerably weaker, and about this time one of the men secured a photograph showing my own general appearance, which will convey a better idea of our physical deterioration than it is possible to gather from any description in words. The snow now came down again to last for the winter, and our condition became more and more deplorable.
Eventually, on October 3rd, our house was again surrounded, and an officer told me that he was empowered to search the house. He subsequently proceeded direct to the spot on the ground floor where certain spare electric coils had been buried, and, having dug them up, took them away, at the same time taking with him the driver Mahoney, who had returned that day from the Turkish hospital, and whom I did not see again for many months.
As the things they dug up had been the only portion of the hidden parts which were known to Mahoney, it was, of course, quite evident whom we had to thank for our betrayal, and as, the next day, the interpreter Polakoff was also taken by the Bolsheviks as a deserter from the Russian Army, we were left in doubt whether he had not also been concerned in the matter, However, I cannot bring myself to accuse any man of such conduct without definite proof, and that, in his case, was not forthcoming, as we saw him no more, and are still ignorant of his fate.
From this time on we went from bad to worse, till we were hardly able to crawl about the house, and I then considered it highly improbable that I myself should survive the winter, though the younger men might be able to do so. I had, however, kept a small store of money in reserve, and with its assistance we contrived to eke out a truly miserable existence, although frequently without any food at all.
I have a note that on December 18th, in perishing cold weather, ' we had then been sixteen days without the smallest particle of meat, and had not had even black bread, or any supply of food at all, for six days,' whilst the note continues: 'All complaints unnoticed, misery extreme.' These last two words strike one now as being rather superfluous.
This was our condition on Christmas Eve, when the cold was intense and I slept in all my great-coats, wearing my snow-boots, and being also wrapped up, including my head, in every blanket that I had. In the first grey of the winter dawn on Christmas Day I suddenly awoke, and, to my infinite surprise, heard a very weak
and trembling voice addressing me, saying, 'A Merry Christmas, sir.' My first thought, of course, was that this was as good a dream as I could expect, but, on the words being repeated, I crawled from my little camp-bed, and found my batman Leadbeater standing in the doorway, supporting himself, in his weakness, by holding on to the post. I thanked him, of course, most
'heartily' for his Christmas wishes, and wished him the same in return, but all the while I was gradually taking in his appearance, with the utmost astonishment.
He was dressed in full uniform (it is true that it was in some places in sad need of repair), but everything was scrupulously clean, to the last strap and fold of his puttees, while his boots and his brass buttons and badges shone like stars in the dim light of the winter's morning.
As soon as I got over my astonishment I congratulated him upon the appearance of my 'Army' (the men always spoke of themselves as such) on Christmas morning. He then said, in rather quavering tones, that the 'Army ' wished to know at what time I would prefer to take my 'Christmas dinner!' and again I gasped with astonishment, and then begged him, for the Lord's sake, to tell me what it was all about, for, as far as I knew, we had nothing to eat but a piece or two of black bread. He then told me that the 'Army' had been preparing a surprise for me, and that each of the three of them had prepared a dish for my Christmas dinner, and, please, what time would I take it?
I then consulted him as to what time would be the most convenient, as it was evident to me that the right place for their delicacies was downstairs, and not in my room, and I was determined that my share of them should be the most infinitesimal which they would allow of, and that their feast, whatever it might be, should get down to these gallant fellows just as soon and in as complete a condition as I could managed to ensure. It was then agreed that dinner should be at twelve o'clock, and that each expert chef should bring in his own special masterpiece, and on that he left me.
No sooner had the door closed upon him than I went to my trunk and got out my one good tunic, which I kept always against the long-hoped-for day when we might eventually be released, and which made a brave show of colour, with a brand-new set of ribbons, etc., and I 'started in' at once to clean it properly; also my belt and boots, being determined to be in no way behind my comrades in showing our guards how the British Army 'turned out' for their great national 'Bairam', as the Turks call their feasts.
Twelve o'clock, therefore, found me seated at my little camp-table in my very best attire, which, I trust, did no discredit to the 'Army' downstairs or elsewhere. On the sound of the midday gun the door opened, and Ankers appeared, carrying a dish, about which there was a certain suggestion of 'eggs', and resplendent himself down to the last buckle and button.
He wished me a 'Merry Christmas', which I reciprocated, and I then told him how proud I felt of their pluck, and how I hoped they would allow me to come to see the men's dinner, according to the immemorial custom of the army. He said that they would be delighted, and so I got him away as soon as possible with his wonderful production undisturbed. He was immediately followed by Carter, whose appearance was, if anything, even more resplendent, but who was sadly weak, as he had long suffered, even more severely than the rest of us, from acute dysentery.
His masterpiece was a 'plum-pudding' (!), made, as I learnt afterwards, from crumbs which they had swept up from the now very weevilly dust remaining from our tins of army biscuits, long since considered as finished, but at which he had been working for weeks to produce from them some semblance of a pudding. This also was rapidly passed over, though it was insisted on that I should cut off a piece; and he then also left me.
Last of all Leadbeater appeared with a tart, made I know not how, but which he was graciously pleased to allow me to admire without detracting from its magnificent appearance, or interfering with the elaborate motto of 'A Merry Xmas' which distinguished its truly wonderful 'crust'. It was then agreed that I should join them downstairs in five minutes' time, and assist at their festivities, and he then 'tottered off' after the others.
I found myself now faced by the most difficult problem of all, which was to get down the stairs myself. However, there being at the moment no Turks about to see me, I made a great effort, and, sticking close to the walls, eventually reached the head of the very dilapidated staircase, where I was at once in apparently hopeless difficulties, owing to the absence of any form of banister or hand-rail. There, having made quite certain that I was unobserved, I got down on my hands and knees, and so descended backwards with great success, regaining my feet against the wall at the foot of the staircase before reaching the men's door, when I knocked, and was at once told to 'come in'.
The few odd old boards which served as a table were covered with a towel, scrupulously clean, as were also our few dilapidated iron cups and plates, the table being already spread with the 'delicacies' which I had passed in review upstairs, the men on my arrival standing to 'attention' with marked and rather unexpected success.
The first proceeding was, of course, to sit down as soon as possible, before anyone had time to fall down, of which there was very imminent danger. I then addressed them, and asked by what possible means they had managed to provide this repast, in which I saw signs of eggs, raisins, and other unheard-of delicacies which were far beyond our means.
For a long time they would not tell me, but I was very insistent, and at last the secret came out, told in almost a whisper, as they knew well I should never have allowed it had I known what they proposed to do, for they confessed that they had sold their socks, sooner than be unable to keep up the traditions of the British Army, by some attempt, however poor, to celebrate their Christmas Day in their quarters, as is the custom throughout the British Army. I then told them what I wanted to say to them, and did say, which cannot have differed much, I expect, from what those who read this story would have wished to say to such glorious men as these, had they been privileged, as I was, to address them at that moment.
During this time our guards, who occupied the next room, had become aware that something unusual was in progress, and each hole in the wall and crack in the door was gradually filled with dirty, Turkish, low-class faces, whilst quite a number were also peering in through the barbed wire which covered the windows. As my discourse proceeded, they finally invaded the room itself, and crowded round our miserable table, furious all of them at our undefeated aspect, and also at the fact that they could not understand a word we were saying.
Finally, I asked the men if they would back me up if I tried to sing 'God Save the King'. Some very weak voices answered me that 'they were willing enough to try, if I so wished, but that they feared it was beyond their powers to do themselves justice.' This feeling I perfectly understood, and I therefore stood up, and they with me, and, taking off our caps, we gave, with all the strength we could muster, three very trembling cheers for 'The King'.
I much fear that they were very weak and quavering cheers, but the hearts that beat behind them were stout and strong and true, and I feel confident that if His Gracious Majesty could have heard them he would have appreciated them as deeply as many far more powerful ones he has heard from the lusty throats of his soldiers, who shout, on Christmas Day at home, with the power that comes from the good roast beef and beer of Old England, enjoyed amidst happy surroundings. Our humble effort came from loyal hearts, indeed, but from men cut off entirely for many weary months from their homes and their comrades, shut up in a wild and desolate country, weak and ill, and 'blue' with cold, and with sadly empty stomachs, but still undefeated, and, as such, commanding the respect even of the wild guards around them.
The corporal of the guard, when our small cheers died down, asked me what it was all about, and I had then the great satisfaction of telling him that it was our national 'Bairam' (feast), and that we were cheering our 'Padishah' (the King of England) and the British Army, her zaman galeeb (the ever-victorious) l On that I made my way back again to my room, thoroughly exhausted, but in a mood to defy and fight any Turk or any other man or beast, and so must have been feeling much the better for our glorious Christmas effort.
I myself, rather ambitiously, designed a yacht, and produced scale-drawings of every detail, including the lines of the hull,. finally constructing a model of the complete vessel in wood, with the aid of the one broken knife-blade which remained in my possession. This task took me eight and a half months of constant work, and the model and the drawings are amongst my most cherished possessions in my home to-day.
By these means we survived the month of January, and on February 1st, 1922, we were moved from our house to the common prison, that being the first time we had been outside the walls of our abode since March 16th, 1921, a period of ten months and fifteen days.
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