The Caspian Sea - Advance To, Relief Of, And Siege Of Baku
( Originally Published 1923 )
The convoy The upper pass Through the Jungalis in the lower pass The sea at last Kazian, the end of the road An oil tank as a transport Bad weather Baku Harbour -- The city Preceding events Services lent to Caspian Republic The Government appoint me Controller of Ordnance Difficulties The arsenals, armament, and ammunition The Armenians Project to cut Turk communications Constant attacks Decide to withdraw Government refuses to consent Prospects of capture Plan to blow up ammunition Turks hesitate Resistance continued -- I acquire a German flat The end approaches
ON August 3rd, having been warned to 'stand by' some days before, I received orders to muster my convoy outside Kasvin City, at the Enzeli (the Caspian road) Gate at daybreak on August 7th, and to halt and camp for the night at Menjil, about eighty miles below, at the commencement of the second and lower half of the pass, where also I was to collect some more cars and men and carry on next day to the sea.
Accordingly, at daybreak, we mustered, and I could then see what kind of an outfit I was going to have. It was ever so much better than I was expecting, as sixty to eighty cars turned up, each with at least two rifles and some with three, also one genuine armoured car, which was, of course, a tower of strength in itself. And I further found there were several other machine-guns scattered about the column, so that we had, roughly, about 120 men and a pretty tough lot they looked -- good British troops with a sprinkling of Gurkhas amongst them, who are great fellows in a hill scrap, or, indeed, in any other, and whose 'kukris', or Nepaulese knives, had already established a most valuable reputation among the Jungalis.
The first twenty miles was over rolling uplands, by a good Russian-made road, to the head of the pass, where we must have been quite 6,500 feet above sea-level.
About fifteen miles down the pass we halted to close up stragglers, and the men ate their rations; whilst there, to my surprise, the Chief joined us in his car, and, having talked a few minutes and had a look round, he went on down the pass in front, entirely without escort. I supposed he knew all about it -- as in fact he did but it seemed to me to be an unhealthy kind of spot for him to be driving about without any form of escort, and I there-fore handed over the control of the convoy and pushed on after him as hard as I could go; this entailed some very fast and rough driving, which tested all my dummy car construction most effectively. He was, I remember, driving a 35-h.p. Vauxhall, with a good driver who knew the pass, and my Ford, light as it was, wanted a good deal of shaking up to keep in sight of him. However, we did keep him in sight, although it necessitated such hard and dangerous driving that even my cast-iron mechanic squirmed more than once the only time I ever knew him to do so, though subsequently he certainly had plenty of other excellent opportunities.
We caught the Chief at the river crossing three-parts down the first half of the pass, where he had halted to eat what he had with him, and we did likewise, having explained to him the reason of our having followed him so hard. He then informed me that our halfway post was only about ten miles in front, and that this upper part of the pass was clear of the enemy. So we waited there for the convoy to come in, and, having closed up the cars, we all got into camp together at dusk, on the site of the Battle of Menjil, which had taken place six weeks before.
At daylight we found our party nearly doubled, so that we had about 135 cars and from 200 to 300 men to start away with down the lower pass.
The first portion of the lower pass, for about thirty miles, presented no difficulty, though the surrounding mountains, reaching, as they do, nearly perpendicularly up to r 1,000 and r2,000 feet, or even more, appeared to get higher and higher as we went down. However, the road was good and accidents few, and we halted at an old Russian military post halfway down about midday, having thus far seen no sign of an enemy. Here the danger-zone began, and the slopes became covered with thick forest jungle, so that we could only see a few yards from the roadside, and were absolutely at the mercy of any force firing upon us from the impenetrable thickets.
It was in this part that many convoys had been held up and parties, both British and Russian, wiped out by the Eastern gentlemen who, we felt sure, were now observing us from the thick undergrowth on both sides of the road. Nowhere in any part of the world have I seen a road which lent itself so well to defence, nor where an attempt to force a passage had less chance of success in the face of any determined opposition. For not only was it impossible to see in any direction on the hillside out of which the road was cut, but the road itself was absolutely commanded from the woods on the steep slope across the river, hardly a quarter of a mile distant, where a few machine-guns would have been very difficult to locate, and could have made it impossible for anyone to live for five minutes on the road we were to follow.
Such was, then, the appetizing prospect before us after lunch! Before starting, I went all round the convoy, impressing upon all hands, in the first place the necessity of keeping 'closed up', with no gaps in the column, and in the second that in the event of our being attacked advantage should be instantly taken of any place where the road was in the nature of a 'cutting', and the cars then run in close under the banks, and as soon as might be possible an advance could then be made into the scrub, which it would be necessary to clear by hand-to-hand fighting.
This having been thoroughly explained and understood, I sought out the Chief, and, reporting 'All ready,' got his order to proceed. Having loaded my guns, I then drove slowly along the whole length of the column, from rear to front, and took my place at the head to lead them through.
We went off very slowly at first, but after a while faster, until the speed was as great as could be maintained without 'opening out' the column. We soon began to come on signs of the fate of previous convoys in the shape of remains of cars and lorries, scattered cartridge-cases, a few corpses, and all the usual signs of a scrap. However, as we got deeper and deeper into the jungle without any sign of an enemy, a certain disappointment began to creep over us all, until, halfway up a very steep hill in the middle of the very densest part of the forest, I suddenly stopped short! In a second every car behind edged to the bank and every rifle was at the ready. As I jumped out, the General's car tore up from its position just behind my advance-guard of six cars, and he very unconcernedly asked me, 'What is it you see?' and when I said;
'Nothing, sir,' he said, 'Why, then, do you halt in this infernal position?' I replied, `I don't halt, sir, but my car does, and won't go on;' and, so saying, I jumped into the next car following; and off we moved again, leaving my mechanic, much to his disgust, to see what the matter was, and to bring the car and guns on after us as soon as possible.
After about twenty miles of these densely wooded hillsides, we reached a large open space at the foot of the hills, and halted there for about half an hour to receive reports from the forest plain in front, where scouts had been sent out from our posts at Resht. Everything appearing satisfactory, we carried straight on through a densely wooded country, seeing many traces of fighting, burnt buildings, etc., till at last the country, becoming sandy, gave evidence of the proximity of the sea, and finally we saw the blue, blue waters of the Caspian shining brightly in the evening sun. We halted on the banks of the harbour of Enzeli-Kazian about an hour before sunset, after an interesting but entirely uneventful drive of about eighty miles from Menjil through seemingly impossible country. It appears that the fame of our armoured (?) cars and machine-guns had preceded us, and that the wild Jungalis were actually present in force in the woods through which we had passed. Yet because of the exaggerated tales they had heard, and the apparent strength of our party, their 'discretion', let us call it, got the better of their valour, and not one of them had ventured in any way to betray his presence!
The port of Enzeli-Kazian is the only port on the Caspian coast of Persia, or at any rate the only one of any importance, and its situation is rather peculiar. The high mountains here recede from the coast, leaving a strip of marshy and extremely fertile but unhealthy plain, averaging about forty miles deep, between the mountains and the southern shore of the sea, for a distance of over too miles. This is the Persian province of Gilan; and though it has at various times since the days of the earlier Czars been occupied by the Russians, yet it has always in the end been evacuated on account of its pestiferous climate, which renders any lengthy residence fatal to Europeans. The port itself is nothing but a narrow channel which connects a large lagoon, many square miles in extent, with the sea, and the old town of Enzeli and the more modern Kazian lie respectively on the western and eastern points of the two spits of land which enclose the lagoon, the modern Russian road (by which we had come) following the eastern spit of land to Kazian, whence the old town of Enzeli is seen across the narrow waterway.
Before the road was made the oversea traffic from Persia to Baku and the other Caspian ports was conducted by lighters, which traversed the lagoon from Resht at its southern shore to Enzeli, where their cargoes were shipped on sea-going vessels. To-day, however, this form of transport is comparatively neglected, and such trade as may be carried on uses the road.
Within the few preceding weeks the Armenians in Baku had succeeded in ousting the Bolsheviks from power in that city, and were now even more anxious to procure what assistance might be obtainable from us than the Bolsheviks had previously been to prevent our advance. Under these circumstances it was decided to do what might be possible for their assistance, and a small body of about seventy British troops had, when we reached the coast, already crossed the sea as an earnest of further assistance, and more were to follow as and when opportunity offered.
Kazian in August remains always in my mind as the hottest place I have ever been in, and also the most unhealthy. One there has to resist the very worst form of damp heat; and in the only concrete building in the place I have seen the thermometer at 138°, with the moisture streaming down the walls. It will therefore surprise no one to learn that sickness was rife, and that many cases had serious results, which sadly depleted our already very limited resources of man-power, and so made our difficult task even more arduous.
One most acceptable item of news we learnt on arrival namely, that the Baku Bolsheviks had consented to supply us with, and had actually forwarded for our use, large quantities of petrol in exchange for quite a small number of motor cars which were to be forwarded from Baghdad. This was good news indeed, and the cars forming my late convoy left at once, on their return journey, each carrying a load of fifty gallons of petrol in a good steel drum, so that we could now expect that our much-needed reinforcements and stores would speedily appear on the scene.
On the night of August 14th I was shown an empty oil-tank steamer and given charge of a detachment of about seventy British troops to get on board and across to Baku as quickly as might be possible by that means. We got them all on board that night, and I could well understand the surprised expression which showed itself on every countenance when they saw the transport so different from any other of which they had had experience.
Our tank was, indeed, just an iron tank, more or less in the shape of a ship, with some indifferent engines at the stern. The iron top of the tank itself formed the deck, and also the entire accommodation for passengers, or anything else, with not even an apology for a bulwark round it to prevent men, kit, or animals slipping over the side into the sea. Also, whenever the sun shone, which was pretty nearly all the time, the iron became too hot to bear one's hand on, and rendered sitting on it a delicate and far from comfortable proceeding. This contrivance was said, in a cairn sea, to be capable of about five knots per hour as a maximum speed, which optimistic estimate I very much doubt the truth of, although we were, on this trip, never in a position to verify or refute the statement, the 'calm sea' being conspicuous by its absence during this passage. In fact, it blew so hard on the first day that we could get no pilot to undertake to take our crazy conveyance over the nasty 'bar' at the harbour mouth. When at daylight of the 16th we did finally get 'out' the seas ran so high that even the pilot's frantic desire to return to his family and friends ashore was not a sufficiently powerful inducement to persuade him to take the chance of drowning by getting into a boat, and he therefore was obliged to accompany us on the 300-mile crossing to Baku.
The iron deck, such as it was, was liberally furnished with rings and 'cleats' of various kinds, and we got some 'poles' on board, not of the human, but of the forest variety, and these we securely lashed to the deck, and everything movable, including my two cars, was firmly lashed to them. After that operation had been satisfactorily concluded, we proceeded to see what provision had been made for rations for the men.
I found some terribly disconsolate-looking faces, the owners of which pointed out three sheep which had been driven on board at the last moment, saying they didn't know what they were for, and they had had no rations issued for the journey except some local black bread! This and their hopeless expression of countenance when I told them the sheep were their rations tickled my sense of humour, so that I laughed heartily, and said if they'd bring one along to my car, which had now become my cabin, I'd show them how to skin and cut them up, of which very ordinary operation they were profoundly ignorant. The sea, however, was getting worse and worse, and the men getting greener and greener, so that it became evident that the question of eating would be sub-ordinated to the endeavour to retain what they had eaten before starting. In the meanwhile it rained in torrents, and as the weather got worse rather than better those sheep were not touched till we reached Baku on the morning of the third day.
The Caspian Sea is, roughly, 750 miles long and averages about 350 miles in width, and as unpleasant rough weather is to be found there as on any other sea that I have experience of, and in our exposed position on our wallowing tank we got the full benefit of it. My car also underwent a trial of a kind I had never contemplated when constructing her, as she was called upon to resist the waves breaking over us. However, she stood it well, a fact of the utmost importance to myself; as I was camped inside of her and never moved out during the passage.
Baku Harbour is as fine an anchorage as exists anywhere. The main harbour is a deep bay running inland about fifteen. miles, the mouth of the bay being a little less than that distance across, blocked up by a large island which leaves only a narrow channel at either end, the southern entrance only being used for navigation, and this affords, as we were to find out later on, a passage, only a quarter of a mile wide, of deep water.
The town, a somewhat pretentious one, in European style, with many fine modern buildings, occupies low-lying ground gradually sloping upwards from the sea-front to the sharp ridges which encircle the town at a distance from two to three miles inland. The sea-front is well supplied with piers and quays, and the front itself extends about four miles. We came in at day-light, and moored alongside a pier, on August 17th, and the men joined their units at once, whilst I reported at Headquarters for duty. A few words will here be necessary to describe the actual position of affairs in the town of Baku at that time, and the manner in which that situation had been brought about.
Previous to the final success of the Bolshevik movement in Russia, a very considerable proportion of the arms and munitions obtained by the Czar's Government from the Allies had been transported to the Caucasus, with the double object of supplying the Grand Duke Nicholas's force operating in Persia and Anatolia, and at the same time of keeping the armament out of the hands of the Bolsheviks in Central Russia, as it was believed that there were great chances of the Transcaucasian provinces holding out against the Bolshevik movement. This belief, however, proved to be a delusion, and the Bolsheviks, under Comrades Shaumian and Petrov, obtained control in Baku. This state of affairs continued until the end of July, when a revolution took place in the town, and the Bolshevik Government was replaced by another body calling themselves the 'Central Caspian Dictatorship', who had invited us to come to their assistance in resisting the Turkish attacks on the city. Comrades Shaumian and Petrov, the defeated Bolsheviks, on the overthrow of their Government, seized thirteen ships in the harbour, and having loaded them with the entire contents of the arsenals and all the munitions and other loot that they could lay hands on, embarked their Red supporters and set sail for Astrakan, at the mouth of the great Volga River, at the northern extremity of the Caspian, which was then the great Bolshevik centre in Southern Russia.
The new Government in Baku, however, succeeded in prevailing upon the gunboats guarding the port, which were manned by Bolsheviks of a different brand, to intercept the thirteen ships, and eleven of them were obliged to return and disgorge their cargoes of munitions and general loot. These, at the time of our arrival, were lying heaped in inextricable confusion upon the quays at the custom house.
The new Government consisted of five Dictators, and relied upon the support of the more moderate Russians and the Armenians in approximately equal numbers, the very consider-able Tartar (Moslem) population looking on only, but with very strong Turkish sympathies.
In the meanwhile the Turks, with the assistance of a German commander and many German staff officers, were investing the whole peninsula, and at the time of our arrival some kind of resistance had been organized by the new Government, and a line occupied resting its left flank on the sea, three or four miles south of the town, and extending a distance of about twelve miles in a northerly direction. This line, although it covered the actual town, still left a gap of about seven miles between its northern end and the sea, and therefore did not adequately defend the peninsula and the oil-wells which form its greatest asset.
The troops or, more properly, the local levies available to hold this line were, when we arrived, about 6,000 men, in some twenty battalions of 200 to 400 men each, consisting of Armenians and Russians entirely wanting in discipline, experience, and, most important of all, any fighting instinct. The investing force consisted of two regular Turkish divisions and about an equal number of irregulars, the whole amounting to a force of about 30,000, with artillery which, if not numerous, was yet extremely efficient, the force being well armed throughout and well supplied with German machine-guns and ammunition.
Such, then, was the problem before us as our small force came dribbling into the beleaguered city.
Upon reporting at our Headquarters, I was asked if I could undertake the duty of enumerating and organizing the ordnance resources of the new Republic. This included armament of all kinds, ammunition, explosives, and every variety of equipment, and in view of the absolute state of chaos existing at the moment, it appeared to be an almost impossible undertaking in the short time during which it seemed likely we should be able to defend the town. However, I immediately expressed my readiness to under-take anything, and to do my best; so it was agreed that my services should be 'lent' to the new Caspian Government for this special service, and a note to that effect was forwarded to the Dictators, with the result that within an hour I found myself in the presence of General Bogratouni, the 'Minister of War'.
This officer (an Armenian, and the only one of that race for whom I have, at any time, entertained any respect) had served in the Imperial Army of Russia, in which he had attained the rank of General. He was at this time suffering severely from the after-effects of an indifferently performed amputation of the leg, which had been seriously injured by shell-fire some time previously.
In spite of his suffering, he was doing heroic work, and was the only man of decision whom I came across, and his orders were obeyed promptly, which is more than can be said of those of any of his colleagues. He invested me with the proud title of 'Controller-General of the Ordnance', and gave me the fullest powers of control over all arsenals, factories, and stores of all kinds, at the same time placing the Russian General acting as Director of Artillery under my orders. I received, within half an hour of our interview, a commission from the Government to the above effect, signed by all the Dictators and Ministers and by the Commanderin-Chief. I promptly got to work, reporting progress personally to the Minister of War at 7.3o each evening from that time onwards, and always being able to count on his effective support.
The first step was to inspect what resources might exist in the town in the way of factories capable of producing shells, fuses, explosives, etc. Having had a rapid and general look round, I came at once to the conclusion that there would be nothing to be done in the way of the manufacture of anything in the time at my disposal, which I felt certain would be very limited. The town, however, I found to be full of ammunition, armament, and military equipment of all kinds, all scattered about in various places in hopeless confusion, for the safe keeping of which, apparently, no one had hitherto been responsible, no lists of it being in existence.
The next step was to get the whole lot of miscellaneous material together in one place. For this purpose I selected the custom house on the sea-front, some two miles from the main piers, and began assembling the material there on the first day after my arrival, continuing day and night till I had collected there at least the greater part of it. The custom house had many advantages, as it lay on the sea-front, with three piers of its own, the railway from the terminus being extended to it, and small trolley-lines running within its gates and so out on to the various piers.
The building itself was of one story only, and though large and straggling, yet enclosed a considerable space, within a solid wall which was capable of good defence, except to artillery fire. The best feature, however, was that, being in the very centre of the perimeter of the outside trench-line, it would be the last place to become accessible to the shell-fire which was to be expected as the enemy's lines approached the city.
The eleven ships which the Bolsheviks had been obliged to return had been brought back to the custom-house piers and made. to unload all the munitions (with which they had tried to get away) on to these piers. There they still lay, including guns of all kinds, and an enormous quantity of high-explosive ammunition, which, being without any guard, constituted a very real danger to the whole town.
In the face of all this confusion and without any assistance, it may be imagined that the task with which I found myself con-fronted. was one to fill me with despair; but fortunately that vice was omitted when my allowance of vices was served out, and therefore I returned forthwith to the Minister of War and asked for as many men as could be raised, not less than 200, anyway, of any sort or description, to handle the material, and as many reasonably competent Russian or even Armenian officers as could be spared, to be placed under my orders at once. Having immediately obtained a Russian officer as A.D.C. and a Russian barrister (who smelt of drink) as a secretary, I returned to my new-found arsenal to await events, and towards late afternoon a few, about six or eight, Russian and Armenian officers and N.C.O.S turned up, and we got to work. In the meanwhile, a crowd which defies description began to assemble at the gates, and these were the men procured to assist! They were all more than half-starved, and were of all nations: Russians, Armenians, Kurds, Tartars, Turcomans, Mongols, Persians, Dagistanis, and many more cross-bred by every description of cross-breeding between these races. All were in the last state of destitution, in rags and starving. The most pressing need therefore, was first of all to feed them.
I had been fortunate enough to obtain the use of a few Russian lorries to bring in the munitions from other parts of the town, and as they came in and unloaded they were immediately dispatched for bread, whilst I explained to my newly organized Ordnance Corps of astounding appearance that they would be promptly fed, which statement was received with much emotion. When, however, I went on to say that their pay would in future consist of food, and not money, the majority dissolved into tears, for food at that time was very hard indeed to come by, whereas money they all habitually stole, and they had never expected such consideration. The results were invaluable; work went ahead at an astonishing rate, and order soon began to evolve out of chaos.
There were, at the time I took over, about ten or twelve guns of various calibres and undoubted antiquity actually mounted in the line of defences, but I found scattered about approximately 120 others in various states of inefficiency, some wanting breech-blocks, others sights, and all with some indispensable portion missing. However, by improvising parts, rectifying adjustments, etc., we were soon successful in getting upwards of fifty guns in action, and before the final evacuation we actually had eighty-six guns in action in the line.
In the meanwhile the question of ammunition and its supply to the batteries and firing-line became acute. For though a colossal store of ammunition had been accumulated in the town, yet it had been under no sort of control, and not even listed or checked, so that every regimental or battery commander had both taken and fired or 'sold' whatever he wished, and the waste had been terrible. Now, however, I got it all counted and classified, and was truly astonished at its quantity and origin, which same remark applied to the guns themselves.
Amongst the guns were none larger than 6-inch, but this calibre was represented by the very best form of Krupp (German) mobile Q.F. howitzer. There were also, to my astonishment, a battery of four of the latest 1916 Creusot (French) long-range Q.F. 105-millimetre field-guns sighted to 14,500 metres, as fine a modern mobile gun as was to be found on any front at that time; and last, but not least, two of our own 4.5 howitzers, made by the Coventry Ordnance Works in 1916. This principal armament, with an infinite variety of Russian guns and howitzers and machine-guns of every kind, constituted, of course, our main means of defence, and the report I sent in, after going through these resources, had a very stimulating effect on the spirits of the Central Caspian Republic generally, which, indeed, was the principal intention with which it was prepared.
The ammunition amounted, without doubt, to a considerably greater quantity than could be found in the whole of Mesopotamia for the use of our troops. I counted up to well over 100,000 rounds of gun ammunition, mostly high-explosive, of English and French manufacture, and many millions of rounds of small-arm ammunition, much of which was manufactured by Rimington in U.S.A. and marked with broad arrow, 'Re-examined in England', the total amount being so great that it was useless to contemplate the moving of the vast quantities still lying on the pier into the arsenal, and it had therefore to lie where it was under guard, indeed, but exposed to every kind of danger both from theft or detonation.
In the meanwhile the British Headquarters had been established in the Hτtel de l'Europe, a large European hotel in the centre of the town, and the Chief had come over from Kazian.
Without going into details, it can be understood that attacks, more or less severe, were pretty frequent, and our line gradually fell back, as it was impossible to keep the town levies in the line. Though they would be there if there was any question of rations being issued, yet the moment they received them they slunk off back, by twos and threes, to the security of their various cellars and 'funk-holes' in the town. It is hard to describe the Caucasian Armenian's attitude towards fighting, as he seems in-capable of grasping the possibility of himself actually fighting, even in defence of his life; but an incident which actually happened may convey the correct impression.
On one occasion the Turks were threatening an attack on a portion of the line held by these heroes, who, as usual, executed a brilliant feu de joie by discharging their rifles with great gallantry into the empty air, from a position already well behind the line, as a preliminary to carrying out an equally brilliant but consider-ably more hurried move to the rear. As, however, this strategy on their part had not been unforeseen, a very considerable force of their relations had been massed in the vicinity as a reserve, and these gentlemen promptly received orders to advance. These they received fairly calmly, if without any great enthusiasm, until the point to which they were to advance was indicated to them, when the proposal was negatived instantly and unanimously. On being asked the reason why they should not advance to that particular spot, they replied, with hysterical laughter: 'Of course, we couldn't go there. Why, that is the very place to which the enemy is advancing!' What kind of a fight can be expected from soldiers (?) of this quality?
The days, however, slipped by, and it began to look as if, after all, the impossible might happen and we might be able to hold the town, as we had already received one reinforcement (only a battery, it is true) from Bicherakov's Russians farther up the coast, and more might come in at any moment. I therefore put before the Chief a proposition I had long been maturing, to take a small and very mobile force of six light cars, and ship them as if for return to Enzeli, but, in fact, to land them at a port called Kizil Agoutch, 120 miles down the coast, where there were no telegraphs, and to push across the open steppe there for i 5o miles, to reach and blow up the great railway bridge over the Koura River behind the Turks, and so cut their line of communication, ammunition supply, etc.
To my great delight, I received permission to organize and lead this expedition. In the necessary preparations I received the hearty co-operation of the 'Minister of War', who undertook to supply me with all particulars of the railway track, as well as with forged orders from the German Commander-in-Chief, bearing his seal and signature, instructing me to carry out a reconnaissance in that district. Of course, my part was to figure as a German staff officer until the job was done, after which the matter would assume a less simple aspect, and we should be free to retreat in whatever direction might offer the best prospect of escape.
This, then, was the general position on August 31st, upon which day a more than usually severe attack upon our defences took place. I was most busily occupied all day in dealing out ammunition to the various dumps I had established behind the lines, and in refusing many hysterical demands for ridiculous quantities of ammunition, as well as in executing lightning repairs upon guns and armament of all kinds.
On the morning of this attack I had a very curious experience, which will be illuminating to those who have been fortunate enough to escape experience of the revolutionary Russian soldier.
Knowing that all my ammunition dumps had been filled up the night before, I was astounded, as soon as the attack began to develop, to receive frantic messages one after the other from a very vital part of the line stating the dumps were empty, the ammunition having been removed during the night by order of the Director-General of Artillery.
A General Officer under my orders immediately dispatched the entire reserve transport ready loaded with ammunition, which I always kept ready in case of emergency, and I proceeded myself to elucidate the mystery, which might easily have led to the loss of the town. I verified the fact that the ammunition for the supply of the forward batteries had been removed by the written order of the General in question, and that the carts removing it were strange to the officers in charge of the dumps, and had afterwards proceeded with their loads in the direction of the enemy's lines ! This confirmed certain suspicions which I had entertained for some time, but which had seemed to indicate a position which in my innocence I had. hitherto deemed an impossible one, but in coming to that conclusion it was now apparent that I had been wrong.
I therefore mustered the most reliable guard I could get together and, putting them in a lorry, took my own machine-gun car and proceeded direct to the quarters of the General who was responsible for the removal of the ammunition, telephoning to the Russian Commander-in-Chief at the same time requesting an immediate audience on an affair of the greatest urgency.
Having disembarked and paraded my guard before the General's quarters, I ordered him into my car, and never took my eyes off him till we were ushered together into the private office of the Commander-in-Chief, where I formally accused him of having sold the ammunition to the enemy! The Commanderin-Chief, knowing the type of man, to my great astonishment, was not the least surprised, but nevertheless, to my great satisfaction, he there and then deprived him of all authority, and he left the room a prisoner within five minutes, and the incident closed. It will, however, serve to illustrate the general state of affairs, and a small portion of the unheard-of difficulties which we were up against.
Late that evening, at g p.m., I went to the hotel for food, as usual, and there saw the Chief, who told me there was a gap some miles wide in the line, which our heroic allies were either unwilling or unable to fill, and that the town lay open to the Turks any moment they wished to march into it.
He also informed me that, under the circumstances, he had notified the Government of his intention to withdraw the troops. This cheerful information, imparted by him, in his own inimitable manner, entirely calm and with even a certain humorous reflection upon the quality of the forces whose salvation we had undergone such trials to assure, did not present the same picture which would have resulted from the news imparted by a less striking personality, and in no wise interfered with my enjoyment of my meagre repast. Soon after it was over, however, when he returned from a conference, things assumed a more serious aspect, as he then informed me that the Central Caspian had decided that, should the troops be embarked, the gunboats at the mouth of the harbour would have orders to fire on the ships and prevent their leaving! He therefore did not intend to take such a chance until absolutely obliged.
There was no need for him to explain that, should the Turks come in, this meant a Turkish prison for all of us, and he of course knew that we (the senior officers only were present) all understood very well; but I shall never forget the Chief's very gallant bearing on that occasion, for he had a kind word for all, and carried him-self in a way any man might be proud to do, in the face of the disaster which seemed certain to be the result of the whole enter-prise entrusted to him, and I must say that at that moment he commanded, more than ever, my deepest respect and sympathy.
Before getting off to my arsenal that night, I told the Chief I could make arrangements to blow up the whole of the ammunition then on the quays, to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy, and that if he authorized me to do so I would take the necessary steps the next morning, and lay the wires to one of the hulks I had at anchor in the harbour, from whence I would fire the charge at the proper time, without consideration of the damage which was sure to ensue in the town. Afterwards I would do my best to get away in a boat of some kind, as I preferred to take my chance at sea to the certainty of a Turkish prison. He agreed, and gave me permission to do whatever I thought best, and at my request said he would ask the Dictators to send me a Russian naval officer who might be able to procure me some kind of launch to get away with; and on that we parted for the night.
Next day the promised naval officer appeared, and I explained to him that it was my intention to transfer the greater part of the ammunition to hulks which I had at anchor in the harbour, as a measure of safety against the shelling now becoming daily more severe and accurate; and I asked him if he could secure me a launch to tow them to suitable positions and to be at my orders generally for this purpose. This was eventually agreed to, but such was the nervousness of these Bolsheviks that it was stipulated that their crew of five men should have entire charge of the launch, and that I should never embark with more than two men. To this I agreed at once, as five Bolshevik sailors presented no terrors to me; but I realized at once that we should have to knock them on the head to get away, though this did not appear to be at all beyond our powers; and having had a look at the gentlemen in question, I then felt even more sure of this, and reported to the Chief that the wires would be laid before dark, and I should be standing by to act on my own initiative at any moment.
During this eventful day the Turks, with the town at their mercy, were once more seized with an attack of diffidence. I have known this happen on several occasions, and it is a. national failing of their otherwise courageous and capable troops that when all is clear they often hesitate, not from any want of courage, but from a suspicion of some trap, though in a losing battle they will fight, as a rule, to the last extremity. On this occasion they hesitated to follow up their advantage, and in consequence we were eventually able to fill up the gap, and temporarily to 'breathe again'.
About this time, as the shelling became more accurate, the streets became more and more unsafe, and our Headquarters at the Hτtel de l'Europe suffered considerably; but these are the ordinary incidents of war, and in no way prevent the appreciation of any humorous situations which may occur, as the following story will well illustrate. On the transfer of headquarters from Persia to Baku, the British Consul at Resht, a first-class man and an excellent fellow in every way, was transferred to Baku to establish his Consular department there, which he did with great success, and was allotted quarters and offices in the same hotel which contained our military headquarters. He brought with him his staff of stenographers, who were of the female gender, all very skilled in the various languages of the Near East, being mostly themselves Russians, who had evidently been selected, also, with a view that their appearance should in no way 'offend the eye', but have rather the contrary effect! It may be easily understood that the presence of this bevy of beauties at meal-times in no way incommoded the military staff, with whom their engaging manners soon rendered them universally popular.
The star amongst them was, I think, of Circassian parentage, with a wealth of golden hair, which, as she explained, owing to the great heat, she was unable to bear .coiled round her head, so that she wore it hanging in all its glory down her back and over her shoulders, confined only by a suitable ribbon. This wonderful chevelure reached far below her waist, and formed the most attractive sight to be seen at meal-times, and the lady was the observed of all observers, and would undoubtedly have constituted what is called a 'feature' at any beauty show in Europe. Now to the real story.
One night a 6-inch high-explosive shell hit the hotel during the early hours of the morning, and completely wrecked that portion in which were situated the quarters of one of our senior officers, a very popular character with the whole staff. Search was at once made, but, the whole wing being in ruins, no sign could be found of his remains, so that when I arrived for dιjeuner at midday I was told the news, and many nice things were said about him, and his loss was sincerely mourned. Our friend of the glorious hair was also at dιjeuner at another table, and as I knew our absent comrade was a great friend of hers, I took a good look at her, and noticed that, apart from trying to catch the conversation at our table, she was otherwise quite unconcerned, and looked, if any-thing, more attractive than ever.
In the middle of our lunch the door suddenly opened, and who should walk in but our friend himself, whose sad fate we had just been mourning. He advanced quite unconcernedly and took his usual place at our senior officers' table, being instantly greeted by a chorus of congratulations upon his escape. 'What escape?' was his surprising answer; and he was immediately told that we had been searching the ruins of his quarters to find some part of him which we could bury with suitable honours. 'My quarters!' he said in astonishment, and then relapsed into silence and listened to the whole story without making any further remark. His unexpected action set us all thinking; and glancing up at our friend of the golden hair, and observing the most becoming exhibition of the rosiest of blushes with which she had now become suffused,
I made no remark at all, but got up and went about my business, having a shrewd suspicion that the report, subsequently made, 'that our friend's escape was due entirely to the good fortune which kept him absent from his quarters that night' was a description of the incident which it would be truly difficult to surpass.
I now began to find that the open ruins and waste ground which surrounded the arsenal, where I slept each night, were not at all an unmixed blessing, as I was invariably fired at there each time I returned after dark, though I never did so at night except in my car. I also noticed every night a considerable amount of desultory firing took place on the ground in question, and each morning there was more or less ghastly evidence of murders of various sorts done there during the night. I therefore applied to the Minister of War of the Republic for permission to requisition a flat in a large, strong building overlooking both the open space and the arsenal. This flat had belonged to a German, and, though now closed, looked as if it would suit me much better to sleep in than my office in the arsenal. The Minister immediately granted my request and signed my requisition, so, taking my driver and another pretty tough British soldier with me, I proceeded to take possession.
When, however, I got on to the landing on to which my desirable flat opened, I found the great doors securely fastened; and whilst I was standing deliberating how to get in, the door of the other flat on the same landing opened, and an immaculately dressed gentleman of obvious Armenian extraction presented himself and inquired my business. This was soon explained and my requisition shown, upon which he retorted that he was the owner of the building, that the flat was closed, and he could not allow me to go in. However, I was little inclined to stand talk of that kind from any Armenian at that time, and I told him very briefly but quite plainly that he could go at once to the very hot place for which he was certainly eventually bound; and at the same time I ordered my men to fetch their entrenching pickaxes from the car and to break the door in. This gave them intense satisfaction, and in a moment the whole building was echoing to the smashing blows of the pickaxes and the sound of splintering wood!
The noise was, in fact, considerable, and rang through the empty house, to our entire satisfaction; but the effect on the Armenian was as excellent an illustration of that race's peculiar nervous organization as one could ever wish to see. The sight of force being used has the same effect on Armenians as on rabbits, and this man crouched down just like a rabbit and turned as white as a sheet, apparently suffering from some kind of heart attack of which we, of course, took not the least notice till at last he crawled across the landing and, grasping my knees, assured me that if I would only stop my terrifying actions and the dreadful noise, which his nerves could not endure, he would go round and get in by the back door, of which he had the key in his pocket all the time, and would then open the front door for us. In this manner we obtained possession of a very fine flat, looking out over the arsenal on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other, its only drawback being that at night it was advisable not to stand at a lighted window, as the gentlemen who frequented the ruins opposite acquired an unpleasant habit of shooting at any of my windows which showed a light.
In the meanwhile the situation in the lines was going from bad to worse, and it was becoming daily more clearly evident that we could not hope to hold the town much longer with the limited forces at our disposal.
Adventures In The Near East:
Eastward Bound To The Tigris
Mesopotamia, The Land Of The Rivers
Persia: The Road And The Famine
The Caspian Sea - Advance To, Relief Of, And Siege Of Baku
Evacuation - The Steamer Armenian
Homeward Bound The Armistice
Intelligence In Transcaucasia (february To August, 1919.)
East Again - Salonika, Constant, And Batoum
The Caucasus - After The Armistice
Eastern Anatolia - Trebizond And Erzeroum
Read More Articles About: Adventures In The Near East