Evacuation - The Steamer Armenian
( Originally Published 1923 )
Enemy shelling Work of the Armenian Preparations for raid on enemy communications Turk deserter's information The final attack Preparations for evacuation State of the quays Guarding the arsenal pier I traverse the quays to obtain reinforcements Our H.Q. sentries Permission to shift for myself Arrangement of signal A quick and lucky shot The Commissaire --His treatment Getting the breech-blocks Massacre by Tartars Withdrawal of our last pickets The Turks in the town Withdraw my guard from pier Another Commissaire The Armenian casts off The hospital ship passes The anchor is lost Find and speak the Kruger at last Follow her out Trouble on board Challenged by the guardships They open fire Trouble with the captain Trouble with the crew At sea Triumphal entry into port The Chief's congratulations
DURING the early days of September the Turks' shelling of the city became much more severe, and as the lines were drawn in nearer the city, they were able to search out our Headquarters and ships with greater ease and accuracy. My ammunition dumps became liable to be hit and blown up at any moment, and it was evident the hour was close at hand when further defence would become impossible.
Under these circumstances I took great pains to embark as much ammunition as possible on old hulks which were anchored in the harbour, which we could sink on the fall of the town. My plans had been so made that I had at my disposal a small Russian steamer, curiously enough named the Armenian, of about 20o tons, which I made use of daily in shipping the ammunition out to the hulks. Flying the Bolshevik flag, and being manned by Bolshevik sailors, who acted under the orders of the Caspian Government, its movements created little, if any, uneasiness in the minds of the Dictators, and each day on its return to its moorings I saw to it that an ever-increasing stock of selected munitions remained in the hold, instead of being distributed on board the hulks. As its loading was a daily occurrence, no suspicion of my intentions was aroused even in the minds of the captain and crew, and in a few days I succeeded in having it full to the hatches with a selection of the best high-explosive ammunition in the town, which it was my intention to endeavour to save from the Turks.
These were in the nature of precautionary measures, however, and during this period, in the hope that some chance of the' arrival of reinforcements, or any of the many unexpected happenings whose occurrence is the only certainty in war, might enable us to continue our apparently impossible defence, the preparations for the carrying out of the raid upon the enemy's communications which I had been authorized to undertake were pushed on with feverish energy.
The party was to be confined to six cars and the personnel was to be limited to sixteen officers and men all told, with one machine-gun to each car. Each man was carefully selected, and to all was explained what it was intended should be done, and what their own duties would be in every possible eventuality. I also gave them elaborate lectures on the possibilities for our escape offered by the surrounding country, in case the only chance of safety we might have, after the event, should prove to be by means of a general dispersal in all directions, in which case some at least, if they knew the country, might have a reasonable chance of reaching some of the friendly Kurdish tribes on the Persian frontier, from 200 to 300 miles distant.
Good maps of the country were put at our disposal by the Minis-ter of War, who most heartily approved of our plans, and the lie of the whole country and: the exact position of our objective (the main railway bridge) was carefully explained to the whole party. It was our intention to use nothing but gun-cotton, and the charges were prepared with a large plan of the bridge in front of us, each man being shown what his particular task would be, and the manner in which it should be carried out, including the placing of the detonators and the leading of the wires.
We had been supplied with a detailed sketch of the defences of the bridge (held by forty second-line Turkish troops with machine-guns), but from these (if under our German uniforms we could once get close up to them) we did not anticipate any very serious resistance. The telegraph-wires were, of course, first to be cut on the Baku side of the river, and as, once the bridge was down, no pursuit could come from the other bank, we had great hopes that we might be successful in getting away to the mountains in the south well ahead of any pursuing force.
Our greatest difficulty lay in the 'getting there', as there were two large rivers, the Aras and the Koura, to cross during our 150 miles' dash over the open country which lay between the coast at the point where we were to land and the bridge which we hoped to destroy. Neither of these rivers was anywhere bridged, and as it was too much to reckon on being able to obtain a ferry-boat, we constructed and tested large bags of leather, which we were to carry with us and to inflate with our tyre pumps on the river bank, it being intended to float the cars over by that means.
All these preparations were made with the utmost secrecy, and the closest attention was given to every detail. Throughout we kept in the closest touch with the Minister of War, who provided us with German passes and who obtained for me the cap and coat of a German staff officer. He also detailed to accompany us an Armenian officer, lately deserted from the Turks, who still had his Turkish uniform and had been born and bred on the open plain which we should have to traverse, and so would prove an admirable guide to the party. On the i i th I was at last in a position to report to the Chief that we were ready, and our departure was fixed for daylight on the 13th.
During this time affairs in the town had become much worse, and the shelling had necessitated the changing of our Headquarters, which had suffered considerably: the moorings of our ships were also changed and brought a few hundred yards nearer the arsenal. The streets had also become even more unsafe, and one could read on many faces of the Tartar population their impatience to get to work on the loot and general massacre which they felt to be growing imminent.
On the 12th an Armenian officer deserted from the Turks and came into our lines. This man was personally known to the Minister of War, who was confident we could rely upon the information he gave us to the effect that he had remained with the Turks till their plans for the final attack and the time at which it was to be delivered had definitely been decided on; and as the time fixed was at daylight on the 14th, he had now come in to warn his countrymen.
This was definite and reliable news at last, and the first effect was that the orders for my departure on the 13th were cancelled, as, unless the attack could be satisfactorily repulsed, which was very doubtful, my success, even if achieved, would come too late to be of any service. This was a great disappointment, but one over which there was no time to mourn, as I received the news only at 5 p.m., and was hard at work all night and the next day with my preparations to meet the attack. We observed no signs of the enemy's intentions until, as the sky began to get grey before dawn on the 14th, every gun in his lines suddenly opened fire and his columns advanced to the attack!
In the first wave of their advance the Turks captured a vital post in the centre of our line; every effort we could make was then instantly concentrated on an endeavour to induce our Armenian allies to deliver the counter-attack which was necessary to recover this post entirely without success, as the levies simply melted away when it was attempted to concentrate them for this purpose, and the Turks, therefore, were able to retain this vital post through out the day. Our own handful of British troops fought as only they can fight, and both officers and men upheld that day, against overwhelming odds, the very highest traditions of the British Army.
Receiving, as I did, constant information from all parts of the line, mostly accompanied by fantastic requests for ammunition, I came to the conclusion before midday that our position would soon become untenable, and I therefore concentrated my energies on an endeavour to save as much of the munitions under my care as might be possible.
To that end all my men were set to work to load the little steamer Armenian with as much as she could carry of those munitions which would be of the greatest value to us and the greatest loss to the enemy. The hold, thanks to my previous precautions, already contained many thousands of rounds of the best of the high-explosive ammunition, and we now proceeded to embark the most valuable of the guns which happened at that time to be in the arsenal under repair, as well as case after case of gun spare parts, special tools, etc. Many truck-loads of small-arms ammunition were also embarked, so that when, about 4.30 p.m., the British officer commanding the town personally told me evacuation had been decided on, my own preparations were already far advanced.
As dusk began to fall, I sallied forth along the quay to report to the Chief, then on board his ship the Kruger resisting hysterical and fantastic demands from the Government that our troops should not be withdrawn. The situation on the quays at that time was so remarkable that an attempt must be made to give some idea of it.
The arsenal pier, where my nondescript Ordnance Corps was hard at work loading the Armenian, was between a quarter and half a mile from the piers where the Kruger lay. The only men upon whom I could really rely (my two drivers and my batman) were busily occupied holding the shore end of the arsenal pier with fixed bayonets against a crowd of terrified refugees who were attempting to rush the pier, with the probable intention of boarding the Armenian.
My little car was drawn up in support of the men, with its machine-guns covering the roadway leading from the quay to the pier. The quays along the whole sea-front were black with a frantic crowd, consisting largely of local levies who had bolted from the lines and were now endeavouring to embark on any kind of vessel which they might be able to reach.
This crowd, most of whom carried arms, was in a state of abject terror, and interspersed amongst them were large numbers of the Tartar (Mohammedan) population, whose sympathies were with the Turks, and who were prowling about, licking their lips at the prospect of a real hectic night after their own hearts, in which these runaway heroes and their women-kind were 'cast' for the most sensational parts. All was absolute confusion, from which rose a fearsome and indescribable noise, comprising every sound from the shrieking and moaning of the women to the fierce guttural oaths of the Tartars, all punctuated by constant reports of fire-arms and the occasional 'boom' of the bursting shells which were now falling on the houses near by.
My note says 'I did not much like the look of things', which I should now say was an extremely moderate statement, and also that 'I doubted the ability of my three men to hold the pier', So much was that so, that I installed a Russian officer, upon whom I could place a certain amount of reliance, in my car, with orders to use the machine-guns if necessity arose, and I instructed my drivers to rally on the car if necessary, but only to drive it down the quay towards the Armenian as a last resource, as that would probably mean the loss of the ship and all her valuable cargo.
Having given these orders, I pulled out my good Colt automatic pistol, and started through the crowd for the Chief's ship, to obtain what reinforcements and orders might be available. As evening strolls on seaside promenades go, this one I should imagine to be unique, and 'incidents' were frequent. One .of them, with a German officer attended by eight Bolshevik sailors, was particularly sharp and decisive, and I am convinced that my quick and lucky shot which killed him and stampeded his Bolshevik escort undoubtedly saved my life, as no prisoners were being taken that night. It was with great relief that I finally saw the stalwart forms of our most self-possessed British sentries guarding the palisaded entrance to the other pier where our ships lay. Great fellows they were, who presented arms to me with exactly the same precision as if they had been on the barrack gate at home, in spite of the expression of astonishment on their faces at my appearance from the crowd 'alone' at that moment.
The Chief was, as usual, quite calm, but badgered to death by Dictators, Commissaires, and such-like undesirables. In a few words I informed him that I thought I might be able to 'get away' independently of the other troops and to save a lot of most valuable munitions if he could give me a picket of some sort and any indication of the course to steer in going out. It was then arranged that as soon as it was dark he should hoist three lights at his mast-head, which signal had already been agreed on to serve our troops as a rallying-point for stragglers, and that the lowering of these lights was to be his signal to me that he was under way and going out, and that I was then to follow as best I could. He gave me a picket of four men all that could then be spared and with this powerful detachment, having fixed bayonets, I made my way back as fast as possible, the return journey with this party being a very much easier one than had been my arrival unaccompanied.
On our return a certain expression of relief was to be observed on the faces of my men, as they had barely been able to maintain their position, and were surrounded by a shrieking, hysterical mob of the worst description. However, with the welcome reinforcement of four new heroes, we knew our pier would be for a time in safety, and I went off at once myself to attend to more urgent matters.
The most pressing of these was to get hold of the breech.. blocks of any guns in the line which could be got at. This was undertaken at once, and an amazing experience it proved, Every approach to the town from the lines was at this time choked with Central Caspian troops in every phase of disorganization and panic, all converging upon the town; and to get through in the other direction was well-nigh impossible, as Turk skirmishers were following up closely and the firing was incessant.
Night was rapidly falling, and we found the higher parts of the town already in possession of the enemy, whilst bands of looting and bloodthirsty Tartars were, in all directions, breaking into Armenian houses, from which heartrending screams immediately issued. However, we concentrated on carrying out our own particular duty, and in about three-quarters of an hour got back to the neighbourhood of the quay, having in the car the breech-blocks of nineteen of the best of the guns of the defences, and especially of the 6-inch Krupp howitzers.
Just before we reached the quays we found the street corners still being held by a few pickets of our troops, the last to fall back, and we stopped a while with them to observe the course things were taking. At this time fires, were breaking out in many places, and the Tartars were everywhere busy at their fiendish work; but although our men kept the streets immediately in front of their own posts clear, the rabble obtained entry at the rear of the houses, and horrible tragedies were being enacted all round us, evidence of which was again and again furnished by the descent of some horribly mutilated body into the streets from the upper windows, whilst our men lay at the street corners firing from behind the sandbags, which they carried with them, in their retreat.
The quays were blocked by a mob of terrified inhabitants crowded right down to the' water's edge, and every boat that could be found was crammed with people seeking safety on board the hulks lying out in the harbour. Shelling had in the meantime ceased, and the Turks, as they obtained possession of the town, were establishing order at the point of their bayonets. As soon as news was received that our wounded were safe on board, I scribbled a note to our Chief of the Staff, instructed the last pickets to fall back on the ships, and made off to the arsenal pier to see after my own particular task. It was indeed time to do so, as our small cordon could have held the pier for only a very short time longer.
The reappearance of the car, however, eased the very dangerous position at the arsenal pier, and shortly after I received a visit from one of the Commissaires (high officials) of the Government. I received him on board the Armenian, which I had had pushed out some ten feet or more from the quay, with which it was now only connected by a somewhat insecure plank which served as a gang-way. He related to me with much gusto that the Government had heard we intended putting to sea, but that we were not to be allowed to do so, as the gunboats had received orders to fire upon the Armenian should she try to break out which fire, considering the nature of her cargo, would quite certainly 'blow her up'.
This piece of news, in no way unexpected by me, gave him such intense satisfaction that he repeated it twice, whilst I kept my attention fixed upon my men at the junction of our pier and the quays, which I could see through the window, where I saw my most reliable man at that moment leaving his post and hurrying towards the ship, evidently with news. As he stepped up on to the bridge, where my cabin was, I turned to the Commissaire, and this time the gusto was all on my side, and remarked that what he said about taking the ship out was perfectly correct, and that such was my intention, and that it was more than possible his realistic picture of the ship 'blowing up' was equally correct, which grieved me much for his sake, as under no circumstances could I allow him to leave the ship, and that if she did blow up, he would quite certainly be blown up with her!
With the same breath I called to my man, whom I could then hear outside. He at once appeared at the door, all rifle and bayonet, with his eyes shining in their eager search for the first object into which he could legitimately thrust that weapon; and I then ordered him to guard the cabin, and on any attempt on the part of the Commissaire to get out or to communicate with anyone, to shoot him at once. Having got this off my chest, I proceeded down the pier to the shore-end, where my picket was still holding its own, though with difficulty, and where I understood a second Commissaire had now arrived and was clamouring to pass the picket with a message to me from the Dictators.
This Dictator I knew to be a thorough Bolshevik, and suspected of the intention of making me trouble with the Russian crew of the Armenian, who already looked quite 'nasty' enough; so, although I greeted him politely, I told him that if he had any message for me from the Government, I could only receive it on board the ship, which I was willing to do if he would come on board. On his agreeing, I led the way on board over our slender plank, and, opening the cabin door, assisted him to enter in a very decisive manner, my difficulty being to confine my per-suasive methods to my hand only, as every nerve in my body was tingling with longing to make use of my foot also. Before he recovered himself, I told my man very curtly: 'If there's any trouble with these blighters, shoot them both, as I shall now draw the men on board and get under way, if I can.'
Returning then to our small picket, through which some of the most venturesome on the quay were now beginning to worm their way on to the pier, I gave orders to the car to back down to the ship, keeping the guns trained on the pier, and to get on board, at the same time announcing we should shoot any man who ventured to follow us. We then commenced our retreat in the direction of the ship.
Such was the respect which our confident attitude, backed by bayonets and a machine-gun, as well as by my Colt automatic, still in my hand (where it had been the greater part of the evening and appeared likely to remain all night), that the mob did not attempt to follow us, but remained where they were, whilst all those who had forced their way through our line found their retreat to the shore cut off, and these we forced on board in front of us literally at the point of our bayonets.
I had foreseen the eventual necessity of this manoeuvre for some time; and my one object was to prevent definite news of our departure reaching the Government in time for them to notify the gunboats to get their big guns and searchlights uncased, as with their smaller ordnance only in action, and without search-lights, on a pitch-dark night, I thought we might possibly have a chance, even if only a meagre one, of getting through. Anyway, such chance as we might find we were all prepared to take, whatever it might be, sooner than accept the certainty of a Turkish prison, even if we might have the unlikely good fortune to survive the night ashore.
As soon as the last of our protesting prisoners had been shepherded on board, I placed my most gallant, fearless driver, Morris, on guard on the plank itself, with orders to bayonet anyone endeavouring to leave the ship, and then proceeded myself to cut the ropes mooring us to the pier. Whilst so employed, I happened to look up, and was instantly convulsed with laughter, for this is what I saw:
Over the famous plank which had replaced the ordinary gangway hung what is known as a 'nest' of electric lights, which are in general use for handling cargo at night, and which cast a bright light on objects immediately under them, in the same way as the 'spot' light does on the central figure on the stage at a theatre. In the centre of this brilliant illumination, and at the same time in the centre of the plank, stood our hero, with his bayonet gleaming and his knees bent, his rifle at the 'ready', and an expression of 'Let 'em all come' on his eager countenance which would alone have been quite sufficient to 'hold the bridge' without any arms at all! The whole effect was to me intensely entertaining, and I remember singing out to the others: 'He only needs the Union jack behind him and a band to play "Rule, Britannia" to make a matchless poster of the British Army!'
This sally for a moment distracted his attention from his plank, and at the same time a Kurd, seizing his one and only opportunity, endeavoured to dash by, and whilst so doing ran right on to the point of our hero's bayonet; this weapon, even if it was not pushed home, at any rate gave way not at all and the Kurd reeled back on the deck, where he proceeded to writhe about and emit a series of blood-curdling yells and groans. This was the very best thing which could possibly have happened, as the effect produced on the overstrained nerves of the crowd of Bolskevik riff-raff on board the ship was to the last degree gratifying, and in reality had much to do with our eventual success in overawing such a crowd -- all armed and openly our enemies, and numbering ninety-six to our picket of four men, two drivers, and one batman.
The ropes were soon cut, and having kicked the plank over-board I proceeded to the bridge, with my pistol in my hand, where stood a very sulky Russian captain. For the moment I took no notice of him, but busied myself giving orders as to the training of the machine-guns in the car to command the deck, and for the demolition outfit, consisting of six large cases of dynamite, to be brought up on to the bridge.
It will be necessary to give here some description of the ship on board which we now found ourselves. The Armenian was quite a small vessel, not exceeding 200 tons, built for general cargo, with one large hold, now full to the hatches with high explosives, extending from the bows right aft to the engines, which were placed at the extreme stern: with a kind of hurricane-deck aft, over them, in which were quarters of sorts for the crew, and on the top the bridge, with charthouse and one cabin, of which I immediately took possession, letting my now much less truculent prisoners the Commissaires loose, as soon as the ship was clear of the pier.
The deck extended from the bows right aft to the bridge, and was now encumbered with guns and munitions of all sorts, with many cases of high-explosives, for which there was no further room in the hold, whilst immediately under the bridge was my car, with its guns commanding the deck forward, upon which were crowded the miscellaneous herd of armed ruffians whom we had driven on board off the pier; and in the centre of the bridge, over the wheel, burned an electric light, which, whilst it lit up the bridge and all on it, only enabled me from there to discern a vague dark mass on the deck, from which an ugly muttering was rising. This appeared a very disadvantageous position, as we on the bridge should be at the mercy of any shots from the deck, which might be expected at any moment.
I therefore had the dynamite-cases brought up, and, letting it be known what they consisted of, had a barricade built of them along the rail of the bridge in front of the wheel, which barricade rose to our chests, but easily permitted us to see over. The captain looked on at this manoeuvre with the deepest interest and with the sweat running down his forehead, and I took the trouble to have each case opened and the contents verified before it was placed in position, at the same time placing a small fulminate detonator inside the lid of each case, of which he well understood the object. I then told him to instruct his mate to spread this amongst the crew and their friends, impressing on them all the fact that any bullet hitting any of the cases would, thanks to the detonators, make it quite certain that the whole ship would instantly be blown to eternity! As this news was eagerly passed round the ship, the nasty grumbling from the crowd on deck ceased instantly, and I felt sure that there was no man amongst them who from that time onward would dare to fire a shot at us, and that each would watch his neighbour closely to see and prevent any such dangerous proceeding.
At this time, just after 11 p.m., the man I had instructed to watch the Chief's mast-head lights reported that they had been lowered, and I called four of my men on to the bridge, the others being in the motor car, and intimated to the captain that I wanted steam. Very sulkily he spoke down the engine-room speaking-tube, and we began slowly to forge ahead into the crowded anchorage.
It was my intention, on reaching the fairway down the harbour, to anchor and wait for the Kruger to pass, and my action in so doing would have been in accordance with the plan that I had announced loudly on leaving the pier, for the information of those ashore, and by that means for the information of the Government -- namely, that we were going to anchor out in the harbour in order to insure the safety of our dangerously explosive cargo. As soon, therefore, as we were a short way out, I gave the word to 'let go the anchor'. Down it went with a great splash, and the chain ran out with a rattle which could be heard all over the harbour. However, things were not to be quite so easy as that, for no notice was taken of my further order, 'Enough chain,' and the crew having drawn the shackle-bolt at the end, the whole chain ran out and was lost overboard with the anchor, causing thereby a sensational muttering amongst our invisible enemies on deck.
It was mercifully a very dark night, and it was now, of course, necessary to keep way on the ship, to enable us to keep clear of the many vessels at anchor. Almost immediately after the anchor had gone, our hospital-ship, with our wounded, passed us a little farther out. I had no orders as to her, and as she was steering in a direction which seemed to be quite contrary to that in which I conceived the harbour mouth to be, it seemed possible she was not going to risk the fire of the guardships at all, and so we let her go by, and waited for the Kruger. As the fairway was full of shoals and the course for the fifteen miles which lay between us and the guardships at the entrance was known to be a most difficult piece of navigation, I now experienced a depth of anxiety I have no desire to deny, for I felt sure our captain would put the ship on a sandbank if he had the slightest chance of doing so, and as minute after minute, and finally half an hour, went by with no sign of the Kruger, I was as nearly reduced to despair as I have ever been. Finally, although very loath to approach the quays, I decided that it was imperative to do so, in order to ascertain whether the Kruger was still there, or whether what I dreaded most had in fact happened namely, that she had passed us in the dark unobserved. Very cautiously we felt our way to the Kruger's berth and, to my horror, found that she was no longer there! In despair I raised what voice I had left, in what, I fear, was a somewhat quavering hail of 'Kruger, ahoy!' and to our inexpressible relief was answered from another berth on the far side of the pier: 'What ship's that?'
Certainly our old English is a delightful language to hear at any time in outlandish parts, but it never has sounded so sweetly musical to me as it did then. I shouted back, 'Colonel Rawlinson in the Armenian,' and the answer came in a sort of muffled cheer from the crowded transport, followed immediately by 'We are coming out now; follow us,' and I concentrated upon swinging our very unhandy ship round and getting her going slow ahead for the Kruger to pass us; this she immediately did, going the best part of ten knots, and only giving me time for one plaintive prayer as she passed 'Show a light over your stern,' to which came a prompt and blessed 'Aye, aye, sir,' and a light was at once shown, and no doubt need be entertained that it was followed. In the meanwhile, although 'Full speed ahead' was the order, we went slower and slower, and the light got farther and farther away, so that it became evident we were not getting 'steam'.
I therefore hailed a Mr. Dana, an American engineer employed at the oil-wells in Baku, whom I had providentially been able to get on board at the last moment, and asked him to repair, with his pistol, to the engine-room and see what he could do, at the same time telling him, so that all might hear, not to hesitate to shoot, and that my men would be with him on the first shot. This manoeuvre produced good results, and we were able to keep the Kruger's stern light in sight till she turned, about twelve miles down the harbour, to lay her course between the guardships for the open sea. After that her light was extinguished, and we saw her no more, though we heard a series of whistle signals and one or two shots, which, to our intense relief, were small guns only, and no searchlight was shown. For the first time that night I then began to realize that there was really a possibility, if our luck held good, that we might get safely out.
But our own trial was to come. As we closed the guardships and made for the short quarter of a mile of open water which was all that lay between them, the captain began to show signs of active hostility, and to say he wouldn't go out, and that the guardships would fire, and that we should be blown up, or at any rate pursued and caught and shot. So obstreperous did he finally become that I called my four men to stand round him with their fixed bayonets and to allow no one to approach. Mean-while I stood by his side with my pistol drawn, and swore to him by every oath I could think of in Russian that if the ship did not keep a straight course, or if any signal was made, I would myself shoot him on the spot and take the ship out in spite of him.
This was said sufficiently loudly to be heard all over the deck, and so much impressed the crowd that I remember well seeing one of them who attempted to light a cigarette knocked down by his neighbours, who were in an agony of fear. Unfortunately, the sides of the poop and bridge of the Armenian were painted white, and so were fairly easily distinguished, whilst providentially the long low-lying hull forward, where the greater part of our high-explosives were stowed, was black and more or less invisible.
We were therefore soon seen from the guardships, who signalled to us by blowing two sharp blasts of their whistles. I would not trust the captain to touch the whistle-cord, but replied immediately myself with two whistles, not knowing the first thing about what two or any other number of whistles might mean, except that they wanted us to stop, which was the last thing I intended to do. They instantly replied with three whistles, and as we were now closing them fast and were within half a mile of them both, I answered with five whistles; this, whilst it gained us a few invaluable seconds, must have 'upset the apple-cart' completely, for they opened fire at point-blank range at once.
The next thing I remember was an awe-inspiring explosion within about a foot of my head, and, more terrifying still, within not more than two feet six inches of the dynamite, as a shell struck the light deck over my head, which was only just high enough for me to stand up under. It was, however, only a 'common' shell that is, one charged with gun-powder and not high-explosive, and except for some smoke and a good many splinters, we were none the worse, although the effect on the captain was instantaneous and electrifying. As the shell burst he made one dive to get away, leaving the wheel to spin which way it might, and the ship also. If he was quick, however, I was quite a little quicker, for I had him by the collar with a grip of iron as he passed, and threw him over on his back, and with my pistol pressed up under his chin I ordered him to stand up and keep the ship on its course.
I have not the slightest doubt that I was pretty rough, and if so it was what I was intending to be, as we were in a tightish place, and not one where it was wise to leave any doubt possible as to one's intentions, and he had none as to mine. My man, who had been in the navy for years before the war, kept the ship straight on her course during this little tussle, which lasted seconds only, and in the meanwhile three more shells got us in the white-painted poop where we were posted behind our dynamite barricade, which no longer formed as desirable or effective a form of defence as it had before. However, nothing blew up, and we still remained alive, and as we actually got between the two gunboats the fire momentarily ceased, for they were then afraid of hitting each other. As we forged ahead they both commenced firing again, and the Russian captain again started struggling in his terror, so much so that I really thought I was going to be obliged to shoot him, in case he might 'start up' all his countrymen, who formed the majority on board the Armenian. I therefore jammed my pistol at the back of his neck, and quite quietly asked my man, in English, to stand back, as I expected I should have to shoot the swine directly, and it would make a nasty mess ! On these words the captain, who had hitherto maintained that he knew no English, just went all limp in my hands, and never offered another struggle of any sort.
We were now leaving the guardships astern, and got four or five shells into us -- all in the infernally white-painted construction we were standing in, for apparently the remainder of our vessel was invisible from the guardships. However, no harm was done except to the nerves of our involuntary passengers and crew, and the gunboats ceased firing when they could no longer see us, by which time we could not see them either, even if we had wished to, which we certainly did not.
Probably of all the sighs of relief which were heaved that night I heaved the biggest one then, as it was hard to conceive how it was possible to come safely through such a fire as that to which we had been subjected, with such a box of fireworks as the ship we were on, without giving a highly sensational pyrotechnic display. Indeed, it would never have been believed that shells could burst so close to fulminate without detonating it. The explanation, of course, is that the gunpowder in common shell 'explodes', whereas high-explosive 'detonates', and there is no comparison between the effect of explosion and the concussion caused by detonation. Without doubt, had any one of the seven shells we actually received in our superstructure been a high-explosive one, we should have gone up like a sky-rocket!
Needless to remark, as soon as the firing ceased we plugged as hard as we could for the open sea, and I had little doubt we should not be pursued, as there were at least 20o vessels in the harbour behind, and had the guard-vessels moved, all those vessels would have put to sea at once. Also, I was pretty sure that they had not been warned of our coming, thanks to our precautions, and had no idea who we were, or that we were worth pursuing, or they would have had their larger guns and searchlights in action, when our chance would evidently have been nil.
As the firing ceased during the few moments when we were between the guardships, we had another kind of experience, which was not, however, entirely unexpected. It commenced by the appearance on the bridge of a very offensive Bolshevik sailor, who, addressing me in a tone of voice which I was by no means prepared to permit him to use, told me he represented the 'committee' of the crew and was commissioned to tell me they did not intend to allow the ship to proceed. My answer, if short, was at any rate extremely to the point, and consisted of the order,
'Down him!' The words had hardly left my lips before he was 'down' all right, and a good British bayonet was scratching at his chest, waiting to act on the next order, whatever it might be; and there he remained till the firing ceased and there was time to attend to his business. That did not take long, as, by a somewhat primitive but most effective use of an army boot, he was prevailed upon to sit up, and was told that we were determined to take the ship on to Enzeli, and that we had reason to know we should not be pursued (which last was not, perhaps, the exact truth), and that if he could prevail on the crew to obey our orders, each of them would receive 100 roubles (at that time a large sum to them) on our arrival at that port. If, however, they were not prepared to obey our orders, we were prepared to fight them at once. He was then directed to stand up and address his comrades over the top of our dynamite barricade to the above effect, whilst my man kept his bayonet-point tickling his back. It was so evident that if there was to be a fight he would infallibly be the first casualty that he fairly burst himself with arguments in favour of accepting our proposal; and as his audience were pretty well cowed by the events of the night, they accepted at once, and we had no further trouble.
As a precautionary measure, in case of pursuit, we did not bear away south on our true course for Enzeli, but held on due east for five hours, till we reckoned we were far out in the Caspian Sea, many miles east of the correct course. We then turned and steered due south all the next day and night, till in the grey of the morning of the 16th we saw the Persian mountains rising up ahead of us, and altered our course to make the entrance of the harbour at Enzeli. During all this time I had kept continuous watch on the course of the vessel, to make certain no tricks were played on us, and as soon as there was sufficient light to make sure the coast was clear of enemy gunboats we knew the job, which had appeared so impossible, had really been successfully achieved. The danger of hitting the bar in entering the harbour was one which, after the others we had already come safe through, only made us inclined to laugh, and we held straight on, and made our preparations to come into port in proper style. These consisted, first of all, in removing the detonators from the dynamite-cases; secondly, in hoisting the small British flag (which had flown on my car), at the mast-head over the Bolshevik flag; and, thirdly, in parading our party on the much-battered upper bridge.
So in the end we came proudly into port, with our decks covered with guns and material of all kinds, our little vessel much battered and loaded to the utmost she could carry, ten Englishmen all told (eight of whom only were soldiers), assisted by one American citizen, with ninety-six armed Bolsheviks obeying our orders in their own ship!
Day was breaking as we came over the bar, and the troops on shore were mostly bivouacking along the banks of the entrance channel. As they saw the ship they had all given up for lost coming in, and saw her cargo, her battered condition, and last, but not least, the little Union Jack flying proudly over all, they rose up with one accord and gave us a truly British reception. It was such a hearty and spontaneous one that the recollection of that moment will always remain to me as the proudest memory of a somewhat adventurous career.
Coming abreast of the General's ship, we hailed them, asking for a boat, an anchor, and some British sailors, to enable us to bring the ship to anchor out in the fairway. On their coming on board, I jumped into their boat and proceeded to the Kruger to report, being met at the gangway by the 'Chief ' himself, still in his pyjamas, but with his face wreathed in smiles. He took me by both hands and repeated again and again, 'You have done very well,' which more than repaid me for all our past anxieties.
He took me straight to his cabin, where I even now remember the whisky-and-soda which was immediately supplied to me. It was a 'corker', and went down like the nectar of the gods. Immediately after, the Chief of the Staff took me into his cabin and gave me his bed, upon which I was asleep in a moment, after the most strenuous forty-eight consecutive hours it has ever been my lot to go through, and so crammed throughout with sensations and incidents of every kind that I much fear I can never expect to see their like again.
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