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East Again - Salonika, Constant, And Batoum

( Originally Published 1923 )

Rationing at home — Meet Sir G. Milne — Appointed Special Service 'Intelligence' Officer to G.H.Q., Constantinople — Rest camp at Taranto — Grecian Archipelago — Mount Athos — Salonika — Kit lost — Journey from Salonika to Constant — Catalja Lines — Constantinople -- Palace of Constantine — Old Stamboul — Galata — The Grande Rue of Pera — St. Sophia — Adrian's Roman Wall — Carnival in Pera — Down the Bosphorus — Varna — Samsun — A mine at sea — Batoum

ON reaching home after the Baku campaign, 'rationing' was in full swing, but being 'emaciated', I was allowed cream, butter, and all manner of good things, and soon began to get my strength back, whilst enjoying a 'rest', a form of enjoyment which had been unknown to me since August, 1914.

After a very quiet month so occupied, I had the pleasure one morning of breakfasting with my brother in London, who was then home for a short time before taking charge of the evacuation of our forces from Archangel.

At breakfast it was my good fortune to meet my future chief, Sir George Milne, Commanding-in-Chief the Salonika Expeditionary Force. This force was then in process of transfer from Salonika to Constantinople, and with it was to be incorporated the North Persian Force, which had crossed the Caspian Sea to Baku, and was then operating with other forces in the Caucasus.

It was evident that strenuous times were ahead of us in those parts, and when Sir George heard that I knew the country pretty well, he to my great delight asked me if I was prepared to go back there; and, on my gladly assenting, he said he would apply for me to be detailed for special service there. A few days later, during December, I learned that I was to be appointed Special Service Officer attached to General Staff Intelligence of the Salonika Expeditionary Force. I did not, however, get my actual 'movement' order till February, and left England on the 15th, having been just under three months at home.

Having slept the night of the 15th in Paris, and seen many friends there the next day, I caught the Rome express in the evening, bound for Taranto.

Crowds of officers were streaming through Taranto at this time on their way home for demobilization, going off daily in troop-trains which then took fourteen days to reach Havre; but no one thought of grumbling, as they were all on the way home.

The rest camp where it was necessary to wait till a ship was available was well placed on the cliff, looking over the great lagoon which forms the harbour; but being entirely laid out to be habit-able in the summer heat, it was most unsuitable for the cold of the winter season.

I was lucky, therefore, to get a ship going to Salonika on the 22nd, and so to get away from Taranto on the fourth day, on board what had once been a German-Austrian Lloyd passenger-ship, but which was then being used, as were many other similar ships, as a transport for British troops.

We reached Salonika on the morning of the 25th, after a very pleasant journey through the Grecian Archipelago, where we passed many large islands, all mountainous and all pretty, rather like parts of the west coast of Scotland, only the mountains here are much higher and bolder. The weather was lovely – no wind at all, and a sky and sea of the deepest blue: sunny and hot like a midsummer's day in England, and warm at night, so that one could walk the deck in pyjamas, though there was still snow on the higher mountains.

We did not see Athens, but passed close to Mount Athos, where are situated many monasteries of the Greek Church, inhabited by many thousand priests, mostly of Russian extraction. It is difficult to visit this very interesting place, but some of our officers went from Salonika, and I have heard descriptions of it from them., from which it appears that it is well worth seeing. The mountain was all snow when we passed, and we could see the large monasteries high up on its rocky sides. The isthmus joining the mountain to the mainland is only 1 1/2 miles across, and here Xerxes, the great Persian King, during his second invasion of Greece, made a canal, so that his ships should not be obliged to go round the cape, where many had been lost at sea on a previous occasion. Traces of this canal can still be seen there, though it was constructed over 2,000 years ago.

The anchorage at Salonika, forty miles north of Mount Athos, is a magnificent stretch of water, five miles across and twenty miles long. High mountains, snow-capped in winter, come close down to the water on the south-east, and rise again to the west, about ten miles inland, the amphitheatre of snow so formed being fifty miles across, the distant peaks shining brightly in the sun and making a most beautiful picture. The town appears just a line of wharves, warehouses, docks, and piers, for several miles along the south-east shore of the bay, no houses being visible behind them when seen from the ship.

On landing, I got orders to go straight on to Constant (no one in the East ever says Constantinople) by the night train, and as I heard it was likely to be a rough journey, I was anxious to make. my preparations accordingly, and therefore had a busy time shopping in the town.

Salonika was interesting. Although nearly half the town was then in ruins, having been burnt some time before, no attempt had yet been made at reconstruction. The parts that were still standing seemed to have a mosque every hundred yards, and their minarets, of course, made a show of a kind, but the streets were in dreadful condition – a mass of holes, no foot pavement, and the whole a sea of mud which every passing lorry scattered liberally in every direction. However, being out to shop, not to admire the scenery, I was glad to get so good an opportunity of effecting purchases.

The population of the town was both remarkable and interesting, as it appeared to consist of every kind of scoundrel of every nation, and formed a collection of blackguards who belonged to no country or race, but who resembled each other only by reason of their universal predatory instincts.

I was to have left Salonika on Tuesday night, the 25th) but on landing found that my machine-guns and valise, which had gone ashore in another boat, had entirely disappeared before my arrival on the quay. It therefore became necessary to give up the train and to spend the night, with the assistance of a patrol of military police, in trying to recover my lost property. I obtained a car and chased all over the stations, camps, rest-houses, piers, and lorry parks, till at last, at: a.m., my guns were discovered locked up in a naval store, a patrol of naval police having found them lying on the quay. My valise was not recovered till 3 p.m. next day, when it turned up amongst some Red Cross luggage which had been landed from our ship and sent to a camp about three miles out; and when it was at last found it had been opened, and of three pairs of boots, some expert had succeeded in extracting the right boot of two pairs, leaving me two left boots only. It was obvious from this that he had done his work in the dark, as on account of the high heel which is now necessary for my left leg, he had concluded that the two high heels of the left boots formed a pair. For my part, I would much sooner have told him of his mistake, had I been able, and given him one complete pair, rather than that he should have spoilt two pairs; however, it was well matters were no worse, as there were a lot of things he had apparently not had time to take.

We got off that evening, Wednesday, the 26th, and a terrible journey it turned out to be. The railway at that time was in charge of the French, and one compartment was reserved for the British Army, three British officers being authorized to take advantage of this accommodation on that auspicious occasion. Our compartment was not a compartment at all, but half only, being divided by a boarded partition in the same way as on the Italian train from Rome to Taranto. In this box we travelled from Wednesday night till Saturday morning, getting out, of course, whenever the train stopped, which, luckily for us, it often did. However, the worst part was the cold, which was very severe, with snow and wind for the first part and a cold rain during the latter half of the journey, so that there being no glass in any window, we were, especially at night, very cold indeed.

The country at first was very interesting. We went a long way along what had been the 'No Man's Land' of the Salonika front, and then over the mountains beyond Lake Doiran, in deep snow, into Bulgaria, the mountains running up to about 1o,000 feet, the highest of them with fine snow scenery, and then went on across a vast uncultivated plain down to the sea again. The country was badly knocked about, with hardly any. inhabitants left in it, but the line itself and the bridges were in quite fair condition, all locomotives and rolling-stock, including the train we were in, being German, with the German notices and Verboten (the German for it is forbidden') stuck up all over the place.

We saw very few Bulgarian troops, but there were parties of both British and French troops at each regular halt, and we began to see Turks after passing over the Maritza River. The country there seemed to be richer than during the earlier part of the journey, and at last we passed through the famous Catalja Lines of defence, about twenty-five miles out of Constantinople.

We were indeed glad to see them, as they meant that the end of our very tedious journey was approaching. The defensive value of the lie of the country there is easily realized, but the actual defences and forts which we saw did not impress us at all. However, everything comes to an end if one only waits long enough, and we got down to the coast of the Sea of Marmora at last. Then, skirting round between Old Stamboul and the entrance to the Bosphorus, we finally reached the Constantinople station on Seraglio Point at 8.3o a.m., Saturday, March 1st, after sixty-one hours – that is, three nights and two days --- of that terrible train.

My letter from Constantinople about the journey says that it was the worst one I remembered; but not having ever been a Turkish prisoner at that time, my experience was sadly incomplete, and now there doesn't seem to me to have been much the matter with it.

On arrival at the station a car was awaiting me, sent by the 'Intelligence' Branch of the Headquarters Staff to which I was now attached, and we proceeded to the house in Pera then used as the 'I' (Intelligence) mess.

We were a small party of six only in the mess, quite comfortable, but all very busy. Next day I reported to the Chief, and got orders to go on, as soon as a ship could be found, to Batoum, en route to Tiflis, where our advanced Headquarters then were, and where I was to act under the orders of General Beach, who was then in charge of Intelligence in the Caucasus.

The Chief had himself just returned from a tour of inspection, in the course of which he had been right through to Baku and over the Caspian Sea to Krasnovosk, and from him I learned much about what had been going on in those parts. I was, he told me, to have two cars and to mount my guns on them, so as to be in a position to go to any part of that wild Caucasian country to report what might be going on there – to me a most congenial task.

The next day, having obtained a car, I went to have a good look round Constantinople, to which city this was my first visit, and I will try to give the reader some idea of my first impressions of that city, which since that time I have come to know so well.

Constantinople to-day consists of two quite separate cities on the European shore of the Bosphorus, an important suburb also existing on the Asiatic side. The Sea of Marmora gradually narrows down at its north-eastern end till finally, between Seraglio Point in Old Stamboul and Haider Pasha on the Asiatic shore, the water is only about four miles across and becomes the mouth of the Bosphorus. The old city itself stands on high ground on the promontory which lies between the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn, which is really a narrow bay in the western shore of the Bosphorus strait. On a high rock at the point stands the Seraglio Palace, originally built and inhabited by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and afterwards used to house the Turkish Sultans and their seraglios or harems.

The old palace is a fine building occupying a spacious and truly magnificent site, dominating the waters both of the Bosphorus and of the Golden Horn, and commanding the modern suburbs of Pera and Galata, which lie opposite it on the northern side of the Golden Horn. It is now used, I understand, as a museum, but I have never yet succeeded in obtaining access to it. Immediately behind it stands the great Mosque of St. Sophia, with many other mosques of nearly equal interest in close proximity, the remainder of the promontory being covered by purely Turkish houses, the majority of ancient date and built of wood only. Large tracts of the city now lie in ruins, the result of fires during the war, and the whole is enclosed by the old Roman Wall, which stretches a distance of from four to five miles from the coast of thι Sea of Marmora to the head-waters of the Golden Horn. Such is the site of Old Stamboul, the Christian city of the Roman Emperors, which was for centuries the pride of the Orient, and has always, as to-day, proved an irresistible attraction to draw the Turks to Europe from Asia, the continent to which they more properly belong.

Siege after siege Constantinople has withstood, having only been taken twice in days gone by, first by the Crusaders in 1204, and secondly, by the Turks in 1453, since which last date the Turk has reigned supreme there till the occupation by the Allies after the Great War.

The situation of the city is certainly unique throughout the world, and, approaching from the Sea of Marmora, it offers a spectacle of unrivalled splendour, as, in addition to its truly beautiful site and situation, it appears, when the rays of the setting sun strike its countless gilded mosques and minarets, to be a veritable city of palaces.

On landing, however, the disillusionment is both sudden and complete. Filth and squalor are to be seen everywhere, and the city of palaces of an hour ago becomes a collection of hovels and ruins, cropping up out of a sea of mud, with here and there a more pretentious building which, by the evidence it offers of its original splendour, only serves to emphasize the many signs of decline and decay.

Such was the impression I received on my first visit to Old Stamboul. But on crossing the really fine Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, here about twice the width of the Thames at Westminster, to the modern city which gives its name to the bridge, one feels that one has left Asia and is once more in Europe. Here are fine, though steep, streets, pavements, electric light and trams, fine buildings, and all the evidences of prosperity and enterprise which distinguish a modern European capital.

Continuing up the hill, within a mile we find ourselves in the 'Grande Rue' of Pera the European residential suburb and here things recall Paris irresistibly, as the shop-windows in many instances would not disgrace the Rue de la Paix, and, incidentally, the prices charged would also at least equal the Paris ones.

The most striking part of this most interesting modern suburb is the 'crowd' always to be found there, for the Grande Rue is invariably crowded at any hour of the day, as well as during the greater part of the night; and the crowd in early 1919 was a truly remarkable one. In late afternoon or early evening the crush was so great that it was a slow and difficult matter to get along the pavement of the Grande Rue, whilst the trams were so crowded it was a hopeless matter to board one, and an unceasing stream of motors flowed continuously in both directions.

Here were uniforms of all descriptions, the Allied armies and fleets being all strongly represented. The civilians were for the most part Greeks, or Levantines of one sort or another, whilst about the rarest apparition was a genuine Turk, at any rate of the humbler class, the majority of such Turks as might be met there having more the appearance of European noblemen, which impression would in no way be weakened if one was privileged to enjoy their polite and refined conversation.

There were a number of cinemas and shows of various sorts, and the general impression created was one of prosperity and gaiety, though this was largely on the surface, and there was much misery and privation, especially amongst the many Russian refugees who had found their way there from the Russian Black Sea ports.

Next day I visited St. Sophia and Adrian's old city wall, and the following is an extract from my letter written at the time:

'It (St. Sophia) is a most wonderful place, and I could write for hours about it and then not give an adequate description of it. First of all, it is of enormous size – not as large or as high as St. Peter's at Rome, but the dome is probably just as great in diameter, though very much flatter, which form is infinitely more difficult to build, as the outward thrust, caused by the great weight, is colossal. Although the dome is constructed of specially made hollow and therefore light bricks, and the but-tresses have been many times strengthened, ominous cracks are to be seen, and it would never be surprising to hear the walls had been unable to bear the strain and that the whole roof had fallen in.

`I paced the width of the dome, and found it 18o feet across, and the length of the central hall is twice this, so you have a great "hall," 360 feet by 180 feet, without a single pillar, with a sort of chancel built out at each end, and side-chapels each side, all of them go feet wide, opening into the central hail. Twenty-five thousand people are said to kneel and pray there at the same time on the occasions of the big festivals – and they probably could do so, for it is the largest single hall I have ever seen. The floor is covered with fine old prayer-carpets, all about the same size, literally hundreds of them, and the whole vast place is lit by a multitude of small lamps, just little open cups with a wick in them, that are hung in clusters by long wires from the roof and ranged along ledges all round the walls, the effect of which must be truly wonderful when they are all lit, as they are on great occasions.

'The most curious part is that, as St. Sophia was first built as a Christian church, it faces, of course, east, but as the followers of the prophet (Mohammedans) must always pray towards his holy city, Mecca, and as Mecca lies nearly south-east from Constant, the altar has now been made to face skew-ways across the church, and all the rows of prayer-carpets, etc., are woefully out of line with the church in consequence, which gives the whole arrangement a most curious "temporary" appearance. There is little of any ornamentation inside, or indeed outside, the building, which depends for the remarkable impression it creates upon its vast size alone.

'To show how truly "Turkish" it all is today, it looks, from the outside, a most mean and miserable-looking place; it is painted, or coloured, a dirty yellow -- just stucco over the bricks, with many portions now falling off. It stands in an open square, at present more like a bog, and is surrounded by a broken-down railing, inside which the ground is more like a farmyard than anything else, with odd chickens and other animals running about, up to and even into the mosque, although all human visitors have to put on slippers or take their boots off to go in, and there are also at the moment Turkish troops bivouacking in the outer chapels – hardly our idea of a great cathedral.

'After seeing St. Sophia, I went on to look at Adrian's old wall, which stretches from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn, and quite encloses the old city. It is now pretty well in ruins in many parts, but what are left are extremely interesting, as it certainly is on a colossal scale. The top of the wall (which is of brick and stone about 6o feet high) is sufficiently broad to carry four lines of railway abreast if desired, and a second wall rises on the top of the first one, the whole being somewhere near 100 feet high, with towers rising higher still, at frequent intervals. To realize the gigantic undertaking its construction was, it must be remembered that this huge wall stretches for a distance of over four miles, each flank reaching to the water's edge. No wonder the city in those days proved impregnable?

'At this time in Pera there were many attempts at holding "carnival", and many idiots were to be seen parading the streets in fancy dress, all of them masked, but forming processions behind a man who carries a street piano-organ on his back, a great load to a European, but nothing to a Turk, who would be capable of carrying even a house on his back if he thought he could "get away" with it. All the jovial followers in the procession go up and turn the handle when they please, and they all dance along the streets, waving their hands and looking too foolish for words, but appear, nevertheless, to enjoy themselves immensely.'

So much says my letter written at the time.

During the five days which I spent this time at Constant, it was cold and some snow fell, which is quite unusual. Almost every day the mornings were lovely, with a bright sun and the keen air which is so invigorating. However, our ship came in on the 4th, and on the morning of the 5th we sailed, bound first of all for the Bulgarian port of Varna, then across the Black Sea to Samsun, on the Anatolian coast, and on to Batoum, the Russian port in the Caucasus.

On leaving Constant I went down the Bosphorus for the first time, and felt that all I had read about it – and that was much – had not done it justice, for it certainly is a wonderfully beautiful place, even in winter, and I will quote the little I say about it from my letter at that time, and wait to give a better account when I was there in the late summer, when the Allied fleets were all anchored there. The letter is as follows:

'Going down the Bosphorus was a wonderful sight. I have seen no place in the world like that. The sun came out, and it all looked too beautiful, and must be still more so in summer. It is a narrow strait, varying from four miles to one mile in width, and it winds in and out the mountains on either side for twenty-five miles from the Sea of Marmora to the Black Sea. Leaving Constant, the European shore is a line of palaces and fine houses built right on the water's edge, with others on the slopes behind them which rise steeply from the water, itself of the deepest blue. All the houses look from the water like fairy palaces, though, like most things Turkish, they are probably very much less pleasing when seen from near by.

'The Sultan's old palace of Dolma Batchke, on the water's edge, is about the first on leaving the city, followed by the Yildiz Kiosk (where he now lives) a little farther on, lying farther back up the hill, surrounded by a fine-looking park and woods; these are very handsome buildings in Oriental style, and look as if they were of white marble, which they probably are not. And there are many others nearly as fine scattered about as one goes on, with queer old forts and fortified villages also, relics of times long past, but interesting to see. About ten miles or more from Constant is Therapia, a lovely spot in a deep bay on the European side, with the hills rising steeply behind it. Here are the summer quarters of the Embassies and of many of the prominent residents in Constantinople, who have the advantage of enjoying there as beautiful a summer retreat as can be found in any country.

'On leaving Therapia the hills become wilder and more rugged, with much more rock showing, and at last two old forts appear, one on the European and one on the Asiatic side of the water, and, the land falling away on either hand, we find ourselves quite suddenly on the open waters of the Black Sea.'

On this occasion there was a bright sun and an exceptionally clear atmosphere, so that all the details of the mountains showed up with striking clearness, making a memorable picture, but one it was not possible to enjoy for long, as an icy north wind was blowing, which no furs could keep out. Even writing in my cabin I was obliged to keep my overcoat on and wrap a rug round my legs, and then found my fingers so cold I could only write with difficulty.

Next morning, the 7th, we arrived at the Bulgarian port of Varna, famous as the site of the British hospitals during the Crimean War, and for little else except the existence there of the terminus of a most indifferent railway. The harbour is good, but had hardly any shipping in it at that time, and here we landed 70o British troops and got away the same day for Samsun, where we were to land 20o more.

Samsun, on the Anatolian coast of the Black Sea, about 400 miles east of the Bosphorus, and goo miles west of Batoum, is, or was, a prosperous place, for although it has no harbour, but only an open roadstead, yet, situated at the end of the main road which runs through Sivas to the Mesopotamian plain, whatever trade there is in that part of the country uses it as a port.

The road into the interior from Samsun is a good one, and there is only one other road passable for wheels which comes down to the coast in the 300 miles which lie between Samsun and Batoum. That one, which reaches the coast at Trebizond, about halfway between Samsun and Batoum, is generally blocked by snow in winter, whilst the Samsun road is very rarely dosed, and therefore carries all winter traffic of merchandise.

The population of this coast, which is known as the Tontine coast, consisted, previous to the deportations which have resulted from the war between Greece and Turkey, largely of Greeks, whose occupation of this coast and its valleys dates back to 500 B.C., many centuries before the Turks first came west from their original home in Central Asia. The valleys are rich and were well cultivated, producing many good crops, notably tobacco, the best qualities of Turkish tobacco coming exclusively from the Pontine coast valleys.

We anchored off Samsun on the 9th and landed 200 men. The troops were received with every sign of rejoicing by the Greek population, who were in great fear of the Turks, some portions of the Turkish armies being in course of demobilization and considerably out of hand, so that the presence even of a small number of British troops was a great relief to the Christian population. Leaving Samsun in the afternoon, the coast, as we went farther east, showed high mountains coming right down to the water's edge, with many deep valleys, and over all vast masses of snow which crown the hills the whole way, until the main chain of the Caucasus is reached, 400 miles farther on.

On approaching Batoum Harbour next day, our guns suddenly opened fire, which brought me very quickly on deck. However, the cause was only a derelict Turkish mine, which was promptly destroyed, and we then approached the grand but most uninviting coast of Transcaucasian Russia. The weather was bright but very cold indeed. On approaching Batoum, the high snow-covered mountains can be seen rising well over 10,000 feet and corning down close to the shore as far as the eye can reach on either hand.

The harbour is well protected by a 'mole', but is not of any great extent, and the town is mean and presents no architecture worthy of the name, the houses rarely being of more than two . stories. The quays were busy at this time, for Batoum was the base for the British forces, amounting to two divisions, then in the Caucasus; but in normal times the main industry of the place is oil, which is transported from the Baku oilfields by a 'pipe-line', and here shipped in tank steamers to all parts of the world. Here also is the terminus of the great Russian Imperial Railway, communicating via Baku with Moscow, and through Tiflis with the Persian and Turkish frontiers.

On landing I experienced quite exceptional good fortune, as the Chief of the General Staff at Constant, General Cory, had arrived in a destroyer a few hours before us and was going straight on that night to Tiflis, Baku, and then over the Caspian Sea to Krasnovosk and on to Merv, on a tour of inspection. He had the late Czar's private train at his disposal and offered me a place in it, which was accepted with great thankfulness, and we left Batoum for Tiflis the same evening.

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

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