28 January 2008

2308) Conditions of the W.W.I Russo-Turkish Front

The following book excerpt from "Russia After the Revolution," Charles Ezra Beury, 1918, pp. 47-57, provides some interesting details as to what both sides had to contend with.

Beury was an American eyewitness whose sympathies clearly did not belong with the Turks, "inhuman" as they were, in his biased opinion. He actually thought there were only one thousand Armenians in Van fighting 10,000 Turks, when even Henry Morgenthau was aware the Armenians numbered 10,000-25,000. (In an honest internal report; in his book, Morgenthau offered the figure of 1,500.)

Regardless, Beury has some interesting notes, as when he encountered a "pathetic" Turkish deserter, who was actually an Ottoman-Greek.

Dr. Charles Ezra Beury

Dr. Charles Ezra Beury, born 1879, graduated from Princeton University in 1903, and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard in 1906. Before beginning his legal career, he devoted himself to travel. He would go on to become the president of Temple University in 1926. A biography of the man from
Philadelphia: A Story of Progress (1941) tells us:

"During the World War he served as director of the Victory Loan of North Philadelphia and made trips to Russia for the Near East Relief and the American Red Cross in 1917, 1918, and 1919, winning high commendation for the work he accomplished in behalf of these organizations." Beury became a trustee of the Near East Relief.

From the "Overland to the Front in Turkey" Chapter:

The Governor of the Province of Van, Turkey, thoughtfully sent a mounted military escort to protect us through the Kurdestan mountains on our long journey to the provincial capital city of the same name. As we drove up through the valleys and over the passes and plateaus, with our mounted guard conspicuously armed outflanking and galloping wildly ahead of us to inspect the safety of each mountain pass, we remarked how much it must be like crossing the prairies in '49. It was surely a picturesque cavalcade. The velvet-colored mountain scenery was beautiful as we made our way up along the valley of the Khotur River, constantly climbing. The changes of temperature were extreme — ice in the morning, heat as of a tropic sun at midday. It took me back to a winter in India years ago. At the Kurdish village of Khotur on the border between Persia and Turkey, we spent a night in a little hut named by Dr. Ellis the "Hut of a Million Fleas" because of our almost unbroken vigils in combating these little pests. It was just off a sheep's cove, containing hundreds of sheep, goats, and cows, and from eight at night until four in the morning, we silently struggled in an effort to go to sleep, but were finally compelled to surround ourselves with a dike of insect powder before a few hours' rest was possible.

The Kurds are a wild, illiterate mountain people, only one in thousands being able to read. They live largely by plundering, are Moslems, and have always taken advantage of disturbances and political unrest to reap their harvests. The Armenian massacres have been their especial opportunity. Now they are suffering in turn, for the Russian Army in its sweep westward into Turkey had hunted them down, destroying their villages and taking vengeance for past marauding. The land largely lay fallow because of the unsafe conditions of the country, and it was noted how the few farmers whom we did pass were conspicuously well-armed.

Reaching Van, we were the guests of the hospital of the Zuyuz Gardoff. This is one of the nationwide volunteer organizations akin to our Red Cross, which has, in a measure, supplied the deficiencies of the old Government in caring for the wounded soldiers, providing the little comforts and conveniences which make soldier-life endurable. The doctors and nurses were hospitality itself, and on the night before we left arranged for an Armenian dinner in our honor as American Commissioners. There were speeches in English, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, and Esperanto. The speech in Esperanto was delivered by a Russian soldier who immediately acted as his own interpreter as no other person in the audience could understand Esperanto, thus illustrating the curious kinks of the Russian mind.

The city of Van, which is situated on a high plateau fifty-two hundred feet above sea-level, stands out pre-eminently in the record of the present Armenian massacres. Here a thousand volunteer Armenian militiamen held off ten thousand Turkish troops for a period of twenty-eight days, protecting the city and the Armenian residents from massacre until the arrival of the rescuing Russian Army. It was the only place in which the Armenians had made a determined resistance against the inhuman Turks. But to a certain extent their resistance was in vain, for five months later the Russians, without proper reason, unexpectedly retreated and the populace found it necessary to follow, taking with them only what they could conveniently carry or transport in their limited number of carts and wagons. Since the Russians upon their arrival had not spared the Turkish property in the city of Van, one could readily imagine what the Mohammedans did to the Christian possessions upon the recapture of the city. The premises of the American Mission, comprising schools, homes, a hospital and an orphanage, were a maze of wrecked buildings. The church alone stood practically intact and was being used by the Russian soldiers as their own. Mosques everywhere had been desecrated. Wealthy Pasha homes and palaces were only blank walls of brick. A city of fifty thousand inhabitants, wealthy, beautiful, and prosperous, was in ruins.

We had previously talked to many Armenians who had fought through this siege, and it was saddening to learn that after the splendid resistance in the early months of the massacres, seventy thousand Christians, fleeing to Russian territory, perished of starvation and disease. Subsequently the Russian forces returned to Van, followed in their wake by thousands of refugees, but hardly had they been re-established on their own land, through the splendid aid of the Armenian Relief Committee, when another retreat followed a threatened retirement by the Russians, and the work of reconstruction was dissipated. And yet we found that in the Fall of 1917 many of the people had again come back, probably only to go through still another disastrous exodus unless the Armenian soldiers could hold off the Turks when the Russians left this front.

General Seileekoff, divisional commander of the Russian forces, planned and arranged for our journey to and along the front in Turkey, and detailed as our escort a splendid, English speaking officer, a graduate of Moscow University. We crossed Lake Van practically as deck passengers, the boat, armed fore and aft, being within range of the Turkish guns during part of the sixteen-hour journey to Garmooch on the western shore.

FAMOUS ROCK AND CASTLE, VAN, TURKEY

Here our host was that famous officer of the Russian Army, General Nazarbekoff, who a year and a half before, in the dead of winter, had taken his army down through the mountains of Kurdestan to the plain of Moosh and captured Bitlis, to the wonderment of military critics both in Europe and America. He told us the story of that expedition, and said that as they crossed the frozen streams troopers on their horses frequently broke through, and their comrades could see their dead bodies coming out in the rapids below. Their lines of communication were severed, but they kept pressing on over the snow and ice-covered passes until they established the outposts which made possible the further advance of the British Mesopotamian Army. Undoubtedly the army would now be beyond Bitlis and in close co-operation with the British General Marshal, if the Revolution had not destroyed the fighting spirit of these forces. This strong man was a pathetic figure, for military discipline was so far lost among the Russian troops that many of the simplest commands were not obeyed, and he was neither able to retire nor resign. General Nazarbekoff, for his wonderful feat, had been decorated by the French Government. He was very proud of the medal and said he had hoped some day to go to Paris and wear it on his breast, but since the Russian Army had failed, he did not feel that he would any longer be welcomed.

RUINS AT VAN, TURKEY

In several places we visited the Turkish front and found the soldiers storing wood and preparing for the bitter cold of winter. For the most part they lived in dugouts made of dirt, stone, and brush. Some of these were almost totally underground and had the double advantage of warmth in winter and coolness in summer. The Caucasus Army has employed the Mongolian huts or tents extensively, bringing them from Turkestan. A round frame base of wood with conical top is covered with heavy decorated felt instead of canvas. General Wachnadze, of the Sixth Caucasian Regiment, a Georgian prince, was especially courteous to us. With his staff he took us to the front so that we could clearly see the Turkish soldiers across the line. We also enjoyed a holiday excursion as his guests, going to the top of Mount Nimrod, an extinct volcano containing the largest volcanic lake in the world, its diameter being about three miles.

The soldiers along this front were holding on tenaciously, not because of the Turkish attacks, for the Turks were apparently in a very bad way for want of food, judging from the great numbers of deserters who came over daily, but because of the scarcity of food supplies and the fear that it would be necessary to fall back on their lines of communication. In the past many soldiers had been caught in a cul de sac along this front and had died of starvation, and we found that most regiments were suffering from limited rations. The morale of this army was probably better than that of any other in Russia, but it was distinctly undermined by the lack of transportation and the consequent food shortage. This front was, on an average, at least a week's journey from the nearest rail-head. Nature and the pacific attitude of the Russian troops, not Turkish resistance, blocked the way to a successful offensive.

When we asked the Russians at the front why they did not shoot, they said, "What's the use? If we fire, the Turks simply fire back; someone is likely to be hurt and nothing is gained." Class distinction between officers and men had broken down. We noted that when private soldiers came in they merely joined the group in free, democratic conversation. The soldiers' committees passed on any action and no important movement was possible without their consent.

Warfare on this front was not the modern trench warfare of France, but the old-fashioned kind, in which details and divisions of troops held passes and high roads and strategic points. There were trenches, of course, but the equipment and housing arrangement of the soldiers were all of a mobile nature, so that they might be moved at any time from one position to another.

I have spoken of the Turkish deserters. One particularly pathetic deserter from the Turkish army was a Greek from Smyrna. He said that during the first two years of the war he had twice paid the cost of exemption from the Turkish army, but that in spite of his payments, they had unjustly forced him into the service.

In our days of journeying from the Turkish front, even better opportunities than we had heretofore experienced were afforded us for measuring the devastation of this region. Over a war-zone six hundred miles long from Trebizond, Turkey, to Ramadan, Persia, and from one hundred to three hundred miles wide, the advancing and retreating armies — Christian and Moslem — had beaten back and forth, laying waste practically every village, town, and city. Four times we crossed, transversely and longitudinally, major portions of this area, and can report thousands of square miles of the oldest known portions of the world's surface denuded of every inhabitant except those engaged in military service. We have seen literally hundreds of towns destroyed and lifeless. It was worse than Belgium or France, for the people had all been killed or driven absolutely away. Over this whole district farms were lying fallow during a period of unprecedented world famine. No foodstuffs were being raised in this most fertile region, nor any cattle. The surviving inhabitants were crowded into seemingly safe territory outside the war devastated zone and had become the uninvited and unwelcome guests of the native peoples.

Part of this trip was made in Red Cross carts and army wagons. The Red Cross carts nominally have springs, but it would be hard to conceive of anything more uncomfortable. Even sitting on the seat, we found the jarring of these two-wheeled vehicles a severe trial. What must it have been for the wounded men who were forced to endure it for days, lying flat in the body of the cart! In fact, ordinary army wagons or fergons without any springs, which we later traveled and slept in, did not seem much worse. We found Mongolian coolies working on the railroads that were being built to the front, just as thousands of them are working behind the British and French lines in France — on the railroads and in the fields. The Russians had built hundreds of miles of auto road which were nearly completed, but they had finished no part of it so that it could be used. Part of this high-road skirted the banks of the famous Euphrates, which here runs west by south before making a semi-circle into the Mesopotamian plain.

LOOKING ACROSS NO MAN'S LAND — TURKISH FRONT

At Kara Kalissa we again reached the railroad and were immediately taken to the Commandant, a fine forward-looking Cossack. We had tea and dinner as his guests and learned much at first-hand concerning the esprit de corps of these world-renowned fighting men. There are twelve divisions of Cossacks which hold their land by right of military tenure. The land is worked on a community basis and most of the Cossacks are comfortably well-to-do. It has been one of their principles to keep out of politics though supporting the ruling government, and previous to the Revolution, they were always loyal to the Czars. In consequence they were greatly feared by the people because of their ruthless, iron allegiance to the Crown. But with the coming of the Revolution their loyalty shifted to the people's side. The long-flowing coat, heretofore characteristic of the Cossacks, has been dispensed with except among certain classes, such as the Caucasian Cossack with his Circassian costume, and most of these men now fight on foot, whereas before this war they were practically all mounted. Modern trench warfare has brought this change about.

The return trip which almost encircled the base of Mount Ararat, disclosing its every side, again demonstrated the contrasting degrees of comfort which we experienced. From the rough-going army wagon we changed to a private car provided by General Nazarbekoff at the rail-head, and for thirty hours our party of five enjoyed a period of real luxury. This was quickly interrupted, however, at the junction station of Shactacti, where, through a miscalculation — a most common occurrence in Russia — we found it necessary, after midnight, to seek a place on the Tiflis train. In going through the train to the compartment where I knew Mr. McDowell to be, I found him with fourteen Persian and Syrian companions in a four-berth compartment, and despite the overcrowding approaching congestion, they hospitably asked us to join them! This condition had to be endured not for a few hours but for a journey covering three nights and days on a composite train of coaches, military and freight cars.

At Tiflis, after gladly saying good-bye to some but not all of our unwelcome parasitic friends through the medium of hot sulphur baths, and reluctantly parting from a number of the rare real companions who had made our journey pleasant and , never to be forgotten, Mr. McDowell and I started on a five-day trip by rail back to Petrograd. We again called on our friend Monsieur George to secure us a compartment, and instead of a berth each — the berths are narrow and run across the car — Mr. McDowell and I had to double up in the lower berth, my feet beside his head and vice versa, a young woman with her child occupying the upper berth of the compartment. This situation, which would be rather startling in America, is very common in Russia. where travelers are constantly being forced into embarrassing positions by a widespread disregard for the sexes which is part and parcel of unmoral Russia.


© Holdwater
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