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Along The Trocha

This is an account of a voyage of discovery along the Spanish trocha, the one at the eastern end of Cuba. It is the longer of the two, and stretches from coast to coast at the narrowest part of that half of the island, from Jucaro on the south to Moron on the north.

Before I came to Cuba this time I had read in our newspapers about the Spanish trocha without knowing just what a trocha was. I imagined it to be a rampart of earth and fallen trees, topped with barbed wire; a Rubicon that no one was allowed to pass, but which the insurgents apparently crossed at will with the ease of little girls leaping over a flying skipping rope. In reality it seems to be a much more important piece of engineering than is generally supposed, and one which, when completed, may prove an absolute barrier to the progress of large bodies of troops unless they are supplied with artillery.

I saw twenty-five of its fifty miles, and the engineers in charge told me that I was the first American, or foreigner of any nationality, who had been allowed to visit it and make drawings and photographs of it. Why they allowed me to see it I do not know, nor can I imagine either why they should have objected to my doing so. There is no great mystery about it.

Indeed, what impressed me most concerning it was the fact that every bit of material used in constructing this backbone of the Spanish defence, this strategic point of all their operations, and their chief hope of success against the revolutionists, was furnished by their despised and hated enemies in the United States. Every sheet of armor plate, every corrugated zinc roof, every roll of barbed wire, every plank, beam, rafter and girder, even the nails that hold the planks together, the forts themselves, shipped in sections, which are numbered in readiness for setting up, the ties for the military railroad which clings to the trocha from one sea to the other--all of these have been supplied by manufacturers in the United States.

This is interesting when one remembers that the American in the Spanish illustrated papers is represented as a hog, and generally with the United States flag for trousers, and Spain as a noble and valiant lion. Yet it would appear that the lion is willing to save a few dollars on freight by buying his armament from his hoggish neighbor, and that the American who cheers for Cuba Libre is not at all averse to making as many dollars as he can in building the wall against which the Cubans may be eventually driven and shot.

If the insurgents have found as much difficulty in crossing the trocha by land as I found in reaching it by water, they are deserving of all sympathy as patient and long-suffering individuals.

A thick jungle stretches for miles on either side of the trocha, and the only way of reaching it from the outer world is through the seaports at either end. Of these, Moron is all but landlocked, and Jucaro is guarded by a chain of keys, which make it necessary to reship all the troops and their supplies and all the material for the trocha to lighters, which meet the vessels six miles out at sea.

A dirty Spanish steamer drifted with us for two nights and a day from Cienfuegos to Jucaro, and three hundred Spanish soldiers, dusty, ragged and barefooted, owned her as completely as though she had been a regular transport. They sprawled at full length over every deck, their guns were stacked in each corner, and their hammocks swung four deep from railings and riggings and across companionways, and even from the bridge itself. It was not possible to take a step without treading on one of them, and their hammocks made a walk on the deck something like a hurdle race.

With the soldiers, and crowding them for space, were the officers' mules and ponies, steers, calves and squealing pigs, while crates full of chickens were piled on top of one another as high as the hurricane deck, so that the roosters and the buglers vied with each other in continual contests. It was like traveling with a floating menagerie. Twice a day the bugles sounded the call for breakfast and dinner, and the soldiers ceased to sprawl, and squatted on the deck around square tin cans filled with soup or red wine, from which they fed themselves with spoons and into which they dipped their rations of hard tack, after first breaking them on the deck with a blow from a bayonet or crushing them with a rifle butt.

The steward brought what was supposed to be a sample of this soup to the officer seated in the pilot house high above the squalor, and he would pick out a bean from the mess on the end of a fork and place it to his lips and nod his head gravely, and the grinning steward would carry the dish away.

But the soldiers seemed to enjoy it very much, and to be content, even cheerful. There are many things to admire about the Spanish Tommy. In the seven fortified cities which I visited, where there were thousands of him, I never saw one drunk or aggressive, which is much more than you can say of his officers. On the march he is patient, eager and alert. He trudges from fifteen to thirty miles a day over the worst roads ever constructed by man, in canvas shoes with rope soles, carrying one hundred and fifty cartridges, fifty across his stomach and one hundred on his back, weighing in all fifty pounds.

With these he has his Mauser, his blanket and an extra pair of shoes, and as many tin plates and bottles and bananas and potatoes and loaves of white bread as he can stow away in his blouse and knapsack. And this under a sun which makes even a walking stick seem a burden. In spite of his officers, and not on account of them, he maintains good discipline, and no matter how tired he may be or how much he may wish to rest on his plank bed, he will always struggle to his feet when the officers pass, and stand at salute. He gets very little in return for his efforts.

One Sunday night, when the band was playing in the plaza, at a heaven-forsaken fever camp called Ciego de Avila, a group of soldiers were sitting near me on the grass enjoying the music. They loitered there a few minutes after the bugle had sounded the retreat to the barracks, and the officer of the day found them. When they stood up he ordered them to report themselves at the cartel under arrest, and then, losing all control of himself, lashed one little fellow over the head with his colonel's staff, while the boy stood with his eyes shut and with his lips pressed together, but holding his hand at salute until the officer's stick beat it down.

These soldiers are from the villages and towns of Spain; some of them are not more than seventeen years old, and they are not volunteers. They do not care whether Spain owns an island eighty miles from the United States, or loses it, but they go out to it and have their pay stolen, and are put to building earth forts and stone walls, and die of fever. It seems a poor return for their unconscious patriotism when a colonel thrashes one of them as though he were a dog, especially as he knows the soldier may not strike back.

The second night out the ship steward showed us a light lying low in the water, and told us that was Jucaro, and we accepted his statement and went over the side into an open boat, in which we drifted about until morning, while the colored man who owned the boat, and a little mulatto boy who steered it, quarreled as to where exactly the town of Jucaro might be. They brought us up at last against a dark shadow of a house, built on wooden posts, and apparently floating in the water. This was the town of Jucaro as seen at that hour of the night, and as we left it before sunrise the next morning, I did not know until my return whether I had slept in a stationary ark or on the end of a wharf.

We found four other men sleeping on the floor in the room assigned us, and outside, eating by a smoking candle, a young English boy, who looked up and laughed when he heard us speak, and said:

"You've come at last, have you? You are the first white men I've seen since I came here. That's twelve months ago."

He was the cable operator at Jucaro; and he sits all day in front of a sheet of white paper, and watches a ray of light play across an imaginary line, and he can tell by its quivering, so he says, all that is going on all over the world. Outside of his whitewashed cable office is the landlocked bay, filled with wooden piles to keep out the sharks, and back of him lies the village of Jucaro, consisting of two open places filled with green slime and filth and thirty huts. But the operator said that what with fishing and bathing and "Tit-Bits" and "Lloyd's Weekly Times," Jucaro was quite enjoyable. He is going home the year after this.

"At least, that's how I put it," he explained. "My contract requires me to stop on here until December of 1898, but it doesn't sound so long if you say 'a year after this,' does it?" He had had the yellow fever, and had never, owing to the war, been outside of Jucaro. "Still," he added, "I'm seeing the world, and I've always wanted to visit foreign parts."

As one of the few clean persons I met in Cuba, and the only contented one, I hope the cable operator at Jucaro will get a rise in salary soon, and some day see more of foreign parts than he is seeing at present, and at last get back to "the Horse Shoe, at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford street, sir," where, as we agreed, better entertainment is to be had on Saturday night than anywhere in London.

In Havana, General Weyler had given me a pass to enter fortified places, which, except for the authority which the signature implied, meant nothing, as all the cities and towns in Cuba are fortified, and any one can visit them. It was as though Mayor Strong had given a man a permit to ride in all the cable cars attached to cables.

It was not intended to include the trocha, but I argued that if a trocha was not a "fortified place" nothing else was, and I persuaded the commandante at Jucaro to take that view of it and to vise Weyler's order. So at five the following morning a box car, with wooden planks stretched across it for seats, carried me along the line of the trocha from Jucaro to Ciego, the chief military port on the fortifications, and consumed five hot and stifling hours in covering twenty-five miles.

The trocha is a cleared space, one hundred and fifty to two hundred yards wide, which stretches for fifty miles through what is apparently an impassable jungle. The trees which have been cut down in clearing this passageway have been piled up at either side of the cleared space and laid in parallel rows, forming a barrier of tree trunks and roots and branches as wide as Broadway and higher than a man's head. It would take a man some time to pick his way over these barriers, and a horse could no more do it than it could cross a jam of floating logs in a river.

Between the fallen trees lies the single track of the military railroad, and on one side of that is the line of forts and a few feet beyond them a maze of barbed wire. Beyond the barbed wire again is he other barrier of fallen trees and the jungle. In its unfinished state this is not an insurmountable barricade. Gomez crossed it last November by daylight with six hundred men, and with but the loss of twenty-seven killed and as many wounded. To-day it would be more difficult, and in a few months, without the aid of artillery, it will be impossible, except with the sacrifice of a great loss of life. The forts are of three kinds. They are best described as the forts, the block houses and the little forts. A big fort consists of two stories, with a cellar below and a watch tower above. It is made of stone and adobe, and is painted a glaring white. One of these is placed at intervals of every half mile along the trocha, and on a clear day the sentry in the watch tower of each can see three forts on either side.

Midway between the big forts, at a distance of a quarter of a mile from each, is a block house of two stories with the upper story of wood, overhanging the lower foundation of mud. These are placed at right angles to the railroad, instead of facing it, as do the forts.

Between each block house and each fort are three little forts of mud and planks, surrounded by a ditch. They look something like a farmer's ice house as we see it at home, and they are about as hot inside as the other is cold. They hold five men, and are within hailing distance of one another. Back of them are three rows of stout wooden stakes, with barbed wire stretching from one row to the other, interlacing and crossing and running in and out above and below, like an intricate cat's cradle of wire.

One can judge how closely knit it is by the fact that to every twelve yards of posts there are four hundred and fifty yards of wire fencing. The forts are most completely equipped in their way, but twelve men in the jungle would find it quite easy to keep twelve men securely imprisoned in one of them for an indefinite length of time.

The walls are about twelve feet high, with a cellar below and a vault above the cellar. The roof of the vault forms a platform, around which the four walls rise to the height of a man's shoulder. There are loopholes for rifles in the sides of the vault, and where the platform joins the walls. These latter allow the men in the fort to fire down almost directly upon the head of any one who comes up close to the wall of the fort, where, without these holes in the floor, it would be impossible to fire on him except by leaning far over the rampart.

Above the platform is an iron or zinc roof, supported by iron pillars, and in the centre of this is the watch tower. The only approach to the fort is by a movable ladder, which hangs over the side like the gangway of a ship of war, and can be raised by those on the inside by means of a rope suspended over a wheel in the roof. The opening in the wall at the head of the ladder is closed at the time of an attack by an iron platform, to which the ladder leads, and which also can be raised by a pulley. In October of 1897 the Spanish hope to have calcium lights placed in the watch towers of the forts with sufficient power to throw a searchlight over a quarter of a mile, or to the next block house, and so keep the trocha as well lighted as Broadway from one end to the other.

As a further protection against the insurgents the Spaniards have distributed a number of bombs along the trocha, which they showed with great pride. These are placed at those points along the trocha where the jungle is less thickly grown, and where the insurgents might be expected to pass.

Each bomb is fitted with an explosive cap, to which five or six wires are attached and staked down on the ground. Any one stumbling over one of these wires explodes the bomb and throws a charge of broken iron to a distance of fifty feet. How the Spaniards are going to prevent stray cattle and their own soldiers from wandering into these man-traps it is difficult to understand.

The chief engineer in charge of the trocha detailed a captain to take me over it and to show me all that there was to see. The officers of the infantry and cavalry stationed at Ciego objected to his doing this, but he said: "He has a pass from General Weyler. I am not responsible." It was true that I had an order from General Weyler, but he had rendered it ineffective by having me followed about wherever I went by his police and spies. They sat next to me in the cafés and in the plazas, and when I took a cab they called the next one on the line and trailed after mine all around the city, until my driver would become alarmed for fear he, too, was suspected of something, and would take me back to the hotel.

I had gotten rid of them at Cienfuegos by purchasing a ticket on the steamer to Santiago, three days further down the coast, and then dropping off in the night at the trocha, so while I was visiting it I expected to find that my non-arrival at Santiago had been reported, and word sent to the trocha that I was a newspaper correspondent. And whenever an officer spoke to the one who was showing me about, my camera appeared to grow to the size of a trunk, and to weigh like lead, and I felt lonely, and longed for the company of the cheerful cable operator at the other end of the trocha.

But as I had seen Mr. Gillette in "Secret Service" only seventeen times before leaving New York, I knew just what to do, which was to smoke all the time and keep cool. The latter requirement was somewhat difficult, as Ciego de Avila is a hotter place than Richmond. Indeed, I can only imagine one place hotter than Ciego, and I have not been there.

Ciego was an interesting town. During every day of the last rainy season an average of thirty soldiers and officers died there of yellow fever. While I was there I saw two soldiers, one quite an old man, drop down in the street as though they had been shot, and lie in the road until they were carried to the yellow fever ward of the hospital, under the black oilskin cloth of the stretchers.

There was a very smart officers' club at Ciego well supplied with a bar and billiard tables, which I made some excuse for not entering, but which could be seen through its open doors, and I suggested to one of the members that it must be a comfort to have such a place, where the officers might go after their day's march on the mud banks of the trocha, and where they could bathe and be cool and clean. He said there were no baths in the club nor anywhere in the town. He added that he thought it might be a good idea to have them.

The bath tub is the dividing line between savages and civilized beings. And when I learned that regiment after regiment of Spanish officers and gentlemen have been stationed in that town--and it was the dirtiest, hottest and dustiest town I ever visited--for eighteen months, and none of them had wanted a bath, I believed from that moment all the stories I had heard about their butcheries and atrocities, stories which I had verified later by more direct evidence.

From a military point of view the trocha impressed me as a weapon which could be made to cut both ways. What the Spaniards think of it is shown by the caricature which appeared lately in "Don Quixote," and which shows the United States represented by a hog and the insurgents represented by a negro imprisoned in the trocha, while Weyler stands ready to turn the Spanish lion on them and watch it gobble them up.

It would be unkind were Spain to do anything so inconsiderate, and besides, the United States is rather a large mouthful even without the insurgents who taken alone seem to have given the lion some pangs of indigestion.

If the trocha were situated on a broad plain or prairie with a mile of clear ground on either side of it, where troops could manoeuvre, and which would prevent the enemy from stealing up to it unseen, it might be a useful line of defence. But at present, along its entire length, stretches this almost impassable barrier of jungle. Now suppose the troops are sent at short notice from the military camps along the line to protect any particular point?

Not less than a thousand soldiers must be sent forward, and one can imagine what their condition would be were they forced to manoeuvre in a space one hundred and fifty yards broad, the half of which is taken up with barbed wire fences, fallen trees and explosive bomb shells. Only two hundred at the most could find shelter in the forts, which would mean that eight hundred men would be left outside the breastworks and scattered over a distance of a half mile, with a forest on both sides of them, from which the enemy could fire volley after volley into their ranks, protected from pursuit not only by the jungle, but by the walls of fallen trees which the Spaniards themselves have placed there.

A trocha in an open plain, as were the English trochas in the desert around Suakin, makes an admirable defence, when a few men are forced to withstand the assault of a great many, but fighting behind a trocha in a jungle is like fighting in an ambush, and if the trocha at Moron is ever attacked in force it will prove to be a Valley of Death to the Spanish troops.


Richard Harding Davis

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