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The Greek-Turkish War

THE BATTLE OF VELESTINOS


The Turks had made three attacks on Velestinos on three different days, and each time had been repulsed. A week later, on the 4th of May, they came back again, to the number of ten thousand, and brought four batteries with them, and the fighting continued for two more days. This was called the second battle of Velestinos. In the afternoon of the 5th the Crown Prince withdrew from Pharsala to take up a stronger position at Domokos, and the Greeks under General Smolenski, the military hero of the campaign, were forced to retreat, and the Turks came in, and, according to their quaint custom, burned the village and marched on to Volo. John Bass, the American correspondent, and myself were keeping house in the village, in the home of the mayor. He had fled from the town, as had nearly all the villagers; and as we liked the appearance of his house, I gave Bass a leg up over the wall around his garden, and Bass opened the gate, and we climbed in through his front window. It was like the invasion of the home of the Dusantes by Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, and, like them, we were constantly making discoveries of fresh treasure-trove. Sometimes it was in the form of a cake of soap or a tin of coffee, and once it was the mayor's fluted petticoats, which we tried on, and found very heavy. We could not discover what he did for pockets. All of these things, and the house itself, were burned to ashes, we were told, a few hours after we retreated, and we feel less troubled now at having made such free use of them.

On the morning of the 4th we were awakened by the firing of cannon from a hill just over our heads, and we met in the middle of the room and solemnly shook hands. There was to be a battle, and we were the only correspondents on the spot. As I represented the London Times, Bass was the only representative of an American newspaper who saw this fight from its beginning to its end.

We found all the hills to the left of the town topped with long lines of men crouching in little trenches. There were four rows of hills. If you had measured the distance from one hill-top to the next, they would have been from one hundred to three hundred yards distant from one another. In between the hills were gullies, or little valleys, and the beds of streams that had dried up in the hot sun. These valleys were filled with high grass that waved about in the breeze and was occasionally torn up and tossed in the air by a shell. The position of the Greek forces was very simple. On the top of each hill was a trench two or three feet deep and some hundred yards long. The earth that had been scooped out to make the trench was packed on the edge facing the enemy, and on the top of that some of the men had piled stones, through which they poked their rifles. When a shell struck the ridge it would sometimes scatter these stones in among the men, and they did quite as much damage as the shells. Back of these trenches, and down that side of the hill which was farther from the enemy, were the reserves, who sprawled at length in the long grass, and smoked and talked and watched the shells dropping into the gully at their feet.

The battle, which lasted two days, opened in a sudden and terrific storm of hail. But the storm passed as quickly as it came, leaving the trenches running with water, like the gutters of a city street after a spring shower; and the men soon sopped them up with their overcoats and blankets, and in half an hour the sun had dried the wet uniforms, and the field-birds had begun to chirp again, and the grass was warm and fragrant. The sun was terribly hot. There was no other day during that entire brief campaign when its glare was so intense or the heat so suffocating. The men curled up in the trenches, with their heads pressed against the damp earth, panting and breathing heavily, and the heat-waves danced and quivered about them, making the plain below flicker like a picture in a cinematograph.

From time to time an officer would rise and peer down into the great plain, shading his eyes with his hands, and shout something at them, and they would turn quickly in the trench and rise on one knee. And at the shout that followed they would fire four or five rounds rapidly and evenly, and then, at a sound from the officer's whistle, would drop back again and pick up the cigarettes they had placed in the grass and begin leisurely to swab out their rifles with a piece of dirty rag on a cleaning rod. Down in the plain below there was apparently nothing at which they could shoot except the great shadows of the clouds drifting across the vast checker-board of green and yellow fields, and disappearing finally between the mountain passes beyond. In some places there were square dark patches that might have been bushes, and nearer to us than these were long lines of fresh earth, from which steam seemed to be escaping in little wisps. What impressed us most of what we could see of the battle then was the remarkable number of cartridges the Greek soldiers wasted in firing into space, and the fact that they had begun to fire at such long range that, in order to get the elevation, they had placed the rifle butt under the armpit instead of against the shoulder. Their sights were at the top notch. The cartridges reminded one of corn-cobs jumping out of a corn-sheller, and it was interesting when the bolts were shot back to see a hundred of them pop up into the air at the same time, flashing in the sun as though they were glad to have done their work and to get out again. They rolled by the dozens underfoot, and twinkled in the grass, and when one shifted his position in the narrow trench, or stretched his cramped legs, they tinkled musically. It was like wading in a gutter filled with thimbles.

Then there began a concert which came from just overhead--a concert of jarring sounds and little whispers. The "shrieking shrapnel," of which one reads in the description of every battle, did not seem so much like a shriek as it did like the jarring sound of telegraph wires when some one strikes the pole from which they hang, and when they came very close the noise was like the rushing sound that rises between two railroad trains when they pass each other in opposite directions and at great speed. After a few hours we learned by observation that when a shell sang overhead it had already struck somewhere else, which was comforting, and which was explained, of course, by the fact that the speed of the shell is so much greater than the rate at which sound travels. The bullets were much more disturbing; they seemed to be less open in their warfare, and to steal up and sneak by, leaving no sign, and only to whisper as they passed. They moved under a cloak of invisibility, and made one feel as though he were the blind man in a game of blind-man's-buff, where every one tapped him in passing, leaving him puzzled and ignorant as to whither they had gone and from what point they would come next. The bullets sounded like rustling silk, or like humming-birds on a warm summer's day, or like the wind as it is imitated on the stage of a theatre. Any one who has stood behind the scenes when a storm is progressing on the stage, knows the little wheel wound with silk that brushes against another piece of silk, and which produces the whistling effect of the wind. At Velestinos, when the firing was very heavy, it was exactly as though some one were turning one of these silk wheels, and so rapidly as to make the whistling continuous.

When this concert opened, the officers shouted out new orders, and each of the men shoved his sight nearer to the barrel, and when he fired again, rubbed the butt of his gun snugly against his shoulder. The huge green blotches on the plain had turned blue, and now we could distinguish that they moved, and that they were moving steadily forward. Then they would cease to move, and a little later would be hidden behind great puffs of white smoke, which were followed by a flash of flame; and still later there would come a dull report. At the same instant something would hurl itself jarring through the air above our heads, and by turning on one elbow we could see a sudden upheaval in the sunny landscape behind us, a spurt of earth and stones like a miniature geyser, which was filled with broken branches and tufts of grass and pieces of rock. As the Turkish aim grew better these volcanoes appeared higher up the hill, creeping nearer and nearer to the rampart of fresh earth on the second trench until the shells hammered it at last again and again, sweeping it away and cutting great gashes in it, through which we saw the figures of men caught up and hurled to one side, and others flinging themselves face downward as though they were diving into water; and at the same instant in our own trench the men would gasp as though they had been struck too, and then becoming conscious of having done this would turn and smile sheepishly at each other, and crawl closer into the burrows they had made in the earth.

From where we sat on the edge of the trench, with our feet among the cartridges, we could, by leaning forward, look over the piled-up earth into the plain below, and soon, without any aid from field-glasses, we saw the blocks of blue break up into groups of men. These men came across the ploughed fields in long, widely opened lines, walking easily and leisurely, as though they were playing golf or sowing seed in the furrows.

The Greek rifles crackled and flashed at the lines, but the men below came on quite steadily, picking their way over the furrows and appearing utterly unconscious of the seven thousand rifles that were calling on them to halt. They were advancing directly toward a little sugar-loaf hill, on the top of which was a mountain battery perched like a tiara on a woman's head. It was throwing one shell after another in the very path of the men below, but the Turks still continued to pick their way across the field, without showing any regard for the mountain battery. It was worse than threatening; it seemed almost as though they meant to insult us. If they had come up on a run they would not have appeared so contemptuous, for it would have looked then as though they were trying to escape the Greek fire, or that they were at least interested in what was going forward. But the steady advance of so many men, each plodding along by himself, with his head bowed and his gun on his shoulder, was aggravating.

There was a little village at the foot of the hill. It was so small that no one had considered it. It was more like a collection of stables gathered round a residence than a town, and there was a wall completely encircling it, with a gate in the wall that faced us. Suddenly the doors of this gate were burst open from the inside, and a man in a fez ran through them, followed by many more. The first man was waving a sword, and a peasant in petticoats ran at his side and pointed up with his hand at our trench. Until that moment the battle had lacked all human interest; we might have been watching a fight against the stars or the man in the moon, and, in spite of the noise and clatter of the Greek rifles, and the ghostlike whispers and the rushing sounds in the air, there was nothing to remind us of any other battle of which we had heard or read. But we had seen pictures of officers waving swords, and we knew that the fez was the sign of the Turk--of the enemy--of the men who were invading Thessaly, who were at that moment planning to come up a steep hill on which we happened to be sitting and attack the people on top of it. And the spectacle at once became comprehensible, and took on the human interest it had lacked. The men seemed to feel this, for they sprang up and began cheering and shouting, and fired in an upright position, and by so doing exposed themselves at full length to the fire from the men below. The Turks in front of the village ran back into it again, and those in the fields beyond turned and began to move away, but in that same plodding, aggravating fashion. They moved so leisurely that there was a pause in the noise along the line, while the men watched them to make sure that they were really retreating. And then there was a long cheer, after which they all sat down, breathing deeply, and wiping the sweat and dust across their faces, and took long pulls at their canteens.

The different trenches were not all engaged at the same time. They acted according to the individual judgment of their commanding officer, but always for the general good. Sometimes the fire of the enemy would be directed on one particular trench, and it would be impossible for the men in that trench to rise and reply without haying their heads carried away; so they would lie hidden, and the men in the trenches flanking them would act in their behalf, and rake the enemy from the front and from every side, until the fire on that trench was silenced, or turned upon some other point. The trenches stretched for over half a mile in a semicircle, and the little hills over which they ran lay at so many different angles, and rose to such different heights, that sometimes the men in one trench fired directly over the heads of their own men. From many trenches in the first line it was impossible to see any of the Greek soldiers except those immediately beside you. If you looked back or beyond on either hand there was nothing to be seen but high hills topped with fresh earth, and the waving yellow grass, and the glaring blue sky.

General Smolenski directed the Greeks from the plain to the far right of the town; and his presence there, although none of the men saw nor heard of him directly throughout the entire day, was more potent for good than would have been the presence of five thousand other men held in reserve. He was a mile or two miles away from the trenches, but the fact that he was there, and that it was Smolenski who was giving the orders, was enough. Few had ever seen Smolenski, but his name was sufficient; it was as effective as is Mr. Bowen's name on a Bank of England note. It gave one a pleasant feeling to know that he was somewhere within call; you felt there would be no "routs" nor stampedes while he was there. And so for two days those seven thousand men lay in the trenches, repulsing attack after attack of the Turkish troops, suffocated with the heat and chilled with sudden showers, and swept unceasingly by shells and bullets--partly because they happened to be good men and brave men, but largely because they knew that somewhere behind them a stout, bull-necked soldier was sitting on a camp-stool, watching them through a pair of field-glasses.

Toward mid-day you would see a man leave the trench with a comrade's arm around him, and start on the long walk to the town where the hospital corps were waiting for him. These men did not wear their wounds with either pride or braggadocio, but regarded the wet sleeves and shapeless arms in a sort of wondering surprise. There was much more of surprise than of pain in their faces, and they seemed to be puzzling as to what they had done in the past to deserve such a punishment.

Other men were carried out of the trench and laid on their backs on the high grass, staring up drunkenly at the glaring sun, and with their limbs fallen into unfamiliar poses. They lay so still, and they were so utterly oblivious of the roar and rattle and the anxious energy around them that one grew rather afraid of them and of their superiority to their surroundings. The sun beat on them, and the insects in the grass waving above them buzzed and hummed, or burrowed in the warm moist earth upon which they lay; over their heads the invisible carriers of death jarred the air with shrill crescendoes, and near them a comrade sat hacking with his bayonet at a lump of hard bread. He sprawled contentedly in the hot sun, with humped shoulders and legs far apart, and with his cap tipped far over his eyes. Every now and again he would pause, with a piece of cheese balanced on the end of his knife-blade, and look at the twisted figures by him on the grass, or he would dodge involuntarily as a shell swung low above his head, and smile nervously at the still forms on either side of him that had not moved. Then he brushed the crumbs from his jacket and took a drink out of his hot canteen, and looking again at the sleeping figures pressing down the long grass beside him, crawled back on his hands and knees to the trench and picked up his waiting rifle.

The dead gave dignity to what the other men were doing, and made it noble, and, from another point of view, quite senseless. For their dying had proved nothing. Men who could have been much better spared than they, were still alive in the trenches, and for no reason but through mere dumb chance. There was no selection of the unfittest; it seemed to be ruled by unreasoning luck. A certain number of shells and bullets passed through a certain area of space, and men of different bulks blocked that space in different places. If a man happened to be standing in the line of a bullet he was killed and passed into eternity, leaving a wife and children, perhaps, to mourn him. "Father died," these children will say, "doing his duty." As a matter of fact, father died because he happened to stand up at the wrong moment, or because he turned to ask the man on his right for a match, instead of leaning toward the left, and he projected his bulk of two hundred pounds where a bullet, fired by a man who did not know him and who had not aimed at him, happened to want the right of way. One of the two had to give it, and as the bullet would not, the soldier had his heart torn out. The man who sat next to me happened to stoop to fill his cartridge-box just as the bullet that wanted the space he had occupied passed over his bent shoulder; and so he was not killed, but will live for sixty years, perhaps, and will do much good or much evil. Another man in the same trench sat up to clean his rifle, and had his arm in the air driving the cleaning rod down the barrel, when a bullet passed through his lungs, and the gun fell across his face, with the rod sticking in it, and he pitched forward on his shoulder quite dead. If he had not cleaned his gun at that moment he would probably be alive in Athens now, sitting in front of a cafe and fighting the war over again. Viewed from that point, and leaving out the fact that God ordered it all, the fortunes of the game of war seemed as capricious as matching pennies, and as impersonal as the wheel at Monte Carlo. In it the brave man did not win because he was brave, but because he was lucky. A fool and a philosopher are equal at a game of dice. And these men who threw dice with death were interesting to watch, because, though they gambled for so great a stake, they did so unconcernedly and without flinching, and without apparently appreciating the seriousness of the game.

There was a red-headed, freckled peasant boy, in dirty petticoats, who guided Bass and myself to the trenches. He was one of the few peasants who had not run away, and as he had driven sheep over every foot of the hills, he was able to guide the soldiers through those places where they were best protected from the bullets of the enemy. He did this all day, and was always, whether coming or going, under a heavy fire; but he enjoyed that fact, and he seemed to regard the battle only as a delightful change in the quiet routine of his life, as one of our own country boys at home would regard the coming of the spring circus or the burning of a neighbor's barn. He ran dancing ahead of us, pointing to where a ledge of rock offered a natural shelter, or showing us a steep gully where the bullets could not fall. When they came very near him he would jump high in the air, not because he was startled, but out of pure animal joy in the excitement of it, and he would frown importantly and shake his red curls at us, as though to say: "I told you to be careful. Now, you see. Don't let that happen again." We met him many times during the two days, escorting different companies of soldiers from one point to another, as though they were visitors to his estate. When a shell broke, he would pick up a piece and present it to the officer in charge, as though it were a flower he had plucked from his own garden, and which he wanted his guest to carry away with him as a souvenir of his visit. Some one asked the boy if his father and mother knew where he was, and he replied, with amusement, that they had run away and deserted him, and that he had remained because he wished to see what a Turkish army looked like. He was a much more plucky boy than the overrated Casabianca, who may have stood on the burning deck whence all but him had fled because he could not swim, and because it was with him a choice of being either burned or drowned. This boy stuck to the burning deck when it was possible for him at any time to have walked away and left it burning. But he stayed on because he was amused, and because he was able to help the soldiers from the city in safety across his native heath. He was much the best part of the show, and one of the bravest Greeks on the field. He will grow up to be something fine, no doubt, and his spirit will rebel against having to spend his life watching his father's sheep. He may even win the race from Marathon.

Another Greek who was a most interesting figure to us was a Lieutenant Ambroise Frantzis. He was in command of the mountain battery on the flat, round top of the high hill. On account of its height the place seemed much nearer to the sun than any other part of the world, and the heat there was three times as fierce as in the trenches below. When you had climbed to the top of this hill it was like standing on a roof-garden, or as though you were watching a naval battle from a fighting top of one of the battleships. The top of the hill was not unlike an immense circus ring in appearance. The piled-up earth around its circular edge gave that impression, and the glaring yellow wheat that was tramped into glaring yellow soil, and the blue ammunition-boxes scattered about, helped out the illusion. It was an exceedingly busy place, and the smoke drifted across it continually, hiding us from one another in a curtain of flying yellow dust, while over our heads the Turkish shells raced after each other so rapidly that they beat out the air like the branches of a tree in a storm. On account of its height, and the glaring heat, and the shells passing, and the Greek guns going off and then turning somersaults, it was not a place suited for meditation; but Ambroise Frantzis meditated there as though he were in his own study. He was a very young man and very shy, and he was too busy to consider his own safety, or to take time, as the others did, to show that he was not considering it. Some of the other officers stood up on the breastworks and called the attention of the men to what they were doing; but as they did not wish the men to follow their example in this, it was difficult to see what they expected to gain by their braggadocio. Frantzis was as unconcerned as an artist painting a big picture in his studio. The battle plain below him was his canvas, and his nine mountain guns were his paint brushes. And he painted out Turks and Turkish cannon with the same concentrated, serious expression of countenance that you see on the face of an artist when he bites one brush between his lips and with another wipes out a false line or a touch of the wrong color. You have seen an artist cock his head on one side, and shut one eye and frown at his canvas, and then select several brushes and mix different colors and hit the canvas a bold stroke, and then lean back to note the effect. Frantzis acted in just that way. He would stand with his legs apart and his head on one side, pulling meditatively at his pointed beard, and then taking a closer look through his field-glasses, would select the three guns he had decided would give him the effect he wanted to produce, and he would produce that effect. When the shot struck plump in the Turkish lines, and we could see the earth leap up into the air like geysers of muddy water, and each gunner would wave his cap and cheer, Frantzis would only smile uncertainly, and begin again, with the aid of his field-glasses, to puzzle out fresh combinations.

The battle that had begun in a storm of hail ended on the first day in a storm of bullets that had been held in reserve by the Turks, and which let off just after sundown. They came from a natural trench, formed by the dried-up bed of a stream which lay just below the hill on which the first Greek trench was situated. There were bushes growing on the bank of the stream nearest to the Greek lines, and these hid the men who occupied it. Throughout the day there had been an irritating fire from this trench from what appeared to be not more than a dozen rifles, but we could see that it was fed from time to time with many boxes of ammunition, which were carried to it on the backs of mules from the Turkish position a half mile farther to the rear. Bass and a corporal took a great aversion to this little group of Turks, not because there were too many of them to be disregarded, but because they were so near; and Bass kept the corporal's services engaged in firing into it, and in discouraging the ammunition mules when they were being driven in that direction. Our corporal was a sharp-shooter, and, accordingly, felt his superiority to his comrades; and he had that cheerful contempt for his officers that all true Greek soldiers enjoy; and so he never joined in the volley-firing, but kept his ammunition exclusively for the dozen men behind the bushes and for the mules. He waged, as it were, a little battle on his own account. The other men rose as commanded and fired regular volleys, and sank back again, but he fixed his sights to suit his own idea of the range, and he rose when he was ready to do so, and fired whenever he thought best. When his officer, who kept curled up in the hollow of the trench, commanded him to lie down, he would frown and shake his head at the interruption, and paid no further attention to the order. He was as much alone as a hunter on a mountain peak stalking deer, and whenever he fired at the men in the bushes he would swear softly, and when he fired at the mules he would chuckle and laugh with delight and content. The mules had to cross a ploughed field in order to reach the bushes, and so we were able to mark where his bullets struck, and we could see them skip across the field, kicking up the dirt as they advanced, until they stopped the mule altogether, or frightened the man who was leading it into a disorderly retreat.

It appeared later that instead of there being but twelve men in these bushes there were six hundred, and that they were hiding there until the sun set in order to make a final attack on the first trench. They had probably argued that at sunset the strain of the day's work would have told on the Greek morale, that the men's nerves would be jerking and their stomachs aching for food, and that they would be ready for darkness and sleep, and in no condition to repulse a fresh and vigorous attack. So, just as the sun sank, and the officers were counting the cost in dead and wounded, and the men were gathering up blankets and overcoats, and the firing from the Greek lines had almost ceased, there came a fierce rattle from the trench to the right of us, like a watch-dog barking the alarm, and the others took it up from all over the hill, and when we looked down into the plain below to learn what it meant, we saw it blue with men, who seemed to have sprung from the earth. They were clambering from the bed of the stream, breaking through the bushes, and forming into a long line, which, as soon as formed, was at once hidden at regular intervals by flashes of flame that seemed to leap from one gun-barrel to the next, as you have seen a current of electricity run along a line of gas-jets. In the dim twilight these flashes were much more blinding than they had been in the glare of the sun, and the crash of the artillery coming on top of the silence was the more fierce and terrible by the contrast. The Turks were so close on us that the first trench could do little to help itself, and the men huddled against it while their comrades on the surrounding hills fought for them, their volleys passing close above our heads, and meeting the rush of the Turkish bullets on the way, so that there was now one continuous whistling shriek, like the roar of the wind through the rigging of a ship in a storm. If a man had raised his arm above his head his hand would have been torn off. It had come up so suddenly that it was like two dogs, each springing at the throat of the other, and in a greater degree it had something of the sound of two wild animals struggling for life. Volley answered volley as though with personal hate--one crashing in upon the roll of the other, or beating it out of recognition with the bursting roar of heavy cannon. At the same instant all of the Turkish batteries opened with great, ponderous, booming explosions, and the little mountain guns barked and snarled and shrieked back at them, and the rifle volleys crackled and shot out blistering flames, while the air was filled with invisible express trains that shook and jarred it and crashed into one another, bursting and shrieking and groaning. It seemed as though you were lying in a burning forest, with giant tree trunks that had withstood the storms of centuries crashing and falling around your ears, and sending up great showers of sparks and flame. This lasted for five minutes or less, and then the death-grip seemed to relax, the volleys came brokenly, like a man panting for breath, the bullets ceased to sound with the hiss of escaping steam, and rustled aimlessly by, and from hill-top to hill-top the officers' whistles sounded as though a sportsman were calling off his dogs. The Turks withdrew into the coming night, and the Greeks lay back, panting and sweating, and stared open-eyed at one another, like men who had looked for a moment into hell, and had come back to the world again.

The next day was like the first, except that by five o'clock in the afternoon the Turks appeared on our left flank, crawling across the hills like an invasion of great ants, and the Greek army that at Velestinos had made the two best and most dignified stands of the war withdrew upon Halmyros, and the Turks poured into the village and burned it, leaving nothing standing save two tall Turkish minarets that many years before, when Thessaly belonged to the Sultan, the Turks themselves had placed there.


Richard Harding Davis

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