[Tappan Introduction] In February, 1912, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro formed an alliance for the purpose of wresting from Turkey her European territory. War began in October. The Turks, fatally handicapped by the inefficiency and dim organization of their commissariat, were steadily driven back by the invading armies, and Scutari and Adrianople, their most important cities in Europe, were besieged.
So the siege went on, tedious and interminable, and as often as possible I went out to the hills, dodging the vigilant officers, who had a quick eye for the red brassard of a correspondent, and riding or walking as far as possible from the main road until I had reached the last hill which looked down upon the city. From afar the turrets and roofs and domes and minarets of Adrianople appeared like a mirage through a haze of sunshine and a thin veil of mist. The sky was very clear above it. Only a few fleecy clouds rested above the horizon. But suddenly, as I watched one day, a new cloud appeared like a great ball of snow, which unfolded and spread out in curly feathers, and then, after a few moments, disappeared. It was the bursting of a great shell, and the report of it came with a crash of thunder which seemed to shake the hills. Two, three, four shells burst together like bubbles, and then there followed long, low rolls of thunderous sound like great drums beating a tattoo. The noise had a peculiar rhythm, like the Morse code, with long stroke and short, signaling death. It was made by the Bulgarian batteries on the hill-forts, and it was answered by the Turkish batteries from neighboring hills. Presently, as the wreaths of smoke from the guns faded into the atmosphere, I saw that tall, straight columns of smoke were rising from the city of Adrianople and did not die down. They rose steadily and spread out at the top, and flung great wisps of black murkiness across the sky. It was the smoke of buildings set on fire by the shells. Other towers of black smoke rose from valleys which dipped between hills. The Turkish shells, far-flung from their fortifications, crashed into little villages once under Turkish rule and now abandoned by all inhabitants. Soon there would be nothing left of them but blackened stumps and heaps of ash.
As I stood watching one day I saw two scenes in this grim drama which made my pulses beat with a great excitement. A great bird flew across the sky towards the city, and as it flew it sang a droning song like the buzzing of an enormous bee. It was a monoplane, flown by a Bulgarian aviator, who had volunteered to reconnoiter the Turkish defenses. It disappeared swiftly into the smoke-wrack, and for some time I listened intently to a furious fusillade which seemed to meet this winged spy. After half an hour the aeroplane came back, flying swiftly away from the shot and shell which pursued it from the low-lying hills. Its wings were pierced, so that one could see the sky through them, but it flew steadily from the chase of death, and I heard its rhythmic heart-beat overhead. Its escape was certain now. It had mocked at the pursuit of the shells, and the loud beat of its engine above me was a song of triumph. I watched it disappear again---to safety. So it seemed; but death has many ways of capture, and when I came back to Mustafa Pasha that day I heard that the unfortunate aviator, after his escape from the guns, had fallen from a great height within sight of home, and that the hero's body lay smashed to pieces in the wreckage of his machine.
Then on another day I saw another drama in the air. While my eyes watched the smoke-clouds from the siege-guns something twinkled and glittered to the left of the four tall minarets of the great mosque of Adrianople. It was the smooth silk of an airship which caught the rays of the sun; this cigar-shaped craft rose slowly and steadily to a fair height, though I think it was tethered at one end. It rose above peaceful ground into a great tranquillity, which lasted about ten minutes. Then suddenly there was a terrific clap of thunder and a shell burst to the left of the airship. I gave a great cry. It seemed to me that the frail craft had burst and disappeared into nothingness. But a few seconds later, when the smoke was wafted away, I saw the airship still poised steadily above the earth, untouched by that death machine. A second shell was flung skywards, far to the right; and for an hour I watched shells rise continually round that airship, trying to tear it down from its high observation, but never striking it. I do not know the names of the men who piloted that ship, but, whoever they were, they may boast of a courage which kept them at their post in the sky---amid that storm of shells.
It was at night that the bombardment of Adrianople reached the heights of a most infernal beauty. Then the sky quivered with flashes of light, and tongues of flame leaped out from the hillsides, and fire-balls danced between the stars. As I lay in bed after a day on the hills the noise of the bombardment chased sleep away, and every great gun shook the old Turkish farmhouse in which I lived as though heavy iron bedsteads were being dumped down upon the roof. Then there came a continued roll of great artillery. It was so loud and seemed so close that for a moment the wild idea came to me that the Turks had smashed their way out of the besieged city and that there was fighting in Mustafa Pasha. I rose and dressed hastily, lighted a lantern, and went out into the darkness. All around me was the barking and howling of dogs, hundreds of them, baying back an answer to the guns. I stumbled through quagmires of mud and pools of water until I came to the bridge of Mustafa overlooking the wide sweep of the Maritza.
I passed on through the village, and past many lines of sentries and men encamped round fires outside the mosques. Then in the shadow of a doorway I stood still and watched the sky, upon which was written the signs of death still seeking victims, and destruction away in the city below the hills. There was no moon, but the sky was thickly strewn with stars, and it seemed as though some flight of fallen angels were raging in the heavens. I saw a great shell burst below Orion's belt, and the pointers of the Great Bear were cut across by a sword of flame. The Milky Way throbbed with intermittent flashes like sheet lightning, and the pathway of the stars was illumined by the ruddy glare of burning houses and smouldering villages. I had an irresistible desire to get closer to all this hellish beauty, to walk far across the hills to a place of vantage from which I had seen the bombardment by day. But when I raised my lantern and walked forward I was arrested by a Bulgarian officer---and this was the end of my night's vigil.
As all the world knows now, the city of Adrianople did not fall before the armistice arranged between the allies and Turkey; and its garrison, which had maintained such an heroic defense, deserved the fullest honors.
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 436-440.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998