[Tappan Introduction] After the capture of Kirk-Kilisse by the Bulgarians, they pushed on to cut off the retreat of the Turks. Part of the Turkish forces were withdrawn to Lule-Burgas, and here a fierce battle took place, at the close of which the Turks were forced to make the retreat which is here described.
I NOW come to the days of October 29 and 30. Glorious weather continued, and tempted all of us to the open country, away from this filthy little village, where we were penned up like sheep. From afar I heard the music of the guns. It came in continuous shocks of sound, the crash of great artillery bursting out repeatedly into a terrific cannonade. It was obviously the noise of something greater than a skirmish of outposts or a fight between small bodies of men.
While the war correspondents were cooking food in their stewing-pots a big battle was in progress, deciding the fate of nations and ending the lives of many human beings. That thunder of guns made my pulses beat, throbbed into my brain. I could not rest inactive and in ignorance of the awful business that was being done beyond the hills. Ignoring the orders to remain in the village, I rode out towards the guns. Although I did not know it at the time, as we were utterly without information, I was riding towards the battle of Lule-Burgas, which destroyed the flower of the Turkish army and opened the way of the Bulgarians to Constantinople.
Of the actual battle itself I am unable to speak as an eyewitness. Indeed, there was no mortal eye who could see more than a small part of it, as it covered a front of something like fifty miles; and even to the commanders of the army corps engaged, it was a wild and terrible confusion of great forces hurling themselves upon other great bodies of men, sometimes pressing them back, sometimes retiring, swept by a terrific fire, losing immense numbers of men, and uncertain of the damage they were inflicting upon the opposing troops. Only from those who took part in it have I been able to gather some of the grim details of that great tragedy to the Turks. Certain facts stand out in all their accounts.
The Turkish artillery was overmastered from the first. The Bulgarian guns were in greater numbers and better served, and they had an inexhaustible supply of ammunition. Not so the Turks. In consternation, in rage, in despair, the Turkish artillery officers saw their ammunition dwindling and giving out at a time when they needed it most: when the enemy's shells were bursting continuously upon their positions, when the enemy's infantry were exposing themselves on the ridges, and when the Bulgarian soldiers made wild rushes, advancing from point to point, in spite of their heavy losses in dead and wounded. There were Turkish officers and soldiers who stood with folded arms by the limber of guns that could no longer return the enemy's fire, until to a man they were wiped out by the scattered shells. The frantic messages carried to the commander-in-chief notifying him of this lack of ammunition passed unheeded, because the supply was exhausted.
Abdullah Pasha was a sad man that day, when from one of the heights he looked down upon his scattered army corps and saw how gradually their fire was silenced. Now on his right wing and his left his legions were pressed back until they wavered and broke. And now, with an overwhelming power and irresistible spirit of attack, the Bulgarians cut the railway line, scattered his squadrons of cavalry, broke through his various units, and bore down upon his rear-guard holding the town of Lule-Burgas. I do not believe the Turkish soldiers were guilty of cowardice during those hours of battle. It was only afterwards, when the fighting was finished and the retreat began, that panic made cowards of all of them and seemed to paralyze them.
But from all that I have heard the Turkish soldiers in the mass behaved as bravely during the battle as all the traditions of their fighting spirit have led us to believe. They fought resolutely and doggedly, although, as I know now, they had gone into the battle hungry and were starving at the end of it. They died in sufficient numbers, God knows, to prove their valor. They died in heaps. Many of the battalions were almost annihilated, and the greatest honor is due to the men of the Second Corps, who, after they had been beaten back again and again, after the battle had really been lost irretrievably by the failure of Mukhtar Pasha to repress the general attack of the Bulgarians with his Third Army Corps, which had come up from the direction of Viza, re-formed themselves and marched to an almost certain death. For a little while they held their own, but the Bulgarians were now in an impregnable position on the heights, and in such places of vantage for their artillery that they could concentrate their fire in a really terrific manner. The men of the Second Corps found themselves in a zone of bursting shells, and in the face of a withering rifle fire which swept upon them like a hailstorm.
A great cry broke from the ranks of the living, in which already there were great gaps, as the dead and wounded fell in all directions. The ranks were broken. It was only a rabble of terror-stricken men, running away from that hunting-ground of death, who came back beyond the reach of the Bulgarian bullets. The town of Lule-Burgas was already in the hands of the enemy. And in the great field of battle, extending over the wild countryside for many miles, divisions, regiments, and battalions were scattered and shattered, no longer disciplined bodies of men, but swarms of individuals, each seeking a way to save his own life, each taking to flight like a hunted animal, each bewildered and dazed by the tragic confusion in which he staggered forward.
This is a connected account of what happened. But in war events are not seen connectedly, but piecemeal, confusedly, and without any apparent coherence, by those who are units in a great scheme of fate. So, looking back upon those days, it seems to me that I lived in a muddling nightmare, when one experience merged into another, and when one scene changed to another in a fantastic and disorderly way.
I first came in touch with bodies of retreating soldiers when, in my ride out from the village of Chorlu, I crossed the railway line and went on towards the guns. Those men were in straggling groups or walking singly. They were the first fugitives, the first signs, on this day of Tuesday, 29th, that the battle which was raging with increasing fury was not going well for the Turks. The men were coming away from the fight weary, dejected, hopeless. They had no idea as to the direction in which they wanted to go. They wandered along aimlessly, some this way, some that, all of them silent and sullen, as though brooding over the things they had seen and suffered, and as though resentful of the fate that had befallen them. I did not grasp the full significance of these wandering soldiers. I thought they were just faint-hearted fellows who had deserted from their battalions. Soon I saw the real truth.
The pale dawn came grayly across the plain, and the shadows of night crept away, and in the hush of the early hour men were silent, wondering what would be the fortune of war that day. So came the break of day on October 31st, a date which now belongs to history, remembered with bitterness by the Turks and with triumph by the Bulgarians. Before the sun had dispelled the white, hard frost on the grass there came to our ears once more the thunder of the guns, which had stopped at dark on the night before. We made a hasty breakfast, eager to get close to the battle, not only for professional reasons, but because no man may withstand the thrill which comes when men are fighting. But our hopes were dashed to the ground, and we were thrown into consternation when Major Waffsy came to us and ordered an instant and hurried retreat. We were disposed to rebel, to protest against this order, which seemed ignominious, and absurd, and unreasonable. But very soon we saw that Waffsy Bey had reason on his side and that things were very serious.
Thousands of Turks were making their way in great disorder in the direction of Chorlu. They were literally running from the distant guns. They were like great flocks of sheep scared by the wolf, and stumbling forward. Men fell as they ran, stumbling and staggering over the boulders and in the ruts. They seemed to be pursued by an invisible terror, so that they did not dare to stop, except to regain breath to amble forward with drooping heads. They had no shame in this flight. These tall fellows of fine physique, except for their leanness and starvation looks, ran like whipped dogs, with eyes that glinted with the light of a great fear. It was a distressing and painful sight. Major Waffsy seemed in just as much hurry. The sight of these fugitive soldiers seemed to shake his nerves terribly, and his face was very white and strained. I pitied the man, for he was a patriotic Turk and a courteous gentleman, although sometimes we hated him because he kept us so strictly in hand. Now he started back on the line of the retreat with part of his charge, who seemed to think that this time he would be a valuable companion; but none of the English went with him. We had decided to give him the slip. So we tarried over our preparations and deliberately lengthened the time of our packing, and found many difficulties in the way of an early start. Major Waffsy set off without us, not suspecting our ruse, and when he was well out of harm's way we proceeded on our own line of route, which was forward to the battle-field.
I made my way to the river and there saw an astounding sight of panic in its most complete and furious form. It was, indeed, the very spirit of panic which head taken possession of the soldiers whom I now met on this spot. Never before had I secn men so mad with fear. I hope that never again shall I see a great mass of humanity so lost to all reason, so impelled by the one terrible instinct of flight. The bridge was absolutely blocked with retreating soldiers. It was a great stone bridge, with many archways and a broad roadway, with one part of its parapet broken; but, broad as it was, it was not wide enough to contain the rabble ranks which pressed across from the farther bank. They struggled forward, trampling upon each other's heels, pushing and jostling like a crowd escaping through a narrow exit from a theater fire.
Most of the men were on foot, some still hugging their rifles, and using them to prod on their foremost fellows, but some of them were unarmed. They bent their heads down, drooped as though their strength was fast failing, breathed hard and panted like beasts hunted after a long chase, and came shambling across the bridge as though on one side there was the peril of death and on the other side safety. The horsemen in the crowdùrugged men swathed in drab cloths like mummies taken from their cases, on lean-ribbed and wretched horses---would not wait for the procession across the bridge, but, spurred on by panic, dashed into the water and forded their way across. All seemed quite regardless of the fact that the Bulgars were several miles away, and that the difference of a few miles would not count in the gap between life and death.
I almost expected to see a squadron of the Bulgarian cavalry charging down upon this mass of men, so abject was their terror. But the plain behind them showed no sign of an enemy. No guns played upon the fugitives. Instead came a force of Turkish cavalry with drawn swords, galloping hard and rounding up the fugitives. Many officers did their best to stem the tide of panic, and beat the men back with the flats of their swords, and threatened them with their revolvers, shouting, and cursing, and imploring them. But all the effect they had was to check a few of the men, who waited until the officers were out of sight, and then pressed forward again. With a young British officer who was out to see some fighting, I turned again towards the town of Lule-Burgas, where a great fight was now taking place, and rode against the incoming stream of wounded and retreating soldiers.
They seemed to come on in living waves round my horse, and I looked down upon their bent figures, and saw their lines staggering below me, and men dropping on all sides. I saw the final but fruitless struggle of many of them as they tried to keep their feet, and then fell. I saw the pain which twisted the faces of those who were grievously wounded. I saw the last rigors of men as death came upon them. When we got nearer to the roaring guns, breaking out into great volleys which seemed to shake the earth, and to set the air throbbing, the retreat was being carried out in a more orderly fashion. Men were marching in rank with their rifles slung across their shoulders, and with officers pacing alongside. Those who had broken the ranks were stopped, and unless wounded were compelled to come into the ranks again. I saw many men being chased with whips and swords, while non-commissioned officers were set apart to cut off the stragglers. They were spent with fatigue, and suffering from hunger and thirst, and despondency was written on every face, but at least it was a relief to see an orderly formation and a body of men who had not lost all courage and self-respect. Evidently the best of the army was at the front.
As my companion and I were short of food and darkness was coming on, we decided to turn, especially as the fight could not last until the next morning. At dusk we reached the village of Karistaran and met Angus Hamilton and H. Baldwin, and together set out for a night ride to Chorlu.
This was far from pleasant. The army was in full retreat, and the roads and bridges were thronged, so that it was impossible to push one's way through the tramping men who, of course, would not open up for us, and whose rifles were like a moving hedge in front of us. It was also difficult to ride at the side of the roads, on account of the exhausted and dying soldiers who lay about in the mud while their comrades passed. This was a sickening thing, and I had a sensation of horror every time my horse halted before one of those prone bodies, or when I had to pull it out of the way of one of them. Another difficulty that worried me was the absence of an interpreter. We should not know if we were challenged, and could not answer if we knew, so that we were in real danger. As a measure of precaution we rode as near as possible together in a group of four, hoping, in the darkness, to be taken for a patrol. If we had been recognized as foreigners, we might have lost our horses; for these Turks, wounded or exhausted, would have coveted our mounts, for which they had a really desperate need.
Reading this in cold blood people may accuse us of selfishness. It would have been heroic, they might think, to dismount and, in Christian charity, yield up our horses to suffering men. But that idea would have seemed fantastic had it occurred to us for a moment. We had our duty to perform to our papers, and what, after all, would four horses have meant among so many? Such a sacrifice would merely have led to our own undoing. Never shall I forget that ride in the dark night to Chorlu, the vague forms of the retreating army passing with us and around us like an army of ghosts, the strange, confused noise of stumbling feet, of voices crying to each other, of occasional groans, of clanking arms, of chinking bits and bridles, the sense of terror that seemed to walk with this army in flight, the acuteness of our own senses, highly strung, apprehensive of unknown dangers, oppressed by the gloom of this mass of tragic humanity.
At last we reached Chorlu in the early hours of the morning, utterly tired out in body and spirit and quite famished, as we had only had a few biscuits since our scanty breakfast on the previous day.
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. 441-450.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998