a British War-Correspondent on the Russian Front
Of the remarkable types of fighting engaged in changing the map of Europe, the Caucasian is the most romantic and mysterious of all. His striking figure and picturesque uniform and the remote region of his fighting lend him a peculiar interest and charm. For whole months his activities are shrouded in impenetrable gloom. Then suddenly the world will ring with some splendid achievement, such as the Battle of Sarytamsh or the capture of Erzeroum. It is fitting therefore, that the first of our new and absorbing series of articles by famous correspondents on their most thrilling adventure in the. present conflict should be devoted to an incident with the Caucasians.
The Editor has asked Mr. H. C.. Seppings-Wright, the eminent battle chronicler and artist, whose experiences include service in the Ashanti, Spanish-American, Russo-Japanese, Balkan, Tripoli, and present campaigns, to open this feature with a story of his ride with Caucasian cavalry on the eastern front.
Among my recollections perhaps one of the toughest jobs during my services with the Russian Army was on the occasion of a trip I made with the Caucasian cavalry, commanded by the Grand Duke Michael. These splendid troops are generally called Cossacks. This is a misnomer, and I write this brief account of them under their proper title.
The mistake, no doubt, arises from the fact that the huge Cossack army wear the picturesque national dress of these native Caucasian regiments on grand occasions. On active service the uniform of the Cossacks and their equipment ate identically the same as these of the cavalry.
There are, however, distinguishing feature.. A heavy mass of hair falls over the left brow of the Cossack. This kive-lock is his particular pride. He oils and curls it with all the assiduity of an ancient beau. The men of, the Caucasian sotnias, or squadrons, wear an untrimmed, shaggy ,beard, and long, flowing hair; the latter is so coarse that it is scarcely, distinguishable from the goatskin kepi imparting to the figure a wild, ferocious appearance, totally, at variance with his real sentiments, which are kindly, gentle, and humane.
Towards the Hungarian Frontier
I left a certain town in Galicia in a military train, which dropped me at a village farther south. From here a drive of some thirty miles in an open sledge, drawn by four horses abreast, conveyed me to the headquarters of the X army, where I received a warm welcome.
It was winter time, and deep snow covered the country. Although well wrapped up in skins, and lying in a nest of straw, I could scarcely keep warm.
The troops were mostly billeted in different cottages in the village of -. Their hardy little horses standing about seemed impervious to weather conditions, for like their masters they are born campaigners ; cold, hunger, heat, and thirst seem all the. same to them. I understood and appreciated. these qualities later on.
That same evening we were ordered on some expedition, whether it was scouting or foraging, I didn't know. It was somewhere toward the Hungarian frontier, - and that: was good enough..
Being provided with one of the quietest horses in the troop, I rode out in high spirits. Not being accustomed to the cushion, or high pillow, which is strapped to the saddle, I found some difficulty in getting across my mount. The saddle itself is a high, peaked, half-moon shaped seat relied on a pack, with square saddle flaps buckled to the battens. The stirrup leathers are long. This obliges one to remain bolt upright instead of sitting on the saddle.
.My greatest difficulty lay in that cushion, which gave me the impression of being seated tip in the air, not altogether a pleasant sensation, especially when your beast is lunging breast-high through snow-drifts.
And, the cold - how it cut Three pairs of socks, felt boots and these stuffed with paper, failed to keep it out.
Some sort of order was kept in spite of the snowstorm. Between each file a led horse carried supplies, spare ammunition, etc., besides which the troopers' horses each bore a miscellaneous burden, a "cargo of nolions" hung all about the saddle - tente d'abris, buckets, the inevitable teapot, etc, and, in many cases, the prayer-carpet, for not a few of these Caucasians are strict Mohammedans.
I never once gave a thought as to where we were bound. Now and again I caught glimpses through the snow-wreaths of distant pine-clad slopes. . We were riding among trees and I got a good many smacks from branches as they recoiled with the force of a catapult from my leading file.
Halts were called at intervals to allow our "Marine Cossacks" to come up. These very useful and necessary reinforcements were supplied by sailors from the Black Sea Fleet, and were attached for the purpose of working the mountain battery. Like all sailors, they adapted themselves to their new "craft," as they called their horses.
Some country waggons had been requisitioned for their especial benefit, to bring along the guns, shells, etc. Once I very nearly came off, as my horse stumbled over some railway tracks, which I afterwards learned were the road leading into Hungary. After considerable jolting and jogging on this rough track the going became, if anything, worse as we plunged into a dense forest with a thick, matted undergrowth. Here we made "heavy weather" as the Tsar's Tars said. After hours, so it seemed, we arrived at a defile, where the air became sensibly milder.
Evidently this was a rendezvous, for the challenging neighs of the horses were answered from somewhere in the woods. A sudden turn in the ravine brought us into the midst of a big camp, where we were offered food and tea, my small tent was pitched against a sheltering bank, and I was soon asleep.
Romance Mid the Snowy Pines
I woke about noon and started making notes of the wild and picturesque surroundings. The camp was ideally chosen. A dense wood of pines effectually screened it from any. marauding aeroplane. The horses in their saddles were tied up to the tree-trunks, lances, rifles, accoutrements of all sorts were suspended from the stumps of old branches - "Nature's pegs". The men were huddled about in groups and looked quite happy and contented, bursts of merriment and applause greeted the successful story-teller, for there is something Far Eastern in the habits of these soldiers. They love to listen to tales as marvellous as the "Arabian Nights."
I also learned that our sotnias had been told off to attack an Austrian force entrenched some distance ahead in a position commanding a mountain pass of great importance. This was the cause of the high spirits. These hardy mountaineers love nothing so much as a scrap.
Although small tents are served out, the men seldom use them - I have on occasion seen them used during heavy rain much in the same way as our carters use a sack - but stick to the more primitive custom, a shelter of boughs ; many even disdain this luxury and content themselves with sleeping in the snow wrapped up in their "borkas." This borka is shaped like a large riding cap, or cloak which reaches down to the ground. The material of which, it is made is a sort of felt of goats or camel's hair, and is so thick that it is quite impervious to wet or cold, and does for bed, blanket, and tent. These. well-seasoned troopers desire nothing better. I have seen men actually burrow into the snow, curl themselves up in the borka, and sleep soundly although snow was falling. In the morning nothing is to be seen but mounds of snow.
We broke camp and started late in the afternoon. By this time I was getting used to the excitement of keeping on the back of my steed. In the exhilarating ozone of the mountains I quite forgot my stiffness, which had gradually reduced itself to a comforting numbness. This ride was well worth all the initial weariness. It was life - without pain or ache.
We bivouacked for the last time amongst a grove of beeches, without noise. No talking, no smoking, and no fires, for the enemy was but a few miles distant. The expedition had been carefully planned. A large force of Russian infantry lay somewhere away on our right flank. Their business was to make a flanking attack. To our chaps fell the honour of direct assault.
The guns were carried up in sections by our "Marine Cossacks," and I watched them as they toiled up through the snow until lost in the brushwood slopes. The observation officers had already started, having established the telephones, and were now in constant communication with the commandant. .
Getting to the Business of War
The most trying part of the war correspondent's mission is at this moment. You somehow feel yourself de trop, everyone seems trying to avoid you. You are alone. It is like that great loneliness which the small boy experiences on his first day at a big boarding school, yet it is only imaginary. Everyone, from the jovial commandant down, has his own serious business to occupy him. In addition, perhaps, his own solemn thoughts. Each one has become individualised.
I caught myself wondering why the telephone did not shrill. Of course, it was all nonsense, but it showed the drift of one's mind. The whole business was uncanny and eerie; men mustered, and silently glided away, always upward. The very horses seemed to know that something extraordinary was going to happen, for they stood motionless beside the tree- trunks. Occasionally their lips gave out a sort of muffled chopping, as one or other would reach out for a few straws, the remnants of last night's meal.
With the permission of the commandant, I followed the trail of the guns, until guided by sounds of digging and scraping, I came suddenly on the position, which was well chosen. Squatted at the back of the crest, or ridge, of the mountain our grim little battery looked quite formidable ; the guns were well sunk in the ground, and further protected by circular- topped shields. The Russian Jack Tars, who formed the guns' crews, seemed quite as much at home as if they were on their native element. Higher up, and entirely concealed by the projecting buttress of a friendly cliff, stood the observation officer, waiting the fateful moment. The telephone wires, like black threads, lay along the snow - there were two - one connected with the battery, the other with headquarters.
First Shot from the Enemy
The scene before me will ever remain photographed on my mind. I can see it now, and could almost tell the number of bushes which sparsely covered the undulating sides of the hills opposite, and beyond the smooth plateau, which swept with a bold curve towards the north-west, clumps of dark trees here and there dotting its surface emphasising its purity and whiteness. A fringe of trees framed this plain, while the perspective of hill-tops concentrated the eye on the enemy trenches. These were constructed on the German system small, half-moon shaped - and in groups, covering each other. They were so well concealed that for the moment I failed to locate them.
Our range-finder gives us the exact distance to the enemy's first-line trench - 3,000 yards as a crow flies, but to cover this short distance our short distance our men have to cross two deep ravines. Strict orders are given to wait until the infantry attack develops. At last ! The first shot comes from the enemy. No need for silence now. Our batteries get to work, while the advance proceeds.
As I have said, the enemy's position was well chosen., His guns were posted and concealed on the heights, and they closely searched the wooded slopes of mountain without doing much damage. On our side we did some good shooting, getting on to a wooded ravine wherein lurked the Austrian reserves and supply columns. The main road to the Hungarian plains passes through this gorge : we could not distinguish the road itself but we knew it was there, and probably crowded with the enemy's transport. It was both their feed pipe and their line of retreat.
Glorious Charge Across the Snow
The shell smoke in little puffs and wreaths punctuated the distant woods to the right which concealed our supports. The grinding patter of the machine-guns and loud detonations of the shells made a considerable din and painted a smudge of smudge of smoke and dirty flame across the landscape. From my eyrie I got a bird's-eye view of the whole field, though at times obscured by the shell mist, I could follow the plan of the attack and watch its gradual development. . While the enemy's attention was directed to our front I saw our supports leaving the cover of woods. To me it looked as if they were going to certain destruction ; afterwards I found that their movements masked by the curve which I mentioned before and were further concealed by a spinney of trees. The method of advance was clearly seen. The observation men came first. Then the points, followed by the platoons, until trees were reached, where the attacking force concentrated. From here, after a shell storm - so dear to the hearts of gunners - the whole body charged down over the exposed country. Simultaneously our men dashed from their cover shouting, yelling, and gesticulating in their excitement.
It was magnificent ! These soldiers of the Czar are uncontrollable. Officers and men were strung out on the plain like. hounds. It was everyone for himself against. the common few. During this mad race many disappeared under the snow, and one of the leaders seemed suddenly to have gone mad. He undressed, and began waving his arms about apparently in a maniacal frenzy. I afterwards heard from him that he felt a bullet strike in the shoulder, and to ease the pain he stripped, went through the Swedish drill to feel if there were any bones broken, injected some sedative near the wound, and went on at the head of his men. This is a fact
Herculean Work of Artillery
These hardy soldiers, wearing their borkas, made this brilliant charge thigh deep in snow. It was a tough and went slowly at first, but a final overpowering dash in conjunction with the Russian infantry, cleared the trenches The enemy taking to the wooded hills, our infantry occupied the trenches and threw out a skirmishing line to clear woods. The Cossack soldiers hurried back to get horses, and the pursuit commenced. My business was go to headquarters as soon as possible. I found the General Staff established in the comfortable shacks I occupied by one of the enemy commanders.
Late that night the cavalry returned, their steaming horses showing they had ridden far. They brought in prisoners and two guns, besides supplies of sorts. There were still heaps of work to be done in order to strengthen position and also to get the guns up the hills. No one but an artilleryman knows the difficulties of this operation. i think they are the most patient people in the world. Nothing ever seems to go right, yet these wonderful people never lose their tempers or their beads. " Belly aching is the American term for bringing on guns, and the expression is apt.
This fight was but the beginning of much serious operations. Streams of reinforcements kept flowing in to secure the ground won. Day and night trenching fortifying went on unceasingly, transforming the district for miles, until the countryside looked like foundations for building a new city. It was " a city refuge," for we all had to live underground - in caves.
a drawing of the battle in the snow : from 'the Illustrated War News'
sketches of Russian cavalrymen by Mr. Seppings-Wright
portrait of the author-artist H.C. Seppings-Wright
back to Index