Vivid Narrative by an Eye-Witness
- two covers from Austrian newsmagazines
In the beginning of May, the Austrians, helped by a great number of German troops, began their desperate efforts to regain the lost ground in Galicia. The strategic plan of the Austro-German Staff is a secret no longer, but at the beginning of its application it was quite a surprise for the Russians.
It was on the front between Tarnow and Yaslo where the Austro-Germans concentrated all their pressure in order to break the Russian lines. The impetus was most vigorous at the latter place, and here I happened to arrive the day before the withdrawal of the Russians from the town.
The Advance of the Enemy
After a long and tiresome journey in a military train we reached Yaslo, forty hours after leaving Lemberg. The small, pretty town is situated in a very flourishing valley, through which passes the River Wislok. One can see how the valley stretches from the foot of the Carpathians towards the north, reaching the branches of hills forming the first line of defence of Przemysl. Being the junction of railway roads leading to Lemberg, Przemysl-Cracow, and Hungary, Yaslo has always been regarded as a point of great strategic importance. Guarded well from the south by the high mountains, it seemed a safe place to establish stores and magazines, so Yaslo became the most important military basis of the Russian armies operating in the Carpathians. A few miles south-west of Yaslo was Gorlice, from where continuous shooting could be heard, and on the north-west, Pilzno, a very fine town, where, I was told, fighting was already in progress; but none of us who had just arrived could imagine that serious operations were actually going on there.
It was apparent, however, that something extraordinary was happening, for everywhere in the neighbourhood of the town, and especially near the railway station, one could see troops, some resting, others preparing to start, and others proceeding along the roads to the south. The railway station was turned into a small, hospital, and a great many wounded soldiers were waiting for medical help. Some of the slightly wounded had come on foot from the firing line, about five miles away from Yaslo.
Springtime and the Roar of Battle
It was noon. The spring, which visits Galicia a little later than many other parts of middle Europe, came earlier this year. The weather that day was most charming. The warm rays of the sun melted the last patches of snow still to be seen on some of the higher tops of the mountains. Murmuring streams fell from the heights and poured into the Wislok.
How would it be there last year at this time, and what a change now! No more were peasants seen in their picturesque costumes, nor the children going in the forest for strawberries or to pick flowers, and then sell bouquets to the passengers of the trains which used to stop at Yaslo. There, in the High Tatra, where before were heard only the sweet melodies of one shepherd's zaphara, now most terrible fighting was going on. Lasting artillery volleys were heard. The battle was in its fury, as the wounded coming in were testifying.
I went on into the town. The streets were full of carriages loaded with provisions and supplies. The horse transports were leaving the town. Many of the army magazines had been transferred by trains on the yesterday, and the last few trains in the afternoon took the remainder of all military ammunitions back to Lemberg. Not the slightest trace was to be found now of the high pyramids of bags of flour and other
provisions. Only a few piles of torn clothing and worn-out boots were lying out. Of the hospitals none were left; these also were transferred to safer places, after seeing the necessity of withdrawing before the strong enemy pressure. As far as one could see, the withdrawal was carried out splendidly, and, remembering how all carts and waggons were leaving Yaslo in exact order, without the slightest alarm, I cannot but wonder at the official German news I read a few days later in Sweden, on my way back to England, that Yaslo had been captured, with all magazines and ammunition the Russians had concentrated there during the last months.
"How Brave Those Russian Women Are!"
In the last days hostile aeroplanes were throwing bombs every day on the town, and in the morning of the last day the Austrian aircraft had been particularly active. Over thirty bombs were dropped, most of them directed against the railway station. The latter place was a medical centre, and one could see from miles away its Red Cross flag. A few people have been killed and several wounded, a nurse being in the number of the latter. It was not a surprise at all to see another two monoplanes visiting us at about noon. One of them came just above the station, and began to fly in circles over it, dropping, one after another, several bombs without any result. What a terrible scene! After the nerve-shattering explosion of the first bomb in the centre of the manoeuvring field of the station, everybody ran down in the cellars of the houses to get shelter. The men were not as courageous as three young girls, who were nursing the wounded. How brave those Russian women were! Laughing at the aeroplane, they were watching it all the time from one of the windows of the station. Unfortunately, there was not a single antiaircraft gun. The chauffeurs of the motor transports, the Circassian and Cossack patrols, were firing at it with their carbines. What a pity! Their bullets hardly went to half the height at which the giant was flying.
The Stricken Field
The sun was tending westward when my motor-car was making towards Gorlice. At every instant the salvos were increasing, continuous thunders, amongst which one could hardly hear the discharging of the machine guns. The artillery duel was at its maximum. Every one of the German attacks was preceded by a long and severe bombardment. At last we approached one of the "first-aid points." It was established temporarily in a barn, situated in a small valley between two hills covered with flowers, through which a brook was iunning. But who could enjoy the charms of the spring in such a time? We left the car, and went on foot to the "point." Hundreds of wounded were awaiting there. Most of them were badly wounded. Two doctors and a dozen of assistants (amongst them two women) were in attendance. When dressed, the badly wounded were taken on motors or carried away on stretchers. The slightly injured were proceeding on foot, some of them helping the others. I saw one man who was wounded in the head helping as a stretcher-bearer to carry one of his comrades. It was a stirring sight to see how everyone was exerting his utmost efforts to do something for his unhappy brothers. The women were a real consolation for the terribly suffering men, whose faces were covered with blood. Breathing heavily, they were extending hands for a few drops of water, and with motherly care and tenderness the nurses were alleviating their pains. Too terrible for words was the scene when one young soldier was weeping and not allowing the doctor to cut off his right arm.
The Panorama of the Battlefield
To the hill, from where the panorama of the battle could be seen, were only a few hundreds of yards. In five minutes we were there. It was too risky to go any further forward; but one could see everything from that place. A good half a mile to the left of us there was a Russian howitzer battery. It was replying bravely to the unceasing cannonade of the enemy. Down in the valley there were a great many of the Russian infantry reserves resting and preparing to go and relieve their brothers in the trenches. Further up was a long range of hills, on which the Russian trenches were situated, and the enemy shells were bursting one after another along that line. One could see the wounded coming along the country road from the trenches. Far away in the background of the panorama were standing the colossal mountains.
To our right was the railway road, passing amongst the hills and following the bank of the Wislok. On the other side of the river, batteries and trenches. A little behind, some tents could be recognised. These were the headquarters of one of the Russian divisions. A cavalry detachment was proceeding from there towards the reserves, a horse transport of shells and cartridges for the fighting- troops. Just in front, between the two green hills through which the Wislok was running, one could see, through glasses, the German trench line. There were probably no more than five hundred yards between the two fighting lines at that place.
Advancing to the Attack
At about seven o'clock the fire decreased. One of the soldiers accompanying me was saying that the Germans were preparing to attack. Usually they began their severest storms at about sunset or early in the morning. At that time the car in which I came had come once more back for wounded, and I was called this time to return. The wounded were carried now directly to Krosno, for it was no more safe to leave them in Yaslo. We took in our car two badly and three slightly wounded soldiers, and started. On the way to Krosno we met many infantry reinforcements hasting along the road to Yaslo. Then we met a group of slightly wounded soldiers coming from Dukla. We could take one of them, a non-commissioned officer of the Orlov Regiment, who had been fighting from the very beginning of the War. With grief-stricken heart he began to tell me about his division, the famous Division of Poltava:
Our division was guarding the heights near Dukla Pass. Five days ago, on the Saturday, "avstrijtsi" began to bombard our positions as never before. Our artillery was replying to them in the beginning well, and we were feeling quite comfortable in the trenches. On the Sunday the cannonade increased. We learned from our advanced guards that there were some "Njemtsi" with the Austrians. They had captured some of their Uhlans, who told us that there were about two army corps of theirs concentrated on that front. Later on it was understood that the enemy was operating with at least eight army corps between Tarnow and Dukla.
The "Second Coming"
On Monday the bombardment was most violent. It seemed to me that the " Second Coming " had arrived! The havoc oif the guns was so terrible that all our advanced trenches were razed to the ground. Earth, men and ammunition, all formed a sort of "kasha." The heavy artillery explosives battered our lines. Then the German attacks began. Austrians and Germans, mixed together, advanced column after column. It was an easy task to repulse the first, the second; but the number of their chains and columns did not cease. . . . There were at least ten. At some places our men withdrew, then again returned and recaptured the trenches, thus making many prisoners; but at other places we lost. All the day the situation was wavering. At night we had to withdraw. The same yesterday. We again withdrew before the strong pressure. Then I was wounded in the leg. What to do? They outnumbered us in everything. Bravery? No, no bravery at all! Insensibly drunk, the enemy men were forced to fight. All the prisoners we made were telling us that alcohol has been given to them.
The last echoes of the guns were decreasing with the twilight of the day. It was getting dark. At last we arrived at Krosno.
M. Mamarcheff visited the Russian front with the delegation of the "Great Britain to Poland Fund," of which the celebrated actress, Lydia Yavorska, Princess Bariatinsky, is chairman of the London Committee. This article, as the reader will see, was written at the beginning of the great retreat. How much more now does the plight of the Poles appeal to the heart of the great British public? Mr. Eveleigh Nash is Hon. Treasurer of the Fund, which now exceeds ,£20,000, and letters to him should be addressed Berkeley Hotel, London, W.