'Outwitting the Turk'
By E. H. Keeling

How I Escaped from Turkish Captivity

British prisoners in Constantinople

 

When the garrison of Kut surrendered to the Turks in April, 1916, half the officers were taken to a town called Kastamuni, in the heart of Asia Minor, about 250 miles east of Constantinople. We were interned in private houses cleared for us. During the spring of 1917, Captain Tipton, Captain Sweet, Lieut. Bishop and I made up our minds to escape.

The most vital question was, what point to make for? The only land frontier was the Russian front line, 400 miles away to the east, across extremely wild and mountainous country, and it seemed impossible to escape that way. Our only chance was to get down to the Black Sea, steal a boat and make for a Russian port. If, however, we aimed at the nearest part of the coast we should almost certainly be caught, so we determined to strike for a point much further away, near the mouth of the Kizil River (far off the map to the right), where there was less probability of the beach being watched.

As we should have to walk at least 200 miles across rugged country, to say nothing of a sea voyage afterwards, the problem of food was serious. It was decided that each of us should carry about twenty pounds of food on his back, consisting of biscuits, cheese, chocolate, malted milk and dried goat. We also took a sail in sections, an axe-head for cutting a mast, knives, rope, fishing tackle, two small canteens for cooking, nails, needles and thread, bootlaces, string, spare socks, tin cups, matches, some quinine, Dover's powders and vaseline, various other odds and ends, and of course water- bottles, filled at the start with strong tea. The sail was a patchwork affair made of a sheet, a towel and the lining of two Wolseley valises, roped all round. It was intended for use with a mast to be made with our axe, if we should find a boat from which the gear had been removed, and it would also be valuable as a covering when we slept at night. Each man's load came to about thirty-five pounds, and in order to prepare ourselves for carrying such a weight across rough country we went into strict training. This was fairly easy, as we were allowed to go for long walks under guard, and when whole-day picnics were permitted we made the practical experiment of filling our luncheon knapsacks with sand.

We had a tiny map of the country on a very small scale. It was not accurate, but it told us that we must go almost due east, and it gave the position of the chief rivers and towns. We were able to buy some cheap compasses, and in case they turned out untrustworthy Bishop made a rough compass by suspending a dial with string from magnetized needles.

The question of dress caused much discussion. We decided to wear fezes at night, when they would give us the outline of natives. But we had so little knowledge of Turkish that it was useless to attempt to pass as Turks in daylight. We therefore resolved to wear our uniforms, substituting leather buttons for the brass ones, and to represent ourselves when necessary as Germans. We forged a passport in Turkish, which read as follows:—

 

To ALL TURKISH CIVIL AND MILITARY OFFICERS :

Give every assistance to the bearer, Captain Hermann von Bellow, and three soldiers, who are surveying.

{Signed) OSMAN,
Commanding Angora Army Corps.

 

We could not speak German, but we did not anticipate that any Turk we met would do so either.

Sweet was quartered in a house some distance away from ours. To put the Turks off the scent of the direction we had taken he wrote Bishop a letter in which he spoke of making for a town in the south-east. This was crumpled up and left in the room that I shared with Bishop.

To get out of the house was the easiest part of the whole business. Kastamuni was so remote and inaccessible that the Turks never dreamed any of us would try to get away. The guard over the houses was therefore very loose and casual. We had little difficulty in slipping out, at half-past ten one night in August, 1917.

We were guided to the outskirts of the town by one of our orderlies, Bombardier Prosser, who had been in the habit of prowling about after dark in a fez and a false beard. We heard afterwards that the alarm was raised within a few minutes of our departure, and that Prosser had to get back through a cordon of sentries. He knocked over one of them and reached his quarters in safety, and when the Captain of the Guard came round to feel the hearts of all the orderlies, to find out which of them had been running, Prosser could hardly be roused from an innocent sleep. We also heard afterwards that mounted gendarmes were sent in pursuit along the roads, but fortunately we gave a wide berth to all roads.

Our escape had a lamentable effect on the treatment of the officers left behind. Various punishments and restrictions were inflicted upon them for our crime. That they, for the most part, considered that escaping came first, and excused all the discomfort and suffering we brought upon their heads, was only what, knowing them, we would have expected: but it was generous of them, none the less.

Most of the stories in this book are the stories of escapes across the plains of Germany: but the problem that faced us in Asia Minor was very different. Our way lay across mountains covered with forests and intercepted by deep ravines. We were going eternally up and down, over a surface covered with loose stones. One of our greatest difficulties was to find tracks in the right direction.

We marched always eastwards as far as possible, travelling at night and lying up in a forest or gully by day. For guide we relied chiefly on Bishop, who had the best sense of direction of any of us. When we halted in the daytime the forests were a priceless asset, for in them we could light fires with impunity. So far as we could we lived on the country, keeping our knapsacks for emergencies. We picked pumpkins, beans and maize, often in the same field, but it was difficult to find them in the dark. Wheat was plentiful, but the husking of it tedious, and the result not easily digestible. It made Tipton quite ill, and he had severe pain which developed into an abscess, but he gamely carried on. Water was fairly abundant, but not always easy to locate, and this was a constant source of anxiety. One night when we had empty bottles we spent many hours looking for a path down to a stream which we could hear beneath us. After a most difficult descent by the light of two candles, during which Sweet cut his leg rather badly, we were finally brought up by a precipice dropping at least a hundred feet sheer to the stream. We got no water that night.

During our night marches we seemed to rouse all the dogs for miles round, but they never attacked us. On one occasion a man came out and obligingly called the dogs away: it was a good thing we were wearing our fezes. The rifle shots which often followed the outbreaks of barking were trying to our nerves, but the bullets seemed to be unaimed: they probably came from shepherds guarding their flocks and were intended to warn robbers of what they might expect.

So we went on for about a week, but progress was terribly slow. It was essential to get along faster, and we decided to travel by road, in the hope that the search for us there had by now been abandoned. This proved correct, and for three nights we made better progress. But we got little rest by day because of the mosquitoes, and we began to find the night marches very exhausting. Moreover, our boots were giving trouble, and would hardly last for another hundred miles of night work, even on main roads, which in Turkey are no better than English bridle-paths. So we decided to change our tactics again.

Our map showed us that the sea was only thirty miles away across a mountain range to the north-east, and we resolved to leave the road and strike for the nearest point on the coast. We could not hope to find our way in the dark, and we determined to travel openly in the daylight, asking the way and buying food whenever we could. This change of policy was successful. We were able to buy as much food as we wanted, and our appearance seemed to arouse no suspicion. On the second afternoon we reached the top of the watershed, about 4,000 feet above sea level, and the cold was so great that we sought shelter for the night. In a village near the top we were accepted as Germans, given a room in the rest house, and entertained most hospitably. On the following afternoon, thirteen days after leaving Kastamuni, we sighted the Black Sea, just east of Sinope. And next morning we were thrilled to see several boats sailing close in shore. That night we made our way down to the beach, and before dawn broke we started to look for a boat. Our hopes rose high when daylight revealed a small one, complete with mast and sail, moored a little way from the shore, on our right. We hurried towards her.

Bluff had served us so well up to this point that we were over-confident, and disaster followed. We knew it was too early for any inhabitants to be about, but we had only gone a few yards when to our horror we stumbled on a sentry. We passed him with a greeting in Turkish, but he followed and said his sergeant wished to speak to us. We turned back, only to be confronted by an armed guard of ten men.

We told the sergeant the usual story, and showed him our passport. We added that we wished to hire a boat to take us to another Turkish port, and we asked him to negotiate a passage in the boat we had seen. The sergeant suggested that we should go with him by water to a town a few miles westward, to see his officer. We said we couldn't spare the time, but he would take no refusal and compelled us to embark with part of the guard. During the passage we saw several boats that seemed to be unwatched, and we cursed the fate that had made us turn to the right instead of the left when we reached the beach that morning. We had little doubt that we could have secured a boat and got away in it at night, if we had not run into the guard.

On arrival at our destination we stayed in the boat while Sweet, who acted the part of the German officer named in the passport, went to interview the gendarme officer. He actually convinced him that we were Germans, and the officer was conducting him back to the boat when, as luck would have it, they met a naval officer, who probably knew a German when he saw one and insisted that Sweet should visit the Governor of the town. The Governor sent for the rest of us, and said that as we were Germans we would probably like to speak to a German officer on the telephone. He gave the receiver to Tipton, who, poor man, knew no German but Sprechen sie deutsch? This he gallantly shouted half-a-dozen times into the mouthpiece. Then he put the receiver back in disgust, saying the line was out of order. But the Governor was only amusing himself; he had a description of us, and the game was up. He was politeness itself, and there was nothing for us to do but to try and look pleasant too.

Orders came from Kastamuni to send us back to that town, and we started with heavy hearts next morning, escorted by a guard of nine soldiers in charge of a sergeant. During a halt at a coastguard barrack we found a cobbler who mended our sorely-tried boots. In the light of subsequent events he was a godsend,

On the third day's march, we were crossing a pass, about 4,000 feet above sea level, when the incredible thing happened. The road was built into the side of a cliff, with a steep bank, thickly wooded, sloping down on our left. Suddenly we were fired upon. Bullets came in quick succession from the wood, accompanied by shouts of Iskar, askar, teslim ol! (Soldiers, surrender !) The sergeant of our guard at once ordered his men to lie down and open fire, while Sweet, Bishop and I, feeling the road was no place for us, dived left into the wood: escape was barred on the other side by the cliff. Tipton was riding the sergeant's pony and could not get away at all.

After about a minute the firing stopped, and Bishop and myself crept gingerly back on to the road, to find that one of our guard had been shot dead and three wounded, while the others had surrendered to four men who had emerged from the wood. These were alert, weather-beaten men, each wearing a couple of bandoliers stuffed full of cartridges and a long knife in his belt. Two of them turned out to be Circassians, one a Georgian, and the fourth an Armenian.

The change in our fortunes was staggering: but at first we had not the slightest idea what to make of it. Were the attackers brigands, and if so what fate was in store for ourselves? Had we fallen from the frying pan into the fire? But another and more pleasant surprise was to come.

The leader, one of the Circassians, embraced us warmly and cried, Allans, enfants de la patrie! To this cordial but somewhat inappropriate greeting we replied in French, but we soon found that this was the only French he knew. So we continued the conversation in halting Turkish. He explained that he and his comrades were not brigands, as we supposed, but political rebels who were "wanted" by the Government and had fled to the mountains. They called themselves Arkadash (Comrades). The leader, whose name was Ragib, had been in jail for his share in the murder of the Grand Vizier in 1913.

He had heard of our recapture and had arranged the ambush for the sole purpose of rescuing us. Like us, he and his comrades wished to get to Russia, and he undertook to find a boat within a few days.

The offer was much too good to refuse, but before accepting it we had to look for Sweet. He had not reappeared from the wood and we had no idea which way he had gone. All of us, including the soldiers, searched and shouted for him, but without result. After waiting an hour we were obliged to leave without him. What happened to him will be told later.

After releasing the disarmed soldiers, who went away along the road to fetch a cart for their wounded, the outlaws and ourselves set off in the other direction, and lay in a wood till evening. When darkness fell Ragib and the other Mohammadans went off for some purpose which we did not discover, while the Armenian took us back towards the coast. Each of us now carried a rifle taken from the soldiers—no light addition to our load. It was pitch dark, and as our route lay along rough tracks and streams strewn with boulders we all took some pretty bad tosses. We were dead beat when at last, after nine hours, we reached a hiding-place in a wood said to be one hour from the coast. We three fell asleep at once, but the indefatigable Armenian went off immediately to a friendly farmhouse close by and re-appeared with a splendid breakfast of fried eggs, yoghourt, milk, cheese and bread.

During the next four days we changed our hiding-place each night. We were joined by several other men who wished to accompany us to Russia. Not only food but bedding was brought to us: the outlaws could never do enough to make us comfortable and would accept no payment. But we were not the only living things in that bedding.

On the fifth day after our rescue Ragib rejoined us and said that his plans for a boat were going well but the date of embarkation could not yet be fixed. He had heard that 2,000 soldiers and gendarmes were searching for us, and we again changed our bivouac, first to a maize field and then to a wood. To relieve the monotony of the long days a man was sent to the nearest town to get playing cards and tobacco, and we played piquet with the outlaw chief. On the eighth day news arrived that a boat had been chartered, but we continued in hiding while our friends collected food for the voyage. Four days later we left the wood and found a party of ten outlaws assembled, with a pony carrying bread, flour, and honey. They told us that while collecting this food in a village they had been surrounded by gendarmes and had been obliged to cut their way out. One of the band and one gendarme had been killed in the fighting.

Next day we marched five miles to yet another hiding-place, close to the point at which we were to embark, and a messenger was despatched to find out whether arrangements had been made for the boat to pick us up that night. When he returned shortly before dark he made the bitter announcement that the whole scheme had to be abandoned. The Government had ordered that all boats should be hauled up on shore and the sails and oars deposited with the police. They were much incensed by an alliance of rebels with prisoners of war, and were leaving no stone unturned to catch us.

There was nothing for it but to move to an entirely different part of the coast, where the precautions might perhaps be less strict. We marched west throughout that night and the next, and then Ragib and four of the others went off to negotiate for another boat, while the rest of us sought a fresh hiding-place in a thick forest. Here we spent a further week awaiting news. Heavy rain fell, and the nights were very cold, but our friends were past masters of woodcraft and kept a fire twenty feet long burning night and day. Local farmers who knew them brought us food. Coarse unleavened bread was our usual meal, but twice a sheep was roasted whole, tied to a pole which revolved on two Y-shaped posts driven into the ground before the fire. Having gorged themselves with mutton, the outlaws seemed to require no further food for fully forty-eight hours.

At last Ragib returned with splendid news. He had bought a boat from a Turk for 400 in gold, of which our friends seemed to have plenty, including many English sovereigns. The crew had not been told of the sale: they merely received orders from the owner to put in at a certain point on the coast to ship brushwood. The pony was now loaded up with bread, and after marching for eight hours we bivouacked at 3.30 a.m. in a clump of bushes about five minutes from the beach, at a point about thirty miles west of Sinope. We had covered nearly 150 miles since we were recaptured, and 350 since we left Kastamuni.

The next day was the most eventful of all. The boat had arrived during the night, and when dawn broke we hurried down to the shore, seized the crew, and tied them up to trees, according to plan. We then proceeded to ballast the boat with stones from the beach. It was a fishing boat, twenty-five feet long and of about two and a half tons, with dipping lug-sail and four oars. A stream ran into the sea a few yards away, and we filled our water-bottles and a tin and a cask we found in the boat. We had about ten gallons of water altogether.

As we worked a soldier appeared with a rifle, but we wasted no time in arguing with him: we just tied him also to a tree. (We heard afterwards that he was the advance man of a patrol, and that when he reported what had happened motor-boats armed with machine- guns were sent out to look for us.) By sunrise everything was ready and we pushed off. There were fourteen of us on board—eleven outlaws and our three selves.

While we had been embarking, another boat, somewhat bigger than ours, had been creeping along the coast, and we decided to anticipate any attempt she might make to stop us. Accordingly all the rifles were hidden and we quietly pulled alongside. Then we suddenly jumped up and in true pirate fashion levelled our rifles at the crew. There were five of them, but they were unarmed and surrendered at once. We decided to take both them and their boat along with us, and two of the outlaws were placed on board as a sort of prize crew. Being escaping prisoners ourselves we enjoyed having prisoners of our own, but I doubt whether the captured crew saw the humorous side of their position.

Both vessels now hoisted sail, and as a five-knot breeze was blowing from the east we decided to make for the Crimea, straight across the Black Sea, instead of going east along the coast. The Black Sea can be very rough, as its name implies, and to attempt to cross it in a small boat was risky, but we hoped that our luck would hold. Within two hours we must have been out of sight from the land, and there was no sign of any pursuit, nor did the chance of meeting a German submarine seem worth worrying about. Our chief anxiety was for our own boat. She had to be baled out frequently, the boom was badly sprung, and repairs to the sail and rigging were much overdue. In the afternoon the wind dropped and we made the captured crew row. Soon after mid-day we saw the last of the mountains of Turkey that we had known so well.

Our direction was north-east, but our compasses had been taken from us when we were recaptured and we had only the sun and stars to steer by. We were astonished to find that although some of the captured crew had been at sea all their lives none of them had the slightest idea which was the north or any other star. The three of us therefore took watches at the helmsman's side, to make sure that he kept the right course. It is hardly necessary to add that we put everybody on a strict ration of water.

Next morning we were making good progress under a northeast breeze when the other boat lowered her sail and signalled for help. She had broken her rudder, and we decided to take her crew on board and abandon her. Before doing so we changed her boom for ours, and we also took over several bags of grain and flour, a keg containing about two gallons of water, and a pump, which saved us the labour of baling. Our own small boat now carried nineteen persons, and most of the ballast was thrown overboard. The wind again dropped, and for most of the second and third days rowing was necessary. The bread we had brought on board had become mouldy, and after making a fire with floor boards from our boat we concocted a sort of porridge by boiling some of the flour in sea water. You cannot drink salt water, but you can use it for cooking.

Just as it was getting dark on the third day, we sighted to the north-west what looked like a range of mountains, but we could not be absolutely sure they were not clouds, and darkness fell before we could get near enough to decide.

With a strong breeze we made good progress that night, and at dawn next morning we definitely sighted land. Once more the wind dropped, but the captured crew, who cherished the mistaken idea that they would be sent back to Turkey, redoubled their energies at the oars, while we finished off what was left of the bread and water. It took us seven hours to reach the shore, but at noon, after a voyage of two hundred and fifty miles, lasting three and a quarter days, we pulled in to the fashionable watering place of Alupka, on the east coast of the Crimea. It was seven weeks since we had left Kastamuni. Alupka was virtually the nearest point in Russia to the place at which we had embarked, so our rough reckoning had not been far out.

We had learned the Russian words for "English prisoners," and on approaching the shore we shouted out Ingliski plenny to a man bathing in the sea. But, as so often happens to an Englishman who tries to speak the language of the country he is visiting, he replied "I speak English very well."

Opposite the point at which we landed were the municipal baths. Ever since leaving Kastamuni what we had been looking forward to most eagerly was not good food or drink, linen sheets, or European society, but hot baths, and within half-an-hour of landing we were lying in the first we had known for nearly two months.

The rest was easy. Kerensky was still in power in Russia, and Tipton and Bishop got home without difficulty. Not long afterwards, to the sorrow of all who knew him, Tipton was killed while flying in France.

Poor Sweet had none of our luck. We learned after the Armistice that when the outlaws opened fire on our guard he decided that the best thing to do was to get clear away, and made no attempt to return to the road on which we waited for him. He pluckily made his way alone to the coast, but was there again recaptured. He was taken back to Kastamuni with a guard of seventy soldiers, led in procession through the town, and kept in the civil jail for six weeks. He was then interned in another prisoners' camp at Yozgad, where I grieve to say he died of influenza just before the War ended.

I stayed on for three months in the Black Sea in an attempt to get some of our comrades away from Turkey, with the help of the Russian Navy and our outlaw friends. One dark night we crossed to the Turkish coast in a Russian destroyer, and the Armenian and two of the Circassians were landed to take a letter to Kastamuni. This letter arranged a rendezvous on the coast, to which these three would guide any prisoners who cared to make the venture, and to which I should return in a fortnight's time. The scheme failed because the Circassians quarrelled with the Armenian and murdered him soon after they landed. When I got back to Russia I found the Bolshevists in power, and I had some difficulty in making my way to England, via Finland, Lapland, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland Islands and Aberdeen.

Most of our outlaw friends settled down in the Caucasus, but Ragib, a prince of adventurers, found employment in the British Secret Service.

 

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