from 'the War Illustrated’ 13th April 1918
'Smoke-Clouds of Destruction'
by Hamilton Fyfe
a Wanderer in War Lands


How a Great Task was Greatly Achieved

from 'the Times History of the War'


What will happen to the Rumanian oil-fields ? Many people would be glad to know, especially those who have money invested in them. Will the Germans try to keep them ? If so, will the property of British investors be confiscated ?

The British, French and Russian Governments agreed, so it was stated in Rumania at the time of the destruction of the wells, to pay compensation for damage done. Now Russia has no Government. Will France and Britain recompence shareholders in oil companies for their whole losses ?

What would those losses amount to if the oil district were annexed ? That I must leave to "someone in the City" to compute. All I know is that the engineers put the value of the property destroyed towards the end of 1916 at thirty million pounds ! A more effective, more creditable piece of work has not been done during the war.

Yet it was, of course, a melancholy business. It had taken many years to build up the Rumanian oil industry. Years of thought and labour, of effort and calculation. Years, at last, of triumph and profitable toil for all concerned.

A "Destroying Angel"

The industry kept a large population busy and prosperous. It provided the world with more than one of the necessaries of life, as we live it to-day — with light and heat, with grease to make the wheels of engines go round, with the driving power for millions of automobiles and other kinds of petrol motors. Hundreds of thousands of people depended upon its continued working for their living, or for part of it. The convenience and comfort of millions have been affected by the lessening of the petrol supply. Yet it was a military act of necessity to destroy. the industry as far as possible.

"What is war," Napoleon asked, "but a game of barbarians ?" Savage and senseless, save from its own distorted view-point, acts of war must always be.

It was on a sunny November, day that I first saw in Bucharest my old acquaintance "Jack" Norton Griffiths — "Empire Jack" his constituents used to call him. He was looking at the ruins of a building wrecked in the early morning air raid. At first I did not recognise him, in uniform with red tabs, but I found that being a Staff colonel had not a whit changed his jolly, kindly, care-free nature, nor diminished his immense energetic capability by any job of "militarism."

He had been sent out to see that. The Germans got as little as possible out of Rumania, either in the way of oil or grain. Already it was clear that the Rumanian Army could not save the country from invasion. Help was looked for from Russia, but the Russians could not send it in time. They were most unjustly accused of "betraying Rumania." That is nonsense. General Alexeieff was ready to do all that lay in his power, but he could not work miracles. Only a miracle could have moved sufficient Russian troops to save Rumania from Mackensen's machine- like manipulation of his forces.

By the end of November it was clear that the oil-wells must either be destroyed or presented to the enemy. Already they had been left untouched too long. The Rumanian Government urged that they should be left a little longer. But now Colonel Norton Griffiths had his orders. Off he went to Ploesti, the capital of the oil country. He called together the British engineers and managers who had longest experience and those who were reputed to possess the longest heads.

He got valuable advice also from American oil-men. There was general agreement that the only way to seal up a well, so that it could not be used again, was to drop the dipping machinery into it upside down. Wherever such a thing had happened by accident, it had been found impossible to get the machinery out.

Then the colonel got to work. He is by the way, the founder and head of a very big contracting firm which makes docks, digs canals, builds harbours all over the world. Now he proved that he was no less competent at destruction than at construction. A "destroying angel," the oil people nicknamed him. One mine manager of a poetical turn, described him to me as being "in love with ruin."

A great deal of oil was pumped or run off from the reservoirs into shallow basins, where it was set on fire. It did not explode. It did not blaze up. It burned sullenly, giving off a dense black smoke. All over the country the dense black smoke rolled in sinister, slowly-moving clouds. At a place called Targovistca, twenty miles away, it was thick enough to blot out the daylight and make dark night at four in the afternoon.

As I look back, those days of destruction are like a nightmare in my memory. A nightmare lit up by huge flares of burning petrol, lakes of petrol, rivers of petrol, and always above them dense, black, stinking smoke.

Nothing in the war has made a deeper impression on my mind. The lurid sensationalism of it, the hurry in which it was all done, with the query lurking at the back of everyone's thoughts : "Can we do it in time ?"

With Colonel Norton Griffiths worked several oil-men. The new officers set to work with as many helpers as they could enlist by promise of reward. It was a perilous job they were engaged in. There were dangers of falling roofs or walls, dangers of fire, dangers of suffocation. And added to these, there was danger in the threatening mood of the population.

These unfortunate people had to look on and see their living vanish. They saw the wells and refineries which supported them and their families being choked up and knocked down. "Better that the Germans should have them, and employ as, than that we should have no work and starve." That was how they argued.

The colonel was here, there and everywhere, "the life and soul of the party," as another mine manager put it. This poor fellow had helped to break up his own home. His furniture, piano, a library of books which he had been collecting since he was a boy, all had gone. His job had gone. The oil-field which he had managed so capably, and made to yield its increase in growing volume year after year, was out of action. Yet he joked about it. He was the most cheerful of us all as we sat at our scanty meals.


the destruction of the Rumanian oil-wells as seen by a German magazine - 'Illustrirte Berliner Zeitung'


Just in Time

If the oil would not light up quickly the colonel took bundles of blazing straw and flung them into it. He was seen swinging sledge-hammers against the oil-refining machinery, "He ought to have been killed a hundred times," said an admiring American. "Why he wasn't, I cannot understand." His example made all his assistants work like three men apiece.

Just in time they got their work finished. The sound of the guns, magnified by the mountain echoes, had been coming nearer and nearer. Through the town wounded men and deserters and fugitives were flowing in solid streams. There was no hope now that the enemy could be checked before he had captured Bucharest and the oil region.

The well-to-do part of the frightened population had no thought but to flee. The rest for the most part, took a fatalist view. "Let the Germans come," they said to each other. "They can't harm us more than these foreigners have done."

On a Saturday the destruction was almost completed. It was, known that the Rumanian Headquarters Staff had passed through Ploesti in flight. "Give it up now," the colonel was urged. The bombardment sounded very near.

“No," he said, "we'll make a clean job of it." They went on until the Monday. Then the remains of Avarescu's Army began pouring down from the passes they had held so bravely, and so much longer than they had been expected to hold them.

Only then did Colonel Norton Griffiths give the word to quit. It would, indeed, have been useless to stay longer. There was nothing left to do.


portraits of colonel Griffiths / oil wells ablaze in Rumania


see also : The Fall of Bukarest as Seen by a British Journalist

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