- from the War Illustrated, 2nd March, 1918
- 'A Serbian Supper-Party'
A Wanderer In War Lands
komitadjis at work in the Balkans - from a French newsmagazine
Some Lively Memories from the Lower Danube
Turn-Severin, on the Danube, it was so warm in November that we could sit outside a cafe and drink our breakfast coffee in the open air at 7.30 a.m. An attractive little town, now unfortunately long in enemy hands-a town I have several good reasons to remember.
One was that I found in it an excellent bath-house, fitted up in a style most unusual in that part of the world, for the benefit of Europeanised Rumanians who went to pass the spring or summer there. To get really hot water in a large, real bath of porcelain, and a cold shower to end up with, was so rare a treat on the eastern front that I could quite contentedly have made a long stay at Turn-Severin if the Germans had only left it alone.
Another memory, more vivid and bizarre, connected with those last days of the Rumanian resistance in Moldavia (as the western part of their country is called) is the memory of a Serbian detachment of bomb-throwers, which was stationed close by on one of the Danube islands. The first evening I was in Turn-Severin I made acquaintance with a black-bearded Russian colonel in the restaurant where everyone dined. His name was Katmanofi. He told me he had been a naval captain, but, as his wife was Serbian and he knew the language well, he was given a commission in the Army and appointed to command this irregular band of Serbian "komitadjis."
On a Danube Island
A "komitadji," you must understand, is, in peace time, a Balkan politician. He is a member of a "committee," which means that he is engaged in trying to exterminate the members of some other or probably of every other"committee" in his part of the country. Party warfare in the Balkans is the real thing, not waged with speeches and arguments but with knives and bombs.
These Serbian "komitadjis" had now put their political skill and experience at the service of their country. They used to make raids across the Danube into Bulgaria and throw hand-grenades with useful effect. Their black-bearded colonel was proud of them, and with good reason. They were a tough, adventurous lot.
I went to see them on their island at the colonel's invitation. They had trenches on the side facing Bulgaria, but they were of no use either for defensive purposes or as rifle- pits. They were shallow and narrow. The only way to be hidden in them would have been to lie down. As we walked through them we. were in full view of the Bulgarians, not more than two hundred and fifty yards away. However, this did not in the least worry the Serbians, They had no use for trench warfare. Bomb-throwing was their game.
They insisted after that on giving an exhibition of the way they threw them, I did not want to see it at all. I recalled the accident which not long before had happened to Lady Sybil Grey on the Russian front when she was watching a similar practice. I thought of the story of the man who was assured that a gun could not go off so long as the "safe" was on. He said: "Yes, that's all very well. You know it can't go off, and I know it can't. But does the gun know it?" However, we had to go through it.
The man who gave the exhibition was a tall, bony, loose-jointed creature who had lived twelve years in the woods to escape from rival "politicians." He had the title of Voivode, which means warrior, and confers great honour. A few days before he had been across the river by himself, and had killed five Bulgars, wounding twelve more. So I think he deserved his title.
As we had landed on the island from the launch which took us over we had seen some of the "komitadjis" cooking a sucking-pig. It was spitted on a stick, and they were turning it over a fine red log-fire. After we had walked round, the colonel commandeered the sucking-pig, and insisted that we should sit down and eat it with him at five o'clock in the afternoon. He told us we could not go back to the Rumanian shore until dark fell, so we might as well fill up our time by eating and drinking. A delightfully Russian view! So down we sat in the open and fell to.
Luckily, the Bulgarian gunners began just about this hour to put across their usual afternoon dose of shells. I had an excuse to finish up quickly my pretence of eating, and go down to the river-bank to see what sort of hits they were making. The Rumanian batteries soon answered, so we had a brisk bombardment going on over our heads. The colonel said the Bulgars had evidently seen us, and hoped to catch us as we went back. I asked him why they did not pepper the island. "Oh," he said, "they never begin that until eight-thirty at night."
We crossed safely in the early darkness and river mist, though we nearly ran into one of the Rumanian defensive mines owing to a heated disagreement between the colonel and the motor-man as to where it would be best to land. And then the colonel asked me to take supper with him and some of his officers. He did not live on the island, but in the town. After the sucking-pig I hardly felt like another meal, but there was no way out of it, so I promised to be with him at eight o'clock.
Enjoymentof a Sort
As soon as I got to the house I heard the scraping of violins. On one side of the dining- room there was a small conservatory, and from out the greenery of this peered the pathetic-faces of three gloom, Tzigane fiddlers. They looked scared. I wondered why. Later on I knew why.
From the moment we began supper the young Serbian officers danced. After the first few courses they pushed back the table to one side so that they might have more room. They danced quite well, to wild, blood-stirring tunes of Old Serbia.
Once or twice the serving-woman who brought in the dishes and changed our plates joined in their figures, linked arms with them, cut nimble capers, then went on taking away the plates.
From time to time the colonel rose and solemnly stepped to the music, his black beard wagging over his chest. An aged Cossack officer serving with him could not resist the infection of the dance and footed it stiffly, but with vast enjoyment. When he was not dancing, the colonel sat watching his young men with affectionate approval. Every now and then he would call one of them to him and would kiss him for doing so well- He was not an old man really, but he had the air of a patriarch among his grandsons. Toasts followed one another briskly. We drank red wine, pleasant, but not strong. No one drank too much. Their exhilaration was not alcoholic, but temperamental.
Dinner over, we still sat; the officers still danced, and then began another phase of the proceedings. I heard a shot in the room. I looked round, and saw the man sitting next to me had fired his Browning pistol between his knees. I immediately picked my feet up and curled my legs as near the seat of my chair as I could. Now I understood why the fiddlers were scared. Pistol shot; went on all about the room. They fired into the ceiling, into the wainscoting, into the floor. The colonel beamed. The old Cossack officer's eyes shone. Enjoyment was at its height, everyone's but mine.
A Kiss to be Proud Of
Now the bomb-thrower, the Voivode, played the wildest, most fantastic tricks. He hugged the serving-woman, he hugged the Tziganes. He pretended to play the guitar on his leg, which he managed, somehow, to get into the position of a guitar. He sang and danced like a man possessed.
The only one of the officers who did not seem to enter enthusiastically into the spirit of the evening was a little Austrian lieutenant, of Slav birth and sympathies. He had deserted to the Rumanians and been attached to Colonel Ratmanoff's staff. I wondered what he thought of it all, and whether he was contrasting the scene with the elegancies of life in Vienna, where he had lived. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that if he were captured he would certainly be shot as a "traitor" which prevented his spirits from rising.
Not even the colonel's speeches cheered him, though these poured forth in an almost uninterrupted stream. He proposed every conceivable toast which we honoured in every kind of wine. I think we all made speeches, several apiece, but I should not like to swear. Of one thing I am certain. When I insisted on departing about midnight, in spite of assurances that the evening had only just begun, the colonel kissed me, black beard and all.
And, although at the moment I was taken aback, I am proud to have been kissed by so brave a man.
Of his bravery shortly after that supper-party I must tell you another time.
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