Riding the Rails from East to West
illustrations from 'the Graphic' 1915
from 'The Graphic' 1915
The Trans-Siberian Railway is playing a tremendously important part in Russia's military campaign. With the outbreak of war passenger traffic was reduced to an absolute minimum. Express trains were taken off. All modern locomotives were requisitioned for military use. Only one short passenger and mail train daily was permitted to run. That was in early August. Day and night ever since trains of horse and trains of foot, trains of guns and trains of waggons, trains of pontoon sections and trains of stores have been pouring eastward through Asia. I was told and I can well believe it - that more than a million men have already been conveyed. And still they come. When I was in Vladivostok three months ago huge numbers of burly reservists from the maritime provinces of north-eastern Siberia were crowding into town. There is a lull in despatching troops just now," an officer told me. "We are sending off only 60,000 men from Vladivostok this week, but we shall be getting busier soon.
In November I reached England from Port Arthur, by way of Vladivostok, Kharbin, Irkutsk, Omsk, Perm, Petrograd, Finland, Lapland, Sweden and Norway, twenty-six days in trains. The Trans-Siberian Railway I found to be now a military line pure and simple, The daily passenger and mail train slinks humbly along in gaps between troop-trains. It runs on no time schedule. It is side-tracked for hours on the slightest provocation. You may be two days journeying from Irkutsk to Omsk, or you may be six. . . .
German spies are doing their uttermost to choke this formidable steel throat that is feeding the attack on Eastern Prussia. Numerous attempts have been made to blow up the multi-spanned bridges crossing the six or eight rivers, as wide as the Thames at Westminster, between Vladivostok and Petrograd.. I learnt that a heavy charge of dynamite was found on the Sungari bridge at Kharbin in September. At the end of August a German was bayoneted while about to fling an infernal machine on to the bridge over the Kamma, a tributary of the Volga, near Perm.
Russia is not taking any chances now. Soldiers picket every tunnel and bridge on the Trans-Siberian. The daily mail train is halted at every big bridge and boarded by a squad of Cossacks, shouldering rifles with fixed bayonets. All the windows must be closed. In some cases, too. the blinds are ordered down. Passengers are roughly ordered to sit upright with their hands visible on their laps till the bridge is passed. The fact that a train happens to arrive at a bridge at two o'clock in the morning makes no difference. You all have to get up at once in your "nighties" or pyjamas; and there you sit, yawning and disgruntled, sleepily eyeing the gleaming bayonet of the sentry who keeps watch in your compartment, till the opposite bank is reached. As, one by one, the rivers are freezing up, Pintsch gas-lamps and acetyline flares swung from tall poles are being planted in the ice alongside bridges, and groups of soldiers, each with its roaring log fire, are posted beneath alternate spans.
A wonderful spirit of confidence and unanimity pervades the Siberians, and, indeed, all Russians. There is not a vestige of revolutionary trouble in the Empire. Nearly every Russian I spoke to expressed the opinion that the nation will listen to no hint of peace until the. Cossacks shall have ridden down Unter den Linden. There seemed to be no animosity against Austria. Austria is merely a nuisance to be pushed out of the way so that Russia can spring at the hated German's throat-such is the tenor of Russian public opinion.
Eager news-couriers from villages far north and south of the line await the coming of the daily passenger train. Not one Siberian village in fifty is near a telegraph wire, and a newspaper is a rarity. As the train comes in a guard jumps down and posts a bulletin on the war news board instituted on every station by the Government.
One night in mid-October we came into a wayside station, a speck of a place lost in a dreary expanse of frozen steppe. We brought a bulletin with news of the great Vistula victory. The driving snow caked over the board immediately. A moujik stripped off his fur shuba as a shield, while two other peasants held lamps to the bulletin and read. When they realised the import of the news they fell on their knees in the snow, fervently crossing themselves. The tears streamed down their cheeks as they thanked God for the Tsar's success. Then, scrambling to their feet, they ran to their troikas. To the accompaniment of a tremendous shouting and cracking of whips a three-horse sledge galloped off, carrying tidings of victory into the north. Before the jangle of its bells had died away a second sledge was launched into the night. The third courier paused a moment to tighten a few knots in the harness. He was going south, 150 versts (100 miles), obtaining only three relays of horses on the way. 'then he, too, lashed up his horses and swiftly sped out of sight. . . .
At a point near Atchinsk we were side-tracked for two hours. A party of young officers with us went out for revolver practice in the snow. They flung bottles and fur caps into the air and fired at them. There was some pretty promiscuous shooting. We nervous civilians cowered in the train and craved sandbags. Twice a bullet pinged on the metal-work of our waggon. . . . A trainload of captured Austrians and Austrian stores hove into view presently, and after the manner of Siberian trains, which are a leisurely breed at the best of times, stopped to pass the time of day. Our Tartarins went over and chatted with the prisoners. Then they gave them a generous handful of small change with which to augment their monotonous diet of black bread and went back to their bottle-shooting with renewed enthusiasm, the Austrians raising a cheer when a hit happened to be made
Bassett Digiby - from 'the Graphic' 1915
from a Russian magazine 'Lulomorie'
back to Index