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Modern History Sourcebook:
Arthur D. Howden-Smith:
An Attack on the Bashi-Bazouks, Macedonia, 1907

WE slipped into the courtyard and stood in a group about Mileff, while he whispered his instructions for the night to the several sub-chiefs. The small inclosure was packed with men in long cloaks, which were blown aside by the wind now and then, revealing glistening rifles and belts of serried cartridges. But they were quiet---unnaturally quiet. None spoke above a whisper, and the sandals made no noise on the stones.I noticed that perfect comradeship prevailed. The chetniks crowded up to the knot of chiefs and craned over their shoulders like children, eager to hear what was being discussed. They readily made way for me, and the militiamen whispered among themselves, pointing at my smooth face,---considered an affliction in Macedonia; ---"Americansky," they muttered. Others crowded up to see the strange being from another land, and soon I found myself in the heart of the cheta---which was what I wanted. Mileff turned and introduced me briefly to the chief of the militiamen, a big, lusty fellow, who gripped my hand in his sinewy fingers, and muttered, "Nos dravey," a phrase that means something like "Your good health, sir." The sub-chiefs of the cheta, Nicola and Andrea, grinned at me joyfully. They were more like children than ever. In chuckling murmurs, they tried to describe to me what was going to happen to the Bashi-bazouks. Mileff laughed at them and pulled me aside. "We march at once," he explained. "Until we reach Osikovo, we shall keep together. At Osikovo, we shall divide. Andrea, with ten men, will circle the village and come down on it from the hills in the rear. The rest of us will attack from the front." He turned to the chetniks. "It is time. Where is the guide?"A tall youth pushed his way through the throng, tossing a Männlicher over his shoulder. "I am the guide, voivode," he said, saluting respectfully. I could not help observing that white the chetniks were as familiar with their chief as with each other, to the militiamen he was a superior person, one who had not only attained fame and dignity, by the blows he had dealt the Turks, but who had been across the mountains to the Frank towns, where he had learned much wisdom out of books. It is strange how a people with whom books are rare look up to the possessors of them. I have seen villagers sit for hours, listening to Mileff reading from one of the Russian authors. But all this is far from the courtyard of the house in Kovatchavishta. Mileff spoke a sharp word of command to the chetniks and militiamen, and they fell into single file behind him, the chetniks being scattered at intervals among the more numerous militiamen. Gurgeff took down the great wooden bar which held the gate, and the guide glided out. Giving him five seconds' lead, Mileff followed and the rest of the long line behind him. There was no moon in the sky, so we had to absolutely feel our way along the village street. If one had a sharp ear, it was possible to keep out of the brook-sewer that occupied the middle of the road; otherwise, the result was unpleasant.There was never a noise in the sleeping village. This time the dogs had been securely muzzled. Looking back along the line, one could only realize the presence of the cheta by occasional vague sounds and moving dots, that appeared and disappeared in the darkness. I could not see the guide at all, but Mileff, just ahead of me, with his cat's eyes, had no difficulty in following him. Soon we had left the village behind, and began the ascent of the rocky hills that rose abruptly above the house-tops. It was the same road we had ascended previously, and if it had been hard to climb down, it was twice as difficult to climb up. Many times we stopped for necessary rest, and each time I marveled that the Bashi-bazouks had possessed the courage to dare such a journey for a few trivial cattle. Near the head of the trail, we were challenged sharply by a squad of figures that rose suddenly from the shelter of a boulder.By the light of a star or two in the gloomy black heavens, we could see their rifle-barrels thrown athwart the stones, and we halted. They were the militia patrol, who mounted guard at the head of the mountain-road day and night, to ward against the coming of the askars. The Bashi-bazouks who had come the week before had been allowed to pass because their small numbers were a guaranty that they could not do much harm. Against a larger force, the village would have risen to the last man. At a word from the guide, supplemented by an exclamation from Mileff, the patrol lowered their rifles and stood forth in the murk while we passed. To each one of us they spoke a hasty word of greeting, and then they sank back into the oblivion of the rocks, and we toiled on over; a wide moor, covered with long grass that concealed the hollows, into which one's feet slipped unawares. Sometimes the moors broke into sudden declivities, down which we half climbed, half slid. Stretches of sandy soil intervened, through which we ploughed heavily. The pace was a rapid one, for Mileff wished to get into position before midnight. Once, standing on a sort of tor that rose above the moor, I glanced backward at the line of figures that undulated as far as I could see, each one shrouded in its long sheepskin cloak, from which projected a rifle-barrel. It was marvelous how quiet and swift they were, moving over that rough, wild country, with not even a trail to guide them. Light-footed and sure of their movements as goats, they made no difficulty out of what required all my nerve and watchfulness.Several times we stopped for a few minutes, while the guide went ahead to reconnoiter the way. Again, on a couple of occasions it was necessary to make detours around villages. Another time, we marched straight through a collection of huts---a small outlying Christian village. We made no noise and did not waken anyone, however. We had been marching for perhaps three hours, when we came to a rude stone wall, sure sign that a village lay just beyond. Mileff called softly to the guide and held a brief consultation with the sub-chiefs, after which we proceeded more slowly. It was plain that we were entering a valley. The hills began to shut in on either side, and in front of us they narrowed so as to become a defile. Mileff detached a couple of men on the flanks to act as scouts, and we cautiously approached the portals of the valley, marching over a wagon-road, deserving of the name because deep ruts could be felt in its surface.Presently loomed up in the distance a roof. Other roofs came into view, and yet others. I leaped upon a boulder and, looking down the valley, saw a long succession of roofs sloping up the hillside to the right of the road. We continued along the road, keeping just outside of the village. Dogs barked at intervals, but otherwise the silence was absolute. At a point opposite the center of the village we halted, and Andrea passed down the line, picking out ten men whom he motioned to follow him. Without a word of farewell, they marched off into the night.The rest of us lay down behind the wall and waited. I pulled my watch out and borrowed Mileff's electric hand-lamp. It was five minutes past midnight. The chetniks arranged their knapsacks under their heads, wrapped themselves in their cloaks, taking care to protect the breeches of their rides from the moisture, and dozed off. But the militiamen did not sleep. They leaned on elbows and murmured to each other. You could see in their shining eyes the excitement that the prospect of the fight brought. With the chetniks it was too old a story to deprive a man of a nap.For a long time, it seemed, nothing happened. The dogs barked infrequently, not at anything in particular, but just to make a noise. A wind sprang up that rustled the grass, and the leaves of the trees beside the road rattled against each other, drearily. In the distance, a nightbird croaked. Gradually, without knowing it, I dropped off to sleep, even as I had when we were waiting at the frontier line for the Turkish patrol to pass. I could not have closed more than one eye, for almost at once, I was awakened by the glare of Mileff's searchlight, inside his cloak. He was looking at his watch. I looked at mine. It was nearly one. Mileff rolled over and prodded me; taking the signal, I prodded the man next to me. So it passed down the line. We all rose to our knees and reslung our knapsacks. Still, there was not a sound. The trees across the way seemed to be moaning louder. Could the wind have so increased in force? I noticed that Mileff was holding one hand to his ear. He drew a whistle from his pocket and blew gently on it. There came, from right beside me, the low whining note of the wind blowing through the tree-boughs. From beyond the trees it was answered. And I understood. Andrea and his men were signaling to us from the mountain-side.Mileff merely raised one hand, and our line swung over the stone wall into the road. Bending double, the men ran across it to the wall that lined the opposite side, surmounted it, and broke through an orchard at a run. In five minutes we were speeding along the main street of Osikovo. It was fairly sandy, and so we made little noise. The guide kept ahead, but otherwise there was no attempt at formation. Behind Mileff and me, the rest huddled together like fox-hounds in full cry. We dodged around a corner and pulled up in a little square where three streets intersected. At each corner was a house. They were all massive structures, built of stone, with slate roofs, and stood in courtyards, of which they formed one wall. One house was slightly larger than the other two, and it was immediately in front of us. There was something sinister about the blank surface of its lower walls, and the small barred windows of the two upper stories. The gateway was high, broad, and arched. The gate, itself, appeared to be substantially built of wooden beams, bolted together with iron. A huge iron lock fastened it to the side of the arch.Our line huddled in the shadows cast by the two other houses, and the guide stepped across the roadway to the gate. Lifting his carbine, he pounded vigorously for a minute upon the beams. In the stillness of the village, the blows were as distinct as the reports of a Gatling. They seemed to echo and re-echo from the archway. I fancied that in the house behind me I could already hear people waking up and moving around. A second time the guide pounded the gate. Just why, I could not say, but I was certain that I could now hear, all around me, the sounds made by people roused from sleep. Osikovo was awakening.From the other side of the gate came a shuffling of feet, and a voice demanded hoarsely what the caller wanted. "We are friends," answered the guide, his rifle at his shoulder. "We are Pomaks from Libyaho. Let us enter. We have passed chetniks in the hills." He spoke hurriedly, in the Turkish dialect. The Bashi-bazouk in the yard seemed to hesitate. "I must see your face," he said, at last. "I must see you---you and your friends---before you may enter, for it is seldom that friends come to their friends' houses after dark, and if you be friends, you will not mind the wait."Breathlessly, we waited to see what would happen. There was a creaking noise and a wicket, a hand's-breadth in size, swung open midway up the gate. Through it was stuck a rifle-barrel. The guide had shrunk to the ground, out of the range of fire. Of the Bashi-bazouk we could see nothing, because the wicket was small, and the yard beyond dark. "Stand forth," said the voice. "Stand forth, now, you and your friends, that I may see you." As luck had it, Dodor moved beside me, uneasily, and a wandering star-gleam caught, for an instant, on the steel of his bayonet. The watchful eye of the Bashi-bazouk at the wicket saw, and his rifle settled rigidly into line, while Dodor collapsed noiselessly to one side."You are armed," spoke the Bashi-bazouk. "Who are you that come armed ? Are you friends, as you say, or foes? Speak, quickly, for I do not wait long." "It is useless," breathed Mileff. "They are too suspicious. We will charge, openly." He placed the whistle at his lips, and the quivering, penetrating sigh pierced the night. The Bashi-bazouk's rifle jerked upward, and he shouted hasty words in Turkish, which I did not understand. A door crashed shut in the house above him, and feet sounded on the stairs. "Charge!" cried Mileff, leaping to his feet. "Viva Makedonia!"We bunched across the road at a run, firing our rifles at the gate. I had a glimpse of the guide shooting through the wicket at the Bashi-bazouk warder, and the next thing I knew, I was in a mass of pushing, shoving men, jabbing the tough wood with bayonets, hammering on it, and even using their bare hands. Then Mileff's voice rose from the ruck. "Stand back, stand back!" he called. "Fire at the lock! Aim at the lock, every man!"Ten or a dozen rifles were concentrated at the lock, and in a trice it was blown to atoms, the gate swinging slightly ajar. For a second we paused, hesitating. A young militiaman leaped forward, put his shoulder to the timbers, and sent the portal to one side. We cheered confusedly, and ran across the yard at the doorway that showed in the irregular stone wall. From a line of windows in the upper story came a spattering fire, accompanied by sheets of flame. The chetniks fired back, crouching behind whatever cover was available. I saw one man put a bullet into a bullock, and use the carcass as a shield. Mileff and several others were in front of the house-door, shooting into the lock. It was a matter of less than a minute to smash it in, but stout bars of wood held the framework in place. In the meantime, the fight was going rather against us. One of the militiamen crawled out of the gateway, dragging a limp leg behind him, and we could not see that our fire was making any impression. Quick to see the need for some new action, Mileff seized a huge balk of timber lying by the doorstep, and with Nicola and a couple of others, backed off a pace or two. Taking a short run, they brought it against the door with a mighty swing. The timbers groaned. Again they battered it, with short, fierce strokes, and because of their height from the ground, and consequent inability to see what was going on directly beneath them, the Bashi-bazouks could not effectively interrupt the maneuver.With every blow, the door tottered more helplessly. We saw that it must come down. But where were Andrea and his men? We needed them badly at this time. The voivode blew his whistle, as the battering-ram was swung the last time, and the door fell inward, opening up a cavernous hollow of blackness. Our own men were on hand, crouched against the house-wall, out of the Bashi-bazouk's line of fire. So we stayed, for what seemed several minutes, though it must really have been less.A cheer, the pattering of sandaled feet on the road out-side, and a renewal of firing by the askars overhead, heralded the approach of Andrea's force. They descended upon the rear of the Bashi-bazouks' fortalice. This was our chance. Not a man waited for orders. They did not need them. They sprang at the steep stairs, hardly more than a ladder, that led up to the second floor, like a gang of wolves. It did not seem as if anything could stop them. A couple of the more cautious ones, crowded out in the intensity of the first stampede, waited behind, pumping bullets up through the trapdoor, over the heads of the leaders. It was lucky they did stay back. The first man through the trap was the chief of the militiamen. He bounded lightly up the stairs and disappeared from view. A revolver cracked, and as Mileff, behind him, reached the trap, his body fell backward, sweeping his comrades from the stairs as effectually as a broom. The head of a Bashi-bazouk showed for an instant, but Kortser took aim and the Turk came down on top of the pile of chstniks. It was a mess, indeed. Outside, Andrea's men were occupying the attention of the Bashi-bazouks by a steady fire at the windows, and the couple of us who had stayed below fired up the stairs as fast as we could work the ejectors. Our fire stopped the first rush, and the scanty numbers of the Bashi-bazouks did not allow them to take full advantage of the situation, so that by the time Mileff had leaped from under the pile of chetniks at the stair foot, a semblance of order had been restored.I don't know how it happened, but something had been set afire in the pent-houses by the courtyard walls that served as stables, and they were blazing vividly, lighting up the entire village. Frightened sheep, cattle, goats, and horses ran about the yard, and the corpse of the Bashi-bazouk warder lay in a twisted heap by the gate, not far from a chetnik, whose body was simply drilled with bullet-holes. Certainly, it was a mad scene. And all about us was the village, blank and apparently tenantless, save for a prolonged wailing that rose from the scores of waiting women and children, who wept in fear of their fate. Gazing at the confusion that filled the courtyard, and deafened by the constant popping of rifles upstairs and out of doors, I did not at once hear Mileff's voice when he spoke to me. His face was black with powder, and his beard, partly singed off, was flecked with blood. He pressed his mouth close to my ear. "This is no use," he shouted. "We must retire." He beckoned to the men, and crouching close to the ground, we ran across the courtyard, in the blinding glare. Bullets spat in the dust on every side, but no one was hurt. The dancing of the flames, constantly tossing back and forth, filled the yard with conflicting lights and shadows that made good shooting impossible. Beyond the gate we halted, and the men dropped down, exhausted. Dodging a crazy horse which ran screaming through the street, I hastened to the group that had swiftly formed about the voivode. Andrea and his men, in line, carrying their rifles at the ready, swung around the neighboring corner, as I joined the council. They were comparatively fresh, for all they had done was to lie in the shelter of houses, and pot at the windows in the fortalice. Mileff called for a list of casualties. We had lost two men killed, including the handsome young chief of the militia detachment, and two wounded. So far as we knew, two of the enemy were dead."There must be no more of this," said Mileff, decisively. " I cannot afford to waste good men on a nest of rats. They must be smoked out." He explained his plan. His detachment would form a covering force for Andrea's party, who would carry inflammable materials into the lower floor of the house. When a sufficient quantity had been collected, they would be set alight. After that, it would only be necessary to shoot any Turks who tried to escape. Without any unnecessary talk, the sub-chiefs ran to their detachments, and told off men for the work. Andrea's party broke into near-by yards, and seized all the lumber, hay, and straw they could find. One man discovered a large can of oil, which was received with joy. Fagots were made, and a dozen of us deployed along the street in positions which commanded the house windows.Finally, when all the fagots were ready, our fire was stopped completely. Almost immediately, the Bashi-bazouks ceased shooting. It was as if they realized that a new development might be expected, and had stopped firing to listen---to strain their ears, that they might detect their enemy's next purpose. There sounded the sighing murmur of the voivode's whistle, and Andrea's squad ran forward into the yard the rest of us, outside, kept a steady stream of lead pouring into the windows. Andrea's men were cheering as they ran; they had their rifles slung over their shoulders, and they meant to be in at the death. The Bashi-bazouks managed to fire back at us, but they were given no time to aim, and Andrea reached the house in safety. The fagots were hurled in through the doorway, and as each man threw down his load, he doubled back across the yard, out of the gate where Mileff and I were huddled, in the shelter of the posts. Andrea was the last to leave. He emptied the oil over the pile that bulged from the doorway; and stuck the lighted torch he carried into the mass. Then he, too, ran for the gate. A burst of cheering greeted him from the chetniks' line, and, as if in a frenzy of despair, the Bashi-bazouks redoubled their fire, the spurtsof flame squirting from the upper windows in never ceasing streams.Looking back, coldly, it seems a monstrous cruel thing to do---this roasting alive of half a dozen men It is difficult to believe that it could have happened in this so-called enlightened twentieth century. For some reason, it seems to smack more of the bigoted cruelty of the days of the Inquisition, or when a mere matter of kings' names was sufficient to cause the beheading of honest men. But, after all, it could not have been helped. It was the quickest and cheapest way to get rid of a nest of vermin that had been terrorizing the countryside,---thieves, murderers, and women-stealers, every one of them. They do not understand, and set squeamishness down as weakness. The flames gained rapidly. They leaped to the stables that had escaped the first blaze and licked them up, mounting the outer walls of the house, and gaining footholds through the windows. It was not many minutes before the whole building was a single vast pillar of flames that towered to the sky, making the village, and the hills surrounding it, loom blackly against the unnatural glare. And from this house of flames came a shrill screaming, such as words cannot hope to describe and such as once heard it is beyond the power of man to forget. The chetniks leaned sternly on their rifles, watching the conflagration take its course, and the villagers, by this time certain of the identity of the marauders, stole from their homes to look also on the destruction of their oppressors.For months they had groaned beneath the exactions of the little band of arrogant, well-armed Bashi-bazouks, and yet, now when their deliverance had come, they could not exult. They could only look on, awesomely, at the dreadful doom that had been meted out by the "Men of the Night." In little knots they thronged the house-tops and the streets, watching the flames that swirled and roared, the women hugging their children to their breasts, and the men staring with a fixed concentration at the scene. As the front wall of the house fell in amid a shower of coals, Mileff's signal blew, and the chetniks hastened to him from their positions in the rough circle they had cast about the place, to prevent the possible escape of any of its inmates. Several had bandaged arms or heads. One was carried by a couple of comrades on a rude litter. The villagers watched them with even greater awe than they had the burning fortalice. But the magic of the night was upon them, and they said no word.As silently as they came, the chetniks formed their line and departed through the dust of the road, the people who lined the way looking at them with curious drawn faces. A baby cried drearily, because it was tired, and a second wall fell in the house that had become the tomb of the Bashi-bazouks. On a crest the cheta halted for a minute, and I looked back at Osikovo, still showing red in the fire glare, and dotted with the groups of wonder-struck peasants. In the east, a beam of rosy light shot over the dark wall of the pines, and Mileff muttered "Heidi!" [forward] to the weary men who stumbled after him.

Source:From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 421-435.Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
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