The Man from Constantinople
By William T. Ellis
[The Outlook; December 8, 1915]
"The Man from Constantinople" must remain unnamed for reasons concerning personal safety and usefulness, but his name is known to the editors of The Outlook who join in Mr. Ellis's assurances of his special knowledge and reliability as a witness and reporter. THE EDITORS.
We were seated by a window of a New York club, looking down upon the hurrying-tide of Fifth Avenue, but our talk was of another metropolis, more cosmopolitan and colorful, and throughout twenty-five centuries more of a factor in human history than any other city on the face of the globe. The man by my side had just arrived from Constantinople, fuller of news from the war's most interesting center than a month's newspapers. And I determined to play the part of a second-hand war correspondent, sure of an assortment of "scoops" over all the newspaper men on the spot.
For this erect, clear-eyed, deliberate-spoken man by my side has many advantages over the men of the writing craft who are now or recently have been in Constantinople. He lives in the land. His knowledge is the rare cumulation of years of close familiarity and keen appraisal, so that he understands news in its relationships. No single fact, or set of facts, disturbs his equipoise. He has never had to rush off to a cable or a newspaper office with his latest gleanings. His is the judicial mind and serene spirit which come from familiarity with troubled circumstances. The farmer whose barn burns has acquired a conversational staple that will serve him for years; but the man who has lived through massacres and revolutions and wars is in no hurry to display his conversational wares.
Of course, I cannot tell my friend's name nor yet describe him too accurately, for he is going back to Constantinople, and he could be hanged or shot there for some of the facts he revealed in his quiet, matter-of-fact talk in those few hours we spent together in a New York club. Naturally, this correspondent by proxy, if I may so label him, speaks several languages—Turkish, Arabic, German, French, and English, with a smattering of Greek and Italian and other tongues of the polyglot Ottoman Empire. He is not dependent upon bazaar or coffee-house or drawing-room rumors for his information, for he is the familiar of the Young Turks in power as well of the Germans who give orders to the Turks, and of an assortment of ambassadors and missionaries as well. To call the roll of his personal friends would be to write a list of "Who's Who" in Turkey. He knows intimately the country, from the Sinai Desert to the Taurus Mountains, and from the Tigris River to the Bosphorus. The very intimacy and completeness of his knowledge impair his art as a "special correspondent," for a caique and a kelek are so familiar to him that he would never dream of expounding these craft as strange; and he would no more think of mentioning the Towers of Mohammed II, on the Bosphorus, or the ancient Galata Tower, than a New Yorker would think of mentioning the statue of Greeley in Herald Square or the Flatiron Building. Never a word did he say about the tawdriness of the offices of the high Turkish officials or concerning the ragamuffins who serve as orderlies to the Frenchified dandy who is Minister of War. If you want to know how to make yourself as comfortable as possible overnight in a Turkish khan or a Bedouin tent, or in the diminutive prairie schooner called an araba, my friend could tell you if you asked; but he would never volunteer the information, any more than you would tell a stranger the nature of the conveniences in an American guest chamber. Have I sufficiently given the credentials of the Man from Constantinople? There is plenty more to be said, but this is not a personal sketch of him; it is only a sort of editorial preface concerning a special correspondent who does not know that he is serving as such.
"When is Constantinople going to fall?" I asked, fatuously, putting the big question first.
"In'sh Allah" (God knows), came the exasperating reply that I have heard given to hundreds of questions in many parts of that fantastic Empire. "When I left, the Germans were confident that the Allies would never get through the Dardanelles. The Turks, on the other hand, were pessimistic. The consensus of opinion among Turks and foreigners alike was that unless the Germans quickly got through to the relief of Constantinople the city would fall within a month. More than a month has elapsed since then, and the city still stands. The depression among the Turks is pathetic; they know their nation is doomed.
"If they could do so, the Turks would make a separate peace to-morrow. But the Allies will have none of it. They say they will not leave the Turkish job half done this time. So the Turks understand full well that they are done for as a nation, even if the Germans win."
"Is it true that there is friction between the Germans and the Turks?"
"Constant. They quarrel whenever they meet. On campaigns the German and Turkish staffs always have to occupy separate headquarters because of these inevitable clashes. If they dared to do so, the Turks would quit the Germans in a minute. But they simply cannot get along without them. It is only German efficiency that makes possible this brilliant Turkish resistance. The Turks furnish the men, but the Germans equip and direct them.
"The difference is temperamental. Both parties are high-handed and rather overbearing. The one thing the Turk can do superlatively is to be top dog; but the Germans deny him this privilege. They cannot be patient under the slipshod, feckless Turkish ways, and make no effort to conceal their contempt. Besides, the Germans do not speak Turkish, and that increases the misunderstandings. Underlying all is the conviction that the Germans involved Turkey in the war by a trick, and that, moreover, should success come, the Ottoman Empire would in reality be only a vassal of the Kaiser. That they have nothing to gain and everything to lose is perfectly patent to Turkish leaders.
"The older and more conservative Turks, who blame the Young Turks for precipitating this Teutonic avalanche of war, talked of a movement to restore Abdul Hamid, who is still in Constantinople, at the time when the present Sultan was so ill; but he recovered, and that dream has been dissipated."
This subject brought up anew the most interesting conjecture in all the picturesque recent history of the Near East: "Who really is the power behind the Young Turk party?"
My friend's eyes twinkled behind his glasses as he stroked his beard. "I suppose there really is that supremely powerful 'Man of Mystery' whose identity has never been proved. Speculation has fixed upon many men, always mere subordinates, whose will is obeyed by those in ostensible authority. Everybody knows that the nominal head of the Committee of Union and Progress has not the brains or the force to be the real leader."
"You mean Enver Pasha?"
"Yes. As you know, he is a mere 'boy hero,' a sort of handsome lay figure set astride a white charger and put at the head of the constitutionalists at the time of the revolution. His figure is on the medal then given to the soldiers; and he prizes, even above the Order of Merit which he received from the Kaiser a few weeks ago, the title of the 'Hero of the Revolution,' by which the populace used to acclaim him. Of course he was merely a stage property, used to stir the popular imagination with his 'Do or die' declamations. He is reckless and irresponsible, and in no wise equal to the grave obligations of high Government position. Essentially he is a poser. His favorite attitude is to receive visitors lolling magnificently in a certain corner of his residence, with pictures of Napoleon and Frederick the Great above his head—the visitor, of course, being expected to think in threes!"
Remembering that Enver Pasha is German trained, I inquired the reason for the strange omission of the Kaiser's picture. Does he dispute with William a place in the triumvirate?
"Partly so. Despite his German schooling and experiences, Enver Pasha is resentful toward Germany. It tricked his country into this conflict, and it forced the calling of a 'holy war,' all because of a desire to make trouble for Britain in Afghanistan and among her Moslem subjects. Enver sees the ruin of most of his dreams, and he has amassed a huge private fortune which he has stowed safely away, hoping that his good luck will enable him to get from under the debris when the crash comes. The difficulty about that is that the Allies have served notice upon these Young Turk leaders that after the war they will be held personally responsible for their crimes against non-combatants."
"What of Talaat Bey?"
"he has far more brains than Enver. He plans and puts through all these terrible schemes, such as the Armenian atrocities, and yet succeeds in making Enver seem responsible for them. Suave, cynical, reckless, Talaat, who is Paris-bred, resembles the villain in a melodrama. He openly boasts that he has done more to 'settle' the Armenian question in thirty days than Abdul Hamid did in thirty years. He has likewise publicly threatened to kill all the Jews in Turkey, and also to do for the Greek Christians in the country what he has done for the Armenians. Talaat Bey is the evil genius of the 'deportation' of the Armenians."
"The third of the Young Turk triumvirate is Djemal Pasha, is he not ?"
"He was, but the Mayor of the city, Bedry Bey, has in a fashion taken his place, although not a member of the Cabinet at all. Djemal Pasha has some principles, and he would not go along with the others in their mad schemes, so they made him commander of the forces in Syria, in which he makes his headquarters sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in Aleppo, and sometimes in Damascus. He is not fanatically anti-Christian, and he argues that the war is a Turkish war and not a jehad. Because of his sanity Syria has been free from many of the excesses that have characterized the recent rule in Asia Minor and Armenia and Mesopotamia.
"As for the Sultan, he, poor fellow, is the shadowiest kind of figurehead. He is depressed and ill and hopeless. Even the Sheik-ul-Islam has revolted from the sanguinary course of the Young Turks."
Ever and anon our talk came up against the Armenian atrocities, that hideous nightmare in the background, but, as if by mutual agreement, we veered off from it until later. At one of these points I asked about the safety of American life and property in Turkey at present.
"As you know, the capitulations have been abolished. Neither the United States nor any other foreign nation has agreed to this, but the Turks regard as an accomplished fact the wiping out of all the special privileges formerly extended to foreigners. They can treat an American as they would a native, searching his house and person, and throwing him into prison. They have done so. Various American mission properties are already in their possession.
"They threatened to take Robert College and the beautiful new Constantinople College for Women, both of which properties were built by American philanthropy and are owned in New York. The crisis was expected at the beginning of the summer, when the college year ended. Ambassador Morgenthau quietly moved his own summer home to the College for Women and flew the Embassy flag above it, thus insuring the safety of one set of buildings. Then he arranged that, if Robert College could not be saved, it should be used by the American Red Cross, with American missionary doctors in charge.
"Ambassador Morgenthau is the greatest man in Turkey at this present hour; his praise is on everybody's lips." Thereupon the Man from Constantinople proceeded to tell incidents enough concerning Ambassador Morgenthau to fill a page and to knock into the proverbial cocked hat the notion that only professionally trained diplomatists could serve the nation efficiently in a crisis. That theory is not heard so often nowadays, since Morgenthau and Gerard and Herrick and Page and Whitlock and van Dyke have so shiningly embodied and expressed America's most characteristic traits and best international ideals during the past eighteen months.
"Are the Americans safe in Turkey?" was the next blunt question.
"Safe, yes—at present. We have, under orders from headquarters, sent most of the women and children out of the country, or else to the ports, where the war-ships could quickly reach them. There are many evidences of a new hostility to take the place of the former exceptional friendship of Turkey towards Americans. The Germans are systematically spreading this sentiment, I am sorry to say. They resent America's attitude toward their country since the war began, and the Turks themselves know of our special interest in the Armenians. This is a phase that will pass, but when the final collapse comes who will be safe? At present there are many annoyances and limitations to Americans; and those who leave their residences outside of the capital are not permitted to return."
The phrase "Red Cross" had arrested my attention. "Do you mean to say that there is an American Red Cross work being done in Turkey, that really uses the cross emblem?"
"Rather curious, isn't it? In spite of the jehad the Americans have conducted hospital and dispensary work, under the Red Cross flag both in Constantinople and with the military expedition at Suez. In Constantinople two American missionary doctors, named Ward and Hoover, are in charge, and some five hundred beds are kept filled with wounded soldiers in a building that was formerly British. The nursing also is done by Americans. Even on the trip through Syria, down to Beersheba, the Red Cross unit displayed its emblem constantly, I am told, and there was no objection. Indeed, when the Suez expedition raided and destroyed the quarantine station at Tor, in the Red Sea, which the Egyptian Government maintained for the welfare of Egyptian pilgrims to Mecca, the British medical supplies were turned over to the American Red Cross."
As desultory conversation will do, our talk flitted from one phase of Turkey to another, butterfly fashion. Tor and Suez brought Mecca and Egypt into view, and I inquired, "What of the Haj?"
"The pilgrimage amounted practically to nothing" this year. You see, nobody from outside of Turkey could get in. All the gates to the holy places—Mecca, Medina, Kerbela, Nejef, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Constantinople—are closed to foreigners. The 'neighbors of Allah' at Mecca must be having a lean year, for the 'guests of Allah' are few and poor.
"Naturally, the Christian pilgrimages to the sacred sites in the Holy Land have ceased, and Jerusalem and all the other communities in Palestine which depend so largely upon this traffic for their income have been hard hit. What with the presence of the locusts and the absence of the travelers, plus war times, the Holy Land has had a taste of real famine."
Our talk tarried over the effect of the war and the jehad upon the foreigners who have been drawn to homes in Palestine because of the land's sacred associations.
"All the Jews were given the choice of becoming Ottoman subjects or of leaving the country. Seven or eight thousand of them were carried from Jaffa to Alexandria by the United States war-ships. Moses delivered the Jews from Egypt; Uncle Sam delivered them to Egypt. The distress of these refugees and of those who could not get away was pitiable.
"As you are aware, the monks and priests in charge of the Christian shrines, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, etc., have mostly been French and Italian Roman Catholics or members of the Russian Church. These, together with the teachers of the Franciscan and Jesuit and Dominican schools, have all been driven from the Empire, and warned that they are not to be allowed to return, even after the war. While the religieuse have been merely deported, other civilians of enemy nations have been interned, first at Damascus, and then later at Urfa, in upper Mesopotamia.
"Some of these are having pretty hard times, I am afraid. The Germans are especially bitter. Before Turkey was involved in the war a Canadian teacher called upon his long-time friend, the German Consul at Damascus. The latter refused to let him in the house, and, coming to the door himself, tried to send him away with bitter railings. The teacher was patient and remonstrated, 'But I am not calling as a Britisher or to talk about the war, but, as your friend of many years, to pay a purely social call.'
"'It does not matter. You are British, and I hate you. You cannot set foot in my house'—and the Consul actually spat at his former friend. The by-products of war are not pretty, are they?"
When the geography of our conversation had shifted to Syria, I sought light upon that mysterious Egyptian expedition of the Turkish army—the attempt last winter to cross the Suez Canal. The cablegrams have been meager and uninforming: no real news has to this day been given out, except the fact that the expedition had failed to accomplish its object.
"That move was all a mistake, and both the Germans and the Turks knew it at the time. Still, they had to make the attempt to 'deliver Egypt' for sentimental reasons. The people, who took seriously the bombastic utterances at the time of the declaration of the 'holy war,' demanded it; and even in Turkey rulers must give some head to public opinion. The force, which was twenty-five thousand strong, under Djemal Pasha, made elaborate preparations at Aleppo, Beirat, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Metal pontoons were devised and carried across the desert—you may now see them, bullet-riddled, on display in the Zoological Gardens in Cairo. Because of the Allies' war-ships in the Mediterranean, the troops could not follow the historic caravan route down along the seashore to Suez, and so they came down through Nablus (the ancient Shechem) and Hebron. The base was established at Beersheba.
"Meanwhile, various schemes were afoot to block the Canal. One was the sending in of a neutral ship filled with dry cement, which was to be swung crosswise and sunk. The British secret service, however, blocked that clever scheme, and the ship was captured as she entered, and the cement used for fortifications. Apparently the British knew all that was going forward. Their aeroplane service made surprises on the desert practically impossible. The Turks had one aeroplane at Aleppo, but it was wrecked on its first flight. There were also two aeroplanes at Constantinople, but the troops had not been informed of this fact, and so they mistook them for enemy air-craft and destroyed them!
"Luck was against the Suez expedition from the first. They got two hundred men across the Canal—the British say they enticed and permitted them to cross—who, of course, promptly fell into the enemy's hands. Not another man crossed. You see, all the advantage lay with the British. They had warships in the Canal to aid their troops, and a railway along the bank of the Canal. They had plenty of time to intrench, and were only a couple of hours away from Cairo, with its unlimited supplies of men, munitions, and food.
Then, of a sudden, the Turkish Staff discovered that they had only two days' supply of food and water left, and they made a forced march back to base, leaving Egypt undelivered. Twenty thousand of the troops went north again, leaving five thousand on guard to keep the British employed. These have done one notable deed, though not at all a difficult feat of arms—they have captured St. Katherine's Monastery, on Mount Sinai, and have driven out the Russian monks. This building, which was somewhat of a fortress, capable of withstanding Bedouin raids, was originally built by the Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century.
"Now, in preparation for another raid on Egypt this winter, the Turks have built a temporary railway, connecting with the Damascus-Haifa line, down through Nablus and Lydda to Beersheba. They have torn up the tracks from Jaffa as far as Lydda, but retain the Jerusalem connection, so that it is now possible to go by rail from Aleppo, far north of Dan, clear down to Damascus and Jerusalem and Beersheba"—from Dan to Beersheba by rail!
"How do the Turkish soldiers feel about the 'holy war?'"
"The common understanding in Constantinople is that the Germans forced the Turks hand in this. There was no popular or official demand for it. Shrewd politicians knew the peril to the caliphate of forcing the issue of a jehad. Nevertheless, with their eyes on India and Egypt, and confidently expecting a wholesale uprising of British Moslems, the Germans insisted, and the fetva was issued in full form. The higher Turkish officers take no stock in the 'holy war' idea, but the common soldiers and the stay-at-home ordinary people are for it. As a military device the jehad is certainly ingenious and powerful, for it makes men willing to do or endure anything, since paradise is the prize."
That brought us squarely up to the Armenian question. A more excitable person than the Man from Constantinople would have been crying out against it throughout our long talk. But he has ripened in the philosophic East, where the strong learn to hold themselves well in hand, and the hotter the conditions the cooler their heads. I knew that my friend had absolutely unsurpassed facilities for knowing the facts of the Armenian atrocities, and that all his information was illuminated by his own long years of intimate knowledge of Asia Minor and the Armenians. More about his qualifications I may not say, lest I betray his identity. Personally I would take his opinion before that of any other man now on this side of the Atlantic, and as of equal weight with that of any one of less than half a dozen other Americans in Turkey.
His face became sober and stern as he sat in silence for a moment after my question, "Are the atrocities stories true?"
Then he deliberately made answer, "The worst has not been told." He waited for another question. So I asked, "Do you believe that there have been six hundred thousand Armenians slain, aside from those killed in the army?"
"My information did not total quite that high at the time of leaving Constantinople."
"Half a million, then?"
"Oh, yes; far more than that," he quickly replied.
More than half a million Christians, at least three-fourths of them women and children, done to death in a " holy war," within the past six months—a total greater than—all the martyrdoms of the first three centuries—the thing seemed incredible. I was glad that the Man from Constantinople did not attempt to harrow my soul with tales of individual atrocities.
"Is it all really up to the Government?"
"Beyond a question. Talaat Bey boasts of it even to the American Ambassador. He cynically and shamelessly declares that he means to get rid of the Armenian question by getting rid of all the Armenians. Nothing less than the extermination of the race is his object; and he and Enver Pasha have been heard to say that they will do the same to the Jews and the Ottoman Greeks, and then, as a grand finale, to the Germans!"
"Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad!" Meanwhile the Turkish madness is causing the most awful festival of slaughter of the innocents that history has known for twenty centuries; and from the ancient churches of the East and from the Christians of the West there ascends hourly the old and bitter cry, " How long, O Lord! How long ?"
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald