CHAPTER XV

FIRST DISQUIETING RUMORS

 

MY WIFE and I were at Sevdikeuy, a Greek village a few miles south of Smyrna on the Ottoman railway, when the news that the Greek army was meeting with serious reverses arrived. These rumors were not believed at first, but they grew more and more insistent, throwing the population into an agony of fear.

At last the report became a certainty. The official news was received that the Greek army had suffered a terrible and irretrievable defeat and that nothing now prevented the Turks from descending to the coast. The population began to leave, a few at first, then more and more until the flight developed into a veritable panic.

The town was fast filling with refugees from the interior. The majority of these refugees were small farmers who had lived on properties that had descended from father to son for many generations. Their forebears had settled in Asia Minor before the Turks had begun to develop into a nation. They were children of the soil, able to live and care for themselves in their little houses and on their few acres, each family with its cow, its donkey and its goat. They were even producing tobacco, figs, seedless raisins and other products for export. They were expert in the cultivation and manipulation of the better qualities of cigarette tobacco and the priceless raisins, of which latter Asia Minor produces the best quality in the world. This valuable farmer element, the very backbone of the prosperity of Asia Minor, had again been reduced to beggary and thrown upon American charity. They were arriving by thousands in Smyrna and all along the seacoast. They were filling all the churches, schools and the yards of the Y. M. and Y. W. C. A. and the American mission schools. They were sleeping in the streets. Many were getting away during those first days on steamers and sailing craft. The caiques in the harbor, loaded with refugees and their effects, were a picturesque sight. For the man whose heart has not suffered atrophy as a result of the Great War, the spectacle of great numbers of helpless little children was particularly moving. Unfortunately, atrophy of the human heart has been one of the most noticeable phenomena of the great Armageddon. Doctor Esther Lovejoy, of New York, already referred to, used an expression with regard to certain Americans, who were present during the scenes of suffering and outrage. “Their minds did not seem to register.” Had she said “hearts,” she would have been nearer the truth. The refugees carried with them as much of their belongings as their strength permitted and one often saw a little child sitting on top of a great bundle of bedding, the whole supported on the shoulders of some man or woman stumbling along.

   In normal times the sick are not seen, as they are in the houses lying in bed for the most part. In ease of a great fire or panic one is surprised at the number of sick or disabled thus brought to light. Many of the refugees were carrying sick upon their shoulders. I remember especially one old gray-haired woman stumbling through the streets of Smyrna with an emaciated feverish son astride her neck. He was taller than the mother, his legs almost touching the ground.

   Then the defeated, dusty, ragged Greek soldiers began to arrive, looking straight ahead, like men walking in their sleep. Great numbers—the more fortunate—were sitting on ancient Assyrian carts, descendants of the very primitive vehicles used in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

   In a never-ending stream they poured through the town toward the point on the coast to which the Greek fleet had withdrawn. Silently as ghosts they went, looking neither to the right nor the left. From time to time some soldier, his strength entirely spent, collapsed on the sidewalk or by a door. It was said that many of these were taken into houses and given civilian clothes and that thus some escaped. It was credibly reported that others whose strength failed them before they got into the city were found a few hours later with their throats cut. And now at last we heard that the Turks were moving on the town. There had been predictions that Greek troops, on entering Smyrna, would burn it, but their conduct soon dispelled all such apprehensions. In fact the American, with the British, French and Italian delegates had called upon General Hadjianesti, the Greek commander-in-chief, to ask him what measures he could take to prevent acts of violence on the part of the disorganized Greek forces. He talked of a well-disciplined regiment from Thrace, which he was expecting and which he promised to throw out as a screen to prevent straggling bands from entering the city and even of organizing a new resistance to the Turks, but could give the delegates no definite assurance. He was tall and thin, straight as a ramrod, extremely well-groomed, with a pointed gray beard and the general air of an aristocrat. He was a handsome man, with the reputation of a lady-killer. That was the last time I saw him, but when I read later of his standing before a firing squad in Athens, I still retained a vivid mental picture of that last interview in the military headquarters in Smyrna. If it was he who was responsible for sending away the flower of his troops to threaten Constantinople at a time when they were most needed in Asia Minor, he deserved severe punishment or confinement in a lunatic asylum. He had the general reputation of being megalomaniac, with not too great ability. Certainly none but a fool would have accepted the Smyrna post at that time for the sake of glory. What was needed was a man of energy with a clear understanding of the situation who would have taken hurried and wise measures to save as much as possible of the wreckage. But Hadjianesti was busy furnishing in gorgeous style and repairing a palace on the quay, which he had requisitioned for a residence. He deserved to be pitied, for it is probable that he was not well-balanced mentally.

It was definitely asserted that the Turkish cavalry would enter the town on the morning of September 9, (1922). The Greek general staff and the high-commissioner with the entire civil administration, were preparing to leave. The Greek gendarmes were still patrolling the streets and keeping order. These men had gained the confidence of every one in Smyrna and the entire occupied region by their general efficiency and good conduct. Whatever accusations may be substantiated against the Greek soldiers, nothing but praise can be said of the Greek gendarmes. All my former colleagues at Smyrna and all residents of the district will bear me out in this statement. There would be an interval between the evacuation of Smyrna and the arrival of the Turkish forces when the town would be without a government of any kind. Some of the representatives of foreign governments went to the high-commissioner and asked him to leave the gendarmes until the Turks had taken over, under assurance from the latter that they would be alowed to depart without molestation. The high-commissioner did not grant this request. I did not join in it. The Greek officials all left. Mr. Sterghjades had but a few steps to go from his house to the sea where a ship was awaiting him, but he was hooted by the population. He had done his best to make good in an impossible situation. He had tried by every means in his power to make friends of the implacable Turks, and he had punished severely, sometimes with death, Greeks guilty of crimes against Turks. He founded a university at Smyrna, bringing from Germany a Greek professor with an international reputation to act as president.

One of the last Greeks I saw on the streets of Smyrna before the entry of the Turks, was Professor Karatheodoris, president of the doomed university. With him departed the incarnation of Greek genius of culture and civilization in the Orient.

   The Hellenic forces left, civil and military, and the interregnum of a city without a government began. But nothing happened. Mohammedans and Christians were quiet, waiting with a great anxiety. The supreme question was: How would the Turks behave? The French and Italian delegates assured their colonies that Khemal’s army consisted of well-disciplined troops and that there was nothing to fear. I had no anxiety for the native-born Americans, but was very uneasy about the two hundred or more naturalized citizens, many of them former Ottoman subjects. I, therefore, did not take the responsibility of assuring the native population, Greeks and Armenians, that they would be perfectly safe, neither did I say anything that might tend to create panic. Many ladies, American and others, left at this time. I counseled my wife to go, but she refused, thinking that her staying might give comfort to those who remained. I decided to select a place of rendezvous for the American citizens and to notify all of them to keep in the neighborhood of this place as much as possible and, in case of serious disorders and general danger, to take refuge there. I picked out the American theater, a large and suitable building on the quay, for the purpose and called the leading members of the American colony, native and naturalized, to a meeting in my office and advised them of the measures taken, to be applied in case of need. When I told them that the meeting was dismissed, Mr. Rufus W. Lane, now a merchant of Smyrna, but formerly American consul there, arose and said: “We did not come here solely to save our own skins. The refugees that are pouring by thousands and thousands into the city are dying of starvation and nobody to help them. I had hoped that this meeting bad been called together to take measures to succor these poor people.” A Provisional Relief Committee was organized on the spot and a sufficient sum of money contributed to begin operations. All the leading American firms offered their lorries and automobiles and their personal services. Bakers were hired and set to work, stocks of flour found and purchased, and in a few hours this organization was feeding the helpless and bewildered refugees who were crowding into the city. But for the American colony in Smyrna thousands would have died of starvation before the Relief Unit could arrive from Constantinople.

In the meantime I was insistently telegraphing for American men-of-war to come to Smyrna. If there was ever a time when a situation demanded the presence of naval units, this, I thought, was that occasion. Though our colony was not great, our business interests and property holdings were very considerable indeed, to say nothing of our large schools with their staffs of teachers and professors.

The navy in those waters was under the control of that very fine officer and gentleman, Admiral Mark L. Bristol. I had reason to think that the admiral had perfect confidence in the good intentions and administrative abilities of the Turks and believed that the latter would bring a kind and benevolent administration to Smyrna. In response to telegraphic insistence with the State Department a wire was received to the effect that destroyers would be sent to Smyrna, as cruisers were not available, for the protection of American lives and property. Two small destroyers were accordingly sent. Naval units of Great Britain, Italy, France and the United States were present at Smyrna, and anchored but a few hundred yards or nearer from the houses on the quay during the appalling, shameful and heartrending scenes which followed.

 

 

Next: Chapter XVI | Previous: Chapter XIV | Book Contents | Book main page | Back to Top