SKIRMISH IN THE BALKAN.
By Capt. James Edward Alexander, (late) 16th lancers.
(From the United Service Journal, 1831, No. 1, pgs. 482-85)
A CLEAR harvest moon rose in silvery radiance over the rugged cliffs which skirted one of the passes of the far-famed Balkan, and the scene, though in repose, was one of stern wildness. Gradually as the Queen of Night mounted to the zenith, the gloom which had previously obscured the varied features of the hills was dissipated; the broad shadows which were flung across the ravines became narrower, and disclosed the broken ground to where the rills of water were glistening and gurgling over the enameled stones. The vegetation was stunted, and it was evident from the forms of the low oak trees and brushwood, that the soil was scanty, and that the biting blasts of a Scythian winter prevailed here with relentless severity: besides, in the end of summer, the cold and damp night air renders these regions peculiarly insalubrious, and causes fevers, which too frequently terminate fatally. No flocks were seen lying in the sheltered nooks, or fires from the shepherd's cottage, and the distant barking of the watchful guardian of the fold, which used continually to be heard on the approach of strange feet, was now silent.
The Turks had long before swept away every living thing that could be of the slightest use to the invaders, and even the dry grass had been set fire to, in order to impede as much as possible their advance, but the Russian horses, like their riders, were accustomed to scanty fare, and chopped furze, with (occasionally) barley, supported a sufficient number for outpost duty. But the patient bullocks, conveying the provisions and warlike stores, continually fell under their loads, and great numbers of them perished miserably. It was painful to witness on the line of march the tortures to which they were subjected, when, worn out with fatigue and hunger, they sunk down on the flinty road. First a shower of blows fell on their projecting bones from stick or thick Tartar whip, accompanied with loud shouts, and a volley of oaths, from their unfeeling drivers; then the tail was twisted nearly off; this torture might produce a slight exertion on the part of the helpless animal, but again with a groan it sunk before its persecutors, and in the end, fire would be applied, if it could be conveniently obtained. Many of the carcasses of the over-driven bullocks, conspicuous from their white hair, were observed among the rocks near the mountain paths, and the ominous croak of the ravens also indicated where they lay.
The nature of the district we traverse has always a great influence in raising or depressing our spirits. When we first find ourselves on a widely extended plain, we feel animated with the desire to push onwards, and like the Arab exulting in the desert, we "devour the ground with the glad hoofs of our steed." But when we see but a short way before us, as among entangled forests and the winding paths among the silent hills, we are awe-struck and melancholy, and though our attention may be continually arrested by the diversified forms under which nature may present herself, yet we pursue our journey watchful and anxious, particularly when we expect to see a lurking enemy in every thicket, the gleam of arms behind every rock, or to hear the sharp music of the whistling bullet. Thus it was, whilst traversing the fastnesses of that mighty chain which extends from the shores of the stormy Euxine to the waters of the Adriatic.
Swiftly walk over the western wave,
Spirit of night!
Out of thy misty eastern cave,
Where all the long and lone daylight
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which makes thee terrible and dear
Swift be thy flight!
In a hollow way, several dark masses are seen moving with regulated step, and the moon's rays presently strike on the spear heads of a few Cossacks, who, in advance of the others, begin to ascend an acclivity; they move forward cautiously, wrapped in their long grey cloaks; are earnestly praying for daylight, and continually looking to the right and left, "with the beard on the shoulder," to detect the ambuscade. From the infantry, flankers have been sent out to scour the brushwood on the left, and silence reigns over the march, until the increasing chilliness of the air, and the waning light of the Cynthian goddess announce the approach of dawn.
The mountain path became more rugged, and huge masses of rock, which had fallen from the impending heights, seemed to bar further progress. When two of the Cossacks in advance had neared a group of these, they descended below them in order to round them at a safe distance, but they had only time to get a short way down the steep descent, and their horses were slipping under them amongst the loose stones, when several white turbans were seen amongst the rocks, tophaiks were leveled, and half-a-dozen shots took effect on one of the troopers, and sent him and his steed rolling to the bottom of the precipice; the survivor wheeled round and scrambled back to his companions, who also went to the right about, and shouting, galloped in a confused mass to the head of the column of infantry.
A halt was now ordered, and all the flankers and stragglers fell in. The men spoke in low anxious whispers to one another, crossed themselves, repeating at the same time the Gospodeen Pameel, "The Lord have mercy upon us;" then fixed the skirts of their great-coats round their waists, and drawing their ramrods, ascertained that the cartridge was "home." The commandant dismounted, and went along the column to observe that every one was in his place, and giving a few directions to the officers, which were answered by the Sloushaiou, "I hear you," he returned to the head of the column.
From the chambers of the East, the light was now sufficiently strong to enable the commandant to see the nature of the obstacles in front; accordingly, a party was sent up the face of the hill to take the enemy in flank, whilst the main body resumed its march to attack in front. When the party on the hill got above the rocks from which the shots had proceeded, they immediately opened their fire upon them, which was answered by a volley and shouts of "Ullah!" Several of the Russians fell, and rolled down groaning to the road, and a few Turks dashed out and finished them with their atagans; whilst the rest stoutly maintained themselves behind their natural breastwork, until the head of the Russian column also attacked them in front, when they hastily quitted their post, and holding up their petticoat trowsers with one hand, and their arms in the other, they ran up the hill, whilst a body of Delhis, or cavalry, retreated along the road.
A Kaia, or leader of the Turkish infantry, followed in rear of his men, distinguished by his imposing turban and richly embroidered scarlet jacket: one of the under officers of the Russians took deliberate aim at him, and brought him down with a ball through his thigh, and then ran at him with his bayonet; the unfortunate Osmanlee was lying on the ground on his back, and, grasping the weapon aimed at his breast he pushed it from him; the under-officer tried in vain to accomplish his purpose, and they were in this situation when a subaltern came up, who knowing that if the Turk was not bayoneted by the under-officer, he would be thrust at by the others who were rapidly coming up, (for they were unable to make prisoners, having no means of securing them,) he turned to a soldier, and to put the Kaia out of pain, he ordered him to be shot. A musket was accordingly put to his side, and the soul of the true believer winged its way to the abode of the Houris.
The Turks had now altogether disappeared, and the march was continued uninterruptedly till the country became more open, and a scattered Bulgarian village was seen in the midst of a small plain. It was necessary to reconnoitre this, to ascertain if any of the enemy had taken post in it, and the Cossacks were again ordered to the front; they accordingly pricked on their long-tailed and shaggy galloways, and approached the village; the infantry followed, on whose right there was still a good deal of broken ground. Suddenly, amongst the ravines, appeared the high cylindrical black caps of the Delhis, and before the Russians had time to complete their square, a cloud of horsemen was upon them. With reckless and headlong impetuousity, the Turks dashed over the rugged surface, clearing with ease what seemed impracticable obstacles. It was a gallant sight, and one of high excitement. The Russians were in confusion, while on came the Delhis, in their loose and warlike costume, seated high in their peaked saddles, and goading on their willing steeds with the angle of their shovel stirrups, and brandishing aloft their scimetars. Their Aga was mounted on a milk-white charger, and loudly encouraged his followers to exterminate the Giaours, and send them to Eblis: they drove at full speed close to the Russians, then suddenly pulled up, and the most forward of them curvetting and lunging their horses, discharged their pistols; they then wheeled round to attack the rear of the infantry, and succeeded in sabring a few; but by this time the Russian files had closed up, and a volley from the third rank caused some of the Delhis to bite the dust, and the rest took themselves off as rapidly as they had advanced.
At the commencement of the attack of the Delhis, the Cossacks had galloped back to the left flank of the infantry and after the Turks had galloped back to the left flank of the infantry, and after the Turks had disappeared, set to work as usual to plunder the killed and wounded. The girdles were unrolled, and the piastres greedily clutched, whilst a blow from the butt-end of a pistol would silence all resistance, till the spoils were safely deposited in one of the wallets which depended from the Cossack saddle; and though the infantry had borne the brunt of the skirmish, their mounted brethren carried off all the booty.
The column now hastily advanced upon the village, near which by the way side a clear fountain gushed from double pipes into a stone trough. The Cossacks with their usual cunning stopped here to water, whilst the infantry attained the low gate-way, behind which a few trees rose: scarcely had the head of the column got within the gate, when a sharp fire was opened upon it, from the verandahs of two or three houses, which staggered the Russians, but the fire was returned, and through the trees several wounded Turks were observed leaning on their tophaiks, and extended on the ground under a low stone wall; presently, the discharges of the Turks slackened, and a few dropping shots only were given, and then entirely ceased, the village was evacuated, and the Russians established themselves in it.
The Cossacks again had the best of it; for unrivalled as marauders, they were not long in ferreting out concealed grain and even fowls, by imitating the crowing of cocks: they regaled themselves sumptuously, whilst the infantry were necessitated to content themselves with their black bread and salt. In attempting to draw water from the well in the centre of the village, the bucket, after striking on a soft substance at the bottom, came up empty, and on lowering a lighted stick to ascertain the cause of this, a dead body was seen floating in the water, which had been dropped in by the retreating enemy, and caused the Russians to look elsewhere for the means of alleviating their thirst.
Until the detachment was joined by a division of the army, it occupied the village, the cottages of which were constructed of wattles, the basket-work plastered with mud, and the roof thatched with straw; each house was surrounded with a wicker enclosure, so that by cutting down trees and placing them with the branches pointed outward to form abbatis between the intervals of the houses, and barricading the approaches with overturned arubas or waggons, the Turks were prevented from attempting to dislodge their opponents.
During the late contest in the Turkish territory, there were many affairs similar to the above, and until the Balkan had been fairly passed by the road skirting the Black Sea, the Turks valiantly disputed their ground with the invaders. Though the Tacticoes or disciplined troops laboured under great disadvantages, having neither a staff to direct them, a commissariat to maintain them, nor field hospitals, yet they frequently made a gallant stand and fired with considerable precision of aim. The greater number of the Tacticoes were mere boys, from Asia Minor, and if the Sultan had only given them a smarter uniform, the service would have been more popular than it was. The Turks are vain of their persons, and certainly display great taste in their dress, which consisting of embroidered jacket and vests, ample trousers and silken turban surrounding a red fez or scull cap, makes a handsome picture. It is not to be supposed then, that they would relish being stripped of their embroidery and picturesque head gear, and reduced to a plain blue or brown jacket and simple fez, which last caused the Tacticoes to look as if they had just been roused out of sleep, and were walking about in their night caps. The irregulars were allowed to dress as they liked best, and were in a better humour in consequence. For all old soldiers know the importance that aspirants attach to uniform, and a wise leader will be careful to select one which will be generally relished.
1st Dec. 1830.
Michael Hargreave Mawson of the Crimean War Research Society kindly provided the following information about the author of this piece:
Lieutenant-General Sir James Edward Alexander.
Son of Edward Alexander, Esquire, of Powis, County Clackmannan; born 1803.
Served in the Madras Light Cavalry from 1821. Cornet by purchase, 20 January 1825. Lieutenant, 16th (or The Queen's) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons, with rank in the Army from 26 November 1825 (by purchase); in the regiment, 25 October 1827. Captain by purchase, 18 June 1830. 42nd Royal Highlanders, and a Col. in the Portuguese Army. By 1841 - 14th (The Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot. Brevet-Major from 9 November 1846, with Staff service. 1854, Aide-de-camp to the Commander of the Forces in North America. Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel from 20 June 1854. Substantive Major from 29 December 1854. Lieutenant-Colonel from 26 March 1858, substantive Colonel from 26 October 1858. Placed on half-pay as Lt-Col, 14th Regt., 10 June 1862. Major-General, 6 March 1868. Lieutenant-General, 1 October 1877.
Sir J. Alexander served four years in the Madras Cavalry previous to being transferred to H.M. Dragoons; was present with the armies in the field during the Burman (war medal with one clasp for Ava), Persian (2nd Class Knight-Commander of the Lion and Sun of Persia), Turkish, Portuguese, and Kaffir Wars. Was on the personal staff of Sir Benjamin D'Urban in South Africa and North America. Was on the personal staff of General Rowan. Employed on government expeditions, exploring, and surveying in Africa and America (1835-7 and 1847-54). In 1837 married Eveline Marie, daughter of Lieut.-Col. C. C. Michel, K.H. Was knighted by the Queen (1838) for conducting an expedition into the interior of Africa. Surveyed the forests of New Brunswick for a military road. Served with the 14th Regiment at the siege of Sebastopol, including the assault on the Redan on the 18th June, and commanded the 14th Regiment from the 14th August, at the siege and fall of Sebastopol (Medal and clasp, Sardinian Medal, and 5th Class of the Mejedie). Took command of the 2/14th in 1860; also commanded the troops in the Province of Auckland, New Zealand, for some time during the Maori War of 1860-61. Became C.B. in 1873. By 1873 FRSE, Order of St. John of Jerusalem, D.L. for Stirlingshire; Athenaeum and United Service Clubs; Westerton House, Stirling, N. B. By 1882 Justice of the Peace for Stirlingshire. Presumed deceased c. 1884. Obtained the Khedive's leave to transport Cleopatra's needle to England, and it was through his exertions that the obelisk was saved from being broken up.
Sources: Army List, 1829; Hart's Army List, 1841, 1848, 1854, 1856, 1860, 1869, and 1880; Debrett's Baronetage and Knightage, 1873 and 1882.