Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

V. The Bulgarian movement

11. The General Rising of 1903 in Monastir
 

The moment for which the Bulgarian population had been preparing for ten years arrived on the festival of the Prophet Elias the evening of Sunday, August the 2nd, 1903. The Turks and even the Europeans in Macedonia were taken by surprise. No one believed that a peasantry; to all appearance so crushed and brutalised, was really capable of a serious military demonstration on a scale which entitles it to the name of a general rising. It is true, there were rumours of what was coming. The peasants, when one talked of the future, would shake their heads and say wisely, "After the harvest you will see." But Macedonia is so used to threats and rumours that no one was seriously alarmed. Moreover, the relative calm which reigned throughout June and July had deceived the Turks, as it was intended to do. They still had some thought of making war on Bulgaria, and they were still concerned about the possibility of a fresh Albanian movement, and the result was that the greater part of their formidable army was grouped in the northern districts. In Monastir they had no more than fifteen thousand men, and these were scattered along the railway and throughout the interior. The chief command, moreover, belonged to Omer Ruchdi Pasha, an elderly and old-fashioned soldier, whose vacilla-

An insurgent band in the rising of 1903


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tion and incapacity still further aggravated the consequences of the surprise which the Committee had organised.

The signal was given by the burning of some haystacks just outside the town of Monastir. The revolt was proclaimed, and the banners blessed in the village churches, and before the short summer night was over the beacons had raised the whole of the highlands which stretch westward to Ochrida, northward to Dibra, and southwards to Castoria and Klissoura. The plan of campaign had been carefully thought out in advance. For years the country had been divided into military zones, each with its permanent cadre of seasoned guerillas, and each with its recognised chief. When the signal was given the young men of the villages who formed the standing reserve of the peasant army dug up their buried rifles, assumed their cartridge-belts, and set off with their cloaks and provisions to the appointed rallying-place. Their first duties were simple. Everywhere they cut the telegraph lines a measure which in itself paralysed the bureaucratic machine, and made of the Turkish officials, accustomed as they are to regard themselves as the hands and eyes of some distant superior at the end of a wire, mere agitated units. Next came the wrecking of the bridges and culverts along all the main roads an easy task in a country where everything is in decay. At the same time the isolated inns which serve as military posts along the trunk roads were ruthlessly burned. The railway line between Monastir and Salonica was also cut, but not so completely or so often as it ought to have been. The first Turkish reinforcements, it is true, had to march over the mountains from Uskub to Monastir, but in a very few days the railway was working steadily once more. Finally, each band employed itself on the congenial task of burning the keeps and towers of the Albanian beys fortresses built by forced labour, and nests of robbery and oppression and sometimes, it must be added, in murdering their owners. Some isolated Turkish posts were also rushed and destroyed, and some convoys captured on the roads. In all these destructive activities the bands hurrying to


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group themselves around the Macedonian flag were practically unmolested and unopposed.

In all, the active ranks of the insurgent army in the Monastir Province mustered as nearly as I can estimate some five thousand men. It was no doubt a small force with which to oppose the large army of eighty thousand men which the Turks were soon able to assemble. It had no cavalry and no artillery save two or three primitive pieces hollowed out of cherry-trees, according to the traditional plan followed in all Balkan risings. I should doubt if more than one man in four among the insurgents had ever been under fire before, or had practised marksmanship, although most of them had probably received some sort of drill. But they trusted each other and their leaders. They knew the mountain paths, and could march by night as well as day a thing which no Turkish regiment will ever do. Their officers included not a few really capable guerilla chiefs. The headquarters were at first in the large village of Smilovo, half a day's journey from Monastir one of those prosperous communities of migratory masons and carpenters which were the backbone of the insurrection. Here was gathered the general staff Damian Groueff, Lozáncheff, and Boris Saráfoff. Saráfoff became the De Wet of the campaign, moving lightly about, accompanied by a picked band, and rallying the local levies, now in Florina and again in Ochrida, for some exceptional effort. Lozáncheff contrived by some unhappy chance to discredit himself in the eyes of his men. Groueff remained in command of the whole movement, and kept in touch with Monastir, where the consuls were regularly furnished with bulletins and reports, neatly manifolded and drafted in very tolerable French. Next in prestige was, I think, the southern detachment which worked in the Castoria-Klissoura region under the command of Tchakalároff of Smerdesh, a cruel but magnetic man, whose handsome presence and proverbial luck inspired his followers with complete confidence. The Resna contingent was commanded by a capable chief named Arsof, and the northern bands around Kruchevo were under a Vlach

Tchakalaroff's staff during the insurrection. He is seated on the reader's left


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named Pitou Goulé, who was killed in the second week of the rising. The Ochrida, Kitchevo, and Florina contingents worked as a rule in smaller detachments and had no very conspicuous generals. [1] The population of the villages which gave themselves over unreservedly to the movement is about sixty thousand, but reinforcements came from some other villages as well. About one in six of the male population were under arms, which is certainly a considerable figure. The Committee could, no doubt, have put other reserves in the field if it had had a larger supply of good rifles. The favourite weapon was the Gras, a cheap, heavy, inaccurate, and altogether inferior rifle, with a single breech-loading action; but many bands wisely preferred the Martini, and some few had magazine rifles. The bands were certainly mobile when one compares them with the Turkish columns, but their action was confined to their own districts unless, indeed, they were driven from one region to another a fate which ultimately befell both Groueff and Tchakalároff. On the whole, when one considers how small the area affected really is, this was a somewhat primitive plan. From the extreme west (Ochrida) of the rebellious region to the extreme east (Sorovitch) is not further than a good horseman, well mounted, can ride in two long summer days. From Castoria in the south to Kruchevo in the north is no further. But there were doubtless sound reasons for adopting the plan of isolated and local action. If the whole force had come together to achieve some large enterprise they would have had to abandon their plages and their families to the unchecked fury of the bashi-bazouks. Moreover, the country, though the distances are not great, is exceedingly mountainous, so that rapid marching was out of the question.

The first three weeks of the insurrection were a period of almost unchecked triumph. The Turks seemed incapable

1. The number of the several contingents were, roughly, as follows: Smilovo and Gjavata, about 650; Kruchevo, 400; Demir-Hissar, 420; Resna, 450; Presba, 300; Florina, 450; Castoria, 700; Ochrida, 880; Kitchevo, 350; Monastir Plain, 250. In all about 4,800. But I give these figures under reserve. I have seen no official lists.


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of thinking out a plan of campaign, and, save in the three towns of Monastir, Ochrida, and Castoria, the insurgents were almost everywhere supreme. They took the three country towns of Kruchevo, Klissoura, and Neveska all of them Vlach centres perched in the most inaccessible positions upon the mountain-side. The Turkish garrisons either fled or succumbed with hardly a show of resistance. Demonstrations were also made against the towns of Resna and Kitchevo, but here the attack was never pressed home. In the three captured positions provisional governments were installed, the insurgents danced with the girls of the place in the town squares, and from the churches, bells (which the Christians rarely dare to ring) summoned the townsmen to hear glowing orations upon the duty of rebellion and the glorious prospect of freedom. These three weeks must have been the happiest interval which Macedonia has known since the coming of the Turks. The men flung away their fezes badges of servitude and walked erect without fear of a beating or a bastinado. It is to their credit that, instead of enjoying their brief triumph at the expense of their Greek rivals, they bore themselves tolerantly and abstained from violence save that they levied money contributions from the captured towns. They acted indeed in the spirit of the proclamation which announced the outbreak of the insurrection a document which shows that humane ideals do penetrate even into the Balkans, however hard the local conditions make it to observe them:

"We are taking up arms against tyranny and barbarism: we are acting in the name of liberty and humanity; our work is above all prejudices of nationality or race. We ought therefore to treat as brothers all who suffer in the sombre Empire of the Sultan. To-day all the Christian populations are wretched, nor must we except even the Turkish peasants. We regard the Turkish Government as our sole enemy, and all who declare themselves against us whether as open foes or as spies, and all too who attack old men, women, and defenceless children instead of attacking us. It is against them that we direct our blows and from them we shall exact vengeance."
A sensible attempt was sometimes made to secure the neutrality of Mohamedan villages, and occasionally with


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success, as the following quaint document addressed by the notables of a Turkish village to the insurgent headquarters in Kruchevo proves:

"We understand by the tenor of your letters that you are not evil men, that you have not left your hearths in order to attack the peaceful population (like ours), and that you are opposed only to the evildoers and to the Government which protects them. But those whom you seek are not to be found among us. They have fled to the towns. As for ourselves we promise to remain quiet. If your intention is to kill the innocent you have only to come here. May God help those whose quest is justice ! We have sent on your other letters to the neighbouring villages, which are also of our way of thinking."
For a brief period everything promised concord [2] and success. Indeed, the insurgents had to all appearances triumphed so easily that they gave themselves over to rejoicings and neglected to push their advantage by uniting their forces against the Turkish garrisons in such centres as Resna, Ochrida, Kitchevo, Castoria, and Sorovitch. Ochrida and Castoria could have been taken only at great cost, but the other places were by no means impregnable. It would be a mistake to consider this temporary triumph as a real military success, but it was and is of enormous moral importance. It was a brief hour of happiness in the long winter of misery, and the memory of it is still a stimulus, at least to the younger men.

2. It is proper in an impartial narrative to record the instances in which the insurgents were untrue to their ideal, (1) On the first day of the insurrection a detachment under Tchakalároff met a party of unarmed Moslems from the village Djerveni on the road to Castoria, and massacred twenty-four men and four boys in cold blood; four boys were spared. The village was afterwards besieged and burned. (2) Tchakalároff when driven from Klissoura made a raid with six hundred men into the Colonia district, which is purely Albanian. He burned six little hamlets thirty houses in all. (3) Three Turkish villages were burned by way of reprisal in the Presba region. (4) The families of the Turkish officials in Kruchevo were well cared for and fed by the insurgents, while the town was in their hands, but during the attack two Turkish women were killed possibly by accident. This was an isolated occurrence, and I believe the only occasion on which the insurgents were guilty of any wrong towards women. On the whole it is remarkable that so little barbarity was practised on the Christian side. The Committee behaved much better during the insurrection than either before or since. When it had the power to do incalculable ill it displayed self-control and moderation.


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The first sign of energy which the Turks displayed was the dispatch of a force of about three thousand men under Baktiar Pasha to retake Kruchevo. They had eighteen guns with them, and outnumbered the insurgents by ten to one. There was some skirmishing, but on the 12th of August, ten days after the capture of the place, the Bulgarians made some sort of composition with the Turks, probably paying a ransom to the Pasha, in return for which the Bulgarian quarter of the town was spared. The troops and the bashi-bazouks compensated themselves by falling mercilessly upon the Vlach quarter, inhabited by a wealthy community with Greek sympathies. In four days 366 houses and 203 shops were burned, at least 44 men and women, all non-combatants, were murdered in the streets (of whom only three were Bulgarians); some women were violated. The pillage, both of shops and houses was complete and systematic, and hundreds of the citizens were beaten and maltreated. The Bulgarians showed little bravery in this affair, and their conduct in abandoning the Vlach quarter to be pillaged was grossly unchivalrous. The Turks acted after their kind. They knew the Greeks too well to fear that even this massacre of a Philhellenic population would affect the pro-Turkish policy of the Greeks. Neveska and Klissoura were evacuated by the Bulgarians without a struggle let us hope from a scruple about exposing the inhabitants to a vengeance similar to that which had overtaken Kruchevo.

About August 25th Nasir Pasha, who had now taken over the command from the feeble hands of Omar Ruchdi Pasha, began to apply a systematic plan of campaign. He is a semi-civilised person who speaks German, and has been much employed by the Sultan on special embassies of courtesy in various European capitals. He was fond of explaining that he modelled his "methods of barbarism" on those which we employed in the Transvaal. His plan was to burn all the villages of the revolted Bulgarians, and gradually to drive them into corners. He certainly had men enough to execute this scheme, and the country in which he had to operate was not really extensive, though very difficult. But there was always some gap in his cordons, some


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hitch in the time-table of co-operation, or else the regiments which should have been pursuing the insurgents found it more agreeable and interesting to pillage the defenceless villages and make war on the women and children. The Turks did so far succeed in certain zones that the bands were forced to concentrate, but they always managed to break through to some less harassed region. From August the 25th onwards the insurgents were acting purely on the defensive. They maintained their ground fairly well until the middle of September, skirmishing incessantly, marching and counter-marching, usually evading the Turks with success, but occasionally brought to a general engagement. After September the fighting was very desultory, and on November the 2nd the insurrection was officially declared at an end. In all, the Committee claims that about 150 skirmishes were fought, and in these they mustered anything from 20 to 600 men. Usually the bands operated in groups of from 80 to 200 fighting-men. The total casualties of the insurgent fighting-line in killed and wounded reached 746, which amounts to about 15 percent a proportion which suggests resolute but not exactly desperate fighting. In most of these encounters the insurgents must have been outnumbered by at least ten to one, and if the Turks had been even respectable marksmen they would have lost very much more severely. They rarely if ever came to close quarters or used the bayonet. The whole campaign was a game of hide-and-seek in which small forces behind rocks and trenches exchanged shots with big battalions in the open. The bands which kept the field until the end of October achieved all the success which they could reasonably have hoped for. The climate would hardly have permitted a much more extended resistance. A sort of informal armistice permitted the bands to dissolve, and not more than a third of the armed men were compelled to surrender their rifles. Only very small groups, composed of the more desperate outlaws, remained under arms during the winter, refraining from aggression, satisfied if they could escape capture and keep the framework and the spirit of the organisation alive.
 

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