Friday, May 10, 2013

At the moment I'm reading through a book called At Home and in War by Alexander Vasilyevich Verestchagin (long out of print, but available on the Internet Archive). It's an officer's memoir, detailing a career in the Russian military during the expansionist wars of the late nineteenth century. This isn't the sort of thing I read for fun, but it's a useful source on the otherwise little-known Battle of Geok Tepe, which I'm writing about for work.

Most books like these are rather grating and self-aggrandising, with the author determined to maximise his role in important events, and play down his own moments of weakness. This book, however, is very different. The first half is fairly unremarkable – just biographical details and descriptions of the life of an officer in a the peacetime army (having read plenty of Chekov and Puskin, this is not a world that is unfamiliar to me).

Once he gets into his actual experiences of war, however, it becomes much more vividly written. Take, for example, this passage, which describes his feeling as he rides up towards the frontline during the Siege of Plevna (1877) a particularly bloody engagement from the 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish War.

Look where you will, everywhere it is gray, and damp, and disagreeable; and you long to go somewhere and get warm. However, it is necessary to go on, and in precisely that direction, too, whence the thunder of the guns proceeds. 

This thunder I begin to hear more and more clearly. Some of the discharges are wafted to me as distinctly as though there were by my side. A cannonade was in progress just now on the left, and immediately afterwards it had become inaudible. The troops are not yet in sight. I begin to get into a more and more nervous state; the question involuntarily occurs to me: “Shall I soon come within the line of fire?” This question disturbs me deeply because I have become convinced, from previous engagements, that being near the firing point and being directly under fire are two quite different things. I do not know how it may affect others, but it was very disagreeable for me on each occasion to take those last few steps. As long as there are no bullets, it matters not; everything is well and tranquil, although not wholly so, for you know that you will infallibly and speedily hear the ominous whistle. But now one has flown past – only one bullet – and already you are conscious of a change in yourself. Your heart begins to gnaw, as it were; a slight nausea manifests itself in your stomach; weakness and apathy diffuse themselves all over your body. It is a ridiculous thing to say, but I had already experienced the same sensation before the proposition of questions in my final Latin examination. On such occasions the same nausea appeared, the same weakness of the whole body, with cold perspiration on the forehead. The nervous state is produced, of course, by the consciousness that one may be wounded or even killed at any moment. All thoughts, all sensations are peculiarly concentrated and one involuntarily awaits the fatal bit of lead or iron, which will put an end to one’s existence.

The most remarkable passage, however, comes a little later, when the preparations for the attack are in full swing. He rides forward and joins the other staff officers near the Generals’ observation post, who are nervously watching as their commanders argue over their plans.

At that moment there impressed itself upon my sight the figure on one of our dead soldiers. Strong and vigorous, with long side-whiskers, and his face thrust into the miry road, he lay with his arms spread out, just beside the spot where the generals were walking. His cap had fallen off and laid bare his closely cropped, black head. It was strange to see how, as the chiefs walked, it never occurred to them to order the brave fellow to be taken away. They were thinking of other things than dead men.

A considerable time has elapsed. The cannonade increases in violence, the bullets whistle thicker and thicker. But Skobolev still paces to and fro with Prince Imeretinsky, and rubs his hands. The corpse still lies there, and seems to sink deeper in thought and to be wondering “Am I to say forever here in the rain?”
From the conversations of my comrades I learn that the general attack is ordered for three o'clock in the afternoon. It is only twelve o'clock now. At this moment, an officer steps up and reports to Skobolev: “Your Honor, the third brigade of sharpshooters has advanced.”

The General flies into a violent rage: “Who gave them orders? Don't they know that the general attack is only to come off at three o'clock? Well, let them die then, if they didn't know enough to wait!” Then he returns to his conversation with the Prince once more.

So about an hour later, Skobolev orders his horse to be brought round; we also make a dash for our horses, in order to follow the General. At that moment my brother Sergei rides up to me, in a short black jacket, on the small Turkish horse which I had given to him a couple of days previously.

“Seroga,” I shout to him, “Vasily Vasilitch asked me to tell you that you must give back his things, his wagon, and colours, for otherwise he cannot work at all!”
“This is no time to talk about such things, brother!” he answers, curtly, as he returns my greeting, then lashes his horse under the belly with his whip, and disappears at full speed in the direction of the lines.

I never saw him again.

Imeretinsky remains on the same spot, but we all follow Skobolev. Kuropatkin, who has been somewhere on the position, speedily follows us. Skobolev enters into conversation with him, without reducing the speed of his horse. This day was a memorable on to me; it is hardly likely that I shall ever forget it. We ride for half a verst directly ahead on the road. Shells burst incessantly over our heads. We reach the elongated, wooded ridge which has been visible to us from afar. Amid the vineyards at its base, our troops can be seen: here a company, there a battalion, and there again a whole regiment. Shrouded in the foliage they seemed few in numbers, though there were thousands of them here. They were all silently awaiting the word of command in order to advance – and whether they were fated to return from that spot, God only knew.

We pass through the troops, and, without ascending the ridge, we turn to the left and ride along its base. The very summit, covered with dark, branching trees and thick foliage, is almost completely enveloped in the smoke of gun-powder. Only a breeze blows it away here and therhe for a moment, which fresh clouds of smoke, even thicker and more impenetrable, again envelop and conceal the distant view. Here the fire is converted into a veritable hell. Heavens, what moments those were! The bullets whistled and groaned with piteous voices. Some, which must have proceeded from rifles, meow exactly like cats.

Compressing his lips a little, Skobolev rides along on his gray horse, with a gloomy facem now and then addressing a question to Kuropatkin. The latter, as though desirous of shielding his chief from the bullets, rides, contrary to custom, on the General’s right side; and I ride still further to the right that Kuropatkin. One ball strikes directly behind me. The thud is dull, and deeply disagreeable. “That surely must have hit someone,” I think to myself. I glance around – I am not mistaken: a Cossack on the Don, a brave fellow judging from his face, swarthy, and with a long black mustache, is sinking slowly, and without a moan, from his horse. With weak and trembling hand he has clutched to at the horse’s rein; grasping his lance with the other, he strives to hold himself upright in his saddle. But in vain! Heavens! how frightful was his face at that moment! – it rises before my eyes now, as I write. His mouth was distorted and half open, his eyes fixed and staring. Death had, suddenly, laid its grasp upon him. The bullet had struck him in the right side.

At such terrible moments, there is developed in each one of us, and to such a degree, the sentiment of self preservation, egotism, and self-love – each one of us so fears to present himself, even for a superfluous second, as a target for the bullets, that no one, even of the escort, of the comrades of the wounded man, halts in order to render assistance to the unfortunate fellow. All merely exchange significant looks, urge on their horses, and ride past the fatal spot as speedily as possible.

After the Cossack is killed, I mechanically rein in my horse and try to cross more to the left than Skobolev, calculating that, in such a position, the bullets, before reaching me, will have first to pierce Kuropatkin, then Skobolev, and only then come to me. And is it not singular, no sooner had I changed positions that another ball strikes, and so close to me that I involuntarily look about me to see whether I am not wounded. At this moment I feel a sort of awkwardness in my left leg. I look and on my boot, close to the ankle, there is blood. I felt no pain at the time, but my terror and imagination depicted to me God knows what; my bones are already splintered, and my leg will be cut off, and so forth. In consequence of this, I begin to shriek: “Stop! Stop! Somebody help!” and, to my horror, I perceive that no-one stops, and that all are riding onward. At length I observe that Kuropatkin says something to Skobolev. The latter turns round, casts a fleeting glance at me, and rides on.