Michael Hargreave Mawson
The Crimean War lasted from 28th March 1854 until the 1st of April 1856. The exploits of Colonel Harry Flashman during the first twelve months of the war are well-known, not only from accounts in the national press of the day, but also from published histories and from his own memoirs, discovered in a sale room in Leicestershire some thirty years ago, and edited by George MacDonald Fraser. Yet little is known of Colonel Flashman's activities during the final twelve months of the war - that is, until now.
The following tale is transcribed verbatim from original documents in my possession, recently purchased from a bookshop in Bedford.
It's a curious thing, but after a lifetime of boozing, whoring and reluctant soldiering, one of the greatest pleasures remaining is to be found in reading the obituary columns in the Times. The last survivor - myself excepted - of the Nachichevan earthquake went to meet his maker yesterday, and damned good luck to him.
It was the Spring of 1855, and I was recovering my strength after one of the most hellish years of my life, having somehow survived not only the Alma and Balaklava, but also the ministrations of that gotch-eyed terror Ignatieff. With the assistance of Ko-Dali's daughter and a bellyful of puggle I had royally ruined his plans for the invasion of India and had reached civilisation (or rather the Frontier post at Peshawar) wanting only a pint of porter and some vicious amusement.
I soon got my bearings and settled into a comfortable convalescent routine which involved sleeping until the late forenoon, then ambling over to the Mess for a chota peg and the latest gossip, which was tedious in the extreme, and mostly revolved around the sad state of affairs of the army before Sebastopol. My having been a part of that army, and having won some fresh laurels through no fault of my own, those Company subs were all over me for my views, and you may be sure that I gave them in full measure. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Raglan was a kindly old stick, but he wasn't fit to command a latrine party, much less an army. Once I'd wet my whistle and slandered the great and the good (God rot 'em) I would return to my bungalow, and to Kam.
Kam was one of those Afghan Amazons whom I had come to admire back in '42. Six foot if she was an inch, and not an ounce of excess fat anywhere, except where it mattered. Not the most imaginative of lovers on the whole, but what she lacked in technique, she made up for in enthusiasm. I could have spent the next six months "recuperating" before making a leisurely journey along the Grand Trunk to Calcutta and back home to Elspeth and the plaudits of an adoring public. I could have, but thanks to my idiocy in eating her cooking as well as enjoying her other talents, I got the cholera and a trip in an entirely different direction instead..
Now you may know, if you've read my other memoirs, that Fate conspires against me at every turn. Given the chance, I would happily remain quietly in London, doing the rounds of the clubs, squiring Elspeth to balls and whatnot, patronising the whorehouses in St. John's Wood, and causing no harm to anyone. But a combination of damned bad luck and talking too much has seen me travel the world, often at high speed and with bullets, assegais, arrows and God knows what else whipping past my fine manly locks. Honestly, it's enough to make you turn Methodist. Here I was, Colonel on the Staff (slightly detached, granted), hero of the hour, Saviour of India (not that anyone took much official notice of that, damn 'em), and flat on my back with my bowels churning and my fevered brain conjuring up some of the most imaginative nightmares of my life. A safe, if unpleasant, billet, you would have thought? Well, you would have been wrong, and here's why.
His name was Pargitter, and he was the officious snot of a Sirdar Captain who had greeted me on my arrival at Peshawar. Twenty-five years in the company's service, wasted by the fever and the heat, still only a Captain, and much exercised by his responsibilities. He didn't like having a senior officer on his station at all, and one that might die on him was even worse. His prayers were answered when the Army of Asiatic Turkey came toiling up the road from Rawalpindi.
I knew nothing of this, of course, since I was busily loading and firing Congreves at a bath-tub floating on the Avon just outside Rugby, said bath-tub containing the abominable Dr Arnold, Captain Count Nicholas Pavlevitch Ignatieff, Captain John Charity Spring, MA, and my Lord Palmerston, all of whom were simultaneously sticking red-hot pokers through my guts and singing, "Olim Meminisse Juvabit" to the tune of the "British Grenadiers". You'd think I'd been dining on nothing but lobster for a week.
All the world knows of Billy Williams' gallant defence of Kars, and how he held out against the Russian hordes for months, with nothing but rotten and demoralised Turkish troops and a few British officers. Historians record that it was the tardiness and general uselessness of Horse Guards in arranging for reinforcements in time that led to that city's capitulation, and how they gave Billy a baronetcy and a thousand pounds from the poor-box by way of apology. Well, it wasn't quite like that. For a start, the flower of the British Army were dying like flies in the Camp before Sebastopol; the cavalry horses had been worked to death; the Commissariat couldn't feed the troops and the froggies were pouring thousands of men into Kamiesch Bay and clearly trying to take over the whole war (and I'm not saying they wouldn't have made a better job of it). It was unthinkable for the government to divert regular troops from the Crimea to help Billy at Kars. If you look at the map you will see that the distance between England and Eastern Turkey is approximately the same as the distance between Eastern Turkey and India. Ignoring the fact that it would take a couple of weeks to get troops from England to Kars by sea and several months for them to march there from India, the decision was taken to reinforce Billy from the Company's army. To a politico or a member of the General Staff, it was the ideal solution; any number of troops could be sent, they could be supplied from local sources, and, best of all, if they turned out not to be much use to Billy, it wouldn't be Horse Guards who had to shoulder the blame, after all, they were a Company army, and not a British one.
The first I knew of it was as the fever broke and I became aware that I was being jolted around so badly I could barely sit up. Looking around me I saw that I was in some sort of large wooden box, and from the squeal of axles and the jingling of harness, I deduced that I was on the move. Astonishingly enough, above the noise of the cart and the horses, I could hear the sound of an army of men marching along in fine style, and a jeering crowd screaming abuse at them in Persian. "Ah," thinks I, "another cholera-nightmare," and in the spirit of enquiry, stuck my head out through the flaps at the side of my cart.
"You're awake, then, Colonel," barked a red-faced individual in civilian duds who was trotting alongside, "thought you'd never come out of it!"
"Who the hell are you?"
"Maxwell, Surgeon, 48th N.I.," he replied, "I've had you under my care since we left Peshawar."
"Care? What sort of care do you call this damned cart? And what d'ye mean, 'since we left Peshawar'? Where in blazes are we?"
"You're alive and kicking, aren't you, Colonel?" this infuriating pill- pusher replied with a grin, "and as for where we are, why, Tehran, of course!"
I collapsed back inside the cart and tried to make sense of it all. The pain in my guts had gone, and so had the fever, so it was probable that I hadn't just dreamt that exchange, but Tehran, for God's sake? Try as I might, I couldn't fathom any of it, and I had just decided to go back to sleep and hope that when I woke up I'd be in my bungalow in Peshawar when the cart slowed to a stop.
The flaps on the side of the cart were thrown back, and I found myself being observed by what was clearly the entire Staff of an army. There was an impressive-looking elderly cove with white whiskers and the Peninsular ribbon on his chest, surrounded by pink-cheeked aides and a handful of other officers all wearing the uniforms of John Company.
The old boy spoke, "'Morning, Flashman, glad to see you well. Major- General Duffy, commanding the Army of Asiatic Turkey."
"What? What's that?" Not the most polished response to a greeting from a Major-General, you'll agree, but I was past caring.
"Why, this is!" the old boy replied and flung his arm in an arc, sending aides scattering. And there it was. Horse, foot and guns: thousands of them. A regiment of Bengal Lancers was dismounting a few yards away, and behind them were more horse-soldiers, at least a brigade; behind them regiment upon regiment of foot, including at least two regiments of Sikhs - I could see the turbans - then a half-a-dozen batteries of Artillery and, trailing at the rear, the supplies and the camp- followers, eating the dust of the column and not looking as though they even noticed. I just lay there and gaped.
They had me in for a Staff Conference a few hours later, by which time I'd grilled Maxwell, and discovered what a mess I had been landed in. As I had been lying in the depths of my delirium, that ass Pargitter had cooked my goose. He'd convinced Duffy that not only would I get better medical care from the Regimental Surgeons with the column, but that I would be an invaluable asset to the Army when I finally recovered. Consequently they'd dumped me in an enclosed cart, stuck me at the head of the column and marched over a thousand miles without me even being aware of it. Words fail me, they really do. If this wasn't bad enough, the first five minutes of the Staff Conference soon convinced me that it was going to get a thousand times worse.
"Right, Flashman, this is the position, d'ye see. We have been marching for the best part of six months, up from India, through Afghanistan and Khurasan and here we are in Tehran. We've had safe conducts agreed in advance, but we're not popular here, and it seems likely that we're going to have to fight our way through to Kurdistan before coming up against the Russkis surrounding Kars, but we've got to get there, d'ye see?"
He was completely mad, of course. How on Earth he'd managed to get his army through Afghanistan was beyond me, but the situation with Persia had been shaky for years, and although good relations had officially been restored a couple of years previously, there was still a hatred of the British bubbling just below the surface, and the appearance of a British army in Tehran (albeit one that was just passing through) had clearly stirred up the local populace to fever pitch. The Head of the British Mission in Tehran was at the Staff Conference, and he was a very worried man.
It was clear to me that my best chance of surviving this latest horror was to stick with the army at all costs. I was well over a thousand miles from anywhere remotely safe, and the thought of striking out on my own started my bowels rumbling again.
"Very well, General, " says I, "how may I be of assistance?"
"You speak Persian, I understand, Flashman?" he said, and that started the alarm bells ringing all right. On my admitting that this was the case, he turned to the British Minister and said, "Ideally suited, wouldn't you say, Cummings? A senior man of proven resource and courage, speaks Persian like a native, and with experience of travelling in disguise..."
Wherever I go there is always some damn-fool general with no more sense than my boot just itching to send me into unknown perils, and not a damn thing to be done about it. Duffy went on to explain what he had in mind. It turned out that the Persian court did not stay in Tehran during the summer, since the city was a pestilential hole during all but the coldest months of the years (and not much better then, I don't suppose), but traditionally travelled a hundred and fifty miles to the Plains of Sultanieh along with about a third of the population of the city, who presumably had nothing better to do than trail along in the Shah's dust. Duffy wanted me to ride, incognito, and with only a handful of men, to Sultanieh, find the Shah, and persuade him to order up an escort for us of two thousand loyal Persian Cavalry, in the hope that this would prevent the locals from launching an attack on us. Pure madness, as I say. I pointed out that I didn't know the country; my Persian was that of a bazaar-wallah and not that of the court, that the Shah was unlikely to accede to his request in any case, and that the so-called Army of Asiatic Turkey could fight off anything that could be thrown at it. In return he offered a native guide, currently in the employ of the British Mission, who not only knew the country well, but who could also instruct me in the finer points of the language and of Court Etiquette, and pointed out that the Shah's only alternative to granting the escort was for the column to be attacked, and to defend itself, with the consequent loss of many Persian lives, and the declaration of war from the Home Government.
It's my experience that Oriental Potentates dislike being threatened, and frankly couldn't give a damn about their subjects anyway. I was sure that the Shah would be pleased to shrug, say "Insh'Allah" and have me tortured to death rather than agree to Duffy's plan, but there it was, I was going to Sultanieh.
My fears redoubled when I met the native guide that Cummings had lined up for me. His name, so he claimed, was Hossain Fateh, and I didn't believe it for a moment.
"Look, Cummings, old man, what do you know of this Fateh fellow? He doesn't look particularly trustworthy to me."
"Oh, he's a fine fellow, turns up from time to time, helps out with the odd courier job for us, generally a useful chap."
I could see I wasn't going to get much out of Cummings, so I decided that I'd better go and find myself a decent group of horsemen from amongst Duffy's army, and hope that they would keep me from harm, even if Hossain Fateh led me into it. I did, too; a dozen Pathans, all from the same troop of Bengal Lancers, they had joined the Company's army after a "misunderstanding" in their native lands, according to their squadron commander, a nice young fellow with a ginger moustache. He made sure that they were fully provisioned and outfitted from the Regimental stores, and even presented me with a box of his cheroots, "for the trip." I wish I could remember his name.
That evening I didn't dare leave the encampment, just outside the rough earth bank that defined the city, but instead wandered around the various regiments looking to see if I could find a familiar face (I didn't), and smoking my cheroots. It's my belief that I was still suffering from the after-effects of the cholera; it all seemed unreal somehow. My normal state at such a time is one of gibbering funk, and desperate planning, and here I was strolling through the camp as though I hadn't a care in the world.
It all came home to me the following morning at sun-up. One of my Pathans came and woke me, and within half an hour we were riding along the Qazvin road and I was getting a crick in my neck trying to spot snipers behind every bush.
"Be not afraid, Colonel," said Hossain, grinning like a loon, and showing his rotten teeth. "There is nothing to fear - yet." With which he dug in his heels and went haring off up the road, leaving me and my Pathan escort to follow in his wake. We continued all through the heat of the day, and finally lit our fire by the side of the road as dusk fell.
I didn't get much sleep that night, I can tell you: every time there was a rustle in the bushes, every time a night bird flew past and every time one of the Pathans broke wind I shied like a milk-horse meeting an elephant for the first time, and come the following morning I must have looked like I hadn't slept for a month.
"I do not trust that Hossain Fateh, Sahib," said my orderly as he brought me my tea. "We will watch him like hawks, and like hawks, pounce if he makes a move." Encouraging, rather, but not enough to calm my beating heart.
It took us the best part of a week before we were within striking distance of the Shah's camp, since we had left the main road at Qazvin, and headed across country, at Hossain's insistence. "It is the straighter way, Colonel, and truly it is written that the straight road is the one that leads to Paradise." He had given one of his awful grins, and ridden on without another word, leaving me to agonise over what he might have meant. Nevertheless, we were now within half-a-day's ride of the Shah, and I'd feel a damn sight safer at his Court than I did camped in the wilderness. Flashy's talent for talking himself into appalling situations is only equalled by his talent for talking himself out of them again, and I was sure that I could at the very least persuade the Shah that I would make a valuable hostage, but a worthless corpse. That night I was able to sleep, for the first time in what seemed like months, and I closed my eyes with the thought that soon this dreadful trek would be over, and I would be safe at the Court of the Shah.
I awoke to the sound of stealthy movement through the rough grass. The sound ceased and I lay rigid, imagining all sorts of terrors; then it started again, and I realised it was coming closer, from behind me. I threw myself forwards (no easy thing to do when fully-dressed and wrapped in a blanket), and I heard a gasp of frustration, as, getting to my knees, I saw the shadowy form of a man, leaping towards me with a knife in his hand. I was fighting for my life, and I knew it. I had his right wrist in my left hand, and was holding that dreadful knife off by sheer force of terror, but he had his whole weight behind it, and I was on my knees. Slowly the knife came closer and closer, and I saw the man's lips open into a grin just as I shot him through the belly with my Tranter.
I may be a fool, but I'm not such a fool as to sleep unarmed with people like Hossain Fateh around the fire.
Hossain, for it had to be him, fell back to the ground, spitting insults and blood at me, and I just knelt there, dripping with sweat and shivering with fear. The insults and the blood dried up after a time, and I realised that the sun had risen. I got myself to my feet, and walked over to the nearest bundle on the ground. It was my orderly, with his throat slashed from ear to ear. Every single one of my Pathans had been dealt with the same way, and I vomited.
"You stupid, useless bastards, " I screamed at their corpses. "You were supposed to protect me! What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
I sat down and took stock of my position. On the positive side, I still had the horses, and the food. However, there was no chance of me getting as far as the Shah on my own; I'd be dead and buried before I got within a mile of his illustrious presence, and my horses and my possessions distributed amongst the badmashes that no doubt covered the Plains of Sultanieh like fleas on a dog. There was nothing for it, but to try to rejoin the Army of Asiatic Turkey, and hope that they hadn't managed to get themselves butchered as they pressed on in the daily expectation of meeting up with their 2000 man escort from the Shah. A quick look at the map, and an estimate of their average speed of march convinced me that I needed to head due South, and rejoin the main road just short of Zenjan. If I had known what was to follow, I'd have ridden straight for the Shah and thrown myself on his mercy.
The two days that followed were amongst the loneliest of my life. I didn't see a soul, but was convinced that every rock, every bush hid an army waiting just for me. I hit the main road around three o'clock in the afternoon in a state bordering on hysteria, and was in the process of trying to work out whether the Army was ahead of me or behind me when a cloud of dust appeared in the East. I didn't even have time to find a place to hide before they were on me, but, thank God, it was a troop of Duffy's Bengalis on an advanced reconnaissance. I don't know when I've been more pleased to see a nigger.
Duffy greeted me like a long-lost son, tut-tutted about the loss of my escort and the perfidy of Hossain, and to my astonished annoyance told me that he had had second thoughts about the necessity for an official escort, and really didn't think we would need one.
How we managed to win so many wars with a system that could put men like Elphinstone, Raglan and Duffy in charge of Armies is totally beyond my comprehension.
That evening I got blind drunk on brandy, and had to be carried to my charpoy by two of Duffy's ADCs.
The following morning I awoke feeling utterly wretched; the brandy must have been off, for I could barely see, much less walk or back a horse, but the column moved out at 8.00, and I moved out with it, swaying on the back of my chestnut gelding like a flag in the breeze.
The next few weeks merged into sameness. I was constantly in fear that we would be attacked from cover, and spent hours alternately trying to see through every bush and rock, and devising and rejecting plans for my own safety.
We had made an uneventful passage through Maragheh and Tabriz and were only six or seven day's march from Kars (and there was another terrible thought), when there came a change in the atmosphere; a strange feeling in the air, as though we were in for some rough weather, though the sky was completely cloudless. The horses were jittery, and had to be forced to keep moving, and the whole army became nervous and short-tempered. I was pretty short-tempered myself, and fancied a cheroot (the ones I had been given at Tehran were long gone), so I stuck the spurs into my chestnut and started to gallop up the column, about a hundred yards to its right, heading for the group of officers surrounding Duffy, in the hope that I might be able to cadge a decent smoke from one of them.
We were about ten miles short of Nachichevan when the world ended.
I have seen horrors in my time, but take it from me, the worst of them is when the earth starts to dance. Huge rents appeared along the length of the road, swallowing up men, horses, entire gun teams as though they had never existed; boulders the size of steamships came flying down the slopes of the mountains with the speed of an express train, squashing and shattering everything in their paths. I saw Duffy turn towards a smaller boulder - about the size of a house - holding his hands up as if to shield himself from it, just before it wiped him and all his staff off the face of the Earth.
I don't know how long it lasted, but when the deafening noise of the earthquake finally subsided, I heard a whimpering voice repeating over and over again, "Please God, don't let it hurt me," and I realised it was me. Without conscious thought, I had taken cover in the lee of a huge outcropping of rock that looked as if it had stood there since before the Flood, and pulled my horse down on its side, Indian fashion, with me. There were boulders strewn all around, and a huge gash in the earth not twenty feet away, but it was over, and I was alive.
There is no point dwelling on the rest of that day, on the blood and the filth and the flies, on the screams of dying men, on the hideous calls of the vultures as they came and feasted on the remains of an army. As dusk fell, all those who could walk gathered around a fire started by a Corporal of Bombay Sappers, and stared into the flames. There were twenty-eight of us, from an army of over 6000. Some horses had escaped the quake, and came back to the road, attracted by the fire and the familiar sound of voices; a heap of the new Minie rifles and ammunition was found by the side of the tear in the earth which had swallowed the cart on which they were carried, but no food remained, and no water.
We, the twenty-eight men that had survived the Nachichevan earthquake, were a mixed bunch. Aside from myself, there were two other officers, a choleric Major of Artillery called Anstruther, who had a broken arm, and a young Infantry subaltern who was in a state of shock, and we couldn't get a word out of him. The rest were made up of men from almost every unit in the army, with a few experienced NCOs amongst them. In short, God help us, I was in command.
There was really nothing we could do, but try to collect together as many of the horses as we could, and ride for Kars - it was the nearest friendly garrison by five hundred miles, and if we had enough remounts, by pacing ourselves, we could probably make it in two days. What we would do when we got there, and had to break through a besieging Russian army, well, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
We bedded down as best we could around the fire, and dawn saw us all moving like automatons, loading up the horses and collecting what little we could find in the way of stores from the wreckage around us. The only one of us who seemed to have recovered his wits was Bressingham, the Infantry sub who had been shocked speechless the night before. He was running around organising things, seeing that the rifles and ammunition were carefully distributed on the backs of three of the horses, checking behind every boulder for an unregarded bundle which might contain some luxury or necessity to sustain us in our journey. It was quite frightening, really.
We were on the move within an hour of daybreak, and we were making good time too. When we stopped to change horses at midday I reckoned that we had covered over thirty miles. At this rate we would be at Kars by nightfall on the following day. That night we halted when the horses could go no further, luckily finding a small stream where they could be watered. I set up a guard roster, made sure that the animals were hobbled, and turned in knowing that one more day's hard riding would see us at our goal.
I was dreaming again; this time I couldn't see or touch anything, but could hear the sound of rifles being fired, and knew that they were being fired at me. Then I saw a muzzle-flash, and heard the rifle being thrown to the ground, and another being raised and fired, and suddenly it wasn't a dream, but a real and present danger. Just as suddenly I heard the lighter crack of a pistol shot, and all firing ceased. It was pitch black; the fire had burned down almost to nothing, but I found a brand and whirled it through the air until it began to burn brightly - a figure came up to me from out of the gloom.
"Anstruther, Colonel. Just had to shoot Bressingham."
It didn't hit home for a second, and then I realised what he was saying.
"What do you mean, you had to shoot Bressingham? Why, for God's sake?"
"Gone mad, I'm afraid sir," said Anstruther, dropping his pistol and running his left hand through his hair, "He'd loaded all the rifles and was shooting the men. I killed him."
Bressingham had loaded and fired two dozen rifles before being stopped by Anstruther. He had been firing for less than a minute, but at prone bodies at a range of only a few feet. Twenty men had been killed outright, and a further two were mortally wounded and died before morning.
The five of us set out for Kars in the early morning mist, with a string of horses behind each rider. As the light failed that evening, we were crossing the plain to the South of Kars. It was absurd to consider sending out a scouting party, so we moved forward cautiously and suddenly discovered that we had reached a line of redoubts, and without a shot being fired. I could smell Turkish tobacco, and hear soldiers talking in low voices behind the parapet. We moved to the right, and spotted a gap in the defences, and with my guts churning, Anstruther turned to me and said, "Look, there's nothing else for it; we must ride through that gap announcing ourselves as English. I know the Turks, they're lousy soldiers, and I doubt they'll get a shot off before we're there - if they do it will be into the air or into the ground. Just keep moving, whatever you do and we'll be all right." The others murmured their assent, and before I could counsel caution, off they went, with their commander bringing up the rear and trying to call them back in a sort of shouted whisper.
Truth be told, I didn't think they had much chance of doing us any harm. The evening was misty, there was little enough light left, and Elspeth's boot-maker knows more about soldiering than a Turk.
We hadn't gone twenty yards when there was a volley of musket fire, and Corporal Ali fell from his saddle, shot dead. I put my head down, my spurs back, and called at the top of my voice, "For God's sake don't shoot, we're English!" If I'd been astonished at the discipline which had enabled them to get a volley off so quickly and accurately, I was frankly disbelieving when I heard a voice call, "Cease Firing" and not another shot was fired. "Hallo," I thought, "those must be British Infantry behind those earthworks," and I cantered through the gap and vaulted to the ground in fine Hussar style (well, you never know who might be watching, and now that I was safe, I wanted to be sure I got some credit out of the whole mess).
"May I know whom I have the honour of addressing?" I barked out into the gloom, and a starving wretch in what was left of an Infantry officer's uniform came forward and said wearily, "Captain Teesdale, on the staff of General Williams, and who are you when you're at home?"
He had a point. I was dressed in the native disguise which I had been wearing to visit the Plains of Sultanieh; since then I had been through an earthquake, hadn't eaten for three days, and hadn't shaved for a month. I must have looked as bad as he did. "Flashman, Colonel, on the Staff of Lord Raglan."
Teesdale's eyes lit up, he stood inches taller, snapped off a salute that would have shamed a Guardsman and said. "Thank God! Quickly, come with me, General Williams is at his headquarters."
Well, I couldn't work out why he was so pleased to see me, but it is always nice to be welcomed, so we set off on foot, leading our winded horses, and within half a mile came to Williams' HQ, where we were all ushered in with great ceremony. A thin and careworn man, bald as a coot and with deep, sunken eyes, looked up at us as we entered. "The Ferik," explained Teesdale, although it meant nothing to me. "General Williams, this is Colonel Flashman from Lord Raglan's staff, and his..." Now we were in the light, he could see our motley crew, and he didn't know how to describe us. I'm not surprised. One Bengali trooper, one Sikh sepoy, and one Major in a filthy uniform belonging to the Bombay Artillery. It suddenly struck me that Teesdale must have assumed that I'd come direct from Raglan, and that I had an army of reinforcements behind me.
"Sit down, Colonel," said Williams, motioning me to a chair in front of his desk. "Teesdale, bring the Colonel a drink, and see to the others, there's a good chap."
Teesdale bustled off, and in short order I was sitting holding a glass of what turned out to be dirty water, and listening as the Ferik explained the situation. Basically he was cut off, with practically no food, no ammunition, and very little chance of reinforcements.
"I sent this despatch four days ago, Colonel Flashman, it will explain more clearly than I can at present," he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes and I realised that this was a man at breaking point. The despatch was to the Consul at Erzeroum, and was dated the 18th November:
"We divide our bread with the starving towns-people. No animal food for seven weeks. I kill horses in my stable secretly, and send the meat to the hospital, which is now very crowded. We can hold out and try to retreat across the mountains via Olti. Have provisions sent in that direction ere the eighteenth day after this date. We shall carry three day's biscuit with us."
I could hardly believe my eyes. This was the garrison where I'd been expecting to find safety?
"So, Colonel, what are Lord Raglan's intentions?"
"Ah, well, you see, although I'm on his staff, I haven't actually seen him lately. I was captured over a year ago, and have been halfway around Asia and back again since then."
"So, how came you here, Colonel?"
"I've come from Peshawar, by way of Tehran, with the Army, but there's none of it left now, there was this earthquake, you see, and..." I trailed off. Williams' eyes were boring holes in me, as if wishing me to turn into the Brigade of Guards. I could see his point, of course, but there wasn't much I could do about it. Duffy's army was dead and gone, and the five of us who had reached Kars weren't going to make a ha'p'orth of difference. Williams was sunk, and he knew it.
"Get some rest, Colonel. Teesdale will show you how things stand in the morning, and maybe we'll have some news from Erzeroum. If only I could be sure that I can rely on Selim Pacha to bring up those supplies, then we could retreat with dignity, and in good order. If not, the only hope for us all is to surrender to General Mouravieff."
I can tell you one man who was not thinking of surrender. I simply couldn't face the thought of Ignatieff hearing of my being taken - I'd swim through blood first!
The following morning I was shown around the defences by Teesdale. It turned out that the reason we had not encountered the Russians was that they were concentrated beyond the Kars-Chai river, to the north of the town proper, and that the town was unmolested from the south. So much so that as we were walking up towards the Arab Tabia and Lake's Bridge, we saw a peasant leading a lame buffalo, laden with flour, who had slipped in during the night, and was doing a roaring trade. He had made his fortune within minutes, and no doubt slipped away again to find some more flour.
North of the river stretched two lines of defences, each with redoubts , or Tabias as the Turks called them along their lengths. Each tabia was named after some local luminary, so there was the Sandwith Tabia (Sandwith was a civilian medico who had come out with Williams, and had proved himself invaluable during the siege), the Williams Pacha Tabia (of course - the Turks idolised Billy, ever since the Russians had made a feeble attempt to take the city by storm, and had retreated as soon as they met resistance. As far as they were concerned, he had given them a glorious victory.), the Thompson Tabia and even the Teesdale Tabia - he had the grace to look abashed when introducing that one.
The front line was the Tahmasp, and this was where Teesdale usually spent his time. Not that there was much chance of Mouravieff attacking - he knew to an ounce how much biscuit we had, and knew that all he had to do was wait. He had been intercepting the mails for the town, reading and keeping the official correspondence, but forwarding the private letters as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Teesdale took me over to the left of the Tahmasp.
"D'you see that?" he said, pointing to a small hill, half a mile away, "That's where Mouravieff has his headquarters. He's just sitting there waiting, damn him!"
On our return, Williams came out from his headquarters, and stopped us. He looked like he'd just been told that his grandmother had died and left him out of her will.
"Teesdale, there you are, oh and you too, Flashman, come gentlemen, walk with me."
We walked in silence for a minute or more, then he said, "I've heard from Selim. He refuses to move. It is simply not possible for us to take the army to Olti without being sure of supplies when we get there. I am afraid there is nothing else for it, gentlemen, we must surrender."
Teesdale responded like the young pup he was, pooh-poohing the idea, and saying that with Williams in command the Turks would fight their way to Moscow and beyond, but you could see that it was all a sham. My mind was working furiously. I could not let myself be taken by the Russians again. I was still dressed in the clothes I had worn for my mission to the Shah of Persia, they were so filthy and torn that I could easily pass for a beggar rather than a British Officer - did I dare try to make my escape, through a country where I could speak only three words of the language, and two of those were "Bono Johnny"?
Williams excused himself, and took Teesdale off to discuss how they would negotiate the capitulation. His voice rose as they returned to headquarters, "I must have honourable terms, Teesdale, you see that don't you, I won't make an unconditional surrender."
My reverie took me as far as the river, and I noticed crowds of women filling pots from the murky stream and carrying them off in all directions. Then it hit me. I could never hope to pass myself off as a Turkish man, but I might just manage it as a woman. Not only would that allow me to cover my face, but by and large women are ignored in Turkey, and left to get on with whatever it is they do. In a matter of seconds I was jumping down onto the river bank and gruffly ordering the nearest crone to hand over her pot of water. She didn't understand a word, and was jabbering away at me in great indignation when I used the magic words, "Williams Pacha". She passed me her pot, and left in silence. After that it was simplicity itself; I strolled under the nearest bridge, tore a strip off my stinking coat, wrapped it around my head, and I had my disguise.
There wasn't a horse to be had for miles, I knew that (our own had been cooked an eaten almost as soon as we had dismounted the previous night), but so long as I stayed south of the river, and trod carefully, I could evade any Russian patrols long enough to find a village, and a stable. If need be, I'd ride from there to Constantinople, and bang on Stratford de Redcliffe's door demanding asylum.
I slipped out of town after nightfall, and made my way along the southern bank of the river. The main road to Erzeroum was less than a mile to my left, but I wasn't going anywhere near it until I had put a good few miles between me and Kars. The earthenware pot had been dumped in the Kars-Chai, and I was striding along wishing I had a cheroot when a voice called on me to halt - in Russian.
From behind a rock, a troop of Cossack cavalry spread out, completely encircling me. I made feminine noises in what I hoped was a Turkish accent, and kept my eyes peeled for a chance to jump into the river and swim for it.
"I really wouldn't, if I were you, Colonel," said the terrifyingly familiar voice of Count Ignatieff, "we have unfinished business, do we not?"
With the exception of the existence and destruction of an Army of Asiatic Turkey, almost all of the details in this account may be verified from contemporary sources.
There was a General Williams at Kars; one of his ablest aides was Captain Teesdale; the town, the defences and the general situation were as described. Williams expected reinforcements from the Turkish Army, not the Indian, and was sadly disappointed. He surrendered Kars in November 1855, and his vanquisher, General Mouravieff, accepted his surrender in the following terms:
"I have no wish to wreak an unworthy vengeance on a gallant and long- suffering army, which has covered itself with glory, and only yields to famine. General Williams, you have made yourself a name in history, and posterity will stand amazed at the endurance, the courage, and the discipline which this siege has called forth in the remains of an army."
The descriptions of Persia, its relations with Great Britain, and the activities of the Shah and his Court are also accurate.
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