1918 – September 9

The enemy have a map of the town and are, of course, accurately informed of my movements. They know I have tea on board the Kruger at 4.30 p.m. And they have a spy observer here to direct their fire. On Saturday at tea-time they began to fire and one could note the careful observation, first shot near the cathedral, next more towards me, and so, one by one till they got one straight between the masts that fell in the sea a few yards away without exploding, then the observer signalled all correct and we got 2 rounds battery fire straight on to the Kruger. But you don’t hit what you aim at, you hit the things near – so two steamers on the next wharves were hit and all started steaming out into the bay. But the Kruger, the cause of all the trouble, remained fast, and the firing ceased, as they are not too well off for ammunition.

I have Captain Noel with me here, a fine fellow. He has been 6 months in prison with Kuchik Khan, where he was in chains and flogged and was released after I had made peace with Kuchik – he seems none the worse for his troubles. I took him out to the front to see the position at Binagardi, and on the way back I found my H.Q. in the Hotel d’Europe heavily being shelled. I couldn’t pull up the car and take cover in front of the fleeing populace, so we just had to head straight into the storm – it was unpleasant with bricks and mortar flying around, and the most terrific bangs, but I was very much watched, so had to sit up and look as if I like it.

As I reached the Hotel, the firing was over – one shell had burst in Wither’s bed-room next my Q. Office – destroyed the room and hit no one. Two burst in the road and smashed all the windows and a balcony, one set a house on fire alongside, but the fire-brigade were out in no time, in very good order and soon got the fire under control. Artillery fire is terrifying, but in a town its effect is very small unless it is the big shells that no one in this country possesses.

Thank goodness and thank God for many mercies. Bicherakov’s first detachment arrived to-day from Petrovsk* and things, for the moment, look very good indeed. London and Baghdad keep on telling me to leave Baku at once and I finally and firmly refuse – so how it will all end I do not know. I have sent the strongest telegrams that have ever been sent, but they contain nothing but what is true and right and what can be substantiated. Both Baghdad and London have been criminal in their outlook on the strategy, and even now they do not seem to realize that the capture of Baku by the Turks is a far bigger thing for them than the capture of Baghdad by us, was for us. In the evening I had to attend an anniversary dinner for the battle of the Marne, given by the Belgian Consul, who is an Armenian. The guests were some 12 prominent Armenians, Col. Chardigny and one French officer, one Russian, and the Armenian priest in full and very picturesque robes. The table was quite a wonderful sight and the guests more so. There were many speeches – too many – and I got away after two hours on a genuine plea of work.

* I can find two Petrovsks, one in central Russia near Moscow and one to the south-east of Moscow on the border with Kazakhstan. I presume it is the latter, but await further confirmation.

1918 – September 3

Shelling the town quite heavily last night. The French Colonel Chardigny [Chief of the French Military Mission in the Caucasus and Tiflis] is very jumpy. I am not naturally brave in the least. But I pray for the courage I have not got, and that is the sort of prayer which meets with an immediate answer, and I am as calm as if I were at Bishopsteignton. I never can believe in the answer to prayer for material things, the other prayers are always answered. Six well aimed shells fired at me personally on Binagardi Hill the other day while I was examining the enemy’s position, left me quite unmoved and the thought of any danger was quite absent from my mind. There being no other firing but these 6 shots one could hear the approach of each shell quite clearly and all one thought of was what a harmless sounding noise it was for an instrument that was on the point of exploding and tearing people to pieces.

1918 – September 1

Well Baku still holds out though truly it is just a prolonged miracle – there is no order or discipline in the town, the 5 Dictators Yermakov, Lemlin, Verluntz and 2 others are as weak as water, they are all young, about 25 to 30 and I do not believe in councils without grey-beards. There is no order, discipline or organisation among the troops. They retire whenever the enemy attack, and my troops are annihilated owing to failure of support. I told some Armenian troops to occupy a position already prepared and they entrenched because the enemy were about to attack it. They refused to go, because the enemy were about to attack it. Alice in Wonderland again. Yesterday a regiment was ordered to the front. They held a meeting to decide whether to go or not. The votes were 30% for and 70% against. The 30% were real stout fellows, and opened fire on the 70% to punish them or compel them to go. The bullets whizzed near one of our armoured cars who telephone to the Commander: “If they don’t stop I shall open fire on the lot of them.” The Commander replied “Please do!”

The town is shelled a good deal by day and night, but the inhabitants are getting accustomed to it and the small shell do very little harm except making a big bang and the sickly swains and their haughty little girls continue their nightly promenade undisturbed. My steamer on the wharf is the point most aimed at, but it is at the very end of their extreme range and the shells fall short in the town and mostly in cemeteries when the old dead are killed once more. One shell destroyed a ship’s boat just behind the stern – a very good shot. I did not like the risk of the big ammunition dump on the wharf just outside my porthole, so I wrote an urgent note for its removal. While writing, there was a bang, and a shell exploded absolutely in the middle of it, smashing open a case of shells and wounding slightly 2 sentries and nothing more. The Commander in Chief, General Dokuchaev, is a good fellow, not strong, and in a most difficult position. His Chief of the Staff Avelisov (Armenian) is weak, ill, and useless. I have asked them to kick him out and put in Stokes instead. The next Staff Officer, Van der Fless is not bright. The Minister of War, Bogratuni, Armenian, has just had his leg amputated. He is clever but not a forceful character.

To-day the Turks captured Diga* without much difficulty, though Diga was a strong point as had promised to put up a stout defence. They go from success to success and God only knows why they do not walk straight into the town. They must be quite rotten, and if only I had troops for a counter-attack I could destroy the whole lot of them. Unless they have the bad luck to come against a detachment of my brave 900 (Warwicks, Worcesters, Nr. Staffords, Gloucesters) they just come through without casualties. In vain I point out the harmlessness of artillery-fire except when it is used in the intensity of the French front which the Turks can never do. Casualties from Artillery are so far almost nil. The question is how to save the wretched population from the impending massacre – all these women and children (some 80,000 of them, I suppose) all promenading every evening on the boulevards by the electric light and quite unconscious that in any hour’s time they may be having their throats slit by the Turks. So I called a meeting in the Hotel d’Europe, of the Dictators, the Fleet, the Army, and the Armenian National Council and I exploded on them the following bomb:-

“It is time to come to some final decision regarding the fate of Baku. Surmises and hopes must be placed on one side and only facts considered. The facts are as follows:- My troops alone fight, they are only 900 and no more reinforcements are coming. The Turks are in every attack victorious and can enter the town whenever they have the pluck to come straight in. The town troops go from bad to worse – I was present at a War Council last night when the General’s plans were overridden by a common sailor. Plans of that sort are valueless – I was present this morning at the front when Binagardi Hill was taken. At the moment when a small counter-attack could have retaken the Hill. I found the entire citizen army loafing back into Baku with their hands in their pockets and their backs to the enemy. I then again visited the C-in-C. and discussed his future plans. I have since thought the matter quietly over and my final advice to you is this: Why study the map and discuss the value of positions when you know from experience that your troops, when ordered to attack, invariably retire? That being the case, why needlessly prolong the agony and risk the lives of all your noncombatants? I will no longer throw away in vain the lives of my brave soldiers. I am about to withdraw my troops entirely and leave Baku to its fate – I will go to Krasnovodsk and start a fresh and more useful movement in Turkestan [Turkmenistan]. I will hold on till to-morrow to give you a chance of negotiations. Send at once a flag of truce to surrender the town to the enemy and suggest the following terms (but strengthen your line first with every available man): If you will give us 48 hours to remove all our women and children and our forces from Baku we will surrender the town to you intact. If you refuse we will fight to the bitter end. Your losses will be heavy and we shall destroy all the electric power stations and the irreplaceable machinery that pumps the oil to Batoum and which is the only thing that makes the town worth capturing – you want the oil for the railways and for the Black Sea fleet – and you will be foiled in that attempt and your efforts will have been in vain.”

There was a great hubbub and excitement among the members. Each knew that what I said was true, yet none had dared, up to now, to put it in words. The town has been twice saved by a miracle sent direct from God. On July 26th and August 5th. We cannot expect a third miracle. After a little talk in which rather bitter remarks were thrown at my head, I left them to talk among themselves and went off to see the C-in-C., then I returned and begged them to stop their silly talk – how they love talking – and to act. I then went to see the War Minister who agreed with me. They talked till 8.30 p.m., and then agreed to my decision and promised to act. But they went on talking all night and eventually changed their silly minds. The Navy finally said: “We object to this cowardly plan. We control the situation. You must never yield. If a single ship tries to have the harbour we will sink her and then we shall turn our guns on to you on shore.” All very well for the brave Navy to say this when being on the water, their own safety is quite secured. So we continue the defence. I am glad, because every day we hold out is of great value to the Allies – I only fear for the civil population in the dreadful sauve-qui-peut which I foresee. Help from outside seems impossible. Will God really give us a third miracle? I have taken up my quarters ashore now, in the Hotel d’Europe, because they might think my remaining on board ship a sign of cowardice.

* I cannot identify where Diga is, though I suspect it is somewhere in the vicinity of Baku, like Binagadi is.