Forbes, the war correspondent

A comic map depicting the 1870’s view of Russia and Turkey in much of the anglo-sphere

What follows is George Forbes’ own account of his time as a war correspondent. He was with the Russian troops in the Caucasus in 1877 and reported from there for The Times. (Forbes built The Observatory, Pitlochry in 1906). As well as reporting, he briefly fought with the Russians, for which he was awarded their equivalent of the Victoria Cross. This overview was published by The Times in February 1930. It is long, and circuitous by modern standards. Nonetheless, Forbes’ connections, wily intelligence, reckless bravery, are striking – even if his apparent lack of compassion for the sacked villages leaves a rather sour taste.

The title of ‘Delane’s Last War Correspondent’ is claimed by Professor George Forbes. A.A., LL.D., F.R.S; and in the following article he explains how he came by it. 

(By Professor George Forbes)

Only once I met the great Delane, Editor of The Times. It was near the end of his life, in 1877 (John Thadeus Delane, editor of The Times, of London between 1841 and 1877).

On that occasion I formed very definite opinions about him, entirely complimentary. But I was much more interested to know what opinions he was forming about me, a youngster seeking employment by him. I was a professor in a Scotch college, where we had a vacation of six months. At the beginning of one such period, in 1877, I was in Germany, when war broke out between Russia and Turkey; the first great European war since 1870, when my namesake, Archibald Forbes, had created the new profession of war correspondent on lines not dreamt of in the initial great performance during the Crimean war by Russell of The Times, under Delane.

On the declaration of war, my love of adventure determined me to act as war correspondent with one of the two armies for some London newspaper. I hurried home from Germany and wrote to editors direct, as I had no journalistic friends who could use any influence. I really had no knowledge of military matters to recommend me. 

At Cambridge I had been a volunteer, but that would not count. I had, however, already acquired the urge for adventure, most of all when travelling round tho world via the Magellan Straits, crossing the desert of Gobi, traversing nearly the whole of Siberia, learning the Russian language, and incidentally securing the release of a pair of Siberian exiles from Irkutsk. The curious thing was that I knew for certain that I was going to get my way – in what manner I knew not. 

My incapacity in military matters must be made up by dogged pertinacity. 

A DAY OF HOPE

Suddenly arrived a day of hope. One of the editors had actually read my letter. A letter from him reached me, and I was to be at The Times office at a certain hour. It was not with trembling awe, but with unaccountable self-confidence, that I entered the manager’s room. I was greeted by the great Delane, and by J. C. Macdonald, the Manager. After some preliminary talk about the war I told Mr. Delane why I wanted to go out as special correspondent. I admitted my want of experience in both military and journalistic matters. But I also told him some of my exploits, and assured him that I was full of confidence. 

During this talk his eyes were steadily taking me in. In reply he said, “We’ve have already chosen our correspondents for the Turkish and Russian armies in Europe, and for the Turkish in Asia. We wish we had one with the Russian Army in Asia, for it is quite probable that the Asiatic will become the most important scene of action. Your knowledge of the Russian language would have been a recommendation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to send a correspondent there.” 

“Why so ?” I asked.

“Because we know for a fact that both the Daily News and the Daily Telegraph have asked for this privilege in Asia Minor, and Schouivalof, the Russian Ambassador, has positively refused permission.” 

“I don’t see,” I answered, “why that should prevent your having a correspondent there.” 

Both men regarded me with a strange look. Then came the final disappointment. Delane said, ” I assure you I deeply regret it, but it is not possible for us to have your services,” and the interview ended. On the next morning I received a telegram to go again to The Times office. Mr. Macdonald alone received me this time. He said, “Mr. Delane was impressed by your saying you saw no reason why Schoiuvalof’s refusal to two papers should prevent us from having a correspondent with the Russian Army in Asia. He thought you must have in your mind some plan. Can you explain to me what you meant ?” 

“What I meant was, that you ought not to risk a refusal by applying to Schouvalof”. 

My plan arose from my Russian travels and my knowledge, such as it is of the Russian character. One point is their constant desire to be accepted not as semi-Tartars but as equal in civilisation to the more purely European peoples. Another thing is the extent of their secret service at home and abroad. “If it were known that you were sending a correspondent, he would be stopped at the frontier and be forced to go back,” I said.

“And what is your plan ?” 

TIIE TRUMP CARD 

“If you were to tell me now that I was to go there I would not tell anyone, except my mother in Scotland; and I would start tonight, travel through Europe as fast as possible, and get through into Russia, at least, before anyone at home or abroad, knew of my mission. The Black Sea being in Turkish hands, I would take rail across Russia to Wladicavcas, where the military mountain road over the Caucasus begins. 

Grand Duke Michael Nicolaevich 

That would take a week or more. Then I would get my padaroshnaya, the order for post-horses, in the ordinary way. So, unknown, I would reach Tiflis (now Tiblisi, capital of Georgia) in another week. There I would present myself to the Grand Duke Michael, the Commander-in-Chief. I would then play my trump card. 

I would exhibit your letter appointing me the Special Correspondent of The Times to go to the Russian Army in Asia Minor, and to follow the campaign; and I would ask for the necessary permit. In this way I should throw upon them the responsibility of sending back the Correspondent of The Times after he had travelled so far, and of saying that they do not care to have a correspondent of The Times with their army in Asia. If my judgment be true about the character of the official class of Russians, they will not accept that responsibility. They will put every kind of difficulty in my way and try to tire me out. But never will they give a positive refusal.” 

“Well,” said Macdonald,” that seems to be quite a possible plan. Go on and do your best. You come off a good stock. Be worthy of it. We wish you all success and will watch to see how far your forecast proves to be correct.” 

A short talk followed about secret means of communication; banking, and so forth, and we parted.

Delane’s work was over before I saw England again. By that time Chenery reigned in his stead. Delane left The Times on November 8, 1877 and died November 22, 1879. 

The consequences of following the plan proposed, agreed in every particular with what I predicted. Another consequence was that I was the one British subject with the Russian Army in Asia during the whole campaign. I crossed Europe as fast as possible to Warsaw, and the only trouble I had at the frontier was in paying duty on my saddlery, because at Berlin I had changed all my gold into Russian paper money, which the Russian Customs officers would not accept in payment. 

I spent one night in Warsaw with the two Siberian exiles whose freedom I had secured a year or two before. They gave me a letter of introduction to a General at the front. At the end, of the day I had to wait some days before my turn came for a padaroshnaya. There was no political difficulty;  and still nobody knew of my mission. The snow-bound road was the only road across the Caucasus Range. By this road all their guns, ammunition, and other military supplies had to come, passing close to the great snow-peak Kdsbek. 

At long last I reached Tiflis and’ a comfortable hotel. The British Consul at Tiflis, Major Rickets, and his wife gave me the greatest attention, advice, and help during the long delay of nearly six weeks in getting a. permit. In the next stage my forecast was again confirmed. Though there was no refusal of my presence at the front, every kind of difficulty was put in the way. I wrote to the Commander-in-Chief stating my mission and asking for a permit. I saw his Chancellor. He put me off by saying that I must first get leave from the Grand Duke’s Chief of Staff, General Pavlof. 

On meeting Pavlof I soon saw that he considered a British subject must be a Turkish spy. This may have been natural, for it was the time of jingoism in the music-halls. The second verse of that militant song ran something like this “We fought the Bear before, And while we’re Britons true, The Russians shan’t get near Constantinople”.  [Note – it is a fascinating song, from which is derrived the term ‘jingoism’ and is entertainingly performed here.

]

DIFFICULTIES

Pavlof thought to confound me by saying I must first get permission from the Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov. By good luck, Mr. Doria, Chief Secretary at our Embassy in Petersburg, was a friend of mine. I telegraphed the circumstances to him, and he soon replied that he had seen Prince Gorchakov, who was entirely favourable and was acting accordingly. A week elapsed without my hearing from General Pavlof, so I again called on him futilely. 

Eventually he said that I must get a recommendation from Schouvalof, their Ambassador in London. I had learned from Mr Delane that this was hopeless. Once more I telegraphed to my friend at the British Embassy in Petersburg, and the reply came as follows: – Ambassador informed by Foreign Minister that Grand Duke refuses positively your request. Authorities instructed to communicate with you. 

“This was not done. I never got a refusal to my request. I wrote home offering to retrace my steps but was told to remain, because the little that I could see would be quite useful. And now the end came in a suprising manner, giving a complete victory to The Times

Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky

The Lord Lieutenant (I suppose that is the British equivalent) of  Transcaucasia was a distinguished supporter of literature and the arts, and a well-known personage in Parisian society, Prince Dmitry Ivanovich Sviatopolk-Mirsky

I learned that he had just arrived in Tiflis from handling the Caucasians who had revolted. I resolved to approach him on the bare chance that something might come of it, for he was a very different character from the semi-Tartars forming the Pavlof crowd, who had been my. opponents. He readily granted me an interview. We began by discussing the state of the war and his own doings. Ardahan had just been captured by the Russians.

Then I told him how General Pavlof and his staff colleagues were convinced that I was a Turkish spy. He asked for details about my own career. Suddenly the point of view was altered by his question; “Are you any relation of the late Principal James David Forbes?” 

A RESPECTED NAME

I replied that he was my father.  Mirsky grasped me by the hand, saying how glad he was to know me, he had so much admired my father’s discoveries about glaciers, and in other branches of science. He roared with laughter as he remarked, “And to think that they look upon you as a Turkish spy! We must put this right immediately. You will hear from me in a day or two.” 

Within that time I received the following document ;- “The Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky has the honour to inform Mr. Forbes that his Highness the Grand Duke, General-in-Chief of the Army of the Caucasus, has been pleased to grant him permission to go to the camp of the Russian troops, either before Kars or in the Kobaulete. It is understood that Mr. Forbes must conform himself to the established rules. Tiflis, June 5-17, 1877. 

Thus, as constantly in my life, I was given, the chance to do greater things than my own merit deserved through the esteem, veneration, and affection in which that great man, my father, was held.  In fact, soon afterwards another event proved the same truth. 

George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, by George Frederick Watts

Before leaving London I resolved to disclose my secret mission to one eminent man who, being opposed to the political party in power (the Conservatives under Disraeli), would be more in favour with the Russians, and therefore better able to help me. This was George, 8th Duke of Argyll, father-in-law to the Princess Louise. He had been a student under my father at Edinburgh University, and was Chancellor of St. Andrews University while my father was Principal. 

He occasionally became our guest at home. He was-devoted to my father, since whose death he has maintained his intimacy with myself. He promised to use his influence in Russia. Unfortunately he was delayed for six weeks by gout. When at last Prince Mirsky received the Duke’s letter, a confirmation of his own assertion that I was the son of my father, also devoted to science, and could not be a spy or propagandist, he was intensely elated. The silence of General Pavlof and his associates told its own story.

THE BAPTISM OF FIRE

A great advance against the Turks and Abkahsians formed one of the most exciting episodes of my life, as being the experience of a man on the first day he was ever under severe rifle fire (Abkahsia is an area of southern Georgia that is currently semi-autonomous after a war with Georgia in 1992-3). Its importance to me beforehand lay in the fact that I was the only British man with the Russian forces in Asia, that the British nation was then much out of favour with the Russians, and that, if I should show any funk, my conduct would be spread abroad as a feature of the British character. 

So I resolved that, however much I might be in a funk, I would not betray it; and, if possible, I would try to show off – that is to say, without seeming to care, I would let myself perform acts that a cautious man would not do. 

It was sheer, but necessary, bravado with a definite object. 

This forethought amused me; its execution, side-by-side with officers with whom I was on the best of terms, was sheer joy. The advance by the column I was with on July 30, 1877, had the object of punishing the Abkhasians. I was in the front line, where I was permitted perfect freedom of action all day. It was a day of the most continuously exciting sport I have ever enjoyed. 

I rode forward through the forest in the company of officers who were already my firm friends and to whom I wished to present a true British bearing. 

Our column consisted of a battalion-and-a-half of infantry, one sotnia (sotnia is a military term of Slavic origin meaning ‘a hundred’, but generally a military unit of between 100 and 150) of native militia from Georgia and a second from Abkhasia, two sotnias of Cossacks, and four mountain guns, whose parts were carried on mule-back. 

We intended to force a way along the main road, burning the houses, killing everybody visible there, and leaving nothing that belonged to the natives. 

CONFUSION 

At 3.45 am a start had been made. The stench from unburied and burnt dead was very bad. In half an hour we had descended into a valley, and had almost surmounted the hill opposite without annoyance, when a few shots reached us from the crest of the hill. As our infantry advanced, the enemy withdrew from their commanding position. This we occupied and brought forward two guns. A precipice in front concealed from us the road, preventing as from firing directly on it. Meanwhile we got a peppering from the enemy farther away; but these were soon driven off by a few shells.

This was the first time I witnessed, what continued all day, the scene of confusion in our ranks, and the excited, talkative arguing among the officers. Every one spoke at the same time. Officers declined to carry out the orders of their superiors; the Captain of Artillery argued with the Commanding Officer and gave orders to a company of infantry. The Artillery Lieutenant continued to fire shells when positively ordered to stop. The native militia troopers themselves gave their own orders, ending in a howl before they advanced. 

The Russian infantry alone showed any discipline. This state of things lasted the whole day, and the only man who kept cool was the civilian Natchalnik, who afterwards told me that he was bad with fever, and knew not a thing that had happened. 

Cavalry were now sent out as scouts in the forest. They returned with the intelligence that the enemy occupied a strong position on the road below in the thick forest, through which a straight and narrow road passed. Actually it had been barricaded all along one side and at the end of the straight run. The infantry were sent forward, and I joined them. The enemy were armed with Winchester repeating rifles from the U.S.A., each charged with 16 cartridges. 

They waited until we had advanced so as to fill the long straight piece of road. Then from the left side they opened fire from the stockades at a range of 10 yards. Smokeless powder was unknown. In an instant little could be seen for the huge volume of black smoke. 

My first thought was. “What a damned fool I am to be here! I might have stayed behind and collected news for The Times on the return of my friends.”

This mood did not last half a minute. Then I became surprised that so few of us fell, and I said to myself. “That small percentage is a risk well worth taking and adds to the fun. At the first shot, the officers, one after another, had dismounted so as to present no target to the shooters, who could see only smoke, and fired high, doing wonderfully little damage. I wondered whether British officers would show so bad an example. My first act of sheer bravado was not to dismount and before long I was the only mounted man under fire. 

A BRITON’S BRAVADO 

This check lasted five or ten minutes. Then our road was clear. At 5 a.m. we started again; at 5.30 a.m. and again at 6 a.m. we passed some small villages which we burned. The fields of maize were searched for villagers. The Artillery Captain came out of one such field wiping blood from his sword, and said to me, “I hate doing it, but we have to obey orders.” He was really a very decent chap. So the day passed on with skirmishes wherever the forest gave a chance, and with the frequent burning of houses and killing of stragglers. 

I seized any opportunity to show off for the benefit of Russians who would have liked to belittle the bravery of the British. At one time I was in advance with a company of about 100 infantry, who were to drive the Turks from a small hill. Our young officer was disabled during the advance. There was no one to take his place effectively. I was the only mounted man. To stop the attack seemed even more futile, than to be put out of a scrimmage by a whistle when playing Rugby football. So, spurring my horse, I took charge at the head of the company, and led them on. 

The enemy fired a few more shots and then bolted, and we took the place. At the end of this little job I said to myself, “What a fool you are! You want the other side to win.” At the same time the episode was quite helpful to my bravado. 

Soon I found the best opportunity of the day for pretending to disregard danger. After scouring the country and burning a large village, the whole of our little force reached the edge of the wood through which we had been scattered. 

An open grassy plain lay before us bounded by more forest some hundreds of yards away. From that front we got a storm of bullets. It was wonderful to witness the transformation scene that followed on our side of the open space. Our dense mass of soldiers, a good mark for the enemy, disappeared; and dark shadows, as it were, of men and horses were spread behind each tree in the open space, away from the direction whence came the bullets. 

I declined to seek any refuge, and dismounted in front of a tree behind which were some 50 soldiers in line, taking shelter. I took out of army holsters some lunch I had brought with me, then I lighted my pipe. Afterwards I spent the time with a penknife cutting out of the tree some of the bullets that stuck in it. I kept three of them and brought them home as souvenirs. I was struck only once. It was on the lobe of my ear, and I knew nothing of it till an officer drew my attention to the blood. 

At about 3 p.m. we began our retreat to the camp. I was well satisfied, like most youngsters after their ‘baptism of fire’ and to find that the possibility of fright, at least after the first minute of experience, does not exist.  I was also pleased when the officers who had befriended me from the first, became still more friendly, and even accused me of having lied in telling them I had never been under heavy fire. 

At last we reached the main camp of General Oglobzio, in supreme command of the right army. Here I remained several days, fishing and hunting with the Georgian princes, who kindly invited me to return the next year to visit them.

Prince Dadiani

Among these, my greatest friend was Prince Dadiani, who, if I remember right, was later offered the Throne of Bulgaria. He wore his native costume. One day I inspected and admired a fine piece of silver and platinum, a box for holding matches, which was sewn on to his girdle. At the moment of my departure to the main army under Loris-Melikov, I went into his tent to say good-bye. He spoke a few words of Georgian to his batman who presently returned with the artistic little box, cut from the girdle; and the Prince, giving it to me as remembrance, would take no refusal. I still have it. It recalls happy days. 

When later I returned home I left for him my English saddle and bridle. Now, in conclusion, I must tell of a personal matter which seemed to me to show the best features of the Russian character. That character I admire supremely. No people in the world have shown me more hospitality and true friendship than the Russians, in all parts of their dominions, or at their Embassies, during my travels. 

THE RIBBON

On the evening of our return from the most exhilarating day of fighting I ever had, General Oglobzio sent for me to his tent. He was very complimentary, and spoke of some of the small things I had done which he approved. Then he uttered these words:- “I regret extremely that your not being a Russian soldier prevents me from doing what in that case would have been my duty, to give you the St. George’s Cross for your actions this day.” I thanked him for his kind words, but, at that time, I knew nothing about the Cross or its value. The Russians then considered it the equivalent of our Victoria Cross! 

I thought no more about it, and returned to the camp of Loris-Melikof in Armenia. Loris-Melikof was now in supreme command in Asia Minor. A few days after my return to his camp he sent for me to his tent. We had always been good friends. On this occasion, after a few preliminary remarks, he took up a little box from the table and opened it for me with these words:- “This (a flat ring of silver with a flat silver ‘K’ in the centre) is your badge as a war correspondent here, and the authorities have ordered me, in giving it to you, to see that it is mounted upon the Ribbon of the Order of St. George, which from now you are always entitled to wear.” He pinned it on my breast, and bade me good morning with a handshake.

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