"Freebooters of the Balkans" in Land & Water 1916 by Jan Gordon
Land & Water, March 16 1916 carries a piece by Jan Gordon on "Freebooters of the Balkans," a subject he expands on in the book, "A Balkan Freebooter: Being the True Exploits of The Serbian Outlaw and Comitaj Petko Moritch." Here below is the text.
FREEBOOTERS OF THE BALKANS.
[Mr. Jan Gordon, the writer of this article, acted as engineer to Dr. Berry's Serbian Mission from the Royal Free Hospital. He was in the Balkans for six months and more, and travelled widely both in Serbia and Montenegro, taking part in the great retreat. He and his wife, who was also attached to the Mission, have just published, through Messrs. Smith Elder and Co., an account of their wanderings entitled "The Luck of Thirteen," illustrated by themselves, both of them being artists.]
IN modern armies we have now discarded the freebooter, but in the Balkan States they have not yet learned that the undisciplined auxiliary is of little use in the warfare of today, and here the comitaji have a recognised military position. Perhaps in a way one is wrong in suggesting that we have completely discarded, for the Comitaji is after all only a bold spy, a spy who would use force rather than cunning, who employs a bomb instead of gold, even in peace time in the Balkans they fringe the frontiers like a nimbus round the moon fortelling future storms. For them is no middle course between death or honour, as a rule they never are made prisoner and I have personal recollections of three such Spartans.
When I knew him Georgevitch was military storekeeper to Vrnjatchka Banja. No position could have become him better, he was an ideal storekeeper— and, was also gerant of the hydropathic hotel which we later turned into a hospital. He was young, plump, and genial. On ordinary days clothed in Serbian uniform, he was, save for his stature, unnoticeable. But on Sunday, arrayed in his show clothes and sallying out to attract the fancies of the ladies who were health resorting, Georgevitch was a sight for "nuts" to weep at. To see him, his plump figure encased in a very tight fitting black tail coat with braided edges, brilliant waistcoat, violently striped trousers, patent leather boots with cloth tops, little patterns worked in between the leather and the cloth, was to see what the modern Serb can do when he tries. His hat, a bowler with a generous brim, was always a size too small and perched at the angle which he thought the most attractive. At any rate Georgevitch was never deserted, but let us hope that the rumour of his courage attracted more than his personal appearance. One snowy Sunday some girls maliciously snowballed him when he was dressed in his best clothes. He gave a howl of elephantine laughter, stooped— to the grave danger of his coat— picked up in his enormous hands a lump of snow and with it laid one of his aggressors flat.
One morning Georgevitch presented himself at our hospital and demanded to see a patient. The two talked violently for a while, and when Georgevitch came away a tear was glistening at the corner of his eye. He said to me : "That man was my comrade. A great big man he was, and now look at him, all skin, and bones inside — nothing else. We were Comitaj together. Ya !" The tear had disappeared and his eye gleamed with another flame. " Herr Gott, that is a life " he cried, " two loaves of bread per man and then— Forwards, always Forwards." " Imagine," he clutched my arm, " a dark night ; you go silently, silently through the trees, and there before you is "an enemy outpost. You pull out your bombs, see ! " He swung round to his hip pocket and shewed me a smallish square cast iron box at one end of which was a brass cap. He unscrewed the cap, and pointed to a pin which projected from the case. " You see that pin, well you hit it— count one, two, three, four, and at five, throw it. Ah then. Boum ! Boum ! Boum ! " he waved his hands wildly, " They fly, we run after them, always throwing. Boum ! Boum ! That is fine ? Eh ? "
" We take no prisoners," he went on, they take no prisoners, and from two hundred of us only twenty- three remain — a true man that one. Ya."
But his comrade was not, in hospital, the wonderful hero that Georgevitch had pictured him ; perhaps the power of bearing pain requires qualities other than battlefield braverv. At any rate my wife had nicknamed him the " Big child " to the great joy of his comrades, because he would howl with agony before the doctor had approached his bed. He himself adopted the name and would pathetically say to her, " Big Child hasn't got any cigarettes, Sister."
Georgevitch had a beautiful horse and an English-made saddle of which he was inordinately proud. One day he was appointed captain of cavalry, and a few days later rode away. How many maidens wept for his going.
My second Comitaj is nameless. After two nights in a train I stumbled out at a wayside station seeking strong Turkish coffee with which to banish sleep from my unsatisfied eyelids. An inn lay over the way and although it was 5 a.m. I opened the door and entered, but staggered back gasping for breath. The floor of the big dining hall was heaped with bundles of rags. At first sight it was the moonlight flitting of a rag and bone merchant, then when one saw the faces there, and here arms and legs, it was more like an Armenian massacre. It smelt like a massacre too, a massacre several davs gone, for the windows had been tight shut all night and there must have been fifty soldiers sleeping there. 1 ordered a table in the fresh morning air without, and presently as I was sipping my coffee he came out to me. He was gorgeously drunk, and evidently had been so all night. Around his coat he had a thick leather belt containing six bombs, on either hip was a revolver, also sword, dagger and bayonet, and a rifle was on his back ; he seemed to a military sense akin to what those old fashioned mountebanks who used to carry and to play simultaneously drum and triangle, concertina, bells, pan-pipes and cymbals are to the musical. We had little intercourse, for alcohol had erected a barrier between us and I need my Serbian spoken slow and distinct. Still there he is, a picture of the apotheosis of warfare and by now he must have been satisfied. In opposition to these I place the portrait of Nikolo Pavlovitch.
For five days he was our cicerone, appointed by Marko Petrovitch, governor of Ipek and brother to the King of Montenegro. Pavlovitch was a large Spare man with black hair and moustache, keen generous looking eyes, and the most beautiful mouth I have ever seen. His large frame was clothed in a French fireman's uniform— the French sent all their old uniforms to Montenegro— and though it was several sizes too small for him it could not hide his native dignity. He spoke American. He explained us the Comitaj as a kind of vigilance committee instituted in order to keep down the excesses of the Turkish rulers of the Serbian populace. In Macedonia especially there were Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek Comitaji, and to the joy of the Turk they occasionally would fall foul of each other.
" Ah ! dis ere place." he said once, " 'ad de Turks for bosses an dey did jess wat dey like. We kip 'em in order, you bet. Say one Turk feller he carry off Christian gals inter is areem ; we shoot im up — or one fine night. Mister Jim, 'e dissapear. So ! " he flicked a finger across his throat, " dey know where a goone to, and dat kip em feared. Say ! "judge e make too much graft. We fixim too sure ! We judge 'n jury n execurta all in one. dat make 'm leave our gals alone. I'm tellin yer ! "
There were educated men amongst the Comitaj, in fact the greater proportion, Nikolo Pavlovitch told us. He was remarkably intelligent and tho' born a peasant had educated himself and read English better than he spoke it. His favourite author was Jules Verne, and " Round the World in Eighty Days " he judged a masterpiece, and " Jane Eyre " came second. Twice he had been caught by the Turks; the first time, although they had shot him in fifteen places, yet he escaped, was hidden by some Serbian women and was cured. He explained that in Macedonia a Comitaj could have anything he desired and without payment. The second time he was overpowered and beaten by twelve men with fencing stakes. They thought he was dying, but nevertheless sent him into Turkey on a bullock cart. The agony of that journey can better be imagined than described. They put him into hospital and, he said, treated him very kindly till he was better, when they flung him into a filthy prison. His friends had discovered where he was and sent him money, or he would have starved to death. He described how the dungeon was like night, because the only windows were blocked by the poorer prisoners who stood there all day long holding out arms through the bars to beg alms from the passers by. He was rescued by his friends who bribed the Governor and a gaoler, and he was allowed to escape. But his health Was undermined by his sufferings, and for six months he lay a cripple in Montenegro. He cured himself. In the summer he crawled down to Cattaro, and on the sweltering shores of the Adriatic he built a primitive sweat bath. In a fortnight, he said, he was better, and in two months was able to get about.
When he was quite cured he emigrated to America, where in a few years he saved £800. He returned to his country, but was so oppressed by the misery about him that in a few months all his money had been given away and he went back to America to get more.
He was a rabid prospector, and when he learned that I had been a mining engineer, he wanted me to join him, after the war, and make a thorough tour of the mountains in search of mineral. He was in Canada when the war started and had organised the large Serbian contingent which had left that colony to aid Montenegro. He had strict notions and was disgusted because the Serbian girls in Ipek would not discard Turkish costume.
"I sez to 'em Mister Jim, — Tisnt decent. Dats wat I sez. Dese ere gals goin 'bout in trousers an coverin' up der faces same as if dey was Turks. But dey tells me ter mind me business. Trousers is more comfortable, they sez ; an I say tisn't comfort you orter be thinkin' bout, but nations. But dey afraid. Dey say Turk 'e come back an what then ? "
We took him one day to visit the Archbishop of Ipek. Somehow there was no introduction, and the dignitary seemed a little huffed that we should have brought a common soldier to see him. At last he turned condescendingly to Pavlovitch and demanded his name. The Archbishop's expression changed at once.
"What," he said, rising from his chair, " You are Nikolo Pavlovitch." He shook him warmly by the hand. " So I have met you at last."
When we left Ipek, Nikolo Pavlovitch, who suffered at times from bad facial neuralgia, asked us to send him some camphorated oil, also an old sweater if we had one. The things were sent and I expect he got the oil, but I doubt if a woollen sweater could travel from one end of Serbia to the other in safety. Serbs are so susceptible to cold.