Sept 24th 1918
My dear Father
I hope the gaps in my letters will not be too great, but I have lately had very little opportunity for writing, and in addition I know that the transport of mails in this region is most uncertain. So far, I have had no mails whatsoever since I started my journeyings.
I am at present in command of a small station where I get a good deal of work extra to my usual work. However the taking over is half the business, and once one has settled down and had time to get to know the ropes and put things in smooth running order it will be very much less strenuous. I have only been here a few days, previous to which I have had quite an adventurous time. Probably by combining the description of my late letters with the news published (scanty as it has, I believe, been) from this theatre of war you will have guessed that I was one of the small British force that went to Baku with the idea of assisting the very considerable Russian force available there to make a good organized resistance to the Turkish attack. This would have held up a very fair sized Turkish force, besides securing complete control of a fine im portant city, lavishly stocked with war material, and possessing any number of oil wells. Unfortunately the effort failed. Organizing remnants of the Russian Army is probably not easy anywhere; it is too soon after the upheaval of the Revolution. But I should imagine that in the Caucasus area this is more difficult than anywhere. The politics of the district are most extraordinarily confusing.
North and south alike of the mountain range the country is split up into little patches, 50 to 100 miles across perhaps, and the population of each patch has entirely its own set of violent likes and dislikes, the only rule apparently being that no two neighbours agree. Much of the difference is religious in origin, as Christians (Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Syrians, [Jelus?] etc) and Mohammedans (Tartars, Persians, Turks, Kurds and scores of other tribes) are very mixed throughout the area. Baku is a mixed city, Tartar originally I think, but thoroughly invaded since development of the oil-fields by many outsiders, especially Armenians and true Russians.
Until fairly recently the Bolsheviks controlled the city. But owing partly to the inefficiency of food control they were pushed out of power, and an Armenian Dictator and committee took over so called control. These people (unlike their predecessor) were willing to have as much British help as we liked to give them. Their own people, though numerous enough, and well provided with arms, ammunition and stores, were exceedingly incompetent, and when our first small detachment landed (some weeks before I was first there myself) the Turks were on the very edge of the town in one place. Such of the soldiers in the town who were willing to fight at all under an Armenian regime (most themselves Armenian who are noted as a feeble crowd of bad fighters) did so only in the manner that pleased them. This involved never going further out from the town than a few miles, so that with an easy walk they could go back home for a night or two of ease and comfort. Mostly he objected to digging trenches, though one example when we got there did alter this a bit. Far more however did he object to being shelled especially in the open; and therefore a few small shells at most times were quite enough to send off a good fraction of the force on a holiday to Baku! In fact the only kind of fighting he really seemed willing to attempt was to stop in Baku until the Turk tried to walk in, and then snipe at him from every window and street corners in the place.
With the inspiration of a very small party of British he drove the Turk off to a fairly good line varying from two miles out of the town was the sea on our left flank and bending round in a wave at a steadily increasing distance. If you look at the map you will see that Baku lies on the southern coast of a peninsula some 16 miles wide (very roughly from memory thus:
[DRAWING ON LETTER, see original image]).
The obvious defensive line to have taken was one facing west right across the peninsula. It happened that the ground was so well adapted for such a line that it could have been made immensely strong. No attempt seems ever to have been made to take up this line until the British arrival, and then it was too late. The Turks held a big ridge just on the west side of the railway from Tiflis which entirely overlooked our whole position.
When I arrived early in September the line we occupied was more or less as shaded. There were British troops in various parts; I was just to the right of the railway junction, in a big village called Baladjari.
The Turkish attack on the 14th developed on the left flank before dawn, in front of Russians. By daylight they had apparently not got through, according to reports of British officers who went to investigate, though there had been noise enough going on for anything. However just after daylight they walked through somewhere, evidently easily, as some of our fellows close to the sea, and a few more who were in reserve suddenly found Turks on their flanks without warning. They pushed their advance to the edge of the town where a little party of British met them, drove them back a bit, and then held them. Then the Turks steadily widened their salient towards the north. Meanwhile as soon as it was light they had pushed out a holding attack in front of my right at Baladjari. Our lines were some distance apart, and they did not attempt to finish the attack in, but a moderate force consolidated themselves in a bit of a depression about 800 yards out, and stopped there all the morning.
Before midday my reserve had to drop back to deal with the trouble approaching steadily from our left rear. By about one o’clock the position became untenable as we were in danger of being cut off, so we had to get back, a rather awkward job, with the Turks in front of us in fair strength. Luckily their shooting was bad, and we got out pretty lightly. By 4 o’clock we were back on a line only a mile or so outside the town. Here we had a very good position, and were able to hold our own till dark. It was decided that as our mission had been demonstrated to be a failure, and there was no hope left of saving the town – the British force would be withdrawn that evening as completely as possible.
It was a poor job trying to help people who did so very little to help themselves. One was sorry for the best individuals among them, but for the mass not a bit. They deserved what they got.
Immediately after dark we assembled, and marched straight down to the harbour and embarked. The attitude of the various sections of the townspeople was an uncertain quantity, but I think we were almost away before they had quite realized it, and so possible trouble was avoided.
Sept 27th - My letter has taken three days up to now. I must try to finish it.
War news of late has been all one could wish in most optimistic moments. The Turkish defeat in Palestine appears so complete that it is hard to estimate how far-reaching the consequences may be. It is sure to have a big moral effect in this part of the world at any rate. The Balkans appear to be giving us a very respectable second best so far as the side shows go. Meanwhile we have done more in two months past in France than I thought possible before next spring. It looks, as it never did before, as if it might be the beginning of the end.
The place I am in is thickly wooded, and hot and moist till very lately. We have had two or three very wet days and now it is fine again. It begins now to become respectably cool, but is never very cold I believe, as it lies quite low.
It is a wonderful place for fruit and eggs of which there seem to be unlimited supplies. We are just outside a very big town which is quite invisible from anywhere owing to the flat ground and the trees.
Colonel Faviell is starting tomorrow for leave to England, the brigade commander having returned from India to take over from him. He is the first officer from this unfortunate brigade to get leave home; every other I know of has sent several, this year and last. It has not been for lack of competitors.
I don’t know when you will get this; somewhere about Christmas I suppose. I give up trying to write “Christmas letters” in September; but you know I shall be thinking of you all.
Best love from
Your affectionate son
Cyril E Sladden