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FROM PRESIDENT TO PRISON

 

 
CHAPTER I
 

THE FIRST PETRELS

 

OUT across the cold stretches of Siberia toward the warming rays of the rising sun Russia for centuries pushed, like a great primitive giant, her bulwark of physical power, until finally it reached down to the very tip of a lovely forest-covered peninsula, where the towering range of the Sikhota Alin came down to bathe itself in the iridescent waters of the Pacific. Just where the mountain steps out of the sea the giant built his cairn, that should apprise all men of his extended might, and called the mass of masonry and stone Vladivostok, "Ruler of Eastern Empire."

Later time softened somewhat his ways and, as his people came to do his will and live their little lives of frontier abandon and joy, they called their capital "The Pearl of the East," a name it full deserved before man's hand wrenched loose the covering shell of never-changing solitude.

The peninsula, that it might be entered in the printed annals of the world, was designated Muravieff-Amursky, and the waters which washed its eastern and western shores took their surnames from the two great rivers of the region and became known as the Ussuri Bay and Amur Bay. They are but the fingers of the sea, a part of the hand geographers call the Bay of Peter the Great, on that arm of the ocean they have christened the Japan Sea.

At the very tip of the peninsula, where the small Golden Horn has driven its way into the land, Vladivostok has spread itself over the western shore of this little bay and occupied also a part of the eastern littoral, known as Egersheld. There, overhung by mountain summits covered with oak forests, that were denizened by pheasants, hares and raccoons instead of the princely tigers which had gone out of residence some fifteen years before, Vladivostok was climbing the terraced hillsides in the year 1903, when I arrived for the first time in this centre of Oriental power.

The population of the town counted a heterogeneous conglomerate of Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans with a small admixture of Europeans.

In a building belonging to the railway administration I organized my laboratory and at once set to work. In an earlier volume, Man and Mystery in Asia, I have described some of the outstanding features of the life of Vladivostok, some of my wanderings and a few of the more important of my undertakings in the surrounding country. In December of 1903, while I was engaged in a study of the coal samples I had collected during my several expeditions, events were developing in the Far East that were fraught with a deep significance and furnished much food for thought.

It is a matter of common historical knowledge that the seriousness and significance of these events had their inception in the securing by the Russians of a timber concession on the upper reaches of the Yalu River, which forms the northwestern boundary of Korea along its Manchurian frontier. In Vladivostok it was whispered that the principal concessionaire was Bezobrazoff, Master of the Hunt to the Tsar, who was known to have at this time a powerful influence in the shaping of Russian politics. At the same time it was said that the Minister of Finance, Count Witte, opposed Bezobrazoff's policy and actions in the matter of the Yalu, but was forced to give way, as some of the members of the Romanoff family were among the stockholders of the concession.

Vladivostok, with its close proximity to the Tumen River that forms the northeastern boundary of Korea, was usually well informed as to what was going on in this decadent state, which for centuries past has been oppressed and dominated by the Chinese and Japanese and at one time even by the northern Tungutzes. We learned soon of the great concern and growing agitation of the Japanese, who saw in the concession on the Yalu the entering wedge of the Russian plan to annex Korea, just as the Muscovite power, after having obtained the concession for the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway through Manchuria, had succeeded in practically dominating in its entirety the northern province of Heilungkiang and partially the two southern ones of Kirin and Fengtien.

These fears gave Japan the excuse for sending armed detachments to the Yalu Valley to protest against and prevent what they maintained would be a violation of Korean territory by the owners of the concession. In the summer of 1903, the first encounter took place and gave a clue to the whole situation. A Russian naval vessel under command of Lieutenant Kartseff, a relative of some of the palace aristocracy, sailed from Port Arthur, the then naval base of Russia in South Manchuria, eastward across Korea Bay for the mouth of the Yalu, carrying timber estimators, surveyors and a band of workmen composed chiefly of Cossacks from the Amur and Ussuri regions. When a Japanese patrol sought to prevent their landing on the Korean littoral, Kartseff ordered his crew to repulse the Japanese without the use of firearms and thus opened the initial move in the first great land conflict between a European and an Asiatic power. The Japanese were beaten and for some time quiet prevailed.

But it was only a seeming quiet. The mysterious expression on the faces of the Japanese in Vladivostok, their meetings and parleys with the Chinese and Koreans, the bellicose tone of the Japanese Press and, especially, the activities of the Russian authorities, all indicated that war was near.

The first of the storm petrels was Bezobrazoff on his inspecting visit to the Chinese Eastern Railway, Port Arthur, Dalny and Vladivostok. The Master of the Hunt had many conferences with the military authorities in the Far East and with the railway engineers, leaving behind him, as he turned back westward to St. Petersburg, the impression of a threatening mystery.

Then we had the visit of the second distinguished envoy of the Government, the Minister of Finance, Count Witte. After his return to the capital we learned that he strongly represented to the Tsar the very evident danger of an armed conflict with Japan in the alien territory of Manchuria, with only a single-track railway line of great length for the transportation of all troops and war materials and with the organization of the Imperial Government activities in the Far East not yet completed.

And finally the Minister of War, General A. N. Kuropatkin, arrived. After visiting the military bases at Port Arthur and Vladivostok, he boarded the cruiser Askold and sailed for Japan, where the high authorities received him very amiably and most willingly showed him their army and fleet. He was so completely reassured by what he saw that he returned to Vladivostok buoyant and full of hope and, when cheered by the sailors as he mounted to the bridge of the flagship, pointed toward the island of the Rising Sun and exclaimed:

"We shall soon be there, boys!"

Back in St. Petersburg, General Kuropatkin opposed energetically the fears of the cautious Witte and threw his support behind the plans of empire being urged by Bezobrazoff. The War Minister had no idea of the existence in Japan of the powerful new Shimose powder and was blissfully ignorant of the fact that a gigantic scene from an opéra bouffe had been staged for him, when the Japanese marched past him an army clad in the earlier feudal Japanese uniforms and displayed to him a navy of old ships that looked as though they could not leave the docks.

After the departure of Kuropatkin from Vladivostok, the word "war" never left the lips of the inhabitants of the town and a mysterious, sarcastic smile seemed glued to the usually enigmatic faces of the Japanese residents. This smile was worn alike by barbers, tailors, bootmakers, merchants and laundresses, because they all shared the indomitable certainty of their leaders that the flag of the Rising Sun would fall neither on the land nor on the sea. They knew the real facts, as most of them were military spies and had minute information about the equipment and spirit of their army, which was thoroughly trained and understood to a man the aims of the coming war.

As I was hunting from time to time on the peninsula of Muravieff-Amursky or was visiting some of the neighbouring coal-mines, I often emerged from the forest and came out on the shores of either the Ussuri or Amur Bay. These shores were almost uninhabited, with only an occasional Chinese or Korean fishing hamlet isolated here and there. Back of these the taiga remained virgin and difficult to traverse without an axe or a heavy hunting knife. These bays enclosing the peninsula were rarely visited except by occasional big junks, arriving with cargoes of dried fish, seaweed, crabs or smuggled goods. Once a year, however, the Ussuri Bay was thrown into unwonted contrast to its usual tranquillity by the visit of men-o'-war coming here for gunnery and torpedo practice. At such times the junks and fishing-boats of the yellow seamen deserted the bay as though it were a place possessed, to return and set up ownership again, however, the moment the fleet has left.

After the departure of the Minister of War great changes took place in both bays. Russian torpedo-boats and scout ships frequently cruised these waters, while the Chinese and Korean three-masted junks with their ribbed and wrinkled sails almost never visited them, fearing encounters with the men-o'-war.

One day in the autumn of 1904, when I was hunting heath-cock, I came out on the shore of Ussuri Bay and was witness to a very interesting and significant occurrence. The sun was already sinking behind the forest-covered mountains across the bay. Pink and golden traces of evening's blush still lingered on the surface of the sea. Suddenly a strange-looking ship appeared from behind a small headland. The whole craft, from the water-line to half-way up her masts, was loaded with, and enveloped by, bales of hay and bundles of kaoliang-stalks (Chinese sorghum). But my attention was caught by the masts and their equipment, which were a bit too rakish to fit into the lines of a native craft and looked as though they were certainly stayed with cables.

"A disguised torpedo-boat?" I queried to myself, and sat me down for a careful observation of the strange craft. She was making very slow headway with two small sails clumsily rigged to her masts in a way that no real sailor would ever have set them in the open sea.

My growing suspicions were suddenly confirmed, when a light flared, went out and flared again from between the bales of hay. I had no doubt that it was regular signalling that was going on, but found it to be of a rather unusual nature, as it looked as though it were done by means of a small electric flashlight. I began to scan the shore very carefully and soon made out answering signals at about a thousand paces from me. While I watched, the sun had disappeared altogether, dusk was falling and a fog came slowly rolling in from the sea. Then, peering through the gathering darkness, I saw the bales of hay and the bundles of kaoliang stalks go overboard into the water, and gradually made out the lines of the funnels, the bridge and the guns as the lights, to my surprise, began showing through the port-holes. By this time I was naturally glued to my observation post and gradually saw the smoke from the reviving fires pouring out of the funnels in a red glare. I had already been there some hours when I heard the dull, slow churning of the screw, followed by the splash of the oars of a small boat that put into shore not far from the steep bank where I crouched among the bushes. I caught some broken words of command, uttered in the Japanese tongue.

"War!" I thought. "The war is already upon Russia!"

Afterwards more than once, in wild and isolated places, I came across Japanese, Chinese and Koreans sending signals and, throughout these days, developed the very distinct feeling that this largest fortress in the Far East, and the whole place of so much strategic importance to Russia, were surrounded by a net of spies, and that the hostile and piercing eyes of men with yellow faces looked out from everywhere.

Then in December the news that the Japanese torpedo-boats had attacked the Russian fleet, by bad strategy huddled together in the harbour at Port Arthur, quickly spread through the Russian Far East and shocked with incredulity the previously invulnerable confidence of Vladivostok. After solemn services in the churches and the publication of the manifesto of the Tsar, proclaiming a state of war, the populace, roused by the unexpected attack of the Japanese, each day became more warlike.

"We shall smother with our caps these yellow rascals!" was the boastful cry of the streets, of the theatres and even in the homes. Threats of unquestioned revenge were bandied about, while all occupations gave way to the one principal pastime of waiting for and devouring the news from the war area.

After a period of calm, events took an unexpected turn, when the defeat of the Russian armies of the peninsula of Liaotung forced their retreat to the north and their subsequent abandonment of Port Arthur to the siege of the Japanese forces. The story of the dramatic siege and the capture by the Mikado's storming troops of this southernmost stronghold of Russia in the Orient is well known. Its fall left the Japanese General Staff free to land its armies on the southern littoral of Manchuria without fear or interference.

In the meantime another disastrous land engagement had taken place just opposite Wiju on the Yalu River, along the course of which Bezobrazoff and his Imperial associates had dreamed of planting a new outpost of Russian empire in the Far East. Following this unhappy battle at Wiju and Chiu Lien Ch'eng, the Russian arms sustained one disaster after the other.

The unfortunately well-proven Russian negligence and lack of conscientious care in details was patently manifest during these initial operations of the war. Since 1900 military topographers had been working on a map of Manchuria, but, not knowing the language of the country, they fell into unpardonable errors, which later brought heavy nemesis in lives and treasure.

One of their most flagrant blunders came about in this way. An officer with some soldiers would be studying a given territory and, wishing to place a village on his map, would ask one of the inhabitants for its name.

"Pu tung te (I do not understand)," came the answer of the Chinese or the Manchu, both of whom spoke the Mandarin Chinese in this district.

The officer would then mark on his map the village Putungte. This occurred so many times that, as a result, the Russian military map of Manchuria was covered with a net of villages and hamlets all bearing the same name of Putungte, which formed an unintelligible labyrinth from which the Russian military leaders could not disentangle themselves to the very end of the war; and Generals Grippenberg, Kuropatkin, Stackelberg and other lesser commanders paid a heavy price for this negligence and through this ignorance of the country contributed another step in the loss of Russian prestige before the Eastern peoples. The defeat of the Russian arms which resulted from this and similar avoidable acts of carelessness in the preparation and execution of their military plans brought about the first great downfall of the white race after the threatened militant awakening of Asia.

At the beginning of the war the Commander of the fortress of Vladivostok, General Voronetz, invited a number of the town's residents to visit the forts upon which fell the defence of the extreme eastern frontiers of the Empire from the attacks of Japan. Over the ice of the frozen Golden Horn our party was conducted to Russian Island, where the military engineers had located the strongest fortifications designed to protect the city from the side dominated by the Bay of Peter the Great and Ussuri Bay. On the side washed by Amur Bay the city was guarded by forts built between the town and the mouth of First River.

The fortifications were shown us very superficially. We saw the exterior of massive walls, cement cupolas and apertures, from some of which projected guns of heavy calibre. General Voronetz and his aides made much of these forts and expressed the certainty that they would play an important part in the war.

Some months later, when I was in Manchuria, I returned to Vladivostok on an official errand and at that time I realized clearly why the authorities had permitted only a superficial inspection of the forts. The dénouement came to me through the arrival of a detachment of Japanese cruisers under command of Admiral Uriu, which approached Vladivostok from the Ussuri Bay side and with impunity dropped some shells into the Golden Horn, without being damaged or even interfered with by the Russian Island forts. Afterwards it was explained that the plans of defence were still incomplete and that the heavy pieces had not yet been placed in position.

It is easy for those who lived close to the actual events of this war to realize that the Russian Government and its local military and civil authorities prepared with their own hands the immense national disaster in Manchuria and that the punition which came some years later in the guise of the Bolshevik Revolution was deservedly earned by the Government circles—a punishment that fell, however, much more heavily on the nation as a whole, innocent as it was of the crimes of the Government.