Monday, December 4, 2017

Into the country of the Kurds

Chapter 4 of Geoffrey Household's translation The Exploits of Xenophon.


4. Kurdestan

The Greeks were now north of Mosul, near the present frontier between Iraq and Turkey. They had no maps, and the country ahead of them was utterly unknown and inhabited by wild, unconquerable mountain tribes.

In the world of that time no people but the Greeks would ever have attempted such a march. They alone had the discipline—and the intelligence. Their quick minds could learn by experience. Xenophon and his fellow-generals had imitated the Persian cavalry charge. And they were beginning to use light infantry, which had never had any importance in Greece, just as a modern commander would. The lessons they learned made it possible, seventy years later, for Alexander to conquer the whole Middle East and to change human history.

When Cheirisophus and the main body of the army had come down from the hills, they found themselves again in the valley of the Tigris. Parties at once set off to lift cattle and supplies from the nearby villages, and were cut up by the Persian cavalry. Tissaphernes promptly set fire to the villages, so all their hopes of a decent meal were disappointed.

Cheirisophus had to march out in force to rescue his men, and I met his column as my mountain party and I were making our way down to the plain. They were pretty down-hearted and I did my best to cheer them up.

‘If Tissaphernes is burning the villages,’ I said, ‘it looks to me as if he has at last admitted that the country is ours, and not the King’s. What do you think, Cheirisophus? Shall we fight for it?’

‘No,’ he answered. ‘There’s a better trick than that. We’ll burn some villages ourselves. That’ll puzzle ’em! They’ll begin to wonder if we mean to starve them, too.’

In this country we seemed to have come to a dead end. We had either to cross the Tigris or march into unknown mountains or go back. We looked at the Tigris and sounded its depth with our spears. It couldn’t be crossed. One of our Rhodian soldiers had an ingenious idea of making a bridge of skins blown up into balloons. This might have worked, but Persian cavalry were in position on the opposite bank to stop us landing. So we decided to go back; but, before we did, we carried out Cheirisophus’ suggestion of burning all the villages in sight.

This bluff completely beat Tissaphernes who could not make out what our next move would be. When he saw that we had turned back towards Babylon, he continued his march to the west. We never set eyes on his army again.

What to do next we did not know, so the generals had all the prisoners brought up to headquarters to be questioned on the geography. We learned that if we marched east we should come to the highlands of Persia and the capitals of Ecbatana and Susa, where the Great King used to spend the summer. That was of no more use to us than the road south to Babylon.

The road to the west led to Asia Minor. But that was the route Tissaphernes had taken, and we had had quite enough of him. So the only possibility left was to march north into the country of the Kurds.

The prisoners told us that these Kurds were a very warlike people who had destroyed to the last man an army of 120,000 men which the King had sent against them. But if, they said, we could force our way through the mountains of Kurdestan, we should come to Armenia. This was a rich and prosperous province of the Empire with roads leading anywhere we might want to go.

The first of the mountain passes was close to us. We decided that it must be captured at once before the Kurds could defend it. So we told the men to turn in as they were and be ready to march after midnight.

After prayers and sacrifices, we crossed the plain under cover of darkness. At dawn we were in the pass. Cheirisophus led the advance with all our light infantry, and I took the rear guard as usual. Since there seemed to be no more danger of attacks on the tail of the column, I had only the heavy infantry of the line.

In the valleys and on the terraces of the mountains were many tiny villages. They were all deserted, for the Kurds with their women and children had fled to the high ground. We took what food we needed and were careful not to loot—though they had some fine bronze pots and pans—for we still hoped that the Kurds might let us through in peace. We called to them whenever we saw them, telling them that we, too, were enemies of the Great King, but they made no reply.

We were on the march for some sixteen hours, and it was dark again when we came out into kinder country. Just as my rear guard was emerging from the pass, we were smartly attacked by a small body of Kurds who surprised us and did a lot of damage. This was a nasty warning. If they had had time to concentrate a larger force, they could have wiped out half our army in the dark. We bivouacked in the valley, and we didn’t like it. All around us, in a circle on the mountains, were the watch fires of the Kurds.

The next morning, which was November 13th, the generals determined to abandon all prisoners, slaves and noncombatants, all unnecessary private property, and any of the transport animals that were weak. To see that our order was obeyed we posted ourselves at the narrowest part of the road and confiscated anything that we did not approve.

That day passed with only a little fighting, but on the next a great mountain storm swept over us. We could not camp because we were again short of food. With the storm came the Kurdish arrows, so we were continually trying to clear the pass and making very little progress. Again and again I would send a runner up to the head of the column, asking Cheirisophus to slow down. Usually he did, but once or twice he just told us to stop our counter attacks and hurry up. The march, at any rate in the rear guard, became uncommonly like a run. I lost two first-class men here—a Spartan shot through shield and leather jacket and an Arcadian shot clean through the helmet.

I have never seen anything like those Kurdish archers. Their bows were five feet long, and they drew the string with the left foot planted against the lower end of the bow. The arrows were a yard long and so heavy that we picked them up, fitted them to our throwing thongs and used them as javelins.

When at last we came into camp, I had it out with Cheirisophus. But as usual he was right.

‘Look at that path going straight up the mountain!’ he said. ‘And remember we have to follow it! That’s why I was in a hurry—to seize the pass before the Kurds could get there first. Well, they have—as you can see by that mass of men up there. The guides say there is no other way.’

The position was desperate. I had a couple of Kurdish prisoners whom we had taken in a counter attack, and I suggested to Cheirisophus that we should question them separately. The first denied and kept on denying that there was any other path, in spite of all we did to him. That one was killed, and when the other Kurd saw what had happened to him, he talked.

‘There is a way round,’ he told us, ‘and good enough for pack animals. My friend wouldn’t speak about it because he has a married daughter who lives along the road. But I will take you.’

We asked what difficulties we had to expect, and found out from him that there was a ridge which we must seize and hold if the army was to have any hope of getting through. So we called an officers’ conference, explained the situation and asked for volunteers.

Three Arcadian officers of the line stepped forward, as did a light infantry captain who had a fine record of gallantry. They collected an assault party of 2,000 men, had a quick bite to eat and set off at once with the prisoner as guide. The dusk was coming down and torrents of rain with it.

The rear guard under my command marched straight for the high pass which the enemy were holding in force. It was only a feigned attack to distract their attention, but we could not have driven it home even if we had wished. The Kurds began to roll down boulders, some of them weighing tons, which smashed and splintered on the rocks around us. It was just like being under heavy fire from slings. We kept on probing their position until it was dark, and then returned to camp. All night long the enemy went on rolling their great stones, and we could hear them booming and crashing in the ravine.

Meanwhile, the assault party surprised a strong enemy post near the top of the ridge. They assumed then that their job was done. In the morning they found it wasn’t, for they had captured merely an outpost. But fortunately dawn broke with a mist, and they were able to creep up on the Kurds who were holding the main mountain pass. They sounded their trumpets as a signal to us, who were waiting far below them, that they were going into action. Then they charged and swept the enemy off the mountain.

At the call of the trumpets Cheirisophus attacked straight up the road, and the other generals led their contingents at the steep hill-sides, the men hauling each other up with their spears. I, with the rear guard and all the transport animals, followed the side road over the ridge. The assault party had cleared it and gone on, but now the enemy had had time to reform. We had to storm three separate crests to get through. Coming down the last of them, I had a narrow escape. The enemy were hot on our tail; they rolled down rocks again, uttering terrifying yells. My orderly, who was carrying my shield, bolted. I was saved only because Eurylochus, an Arcadian, ran up and got me away under cover of his own shield.

The end of the day, with all the army reunited, was thoroughly satisfactory. We found ourselves in a district of really well-built houses, with plenty of provisions in the barns and big cemented cisterns full of wine. Cheirisophus and I arranged a short truce with the Kurds, and they gave us back our dead, whom we buried with the full military honours due to brave men. We released our guide.

The next day the Kurds defended one roadblock after another, and one after another we outflanked them. If Cheirisophus was held up, I took to the hills, got above the enemy and dislodged them. When the rear guard was attacked, he did the same. It was a model of co-operation. In spite of the weight of our shields and arms, we could climb as well as the Kurds, who carried nothing but their bows and slings—though we could never catch them when they ran away. Our Cretan archers, commanded by Stratocles, were invaluable.

On the evening of November 17th we saw below us at last the plain of the river Centrites. This was an enormous relief, and, as we had plenty of food, we passed a happy night swapping tales about the Kurds and sleeping well. The last seven days had been one long, continuous battle which had cost us more men and suffering than the whole of the fighting with Tissaphernes and the King.

It was just as well that we had time to rest, for the river Centrites did not look so inviting in the morning. On the far bank were cavalry, armoured from top to toe, to defend the crossing. There was only one way up from the water, and that was a real road, properly engineered, which showed that we were back in civilization again. Drawn up across this road, a hundred yards back from the river, was a powerful force of infantry. These were mostly Chaldean troops who were in the pay of the Imperial Governor of Armenia and were said to be a free, brave people.

We tried the ford, but it was out of the question for heavily armed men. The water was over our chests, and the river bed was of great slippery stones. We had not a hope of crossing under fire.

On the edge of the mountains, near our pleasant camp of the night before, the Kurds were massing, ready to fall on our rear as soon as we were in difficulties. We did not know what to do, so we camped where we were for thirty-six hours, feeling that our luck had run out.

That night I had another dream, which was undoubtedly sent from the gods. I dreamed that my legs were chained, that the chains fell off and that I could then stride across anything I wished. As soon as it was dawn, I told this to Cheirisophus, who at once saw the point of it and was delighted. All the generals offered sacrifices, and the appearance of the victims’ bodies promised us good fortune.

The troops then had breakfast. While I was eating mine, two young men came running up to me. Everyone knew that I never minded being woken up or having my meals interrupted if the business were military.

The two reported that they had been up the river to collect firewood. On the opposite bank they had seen an old man and some women and little girls storing away bundles of clothing in a hollow rock by the water’s edge. The river seemed to be shallow, so the two young fellows undressed and tried the crossing, carrying nothing but their axes. They expected to have to swim at some point; but, to their surprise, the water never quite covered their legs.

Opposite the crossing which they had found, the foothills of the Armenian mountains fell sharply into the river. On that sort of ground the enemy could not use their cavalry.

I poured out cups of wine for the young men and myself, and we drank to the gods who had saved us and gave them thanks. As soon as Cheirisophus heard the story, he ordered the army to strike camp and fall in for the march. While they were packing up, we generals discussed the coming operation. We decided that Cheirisophus should fight his way over the river with half the army, and that the transport should follow when he had established a bridgehead. Meanwhile, I was to hold our side of the river and watch the Kurds.

We had half a mile to go, and as we marched along the bank the enemy cavalry kept pace with us on the other side. When we arrived at the ford which the young men had discovered, the army halted and piled arms. Then the chaplains held a service and offered sacrifice to the spirit of the river Centrites. Cheirisophus put a ceremonial wreath on his head and threw off his red cloak. The soldiers sang the battle hymn, and the vanguard took to the water in column of companies with Cheirisophus in the centre.

As soon as they were on the way over, I called up the fastest troops in the rear guard and raced with them back along the river towards the deep ford with the good road on the other side of it. That drew off the enemy cavalry, who saw that they would be trapped between the hills and the river if both our parties got across.

The threat was quite enough for the Imperial troops, and they bolted. Cheirisophus, now safely over the river, did not pursue them, but swung left and attacked the Chaldean infantry. These were not going to face the Greek line without any cavalry, so they abandoned their position.

So far all had gone perfectly, but my rear guard was still on the wrong side of the river. Our problem was how to cross it with our defenceless backs exposed to the arrows of the Kurds. I split my force into two—one half to face the river and get the transport over, the other half to form line against the Kurds and attack. When at last this second half was all alone on the bank, it must have seemed to the Kurds a mere handful. They stormed down on us from the hills, chanting their barbarous songs.

Cheirisophus at once sent his archers and slingers to cover the crossing of the last of the rear guard. I ordered them to wait at the ford and hold their fire until we were actually in the water. Then we charged the Kurds and drove them back. At the call of the trumpets we broke off the attack and ran for the river. But the Kurds continued running in the opposite direction. They knew what our trumpets meant, and wanted no more of it. When at last some of them spotted the trick, turned and opened fire, we were in the middle of the river and under cover of our own archers. And so we arrived safely in Armenia, at the expense of only a few men wounded.

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