Monthly Archives: August 2015

On Russian seamanship

One of the initial contributions by Russia to the International naval fleet sent to Crete in 1897 was the Pre-Dreadnaught battleship ‘Sissoi Veliky’. The ship had been a floating disaster since the very beginning, suffering from numerous design, engineering and construction faults.

Russian Battleship Sissoi Veliky

Russian Battleship Sissoi Veliky

Matters came to an unfortunate head on 15th March 1897 when on a routine target practice, the rear turret of the battleship exploded, killing 16 men instantly, another six dying later of their injuries. The reason for the explosion was later put down to the crew disabling a faulty safety mechanism, and the incompetence of the turret commander.

Explosion on Sissoi Veliky. The Graphic 27 March 1897.

Explosion on Sissoi Veliky. The Graphic 27 March 1897.

Burial of Russian seamen from Sissoi Veliky.

Memorial for Russian seamen from Sissoi Veliky.

Burial of Russian seamen from Sissoi Veliky. The Graphic 3 April 1897.

Burial of Russian seamen from Sissoi Veliky. The Graphic 3 April 1897.

Seven years later, according to Second Lieutenant W. D. Downes, 2/Royal Sussex Regiment, who served on Crete with his battalion in 1906, matters did not appear to have improved that much.

“On the day I arrived at Canea, the Russian Cruiser left Suda Bay in order to take Prince George of Greece back to Athens. On her way out she ran down the Italian Cruiser and almost sunk her. As the harbour is said to be large enough to hold an entire British Fleet; such a thing has never happened before in the history of Naval navigation. The Russian torpedo destroyer then came to tow the cruiser into shallow water. The Captain of the destroyer wished to take her, to the only part of the harbour where there were rocks; the truth of the matter was that all of the officers of both Russian Destroyer and Cruiser were drunk; so bad were they on the destroyer, that the Italians sent one of their own Officers to take charge of the Russian Destroyers, and thus get their Cruiser into shallow water before she sank. An Italian Naval Officer told me that the only safe time for a Russian ship to leave harbour is early in the morning; 11a.m. is too late according to him, for they are seldom sober after 10a.m.

Another anecdote to show the inefficiency of the Russian Navy, was told to me by the same Officer, About three months before my arrival, the Russian Destroyer received orders to go to some place on the Greek Coast. They had no charts to show them how to get there, notwithstanding the fact, they were on duty in these seas. The Navigator had to apply to the Navigating Lieutenant of H. M. S. Venus to allow him to take a tracing of the Charts of these waters. It is not surprising therefore how easily the Japanese were able to deal with the Russian Navy.”

Why such a mixed bunch?

International troops

International troops

As well as the 5 British soldiers, this motley crew includes Cretan Gendarmes, French, Italian and what appears to be a couple of less than happy Russians. Judging by the cap badges, the British are serving in the King’s Royal Rifle Regiment which dates the photograph to either early 1905, when 1/KRR served in Crete, or between February 1908 and January 1909 when 3/KRR were stationed there. The location is probably Canea since that’s the most likely place in which soldiers from all four Powers were to be found.

It’s interesting to speculate why such a disparate group would be photographed together by a professional photographer, and just who, other than those in the picture,  would have bought such a photograph as a souvenir.

Iraklion, 25th August Street…then and now.

On 25th August 1898 by the Cretan calendar, or 6th September by the British one, a serious riot resulted in the destruction of a large portion of Candia (Iraklion), and the death of several hundreds of Cretan Christians as well as 14 British soldiers and sailors. Brought about by a miscalculation on the part of the European Admirals who effectively ruled Crete at that time, and an even greater miscalculation on the part of the British Army commander on the spot, Lieutenant Colonel F. M. Reid, 1/Highland Light Infantry, the events of that day are commemorated in Iraklion by the name of the main street leading from the town centre to the harbour; the site of the outbreak of rioting.
On one level a riot which saw the deaths of so many people and the destruction of so much property seems nothing to celebrate, but on another level, the events that day culminated a few months later in the departure of all Ottoman troops and authorities from Crete, paving the way to the creation of the Cretan State, Κρητική Πολιτεία.

25 August Street  before riot.

25 August Street before riot. Looking down to the harbour.

25th August Street after the riot.

25th August Street after the riot.

25th August Street today.

25th August Street today.

Many thanks to Zacharias J. Nikolakakis for the photographs.

The (Italian ) Officers’ supplies arrive.

French and Italian sailors date unknown.

French and Italian sailors. Date unknown.

French and Italian Junior officers. Date unknown

French and Italian Junior officers. Date unknown.

Henry-Woodd Nevinson was a British journalist who covered the Greek – Ottoman War, the 30 Days War, for the Daily Chronicle in 1897. At the end of the war, in which Greece came third, he was sent to Crete, arriving there in early June 1897. He stopped in Canea for about 10 days during which time he made himself useful to the Cretan Christians by delivering secret letters to one of their leaders from supporters in mainland Greece. In his memoir of the war he offers the following description of the situation in Canea:

“That night [6 June 1897] Sigalas [his guide and interpreter] and I dined at a flimsy café, which had been built at the end of the quay by French and Armenian enterprise, and with some justice was called “Au Concert European.” To me it was always a place of special interest, for an Under-Secretary had recently roused laughter in the House of Commons by informing them that starving Crete was in reality doing a “roaring trade” and there can be no doubt that his statement must have been founded on the account books of that restaurant. For it was the one point of prosperity in the whole gloomy island, and what with the French and Russians drinking healths round its tables till they could no longer stand, and certain officers (chiefly French and Russian too) concluding commercial arrangements with feminine apparitions who sat in the corners and were wonderful linguists, the café did a trade which might fairly be described as “roaring.”

Those apparitions of golden hair and other decoration had undergone strange and varied fortunes. Originally there had been but three, but the economic law has stept in to curtail their monopoly, and one afternoon a steamer hailing from Smyrna had brought some fifteen or twenty more. They had first tried to settle at Candia and at Retimo, but the custom-house had refused them a landing as being contraband. With shame and defiant tears the poor things had been driven on to Canea, only to be met with a like refusal from the unbending austerity of the Turk. But is so happened that an Italian officer stood watching, and calling upon two Italian sections, he brought them at the double along the quay to the rescue of the distressed. With fixed bayonets, in two lines, he drew up his men on each side of the gangway, and between the lines the dainty shoes and chiffons and wayworn faces marched into the town in grateful security, to the eternal glory of the European Concert of the Powers. It was strange to see the mixture of derision, shame, and attraction with which the Cretans, both Christian and Mussulman, watched them passing to and fro. But from the moment of their arrival, the Under-Secretary certainly was justified in saying that starving Crete was doing a roaring trade; if indeed starving Crete may be identified with them and their restaurant.”

One wonders which one of these ladies could have been, or was, the model for Madame Hortense in Zorba The Greek?

While Nevinson’s account relates to Canea, by 1898, in an attempt to reduce the incidence of venereal disease among troops, the British Army in Candia had instituted a system of inspection and control of the local prostitutes. According to the Annual Parliamentary Reports from the Army Medical Department, this regime apparently worked well initially. However, it  broke down when the Cretan Christian administration took over the town; while apparently checking Christian prostitutes, they were reluctant to take similar steps to check Muslim prostitutes for fear of ‘offending the susceptibilities of the Moslem inhabitants.’

Henry W. Nevinson. Scenes in the Thirty days War between Greece and Turkey; 1897.
J. M. Dent. London, 1898. pp. 248 -250

Having nothing better to do….

Keeping British troops occupied and out of mischief was clearly a major task of the British authorities. The perils of drink were ever present on Crete and although the men were limited to one pint of beer a day, unsurprisingly,  ways were always being sought to circumvent this limit. In 1899, the Northumberland Fusiliers regimental magazine, the St. George’s Gazette, reported that in one of their outlying camps,  ‘the richest tradesman in the village…[who] used to bring bread into the camp to sell, … took to bringing in the accursed native liquor, whereby several soldiers were grievously stricken.’ The entrepreneur in question was given 7 days hard labour for his sins.* Recourse to illicit alcohol also resulted in at least three fatalities. In 1897, the year that saw one soldier hospitalised three times for morphine poisoning, ‘…a man broke out of barracks after dark, and brought back a large quantity of native liquor which he drank almost at once. He was discovered insensible at “reveille” the following morning, and died immediately after being taken to hospital.’ In 1899 a further two deaths by alcohol poisoning were also recorded.**

One answer was to keep the men busy with sporting activities. While the officers could indulge in cross country paper chases on horseback and sailors indulge in gymkanas and other such activities, the infantry were left to make do  other less expensive sports. The St. Georges Gazette, details an extensive range of sports laid on for men serving in Crete in 1898/1899, including Battalion Aquatic Sports which featured a swimming race open to the Garrison and Navy, Water Polo and an aquatic Tug-of War. There was also, inevitably, football – a competition for the ‘Chermside Cup’ being won by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers – tug of war, putting the shot and hockey. Regimental sports days were held in the ditch below the ramparts at Candia, events including a ‘stone and bottle race.’ Additionally, on one occasion the Sergeants of the Northumberland Fusiliers challenged their Regimental Warrant Officers and the Petty Officers from H.M.S. Fearless to a ‘double match’; a competition involving football and whist.

Sports day in Candia.

Sports day in Candia.

I can find no record of the Cretan reaction to the British indulging in ‘stone and bottle’ races.


*Northumberland Fusiliers Regimental Archive. St. George’s Gazette, 31 January 1899, page 6.        **  House of Commons Command Paper 1898 [C.8936] Army Medical Report for the year 1897. Volume XXXIX, p.80, and Command Paper 1899 [Cd.521] Army Medical Report for the year 1899. Volume XLI, p.75.

The games people played.

By 1908, The Cretan Assembly having ineffectively declared ‘enosis‘, union, with Greece –  in spite of Greece not wanting to be united with Crete at that time – and the Theriso Rebellion being over, there was relatively little to do for the British troops on the island. Clearly the answer was to keep them occupied with sporting activities, and if these could be combined with a bit of ‘friendly’ competition with the other European troops on the island, so much the better.

Since football and rounders competitions probably had the potential of becoming too violent, the obvious answer was to give them ammunition for their rifles and let them shoot it out.

Spectators at the International Rifle Tournament, Crete 1908

Spectators at the International Rifle Tournament, Crete 1908

Though the detail is difficult to make out, from the uniforms, the British contingent are on the left of the picture, the French and Italian in the middle, Russian on the right, with a group of Cretan gendarmes on the extreme right. Since this was May 1908, the British troops would have been members of 3/Kings Royal Rifles.

Competitors. International shooting competition, Crete 1908.

Competitors. International Rifle Tournament, Crete 1908.

No British competitors appear to be shown in this postcard, but at least one British officer seems to be taking some notice of the activity.

International Rifle Tournament, Crete 1908.

International Rifle Tournament, Crete 1908.

Apparently taken later in the day than the photograph above, at least judging by the state of the sand, a British competitor is shown second from the left in the line of participants.

Officers’ shooting competition.

Lest it be forgotten, Officers are human also and they too needed some relaxation – albeit not with nasty heavy rifles, but with handguns! The photo, undated and uncaptioned, would also appear to show the 1908 competition.

While the location of the competition is not stated, Canea was the most likely venue since the town was nominally occupied by troops from all four occupying countries at this time; Britain, France, Italy and Russia. Furthermore, a War Office map of the town drawn up in 1905 shows a firing range on the sea shore in the area about 3Km west of the town.

British military map Canea 1905/1910.WO33 2720 Military report 1905 Addendum 1910.

(The duel dating on the captions of the postcards was because both Crete and Russia were still using the Julian calendar at this time, the rest of Europe being on the Gregorian.)


You’ve been a very naughty boy….

Mutiny of The Mussulman Gendarmes in Canea: Colonel Bor Addressing the prisoners Before Their Departure to Prison and Thence to Smyrna.

Mutiny of the Mussulman Gendarmes in Canea: Colonel Bor addressing the prisoners before their departure to prison and thence to Smyrna.

On 2nd March 1897, a mutiny occurred amongst the Albanian* gendarmes who had been charged with policing Crete since 1888. In the resulting confusion, fighting broke out between the mutineers and the Italian and Russian troops sent to disarm them, resulting in a number of casualties on both sides. The mutineers were disarmed and shipped off the island.
The illustration above shows Colonel J. H. Bor, haranguing/addressing the mutineers prior to their expulsion from the Island. (Bor was a Major in the Royal Marine Artillery who was temporarily seconded to command the gendarmerie with the rank of Colonel of Gendarmerie and who would later be given a temporary promotion to Colonel in the Royal Marines to command the International garrison at Fort Izzendin.

The sketch was made by Melton Prior for the Illustrated London News and the writing on the top of the illustration, difficult to read in the reproduction, appears to be a colour guide; describing the colours of the uniforms of the various troops shown. These notes include:
Italian officer all black, red stripe – white facings
English Officer. Red coat
A line of Russian Sailors. Light blue shirt – dark clothes
Italian sailor. All dark
Prisoners in all kinds of costume.

Since the events shown took place on between 2nd March, the date of the mutiny, and 20th March, the date of publication, and British troops did not arrive on the island until 24th March, the ‘English Officer’ shown is possibly Colonel Herbert Chermside R.A. Chermside was initially British Military Commissioner on Crete but was appointed Commander of British Army forces upon their arrival.

Of interest also is the fact that one of the gendarmes, apparently arguing with Bor, is clearly black. Whether he was an ‘Albanian’, or a locally recruited Muslim is unknown, and probably unknowable, but is does give a hint at the multi-ethnic nature of the late Ottoman Empire.


* Wikipedia, that highly accurate font of all knowledge, states that the Gendarmes brought to Crete in 1888 were ‘Macedonian.’ However, press reports of the time and  House of Commomns records cleasrly state that they were Albanian. See: House of commons Command Papers 1889 [C.5823] Turkey. No. 2 (1889). Correspondence respecting the affairs of Crete. Item 29. Consul General Blunt (Salonika) to Lord Salisbury 27 April 1888