Francis Yeats-Brown (1886-1944)
Early in the morning, before the sun came up, Francis and his pilot were out on the runway getting their old Maurice-Farman biplane ready for the mission. Which was blowing up telephone poles in the Arabian desert during the first World War. Taking off from the airfield, located near the Tigris river, they flew over to the telegraph line linking Bagdad and Aleppo and made a perfect three-point landing. It looked like an easy chore: inserting the fulminate of mercury pencils into the sticks of gun-cotton and running the fuse wire back to the plane to be ignited. Except the pilot didn’t estimate the distance to the pole correctly and accidentally ran into it, damaging the wing so they couldn’t take off again. At the same time, a band of native irregulars appeared, firing their rifles and machine guns, seriously annoying Francis while he was rigging up the explosives. He did notice, out of the corners of his eyes, spurts of sand shooting up out of the ground. Taking the hint, he ran, igniting the fuse at the same time, and was soon rewarded by hearing explosions behind him. About the same time he and the pilot were surrounded and quite severely mistreated by alarmed and wild-eyed Bedouins. Luckily the Arabian gendarme stopped the general enthusiasm, shook hands with Francis and gave him back his revolver. Shortly after, however, he was felled to the ground by a sword stroke. Fortunately, only the flat of the blade contacted his neck, so he was bruised but not dead. And it soon became clear that the native troops were much more interested in robbing them than in killing them.
On arriving in Bagdad, they were marched to the local prison while being abused by hostile crowds of incensed indigenes. As a result of the mistreatment, they were admitted to a local hospital and soothed with whiskey and food. Shortly afterward, General Townshend made an abortive attack on the city and provided Francis with an opportunity to observe Turkish military tactics: they gathered up crowds of citizens men, women, and children, and shoved into the front lines in order to prevent the soldiers from being shot. Many of the inhabitants were wounded and killed. Francis wrote: “only prisoners see the full absurdity of war”. Some of the jailers were kind, though, mainly the cavalry officers; and the herds of geese that evidenced great curiosity as to the taste and appearance of the hospitalized officers.
Upon recovery of their health, the two captives were transferred to Mosul which Francis described as a huge garbage dump with every imaginable disease, acres of mud mixed in with substantial amounts of blood. The officers were incarcerated in two relatively clean and quiet rooms, but they soon discovered that the regular infantry, the enlistees, were all -200 or so- jammed into one nearby cage with not food, water, or health care. Many of them were beaten and/or died of starvation. Francis made one of the guards cry by staring at him through his monocle; apparently the man thought he was being cursed by some sort of wizard. The officers were permitted to shop in the town, using funds sent to them by relatives, in Francis’s case, his father. They occupied the time by playing cards, singing, discussing Bergson, or in practicing laughing (they found that this cheered them up).
Spending a period of time in an Armenian church, while plotting escapes and concocting cyphers, they managed to arrange a series of lectures and study groups, utilizing the many educated officers that were fellow prisoners, and acquiring an impressive library of books from the local denizens and from charity groups. Soon, however, they were all transferred again to Afion-Kara-Hissar, a town closer to Bagdad, where they were confined during the winter of 1917-18 which was bitterly cold. They all suffered a lot: there were no windows in the houses they lived in. Bathing was easier, though, as all the men had to do was take their clothes off and roll around in the snow.
Francis, fed up with the situation, pretended to become an opium addict and had himself transferred to a hospital in Constantinople. He and his fellow officers made numerous attempts to escape but were not successful until two months before the end of the war. Basically, they disguised themselves as Greek members of the local ministry and walked out through the gates. But how Francis survived and at the end of hostilities became the proud possessor of General Liman Von Sanders’ 56 horsepower Mercedes Benz, together with the chauffer’s diary, is another amazing tale. Not to mention that while garaged, it was looked after by a bear…
Many years ago, i read “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” by Yeats-Brown and i never forgot it. So when i saw this one by him on “Faded Pages”(the Gutenberg of Canada), i downloaded it and read it. It’s not as thrilling as “Lives”, but it has the same characteristic style that Y-B was a master of: he grabs the reader and doesn’t release him until the end of the book. If i was to recommend either of these, i’d favor the “Lives”: it’s better written and more well known.
I should mention that the photograph above, is a shot of Francis in one of his escape costumes, in this case, as a Hungarian Mechanic…
12 thoughts on “CAUGHT BY THE TURKS”
Wow! What a story! I am going to have to read this one. Excellent review. I have always been interested in the Middle East and especially Turkey because I was born there. Josh and I just finished reading about the decline of the Ottoman Empire. It was very interesting.
Born there? wow also… i’ll bet that you have some stories about that! the first world war was, in a few limited aspects, rather slapstick but there was also a tremendous amount of suffering, sadism, and death… as Francis said about war… if you want to look it up, go to faded pages and click on adventure books under the YB name… you can download it in several different modes…
This sounds great. History, when told like this can be so engrossing. I know a little about this theatre of World War I, but just a little. I would like to know more about it.
Your commentary reminds me just who inhuman people can be to thier fellow humans.
humans are tribal, that’s all i can surmise… homicidal to anyone outside the group… it’s an instinct??
I’ve got to read this… I’m always on the lookout for anything to do with T. E. Lawrence, and it sounds like Francis had some similar experiences.
that was another reason i wanted to read the book: the contrast/comparison with Lawrence… his account in “7 Pillars” was of a noble people being betrayed by the British, basically, while “Caught” was quite different; and i do suppose that it’s possible that both estimates are correct: they dealt with somewhat different situations… but i’d really be interested in what you think…
What a synopsis….I was breathless while reading your review! Marvelously written! I have had the Lives of a Bengal Lancer in my TBR for a thousand years now! I really am getting to it now!!
it’s a good book, C… at least i thought so. i remembered reading another book re the first world war i really liked: “Hira Singh” by Talbot Mundy… it’s about the experiences of a troop of Indian cavalry in the war and how they fared; if you could find a copy it’s well worth the reading time…
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oooohhhh! This I do want! There is so little literature available on India’s WW efforts, despite so many million soldiers who fought from the sub continent on behalf of the British Empire in both the wars! Thanks a ton for the recommendation!
Fact or fiction? Hmmm.
I must try LBL via Gutenberg if I can figure out how for iPad.
Btw….the scorched Phoenix arises ….. follow this link:
It was autobiographical so i presume it’s all true…
Afyonkarahisar is 900 miles to Baghdad kinda like London being close to Vatican city