FLORENCE May 16, 1897. DEAR FAMILY:
Here I am safe and sound again in the old rooms in Florence. I was gone twenty-three days and was traveling nineteen of them, walking, riding; in sailboats, in the cars, and on steamers. I have had more experiences and adventures than I ever had before in three months and quite enough to last me for years. After my happy ride through Turkey and the retreat of the Greek army in Arta, of which I wrote you last, I have been in Thessaly where I saw the two days' battle of Velestinos from the beginning up to the end. It was the one real battle of the war and the Greeks fought well from the first to the last. I left Athens on the 29th of April with John Bass, a Harvard graduate, and a most charming and attractive youth who is, or was, in charge of the Journal men; Stephen Crane being among the number. He seems a genius with no responsibilities of any sort to anyone, and I and Bass left him at Velestinos after traveling with him for four days. Crane went to Volo, as did every other correspondent, leaving Bass and myself in Velestinos. As the villagers had run away, we burglarized the house of the mayor and made it our habitation while the courier hunted for food. It was like "The Swiss Family Robinson," and we rejoiced over the discovery of soap and tablecloths and stray knives and forks, just as though we had been cast on a desert island. Bass did the cooking and I laid the table and washed up and made the beds, which were full of fleas. But we had been sleeping on chairs and on the floor for a week so we did not mind much.
The second day we were awakened by cannon and you can imagine our joy and excitement. We had it all to ourselves for eight hours, as it took the other correspondents that long to arrive. It was an artillery and infantry battle and about 20,000 men were engaged on both sides. The Greeks fought from little trenches on the hills back of the town and the Turks advanced across a great green prairie. It was very long range and only twice did they get to within a quarter of a mile of our trenches. Bass and I went all over the Greek lines, for you were just as safe in one place as in another, which means that it wasn't safe anywhere, so we gave up considering that and followed the fight as best we could from the first trench, which was the only one that gave an uninterrupted view of the Turkish forces. It was a brilliantly clear day but opened with a hail storm, which enabled the Turks to crawl up half a mile in the sudden darkness. It also gave me the worst attack of sciatica I ever had. Fortunately, it did not come on badly until I reached Volo, when it suddenly took hold of me so that I could not walk. The trenches were wet with the rain and we had no clothes to change to, and two more showers kept us more or less wet all day. We had a fine view of everything and I learned a lot.
We were under a heavy fire for thirteen hours and certainly had some very close escapes. At times the firing was so fierce that if you had raised your arm above your head, the hand would have been instantly torn off. We had to lie on our stomachs with our chins in the dirt and not so much as budge. This was when the Turkish fire happened to be directed on our trench. At such times all the other trenches would fire so as to draw the attack away, and we would have to wait until it was over. The shells sounded like the jarring sound of telegraph wires when one hits the pole they hang from with a stone; and when the shells were close they sounded like the noise made by two trains passing in opposite directions when the wind is driven between the cars. The bullets were much worse than the shells as you could always hear them coming, and the bullets slipped up and passed you in a sneaking way with a noise like rustling silk, or if some one had torn a silk handkerchief with a sharp pull. One shell struck three feet from me and knocked me over with the dirt and stones and filled my nose and mouth with pebbles. I went back and dug it out of the ground while it was still hot and have it as a souvenir. I swore terribly at the bullets and Bass used to grin in a sickly way. It made your hair creep when they came very close. One man next me got a shot through the breast while he was ramming his cleaner down the barrel, and there were three killed within the limits of our fifty yards. We could not get back because there was a cross fire that swept a place we had to pass through, just about the way the wind comes around the City Hall in the times of a blizzard. We called it Dead Man's Curve, after that at Fourteenth Street and Union Square, because it was sprinkled with dead ammunition, mules and soldiers. We came through it the first time without knowing what we were getting into and we had no desire to go back again. So we waited until the sun set. I took some of the finest photographs and probably the only ones ever taken of a battle at such close range. Whenever the men fired, I would shoot off the camera and I expect I have some pretty great pictures. Bass took some of me so if there is any question as to whether I was at the Coronation, there will be none as to whether I was at Velestinos.
Our house was hit with two shells and bullets fell like the gentle rain from heaven all over the courtyard, so we would have been no safer there than behind the trenches. We sent off the first account of the battle written by anybody by midday, and stayed on until the next day at four when the place was evacuated in good order because, as usual, the Crown Prince was running away--from Pharsalia this time. They say in Greece "Lewes, the peasant, won the race from Marathon, but Constantine the prince, won the race from Larissa."
I was all right until I got to Volo when my right leg refused absolutely to do its act and I had to be carried on a donkey. A Greek thought I looked funny sitting groaning on the little donkey; which I did--I looked ridiculous. So he laughed, and Bass and a French journalist batted him over the face and left me clinging to the donkey's neck and howling to them to come back and hold me up. But they preferred to fight, and a policeman came along and arrested the unhappy Greek and beat him over the head, just for luck, and marched him off to jail, just for laughing.
They took me to the hospital ship which was starting, and I came to Athens that way with one hundred and sixteen wounded; the man on my right had his ankles gone and the man on the left had a bullet in his side. They groaned all night and so did I. Then when the sun rose they sang, which was worse. I never saw anything more beautiful than the red-cross nurses, and I guess that is the most beautiful picture I shall ever see--those sweet-faced girls in blue and white bending over the dirty frightened little peasant boys and taking care of their wounds. I made love to all of them and asked three to marry me. I was in bed for two days after I got to Athens but had a fine time, as all the officers from the San Francisco, from the admiral down, came to see me, and the minister, consul and the rest did all that could have been done. I am now all right and was bicycling in the dear old Cascine this morning. On the whole it was a most successful trip. Sylvester Scovel and Phillips of The World arrived just as it was all over, and so Bass and I are about the only two Americans who were in it.
The train from Brindisi stopped at Rome on the way back and I went to see the Pages. They took me out and showed me Rome by moonlight in one hour. It was like a cinematograph. They are here now and coming to dinner tonight. Last night the consul had all our friends to dinner to welcome me back, and maybe I was not glad. I had been living on cheese and brown bread and cold lamb for two weeks, with no tobacco, and sleeping five hours a night on floors and sofas. Sometimes the officers and men fought for food, and we never got anything warm to eat except occasionally tinned things which we cooked in my kit. It was the most satisfactory trip all round I ever had. I have been twenty years trying to be in a battle and it will be twenty years more before I will want to be in another.