An American Soldier in the First Balkan War
One of my favorite things to do is to search at internet.org for old military history books. Some time ago I found one with an unusually long title which immediately got my attention. The book is called “An American Soldier Under the Greek Flag at Bezanie: A Thrilling Story of the Siege of Bezanie by the Greek Army, in Epirus, During the War in the Balkans” and it tells the story of an American officer who in 1913 travelled half the world to come to my country and fight alongside the Greek Army during the First Balkan War.
The editor of the book in his preface describes the remarkable career of Thomas Setzer Hutchison. “His military career started when he was a boy seventeen years of age. He joined the famous Washington Artillery of Tennessee, as a private soldier, and while a member of that battery saw hard service in the mountains of East Tennessee during the mining troubles that so frequently occurred. He remained a private soldier only a very short while, as he was quick to learn, and was rapidly promoted to Gun Corporal, Gun Sergeant, Quartermaster-Sergeant, and finally became the First Sergeant of the battery. He had held all of the positions from private to first sergeant. The first sergeant of a battery is the captain's right hand man, and while occupying this position, his energy and ability attracted the attention of Gov. Taylor, who, realizing that a war with Spain was inevitable, and that the State would be called on to furnish troops, commissioned Sergeant Hutchison Second Lieutenant of Artillery. He held this position a few months, and the Governor told him if he would organize another battery he would be its captain. The result was the Lieutenant formed another battery and the Governor commissioned him Captain. About this time war was declared with Spain, and the young officer was immediately transferred to the Second Regiment of Infantry as Captain of Company D, where he served during the Spanish-American war with credit to the State and to himself. When peace was declared between Spain and the United States he was honorably discharged, and returned to his home in Tennessee, and the Governor of the State, Governor Benton McMillin, immediately commissioned him Captain of Company K of the Fifth Regiment. He remained a captain only a few days, and was then commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel of the same regiment, and a week later was made the Colonel of it—still a boy, only 22 years of age. He served as its Colonel for five years and during that time commanded all the troops of Tennessee, as he was the ranking officer of the State. During this time he wrote the rules and regulations that govern the military forces of Tennessee, which have been pronounced by military experts as one of the best works on military science that have been written. After serving continuously for nine years he voluntarily went on the retired list as a Brigadier-General”.
The Decision to Go to Greece
Let’s follow Colonel Hutchison’s steps now. He says about his decision to go to Greece: “I was in New York City on business connected with the Progressive party, doing my best to elect Colonel Theodore Roosevelt President of the United States. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American war. I knew him and admired him as a statesman and a soldier. The election came on while I was in New York, and, seeing that the colonel was defeated, and, not feeling comfortable over the results, naturally I was looking for new fields of excitement.
One day I went down to the Battery, and while at the Battery saw thousands and thousands of Greek patriots boarding every ship that was leaving the port for their mother country. I talked to numbers of them and became interested in their war. Their enthusiasm and patriotism became contagious, and I agreed with a number of these men to go with them and help them in their war with Turkey. The result was that on the thirteenth day of November I found myself on board the Austro-Americano ship Laura, a large and elegant steamship bound for Patras, the first port of Greece. There were on board the ship a thousand enthusiastic and patriotic Greek volunteers, all rushing to the Hellenic kingdom to volunteer their services”.
The First Balkan War
The First Balkan War, (October 1912 - May 1913), was fought between the Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria) and the Ottoman Empire. The combined armies of the Balkan states defeated the Ottoman armies and as a result almost all remaining European territories of the Ottoman Empire were partitioned among the allies.
During the journey Colonel Hutchison was working full time! In his words: “…spent my time in the main cabin studying the artillery tactics of United States army, for it was my ambition to get into the Greek artillery. I knew nothing of the tactics of the Greek artillery, but I knew one thing: that a cannon fired in the American style was about as effective as any gun fired in the European style. I spent large parts of the day in drilling numbers of the volunteers on the deck of the ship ; so, between my studies in the evenings and drilling the boys during the day, my time was well occupied”.
The ship stopped at Algiers to take coal and continued towards Naples. The Italian port was full with troops, because of the Italo-Turkish war. After a brief stop at Naples and a few more days at sea they finally arrived in the city of Patras, Greece.
Arriving at Greece
After a hearty welcome at Patras Colonel Hutchison took the train for Athens. He arrived there in the evening. It was late in November and the weather was cold and chilly. The Colonel met with Jacob Gould Shurman, the U.S. ambassador to Greece and Eleftherios Venizelos, the Greek prime minister. The Colonel presented himself to the Greek PM and handed over to him a written application for a position in his army. Venizelos was delighted and a general discussion followed. After an interesting conversation the two men shook hands and bade farewell.
To the Front
Upon his arrival in Athens Colonel Hutchison made contact with Captain Frankel, an agent of the Garibaldi Legion. General Ricciotti Garibaldi was the fourth son of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian freedom fighter. Ricciotti was a military man and an adventurer himself. He fought with the Greek Army in 1897 and he was again in the country when war broke out again. Garibaldi with his Legion was at the front in Epirus and Frankel (also an Italian) was sending volunteers to him. It was arranged that Hutchison would be commissioned as major of artillery and join the Legion.
Colonel, now Major, Hutchison with a small group of Italian officers went back to Patras, crossed the Ionian Sea and arrived at the town of Prevesa. From there they headed north and after long marches in the mountainous terrain they found themselves at the Command Post of a Greek battalion, facing the forts of Bizani.
The next morning the CP received a welcome salute from the cannons of the fort; nevertheless the battalion inched its way forward, getting closer to the fort. Major Hutchison with the rest of the battalion occupied a hill they christened “Fort Bey”. A plain of about two and a half miles separated them from the enemy stronghold. Major Hutchison relates his impression of it: “Fort Bezanie was situated on top of the highest range of mountains, and the moment I saw these forts with the mountain ranges on each side of them, and the broad, treeless plain in our front, I knew then it was the Gibraltar of Turkey in Europe, and that the Greek army would lose thousands of men and spend thousands of dollars, and take months to capture or destroy them. Fort Bezanie is a natural stronghold, and It seemed that it was as impregnable as a fort could be made”. The battalion endured another day of bombardment without any means of returning the fire.
The Bizani Hill in the centre, dominates the area
The Artillery Duel
During the night the guns of a battery were planted into the dry bed of a creek, not far from the battalion’s position. Major Hutchison describes the artillery detachment: “I had a pair of glasses and got a good view of this battery. It was a four-gun battery of Krupps of the style and model of 1882, but heavy calibre, the bores of the pieces being four and one-eighth inches in diameter. The captain of this battery was named Dighenis, and I considered him one of the best, if not the best, officer of artillery that I saw in the army. He was doing an almost impossible thing in firing the shells over a hill at the forts and making hits with his shots. The guns were of the style that are ordinarily required to be in view of the enemy, but he was a genius, and struck a clever plan of being able to fire the shells over the mountain out of view of the enemy without exposing the battery. His cleverness and ability entitled him to substantial recognition from the war department”. The battery was firing at the forts while the Turks were doing their best to eliminate it. Major Hutchison makes an interesting remark about the target acquisition methods of the time: “The artillerymen in the Turkish forts were deceived as to the location of the battery, because their fire was everywhere except at the battery. One reason why they were deceived was that when they heard the reports from the guns, the sound appeared to them as coming from the side of our position on the right. The sound from the guns would pass down the valley and across our hill and out on the plain to our right. The Krupp guns were using smokeless powder, and as the enemy was governed entirely by sound it was very natural that he was deceived. The Turkish batteries fired shells by the thousands and none did any damage”. The artillery duel continued. The Greek side was reinforced with more artillery pieces. The entire place was cramped with cannons, horses and ammunition wagons.
The Turkish commander decided to use his infantry against the enemy artillery. The Turkish infantry was caught in the open. The rapid-fire Snyder guns did an excellent job. The attack was broken before even the foot of the hill was reached.
Major Hutchison’s battalion endured the enemy shells during the days and freezing cold at nights, but their position was held. Elsewhere Greek infantry was getting closer and closer to the Bizani forts.
With all that shelling no one’s luck could last forever. Major Hutchison describes how he became wounded: “several shells fell on our hill among the men and horses, doing considerable damage. It was drizzling rain at the time, and while standing there I heard one of the boys cry, “Oh." I rushed to him and caught him as he was falling. His hands were clutching at his stomach. I knew he was seriously wounded and caught him as quickly as I could and took my cape and placed it under his head and kneeled by his side, holding his hands at the same time. I called to a soldier of the Red Cross to come and assist me. After the boy rushed up the hill to us he took out his knife and cut the clothing from the wounded soldier's body, as the shells were falling by the hundreds on the hill. After the clothes were cut away we found a piece of shrapnel weighing three or four ounces against his stomach. As I picked it up it was so hot I had to drop it, and while attending him another shell struck close to us, knocking all down. A large piece of stone struck by the shell hit me on the head and the next thing I remember Captain Cosmopolous was pulling us out of the debris”.
Major Hutchison and Captain Cassone, who was also wounded, were evacuated to the Italian Red Cross Hospital in Phillipiada. There Major Hutchison was informed that the Garibaldi Legion was to be mustered out of the service and he would be sent to Athens to receive his discharge. Major Hutchison returned to Athens forty pounds lighter and a little deaf. After a few more days Colonel Hutchison began his long journey back home. When he arrived in the U.S. he went to Chicago, where he consulted a doctor about his hearing. At his hometown Nashville, Tennessee the local Greek community gave him a formal reception. When at home the Colonel learned that Bizani had fallen and Yanina, the capital of Epirus, was taken by the Greek Army.
Apart from the military events Colonel Hutchison makes very vivid descriptions of the places he went and the people he met. You can actually live the early 20th century through the pages of his book. I was glad to find out that the book has been translated into Greek, so my compatriots can read the story of that remarkable man.
Thomas. S. Hutchison, An American Soldier Under the Greek Flag at Bezanie, Greek-American Publishing Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1913