IT WAS after this complete gutting of the Armenian portion of the town that the Turkish soldiers applied the torch to numerous houses simultaneously. As has already been mentioned, they chose a moment when a strong wind was blowing directly away from the Mohammedan settlement. They started the conflagration directly behind the Intercollegiate Institute, one of the oldest and most thorough American schools in Turkey, in such a way that the building would be sure to fall an early prey to the flames. The pupils of that school have always been largely Armenian girls, and its buildings were, at that time, crowded with refugees. Miss Minnie Mills, its dean, a brave, competent and admirable lady, saw Turkish soldiers go into various Armenian houses with petroleum tins and in each instance after they came out, flames burst forth. In a conversation held with me on the thirtieth of January, 1925, on the occasion of the Missionary Convention that took place in the City of Washington, Miss Mills confirmed the above statements and added the following details:
“I could plainly see the Turks carrying the tins of petroleum into the houses, from which, in each instance, fire burst forth immediately afterward. There was not an Armenian in sight, the only persons visible being Turkish soldiers of the regular army in smart uniforms.”
On the same occasion Mrs. King Birge, wife of an American missionary to Turkey, made the following statement:
“I went up into the tower of the American College at Paradise, and, with a pair of field-glasses, could plainly see Turkish soldiers setting fire to houses. I could see Turks lurking in the fields, shooting at Christians. When I drove down to Smyrna from Paradise to Athens, there were dead bodies all along the road.”
During the same conversation Miss Mills told me of a great throng of Christians crowded into a street the head of which was guarded by Turkish soldiers. The flames were approaching and the soldiers were forcing these people to go into the houses. An American automobile passed and the poor wretches stretched out their hands, crying: “Save us! The Turks are going to burn us alive.” Nothing could be done, of course, and the car passed on. Later two Catholic priests came up and said to the Turks, “This is a fiendish thing you are doing,” and they allowed an old woman to come out of one of the houses.
It will be seen that the situation was such that only the Turks were in position to light the flames. Now we have the testimony of eye-witnesses of the highest credibility, who actually saw them commit the act. I remember on various occasions in the past talking with Miss Mills concerning Turkish atrocities, which were continually occurring and the missionary policy of remaining silent for fear of endangering the lives of colleagues working in the interior of Asia Minor. “I believe,” said she, “that the time for that policy has passed and not even regard for the safety of our workers should prevent us from telling the truth.” She was right, of course, for a full understanding of what has been going on in Turkey by the civilized world might have caused such a development of Christian sentiment as might have led to the taking of measures to prevent the wholesale horrors that have been perpetrated.
The following extract from a letter written by a lady connected with the American missions in Turkey has recently fallen into my hands. It is dated September 21, 1922, and was sent to a friend in the United States:
“Our Murray house across the street was locked up and protected only by an American flag hung from an upper window, but we had several Marines from the American destroyers with us who behaved splendidly all through and were a great comfort to us. Of course we had many trying things during the time we were there together, from Saturday, September ninth, until Wednesday, thirteenth, when we left, because the place was on fire. Most of the people who had fled to us for refuge behaved wonderfully patiently under the lack of bread and many difficulties. We had eighty small babies and one born there. We organized a hospital, etc., and had gotten the commissariat running with the difficulty overcome, as we supposed, of lack of bread.”
“All ovens in the Christian quarters, where we were, at least, and probably everywhere, had been ordered closed from Sunday until Wednesday, when the city burned. It looks now to me like a definite attempt to starve the population out.”
“The Red Cross insisted on ovens being opened for them and the people were then burned out.”
“The looting and murder went on steadily under our eyes—a murdered man lay before our Murray house door for days, under the American flag, his blood spattered over our steps, etc. There were dead and dying every where. The silence of death finally reigned over us and was broken during the last three days only by the fierce Chetas breaking in doors of houses, shooting the poor cowering inhabitants, looting, etc., and at night the howling of homeless dogs and the feet of wandering horses clanging over the rough stones of the street. After the third day of the occupation of Khemal’s army, fires began to break out in the Christian quarter of the city. Miss Mills and some of our teachers saw soldiers preparing fires. I myself saw a Cheta carrying a load of firewood on his back up an alley, from which later on the fire that caught our building came.”
“It is quite clear in my mind that there was a definite plan to burn out the Christian quarter after it had been looted. The time for starting the great fire was when the wind was blowing away from the Turkish quarter. I remarked when the fires began.”
“I am sure the Turkish authorities will say one of two things, either that the retreating Greek army set the city onfire, or the Armenians.”
“Exactly this has been published in Italian and French papers. Do not believe a word of it! We were in the Christian quarter where the fires began. Almost all Armenians except those we were sheltering had been looted and killed a day or two—even longer— before any fires began. The Greek soldiers had passed quietly through the suburbs about three or four days before.”
“The whole city had been completely under military control since Saturday afternoon and the fires began on Wednesday, which finally destroyed the city. The Turks, Chetas or regulars, or both, burned the city to dispose of the dead after having carried away their loot.”
The writer of this letter is neither Armenian nor Greek and is a person of the highest repute. I do not agree with the reason stated in it for the burning of Smyrna.
The torch was applied to that ill-fated city and it was all systematically burned by the soldiers of Mustapha Khemal in order to exterminate Christianity in Asia Minor and to render it impossible for the Christians to return.
By the time the Turkish soldiers had set fire to Smyrna, September 13, 1922, I had succeeded in getting hold of practically all of my colony (about three hundred in number) most of them naturalized citizens. These, together with their families and relatives were huddled in the Theatre de Smyrne, on the quay, owned by a naturalized American citizen. Just across the road was the harbor where the American cruiser, the Simpson, was moored, ready to take them off. There was a guard of bluejackets with a machine-gun inside the theater.
Soon after the conflagration took on serious proportions, I went up on the terrace of the Consulate to look. The spectacle was one of vast dark clouds of smoke, arising from a wide area, for the fire had been started simultaneously in many places.
As it was evident that the time was fast approaching when it would be necessary to evacuate the colony, I was kept very busy during those few remaining lurid hours in signing passes for such as were entitled to American protection and transportation to Piraeus.
The flames consumed the Armenian quarter with such appalling rapidity as to make it certain that the Turks were augmenting them with inflammable fluids. Bluejackets sent to the scene reported that they saw Turkish soldiers throwing rags soaked in petroleum into Armenian houses.
The buildings of Smyrna were much more inflammable than they appeared at a casual glance. The city had suffered in times past from earthquakes and the stone and plaster walls contained a skeleton of wooden beams and timbers to prevent their being easily shaken down. When a wall became very hot from a contiguous fire these wooden timbers caught inside the plaster and the masonry crumbled. As the conflagration spread and swept on down toward the quay where were the beautiful and well-built offices and warehouses of the great foreign merchants and the residences of the rich Levantines, Greeks and Armenians, the people poured in a rapidly increasing flood to the waterfront, old, young, women, children, sick and well. Those who were unable to walk were carried on stretchers, or on the shoulders of relatives.
The aged Doctor Arghyropolos, long a well-known figure on the streets of Smyrna, being ill, was brought down on a stretcher to the quay where he died.
The last Miltonic touch was now added to a scene of vast, unparalleled horror and human suffering. These thousands were crowded on a narrow street between the burning city and the deep waters of the bay.
The question has been frequently asked, “What efforts were made to put out the fire at Smyrna?” I did not see any such efforts. If the Turks did anything along this line it was merely the sporadic attempt of some petty officer, who had not been informed. What measures they took for saving the American consular building have already been described.
Great clouds of smoke were by this time beginning to pour down upon the Consulate. The crowd in the street before this building, as well as that upon the quay, was now so dense that the commanding naval officer told me that in ten minutes more I should not be able to get through. The hour had struck for me to evacuate my colony, to find some refuge for it in a Christian country, and to find means for its temporary sustenance.
I was profoundly stirred by the plight of these people and was determined that they should get the kindest, most generous and patient treatment possible. I therefore loaded a few trunks into a waiting automobile, as well as a few bundles of my fine collection of rugs, which fortunately were lying packed up, waiting to be taken out of their casings for winter use, grabbed whatever was dearest to me that happened to be in sight, and with my wife and a Greek servant started for the quay and the waiting destroyer.
The naval officers and men acted with the greatest efficiency and both myself and wife were treated with extreme courtesy. In the somewhat difficult task of getting us through the frantic crowds and on to the launch, the young native-born Americans were also cool-headed and capable. There was great danger of the launch being rushed and swamped by the desperate, terrified people swarming the wharf. One frightened man who jumped into it, was thrown into the sea by a young American. He was promptly fished out again and went away ashamed and very wet. It was this incident, happening at a psychological moment, and the determined guard kept by bluejackets and a few native-born Americans, which enabled us to embark and get away.
The last view of the ill-fated town by daylight was one of vast enveloping clouds rolling up to heaven, a narrow water-front covered with a great throng of people—an ever-increasing throng, with the fire behind and the sea before, and a powerful fleet of inter-allied battle-ships, among which were two American destroyers, moored a short distance from the quay and looking on.
As the destroyer moved away from the fearful scene and darkness descended, the flames, raging now over a vast area, grew brighter and brighter, presenting a scene of awful and sinister beauty. Historians and archeologists have declared that they know of but one event in the annals of the world which can equal in savagery, extent and all the elements of horror, cruelty and human suffering, the destruction of Smyrna and its Christian population by the Turks, and this was the demolition of Carthage by the Romans.
Certainly at Smyrna, nothing was lacking in the way of atrocity, lust, cruelty and all that fury of human passion which, given their full play, degrade the human race to a level lower than the vilest and cruelest of beasts. For during all this diabolical drama the Turks robbed and raped. Even the raping can be understood as an impulse of nature, irresistible perhaps, when passions are running wild among a people of low mentality and less civilization, but the repeated robbing of women and girls can be attributed neither to religious frenzy nor to animal passions. One of the keenest impressions, which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race.
At the destruction of Smyrna there was one feature for which Carthage presents no parallel. There was no fleet of Christian battle-ships at Carthage looking on at a situation for which their governments were responsible. There were no American cruisers at Carthage.
The Turks were glutting freely their racial and religious lust for slaughter, rape and plunder within a stone’s throw of the Allied and American battle-ships because they had been systematically led to believe that they would not be interfered with. A united order from the commanders or from any two of them—one harmless shell thrown across the Turkish quarter—would have brought the Turks to their senses.
And this, the presence of those battle-ships in Smyrna harbor, in the year of our Lord 1922, impotently watching the last great scene in the tragedy of the Christians of Turkey, was the saddest and most significant feature of the whole picture.