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FRENCH CHRONICLE FROM "L’ILLUSTRATION" 1876-1878

Author: Vasil Vasilev

Editor's Note: This book is about the Liberation War of Bulgaria (1876-1878), as seen on the pages of the french weekly newspaper "L’Illustration". The chronicle has been traced by bulgarian editor V. Vasilev and presented in the manner those "far and away" events were solicited by the principal journalists of the newspaper — reporter Ludovik Rigondo and illustrator Jean-Paul Kaufman. Here is a unique view on the liberation history of the country, moreover, augmented by some 80 or more engravings from that time. In our opinion, the pictorial material from "L’Illustration" equals or even bettered the only comparable source from that time — viz., Felix Kanitz's magisterial three volume work "Donau-Bulgarian und der Balkan. T. I-III, Leipzig, 1874-1876". Whatever the connotations from these reportages and they contain their idiosyncrasies. The book ends with a contribution on the american reporter Januarius MacGahan, working for the London's newspaper "Daily News". The materials sent by him constitute a separate monograph, which is collected and published by the editors of the "Daily News" (1876-1878). Although the two chapters relate to one and the same events, their unity comes from none the less than using a common technological invention from that time — the electric telegraph, ditto.

 

Diplomatic immunity must have come into being concurrently with diplomacy. In all likelihood the encroachments on it also date from that time. According to history the party concerned can react in a countless number of ways — from acting as if nothing had happened to the declaration of war.

A war between Turkey, on the one hand, and France and Germany, on the other, did not erupt in 1876 because of a lack of reasons. The cause, however, was more than sufficient — early in May of that same year fanatical Turks publicly assassinated the French and German consuls in Salonika.

Both of them — the one 38 years old, the other four years younger — looked like saints. Thinking of it in Nero’s times the first tortured, dismembered and beaten to death Christians were canonized because they refused to renounce their faith. Yet nobody thought of canonizing these two, despite the fact that their feat was no less worthy — at the cost of their lives they helped a young Bulgarian woman to escape being converted to Mohammedanism.

Whether knightly blood flowed in their veins is besides the point, but that they possessed chivalry is beyond dispute. The girl was saved and it was they that the Turks dragged to the yard of the mosque.

The story around the murder of Jules Moulin and Henry Abbott broke out of the framework of sensation and unleashed the interest of Western Europe in the events taking place in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It gave food to a number of thoughts. If the Turks could kill diplomats without batting an eyelid, consuls at that, and moreover of powers such as France and Germany, then how easy it would be for them to slaughter Bulgarians. If they were capable of openly Mohammedanizing people in Salonika before the eyes of all foreigners, then who knows what they were able of doing inland where there would be nobody to see them, let alone stop them. If the Turks raged thus, did the Bulgarians think of defending themselves? And if so, how? And would anybody help them?

Questions of this kind probably started being asked widely in Western Europe, because from that moment on, interest in Bulgaria rose sharply. What was happening in the Danubian provinces of the Ottoman Empire? Was there any danger of Turkey ceasing to exist as a European power? How would the increased diplomatic and public interest in Russia reflect politically on the fate of the Christians in Turkey? How would the Eastern Question be solved?

The answers were very important for the fate and future of the West European interests in the Balkan Peninsula. In fact, disinformation dates back a long time and one can, by leafing through the pages of that time, discover how long ago this approach was used towards Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. Times and headlines change, but there has always been somebody to not wish us well. Nowadays he can write in L’Express or in the Reader’s Digest, for example; in those days it was the Memorial Diplomatique. Yet more than 110 years ago, with the following "Letter Regarding the Slavic Rebellion", signed by Mr. Captain Saint-Clair, who has been living in Bulgaria for many years, the Memorial Diplomatique assures us: "Bandits having come from abroad and assisted by several priests and teachers, the secret agents of the committees in Bucharest, Odessa and Serbia, forced a handful of peasants to burn their own houses, assuring them that they would be richly rewarded, that the British and the three allied forces would occupy Bulgaria and they would no longer pay any taxes. With such arguments, with the aid of the intoxicating plum brandy, above all, they instigated them to slaughters and monstrous killings."

Pro-Turkish policy was manifest in the writings of one journalist. Others, having departed kindly disposed to the Ottoman government, started writing quite differently once they came face to face with Turkish reality in the Bulgarian lands. It does not matter whether they sympathized with the Bulgarians. It suffices that they were objective. We cannot but be grateful to those journalists who wrote about us from the heart.

The majority of them were correspondents of L’Illustration — the first illustrated weekly in France. In less than two years, from May 1876 to March 1878, it published nearly 80 engravings and some 40 special reports, dispatches and announcements on the state of the Bulgarians and the outrages of the Turks, the April Uprising, the Russo-Turkish War and the political situation around Bulgaria’s rebirth.

As a matter of fact, not one of the L’Illustration reports of the time contains even a shred of the malice of the lines from the Memorial Diplomatique quoted earlier. On the contrary, the attitude was benevolent and objective. All journalists had seen the misery to which the tyranny had subjected the people. But the Frenchman does not omit to also mention another element, probably gone unnoticed by the others. That charming, perhaps the only possible then expression of elegance of the Bulgarian girl forced to hide her beauty — "the scarf she wears on holidays and leaves to flow freely around neck and shoulders".

L’Illustration does not say why the Bulgarian girl is forced to hide her beauty. But the paper does not pass over the subject of Islamization, inconvenient to the West, in silence either.

Thus, after the account of the Moulin Abbot case, the French reader is made familiar with the practice and is no longer in need of special explanations in order to understand how "the Bulgarian population in the Dobrudja is relatively small in number, if one does not count as Bulgarian that part of the Turkish population composed of the offspring of the former Bulgarians forced to renounce their faith."

The paper also gave an indirect answer to a number of questions later when it announced that "the 14th Russian corps is outside Silistra and the Moslem population, frantic with fear, is running from it everywhere". In Svishtov "it is pointless to report that almost all Turks left the town together with the garrison". In Tarnovo "the Turks started retreating, followed by the entire Moslem population". Later those who knew something about or suspected their Bulgarian origins, began returning. And those who regarded themselves Turks already then started emigrating from Bulgaria, moving without rest, "to only stop outside the gates of Constantinople".

L’Illustration followed up the start and course of the Russo-Turkish War of Liberation with very keen interest. The French journalists could not but be impressed with the fact that "all Bulgarian villages welcome the Russians extremely cordially". The enormous goodness of the Russian who collected wounded enemy soldiers from the battle field for treatment, clearly overwhelmed the war correspondents, who had enough of cruel and callous scenes.

The present publication does not claim to he an exact mirror of history. The scrupulous scholar may well find inaccuracies and omissions in the reports and descriptions. But then neither does L’Illustration set itself the task of being a textbook of history. What it had to do was to provide its readers with prompt and graphic information about the events in the Bulgarian lands. And it fulfilled its pretentious, but extremely difficult task in such a way as to hold our attention even after 110 years.

It is the kind of fate that every journalist wishes for his articles.

***

 

JANUARIUS MACGAHAN: DARING TO TELL THE TRUTH

The short life of Januarius MacGahan is so brimming with world travel, romance, and adventure that it would most likely be rejected as "over the top" if submitted to a publisher as a work of fiction. Like many American works of fiction, his story has a humble farm-boy beginning. He was born in the also fictitious sounding town of Pigeon Roost Ridge, Ohio, on June 12, 1844. MacGahan's father, James, was a British navy veteran, born in County Derry, Ireland, while his mother, Ester Dempsey, was a devote Catholic of mixed Irish / German background. Unfortunately, James died when Januarius was just six, causing great hardship for the family.

MacGahan proved an excellent student, and before he was out of his teens he was teaching in Indiana. But he had ambitions far beyond the scope of rural Midwestern farm life, and so traveled to St. Louis. He found work as a bookkeeper there, and also as a writer, and is, in fact, listed in J. Cutler Andrews' definitive tome, "The North Reports the Civil War," as a wartime correspondent for the St. Louis Democrat, ironically, a newspaper that staunchly supported the the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

At 22, a chance meeting with another famous Irish-American and fellow Ohioan, Civil War general Phil Sheridan, directed Januarius' life off in a totally unimagined direction. While many were advising America's youth, "Go West, young man," Sheridan advised MacGahan to do the opposite to find the adventure he sought. Go East, he said, far to the East, in fact, all the way to Europe. MacGahan decided to take this advice.

In December 1868, he was off to Europe. He knew no one there, and had no definite plan beyond a vague idea to study languages and perhaps to return to the United States later to practice law. Living in Paris most of the time but traveling extensively around Europe over the next two years, Januarius did learn a number of languages. Not surprisingly, he became most fluent in French, and in 1870, with his funds running low, this skill would lead him to the next chapter of his eventful life. He had just eight years to live, but those would be filled with enough melodrama for several novels.

The event that next altered the course of his life was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Once again, Sheridan would have a hand in this change, though not directly this time. Sheridan came to France to observe the war for the U.S. War Department, and while visiting Sheridan, Januarius fell in with the newspapermen in Sheridan's entourage. Speaking French, and also some German, Russian, and Spanish — he would eventually learn nine languages — MacGahan attracted the attention of reporters and he was offered a job reporting the war for The New York Herald. Here at last was an assignment to get MacGahan's heart pumping. He could hardly vault on a horse fast enough to make his way to the front. Fate had finally conspired to place him in the job he was born to do.

Soon after he arrived at the front near the Swiss border, events began to go badly for the French army, but very well for MacGahan. He did not begin this career brimming with confidence. In a letter written just after reaching the front, he wrote, "I had supposed it took somebody like [William] Russell of the Times to be a war correspondent and did not think it worthwhile for an unknown person like myself to try it."

But eventually MacGahan's reports on the war, where he was said to fearlessly move among the troops under fire, were so well received that he was hired by the London News as well. France soon surrendered, and near anarchy followed. Reporting on the upheaval in Paris, Januarius was nearly killed on at least two occasions and then found himself arrested and charged with being a Communist. More than 60 suspected Communists were executed during this period. Elihu Washburne, of the United States ministry in Paris, intervened to get MacGahan released, perhaps saving his life.

Over the next few years, MacGahan would travel much of Europe and Asia on reporting assignments. He accompanied U.S. general William T. Sherman on a tour of Europe in 1871-72 and then had a famous adventure following the Russian army into Central Asia 1873. Denied permission to accompany its expedition when it departed from St. Petersburg to pacify Muslims in Khiva, MacGahan set out alone, following the army hundreds of miles across the Kizil Kum desert. So impressed were the Russians with this accomplishment that they congratulated him and allowed him to remain and cover their conquest of Khiva.

MacGahan later published a book on this Russian campaign called "Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva." U.S. diplomat Eugene Schuyler, a friend of MacGahan's, said of this exploit, "His ride across the desert was spoken of everywhere in Central Asia as by far the most wonderful thing that had ever been done there." British reporter Archibald Forbes called it "the most remarkable and daring exploit in all the annals of war correspondence."

Somehow, in the midst of all that, MacGahan found time for a Russian adventure of a more personal nature. After being thrown from his horse near St. Petersburg in 1871, he had been nursed by to health by several young daughters of the local gentry. He shortly fell in love with one of them: Varvara Nikolaevna Elagin.

At one point, later in the year, after MacGahan had recovered, he offered her a bet that they "would be married in two years." It was a bet he would have won. Early in 1873, in Paris, they were married, but before the year was out he was on his way back to St. Petersburg to follow the Russian army to Khiva, and he left Varvara in Paris, pregnant. She would suffer a miscarriage, but in 1875 they would have a son, Paul.

MacGahan had several more exciting escapades in the next few years, including a trip to the Arctic aboard the "Pandora," and he cheated death again when he was nearly executed as a Carlist while covering the fighting in Spain in 1874. U.S. government intervention saved him once again, as it had in Paris. Then, in 1876, writing now for the Daily News of London, MacGahan received a fateful assignment to cover the Turks' pacification of Bulgarian rebels. What MacGahan found in Bulgaria, and his skill in reporting it, would do more than merely inform a curious public. It would change the course of Eastern European history.

Accompanied by his friend and American diplomat Eugene Schuyler, Januarius MacGahan departed from Constantinople for Bulgaria in late summer of 1876. What they found as they crossed into Bulgaria was appalling. At Batak on August 7th, MacGahan reported, "Between the church and school there were heaps (of bodies). The stench was fearful. ... There were 3,000 bodies in the church yard and church." Commenting on the now untended crops in the fields around Batak, MacGahan wrote, "The harvests are rotting in the fields and the reapers are rotting here in the church yard." It appeared the Turks' idea of pacification was death. This was the work of the bloodthirsty bashi-bazouks, an undisciplined rabble of irregular soldier whom the Turks were allowing to run amok in the Bulgarian countryside.

MacGahan's reports to the London Daily News, backed shortly afterwards by the release of Schuyler's corroborating official report, caused a sensation in Great Britain. Disraeli's government, ever mindful of containing the Russians, was supporting the Turks. As long as they did, the Russians, who dearly wished to aid the Bulgarians in their fight, held back, fearing war with the British. Suddenly, supporting the Turks was becoming akin to supporting mass murder. Even Queen Victoria was said to be distressed by MacGahan's reports.

MacGahan had already seen the horrors of war in many places in his short life, but they had not prepared him for this. In that first dispatch, he included this personal note to the publishers, "I fear I am no longer impartial ... There are things too horrible to allow anything like calm inquiry." The Bulgarians knew their only salvation lay in Russian intervention. Before he left Bulgaria in late August, Januarius was heard to tell Bulgarian peasants, "In less than a year, you shall see the soldiers of the Czar here." His dispatches were no longer written merely to report facts, his compassion for the suffering of the Bulgarian people had compelled him to attempt to influence events, and he was succeeding. Just before the Russians declared war on the Turks, MacGahan wrote to his mother, "I can safely say I have done more to smash up the Turkish Empire than anybody else ... except the Turks themselves."

An attempt was made to resolve the Bulgarian issue through diplomacy through the winter and early spring of 1877, but they failed. Thanks to their appalling atrocities in Bulgaria, the Ottomans' faith in British opposition to Russian military intervention was now misplaced, however. MacGahan's reports had helped set the British public firmly against the Turks. On April 24th, the Turks received a note from the Czar informing them that he "sees himself compelled, to his regret, to have recourse to force of arms." The British reaction was a declaration of neutrality, surely a much different one than would have been the case before MacGahan's reports.

Januarius now joined the Russian army for their advance on the Turks. He had befriended a Russian officer, Michael Skobelev, during his previous time with their army. Skobelev was now a general and on his way to becoming one of the most famous Russian officers of the 19th century. This friendship and acquaintance with other Russian commanders, along with a good knowledge of Russian, would prove invaluable to MacGahan in reporting the ensuing Russo-Turkish War. His friend and colleague from the Daily News, Archibald Forbes, noted that when it came to dealing with the Russians, "... it was the next best thing to being MacGahan himself to be MacGahan's friend."

Forbes would soon discover that the respect MacGahan got from high-ranking Russians paled in comparison to the reaction of Bulgarian peasants in villages they passed through. In locales where MacGahan was known from his earlier investigation, "... people thronged about him, fondly treating him as their liberator and kissing his hands with a devotion that was thoroughly sincere," said Forbes. The farm boy from Pigeon Roost Ridge, Ohio, was now hailed as the champion of a people who had no idea where Ohio might be.

The Russo-Turkish War was a savage one. The Russians advanced rapidly until they reached Plevna in July, but then had two assaults repulsed with heavy casualties. This casualty rate was made worse by the fact that the Turks gave no quarter to Russians who tried to surrender, nor to those wounded on the battlefield. The infamous bashi-bazouks would roam the fields like vultures following the fighting, killing the wounded and stripping all valuables from the dead. Though he had many friends among the Russian generals, MacGahan did not shrink from telling the truth as he saw it regarding the battle for Plevna. The Russians would win in the end, he said, unless the Russian generals, "conduct the attack with the sort of imbecile neglect which allowed the Turks to get possession of Plevna."

In spite of these attacks, MacGahan remained popular with the Russian officers and men. It seems that he was one of those rare individuals whom it is nearly impossible for anyone to dislike. One of the qualities others admired in him was an ability to memorize song lyrics and a penchant for bursting into those songs at the drop of a hat. "Dawn was heralded by MacGahan's cheerful song, which scarcely ceased throughout the day and chases us to our beds at night," said fellow correspondent Frederick Boyle.

In mid-September, the Russians attacked and suffered another bloody repulse, with Januarius' friend General Skobelev performing brilliantly even in defeat. In the end, the Turkish lines could not be broken, so they were surrounded and starved into submission instead. On December 10th, after a failed attempt to break out of their trap, the Turks surrendered. MacGahan's health had begun to falter at this point, but he insisted on following the Russians' now nearly unencumbered advance toward Constantinople. Finally on March 3, 1878, with the Russian army at the gates, the Turks capitulated and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, ending the war.

MacGahan enjoyed a well needed rest in and around Constantinople for a several weeks after the treaty, regaining some strength, and even sending for his wife and son to join him. In late May, he was making preparations to leave for Berlin when he learned a friend, American military observer Lt. Francis Greene, was sick with typhoid fever.

Though MacGahan's wife urged caution, he rushed to Greene's bedside and nursed him for two days. "I have not been ill a day since I was in America," Januarius had written his mother just before departing to cover the Russo-Turkish war. A few day later, MacGahan himself fell ill, but with typhus, a more dangerous disease than typhoid. Perhaps a few years earlier, before his extended exposure to the rigors of campaigning, he would have survived it, but his body was now weakened. On June 9, 1878, 3 days short of his 34th birthday, Januarius MacGahan died.

He was buried in Pera, with dozens of correspondents, diplomats, and military officers in attendance. None was more affected by the loss of their friend than Michael Skobelev, who weep openly at his graveside. His remains were returned to the United States on the warship "Powhatan" in August 1884, and he was buried in Maplewood Cemetery in New Lexington, Ohio, on September 12, 1884. Gen. Phil Sheridan, whose advice had helped send Januarius to his destiny, was there to honor his memory.

It is tragic that only a handful of Americans, even Irish-Americans, know the name of Januarius Aloysius MacGahan today. It has been left to the Bulgarians, and Bulgarian-Americans to keep alive his memory, via organizations such as the MacGahan Bulgarian-American Foundation of New Lexington, Ohio, and they deserve praise for their efforts. But it is past time, that Irish-America joins them in recognizing and celebrating the life of the Irish-American "Liberator of Bulgaria," as well.

 

Pictures 1 & 2: Sample illustrations on the text.

(i). This is the fate of all insurgents in the former Turkish Empire — their heads cut-off and stampeded-on-road. Jules Moulin and Henry Abbott, respectively French and German consuls in Salonika, shared that same reprimand on the occasion that they saved an Islamized bulgarian girl which didn't wanted to change her faith.

 

(ii). Januarius Aloysius MacGahan (1844-1878), — called the "Liberator of Bulgaria" — perished at the outskirts of Constantinople. His numerous dispatches from France, Russia, Spain and Turkey has earned him a deserved place in the pantheon of journalism.

 

Copyright © 2008 by the author.