Evacuated as refugees to Romania from the start of the Great War in 1914, my great uncle Frank and his father suddenly found themselves with just hours to flee the country when Germany advanced on the capital, Bucharest, in November 1916. So begins the 1916-17 memoir of Francis Xavier Calleja, a British subject of Maltese/Italian descent, born in Constantinople in 1892. From the panic of imminent invasion, the hardships, deprivations and indignities facing refugees, to the cruelties of revolution, this is an extraordinary first hand account of what happens to civilians who get caught up as collateral in turbulent times. Do we learn anything from history? Sadly it doesn’t seem so.
Privately written by Frank in the 1960s, the memoir wasn’t shared with anyone and only came to light after his death. Even then, with the original lengthy text in tiny handwritten French, it continued to languish in a box waiting for someone to take on the long and pain-staking task of translation and editing. For the last several months, this has become a labour of love for his great niece and God-daughter, Esmè Clutterbuck and for myself. Frank’s writing is nothing if not evocative, dramatic and full of filmic vignettes and side alleys. We are a little sad to have finished it and Frank, if he were here today, would no doubt be overjoyed to find he had reached an appreciative audience. Please let us know in the ‘Comments’ what you think. Due to the length of the original manuscript, I have decided to publish this in 3 parts.
At the outbreak of WWI in 1914 Turkey was an ally of the Kaiser, which meant that any man of military service age from an enemy country, could potentially be interned by the authorities. (The same applied to German and Italian residents in the UK, many of whom were interned on the Isle of Man). Frank and his father fled Turkey and went to stay with his father’s brother, Octave Calleya, who lived in Bucharest in Romania, then a neutral country. His mother, aunt and sisters stayed behind in Constantinople.
This memoir starts from 25th November 1916, the day it was decided that the government and administration of Bucharest must be evacuated to Jassy (Iași) in northern Romania, following news of the German advance on the capital. Frank and his father were advised to get out of the country as quickly as possible and so headed for Russia. The following text is Frank’s. Additional editing notes and references are italicised in […].
“Evacuation: Adieu Bucharest” – 26 November 1916 By F.X. Calleja
Bucharest, Boulevard Schitz Magureaux and the big clock of the French hospital had just chimed midnight. All those who had to accompany the Colonne Sanitaire Francaise, in its retreat towards the north, were present except Monsieur et Madame Dormoy, prominent players of the French community in Bucharest. We couldn’t wait any longer to leave.
In the basement of the hospital there were fifteen of us: two medical officers, the pharmacist, two nurses and a few others French, English and Belgian who not being able to leave town in the normal way, had been kindly invited by Dr Borel, the head of the mission, to travel with him.
We were all anxious and exhausted. The day had been rich in emotions and many had to leave behind loved ones and important interests that they were not sure of finding again on their return. The events of this memorable day had been so unforeseen that we could hardly believe the evacuation of the Romanian capital was happening; our departure was one of the last.
The evening before, the Germans, with the aid of their agents, alas so numerous in Romania during the Great War of 1914-18, had spread rumours that General Averescu had just gained a crushing victory in the Carpathians encircling almost the whole of Mackensen’s army. In fact the opposite had happened and the Romanian General had just had time to jump into a plane and get away to the unoccupied territory.
In any event the news had caused a sensation and in the blink of an eye the whole of Bucharest was out on the street. The students always alive to what was going on, had organised, on the Field of Processions where the public were gathered, flags, music, patriotic songs and above all a holiday atmosphere alas long since gone from the once gay and insouciant Romanian capital.
The high command here, who very probably knew how this would end, immediately stopped these demonstrations of joy: the flags were taken down and a proclamation was soon stuck up all over town, exhorting the population to calm and enjoining them to only trust official communiques.
Despite all these measures public opinion wasn’t swayed and all they [the people] could talk of was the big victories that the authorities thought premature to publicise and that, according to them, would be announced to us a few days later.
The day passed quietly enough, without air raid sirens and without having prolonged stays in the cellars that served us as shelters. Since the 28th August 1916 when Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies, the German planes and zeppelins, as if petrified in the blue Romanian sky, were always there, wreaking havoc day and night with their engines of death and destruction.
Here, a few words on the subject of Romania’s entry into the war after nearly two years of neutrality. Although the whole Romanian nation had for a long time embraced the cause of the Allies, the affection and great respect for her old king Carol [Charles], a Hohenzollern uncle of the Kaiser, had stopped her from openly taking sides against the Germans. It was only at the death of this latter, who was succeeded by his nephew, King Ferdinand, that Romania gave free rein to these sentiments and joined her fate with those of the Allied Nations.
Ferdinand, also a Hohenzollern, was immediately dispossessed by the Kaiser of all his property in Germany, and Prince Hohenlohe who, with Mackenson, was the head of the German armies, was charged with seizing Ferdinand dead or alive and sending him back to Germany. But Romania after her rout in the south reformed the Front in the north, repulsed all the German attacks, and held out right up until the signature of the Armistice in 1918.
So let’s go back to my story relating to this day of false information and denials, of which there was no shortage. We were left perplexed in a night of alarming rumour mongering. A false back-story of the famous victory fabricated by Bosch spies started to circulate. The German, Bulgarian and Turkish armies, finding hardly any resistance, had liberated the Danube and marched on Bucharest; in the Ministry where work to pack up the records was going on frantically and secretly in order to avoid alarming the population; the evacuation of the town had been decided at the reconvening of the Cabinet, held late at night.
The next day, at first light I went to the English embassy, which was also the consulate, to get some clarification on the situation and, if possible, advice on how to act. As soon as I crossed the threshold of the embassy, the sound of loud hammer blows on packing cases very quickly told me what was happening. The embassy was being evacuated. The secretary with whom, as a refugee, I was often in contact, and who, one week earlier had put me on guard against the politics of cafes, told me in so many words what was happening and what I had to do, to leave immediately no matter how; tomorrow, even tonight could perhaps be too late. He gave me a rendezvous in Jassy [Ed. modern day Iași], if I ever managed to leave. There was no time to lose.
I rushed to the Gard de Nord in the Calea Grivitei to find out if I could take the train going north, and there the most desolate and unforgettable sights awaited me. All the doors giving on to the station were barricaded and with platoons of soldiers with fixed bayonets at the ready.
The pitiful crowd, seized with wild panic, were swarming around the great concourse, crying and demanding trains in which to flee. In the private guarded military enclosure, were cannons, tanks, horses, military lorries loaded with boxes and all sorts of stuff, embassy cars and ambulances, all mixed up in an indescribable jumble. You need to have been involved in the evacuation of a town in less than 24 hours to really understand how much tragedy and sadness the concept of the word “evacuation” contained.
On the concourse a stream of thousands swelled without cease, praying, begging, threatening to take the station by storm and all a sea of fury, threw themselves at the steps from where the soldiers forced them to go back with blows from their rifle butts. Suddenly, the military commandant of the station appeared on the first level overlooking the square; he tried to harangue the crowd but their cries drowned out his voice. Taking advantage of a momentary lull, he made an appeal to the patriotic feeling of the public: “The country is in danger, the cooperation of citizens is essential in order for the measures being taken on their behalf by the authorities to be effective. Each morning at 7 o’clock tickets will be distributed to all those that want to leave, and will be valid for the next day.” I didn’t want to wait any more. I quickly understood there was no time to lose.
To see tens of thousands of people beside themselves, even tramping on the spot, I understood that I would never be able to leave by rail, neither tomorrow, the day after or ever. And the embassy secretary had told me to leave immediately?
What to do? I left the station and went to the Imperial cafe in Calea Victoria, which was at that time a rendezvous for many foreigners, hoping to find some friends who would get me out of this misery. At a back table, bleak and anxious, were gathered one or two of my French friends: a painter well known in Bucharest and one or two war correspondents. All of them reservists, to whom the idea of falling in to the clutches of the Germans was hardly appealing. In truth this prospect amused no one.
In a few words I filled them in on what was going on at the station, which they already suspected. They told me not to make myself sick with worry [Ed. mauvais sang] and let me know that that very evening at 11 o’clock, they were to go to the Athenee Palace [Ed. now Atheneum Palace Hilton Bucharest] to wait for Dr Borel, chief of the Mission Sanitaire Francais. Those that had to leave in the night included some French friends and allies who had been invited by the Mission to take up the Romanian government’s offer. It was important for me to be presented to the head of the Mission and obtain authorisation, for my father as well, to travel with the Colonne Sanitaire. And this is how, after an interview of a few minutes, at the Athenee Palace, we all found ourselves towards midnight at the French hospital.
At Bucharest one could only drive at night by the light of the stars, unless there was moonlight, so it was not easy to get around the streets. If the weather was clear there were always zeppelins around.
I went straight back to my uncle’s [Octave Calleya], woke my father who’d already gone to bed, hurriedly picked up our bits and pieces and went back to the French hospital, the place of our rendezvous.
The government let us have three cattle trucks because they couldn’t give the French Red Cross railway carriages. These would take us as far as Ploesti, the first stage. There, perhaps, we could take a train leaving for Jassy.
The three cattle trucks were already in the hospital courtyard when we arrived: one had been transformed into a sleeping car with the aid of some mattresses and plenty of covers, because it was autumn and the nights were cold. The second contained the medical supplies and an old wood stove belonging to the hospital and which we carried with us as we had to take into consideration how we would feed ourselves during the journey, at that point a big question mark.
Would there be a train at Ploesti as we hoped? Only God knew. In the third carriage were the medical director, his two assistants, the pharmacist and the cook as well as the luggage.
[By the time] the sleepy ones (M & Mme Dormoy) had at last arrived, it was past midnight when we left.
We crossed the silent and fearful town, then the beautiful Kisselef road, which we would never see again, and left Bucharest to find ourselves on the highway which would take us to Ploesti.
I snuggled up in the first carriage with the others but didn’t stay there long; the cold and anxiety stopped me from closing my eyes. So I jumped down and went to speak with the cattleman. In order to be doing something I took the lantern from him and once in a while I went ahead of the convoy in order to light the way. My exhaustion had magically disappeared and I walked like that the whole night. Towards dawn the convoy stopped on the border of a large forest that we had edged along all night. The cook served us a cup of really hot chocolate and some biscuits, which set us straight.
Despite our fatigue, we soon had to set off again; time was pressing and we had to get to Ploesti before nightfall. We had no news of the German advance and we had to get away from Bucharest as fast as possible if we wanted to be out of reach of the enemy armies. On two occasions we had to leave our carriages to lie flat on our stomachs in the ditch that followed the track; the German surveillance were flying over us, probably some scouts who were trying to detect the movement of troops, but not seeing the long and pitiable convoy of refugees they left us alone to continue on our journey.
We arrived at last at Ploesti around eight in the evening, all dead tired having covered 60 km in less than 24 hours, but happy to find a good supper and above all a bed to sleep in and gather our strength for the next day. We were still uncertain of what tomorrow might bring, but all the same we were hopeful that the government would be able to give us proper carriages so we could continue our journey more quickly.
I forgot to say that our convoy had been provided with permits and a requisition order that allowed one of the members of our group- on this occasion it was our pharmacist who was the Marechal de Logis – to requisition the lodgings necessary to accommodate us, once we arrived at the towns or villages on our way.
Thus it was that as soon as we arrived in Ploesti, after a brief supper, we were directed towards a house big enough to contain us all and that was said to be or had been a brothel. Evidenced by the dyed hair and excessively made up face of the young woman who had quickly organised our reception, the hypothesis I just mentioned wasn’t ruled out by the fact that she had been confirmed [a catholic]. After all what did that really matter; it was wartime and we considered ourselves lucky to have found somewhere to stay.
There was amongst us a brother of the Ecole Chrètiennes, a Belgian, who for more freedom was temporarily – at least I hope temporarily, in mufti. After some years of convent life he felt, free of his priestly robes, a man like any other. Although tired and on the point of going to sleep we could not stop ourselves from seeing him in a recess of the large bedroom turned dormitory, tickling the young woman who had received us, who collapsed with laughter. We allowed ourselves to quickly fall into the arms of sleep, forgetful of everything that had happened around us and of all our worries.
The next day when we woke up, we learned that the Germans were almost at the gates of Bucharest, so we had only just left in time, but we couldn’t forget that we still had many kilometers to go before arriving in Jassy the end point.
We were very disappointed to learn that it was impossible for the government to allocate the [train] carriages and that we had to carry on by road. Unable to do otherwise while waiting for something better we rejoined our trucks a bit discouraged but resigned to the necessities of war. After all we could comfort ourselves we were in good company and wanted for nothing. Our cooks, always on the lookout, bought from the farms on our way, corn fed chickens, little suckling pigs, fruit, cheeses etc. etc. Our menus were always varied and well prepared, and the fine wine of the French hospital, which we had a few cases of in the baggage truck, helped us to gather our strength and to see a little of life through rose tinted glasses. Needless to say, that for these brotherly feasts we always stopped somewhere not too far from the road.
The latest news told of the fall of Bucharest where the Germans had, for the time being, stopped. That allowed us to take things more easily, not too much however, because Ploesti with its famous petrol reserves was of vital importance for the enemy, who would not delay their advance towards this town. We took care not to prolong our outdoor picnics always mindful of the next village or town we had to get to before the sun went down. [Ed. the Germans occupied Bucharest 6 December 1916, which was actually a few days later than this timeline suggests].
Having left Ploesti early in the morning we reached our second stop, which was Buzău, more or less at the right time. After a comfortable meal in one of the restaurants in town, momentarily spared by the war, we picked up our lodgings for the night.
Although the enemy armies were still far away, Buzău, once Ploesti had been occupied, would soon follow. All those who had the means had already abandoned the town and it wasn’t difficult for our Marechal de Logis to requisition lodgings close to each other, in the residential quarter of the town. That facilitated our gathering the next day at the appointed hour without fear of getting lost in a town that we didn’t know and without delaying departure.
The house that had been allocated to my father and me was a little hotel of particularly noble appearance; it probably belonged to some rich landowner who had preferred to flee rather than make the acquaintance of the “Fritz”. I rang, and the old valet dressed in a red gilet, came and opened the door and, informed of our arrival, took us without waiting to a big, richly furnished and beautiful bedroom on the first floor. The interior of the house had a truly baronial atmosphere due to the superb carpets and paintings, some by well-known artists, and the beautiful crystal and decorative goblets that one saw all around. Our situation as unknown refugees didn’t allow us to ask too many questions and what is more, our taciturn old valet was certainly not disposed to answer. We contented ourselves therefore with casting an admiring glance on whatever surrounded us while asking ourselves what would remain of all these riches after the Germans had passed through.
The next day, after a good night, there we were again in the little restaurant of the evening before, our meeting point. It was almost three days since we had left Bucharest and the idea that we still had a good way to go was not encouraging; although in good company as I said before, the slowness and hobbling along of the cattle trucks had begun to grate on our nerves and we had not the least hope of having a faster mode of transport.
“Courage donc” and therefore en route for our third stage which would be Mizil. We arrived as the sun was going down over the beautiful Romanian countryside. I will not speak of the adventures of this fourth day, I will say nothing. [Ed. As noted above, due to the passage of time, Frank’s memory of precise dates and places must have got confused. Mizil is actually between Ploesti and Buzău, so must have been the second stop].
It’s said that one day follows another and no two days are the same: for us, they were unbearably the same. To cap it all I had the constant worry of what to do once we arrived in Jassy where huge crowds of refugees would be met coming from the South. Our plan was to go to Russia, to Odessa where we had some distant relatives and good friends, the family C, who had been living there since the start of the war and with whom I had been in correspondence. But would we make it?
In short, in Mizil, we lodged with a couple of very brave people who couldn’t do enough for us. They weren’t rich but they big heartedly gave up their modest little, but extremely clean bedroom for us. It had a big four-poster bed with curtains, which one needed the help of a footstool to be able to climb into, because of the pile of the mattress. The half-brother of my cousins was in Mizil, lieutenant in a regiment of fighters, stationed in this little town. The brave people in whose house I was, told me that it would be of no avail to look for my lieutenant cousin, the regiment in question having left town to go to the front.
[Ed. this was Leonidas Constantinescu, Zoe Calleya’s son by her first marriage. There is a monument in Mizil dedicated to the troops of the 72nd Mizil Infantry Regiment, who fought during the Romanian Campaign (1916-1917). Built in 1921, it includes a bronze plaque naming the 1190 officers and enlisted men who died in the Battle of Mizil. From the details above could Leonidas have been a participant?]
In Mizil we learned from the local papers of the fall of Ploesti and the destruction, by it was said, an English captain [sic], of the petrol tanks ahead of the arrival of the German army, in order to stop the enemy from taking possession [Ed. the sabotage and spillage of 800,000 tons of petrol happened on 5th December, Ref. ]. Later, in Odessa, this exploit was confirmed by the captain himself, as by coincidence he was the brother-in-law of my director in Odessa; I knew that he was a military attaché at the embassy in Bucharest and had been charged by the Minister of War to blow up the oil wells, a mission that he had accomplished with great success.
[Ed. The officer referred to here was in fact Colonel John “Empire Jack” Norton-Griffiths. A full account of this real-life Boys Own adventure can be found at this link: hellfire-jack-norton-griffiths]
Focsani & Barlad
After Mizil our convoy made for Focsani where we stayed the night. This time in a little farm, where the brave villagers made us as comfortable as they could. They served us a modest supper consisting of “Mamaliga cu branza” otherwise called cornflour, cooked with an abundance of cheese and which is one of the ambrosian Romanian national dishes, all products of their farm.
The next day at dawn it was the youngest daughter Yleana, who came to wake me, asking me to follow her to the courtyard to wash. She was a brunette, Yleana, pretty as an apple in her “fota” of green and white blouse. The fota is a Romanian peasant dress and consists of two or three metres of woven cloth [Ed. gros tisse] wound around her bosom, held in place by a belt. Yleana, armed with a stoneware jar of cold water that she tipped bit by bit into the palms of my hands [was] seeming amused by this summary toilette. As to me despite the soap, which burnt my eyes, I hazarded an admiring glance from time to time at this little Romanian Samaritan, to which she responded with a smile. I didn’t leave Foscani without kissing the little Yleana and thanking the brave villagers who had given us hospitality.
We stopped that evening at Barlad where we had a big surprise that we had been waiting for for a long time. After a little summary breakfast the following morning, our officials were instructed to take us to the station with all our goods and baggage. In the end two animal trucks, all that the Romanian government could give us, had been allotted to continue our journey. Our quartermaster, aided by the cook and one or two volunteers, were quickly proceeding with the arrangements for what was to be our home until Jassy.
Thanks to large bales of hay spread the width of the wagon we prepared beds for all the men while in the opposite section a little corner surrounded by sacks of jute in the guise of curtains, was reserved for Madame Dormoy, the only woman of our company.
The centre of the wagon was transformed into a dining room, the crates served as tables and benches. The large stove was installed in the second wagon where our baggage and the Red Cross equipment were also housed. The lines crowded with military trains transporting soldiers to the south or, coming back up to Jassy loaded with the wounded, had priority. This obliged our train to stop in the sidings for what were often long periods of time. That allowed our Cordon Bleu to transfer to our wagon the food he had prepared and that we awaited with impatience.
We travelled like this for almost three days and arrived at last at Jassy, the end of our journey. It was the end of an adventure and beginning of another in our lives as refugees. We took leave of our travelling companions and thanked Dr Borel, thanks to whose help and hospitality we were now out of peril. My thoughts focussed on Bucharest asking me what had become of the relatives that I had left, based on the news published in Jassy. Bucharest had offered no resistance; therefore there had been few bombings, and the town was intact. What tortured my father and I was the total absence of news of our loved ones in Constantinople; my mother, my aunts and my three darling sisters. While Romania had stayed neutral we had had the possibility of exchanging letters from time to time, but since the Romanian declaration of war with Germany and her Allies, including Turkey, we lived in complete ignorance of what was happening over there. We had left Constantinople in November 1914 with the hope that the war would have finished by Christmas of the same year; it was impossible they said that a war between the great powers would last long, but we were already in 1916, and instead of reconciling with Turkey, we had moved further and further away. My father and I avoided communicating our thoughts on the subject because we didn’t want to upset each other.
As was predicted Jassy, the ancient capital of Moravia, had been literally overrun by the thousands of refugees arriving from all corners of Romania. Apart from the civilians there was also the royal family, all of the court, the ministers, ambassadors, the Red Cross departments, in brief, all the country’s administration. The officials, naturally having nowhere to stay, the private residences and stately homes belonging to the nobility had to be put at their disposal.
It was another kettle of fish for the civilian refugees. The rooms were rented by public auction; going to the highest bidder, even the cafes were instantly transformed into dormitories, two tables put together became lots and were rented for fantastic sums. These were obviously temporary arrangements just so that everyone could find lodgings. It was sickening to see the greed of human nature that can profit under all circumstances, even the most tragic in order to exploit the misfortune of others; here were people who, seized by panic had left their homes, their comfort, perhaps their loved ones and who saw themselves duped without pity by their own countrymen. All that didn’t encourage us to stay an instant longer in Jassy. We didn’t know anyone: trying to find lodgings was out of the question; therefore the only and best solution was to leave as soon as possible.
I went to the British Consulate and asked to see my ambassador’s secretary who received me immediately. Happy to see me again safe and sound, he asked for details of our flight from Bucharest. I told him how, on the very same day that he had told me to leave, we had been invited [along] by the French Red Cross, about our departure from the hospital at precisely midnight as well as all the adventures of our journey. That seemed to spark his interest. He got my passport ready and that of my father and once again advised me to leave as soon as possible, the situation at Jassy being untenable.
We were lucky, as soon as we arrived at Jassy station, there was a train for the Russo-Romanian frontier, to the little village of Ungheni, Rushi. It was already nighttime when we arrived at Ungheni: we were exhausted and the cold was intense but what did all that matter; we were at last on Russian soil in an Allied country.
End of Part 1 – to be continued…
Sources and further information
My thanks to Esmè Clutterbuck and Jeremy Neave for the use of family photos and documents.
The People of Bucharest and the Bombings of 1916 by Ana Maria Schiopu: https://europecentenary.eu/the-people-of-bucharest-and-the-bombings-of-1916/
Another contemporary account of the fall of Bucharest and the flight of refugees: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/89713/wwi-centennial-fall-bucharest-lloyd-george-pm
The Revenge of the Germans in Bucharest 1916: https://europecentenary.eu/1916-the-revenge-of-the-germans-in-bucharest/
Field Marshal August Von Mackenson : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_von_Mackensen
Images of Bucharest in the interwar years: https://romaniadacia.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/old-bucharest-interwar-pictures/bucuresti-bucharest-capital-city-romania-little-paris-micul-paris/
More on the destruction of the Ploesti oil fields: https://europecentenary.eu/sabotaging-the-german-war-machine-the-destruction-of-the-romanian-oilfields-in-november-1916/
And at this link: furcuta.blogspot.com
Photos of old Romanian and Moldavian life by Adolphe Chevallier (1881-1963): https://romaniadacia.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/old-romania-adolph-chevallier-photography/