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British Commission in Transcaucasia


Sir Harry Luke, K.C.M.G.
Sir Harry Luke, K.C.M.G.
(portrait by Edward Caruana Dingli, 1932)

Extracts from Vol. II—"Ægean, Cyprus, Turkey, Transcaucasia & Palestine (1914-1924)"—of Sir Harry Luke's Cities and Men — An Autobiography (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953).

TO OUR AUTHORITIES IN CONSTANTINOPLE [p. 98; Chapter IX: "To Caucasus and Caspian"] it seemed as if [darkness] still brooded over [the Caucasus], and I was therefore sent there in the interval between my Anatolian and my Thracian missions to report on the tangled situation in the Transcaucasian Republics. At that time Transcaucasia, that is to say the region bounded on the north by the great Caucasian chain which is the watershed separating Europe from Asia, on the south by the 1914 Russo-Turkish and Russo-Persian frontiers, was divided into four politically-separate territories. These were the three independent Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Tiflis, Erivan and Baku as their respective capitals, and the British Military Province of Batum. The Transcaucasians had broken away from Russia in November, 1917, on the overthrow of Kerensky's Government by the Bolsheviks, when the Georgians, together with the Armenians and with the Tatars of Ganja (Elisabetpol) and Baku, established a joint Transcaucasian Republic. This composite State disintegrated after five weeks of existence owing to the fundamental differences in race, religion, civilization and national aspirations, and its component parts reappeared as the Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The British Military Province of Batum was in Allied occupation by virtue of Clause 15 of the Armistice with Turkey, Batum having been in the hands of the Turks when the Armistice was concluded.

The British and other Allied troops had by this time—I arrived in October, 1919—withdrawn from all parts of Transcaucasia except Batum Province. British interests in the Republics were now in the hands of a diplomatic officer, who, with the title of British Chief Commissioner in Transcaucasia, was accredited by the Foreign Office to the three States. He resided in Tiflis and from time to time visited Armenia and Azerbaijan, where he was represented at other times by members of his staff permanently stationed at Erivan and Baku respectively.

The Chief Commissioner, Mr (afterwards Sir) Oliver Wardrop—died 1948, aged eighty-four—was an outstanding and all too rare example of the completely appropriate appointment. He had begun his career in St Petersburg as Private Secretary to the Ambassador, Sir Robert Morier, but even before his official connexion with Russia would spend his holidays in Georgia, concerning which he had written a pleasant book of travels as far back as 1888. A scholar, he was one of the few Englishmen to have studied the Georgian language and Georgian literature—he published various translations from the Georgian. His sister, Miss Marjory Wardrop, was responsible for the English version of the great mediæval Georgian epic, Shota Rusthaveli's The Man in the Panther's Skin—, and he had acquired a sympathy for Georgian civilization and contracted friendships with its exponents which he maintained and developed in subsequent years. Little, however, could even he have anticipated that Georgia would one day recover the independence taken from her in 1801 and that he would be the first British representative to an independent Georgian Government. Still less did I foresee at that time that six months later I would find myself back in Tiflis as Wardrop's successor and enjoying in this capacity one of the most interesting experiences of my career.

[...] My first journey in Transcaucasia in October and November, 1919, took me to the principal centres of Batum Province and the three Republics, including the Baku oilfields, and was devoted to acquiring a general impression of political conditions. In April, 1920, I was again in Transcaucasia on a similar mission for the Admiral and arrived in Tiflis to find Wardrop in bed convalescing from a recent operation. He informed me that an obscure and difficult situation had arisen in Baku in connexion with the Volunteer Caspian Flotilla and advised me to go on to Baku as quickly as possible, which I did.

[...] From the 1st April, when I left Constantinople, until the 25th April, when I returned to Tiflis to replace Wardrop, I was almost continually on the move and covered considerable distances. Only once did I sleep as many as three consecutive nights in the same place, and only eight of those nights did I spend in a bed. Here is the itinerary of this period of distinctly concentrated travelling:

1st April, 1920: Sailed from Constantinople in H.M. sloop Hibiscus
3rd " ": Called in at Samsun for the day
4th " ": Arrived Batum a.m. Left for Tiflis p.m.
5th " ": Arrived Tiflis.
6th " ": Left p.m. for Baku.
7th " ": Arrived Baku.
9th " ": Left by steamer for Enzeli (Pahlevi) in Persia.
10th " ": Arrived Enzeli.
12th " ": Left Enzeli for Baku.
13th " ": Arrived Baku.
14th " ": Left Baku for Tiflis.
15th " ": Arrived Tiflis.
16th " ": Left Tiflis for Erivan.
17th " ": Arrived Erivan.
18th " ": To the Armenian front line against the Kurds at Igdir and back to Erivan.
20th " ": Left Erivan midnight.
22nd " ": Arrived Tiflis midday and left same evening for Batum.
23rd " ": Arrived Batum and slept in H.M. sloop Gardenia.
24th " ": Left Batum for Tiflis.
25th " ": Arrived Tiflis.



The Georgian prophecy that whoever drinks of the waters of the Kura [...] will drink of them again was certainly fulfilled in my case. After returning from Enzeli and Baku I paid another visit to Armenia, then travelled to Batum to report to Sir John de Robeck. Normally I should have now remained in the [H.M.S.] Iron Duke. But on the following day, as mentioned in the last chapter, I returned to Tiflis because Wardrop's state of health compelled him to go home at once, and found myself sublet by the Navy to the Foreign Office to take his place as Chief Commissioner.

[...] It was a strange life into which I was now plunged. Writing as far back as 1877, Lord Bryce likened the aspect of Transcaucasia to 'a mixed tissue, whose colour seems to vary according as the light falls this way or that upon it'. If that was true in the eighteen-seventies, when the whole of Transcaucasia was under one sceptre, how much the more so was it now when it was divided between four separate administrations and had such neighbours as the Green Guards on the north-west and the Mountain Republic of Daghestan on the north-east. Nor were the cross-currents only political. Tiflis society had been brilliant before the War, and to the Georgian aristocracy there were now added Russian refugees of many social milieux, who combined with the Georgians to make existence wonderfully varied during the interlude before all Transcaucasia was submerged by the Bolshevik flood. Everyone knew he was living at the top of a volcano and was determined to sing his swan-song. Life in Tiflis was a fascinating blend of the polished and the barbaric.

My own surroundings and household afforded a striking contrast to my cabin in the Iron Duke. The British Mission was a palace built entirely of marble, situated in the fashionable Sololaki quarter of Tiflis. It belonged to one Hoshtaria, who was that rarity, a Georgian millionaire. Tiflis was full of millionaires but nearly all of them were Armenians who had made fortunes out of Baku oil. Hoshtaria, who was in Europe trying to sell timber concessions to the French, had begged Wardrop to take over his house with all that it contained rent free, knowing that his household effects and artistic treasures would be safe as long as it was the British Missions but not be so if commandeered, as it would otherwise have been, by the Georgian Government for one of their Ministries.

The house was sumptuously furnished. There were two drawing-rooms; there was a ballroom; we could seat thirty in the dining-room with ease; and the so-called "Persian room", which we used as a waiting-room, was hung and carpeted with eighteenth-century Persian embroideries and rugs, all collector's pieces and worth several thousands of pounds. My bathroom was the most up-to-date I had yet encountered and the bath, adorned with solid silver fittings, squirted water at me from every conceivable angle.

The members of the staff were in keeping with this environment. Attached to me by the Georgian Government as a sort of A.D.C. was a Georgian Prince, Alec Orbeliani, a charming young man who spoke almost perfect English and was a son of one of the senior Cavalry Generals of the Imperial Russian Army; his brother—such were the vicissitudes of this topsy-turvy existence—was my head chauffeur; the butler was also a prince, if only a second-class sort of prince. My link with the Georgian War Office was General Mdivani, father of the young men who were to win international fame as the "marrying Mdivanis". My shorthand-typist was an elderly Baltic Baroness; the office messengers, two young refugee lads, were of the bluest blood in Russia since they traced their descent from Rurik. The only non-armigerous member of the household, in fact, was a buxom and comely wench who for a part of the day was our housemaid and for the other part a medical student in Tiflis University.

Our motor transport consisted of two Sunbeams, one seven-seater Lancia and a Ford van, for we had to be mobile in those days; our rolling stock was the railway coach that had originally belonged to the Grand Duke Nicholas as Viceroy of the Caucasus, had been captured from the Russians by the Turks, from the Turks by the British, and had been handed to Wardrop by our Military Command before they left the country. (The upholstery of the coach had disappeared long before I came on the scene, and was replaced by sackcloth. The icons of the chapel had also gone, and the chapel was converted into a bathroom.) During the hot summer months I took a datcha (country cottage) at Kojori in the wooded hills above Tiflis, to which I came down every morning for the day; and, to complete the resemblance of all this to Kismet or the Arabian Nights, I had even a "Court painter".

I have said that after the Russian Revolution Tiflis had become a place of refuge for different elements of Russian society. Artists, musicians and writers had found their way there from Petrograd and Moscow no less than aristocrats and mondaines, while the actors, singers and dancers who had got away from the Bolsheviks were a valuable addition to the company of the admirable Tiflis Opera. With one of the painters, an elderly, genial, convivial, philosophical and completely ruined Bohemian named Zommer—Bohemian in only the metaphorical sense for he hailed from one of the Baltic States—I now concluded a mutually advantageous arrangement. The old fellow used to make a good income in Petrograd before the War, specalizing in paysages and architectural subjects from Russia's Asiatic provinces. He had lost in the Revolution everything he possessed, and neither his Russian compatriots nor the Georgians were then, as may be imagined, buying many pictures. The arrangement was that in return for a monthly retainer, paid partly in roubles and partly in whisky, which I could obtain and he could not, he was to accompany me when I travelled in the three Republics and was to paint what I wanted him to. He also received a lump sum down for each picture. This arrangement worked admirably: Zommer had several free trips in the Viceroy's coach and came in for a good deal of official entertainment; I have many specimens of his art to recall some of the most interesting experiences of my life and some of the loveliest scenery I have seen.

I have mentioned that our butler was a prince, a circumstance that may surprise those unaware to what extent princes abound in these parts and how often prince and peasant are one. Speaking of Azerbaijan and the Moslem States to the east of the Caspian, the author of Blood and Oil in the Orient, Essad Bey, remarks that 'there are princes with a country and with subjects, princes with a country and without subjects, princes without a country and with subjects, and finally princes without land and without subjects'. This was almost equally true of Georgia. An inquiring Frenchman ignorant of the East once asked a friend to explain to him the significance of the term 'Effendi'. 'Oh,' said the friend, 'c'est à peu près comme prince en Russie'. The reply would have been yet truer had he said, 'comme prince en Géorgie', for the Georgian title which is translated "prince" includes both grande and petite noblesse, and the latter, under the Georgian feudal system, was often merged with the class of peasant proprietors. The Georgian grande noblesse includes some of the oldest aristocracy in the world with families, such as the Bagrations, who trace their descent from David and Bathsheba and others who are descended from Noah. Shakro, our butler, belonged to the peasant type of prince and could neither read nor write, but he possessed for all that an authentic title and bore a genuine coat of arms.

[...] I have mentioned that before the First World War there were few families of the Georgian aristocracy without their English governess. The governesses were generally so happy and well treated in Georgia that they often remained with their employers as permanent members of the household. Then came the Revolution, when most of the Georgian upper classes lost everything they possessed; I found in Tiflis between thirty and forty of these poor ladies, most of whom had not been home for an equal number of years and had quite lost touch with people and things in England. Financially they were destitute, since their savings had vanished with the fall of the rouble, and their employers, hard put to it to feed and house them, were now unable to pay them a wage anything like commensurate with the current rate of exchange. One, whose pre-war salary had been 800 roubles, then £80, a year, considered it generous of her employer, which it was, to continue to pay her 800 roubles a year, although that sum was now worth barely one pound. Then came a day when the arrival of the Bolsheviks in Georgia as invaders seemed imminent, and I was authorized to repatriate as many of the governesses as cared to return to England. But for the reasons I have mentioned few were either able or willing to avail themselves of the opportunity.

Their doyenne in years, a Miss McCarthy, was over eighty, bed-ridden and without resources but devotedly cared for by her colleagues, who were almost as poor themselves. Some months after I finally left Transcaucasia the old lady died, leaving nothing but her scanty wardrobe and one silver spoon. A little later I was touched to receive a letter from her friend and colleague, Miss Vizetelly, enclosing the spoon with the intimation that Miss McCarthy had wished me to have it as a token of her gratitude for some fancied kindness to her on my part. At my King's Birthday party, given on the 3rd of June, 1920, the English governesses were my guests, and we sat down to table twenty-four in all. I have had to attend as guest and host many official King's Birthday parties, but none as happy and cheerful as was this one. [...]

On the following day I had another party, to celebrate the Fourth of June. It was a smaller party by far. There were, so far as I could ascertain, four Old Etonians in Transcaucasia, but only three of us sat down to drink Floreat Etona in Hoshtaria's palace and to telegraph the Headmaster. The fourth, Major Connal-Rowan, was a prisoner of the Bolsheviks in Baku.




On Sunday the 25th April, 1920, Wardrop took me to pay my official calls on the Minister-President of Georgia, Noé Jordania, and on the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Interior, Gegechkori and Ramishvili. On the following afternoon I saw him off at the railway station and assumed my new and varied duties. I became accustomed after a time to these official send-offs from Tiflis because changes among the chefs de mission of the Great Powers were fairly frequent and the routine was always the same. By the time my own took place at the end of the following September I had thoroughly mastered the drill. There were the Georgian Ministers, there were the departing diplomatist's colleagues, there was the guard of honour furnished by the smartest regiment of the Georgian army, there was the band playing the 'March of the Heroes', there was an ample collation of the usual rich Georgian delicacies—caviare, salmon, vodka and champagne—set out in profusion in what had been the reception room reserved in Imperial days for the Viceroy. There was the red carpet, another relic of the Imperial régime.

Above all, there were speeches. Speeches and champagne, more champagne and more speeches. The Georgian Government, although Social-Revolutionary, had not on that account abandoned their national traditions of hospitality and did things with the usual Transcaucasian lavishness. They sped the departing guest as if they were really sorry he was leaving; I confess that I was quite moved when in due course I received my own viaticum at their hands in the Viceroy's waiting-room. But in Wardrop's case I felt that something deeper than mere hospitality and politeness underlay the Georgians' farewell. They knew that, irrespective of régime, he had studied them, sympathized with them and loved them from his early youth. Despite criticism of Great Britain's efforts on their behalf since the national revival, criticism which was often captious, they knew that he had done his utmost for them to the extent of impairing his health from overwork on their behalf. They knew that he was a sick man and they scarcely expected to see him again; and these unemotional hardbitten Realpolitiker Mensheviks were truly regretful at seeing him go.

It was a rather encouraging start for me, [but] the following day was distinctly less encouraging.

The morning of Tuesday the 27th April began, it is true, well enough. I arose from my comfortable bed in the Chief Commissioner's bedroom, occupied by me for the first time, and disported myself in Hoshtaria's sumptuous and ingeniously eruptive bathroom. I breakfasted on the verandah overlooking the garden off a grilled river trout served by Prince Shakro, then walked into my office, also overlooking the garden, to tackle the day's work. Such experience as I had already acquired in Transcaucasian affairs had taught me to be prepared for most things and to be surprised at none; but I confess I hardly expected that by the time my first day's work was done one of the three Republics to which I was accredited [Azerbaijan] would have been wiped off the political map.

&c. &c. &c.