Ernest Hemingway: Reporting on The Greco -Turkish War — 1922

“ What Hemingway was writing was the blue-print of all future war reporting...”

A poster from the period. Image:

On hearing of the further escalation of the Greco-Turkish War, The Toronto Star instructed Hemingway to get down there and follow the action, and he did, leaving Hadley behind in Paris. It was a bloody and vicious war and Hemingway described what he saw simply:

“ Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Andrianople across the mud flats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. No end and no beginning. Just carts with everything they owned. The old men and women, soaked through, walking along, keeping the cattle moving. The Maritza river was running yellow almost up to the bridge. It rained all through the evacuation.”

This was writing of a different kind. Never had there been war reporting like this where the writer simply observed and told what he saw. It was a revelation. It was like the new cinema, it was black and white and etched in tragedy. It is what Hemingway saw when his grandfather took him to see D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation.

What Hemingway was writing was the blue-print of all future war reporting. He was setting a style that is still with us today. He was setting a style that his fellow reporters in France in 1944 were using without knowing it, or acknowledging.

In January, 1923 the French occupied the Ruhr valley. Hemingway visited the conferences at Rapallo and Lausanne. He interviewed the new Russian Soviet delegation, and Mussolini who had recently, and neatly, disposed of his opposition by sending them to the Lipari Islands, where he fed them nothing but castor oil until they died.

In 1923 Hemingway had his first book published.

Ten Stories and Three Poems caused a minor storm in a tea cup in Oak Park, and had he been there the residents might very well have lynched him in the park, with his mother pulling on the rope.

The book was the start of his literary career. But first there was a war to report on.

The Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 was a cruel, savage, misguided and messy affair that ended in a near genocidal humiliation for the Greek Christians of Anatolia who, like the Armenians, were soon hounded out of their homes and farms with murderous intent. And although the conflict was instigated by the Greeks, the new Turkish National Movement, which sought to create a Turkish republic, did let loose the dogs of retaliation.

In 1922 Ernest Hemingway was a twenty-three year old rookey correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, recently arrived in Paris, when the call came in late September, to get to Constantinople and report urgently on this new war, and the plight of the tens of thousands of Christian refugees.

Hadley, afraid for his life, was determined that Ernest should not go and the couple ‘quarrelled dreadfully’ with Hadley refusing to speak to Ernest for several days before his departure. Hadley did wish him well, but, it would appear, Ernest left without a word, or a look back, hailing a taxi driven by a drunk who, when they reached the Gare de Lyon, threw Hemingway’s suitcase out of the cab so hard Ernest’s typewriter was broken beyond repair.

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During the train journey south Hemingway scribbled hand- written pieces to the Star, posting them from station post boxes along the way. He also began to worry about a secret deal he’d recently done with the Hearst International News Service to cable short pieces to them, although he had an exclusive contract with the Star: which, perhaps, is more a symptom of crass naivety than dishonesty. It would backfire on him in the end of course, although the exceptional reporting he did for the Star ensured his double dealing was forgiven.

Hemingway quickly organised himself, obtaining travel paperwork from the allied military press officer, impressing him with his Red Cross work, and injuries endured, in Italy just four years before. Within a couple of days Hemingway set out with a kit bag full of lice powder and malaria and dysentery tablets, and a new typewriter.

On the 20th of October he wrote from Adrianople:

“ In a never-ending, staggering march the Christian population of Eastern Thrace is jamming the roads toward Macedonia. The main column crossing the Maritza River at Adrianople is twenty miles long. Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods.

“ The main stream is being swelled from all the back country. They don’t know where they are going. They left their farms, villages and ripe, brown fields and joined the main stream of refugees when they heard the Turks were coming. Now they can only keep their places in the ghastly procession while mud splashed Greek cavalry herd them along like cow-punchers driving steers.

Refugees. Image: Mode of Life

“ It is a silent procession. Nobody even grunts. It is all they can do to keep moving. Their brilliant peasant costumes are soaked and draggled. Chickens dangle by their feet from carts. Calves nuzzle at the draught cattle wherever a jam halts the stream. An old man marches bent under a young pig, a sythe and a gun, with a chicken tied to his scythe. A husband spreads a blanket over a woman in labour in one of the carts to keep off the driving rain. She is the only person making a sound. Her little daughter looks at her in horror and begins to cry. And the procession keeps moving.”

It all sound so familiar now, but when the readers of the Toronto Star read Hemingway’s reports back in 1922 they had never read anything quite like it before: it was new and overwhelming in its clarity and apparent simplicity.

Greeks fleeing Turkey 1922. Image:

Three weeks after his October report from Adrianople, Ernest Hemingway sent another, much longer piece to his newspaper, this time by post, which read:

“ No matter how long it takes this letter to get to Toronto, as you read this in the Star you may be sure that the same ghastly, shambling procession of people being driven from their homes is filing in unbroken line along the muddy road to Macedonia. A quarter of a million people take a long time to move.”

Hemingway goes on to write that Adrianople was not a very pleasant place, describing the railway station as a mud hole, crowded with suspicious Greek soldiers and huge mounds of belongings, mainly bed springs and bedding, all getting soaked in the rain, with kerosene flares lighting up the place like a painting by Goya.

Hemingway continues:

“ The stationmaster told me he had shipped fifty-seven cars of retreating troops to Western Thrace that day. The telegraph wires were all cut. There were more troops piling up and no means to evacuate them.”

It was the same kind of chaos that Hemingway had experienced in Italy in 1918 when the Austrian’s attacked, and he knew that if the Turks arrived anytime soon there would likely be not only a massacre of the retreating troops but of civilians too, plus war correspondents and an American film crew who had appeared out of nowhere in a battered old car.

After an itchy night in a lice infested hotel run by a fat French woman, Hemingway begged a lift in the film crew’s car back along the road heading west, with the fleeing Greeks’ bullock carts full of soaking belongings, only to be hampered and slowed by commandeered and empty Turkish carts heading east: each cart with a Turkish driver and a Greek soldier, heading back to pick up belongings discarded by the Greeks. Utter chaos, and a death trap for the Turkish driver and Greek soldiers. Utter stupidity. Hemingway writes:

“ At the fork of the stone road in Adrianople all the traffic was being routed to the left by a lone Greek cavalryman who sat on his horse with his carbine slung over his back and accomplished the routing by slashing dispassionately the face with his quirt [riding whip] any horse or bullock that turned toward the right. He motioned one of the empty carts driven by a Turk to turn off to the right. The Turk turned his cart and prodded his bullock [which]… awoke the Greek soldier guard riding with him, and seeing the Turk turning off the main road, he stood up and smashed him in the small of the back with his rifle butt.”

The Turk driver then fell from his cart onto his face, picked himself up, and terrified, ran down the middle of the road, only to be ridden down by the Greek cavalryman who, with two other Greek soldiers, piled into the Turk with their fists and rifle butts. The bloody and beaten Turk was then told to drive his cart in the direction he’d been instructed. No one in the mass of refugees took any notice. They were just “…Thracian peasantry plodding along in the rain leaving their homes behind.”

It is still possible in these days of instant news coverage to imagine the affect of Hemingway’s report on Star readers as they ate their breakfast, or travelled to work on the morning train. Electrifying.

It made Hemingway’s name.

Ernest Hemingway and journalist Lincoln Steffens at the 1922 Lausanne Conference, Switzerland. Image: wikimedia


Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969); Bernice Kert — The Hemingway Women (W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1983); Ernest Hemingway — Islands in the Stream (Wm. Collins, London, 1970); Mary Welsh Hemingway — How it Was (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London,1977, & Alfred A. Knopf, USA,1976); Charles Whiting — Hemingway Goes to War (Charles Sutton, UK, 1999); Hemingway’s Boat — Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head, London, 2012); An Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway — Edited by Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2000); Caroline Moorehead — Martha Gellhorn: A Life ( Chatto & Windus, London, 2003); A. E. Hotchner — Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir ( Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1967); Lillian Ross — Portrait of Hemingway (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961); Jeffrey Meyers — Hemingway: A Biography (Harper/Collins, London, 1985); John Atkins — Ernest Hemingway: His Work & Personality (Spring Books, London, 1952 & 1961);…

Note: I shall always be indebted to Charles Whiting for the many conversations we had with regard Hemingway Goes to War, and his own experiences during WWII in the same field of operations as Hemingway.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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