Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Nineteen
7:00 A.M., Somewhere in Jugo-Slavia, I think.
Saturday, August 30th, 1919.
I am now back of beyond and my fountain pen is dry, hence this penciled scribble. Our train is standing before a station, the musical name of which is SZEGED in English. In its own language the letters are all upside down or sidewise like Russian.

I am hoping to reach Bucarest some time tomorrow, but can get no information as to how to got back. A new schedule goes into effect on September 1st. Meantime they have changed the route of this train twice since leaving Trieste. I hope I do not finally land in an enemy country.

Traveling conditions over here are indescribable. I finally got a lower berth in the Belgrade sleeping car out of Trieste, by inspecting the train and then brow-beating the local Agent of the Wagon-lit Co. Though respectable people were clamoring for berths, the agent actually sent one of the upper berths in my compartment through empty because the applicants would not bid high enough for it. The regular price is 96 lire, which represents 19 dollars to these people, though, at the present depression in exchange, it meant only about ten dollars to me, enough for one night surely without the bonus I paid for the private profit of the agent. He was a very dignified looking man of the better class, too, with a well trimmed Vandyke beard, gold rimmed glasses, a long coat, etc. He appeared to be the head of the city agency, too. It is atrocious that an International Corporation operating sleeping cars from Paris to Constantinople should have such grafters in responsible positions.

 The Paris train was late, so we had only about 25 minutes to transfer some stuff sent out by courier to us to take on to Belgrade. The station employees at Trieste had no intention of making the connection for us, so we grabbed an Italian with a push cart and a couple soldiers standing around and handled the stuff ourselves. It was necessary to take it out of one car, run it down the platform, around the end, and back on a platform four or five tracks over. The Chef do Gare ran out to stop us, protesting about weighing, paying, etc. We told him the weight was on the other bill of lading; we bad to make the connection, and, anyway, we would pay whatever he asked without weighing. That would not do; we must all wait over till the same train next night. He then ordered all the Italians out of the place, and, as he was wearing boots, and a sabre, and had military rank, they had to quit. So we called him stupid, shouldered him out of the way and proceeded to load our stuff. At that he nearly burst and exclaimed: "Eh! EH! Moi? Stupido? Moi, je suis le Chef de Gare!" So we left it at that, paid him, and got on the train.

At Trieste, I purchased a railway ticket only to Longatico, on the eastern frontier of Italy, according to the Armistice Line. There I was awakened about 3:00 a.m. by the Custom's officials, but the word "Amerikansky" sufficed to spare me any further inconvenience. Americans are very popular all through here. When we get off the train to walk up and down the station platform, every one falls back deferentially, nudging his companion and whispering "Amerikansky". As we turn to leave, the children shout "Jivila America!" Even the train guards do not require us to have tickets, I suppose that is an added reason for the sleeping car agents to exact extra fares. Ljubljiana is the first large city after passing out of Italy, but we passed through it in the dark. We stopped for half an hour at Zagreb or Agram about 7:30 a.m.

As we were about 12 hours late getting into Semlino, I had to pay 15 francs extra to sleep part of the second night in my compartment. As there was no hotel, there was nothing else to do. The bridge was blown up during the War, so early next morning we ferried across the Save and the Danube into Belgrade.

The train moves. Writing is impossible.

10:30  A.M., ZSOMBOLYA.
One never knows how long the train will stop. I have no timetable, but I have observed two rules: first, the engine is put on the other end so one must readjust for sun and cinders; second, If the train is late, say 24 or 42 or 17 minutes, it is necessary to wait until it becomes another even hour, as the engineer is poor at mathematics. This makes the minutes on his time card alright again.

This country is full of French Colonial troops, Senegalese, Anamites. and Tonkinese. The native (Jugo-Slav) troops mostly wear American uniforms, buttons and all. In a few cases they have added red collar patches, but in most cases they wear it straight including overseas cap.

 As I joined this train at the junction point, Vincovtsi, about five hours out of Belgrade, I, of course, could not get into the sleeping car, all berths being sold this time from Trieste through to Bucarest, as I verified by a personal inspection of every compartment. I, therefore, pre-empted a first-class compartment reserved for the courier service. As the French courier did not show up, I had it to myself. In spite of the notice posted on the door, however, it was necessary for me to take in a respectable looking Roumanian merchant to help me fight off the rabble at every stop and to hold the compartment while I go up to the restaurant car for food. In this way I had a fairly comfortable night except for the fleas.

The train is fearfully packed. There are only two coaches for all classes of travel. One has to climb over people in the corridors. The roof is crowded with men, women and children. What they do at bridges and tunnels, I do not know. Were I to open my compartment, I would have a dozen people in on me. This would not help the general situation at all. So my selfishness is more apparent than real. These people are used to this mode of traveling and anyway have only one night of it. I have been traveling steadily for six weeks, and, if I am unlucky in Bucarest, I may have three or four consecutive nights of sitting up before tackling a very strenuous week in northern Italy, if and when I get back.

Even in Italy there were no washing facilities in the first class coaches. This morning I managed to brush my teeth in the sleeping car on my way to the restaurant car. Of course, that is decidedly against the rules and I would not blame the wagon-lit patrons for objecting, could they see my associates on this coach, but a wad of Jugo-Slav kronen fixed it with the conductor. I am permitted to use the restaurant car, but it requires a lot of energy to get to it through two jammed intervening coaches. For lunch, I shall wait till the train stops, jump out my window, and pass up outside. By waiting till the train stops again, I can get back by climbing over the people only in one end of this car.

This is all rather crude but it is a real problem here. The next four days will put me back into the interior of Bolivia without the high altitude to help. I shall be happy to get through with nothing worse than fleas.

We reached Vincovtsi from Trieste only about an hour late, but as our train split there, the Bucarest section had to wait till the arrival of the opposite train from Bucarest, because some of the rolling stock had to be used right back again without even being swept out. The Belgrade section had to wait to see how late the Bucarest section might be. We had brought two baggage cars from Trieste, one for Belgrade and one for Bucarest. Of course they were not loaded to correspond; the Italians had loaded everything any old way to give the Jugo-Slavs something to do sorting it out. After a lot of switching, they got the two baggage cars on tracks opposite one another. They unloaded everything out of both cars and all jumped in and quarreled over each piece to determine into which car it should go. As none of them could read in any language and the stuff was marked in all languages, I am not surprised that the couriers travel with only a musette bag for personal effects, and handle their own official stuff at transfer points.

****** and I caught the 6:30 A. M. ferry into Belgrade, got a carriage, asked for "Legacion Amerikansky" and were driven all over town and out into the hills. First, our driver, who could speak no known language, took us to the American Consulate, which was a pretty good guess. There we found a native sweeping the sidewalk who seemed to know a little Italian. After we explained to him and he explained to the driver, we started again but it got worse. We finally prevailed upon our driver to return to the main part of the town, and eventually found our destination. The train moves.

2:20 P. M.  ARAD.
On the drive about town, we passed a number of Serbian military units; Infantry, Machine Gunners, Rolling Kitchens, and a fierce looking troop of Cavalry, armed to the teeth. Three young colts running along outside the column opposite their dams did not add much to the military appearance of the outfit, however.

We were met at the Legation door by a Jugo-Slav from South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who said our baths were ready. We then had a bath, a shave, and a change of clothes. We then had a real American breakfast with the Minister's wife and daughter. We saw the Minister later, and they were all so glad to see some one from the States and Washington that they ordered a room made ready for so to stay a week. I had to leave the same day, however. We had quite a jolly breakfast in six languages, as they undertook to teach me enough Serbian and Roumanian to get around with, but it was too much like Russian for me.

After finishing our business and having another look around town, we went down and boarded the ferry. Just as the ferry was starting, a girl leaned over for a light for her cigarette, said "Thank you!", and we immediately said: "Wilkesbarre or Johnstown?" She knew quite a little English, but had never been away from the vicinity of home in her life. She mentioned she ins going back to Pancsova, whereupon we jumped up and climbed over people to get into another ferry boat we discovered behind this one, and thus escaped being carried down the Danube to some out of the way place. I was depending upon ****** and never looked to see whether there was more than one boat.

Belgrade is in a state of decay and poverty. The streets are broken and many houses have been abandoned. Everywhere one sees evidence of the severe punishment it received during its siege, capture, and recapture.

All Jugo-Slavia that we have seen appears to be very prosperous. The people, generally, seem to be much superior to the Italians. But the country is still full of soldiers and work will not be resumed in earnest until the United States stops sending food that they do not really need. As it is, their own food goes to the Army; demobilization and real work being correspondingly delayed.

This Hungarian Plain is especially fine country. The crops are in excellent shape. The fields are as flat as the Argentine and similarly covered with cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and, in addition, geese. There was no need of relief last winter, but, before it arrived, all died who had intended to. Now it seems largely a matter of politics, jobs, etc., and a disinclination to admit the real facts back home.

The Serbians are born warriors and look it. Nearly every one wears a uniform of some kind. The women through here are worse than plain, positively hideous, but then I am just from London and Paris. A large proportion of the Americans one meets are Red Cross, Food Relief, Y.M.C.A., Couriers, Assistant Attaches, etc. A very large proportion of them strike one as mere timeservers, determined to stay on the payroll as long as possible. There seem to be no effective check on their operations, many of them are doing no effective work, and many of them no work at all. There are exceptions, of course. A good many of them are mere youngsters and the fault lies higher up.

My paper is all, as we say in German.

End Notes and Bibliography