FINEST HOUR 126, SPRING 2005
BY CRAIG ENCER
Mr. Encer ([email protected]) spent his first fourteen years, and another seven years more recently, in Turkey. A web designer and visualization artist, he resides in Beeston, Nottingham, UK. For further information on his research and web project, contact him by email
“WE WANT A SEAT like a garden seat, fixed in front of the engine….There is no better way of seeing a country in a flash.”
Several generations ago, a large community of European nationals, known as “Levantines,” lived in the chief towns of Turkey and its antecedent, the Ottoman Empire. Starting as merchants working under the protection of the various consulates in the 17th century, their numbers rose to formidable levels by the 20th. Holding many important positions, they had their own distinct neighbourhoods, associations, schools and churches, under the protection of a series of concessionary laws called capitulations. Fascinated by this community, I have interviewed countless descendants, building a database of oral history and exchanging findings and family trees with fellow researchers.
The family of Francis Charles Holton was part of a later wave of British Levantines: technical specialists who helped run the services introduced by British venture capitalists, in their case the Ottoman Railway Company. Their memoirs were faithfully recorded on audio-cassettes by the son of the former general manager of the railway company in 1974. Through his diligent recordings we have come to know a lot about both the railway and the family—along with a brief description of Churchill’s visit to the region, as British Home Secretary, in 1910, together with his close friend F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead. Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life described the visit, during a two-month holiday cruise of the Mediterranean and Aegean aboard Baron de Forest’s yacht Honor:
At the Turkish port of Smyrna, accompanied by “a proper escort against brigands,” Churchill went on a special train the whole length of the British-built railway to Aidin, “with a seat fitted up on the cow-catcher,” a journey of 260 miles. There was “no better way,” he told [Foreign Secretary Sir Edward] Grey, “of seeing a country in a flash.” Reflecting on his travels through Greece and Turkey, he told the Foreign Secretary, “The only view I have formed about this part of the world of ruined civilisations & harshly jumbled races is this—why can’t England & Germany come together in strong action &C for the general advantage?”
Francis Charles Holton now takes up the story: “Father had a message from the British consul general saying that two rather important people wanted to come and see him, and in due course they arrived: Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith. They wanted a special train to visit the whole of the British railway line right to the terminus at Egridir, and to stop at certain places of interest on the way: places like Ephesus, and so on. In due course terms were arranged and father agreed to let Churchill have a special train, and gave him the general manager’s special carriage.
“It was a beautiful carriage with bedrooms, sitting room, dining room, bathrooms, and everything else, and servants to look after them. Then there was a bit of a bombshell: Winston said, ‘We want a seat, like a garden seat, fixed in front of the engine.’ Father said, ‘Sorry, nothing doing, I can’t have that.’ Churchill insisted—and father insisted he couldn’t have it.
“In due course they fixed up a compromise. Father said, I’ll have that seat put there for you, but I have two conditions. One is that I am going to have a strap right across the seat, and you’ll give me your undertaking that no one will sit on that seat while the train is going, unless that strap is properly fixed. The second condition is that you will not sit on that front seat when the train is going through a tunnel. There are only three or four tunnels on the whole line, but they are not like those in Britain—they are not brick-lined. They were cut through there was a bit of a solid rock, and frequently, a lump or rock will drop, through the vibration of the train.’
“So Churchill said, ‘Right, we give you that undertaking.’ And father said, ‘One more thing: I want it in writing that you will hold the company and me personally entirely blameless if anything should happen to you. You are important people, and I am not risking my position, my reputation or anything else unless I have your undertaking to fulfil these conditions.’
“Churchill agreed and the thing was set up. The next morning at eight o’clock, father came down from our village of Boudjah to see them off. The best railway engine we had was put to the train and a special driver called Stavery, a short, stumpy little Greek with a pointy beard. He knew a little English, and was our star driver. “Before they went, father called Stavery across to him and said, ‘Look, you know your orders: you will not drive that train through any tunnel if there is anybody sitting in the front seat.’ ‘Yes, yes Mr. Holton, I understand,’ said Stavery, and off they went.
“They stopped at Ephesus for three or four hours while they visited the ruins. When the party came back, Churchill and Smith were in front of the engine again, and off they went, a very steep incline and two tunnels to go through. Outside the first tunnel, Stavery pulled up the train, got off his engine, went to the front and said, ‘Please, we now go through a tunnel; will you now go into the train.’ Old Churchill [WSC was then 36! — Ed.] waved him aside and said ‘No, no—go on, go on— drive on, drive on.’
“Stavery said ‘No, I’m sorry, you heard my general manager’s instructions; my orders are not to drive this train if you are sitting there.’ They argued a bit, but in due course they had to give way, and came inside.
“I wonder what poor old Stavery felt later on, when he saw the position of importance that Churchill had risen to, about the time that he, an engine driver, ordered Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead into the railway carriage. But of course another thought crosses my mind: how the whole course of history could have been changed by one little incident.
“I have often wondered, what the fate of the world would have been had my father not taken those precautions, and had allowed Churchill to sit in front of that engine, and a lump of rock dropped and killed him, or had some really serious effect on his future life.”
Churchill would return twice again to Turkey, though under totally different circumstances: first in January 1943 when he tried to convince the Turkish President Inonii to join the war against the Axis powers, a meeting conducted oddly enough in “docking” railway wagons near the southern city of Adana (see next article). The last visit to Turkey was to return to Izmir, in the twilight years of his life, August 1959, aboard Christina, the luxury yacht of the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Off Istanbul, Churchill was paid a visit, on the yacht, by Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Foreign Minister Fatih Riistii Zorlu, both of whom were to die two years later on the gallows of a military tribunal.
As far as I can make it out, this was the only visit of the flamboyant Onassis to the city of Izmir, whence as a child he had to escape with the rest of the Greek community, following the disastrous defeat of the Greek armies in the hinterland of Anatolia in 1922.