Nellie Bly in War-Rent Przemysl

Daytona Daily News/January 9, 1915

(The following correspondence was the last Miss Nellie Bly, special correspondent for the International News Service in Austria, wrote before leaving the fortress of Przemysl, which is now ringed by an iron wall of Russians.)

We are to leave this fortress today. I am sorry, but under military command one can only obey. Every moment is interesting here. I sit in the Coffee House Stieber, writing. It is impossible to write in my frozen room. The coffee house would not be called warm anywhere but in Galicia. I don’t know whether it is warmed by the porcelain stove in the corner or by the crowd.

The entire café is filled. They are all officers of all degrees, except those belonging to Col. John’s group. To see a man in civilian attire would make one gaze at him in surprise. Titles of prince and duke and “graf,” or lord, are so plentiful that one ceases to be interested.

Everybody, as well as the nobodies, must come here for his breakfast. Nothing can be had in the hotels. One after the other, officers hang up their coasts and mantles and swords. Each must be his own hatboy. They sit on a lounge by a table and the passive, uninterested miniature personage who condescends to take the order gazes with dull and uninterested eyes at his victim, and says:

“Black or white?”

Black Bread and Coffee

That means black or with milk. He brings it on small individual trays. Most always it is a glass of coffee with a spoon in it. On the side used to be three lumps of pressed sugar. Now it is one small bit of broken loaf. A tray of black bread is snatched from the next table. One can have eggs, but scrambled eggs only! For that and one other reason I won’t have them. Almost everybody else takes a plate. They are always brought so, one spoonful on a plate. That is absolutely all one can have except cigars and cigarettes. All smoke. The air is heavy and blue. Windows are never opened or cleaned.

The newspapers are read in the coffee house and postcards are written here. It is useless to write letters. Everything must be unsealed for the censor to read. So all messages, fond or otherwise, have to be public.

The main street is crowded. It is narrow and cobble-paved. Trucks drawn by six horses are hauling cannons out in the direction of the Tyrol encampment, where we heard mass Sunday and witnessed the decorations. I started to count, but got tired and quit.

I was in the coffee house all morning and the string of cannon never stopped. They drive to the left here. Often traffic on the right had to stop and turn off side streets to allow to pass droves of cattle with the famous spreading horns of our almost extinct Texas steer. These cattle come from Hungary. They are fat and healthy.

Many Arrested As Spies

With unhappy frequency four or five soldiers pass with a poverty stricken, ragged individual in their midst. Sometimes they have two. Often they are boys—very often they are Jews, bearded, clad in a long dirty black coat. Barefooted, thin, sad, but untearful women and children run alongside, moving in and out of the merciless traffic, always keeping in sight and nearly always in speaking reach of their loved one, being taken to—what?

For these are suspected spies, or “spione,” as they call them. These are dangerous days. It needs but the lying word of an enemy to send a man to his death. Time is short, the foe is battering on the door and death is reaping his greatest harvest since a voice spake out and said: “Let there be light!”

What matters one or two more? No one has time to listen or care. Friends cannot sympathize. Their own woes claim all their pangs. Even tears have ceased to fall. Who can weep for one when thousands are dead and thousands dying every hour?

There go four soldiers carrying a stretcher. On it lies a motionless form, covered with his blanket. A woman, carrying something tied in a large handkerchief, trots behind. On the wagons following those splendid cattle begins that endless caravan of death. They are all of the pattern I have described and in which we traveled. Lying helpless in the bottom or huddled, mortally ill men—either seriously wounded or dying of some disease. Across the tops, on unsafe boards, hanging feet down from the insecure rear, are as many more as can find clinging space.

They are the less helpless, if not less serious, cases. Feet, arms, heads, must sit up. There would be no room to carry new soldiers and new munitions if all injured were permitted to lie down.

Shops Kept Closed

The shops are all closed. A proclamation issued by the general advises all shops to be closed, as the breaking of Hindenburg’s line may mean another attack on Przemysl. This bringing down of all iron shutters does not mean much, anyway. Merchandise was exhausted in this fortress weeks ago. Nothing is left that any one wants, much less what one needs. No new stock can be had, as the railroads have only time for soldiers and arms and the transport of those who have fought and still barely live.

They do not relate now the tale of their days and nights and weeks of hell. Perhaps that may come in time, but now their brains are dulled and blunted. The sound of shrapnel whistling in the air, the booming of cannon, the dreadful agonized cry of comrades, “into the trenches,” is all they think and hear. Even hunger and cold have become of little importance. I am ashamed even to eat. My heart is bowed in meekness and humility. I eat the black, dirty bread in abject thankfulness.

The Archduke Leopold Salvator puts on his fur-lined coat and departs. He enters his motor car at the door. Off it speeds towards the line whence comes that terrific booming. He is commander of artillery. A Polish prince, whose name I cannot spell, follows his example. The others still remain to drink coffee and write.

The cathedral was open so I went in. It is filled with old wood carvings and strange old paintings. A crimson covered coffin surrounded by candles stood before the altar rail. A soldier, his head in bandages, knelt before a paper-tinsled decorated picture of the Virgin and Child. Another soldier on crutches rattled off to a remote corner. There was only the three of us in that sacred, quiet spot. Even heathen in these days must be driven to prayer, but the churches are empty.

Little Baggage Allowed

I required no time to pack. I had only the linen bag, as I had been ordered. I said good-bye to the room with the steam radiator but no heat, with hot and cold water faucets but no water. I hung my key for the last time on the hook below the tiny slate on which was written “Miss Bly.” The sponge, tied to a string, hangs on the same nail, so as to expedite the registering of the newcomer’s name.

Bookkeeping in Przemysl hotels must be of the greatest simplicity. A blackboard in the front hall registers one’s name opposite one’s number. The slate on one’s door does likewise. When one leaves it is erased and that’s all there is to it. Similar simplicity in the United States might lighten work in the divorce courts.

Followed by two miniature boys, one with my bag, I went down the four flights of stairs to the four flights of stairs to the office. There the servants I had never seen waited for their small tip.

Our order was to be at the station at 3:30. I arrived at 3. Already the five soldier servants in our party were appearing loaded down with baggage. Pictures, guns, bags, suitcases, cameras, kino machines, coats, food, cooking apparatus, souvenirs, etc., were brought until finally there was a pile almost large enough to fill a car.

I, the only woman, was the only person who obeyed order and had but one bag, that small enough for me to carry.

Many Ill and Wounded

The sick and wounded were being brought by ambulance, stretcher and wagon and carried to the train. Great numbers of soldiers, apparently just arriving, were being given bread. “Spions,” or spies, were being jostled on board between their captors. One bare-footed, dry-eyed woman ran back and forth seeking unsuccessfully a way to pass the soldiers at the door so as to follow a Jew with a fur-tailed church hat who had been pushed into the train.

A pale, ragged, hatless boy tried to dodge under a soldier’s gun. He had tied in a handkerchief some belongings, or perhaps food for a spy. He could not evade the loyal watchful guard. He whined and pleaded in a weak, thin voice, but the guard was unmoved.

Our party arrived like a tourist party, glasses and bottles swung over their shoulders, but carrying luggage? Oh, no! Each flew to see if among the heaped-up luggage the patient soldiers had theirs.

Colonel John arrived and led us to our two cars. At five and in the dark we started. We could have no light, because this train had been fired on two days before. The day before it was so dangerous that no train left.

In utter darkness our train left the fortress, and as it travelled along, the moon hidden behind clouds, the only light being an occasional flash from the engine, we could hear the crack, crack, crack of infantry. Now and then a light would appear suddenly in the black sky. It looked like a far-distant skyrocket.

It was shrapnel. They appeared more and more, the crack of the infantry grew less and less. It sounded at intervals on the east, the main firing having ceased. The shrapnel grew more and more. Then the shrapnel, like the firing, ceased, and we rolled off into the dark, still night.

(Source: Library of Congress,