As it looked more and more as though the Germans would shortly take over Tiflis, she had left for the seeming safety of Baku, together with other Allied wives and civilians.
She was staying in the Hotel d'Europe, anxiously awaiting word of her husband Robert, when she found herself caught up in the battle for Baku, which she watched from her bedroom window.
In a letter to her family she described what she, and another Englishwoman sharing her room, saw as the battle ebbed and flowed in the streets around the hotel and shells from the gunboats shook the town.
'Curiosity and excitement kept us recklessly glued to the window most of the day.'
Through the cracks in the shutters of their darkened room they saw the gleam of rifle barrels in windows and other vantage points up and down the street, while from a rooftop above them a Maxim machine-gun fired ceaselessly all day. The hotel itself, she went on, 'wore a ghastly, deserted, squalid appearance, its dark, shuttered hall and staircase remaining packed with nervous people who bolted back up the stairs at the least alarm.' The hotel stood in a part of the town held by the Bolsheviks, and 'perspiring, red-faced, breathless' soldiers rushed in and out, periodically barking 'desperate orders hoarsely down the telephone'.
Across the road from Mrs Dewar Durie's room was a hospital run by the Swedish Red Cross, already full of wounded German and Austrian POWs from the Eastern Front. Now the staff found themselves having to deal with local casualties too.
'Every few minutes a dead or wounded man was dragged in by his feet and head. For the first time I looked down upon ashen faces smeared with blood, the hair black and ragged, and standing on end.'
Their colouring reminded her of the faces of the dead 'in the huge battle pictures I had seen at Versailles long ago'. One wounded man was very nearly dropped as firing suddenly broke out, startling those lifting him out of the car which had brought him. All the wounded delivered to the hospital appear to have been Bolsheviks or Armenians, for Mrs Dewar Durie makes no mention of seeing any Tartar casualties, except for the dead, who were strewn about the streets in scores. Indeed, periodically search parties would comb the hotel 'hunting for Tartars who had eluded them', and once she witnessed two Muslims being dragged roughly along by a party of Bolsheviks.
'As I looked, and without a second's warning, the group halted, and the prisoners were shot in the head.' Their executioners then wrenched off their boots and tossed their corpses into the gutter, where they remained for two days.
Occasionally the staff of the hospital opposite came out and washed away the blood from the entrance. But eventually, as more and more cases arrived, they gave this up. Some of the stretcher-bearers, she noticed, were German and Austrian POWs, 'who worked splendidly'.
Despite the fighting, an unending stream of men, women and children passed by below carrying huge bundles of possessions and bedding. Aged and aristocratic-looking ladies were being helped along by friendly soldiers, while one young girl, shrieking hysterically, was brought into the hotel to recover. After resting awhile, she was hustled on again by her wealthy-looking but distracted parents, her harassed, grey-haired mother 'imploring her to bear up'. Other groups consisted of Tartar prisoners, their armed escorts holding aloft white flags on their bayonets.
By now the Muslim leaders […] sued for peace. But the Armenians, seeing that at last they had their ancient foes on the run, were now out for vengeance. The fighting thus continued, until virtually the entire Muslim population had either been driven from the city or been slaughtered. By the fifth day, although much of the city was still ablaze, all resistance had ceased, leaving the streets strewn with dead and wounded, nearly all of them Muslims.
From her window, Mrs Dewar Durie watched grimly as the corpses were collected from where they lay and flung unceremoniously on to carts. 'Some of the bodies', she wrote, 'were practically naked after the looting. Officers could be seen roughly searching their pockets, snatching out notebooks and papers soaked in blood, their own hands and arms red to the elbows.' Although the shooting was over, the worries of those in the hotel were not. In the Muslim quarter, its flames fanned by a gale which had suddenly sprung up, a huge fire was raging out of control. Mrs Dewar Durie was told that it had been deliberately started by the Bolsheviks and Armenians in order to drive the Muslims out of their positions.
Were the wind to change direction, and blow from the north, they were warned, then the hotel would be in the path of the flames. Desperately tired after several nights without sleep, they now packed up their belongings, ready to flee to the sea-front. 'Until midnight,' she wrote, 'we watched the semicircle of flames now so close to us. Then, gradually, the wind began to die down, and we knew that another peril had passed us by.'
However, a further two months were to go by before she was reunited with her husband at Vladikavkaz, 100 miles north of Tiflis, where the British military mission was now based.
Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire
Author: Peter Hopkirk