Sad to see the name Pskov come up in the news on the war in Ukraine (“Ukrainian drones attack six Russian regions and hit military planes”).

It will probably be familiar to Saki fans for his piece of reportage ‘The Old Town of Pskoff’ (published in the Morning Post on 27 July 1905 and republished in The Square Egg).

Pskov old photo.jpg
By CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Ethel Munro recalled that “Pskoff more than fulfilled [her brother’s] idea of what a mediæval town should be”. I wonder what Munro would have made of the Russian invasion. He knew the area, spoke Russian, and had reported for the Morning Post on conflicts in nearby regions.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Russia at the present crisis of its history not unnaturally suggests to the foreign mind a land pervaded with discontent and disorder and weighed down with depression, and it is certainly difficult to point to any quarter of the Imperial dominions from which troubles of one sort or another are not reported. In the Novoe Vremya1 and other papers a column is now devoted to the chronicling of disorders as regularly as a British news-sheet reports sporting events. It is the more agreeable therefore occasionally to make the acquaintance of another phase of Russian life where the sombreness of political mischance can be momentarily lost sight of or disbelieved in. Perhaps there are few spots in European Russia where one so thoroughly feels that one has passed into a new and unfamiliar atmosphere as the old town of Pskoff, once in its day a very important centre of Russian life. To the average modern Russian a desire to visit Pskoff is an inexplicable mental freak on the part of a foreigner who wishes to see something of the country he is living in; Petersburg, Moscow, Kieff, perhaps, and Nijni-Novgorod, or the Finnish watering-places if you want a country holiday, but why Pskoff? And thus happily an aversion to beaten tracks and localities where inspection is invited and industriously catered for turns one towards the old Great Russian border town, which probably gives as accurate a picture as can be obtained of a mediæval Russian burgh, untouched by Mongol influence, and only slightly affected by Byzantine-imported culture.

The little town has ample charm of situation and structure, standing astride of a bold scarp of land wedged into the fork of two rivers, and retaining yet much of the long lines of ramparts and towers that served for many a hundred years to keep out Pagan Lithuanians and marauding Teuton knights.2 The powers of Darkness were as carefully guarded against in those old days as more tangible human enemies, and from out of thick clusters of tree-tops there still arise the white walls and green roofs of many churches, monasteries, and bell-towers, quaint and fantastic in architecture, and delightfully harmonious in colouring. Steep winding streets lead down from the rampart-girt heart of the town to those parts which lie along the shores of the twin rivers, and two bridges, one a low, wide, wooden structure primitively planted on piles, give access to the further banks, where more towers and monasteries, with other humbler buildings, continue the outstraggling span of the township. On the rivers lie barges with high masts painted in wonderful bands of scarlet, green, white, and blue, topped with gilded wooden pennons figured somewhat like a child’s rattle, and fluttering strips of bunting at their ends. Up in the town one sees on all sides quaint old doorways, deep archways, wooden gable-ends, railed staircases, and a crowning touch of pleasing colour in the sage green or dull red of the roofs. But it is strangest of all to find a human population in complete picturesque harmony with its rich old-world setting. The scarlet or blue blouses that are worn by the working men in most Russian towns give way here to a variety of gorgeous-tinted garments, and the women-folk are similarly gay in their apparel, so that streets and wharves and market-place glow with wonderfully effective groupings of colour. Mulberry, orange, dull carmine, faded rose, hyacinth purple, greens, and lilacs and rich blues mingle their hues on shirts and shawls, skirts and breeches and waistbands. Nature competing with Percy Anderson3 was the frivolous comment that came to one’s mind, and certainly a mediæval crowd could scarcely have been more effectively staged. And the business of a town in which it seemed always market day went forward with an air of contented absorption on the part of the inhabitants. Strings of primitively fashioned carts went to and from the riverside, the horses wearing their bits for the most part hung negligently under the chin, a fashion that prevails in many parts of Russia and Poland.

Quaint little booths line the sides of some of the steeper streets, and here wooden toys and earthenware pottery of strange local patterns are set out for sale. On the broad market-place women sit gossiping by the side of large baskets of strawberries, one or two long-legged foals sprawl at full stretch under the shade of their parental market carts, and an extremely contented pig pursues his leisurely way under the guardianship of an elderly dame robed in a scheme of orange, mulberry, and white that would delight the soul of a colourist. A stalwart peasant strides across the uneven cobbles, leading his plough-horse, and carrying on his shoulder a small wooden plough, with iron-tipped shares, that must date back to some stage of agriculture that the West has long left behind. Down in the buoyant waters of the Velikaya, the larger of the two rivers, youths and men are disporting themselves and staider washerwomen are rinsing and smacking piles of many-hued garments. It is pleasant to swim well out into the stream of the river, and, with one’s chin on a level with the wide stretch of water, take in a “trout’s-eye view” of the little town, ascending in tiers of wharfage, trees, grey ramparts, more trees, and clustered roofs, with the old cathedral of the Trinity poised guardian-like above the crumbling walls of the Kremlin.4 The cathedral, on closer inspection, is a charming specimen of genuine old Russian architecture, full of rich carvings and aglow with scarlet pigment and gilded scrollwork, and stored with yet older relics or pseudo-relics of local hero-saints and hero-princes who helped in their day to make the history of the Pskoff Commonwealth. After an hour or two spent among these tombs and ikons and memorials of dead Russia, one feels that some time must elapse before one cares to enter again the drearily magnificent holy places of St. Petersburg, with their depressing nouveau riche atmosphere, their price-list tongued attendants, and general lack of historic interest.

The heart knoweth its own bitterness,5 and maybe the Pskoffskie,6 amid their seeming contentment and self-absorption, have their own hungerings for a new and happier era of national life. But the stranger does not ask to see so far; he is thankful to have found a picturesque and apparently well-contented corner of a weary land, a land where distress seems like a bird of passage that has hurt its wing and cannot fly away.

  1. Leading Russian newspaper published in St. Petersburg from 1868.
  2. German military crusading order, who in the Middle Ages conquered Prussia and parts of northern Poland and the Baltic countries.
  3. English stage designer, known for his costume designs.
  4. The Kremlin is the ancient fortress in the centre of the town.
  5. Proverbs 14:10; also used as a poem title by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894).
  6. Inhabitants of Pskoff.

‘The Old Town of Pskoff’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Square Egg (public domain). Notes © 2020-23 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

R.I.P. Lance Serjeant H.H. Munro

Tomorrow (16th November) marks the hundredth anniversary of Hector Hugh Munro’s death. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet while taking a rest in a shell-hole with members of his company, near the French town of Beaumont-Hamel, on the western front.

Memorial at Thiepval

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. (Photo credit:

His last words were addressed to one of the other men he was with: “Put that bloody cigarette out!” and it was presumably either the glowing tip of that cigarette or the noise of Munro’s order that alerted the German sniper to potential targets. It is tempting, if perhaps fanciful, to think that Munro, who as ‘Saki’ had dispatched so many of his characters to macabre, often arbitrary fates, might have seen some irony in the manner of his own death.

When the the First World War broke out in 1914, Munro was actually in the Houses of Parliament and witnessed the Prime Minister’s announcement. He was 43 by then and thus too old for the army. He hurried to enlist nonetheless. A year earlier he had written When William Came, a bitter fantasy of Britain under German rule (“William” being the Kaiser Wilhelm). In it he castigated the weak-willed Edwardian Britons whose lack of martial spirit had contributed to British defeat. Munro, it seems, was determined not to be like that. “It is only fitting that the author of When William Came should go to meet William halfway,” he wrote in a letter to John Lane, his publisher.[1] He ended up in the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers after transferring from King Edward’s Light Horse.

After training, Munro and his battalion arrived in France in late 1915. The picture that emerges of him as a soldier is as distant as is imaginable from the effete and amoral dandies of his short stories. There is a photo of him carrying a bucket, his uniform rumpled, sleeves rolled up, a scrubby moustache on his top lip. If he was unrecognisable, then that perhaps suited him. Always an intensely private individual, he may have been happy that only a few of his fellows recognised the witty satirist Saki.

He continued to write nonetheless. As well as a few short stories-cum-reports from the front, such as ‘The Square Egg’, as well as more inconsequential pieces. He clearly retained his taste for black humour. Around Christmas 1915 he composed a mock carol:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
A high explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.

Critics and biographers have viewed Munro’s actions as an expression of his political conservatism. If one wants to get more Freudian, then joining up could perhaps also be understood as a sublimation of his (presumed) homosexuality, allowing him to live within an environment that was all-male yet socially approved and assertively heterosexual. Whatever the reason, his apparent joy in army life (as recorded in his letters) as well as his conspicuous bravery under fire indicate that his decision to risk his life for his country as a common soldier was sincere. His social class and his education, such as his knowledge of German and familiarity with Mitteleuropa, made him an obvious candidate for officer rank, or even something like intelligence work, but he refused such offers more than once.

He was by all accounts a much liked and respected member of his troop. Writing about him after his death was reported, the second-in-command of his battalion said:

You will see in the papers that Sgt. Munro [sic], Hector Munro ‘Saki’ the writer was killed, one of the men that I really and honestly admire and revere in this war. He steadfastly refused a commission, and loved his friends in A Coy. […] when he got really ill two months ago, instead of going home and making the most of it as those other blighters do, he managed to get back to us about a week ago.[3]

The reference here is to a bout of malaria Munro came down with in the autumn. (He had first caught the disease two decades earlier while working in Burma.) He was sent to recover in hospital, but, knowing that a ‘push’ was imminent, he discharged himself early and returned to the front on 11 November.

The battle of Beaumont-Hamel was one of the last major engagements of the Somme. Beaumont-Hamel was the name of one of the German’s ‘fortress villages’, heavily fortified to control the valley it was in. The Allies had already tried to take it back in July, with a horrendous loss of life (particularly among Canadian regiments – in Newfoundland the date of the start of the battle is a day of remembrance). On November 12th they launched another attempt again. Four days later, during a brief respite in the fighting, Munro uttered his fateful final words.

His name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing:

"H.H. Munro" among the names of the war dead. (Photo credit:

“H.H. Munro” among the names of the war dead. (Photo credit:

(The biographical details in this article are mostly drawn from Langguth’s biography.)

  1. Quoted by Langguth, p. 253  ↩
  2. Quoted in Langguth, p. 267  ↩
  3. Quoted by Tim Connell in ‘The grinning shadow that sat at the feast: In commemoration of Hector Munro, ‘Saki’’, online at 

‘Birds on the Western Front’

[In the run-up to Remembrance Day, here’s a piece Saki wrote while serving in the trenches in northern France in 1916 (with some extra pictures).]

Considering the enormous economic dislocation which the war operations have caused in the regions where the campaign is raging, there seems to be very little corresponding disturbance in the bird life of the same districts. Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night. In the matter of nesting accommodation the barn owls are well provided for; most of the still intact barns in the war zone are requisitioned for billeting purposes, but there is a wealth of ruined houses, whole streets and clusters of them, such as can hardly have been available at any previous moment of the world’s history since Nineveh and Babylon became humanly desolate.[1] Without human occupation and cultivation there can have been no corn, no refuse, and consequently very few mice, and the owls of Nineveh cannot have enjoyed very good hunting; here in Northern France the owls have desolation and mice at their disposal in unlimited quantities, and as these birds breed in winter as well as in summer, there should be a goodly output of war owlets to cope with the swarming generations of war mice. Continue reading