Royal Naval Biography/Boys, Edward (a)
EDWARD BOYS (a), Esq.
We first find this officer serving as master’s mate on board the Royal Sovereign 100, bearing the flag of Sir Henry Harvey, K.B. from which ship he was paid off in the spring of 1802. In June following, he joined the Phoebe frigate, Captain the Hon. Thomas Bladen Capel, fitting out for the Mediterranean station.
Shortly after the renewal of hostilities, in 1803, the Phoebe was ordered off Toulon, to watch the enemy’s fleet in that port. On her way thither, when off Civita Vecchia, two French privateers were seen from the mast-head, and, it being then a dead calm, her boats, one of which was commanded by Mr. Boys, were despatched in chase, under the orders of Lieutenant Perkins. After five hours’ rowing, about 10 p.m., they came up with one of the enemy’s vessels; but, from an unfortunate medley of disastrous circumstances, were twice repulsed, with the loss of eight men killed and wounded.
On the 1st of the following month, Mr. Boys commanded a boat, under the orders of Lieutenant Tickell, at the capture of two settees, laden with fruit and sundry merchandize, close to the land near Cape Sicie. On rejoining the Phoebe, he was placed in charge of one of these prizes, with orders to proceed, as soon as her sails could be put in order, to Lord Nelson, then on the coast of Catalonia, and from thence to Malta. Unfortunately, however, it was otherwise ordained; for on the 4th both settees were retaken by a French squadron, from which the Phoebe herself with difficulty escaped. On the same day H.M. schooner Redbridge and a transport under her convoy also fell into the hands of the enemy.
After performing quarantine in Toulon roads, Mr. Boys, Messrs Murray and Whitehurst, midshipmen, Mr. Danderson, master of the transport, and ninety men, were landed about two miles to the westward of the town, and from thence escorted by a guard of infantry, through Aix, Tarascon, Beaucaire, Nismes, Montpellier, Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassone, Castelnaudary, and Ville Franche, to Toulouse. In this once noble capital they remained, on parole, from Sept. 12th, until Dec. 2d, and then set out for Verdun, in company with a lieutenant and six midshipmen, who had been taken in the Redbridge. During this latter journey, they passed through Auch, Beaumont, Montauban, Cahors, Gourdon, Martel, Brive, Uzerches, Limoges, Argentan, Chateauroux, Orleans, Pethivier, Melun, Belleville, Troyes, Chalons (on the Marne), and St. Menehould. The following are extracts from a “Narrative of his captivity and adventures in France and Flanders,” published by the subject of this memoir, in 1827.
“Upon being escorted to the citadel, certain regulations as the conditions of my parole, were given to me for perusal. These I signed; permission was then given me to retire into the town, where I took lodgings suitable to my finances. * * * * With respect to the personal treatment of the prisoners at Verdun (setting aside extortion), every candid mind will confess that it was generally apportioned to individual desert; and if occasional acts of oppression occurred, they were exceptions emanating from the petty malice of vulgar minds, unaccustomed to exercise authority, rather than the result of systematic discipline; of which the following fact is an evidence:–
“Four of us were rambling about the country, with a pointer and silken net, catching quails, when the gun was fired (as a signal of some one having deserted). On our return, in passing through the village of Tierville, we were surprised by two gens-d’armes, one of whom instantly dismounted, and seized me, uttering the most blasphemous epithets; he tied my elbows behind me, then slipping a noose round my bare neck, triced me up to the holsters of his saddle, remounted, and returned with his prize to town, exulting in his cowardly triumph, and pouring forth vollies of vulgar abuse, every now and then tightening the cord, so as to keep me trotting upon the very extremity of the toes, to obtain relief; then again loosening it, as occasional guttural symptoms of strangulation seemed to indicate necessity. Vain would be the attempt to convey an adequate idea of the impotent rage then boiling within me, at the insult offered to my juvenile dignity, whilst a determined naughtiness disdained to betray the slightest indication of submission or complain . My companions were secured round the middle, with the utmost violence and brutality; thus we were conducted to town, and when delivered over to the proper authorities and interrogated, were released. the next morning I waited on the senior officer. Captain Woodriffe, who, with a promptitude which did honour to his feelings, and indignation worthy of a British officer, immediately represented the fact to General Wirion, (commander-in-chief at Verdun,) who assured him the gens-d’armes should be ordered into solitary confinement.
“In July, 1808, three midshipmen were taken in the very act of violating their parole. This afforded Wirion an opportunity of representing the whole class, (including warrant officers and masters of merchant vessels) as contumacious and refractory: he further assured the minister of war, that nothing but extreme rigour and close confinement could insure the persons of these ‘très mauvais sujets,’ and that Verdun was inadequate to their security. The result was an order for the whole class to be removed; and on the 7th of August, ongoing to the afternoon ‘appel,’ we were arrested, to the number of 142, and sent to the citadel. * * * * * The previous occurrence of similar events, though on a minor scale as to numbers, warned us to prepare for an early departure, but not a word to that effect escaped the commanding officer until late at night. * * * * * At dawn of day, the drum summoned us to muster. We were drawn up in two ranks; one of 73, destined for Valenciennes and Givet, the other of 69, for Sarre Louis and other dêpots, to the eastward. The northern expedition being ready, we were placed two by two, upon bundles of straw, in five waggons, and set out, escorted by the greater part of the horse gens-d’armerie of the district, aided by infantry. * * * * My most intimate friend and brother midshipman, Moyses, was of the party, and we had agreed to avail ourselves of the first opportunity to decamp; this, however, appeared almost hopeless. In the evening we arrived at Stenay, having travelled about twenty miles * * * *. Parole had, hitherto, tended to reconcile me to captivity; but being now deprived of that honourable confidence, and feeling my pride wounded, at the oppressive act of punishing the innocent for the guilty, no obstacle could avert my intention of finally executing what I now felt a duty; and it was cheering to find, that, in these feelings, my friend most cordially participated.”
Having concocted their scheme as well as they could, Messrs. Boys and Moyses kept watch for an opportunity, but were always baulked, and on their arrival at Meziers separated; the former being ordered to Valenciennes, the latter to Givet.
Passing through Hirson, Avesnes, Quesnoy, and Landrecy, Mr. Boys and his division arrived at the end of their journey on the 17th Aug., and were conducted with great form to the citadel of Valenciennes, there to take up their abode during the war, with about 1400 men, who occupied the barracks. Between the “très mauvais sujets” and those men, no distinction whatever was to be made, except the permission of walking on the rampart facing the town.
That part of the fortress in which the prisoners were allowed to amuse themselves has two gates; the northern leading to the upper citadel, and the southern to the town: at each was a strong guard. Through the western rampart is a sally port, which leads into an outwork, thence into a garden, forming a triangle of about half an acre, at the extreme point of which the Escant branches off in two streams, the canal passing between the citadel and ravelin.
“Through this sally-port,” says our hero, “it was my intention to make an attempt to escape, that appearing; the weakest point. I meant to swim across the river, and take my clothes in an umbrella prepared for the occasion. Some few days elapsed before I ventured to communicate my intentions to any one, when I broached the subject to a brother midshipman, named Ricketts, who readily entered into my views, and was willing to assist me in any way, but, from the most honourable motives declined joining. A messmate, named Cadell, also declined; I then sounded several other midshipmen, without success. In this state of suspense, day after day elapsed, till the 4th of September, when I applied to one whose name was Hunter; he approved of my plans, and appeared gratified that I had selected him as a companion. It was agreed that we should start on the 14th, intending, by means of picklocks, to get through the sally-port; and I was the more sanguine, from the circumstance of there being no sentinel at that door. The 14th arrived, every thing wearing a favourable aspect, and the hour of ten was appointed for the attempt; but about 4 p.m.. Hunter surprised me, by signifying his determination to postpone it until the spring, as from the season of the year, he foresaw innumerable difficulties, and deemed success impossible. In this dilemma, I became almost frantic, for, from so untimely and unexpected a secession, I doubted in whom to confide.
“My brother officers getting intimation of my intention, whispered it about from one to the other, till it became a topic of general conversation: at length, it reached the ears of the police, and, in consequence of this, I was so closely watched, that all my prospects, for the present, were blasted. The only way to remove these suspicions, was perfect tranquillity for some time; and to divert the attention of the public, I sent to Verdun for my clothes and dogs, which I had left there, to avoid incumbrances on the road to Valenciennes. I should not neglect to mention, that a sentinel was now placed at the before-mentioned sally-port, and stricter orders issued throughout the depôt.
“The midshipmen began to manifest much impatience at the continuance of their ‘durance vile,’ and, after several fruitless applications to the commandant, drew up a letter to the minister of war, requesting restoration to parole, one sentence of which insured a flat denial, as it plainly intimated that a refusal would be attended with escape. A few days after, I was delighted to learn, that the minister’s answer was confined to a simple negative. * * * * I kept up a correspondence, per post, with my friend Moyses. It was my wish, that he should make interest to be sent to Valenciennes, such removals being sometimes effected through the application of our own officers. Finding there was no probability of a junction, and all suspicion being at length removed, I again commenced sounding those around me, when I found an opening to make a proposal to a midshipman, named Rochfort; he came into it immediately; the strictest secrecy was observed, and we determined to be seldom seen together, although the most perfect harmony and cordiality prevailed between us, and, I may add, an implicit confidence in mutual support. * * * * With the assistance of Ricketts and Cadell, our preparations were completed, and the 15th Oct. was fixed for our departure. I was the more anxious to carry our plans into execution, so soon as matured, because the commandant, with unremitting diligence, was daily visiting the citadel, and as frequently changing the posts of the sentinels, and issuing stricter regulations for the security of the prisoners. * * * *. There still being a sentinel at the sally-port, my first plan was changed to that of getting into the upper citadel, which could only be effected by creeping upon the parapet above the north gate, letting ourselves down upon the bridge over the canal, and passing through the ravelin; but being unacquainted with those parts of the fortifications we intended to risk all, and trust to Providence for deliverance. * * * * * By the friendly aid of a déténu, residing in the town, we procured provisions, a map of the northern department, and several other necessaries, almost indispensable on such an expedition. The only thing now wanting was rope, which we obtained by purchasing skipping lines of the French boys, this being a general amusement amongst them at this season. * * * * * About five p.m. on the day fixed for our departure, I was walking with Ricketts, and discussing the proposed plans, which were then ripe for execution, when Cadell came up, and told us that Rochfort had just been seized with head-ache and fever, so violent as to require his being immediately put to bed. This I could not credit, until made an eye-witness of the fact. Struck with astonishment, I gazed on the sufferer, and scarcely able to ask a question, stole into the yard, absorbed in thought and perplexity; not cherishing the faintest hope of finding another in the citadel lo join with me. * * * * I wandered about for some time, reflecting on this extraordinary occurrence, little suspicious of what was afterwards developed, that, from our total ignorance of the impediments, in passing into the upper citadel, failure and its attendant consequences, must have been the result of trial at this time. My mind, however, was not to be diverted from the object in view; and no sooner had I roused myself from the effect of this disheartening event, than I began to meditate new schemes, for I was resolved on the attempt ‘coute qui conte’; but hesitated whether to await Rochfort’s recovery, or to look out for another companion. Day after day passed in this state of suspense; when finding no amendment in his health, he was liberal enough to advise my seeking a helpmate among the seamen. He became so reduced by his illness, that, even if he did recover, he durst not risk exposure to night chills, for a considerable time; it was, therefore, with extreme reluctance, I abandoned the hope of his company. I then went to several of the most steady quarter-masters and other petty officers, without success. Whether they doubted the possibility of escape, or were deterred by the recollection of the barbarous murders at Bitche, I cannot say: for it was known, that when the commandant of that place had gained intimation of an intended attempt, he suffered the fugitives to reach a certain point, where the gens-d’armes were concealed, ready to rush in, and murder them. Two sailors, named Marshall and Cox, fell victims to this refined system of republican discipline. A somewhat similar act of cold-blooded atrocity afterwards occurred at Givet, in the person of Hayward, a midshipman: this gallant fellow, with his friend Gale, had broken out of prison, in the face of day, and fled into the country: unfortunately they were discovered, and the alarm given: two horse gens-d’armes immediately pursued, and overtook them in on open field. On their approach, Hayward, being unarmed, and seeing escape impossible, stood still, extending his arms, and exclaimed – ‘Je me rends:’ but this was too favorable an opportunity to be neglected, for the savage gratification of shedding human blood. Neither the defenceless state of the individual, nor his prompt surrender, could avert these merciless miscreants from plunging their swords into his manly chest, and mangling the body in a horrible maimer. It was afterwards taken into the prison-yard, stripped naked, and exposed to the view of the prisoners, for the purpose of intimidating others from the like attempt. Gale gave himself up at the same time; and although he received several severe wounds, they did not prove mortal.
“It will scarcely be credited, that the commandant gave the perpetrators of this outrageous exploit a pecuniary reward, saying:– ‘I give you this for having killed one of them; had you killed both, the reward would have been doubled! * * * * * In the beginning of November, two sailors were sparring in the yard; and so common was this amusement, that it attracted the notice of no one but a stupid conscript of a sentinel, who, fancying they were quarrelling, quitted his post, and commenced a brutal attack on them, with the butt-end of his musket: this breach of military discipline soon collected a mob, and the endeavours of the men to ward off the blows, gave them the appearance of acting offensively. The guard was called out, when the gens-d’armes, rushing through the crowd, cut and slashed on all sides. Whitehurst and I, happening to be there at the time, roused with indignation at such wanton barbarity, also pushed in, in the hope of preventing bloodshed. The marèchal de logis, observing us in the ‘mêlée,’ desired us to send the men to their rooms, who, upon the order being given, immediately retired. This prompt obedience, bearing the appearance of generally acting under our influence, was, no doubt, the cause of our being denounced as the authors of the disturbance. The next morning, we were arrested, and conducted to a separate place of confinement, upon the rampart fronting the town. We were there locked up, with a sentinel at the door, without communication with any one, and ordered to be kept on bread and water. We there received secret information, that the commandant had forwarded a report to the minister of war, representing us as ‘chefs de complot’; the punishment of which, by the ‘Code Napoleon,’ is death. Although this did not much trouble us, being conscious of the falsehood of the accusation, yet we judged it right to lay before the commandant a firm and accurate relation of the facts, referring him to the marèchal de logis, for proof of our interference having prevented more bloodshed, and restored tranquillity. This respectful appeal to the justice of the commandant, corroborated by the evidence of the marèchal, succeeded in restoring us to our comrades, and in inducing him to transmit a counter-statement to Paris. I mention this circumstance, because it produced a proposition on the part of Whitehurst, to attempt escape, as soon as we could make the necessary preparations. I readily acceded to his proposal; and, although I knew that, from his inexperience in the management of small craft, his assistance, in the event of getting afloat, could not be great, I was perfectly convinced of his willingness and resolution. This consideration rendered it necessary, however, to seek a third person, and I sounded five men separately, in the course of the day; but, so prevalent was the belief of the impossibility of getting out of the fortress, except by bribery, that they all declined.
“In this difficulty, I consulted Ricketts, who proposed to introduce tie subject again to Hunter. I consented to accept him as a companion, provided we took our departure in a week. This stipulation being conveyed to him, and our prospects painted in glowing colours, he agreed to join us. From that moment, he behaved with firmness and cordiality: not an hour was lost in procuring every thing needful for the occasion; but before we fixed a day, we resolved to obtain some information respecting the obstacles in our passage to the upper citadel, that being the only way by which we could possibly escape. It was necessary to be very cautious in this particular, and many schemes were suggested. At length, hearing that that part of the fortifications abounded in wild rabbits, it occurred to me to offer my greyhounds to one of the gens-d’armes, whenever he chose to make use of them. This I did, and the fellow mentioned it to the marèchal de logis, who was equally pleased with the expectation of sport, for they verily believed that such beautiful English dogs could kill every rabbit they saw. Shortly after, the gens-d’arme came, with the keys in his hand, for them; the marèechal waiting at the gate. The dogs, however, had been taught to follow no one but their master, so that their refusing to go, afforded me an opportunity of offering to accompany them, which was immediately accepted. Whitehurst, Hunter, and two or three others, requested permission to go with us; four other gens-d’armes were ordered to attend, and we went in a tolerably large party. We took different directions round the ramparts, kicking the grass, under pretence of looking for rabbits: few were found, and none killed; but we succeeded in making our observations, and, in about an hour, returned fully satisfied of the practicability of escape, though the difficulties we had to encounter were, – scaling a wall, ascending the parapet unseen, escaping the observations of three tiers of sentinels and the patroles, descending two ramparts, of about 45 feet each, and forcing two large locks. These were not more than we expected, and we, therefore, prepared accordingly. On our return, we fixed the night of the 16th Nov. for the attempt. Through a friend in town, I got iron handles put to a pair of steel boot-hooks, intending to use them as picklocks. The only thing now wanting was another rope; and as that belonging to the well in our yard was not trustworthy, we hacked several of the heart-yarns, so that the first time it was used it broke. A subscription was made by the mids, and a new rope applied for; by these means, we had at command about 36 feet, in addition to what our friends had before purchased of the boys. Every thing was now prepared; the spirits and provisions, in knapsacks, were concealed in the dog-kennel. On the 14th, Whitehurst communicated the secret to a young mid, named Mansell, who immedialely proposed to join. * * * * * At length the day which I had so ardently desired, and the feelings of delight with which I hailed it, were such as allowed me to anticipate none but the happiest results. The thought of having lost so many years from the service of my country, during an active war, had frequently embittered hours which would otherwise have been cheerful and merry, and now proved a stimulant to perseverance, exceeded only by that which arose from the desire I felt, to impress upon the minds of Frenchmen the inefficacy of vigilance and severity, to enchain a British officer, when compared with that milder and more certain mode of securing his person – confiding in his honor.”
Owing to the calmness of the night of Nov. 15th, and the stars shining very bright, Mr. Boys was persuaded by Messrs. Cadell and Ricketts to defer his departure until the 16th.
“In the afternoon,” says he, “we amused ourselves with writing a letter to the commandant, in which we thanked him for his civilities, and assured him, that it was the rigid and disgraceful measures of the French Government which obliged us to prove the inefficacy of locks, bolts, and fortresses; and that, if he wished to detain British officers, the most effectual method was to put them upon their honor, for that alone was the bond which had enchained us for more than five years. This letter was left with Ricketts, to be dropped on the following day, near the ‘corps de garde.’ At half-past seven, p.m. we assembled, armed with clasped knives, and each provided with a paper of fine pepper, upon which we placed our chief dependence; for in case of being closely attacked, we intended throwing a handful into the eyes of the assailants, and running away. The plan was, that Hunter and myself were to depart first, fix the rope, and open the opposing doors; a quarter of an hour afterwards, Whitehurst and Mansell were to follow: by these means we diminished the risk attendant on so large a body as four moving together, and secured the advantage of each depending more upon his own care; for if Hunter and myself were shot in the advance, the other two would remain in safety; and if, on the contrary, they were discovered, we hoped to have time, during the alarm, to gain the country. Our intentions were, to march to the sea side, and range the coast to Breskins, in the island of Cadsand, opposite Flushing; and, if means of getting afloat were not found before arriving at that place, we proposed to embark in the passage-boat for Flushing, and about midchannel, rise and seize the vessel. It was now blowing very fresh, and was so dark and cloudy, that not a star could be seen; the leaves were fulling in abundance, and as they were blown over the stones, kept up a constant rustling noise, which was particularly favorable to the enterprise: indeed, things wore so promising an appearance, that we resolved to take leave of a few other of our brother officers: eight of them were accordingly sent for: to these I detailed our exact situation, the difficulties we had to contend with, and the means of surmounting them, reminded them of our letter to the commandant, of last month, and the glory of putting our threats into execution, in spite of his increased vigilance; read the one we had that afternoon written, and proposed that any of them should follow that chose, – but with this stipulation, that they allowed four hours to elapse before they made the attempt. Upon which, it being a quarter past eight, Hunter and myself, with woollen socks over our shoes, that our footsteps might not be heard, and each having a rope, a small poker, or a stake, and a knapsack, took leave of our friends, and departed. We first went into the back-yard, and, assisted by Rochfort, who was now convalescent, but not sufficiently strong to join the party, got over the wall, passed through the garden and palisades, crossed the road, and climbed silently upon our hands and knees up the bank at the back of the north guard-room – lying perfectly still as the sentinels approached, and as they receded again advancing, until we reached the parapet over the gateway leading to the upper citadel. Here the breast-work, over which we had to creep, was about five feet high, and fourteen thick; and it being the highest part of the citadel, we were in danger of being seen by several sentinels below; but fortunately the cold bleak wind induced some of them to take shelter in their boxes. With the utmost precaution we crept upon the summit, and down the breast-work towards the outer edge of the rampart, when the sentinel made his quarter-hourly cry of ‘Sentinelle, prenez garde à vous,’ similar to our ‘All’s well:’ this, though it created for a moment rather an unpleasant sensation, convinced me that we had reached thus far unobserved. I then forced the poker into the earth, and by rising and falling with nearly my whole weight hammered it down with my chest; about two feet behind I did the same with the stake, fastening a small line from the upper part of the poker to the lower part of the stake: this done, we made the well-rope secure round the poker, and gently let it down through one of the grooves in the rampart, which receives a beam of the draw-bridge when up. I then cautiously descended this half chimney, as it were, by the rope; when I had reached about two-thirds of the way down, part of a brick fell, struck against the side, and rebounded against my chest; this I luckily caught between my knees, and carried down without noise. I crossed the bridge, and waited for Hunter, who descended with equal care and silence.
“We then entered the ravelin, proceeded through the arched passage, which forms an obtuse angle with a massive door leading to the upper citadel, and, with my picklock, endeavoured to open it; not finding the bolt yield with gentle pressure, I added the other hand, and gradually increased the force until I exerted my whole strength, when suddenly something broke. I then tried to file the catch of the bolt, but that being cast iron, the file made no impression; we then endeavoured to cut away the stone in the wall which receives the bolt, but that was fortified with a bar of iron, which rendered our attempt abortive; the picklocks were again applied, but with no better success: it now appeared complete ‘check-mate;’ and, as the last resource, it was proposed to return to the bridge, slip down the piles, and float along the canal on our backs, there being too little water to swim, and too much to ford it. In the midst of our consultation, it occurred to me, that it would be possible to undermine the gate this plan wan no sooner proposed than commenced; but having no other implements than our pocket knives, some time elapsed before we could indulge any reasonable hopes of success; the pavement stones under the door were about ten inches square, and so closely bound together, that it was a most difficult and very tedious process. About a quarter of an hour had been thus employed, when we were alarmed by a sudden noise, similar to the distant report of a gun, echoing in tremulous reverberations through the arched passage, and, as the sound became fainter, it resembled the cautious opening of the great gate, creating a belief that we were discovered. We jumped up, and drew back towards the bridge, intending, if possible, to steal past the gens-d’armes, and slip down the piles into the canal; but the noise subsiding, we stood still, fancying we heard the footsteps of a body of men. The recollection of the barbarous murders at Bitche, on a similar occasion, instantly presented itself to my sensitive imagination; it is impossible to describe the conflicting sensations which rushed upon my mind during this awful pause: fully impressed with the conviction of discovery, and of our falling immediate victims to the merciless rage of ferocious blood-hounds, I stood and listened, with my knife in savage grasp, waiting the dreadful issue, when suddenly I felt a glow flush through my veins, which hurried me on with the desperate determination to succeed, or make a sacrifice of life in the attempt. We had scarcely reached the turning, when footsteps were again heard; and, in a whispering tone, ‘Boys;’ this welcome sound created so sudden a transition from desperation to serenity, from despair to a pleasing conviction of success, that in an instant all was hope and joy. Reinforced by our two friends, we again returned to our work of mining, with as much cheerfulness and confidence as though already embarked for England. They told us the noise was occasioned by the fall of a knapsack, which Mansell, unable to carry down the rope, had given to Whitehurst, from whom it slipped, and falling upon a hollow sounding bridge, between two lofty ramparts, echoed through the arched passage, with sufficient effect to excite alarm. * * * * * * Three of us continued mining until half-past ten, when the first stone was raised, and in twenty minutes more the second: about eleven, the hole was large enough to allow us to creep under the door; the drawbridge was up; there was, however, sufficient space to allow us to climb up, and it being square, there was, of course, an opening in the arch: through this we crept, lowering ourselves down by the line, which was passed round the chain of the bridge, and keeping both parts in our hands, landed on the garde fous. Had the bars been taken away escape would have been impossible; there not being sufficient line for descending into the ditch. We then proceeded through another arched passage, with the intention of undermining the second door, but to our great surprise and joy, we found it unlocked. We now got down, crossed the ditch upon the ‘garde fous,’ landed in the upper citadel, proceeded to the north-cast curtain, fixed the stake, and fastened the rope. As I was getting down, with my chest against the edge of the parapet, the stake gave way. Whitehurst, who was sitting by it, snatched hold of the rope, and Mansell of his coat, whilst I endeavoured to grasp the grass, by which I was saved from a fall of about fifty feet. Fortunately, there was a solitary tree in the citadel, from which we cut a second stake; and the rope being doubly secured, we all got down safe with our knapsacks, except Whitehurst, who, when about two-thirds of the way, from placing his feet against the rampart, and not letting them slip so fast as his hands, got himself in nearly a horizontal position; seeing his danger, I seized the rope, and placed myself in rather an inclined posture under him; he fell upon my arm and shoulder with a violent shock; fortunately neither of us was hurt.
“We all shook hands, and in the excess of joy, heartily congratulated ourselves upon this providential success, after a most perilous and laborious work of three hours and three quarters. Having put our knapsacks a little in order, we mounted the glacis, and followed a foot path which led to the eastward. But a few minutes elapsed, before several objects were observed on the ground, which imagination, ever on the alert, metamorphosed into gens-d’armes in ambush; we, however, marched on; when, to our no small relief, they were discovered to be cattle. Gaining the high road, we passed, (two and two, about forty paces apart) through a very long village, and, having travelled three or four miles, felt ourselves so excessively thirsty, that we stopped to drink at a ditch: in the act of stooping, a sudden flash of lightning, from the southward, so frightened us (supposing it to be the alarm-gun), that, instead of waiting to drink, we ran for nearly half an hour. We stopped a second time, and were prevented by a second flash, which alarmed us even more than the first, for we could not persuade ourselves it was lightning, though no report was heard. Following up the road in quick march, our attention was suddenly arrested by a drawbridge, which being indicative of a fortified place, we suspected a guard-house to be close at hand, and were at first apprehensive of meeting with a serious impediment; but observing the gates to be open, we concluded that those at the other extremity would be also open, and therefore pushed forward. We drank at the pump, in the square, when it was recollected that this was the little town of St. Amand. Directing our course by the north star,which was occasionally visible, we passed through without seeing a creature. About an hour after, still continuing a steady pace, four stout fellows rushed out from behind a hedge, and demanded where we were going. Whitehurst and Mansell immediately ran up; and, as we had previously resolved never to be taken by equal numbers, each seized his pepper and his knife, in preparation for fight or flight, replying, in a haughty tone of defiance, ‘What is that to you? be careful how you interrupt military men:’ then whispering, loud enough for them to hear, ‘la bayonette;’ upon which they dropt astern, though still keeping near us; in the course of a quarter of an hour, on turning an angle of the road, we lost sight of them, and continued a rapid march, frequently running, until about five a.m., when we were unexpectedly stopped by the closed gates of a town. We retraced our steps a short distance, in the hope of discovering some other road; but we could find neither a footpath, nor wood, nor any other place of concealment. We quitted the high-road, and drew towards a rising ground, there to wait the dawn of day, in the hope of retreating to some neighbouring copse; no sooner had we laid ourselves upon the ground, than sleep overcame us. Our intention was, if no wood could be seen, to go to an adjoining ploughed field, and there scratch a hole in which we could hide ourselves from a distant view. Upon awakening from a short slumber, we reconnoitred around, and found our position to be near a fortification; being well acquainted with such places, we approached, in the hope of finding an asylum. At break of day, we descended into the ditch, and found the entrance into the subterraneous works of the covered way nearly all blocked up with ruins and bushes: an opening, however, was made, we crept in, our quarters were established, and the rubbish and bushes replaced in the space of a few minutes. This most providential and pleasing discovery, added to our many narrow escapes from detection, excited a feeling of gratitude to that Omnipotent Being who, in his infinite mercy, had thus cast his protecting wings around us.
“I have since heard, that the first intimation of our departure at Valenciennes was at dawn of day, when, on opening the north gate, the rope was seen suspended from the parapet. The roll to muster was instantly beaten, and the alarm given to the neighbouring peasantry by the firing of guns. The midshipmen, on whom suspicion first fell, were hurried into ranks, half-dressed; and when the names of the absentees were called over, some one tauntingly replied, ‘Parti pour l’Angleterre; – This tone of triumph considerably exasperated the gens-d’armes, and inflamed the zeal of our pursuers; it also might have had some influence in exciting the solicitude of the commandant for our apprehension. * * * * * * The whole town was in confusion. All the bloody-minded rabble were let loose, with multifarious weapons, and carte blanche to massacrer these lawless aspirons. Besides which 500 of the garde nationale were despatched to scour all the woods within five leagues, and an additional reward of 300 livres was offered for the capture of each of us. The reason for limiting the search to that distance was a belief of the improbability of our having exceeded it, after the arduous task of undermining, &c.
“But to proceed: – we were totally unacquainted with the country; an examination of the maps pointed out the place of our retreat to be the fortification of Tournay: the fallen ruins were the bed upon which fatigue and a confidence of security, procured us a sound and refreshing sleep. At three p.m. we enjoyed our dinner, notvithstanding the want of beverage; for, upon examining the knapsacks, the flasks were found broken. Whitehurst, having lost his hat in descending the first rampart, was occupied in manufacturing a cap from the skirts of his coat. It rained all the afternoon, and the weather in the evening getting worse, we were detained till about ten p.m., when, no prospect of its clearing up presenting itself, we quitted our comfortable abode, walked round the citadel, to the westward, over ploughed ground, until, coming to a turnip field, we regaled ourselves most sumptuously. By eleven, we had rounded the town and gained the north road. During the night we passed through several villages without seeing any one, and at six a.m. arrived at the suburbs of Courtray, expecting there to find as snug a retreat as the one we had left the preceding evening; but, to our mortification, the town was enclosed with wet ditches, which obliged us to seek safety elsewhere. Observing a farm house on the right, our steps were directed towards it, and thence through bye-lanes, until a mansion was discovered: this we approached, in the hope of finding an out-house which would afford us shelter for the day; nothing of the kind could be seen; but, not far distant, a thicket was descried, of about 150 paces square, surrounded by a wet ditch, from fourteen to twenty feet wide: here then we determined to repose our wearied limbs, and, it being day-light, not a moment was to be lost. The opposite side of the narrowest part of the ditch was one entire bed of brambles, and in the midst of these we were obliged to leap. Hunter, Mansell, and myself got over tolerably well; but when Whitehurst made the attempt, stiff with wet and cold, and the bank giving way, from his great weight, he jumped into the water: it was with difficulty he could be extricated, and not without being dragged through the brambles, by which he was severely scratched. We lay ourselves down in the centre of this swampy thicket. The rain had continued without intermission from the time of our leaving Tournay, and notwithstanding it somewhat discommoded us, yet we were consoled by the additional security it afforded. This little island protected us till near dark, when we walked round it to find the easiest point of egress. From the torrents of rain that had fallen during the day, the ditches had become considerably wider, and there was only one opening in the bushes, whence a leap could be made. Of this, three of us profited; the fourth obtained a passage by the aid of a decayed willow, which overhung the opposite bank.”
In this manner, and with a continuation of bad weather, our travellers pursued their course to Blankenberg, a village on the sea-coast, to the eastward of Ostend. On their arrival at the gates of Bruges (after passing through Haerlabeck and Deynse), they were all in a most deplorable condition – wet to the skin, their feet bleeding, and so swollen, that they could scarcely walk at the rate of three miles an hour. Mr. Boys had also a tumour forming on his left side, which obliged him always to lie on the right, and proved the foundation of a rheumatism, to which he has ever since been subject.
“Near the gates,” continues he, “we observed a public house, and having hitherto found such places to afford relief and safety, at this hour of the night, we entered, and saw nobody but an old woman and a servant: at first they appeared somewhat surprised, but asked no questions except such as regarded our wants, frequently exclaiming ‘pauvres conscrits.’ We dried our clothes, when the sudden transition from cold to heat split Hunter’s feet; several of his nails also were loose, and Whitehurst had actually walked off two. The fire made us all so very sensitive, that we could scarcely bear our feet to the floor; but found some relief by bathing them in oil: having, however, enjoyed a comfortable supper, we lay ourselves down, keeping watch in turn, until a.m., when we paid the old woman and departed.”
Midway between Bruges and Blankenberg, Mr. Boys and his companions found a warm friend in Madame Deriske, landlady of the Raie-de-Chat, a solitary public house; by whom they were long concealed, and ultimately enabled to escape. During the time they enjoyed her protection, Mr. Boys made no less than thirteen trips to the coast, hoping to procure a vessel of some kind; but always without success. The last of these attempts may serve as a specimen of the whole.
“On the night of the 4th Mar. 1809, finding several vessels nearly afloat, I returned to our party with the joyful information. Furnished with provisions and a lantern, we proceeded silently to the water’s edge, and jumped on board the easternmost vessel, in the pleasing confidence of having at length evaded the vigilance of the enemy, and of being on the eve of restoration to our native soil. The wind was fresh and squally from the W.N.W., with a good deal of swell; the moon, although only three days after the full, was so obscured by dark clouds, that the night was very favorable for our purpose. The vessel was moored by five hawsers; two a-head, and three a-stern: it was arranged, that Whitehurst and Mansell should throw overboard the latter. Hunter and myself the former; this was preferred to cutting them. We had been so long in Flanders, and received such protection from the natives, that all harsh feeling which might have existed towards an enemy, was so mellowed into compassion for their sufferings under the Corsican yoke, that we were unwilling to injure one of them, and therefore had determined, if in our power, to send back the craft, which, being a fishing schuyt, might probably be the only support of an indigent family. Whilst Whitehurst and Mansell were executing the duty allotted to them, Hunter and myself got ready the foresail, and paid overboard one of the hawsers. The tide now rolled in, the vessel floated, and we hove her out to within about four fathoms of her buoy. Whitehurst and myself being ready to cut the other hawser, and hoist the sail. Hunter went to the helm, when he found the rudder was not shipped, but lying on the poop. We instantly ran aft, and got it over the stern; but the vessel pitched so heavily, that it was not possible to ship the lower pintle. We were now apprehensive of the total failure of the attempt; for to go to sea without a rudder would have been madness, and being nearly under the battery, we were in momentary expectation of being fired into. Several minutes were passed in this state of anxiety and danger, still persevering in the attempt to ship the rudder; but at length, finding it impossible, without a guide below, and feeling that our only hope was dependant upon the success of this important effort, in the excitement of the moment I jumped overboard; at the same instant the vessel springing a little a-head, and the sea washing me astern, it was not without the greatest exertion I could swim up to get hold of the stern post. Hunter, seeing that I was dashed from her by every wave, threw me a rope; this I made fast round my waist, and then, with some trouble, succeeded in shipping the rudder. The effort of swimming and getting on board again, although assisted by my comrades, so completely exhausted me, that I lay on my back for some time, incapable of moving a limb: but at length, rallying, I went forward to help hoist the foresail, whilst Hunter cut the hawser, and then ran to the helm. The sail was no sooner up than the vessel sprang off, as if participating in our impatience, and glorying in our deliverance: such, however, is the uncertainty and vanity of all human projects, that at the very moment when we believed ourselves in the arms of liberty, and our feelings were worked up to the highest pitch of exultation, a violent shock suddenly arrested our progress. We flew aft, and found that a few fathoms of the starboard quarter hawser having been accidentally left on board, as it ran out, a kink was formed near the end, which, getting jambed between the head of the rudder and the stern-post, had brought the vessel up all standing: the knife was instantly applied, but the hawser was so excessively taut and hard, that it was scarcely through one strand ere the increasing squall had swung her round off upon the beach. At this critical juncture, as the forlorn hope, we jumped out to seize another vessel, which was still afloat; when Winderkins, seeing a body of men running upon the top of the sand-hills, in order to surround us, gave the alarm: wc immediately made a resolute rush directly across, leaving our knapsacks, and every thing but the clothes on our backs, in the vessel; the summit was gained just in time to slip over on the other side unseen. We ran along the hills towards Blankenberg for about a hundred yards, when, mistaking a broad ditch for a road, I fell in, but scrambled out on the opposite side. Mansell, who was close at my heels, thinking that I had jumped in on purpose, followed; this obliged the others to jump also. Having regained the Raie-de-Chat, we related the heart-rending disaster to Madame Derikre. Fearing, from the many articles left in the vessel, that some of them would give a clue to our late abode, and be the means of causing a strict search, she was desired to destroy every thing that could lead to discovery, or suspicion; then taking all the bread in the house, and leaving Mansell there, the rest immediately set out for a wood on the other side of Bruges, where we arrived a little before daylight.
“Not having had time to dry our clothes at the Raie-de-Chat, we were in a most deplorable state, shivering with cold, and wet to the skin; the tails of our jackets solid boards of ice, and not a shoe amongst us worthy the name. In this wood we remained three days, each succeeding hour seeming to redouble the sufferings of the last.”
During the above period, the Raie-de-Chat was twice searched most minutely, by 36 gens-d’armes and police officers, but who, fortunately for Madame Derikre, found nothing to corroborate their suspicions. Speaking of his subsequent sojourn in another wood, about two miles to the eastward of that house, Mr. Boys says:
“Soon after taking up this position, the weather became intensely cold; and, literally clad in armour of ice, we lay listening to the whistling wind, and shivering with exposure to the chilling blast, which not only defied repose, but threatened the most calamitous effects: indeed, our limbs were sometimes so benumbed, that it became absolutely indispensable to shake and twist ourselves about, to promote the necessary circulation of the blood. Nor did there appear any prospect of the termination of this misery; for, as the black and ponderous clouds passed swiftly over us, the wind increased, the hail beat furiously down, and the trees trembled, until the raging violence of the storm seemed to threaten the uprooting of the very wood we occupied. In this exposed situation, with variable though piercing cold weather, we remained until the 15th. * * * * Whitehurst now suffered so severely from illness, that doubts arose as to the possibility of his continuing much longer in this state of exposure; and, had not his complaint taken a favorable turn, his patience and fortitude must soon have yielded to stern and absolute necessity.”
About the end of March, the benevolent landlady learnt that Mr. Mansell had embarked for England, with a smuggler: he soon afterwards died at sea.
On the 1st April, Mr. Boys, disguised as a carpenter, ventured into Bruges, and happily succeeded in interesting another female in his behalf; – one whose influence with her husband, a “notaire publique,” named Moitier, was of some importance. He subsequently obtained the loan of a passport belonging to one Auguste Crens Neirinks, a Flemish “chevalier d’industrie,” and, accompanied by him and his sister, passed through Ghent, Brussels, Charleroi, and Namur, on his way to Givet, with the intention of making an effort to release Mr. Moyses. On his arrival in the vicinity of Dinant, however, he received information that that gentleman had been transferred to Bitche, for an offence similar to the one for which he himself was once “cachoted” at Valenciennes. Reluctantly abandoning his generous design, the impracticability of succeeding in which was but too evident, he returned to Bruges, remained there until the 29th of April, and then, under the guidance of Neirinks, proceeded with Messrs. Whitehurst and Hunter to the coast opposite Flushing. On the 8th of May, towards midnight, he had the happiness to find himself safe on board a small boat, in which he was conveyed to a fishing smack near the Goodwin Sands; and from the latter we find him landing at Dover, early in the morning of the 10th.
On the day after his arrival in England, Mr. Boys waited upon the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was pleased to issue an order for his immediate examination, without waiting the usual period fixed for that purpose. On the 25th of the same month, he was appointed lieutenant of the Arachne sloop. Captain Samuel Chambers; and on the 8th July, 1814, promoted from that vessel to the command of the Dunira, 18. Shortly after joining the Arachne, and whilst attached to the Walcheren expedition, he had the good fortune to be instrumental in affecting the escape from an hostile shore of his friends Ricketts and Rochfort. His narrative, written in the West Indies, in 1810, cannot fail to leave on the mind of the reader a strong impression of admiration at the energy, patience, and perseverance of the author.
In 1831, Commander Boys published “Remarks on the practicability and advantages of a Sandwich or Downs Harbour.” It is proposed by him, to make a cut for the said harbour in a direct line from the anchorage called the Small Downs, about a mile to the northward of Sandown Castle, to the river Stour at Sandwich, a little to the southward of a cut that has been commenced at some former period. We sincerely hope “that the plan will be taken up with that spirit, to which its superior claims, in a national point of view, so fully entitle it.”
- Two iron bars, one above the other, suspended by chains on each side of the bridge, when down, serving the purpose of hand-rails.
- A man engaged by the landlady of the Raie-de-Chat to assist them in their escape.
- Mr. Mansell was then about to visit Bruges, disguised as a girl, and did not again join his fellow fugitives.
- See Nautical Magazine for June, 1832, p. 205.