The Naval Officer/Chapter III
The might of England flush'd
To anticipate the same;
And her van the fleeter rush'd
O'er the deadly space between.
"Hearts of oak!" our captains cried; when each gun
From its adamantine lips
Spread a death-shade round the ships,
Like the hurricane eclipse
Of the sun.
Considering my youth and inexperience, and the trifling neglect of which I was accused, there are few, even of the most rigid disciplinarians, who will not admit that I was both unjustly and unkindly treated by the first lieutenant, who certainly, with all my respect for him, had lent himself to my enemies. The second lieutenant and Mr Murphy did not even conceal their feelings on the occasion, but exulted over my disgrace.
The ship was suddenly ordered to Portsmouth, where the captain, who had been on leave, was expected to join us, which he did soon after our arrival, when the first lieutenant made his reports of good and bad conduct during his absence. I had been about ten days doing duty in the fore-top, and it was the intention of Mr Handstone, to which the captain seemed not disinclined, to have given me a flogging at the gun, as a gratuity for losing the men. This part of the sentence, however, was not executed. I continued a member of the midshipmen's mess, but was not allowed to enter the berth: my meals were sent to me, and I took them solus on my chest. The youngsters spoke to me, but only by stealth, being afraid of the oldsters, who had sent me to the most rigid Coventry.
My situation in the fore-top was nearly nominal. I went aloft when the hands were called, or in my watch, and amused myself with a book until we went below, unless there was any little duty for me to do, which did not appear above my strength. The men doated on me as a martyr in their cause, and delighted in giving me every instruction in the art of knotting and splicing, rigging, reefing, furling, &c, &c.; and I honestly own that the happiest hours I had passed in that ship were during my seclusion among these honest tars.
Whether my enemies discovered this or not, I cannot say; but shortly after our arrival I was sent for by the captain into his own cabin, where I received a lecture on my misconduct, both as to my supposed irritable and quarrelsome disposition, and also for losing the men out of the boat. "In other respects," he added, "your punishment would have been much more severe but for your general good conduct; and I have no doubt, from this little well-timed severity, that you will in future conduct yourself with more propriety. I therefore release you from the disgraceful situation in which you are placed, and allow you to return to your duty on the quarter-deck."
The tears which no brutality or ill-treatment could wring from me, now flowed in abundance, and it was some minutes before I could recover myself sufficiently to thank him for his kindness, and to explain the cause of my disgrace. I told him, that since I had joined the ship I had been treated like a dog; that he alone had been ignorant of it, and that he alone had behaved to me with humanity. I then related all my sufferings, from the moment of that fatal glass of wine up to the time I was speaking. I did not conceal the act of cutting down Murphy's hammock, nor of throwing the candlestick at his head. I assured him I never gave any provocation; that I never struck without being first stricken. I said, moreover, that I would never receive a blow or be called an improper name without resenting it, as far as I was able. It was my nature, and if killed, I could not help it. "Several men have run away," said I, "since I came into the ship and before, and the officers under whose charge they were only received a reprimand, while I, who have just come to sea, have been treated with the greatest and most degrading severity."
The captain listened to my defence with attention, and I thought seemed very much struck with it. I afterwards learnt that Mr Handstone had received a reprimand for his harsh treatment of me; he observed, that I should one day turn out a shining character, or go to the devil.
It appeared pretty evident to me, that however I might have roused the pride and resentment of the senior members of the mess by my resistance to arbitrary power, that I had gained some powerful friends, among whom was the captain. Many of the officers admired that dogged, "don't care" spirit of resistance which I so perseveringly displayed, and were forced to admit that I had right on my side. I soon perceived the change of mind by the frequency of invitations to the cabin and gun-room tables. The youngsters were proud to receive me again openly as their associate; but the oldsters regarded me with a jealousy and suspicion like that of an unpopular government to a favourite radical leader.
I soon arranged with the boys of my own age a plan of resistance, or rather of self-defence, which proved of great importance in our future warfare. One or two of them had nerve enough to follow it up: the others made fair promises, but fell off in the hour of trial. My code consisted of only two maxims: the first was always to throw a bottle, decanter, candlestick, knife, or fork, at the head of any person who should strike one of us, if the assailant should appear too strong to encounter in fair fight. The second was, never to allow ourselves to be unjustly defrauded of our rights; to have an equal share of what we paid equally for; and to gain by artifice that which was withheld by force.
I explained to them that by the first plan we should ensure civility, at least; for as tyrants are generally cowards, they would be afraid to provoke that anger which in some unlucky moment might be fatal to them, or maim them for life. By the second, I promised to procure them an equal share in the good things of this life, the greater part of which the oldsters engrossed to themselves: in this latter we were much more unanimous than the former, as it incurred less personal risk. I was the projector of all the schemes for forage, and was generally successful.
At length we sailed to join the fleet off Cadiz, under the command of Lord Nelson. I shall not pretend to describe the passage down Channel and across the Bay of Biscay. I was sea-sick as a lady in a Dover packet, until inured to the motion of the ship by the merciless calls to my duties aloft, or to relieve the deck in my watch.
We reached our station, and joined the immortal Nelson but a few hours before that battle in which he lost his life and saved his country. The history of that important day has been so often and so circumstantially related, that I cannot add much more to the stock on hand. I am only astonished, seeing the confusion and invariable variableness of a sea-light, how so much could be known. One observation occurred to me then, and I have thought of it ever since with redoubled conviction; this was, that the admiral, after the battle began, was no admiral at all: he could neither see nor be seen; he could take no advantage of the enemy's weak points or defend his own; his ship, the Victory, one of our finest three-deckers, was, in a manner, tied up alongside a French eighty-gun ship.
These observations I have read in some naval work, and in my mind they receive ample confirmation. I could not help feeling an agony of anxiety (young as I was) for my country's glory, when I saw the noble leaders of our two lines exposed to the united fire of so many ships. I thought Nelson was too much exposed, and think so now. Experience has confirmed what youthful fancy suggested; the enemy's centre should have been macadamized by our seven three-deckers, some of which, by being placed in the rear, had little share in the action; and but for the intimidation which their presence afforded, might as well have been at Spithead. I mean no reflection on the officers who had charge of them: accidental concurrence of light wind and station in the line, threw them at such a distance from the enemy as kept them in the back ground the greater part of the day.
Others, again, were in enviable situations, but did not, as far as I could learn from the officers, do quite so much as they might have done. This defect on our part being met by equal disadvantages, arising from nearly similar causes, on that of the enemy, a clear victory remained to us. The aggregate of the British navy is brave and good; and we must admit that in this day "when England expected every man to do his duty," there were but few who disappointed their country's hopes.
When the immortal signal was communicated, I shall never, no, never, forget the electric effect it produced through the fleet. I can compare it to nothing so justly as to a match laid to a long train of gunpowder; and as Englishmen are the same, the same feeling, the same enthusiasm, was displayed in every ship; tears ran down the cheeks of many a noble fellow when the affecting sentence was made known. It recalled every past enjoyment, and filled the mind with fond anticipations which, with many, were never, alas! to be realised. They went down to their guns without confusion; and a cool, deliberate courage from that moment seemed to rest on the countenance of every man I saw.
My captain, though not in the line, was no niggard in the matter of shot, and though he had no real business to come within range until called by signal, still he thought it his duty to be as near to our ships engaged as possible, in order to afford them assistance when required. I was stationed at the foremost guns on the main deck, and the ship cleared for action; and though on a comparatively small scale, I cannot imagine a more solemn, grand, or impressive sight, than a ship prepared as ours was on that occasion. Her noble tier of guns, in a line gently curving out towards the centre; the tackle laid across the deck; the shot and wads prepared in ample store (round, grape, and canister); the powder-boys, each with his box full, seated on it, with perfect apparent indifference as to the approaching conflict. The captains of guns, with their priming boxes buckled round their waists; the locks fixed upon the guns; the lanyards laid around them; the officers, with their swords drawn, standing by their respective divisions.
The quarter-deck was commanded by the captain in person, assisted by the first lieutenant, the lieutenant of marines, a party of small-arm men, with the mate and midshipmen, and a portion of seamen to attend the braces and fight the quarter-deck guns. The boatswain was on the forecastle; the gunner in the magazine, to send up a supply of powder to the guns; the carpenter watched and reported, from time to time, the depth of water in the well; he also walked round the wings or vacant spaces between the ship's side and the cables, and other stores. He was attended by his mates, who were provided with shot-plugs, oakum, and tallow, to stop any shot-holes which might be made.
The surgeon was in the cockpit with his assistants. The knives, saws, tourniquets, sponges, basins, wine and water, were all displayed and ready for the first unlucky patient that might be presented. This was more awful to me than anything I had seen. "How soon," thought I, "may I be stretched, mangled and bleeding, on this table, and have occasion for all the skill and all the instruments I now see before me!" I turned away, and endeavoured to forget it all.
As soon as the fleet bore up to engage the enemy, we did the same, keeping as near as we could to the admiral, whose signals we were ordered to repeat. I was particularly astonished with the skilful manner in which this was done. It was wonderful to see how instantaneously the same flags were displayed at our mast-heads as had been hoisted by the admiral; and the more wonderful this appeared to me, since his flags were rolled up in round balls, which were not broken loose until they had reached the mast-head, so that the signal officers of a repeater had to make out the number of the flag during its passage aloft in disguise. This was done by the power of good telescopes, and from habit, and sometimes by anticipation of the signal that would be next made.
The reader may perhaps not be aware that among civilised nations, in naval warfare, ships of the line never fire at frigates, unless they provoke hostility by interposing between belligerent ships, or firing into them, as was the case in the Nile, when Sir James Saumarez, in the Orion, was under the necessity of sinking the Artemise, which he did with one broadside, as a reward for her temerity. Under thissort of compact we might have come off scot-free, had we not partaken very liberally of the shot intended for larger ships, which did serious damage among our people.
The two British lines running down parallel to each other, and nearly perpendicular to the crescent line of the combined fleets, was the grandest sight that was ever witnessed. As soon as our van was within gun-shot of the enemy, they opened their fire on the Royal Sovereign and the Victory; but when the first-named of these noble ships rounded to, under the stern of the Santa Anna, and the Victory had very soon after laid herself on board the Redoubtable, the clouds of smoke enveloped both fleets, and little was to be seen except the falling of masts, and here and there, as the smoke blew away, a ship totally dismasted.
One of these proved to be English, and our captain, seeing her between two of the enemy, bore up to take her in tow: at the same time, one of our ships of the line opened a heavy fire on one of the French line-of-battle ships, unluckily situated in a right line between us, so that the shot which missed the enemy sometimes came on board of us. I was looking out of the bow port at the moment that a shot struck our ship on the stern between wind and water. It was the first time I had ever seen the effect of a heavy shot; it made a great splash, and to me as I then thought, a very unusual noise, throwing a great deal of water in my face. I very naturally started back, as I believe many a brave fellow has done. Two of the seamen quartered at my guns laughed at me. I felt ashamed, and resolved to show no more such weakness.
This shot was very soon succeeded by some others not quite so harmless: one came into the bow port, and killed the two men who had witnessed my trepidation. My pride having been hurt that these men should have seen me flinch, I will own that I was secretly pleased when I saw them removed beyond the reach of human interrogation. It would be difficult to describe my feelings on this occasion. Not six weeks before, I was the robber of hen-roosts and gardens—the hero of a horse-pond, ducking an usher—now suddenly, and almost without any previous warning or reflection, placed in the midst of carnage, and an actor of one of those grand events by which the fate of the civilised world was to be decided.
A quickened circulation of blood, a fear of immediate death, and a still greater fear of shame, forced me to an involuntary and frequent change of position; and it required some time, and the best powers of intellect, to reason myself into that frame of mind in which I could feel as safe and as unconcerned as if we had been in harbour. To this state I at last did attain, and soon felt ashamed of the perturbation under which I had laboured before the firing began. I prayed, it is true: but my prayer was not that of faith, of trust, or of hope—I prayed only for safety from imminent personal danger; and my orisons consisted of one or two short, pious ejaculations, without a thought of repentance for the past or amendment for the future.
But when we had once got fairly into action, I felt no more of this, and beheld a poor creature cut in two by a shot with the same indifference that at any other time I should have seen a butcher kill an ox. Whether my heart was bad or not, I cannot say; but I certainly felt my curiosity was gratified more than my feelings were shocked when a raking shot killed seven and wounded three more. I was sorry for the men, and, for the world, would not have injured them; but I had a philosophic turn of mind; I liked to judge of causes and effects; and I was secretly pleased at seeing the effect of a raking shot.
Towards four P.M. the firing began to abate, the smoke cleared away, and the calm sea became ruffled with an increasing breeze. The two hostile fleets were quiet spectators of each other's disasters. We retained possession of nineteen or twenty sail of the line. Some of the enemy's ships were seen running away into Cadiz; while four others passed to windward of our fleet, and made their escape. A boat going from our ship to one near us, I jumped into her, and learned the death of Lord Nelson, which I communicated to the captain, who, after paying a tribute to the memory of that great man, looked at me with much complacency. I was the only youngster that had been particularly active, and he immediately despatched me with a message to a ship at a short distance. The first lieutenant asked if he should not send an officer of more experience. "No," said the captain, "he shall go; the boy knows very well what he is about!" and away I went, not a little proud of the confidence placed in me.
Further details of this eventful day are to be found recorded in our national histories; it will, therefore, be needless to repeat them here. When I met my messmates at supper in the berth, I was sorry to see Murphy among them. I had flattered myself that some fortunate shot would have for ever divested me of any further care on his account; but his time was not come.
"The devil has had a fine haul to-day!" said an old master's mate, as he took up his glass of grog.
"Pity you, and some others I could name, had not been in the net!" thinks I to myself.
"I hope plenty of the lieutenants are bowled out!" said another; "we shall stand some chance then of a little promotion!"
When the hands were turned up to muster, the number of killed amounted to nine, and wounded to thirteen. When this was made known, there seemed to be a general smile of congratulation at the number fallen, rather than of their regret for their loss. The vanity of the officers seemed tickled at the disproportionate slaughter in a frigate of our size, as compared to what they had heard the ships of the line had suffered.
I attended the surgeon in the steerage, to which place the wounded were removed, and saw all the amputations performed, without flinching; while men who had behaved well in the action fainted at the sight. I am afraid I almost took a pleasure in observing the operations of the surgeon, without once reflecting on the pain suffered by the patient. Habit had now begun to corrupt my mind. I was not cruel by nature; I loved the deep investigation of hidden things; and this day's action gave me a very clear insight into the anatomy of the human frame, which I had seen cut in two by shot, lacerated by splinters, carved out with knives, and separated with saws.
Soon after the action, we were ordered to Spithead, with duplicate despatches. One morning I heard a midshipman say, "he would do his old father out of a new kit." I inquired what that meant, was first called a greenhorn for not knowing, and then had it explained to me. "Don't you know," said my instructor, "that after every action there is more canvas, rope, and paint, expended in the warrant-officer's accounts than were destroyed by the enemy?"
I assented to this on the credit of the informer, without knowing whether it was true or false, and he proceeded. "How are we to have white hammock-clothes, sky-sail masts, and all other finery, besides a coat of paint for the ship's sides every six weeks, if we don't expend all these things in action, and pretend they were lost overboard, or destroyed? The list of defects are given in to the admiral, he signs the demand, and the old commissioner must come down with the stores, whether he will or not. I was once in a sloop of war, when a large forty-four-gun frigate ran on board of us, carried away her jib-boom, and left her large fine-weather jib hanging on our foreyard. It was made of beautiful Russia duck, and to be sure, didn't we make a gang of white hammock-cloths, fore and aft, besides white trousers for the men? Well now, you must know, that as we make Uncle George suffer for the stores, so I mean to make dad suffer for my traps. I mean to lose my chest overboard with all my 'kit,' and return home to him and the old woman just fit for the fashion."
"And do you really mean to deceive your father and mother in that way?" replied I, with much apparent innocence.
"Do I? to be sure I do, you flat. How am I to keep up my stock, if I don't make the proper use of an action like this that we have been in?"
I took the hint: it never once occurred to me, that if I had fairly and candidly stated to my parents that my stock of clothes were insufficient for my appearance as a gentleman on the quarter-deck, that they would cheerfully have increased it to any reasonable extent. But I had been taught artifice and cunning; I could tell the truth where I thought it served my purpose, as well as a lie; but here I thought deception was a proof at once of spirit and of merit; and I resolved to practise it, if only to raise myself a trifling degree in the estimation of my unworthy associates. I had become partial to deception from habit, and preferred exercising my own ingenuity in outwitting my father, to obtaining what I needed by more straightforward and honourable measures.
The ship needed some repairs, and by the indulgence of the captain, who was pleased with my conduct, I, who required so much instruction in the nature and cause of her defects, was allowed to be absent while they were made good. By this oversight, I lost all that improvement which I should have gained by close attention to the unrigging or shipping of the ship; the manner of returning her stores; taking out her masts and ballast, and seeing her taken into dock; the shape of her bottom, and the good or bad qualities which might be supposed to accelerate or retard her movements. All this was sacrificed to the impatience of seeing my parents; to the vainglory of boasting of the action in which I had been present; and, perhaps, of being encouraged to tell lies of things which I never saw, and to talk of feats which I never performed. I loved effect; and I timed the moment of my return to my father's house (through a correspondence with my sister) to be just as a large party had sat down to a sumptuous dinner. I had only been absent three months, it is true; but it was my first cruise, and then "I had seen so much, and been in such very interesting situations."