The Wreck off Calais

The Wreck off Calais  (1869) 
Walter Thornbury

Historical and legendary ballads and songs. Previously published in All the Year Round, Series 2, Volume 2, June 5, 1869.


Saturday, October 4, 1866.

The waves broke over the harbour light,
The women ran, screaming, along the pier.
The wind like a wild beast howled; the night
Grew darker as, with a shudder of fear,
We saw just then, by the flash and flare
A hissing rocket a moment cast,
A tossing wreck swept almost bare,
Aye! the cruel end it was coming fast!

A few more blows from the breaking sea,
A few more surges of angry wave,
And a floating spar and a plank would be
All that was left. Was there none to save?
None to struggle with surf and tide,
And the foaming hell of the angry flood,
That raved and raged with a devilish pride.
Howling, as 'twere, for human blood?

'Twas a little brig of St. Nazaire,
That wrestled with Satan at sea that night;
And the steady lighthouse flame fell there
On the women's faces, wan and white;
The children sobbed, and the mothers wept,
Hearing the sailors' screaming cries.
As the torchlight fell on the waves that leapt,
And gleamed on the staring and sorrowing eyes.

And then we could see the savage rush
Of the wolfish waves as they bore along,
And swept o'er the wreck with a ravening crush.
Then the moon shone out from the gloom bygone,
And up in the rigging dark there showed,
Bound to the ropes, five half-drowned men,
And one poor boy, who a spar bestrode
Till a breaker bore him into its den.

No brave man's heart could bear that cry,
As below, on the moonlit level sands,
The women knelt in their agony,
And wrung their tight-clasped pallid hands.
The moon was full, but its tranquil light
Lent only a terror to the snow.
And a horror and fear to the rolling surge,
And the restless mighty seethe and flow.

Then we English fellows, with cheer and shout,
Ran eagerly down to the further sand,
And dragged the life-boat quickly out
Not one of us lads but bore a hand.
'Twas bedded deep in the silt and snow,
And the drift was round it high and fast;
But we dragged it steadily, though slow,
Till the deeper water was reached at last.

But just as we launched a sour-faced man
Came tow'rds us, biting his lips, and bade
The noisy Frenchmen, who after him ran,
"Pull out at once." Well, they were afraid;
Still they tumbled in in their bragging way,
Shouting their gibberish loud enough,
But half way came a wave at play,
And the lubbers were not of a right good stuff.

So they turned, and left the men to drown;
Then we went mad at that, and raced
For the boat at the other end of the town;
And we ferried across, but the fools, disgraced,
Would not bring the key, and were sullen and glum.
So we tore down the rails, which did quite as well,
And launched the boat, and were cool and dumb,
Till we pulled away for that foaming hell.

How loud they cheered from the pier and sands
As we shot like a sea bird to the wreck;
Our hearts were good, but how weak our hands;
Waves do not yield to a coxswain's beck.
A cruel sea struck our staggering boat,
A moment, and half of us had gone,
And I and some others, on oars afloat,
Saw the careless wave roll roaring on.

But English are English, come what may;
And life to them is a paltry thing
Compared with duty; so quickly they
Pushed off while we were still struggling;
And rescuing all that were left, again
They pulled through the racing rolling tide,
And saved the last Frenchman, whose worn weak brain
Had turned when his friends had slowly died.

And the Sunday morning, when all was calm,
Our steam-boat left with the five dead men,
And half way across we sang a psalm
Beside the row of coffins, and then
The captain read us a chapter or two.
Till presently up the white cliffs came;
But not for them, the brave and true,
Who put the Calais men to shame.