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Chapter XV


AS it happened, it was a fine, cold wintry day that dawned as the two great fleets drew towards each other. As Denis Castellan said, "It was a perfect jewel of a day for a holy fight," and so it was. The French fleet was advancing at twelve knots. Admiral Beresford made his fifteen, and led the line in the Britain. Erskine had been ordered to go to the rear of the French line and sink any destroyer or torpedo boat that he could get hold of, but to let the battleships and cruisers alone, unless he saw a British warship hard pressed, in which case he was to ram and sink the enemy if he could.

One division of cruisers, consisting of the fastest and most powerful armoured vessels, was to make a half-circle two miles in the rear of the French Fleet. The ships selected for this service were the Duke of Edinburgh, Warwick, Edward III., Cromwell and King Alfred. Outside them, two miles again to the rear, the Leviathan, Good Hope, Powerful and Terrible, the fastest ships in the Fleet, were to take their station to keep off stragglers.

For the benefit of the non-nautical reader, it will be as well to explain here the two principal formations in which modern fleets go into action. As a matter of fact, they are identical with the tactics employed by the French and Spanish on the one side and Nelson on the other, during the Napoleonic wars. Before Nelson's time, it was the custom for two hostile fleets to engage each other in column of line abreast, which means that both fleets formed a double line which approached each other within gunshot, and then opened fire.

At Trafalgar, Nelson altered these tactics completely, with results that everybody knows. The allied French and Spanish fleets came up in a crescent, just in the same formation as Admiral Durenne was advancing on Portsmouth. Nelson took his ships into action in column of line ahead, in other words, in single file, the head of the column aiming for the centre of the enemy's battle line.

The main advantage of this was, first, that it upset the enemy's combination, and, secondly, that each ship could engage two, since she could work both broadsides at once, whereas the enemy could only work one broadside against one ship. These were the tactics which, with certain modifications made necessary by the increased mobility on both sides, Lord Beresford adopted.

With one exception, no foreigner had ever seen the new class of British flagship, and that exception, as we know, was safely locked up on board the Ithuriel, and his reports were even now being carefully considered by the Naval Council.

There are no braver men on land and sea than the officers and crews of the French Navy, but when the giant bulk of the Britain loomed up out of the westward in the growing light, gradually gathering way with her stately train of nineteen-knot battleships behind her, and swept down in front of the French line, many a heart stood still for the moment, and many a man asked himself what the possibilities of such a Colossus of the ocean might be.

They had not long to wait. As the British battleships came on from the left with ever-increasing speed, the whole French line burst into a tornado of thunder and flame, but not a shot was fired from the English lines. Shells hurtled and screamed through the air, topworks were smashed into scrap-iron, funnels riddled, and military masts demolished; but until the Britain reached the centre of the French line not a British gun spoke.

Then the giant swung suddenly to starboard, and headed for the space between the Patrie and the Republique. The Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and Hindustan put on speed, passed under her stern, and headed in between the Sufren, Liberte, Verite and Patrie, while the Edward VII, Dominion and Commonwealth turned between the Justice, Democratie, the Aube and Marseillaise.

Within a thousand yards the British battleships opened fire. The first gun from the Britain was a signal which turned them all into so many floating volcanoes. The Britain herself ran between the Patrie and the Republique, vomiting storms of shell, first ahead, then on the broadside and then astern. Her topworks were of course crumpled out of all shape — that was expected; for the range was now only about five hundred yards — but the incessant storm of thousand-pound shells from the fourteen-inch guns, followed by an unceasing hail of three hundred and fifty pound projectiles from the 9.2 quickfirers, reduced the two French battleships to little better than wrecks. The Britain steamed through and turned, and again the awful hurricane burst out from her sides and bow and stern. She swung round again, but now only a few dropping shots greeted her from the crippled Frenchmen.

"I don't think those chaps have much more fight left in them," said the Admiral to the Captain as they passed through the line for the third time. "We'll just give them one more dose, and then see how the other fellows are getting on."

Once more the monster swept in between the doomed ships; once more her terrible artillery roared. Two torpedo boats, five hundred yards ahead were rushing towards her. A grey shape rose out of the water, flinging up clouds of spray and foam, and in a moment they were ground down into the water and sunk. The hastily-fired torpedoes diverged and struck the two French battleships instead of the Britain. Two mountains of foam rose up under their sterns, their bows went down and rose again, and with a sternward lurch they slid down into the depths.

The Britain swung round to port, and poured a broadside into the Liberte, which had just crippled the Hindustan, and sunk her with a torpedo. The New Zealand was evidently in difficulties between the Liberte and the Verite. Her upper works were a mass of ruins, but she was still blazing away merrily with her primary battery. The Admiral slowed down to ten knots, and got between the two French battleships; then her big guns began to vomit destruction again, and in five minutes the two French battleships, caught in the triangular fire and terribly mauled, hauled their flags down, and so Lord Beresford's scheme was accomplished. The Dominion and Edward VII. had got between their ships at the expense of a severe handling, and were giving a very good account of them, and the Canada had sunk the Suffren with a lucky shell which exploded in her forward torpedo room and blew her side out.

It was broad daylight by this time, and it was perfectly plain, both to friend and foe, that the French centre could no longer be counted upon as a fighting force. One of the circumstances which came home hardest afterwards to the survivors of the French force was the fact that, as far as they knew, not a single British battleship or cruiser had been struck by a French destroyer or torpedo boat. The reason for this was the very simple fact that Erskine had taken these craft under his charge, and, while the big ships had been thundering away at each other, he had devoted himself to the congenial sport of smashing up the smaller fry. He sent the Ithuriel flying hither and thither at full speed, tearing them into scrap-iron and sending them to the bottom, as if they had been so many penny steamers. He could have sent the battleships to the bottom with equal ease, but orders were orders, and he respected them until his chance came.

The Verite was now the least injured of the French battleships. To look at she was merely a floating mass of ruins, but her engines were intact, and her primary battery as good as ever. Her captain, like the hero that he was, determined to risk his ship and everything in her in the hope of destroying the monster which had wrought such frightful havoc along the line. She carried two twelve-inch guns ahead, a 6.4 on each side of the barbette, and four pairs of 6.4 guns behind these, and the fire of all of them was concentrated ahead.

As the Britain came round for the third time every one of the guns was laid upon her. He called to the engine-room for the utmost speed he could have, and at nineteen knots he bore down upon the leviathan. The huge guns on the Britain swung round, and a tempest of shells swept the Verite from end to end. Her armour was gashed and torn as though it had been cardboard instead of six- and eleven-inch steel; but still she held on her course. At five hundred yards her guns spoke, and the splinters began to fly on board the Britain. The Captain of the Verite signalled for the last ounce of steam he could have — he was going to appeal to the last resort in naval warfare — the ram. If he could once get that steel spur of his into the Britain's hull under her armour, she would go down as certainly as though she had been a first-class cruiser.

When the approaching vessels were a little more than five hundred yards apart, the Ithuriel, who had settled up with all the destroyers and torpedo boats she could find, rose to the north of the now broken French line. Erskine took in the situation at a glance. He snatched the receiver from the hooks, shouted into it:

"Sink — full speed — ram!"

The Ithuriel dived and sprang forward, and when the ram of the Verite was within a hundred yards of the side of the Britain his own ram smashed through her stern, cracked both the propeller shafts, and tore away her rudder as if it had been a piece of paper. She stopped and yawed, broadside on to the Britain. The chases of the great guns swung round in ominous threatening silence, but before they could be fired the Tricolor fluttered down from the flagstaff, and the Verite, helpless for all fighting purposes, had surrendered.

It was now the turn of the big armoured cruisers. They were practically untouched, for the heaviest of the fighting had fallen on the battleships. A green rocket went up from the deck of the Britain, and was followed in about ten seconds by a blue one. The inner line of cruisers made a quarter turn to port, and began hammering into the crippled battleships and cruisers indiscriminately, while the Leviathan, Good Hope, Powerful and Terrible took stations between the Isle of Wight and the Sussex coast.

The Ithuriel rose to her three-foot freeboard, and put in some very pretty practice with her pneumatic guns on the topworks of the cruisers. The six-funnelled Jeanne d'Arc got tired of this, and made a rush at her at her full speed of twenty-three knots, with the result that the Ithuriel disappeared, and three minutes afterwards there came a shock under the great cruiser's stern which sent a shudder through her whole fabric. The engines whirled furiously until they stopped, and a couple of minutes later her captain recognised that she could neither steam nor steer. Meanwhile, the tide was setting strongly in towards Spithead, and the disabled ships were drifting with it, either to capture or destruction.

The French centre had now, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Four out of six battleships were sunk, and one had surrendered, and the Jeanne d'Arc had gone down.

On the British side the Hindustan had been sunk, and the Dominion, Commonwealth and Newfoundland very badly mauled, so badly indeed that it was a matter of dry dock as quickly as possible for them. All the other battleships, including even the Britain herself, were little better than wrecks to look at, so terrible had been the firestorms through which they had passed.

But for the presence of the Ithuriel, the British loss would of course have been much greater. It is not too much to say that her achievements spread terror and panic among the French torpedo flotilla. Under ordinary circumstances they would have taken advantage of the confusion of the battleship action to attack the line of armoured cruisers behind, but between the two lines there was the ever-present destroying angel, as they came to call her, with her silent deadly guns, her unparalleled speed, and her terrible ram. No sooner did a destroyer or torpedo boat attempt to make for a cruiser, than a shell came hissing along the water, and blew the middle out of her, or the ram crashed through her sides, and sent her in two pieces to the bottom.

The result was that when the last French cruiser had hauled down her flag, Admiral Beresford found himself in command of a fleet which was still in being. Of the French battleships the Justice and the Democratie were still serviceable, and of the cruisers, the Jules Ferry, Leon Gambetta, Victor Hugo, Aube and Marseillaise were still in excellent fighting trim, although of course they were in no position to continue the struggle against the now overwhelming force of British battleships and armoured cruisers. This was what Admiral Beresford had fought for: to break the centre and put as many battleships as possible out of action. His orders had been to spare the cruisers as much as possible, because, he said, with a somewhat grim laugh, they might be useful later on.

The idea of their escaping to sea through the double line of British cruisers, to say nothing of the Ithuriel, with her speed of over fifty miles an hour, and her ability to ram them in detail before they were halfway across the Channel, was entirely out of the question. To have attempted such a thing would have been simply a form of collective suicide, so the flags were hauled down, and all that was left of the fleet surrendered.

Another circumstance which had placed the French fleet at a tremendous disadvantage was the absence of the three Flying Fishes, which were to have co-operated with the invading fleet, but of course neither Admiral Durenne, who had gone down with his ship, nor any other of his officers knew that the Banshee had been blown up in mid-air, or that the Ithuriel had destroyed the dépôt ship, and so forced Castellan, after his mad waste of ammunition in the destruction of Portsmouth, to wing his way to Kiel, with the See Adler, in order to replenish his magazines. Had those two amphibious craft been present at the battle, the issue might have been something very different.

The whole fight had only taken a couple of hours from the firing of the first shot to the hauling down of the last flag. Admiral Beresford made direct for Portsmouth to get his lame ducks into dock if possible, and to discover the amount of damage done. As they steamed in through the Spithead Forts, flags went up all along the northern shore of the Isle of Wight, and the guns on the Spithead Forts and Fort Monckton, which the Banshee had been commissioned to destroy, roared out a salute of welcome.

The signal masts of the sunk battleships showed where their shattered hulls were lying, and as the Britain led the way in between them, Lord Beresford rubbed his hands across his eyes, and said to his Commodore, who was standing on what was left of the navigating bridge

"Poor fellows, it was hardly fair fighting. We might have had something very like those infernal craft if we'd had men of decent brains at the War Office. Same old story — anything new must be wrong in Pall Mall. Still we've got something of our own back this morning. I hope we shall be able to use some of the docks; if I'm not afraid our lame ducks will have to crawl round to Devonport as best they can. The man in command of those airships must have been a perfect devil to destroy a defenceless town in this fashion. The worst of it is that if they can do this sort of thing here they can do it just as easily to London or Liverpool, or Manchester or any other city. I hope there won't be any more bad news when we get ashore."

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