|Previous chapter||Contents||Next chapter|
HOW THE FRENCH LANDED AT PORTSMOUTH
ALL the ships able to take their place in the fighting-line were left outside. The French prisoners were disembarked and their places taken by drafts from the British warships, who at once set about making such repairs as were possible at sea. Admiral Beresford boarded the Ithuriel, which, until the next fight, he proposed to use as a despatch-boat, and ran up the harbour.
He found every jetty, including the North and South Railway piers, mere masses of smoking ruins: but the Ordnance Depot on Priddy's Hard had somehow escaped, probably through the ignorance of the assailants. He landed at Sheer jetty opposite Coaling Point, and before he was half-way up the steps a short, rather stout man, in the undress uniform of a General of Division, ran down and caught him by the hand. After him came a taller, slimmer man with eyes like gimlets and a skin wrinkled and tanned like Russian leather.
The first of the two men was General Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief at Aldershot, and the second was General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander of the Southern Military District.
"Bravo, Beresford!" said General French, quietly. "Scooped the lot, didn't you?"
"All that aren't at the bottom of the Channel. Good-morning, Hamilton. I've heard that you're in a pretty bad way with your forts here," replied the Admiral. "By the way, how are the docks? I've got a few lame ducks that want looking after badly."
"We've just been having a look round," replied General Hamilton. "The town's in an awful state, as you can see. The Naval and Military barracks, and the Naval School are wrecked, and we haven't been able to save very much from the yards, but I don't think the docks are hurt much. The sweeps went more for the buildings. We can find room for half a dozen, I think, comfortably."
"That's just about what I want," said the Admiral. "We've lost the Hindustan and New Zealand. The Canada and Newfoundland are pretty badly mauled, and I've got half a dozen Frenchmen that would be all the better for a look over. The Britain, Edward VII, Dominion and Commonwealth are quite seaworthy, although, as you see, they've had it pretty hot in their topworks. The cruiser squadron is practically untouched. We've got the Verite, Justice and Democratie, but the Verite has got her propellers and rudders smashed. By the way, that ship of Erskine's, the Ithuriel, has turned out a perfect demon. She smashed up the first attack, sank nine destroyers and two cruisers, one of them was that big chap the Dupleix, before we came on the scene. During the action she wiped out I don't know how many destroyers and torpedo boats, sank the Jeanne d'Arc and saved my ship from being rammed by crippling the Verite just in the nick of time. If we only had a squadron of those boats and made Erskine Commodore, we'd wipe the fleets of Europe out in a month. Now that's my news. What's yours?"
"Bad enough," replied General French. "A powerful combined fleet of Germans and French, helped by some of these infernal things that seem as much at home in the air as they are in the water, are making a combined attack on Dover, and we seem to be getting decidedly the worst of it. Dover Castle is in flames, and nearly all the forts are in a bad way; so are the harbour fortifications. The Russians and Dutch are approaching London with a string of transports behind them, and four airships above them. Their objectives are supposed to be Tilbury and Woolwich on one hand, and Chatham on the other. By the way, weren't there any transports behind this French Fleet that you've settled up with?"
He had scarcely uttered the last word when a helio began to twinkle from the hill above Foreland.
"That's bad news," said the Admiral, "but wait now, there's something else. It's a good job the sun's come out, though it doesn't look very healthy."
The message that the helio twinkled out was as follows:
"Thirty large vessels, apparently transports, approaching from direction of Cherbourg and Brest about ten miles south-east by south."
"Very good," said the Admiral, rubbing his hands. "Of course they think we're beaten. I've got five French cruisers that they'll recognise. I'll get crews aboard them at once and convoy those transports in, and the Commanders will be about the most disgusted men in Europe when they get here."
Acting on the principle that all is fair in love and war, Admiral Beresford and the two Generals laid as pretty a trap for the French transports as the wit of man ever devised. Ten minutes' conversation among them sufficed to arrange matters. Then the Admiral, taking a list of the serviceable docks with him, went back on board the Ithuriel and ran out to the Fleet. He handed over the work of taking care of the lame ducks to Commodore Courtney of the Britain; then from the damaged British ships he made up the crews of the French cruisers, the Jules Ferry, Leon Gambetta, Victor Hugo, Aube and Marseillaise. He took command of the squadron on board the Victor Hugo, and to the amazement of officers and men alike, he ordered the Tricolor to be hoisted. At the same time, the White Ensign fluttered down from all the British ships that were not being taken into the dockyard and was replaced by the Tricolor. A few minutes afterward the French flag rose over Fort Monckton and upon a pole mast which had been put up amidst the ruins of Southsea Castle.
The French prisoners of course saw the ruse and knew that its very daring and impudence would command success. Some of them wrung their hands and danced in fury, others wept, and others cursed to the full capability of the French language, but there was no help for it. What was left of Portsmouth was already occupied by twenty thousand men of all arms from the Southern Division. The prisoners were disarmed and their ships were in the hands of the enemy to do what they pleased with, and so in helpless rage they watched the squadron of cruisers steam out to meet the transports, flying the French flag and manned by British crews. It meant either the most appalling carnage, or the capture of the First French Expeditionary Force consisting of fifty thousand men, ten thousand horses, and two hundred guns.
The daringly original stratagem was made all the easier of achievement by the fact that the Commanders of the French transports, counting upon the assistance of the airships and the enormous strength of the naval force which had been launched against Portsmouth, had taken victory for granted, and when the first line came in sight of land, and officers and men saw the smoke-cloud that was still hanging over what twenty-four hours before had been the greatest of British strongholds, cheer after cheer went up. Portsmouth was destroyed and therefore the French Fleet must have been victorious. All that they had to do, therefore, was to steam in and take possession of what was left. At last, after all these centuries, the invasion of England had been accomplished, and Waterloo and Trafalgar avenged!
Happily, in the turmoil of the fight and the suddenness to which the remains of the French Fleet had been forced to surrender, the captain of the Victor Hugo had forgotten to sink his Code Book. The result was that when the cruiser squadron steamed out in two divisions to meet the transports, the French private signal, "Complete victory welcome," was flying from the signal-yard of the Victor Hugo. Again a mighty cheer thundered out from the deck of every transport. The cruisers saluted the transports with seventeen guns, and then the two divisions swung out to right and left, and took their stations on either flank of the transports.
And so, all unsuspecting, they steamed into Spithead, and when they saw the British ships lying at anchor, flying the Tricolor and the same flag waving over Fort Monckton and Southsea Castle, as well as from half a dozen other flagstaffs about the dockyards, there could be no doubt as to the magnitude and completeness of the victory which the French Fleet had gained, and moreover, were not those masts showing above the waters of Spithead, the masts of sunken British battleships.
Field-Marshal Purdin de Trevillion, Commander of the Expeditionary Force, accompanied by his staff, was on board the Messageries liner Australien, and led the column of transports. In perfect confidence he led the way in between the Spithead Forts, which also flew the Tricolor and saluted him as he went past. As the other vessels of the great flotilla followed in close order, Fort Monckton and the rest of the warships saluted; and then as the last transport entered the narrow waters, a very strange thing happened. The cruisers that had dropped behind spread themselves out in a long line behind the forts; the British ships slipped their moorings and steamed out from Stokes Bay and made a line across to Ryde. Destroyers and torpedo boats suddenly dotted the water with their black shapes, appearing as though from nowhere; then came down every Tricolor on fort and ship, and the White Ensign ran up in its place, and the same moment, the menacing guns swung round and there was the French flotilla, unarmed and crowded with men, caught like a flock of sheep between two packs of wolves.
Every transport stopped as if by common instinct. The French Marshal turned white to the lips. His hands went up in a gesture of despair, and he gasped to his second-in-command, who was standing beside him:
"Mon Dieu! Nous sommes trahis! Ces sacrés perfides Anglais! We are helpless, like rats in a trap. With us it is finished, we can neither fight nor escape."
While he was speaking, the huge bulk of the Britain steamed slowly towards the Australien, flying the signal "Do you surrender?" Within five hundred yards, the huge guns in her forward barbette swung round and the muzzles sank until the long chases pointed at the Australien's waterline. The Field-Marshal knew full well that it only needed the touch of a finger on a button to smash the Australien into fragments, and he knew too that the first shot from the flagship would be the signal for the whole Fleet to open fire, and that would mean massacre unspeakable. He was as brave a man as ever wore a uniform, but he knew that on the next words he should speak the lives of fifty thousand men depended. He took one more look round the ring of steel which enclosed him on every side, and then with livid lips and grinding teeth gave the order for the flag to be hauled down. The next moment he unbuckled his sword and hurled it into the sea; then with a deep groan he dropped fainting to the deck.
It would be useless to attempt to describe the fury and mortification with which the officers and men of the French Force saw the flags one by one flutter down from end to end of the long line of transports, but it was plain even to the rawest conscript that there was no choice save between surrender and massacre. They cursed and stamped about the decks or sat down and cried, according to temperament, and that, under the circumstances, was about all they could do.
Meanwhile, a steam pinnace came puffing out from the harbour, and in a few minutes General French was standing on the promenade deck of the Australien. The Field Marshal had already been carried below. A grey-haired officer in the uniform of a general came forward with his sword in his hand and said in excellent English, but with a shake in his voice:
"You are General French, I presume? Our Commander, Field-Marshal Purdin de Trevillion had such an access of anger when he found how we had been duped that he flung his sword into the sea. He then fainted, and is still unconscious. You will, therefore, perhaps accept my sword instead of his."
General French touched the hilt with his hand, and said:
"Keep it, General Devignes, and I hope your officers will do the same. I will accept your parole for all of them. You are the Field-Marshal's Chief-of-Staff, I believe, and therefore, of course, your word is his. I am very sorry to hear of his illness."
"You have my word," replied General Devignes, "for myself and those of my officers who may be willing to give their parole, but for those who prefer to remain prisoners I cannot, of course, answer."
"Of course not," replied General French, with a rather provoking genial smile. "Now I will trouble you to take your ships into the harbour. I will put a guard on each as she passes; meanwhile, your men will pile arms and get ready to disembark. We cannot offer you much of a welcome, I'm afraid, for those airships of yours have almost reduced Portsmouth to ruins, to say nothing of sending ten of our battleships and cruisers to the bottom. I can assure you, General, that the losses are not all on your side."
"No, General," replied the Frenchman, "but for the present, at least, the victory is on yours."
Then transport after transport filed into the harbour, and General Hamilton and his staff took charge of the disembarkation. Six of the British lame ducks had been got safely into dock, and every available man was slaving away in deadly earnest to repair the damage done in those terrible two hours. Repairs were also being carried out as rapidly as possible on the cruisers and battleships lying in Spithead, and as shipload after shipload of the disarmed French soldiers were landed, they were set to work, first at clearing up the dockyards and getting them into something like working order, and then clearing up the ruins of the three towns.
The news of Admiral Beresford's magnificent coup had already reached London, and the reply had come back terse and to the point:
"Excellently well done. Congratulate Admiral Beresford and all concerned. We are hard pressed at Dover, and London is threatened. Send Ithuriel to Dover as soon as possible, and let her come on here when she has given any possible help. Land and sea defence of south and south-east at discretion of yourself, Domville and Beresford.CONNAUGHT."
By some miracle, the Keppel's Head, perhaps the most famous naval hostelry in the south of England, had escaped the shells from the airships, and so General French had made it his headquarters for the time being. Sir Compton Domville had received a rather serious injury from a splinter in the left arm during the destruction of the Naval Barracks, but he had had his wounds dressed and insisted, against the advice of the doctors, in driving down to the Hard and talking matters over with General French. They were discussing the disposition of the French prisoners and the huge amount of war material which had been captured, when the telegram was delivered. They had scarcely read it when there was a knock at the door and an orderly entered, and said:
"Captain Erskine, of the Ithuriel, would be pleased to see the General when he's at liberty."
"The very man!" said General French. "This is the young gentleman," he continued, turning to Admiral Domville, "who practically saved us from two torpedo attacks, won the Fleet action for us, and saved Beresford from being rammed at the moment of victory."
The door opened again, and Erskine came in. He saluted and said:
"General, if I may suggest it, I shall not be much more use here, and my lieutenant, Denis Castellan, has just had a telegram from his aunt and sister, who are in London, saying that things are pretty bad there. I fancy I might be of some use if you would let me go, sir."
"Let you go!" laughed the General. "Why, my dear sir, you've got to go. Here's a telegram that I've just had from His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief, saying that Dover and London are in a bad way, and telling me to send you round at once. When can you start?"
"Well, sir," replied Erskine, after a moment's thought, "we're not injured in any way, but it will take a couple of hours, I'm afraid, to replenish our motive power, and fill up with shell, and added to that, I should like to have a good overhaul of the machinery."
"Just listen to that, now!" exclaimed Admiral Beresford, who had entered the room while he was speaking. "Here's a man who has done nearly as much single-handed as the rest of us put together and fought through as stiff a Fleet action as the hungriest fire-eater in the navy wants to see, and tells you he isn't injured, while half of us are knocked to scrap-iron. I wish we had fifty Ithuriels, there'd be very little landing on English shores."
"I don't think you have very much to complain of in the French landing at Portsmouth, Beresford," laughed Sir Compton Domville. "I don't want to flatter you, but it was an absolute stroke of genius. We shall have to set those fellows to work on the forts and yards and get some guns into position again. It isn't exactly what they came for but they'll come in very useful. But that can wait. Here's the wire from the Commander-in-Chief. Captain Erskine, you are to get round to Dover and London as soon as possible, and, I presume, do all the damage you can on the way. General French is going to London as soon as a special can be got ready for him."
"May I ask a great favour, sir?" said Erskine.
"Anything, after what you've done," replied Sir Compton. "What is it?"
General French and Lord Beresford nodded in agreement, and Erskine continued, addressing Lord Beresford: "That Mr Lennard, whom your lordship met on board the Ithuriel, has given me the formula of a new high explosive. Absurdly simple, but simply terrific in its effect. I made up half a dozen shells with it and tried them. I gave the Dupleax three rounds. They seem to reduce steel to dust, and, as far as we could see every man on the decks dropped as if he had been struck by lightning. From what we have done with them I think they will be of enormous value. Now Mr Lennard is very anxious to get to London and the north of England, and if General French could find him a place in his special"
"My dear sir," interrupted the General, "I shall be only too delighted to know your maker of thunderbolts. Is he here now?"
"Yes, sir, he's in the smoking-room with Lieutenant Castellan. And that reminds me, if I am to go to London, I hope you will allow me to hand over the German spy that we caught here as soon as convenient."
"Bring them both in," said General French. "Sir Compton and General Hamilton will court-martial your spy this morning, and, I hope, shoot him this evening."
Within an hour, Lennard, who had something more serious now to think about than even war, was flying away Londonwards in General French's special, with a letter of introduction from Denis Castellan to his aunt and sister, and an hour after the special had started, the Ithuriel had cleared the narrow waters and was tearing up the Channel at fifty miles an hour, to see what havoc she could work on the assailants of London and Dover.
|Previous chapter||Contents||Next chapter|