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Chapter XIX


THE Ithuriel had orders to call at Folkestone and Dover in order to report the actual state of affairs there to the Commander-in-Chief by telegraph if Erskine could get ashore or by flash-signal if he could not, and incidentally to do as much damage as he could without undue risk to his craft if he considered that circumstances demanded it.

He arrived off Folkestone just before dusk, and, as he expected, found that there were half a dozen large transports, carrying probably eight thousand men and a proportionate number of horses and quick-firing guns, convoyed by four cruisers and ten destroyers, lying off the harbour. There were evidently no airships with the force, as, if there had been, they would certainly have been hovering over the town and shelling Shorncliffe Barracks and the forts from the air. A brisk artillery duel was proceeding between the land batteries and the squadron, and the handsome town was already in flames in several places.

Erskine, of course, recognised at once that this attack was simultaneous with that on Dover; the object of the enemy being obviously the capture of the shore line of railway between the two great Channel ports, which would provide the base of a very elongated triangle, the sides of which would be roughly formed by the roads and railways running to the westward and southward through Ashford and Maidstone, and to the northward and eastward through Canterbury, Faversham and Sittingbourne, and meeting at Rochester and Chatham, where the land forces of the invaders would, if all went well, co-operate with the sea forces in a combined attack on London, which would, of course, be preceded by a bombardment of fortified positions from the air.

Knowing what he did of the disastrous results of the battle of Portsmouth, he came to the conclusion that it was his duty to upset this plan of attack at all hazards, so he called Castellan up into the conning-tower and asked his advice on the situation.

"I see just what you mean, Erskine," replied the Lieutenant, when he had taken a good look at the map of Kent, "and it's my opinion that you'll do more to help London from here and Dover just now than you will from the Thames. Those French cruisers are big ones, though I don't quite recognise which they are, and they carry twice or three times the metal that those miserable forts do — which comes of trusting everything to the Fleet, as though these were the days of wooden walls and sails instead of steam battleships, fast cruisers and destroyers, to say nothing of submarines and airships. These Frenchies here don't know anything about the hammering they've got at Portsmouth and the capture of the transports, so they'll be expecting that force to be moving on London by the Brighton and South Coast line instead of re-building our forts and dockyards; so you go in and sink and smash everything in sight. That's just my best advice to you."

"It seems pretty rough on those chaps on the transports, doesn't it?" said Erskine, with a note of regret in his voice. "We sha'n't be able to pick up any of them. It will be pretty like murder."

"And what's that?" exclaimed Castellan, pointing to the fires in the town. "Don't ye call shelling a defenceless watering-place and burning unarmed people to death in their own homes murder? What if ye had your sister, or your mother, or your sweetheart there? How would ye feel about murder then?"

Denis Castellan spoke feelingly, for his captain possessed not only a mother, but also a very charming sister in connection with whom he cherished certain not altogether ill-founded hopes which might perchance be realised now that war had come and promotion was fairly sure for those who "got through all right."

Erskine nodded and said between his teeth:

"Yes, you're right, old man. Such mercy as they give — such shall they have. Get below and take charge. We'd better go for the cruisers first and sink them. That'll stop the shelling of the town anyhow. Then we'll tackle the destroyers, and after that, if the transports don't surrender — well, the Lord have mercy on them when those shells of Lennard's get among them, for they'll want it."

"And divil a bit better do they deserve. What have we done to them that they should all jump on us at once like this?" growled Denis as the platform sank with him. "There isn't one, no, nor two of them that dare tackle the old sea-dog alone."

Which remark was Irish but perfectly true.

By this time it was dusk enough for the Ithuriel to approach the unsuspecting cruisers unseen, as nothing but her conning-tower was soon visible, even at five hundred yards, and this would vanish when she sank to make her final rush.

The cruisers were the Chayner, Chanzy, Bruix and Latouche-Treville, all of about five thousand tons, and carrying two 7.6 in., six 5.5 in. and six 9 pounders in addition to their small quick-firers. They were steaming in an oval course of about two miles long in line ahead, delivering their bow, stern and broadside fire as they circled. The effect of the shells along the strip of coast was terrible, and by the time the Ithuriel came on the scene of action Sandgate, Shorncliffe and Folkestone were ablaze. The destroyers were of course shepherding the transports until the cruisers had silenced the shore batteries and prepared the way for the landing.

The Latouche-Treville was leading the French line when Erskine gave the order to sink and ram. Her captain never so much as suspected the presence of a British warship until his vessel reeled under the shock of the ram, trembled from stem to stern, and began to settle quickly by the head. Before she had time to sink the Ithuriel had shaken herself free, swung round in half a curve, and ripped the port quarter of the Chanzy open ten feet below the water line. Then she charged the Bruix amidships and nearly cut her in half, and as the Charner steamed up to the rescue of her stricken consorts her screws dragged her back from the sinking ship and her stern ram crashed into the Frenchman's starboard side under the foremast, and in about a quarter of an hour from the delivery of the mysterious attack the four French cruisers were either sunk or sinking.

It would be almost impossible to describe the effect which was produced by this sudden and utterly unexpected calamity, not only upon the astounded invaders, but upon the defenders, who, having received the welcome tidings of the tremendous disaster which had befallen the French Expedition at Portsmouth, were expecting aid in a very different form. Like their assailants, they had seen nothing, heard nothing, until the French cruisers suddenly ceased fire, rolled over and disappeared.

But a few minutes after the Charner had gone down, all anxiety on the part of the defenders was, for the time being, removed. The Ithuriel rose to the surface; her searchlight projector turned inshore, and she flashed in the Private Code:

"Suppose you have the news from Portsmouth. I am now going to smash destroyers and sink transports if they don't surrender. Don't shoot: might hurt me. Get ready for prisoners.
ERSKINE, Ithuriel."

It was perhaps the most singular message that had ever been sent from a sea force to a land force, but it was as well understood as it was welcome, and soon the answering signals flashed back:

"Well done, Ithuriel. Heard news. Go ahead!"

Then came the turn of the destroyers. The Ithuriel rose out of the water till her forward ram showed its point six feet above the waves. Erskine ordered full speed, and within another twenty-five minutes the tragedy of Spithead had been repeated on a smaller scale. The destroying monster rushed round the transports, hunting the torpilleurs de haute mer down one after the other as a greyhound might run rabbits down, smashed them up and sank them almost before their officers and crew had time to learn what had happened to them — and then with his searchlight Erskine signalled to the transports in the International Code, which is universally understood at sea:

"Transports steam quarter speed into harbour and surrender. If a shot is fired shall sink you as others."

Five of the six flags came down with a run and all save one of the transports made slowly for the harbour. Their commanders were wise enough to know that a demon of the deep which could sink cruisers before they could fire a shot and smash destroyers as if they were pleasure boats could make very short work of liners and cargo steamers, so they bowed to the inevitable and accepted with what grace they could defeat and capture instead of what an hour or so ago looked like certain victory. But the captain of the sixth, the one that was farthest out to sea, made a dash for liberty — or Dover.

Erskine took down the receiver and said quietly:

"Centre forward gun. Train: fire!"

The next moment a brilliant blaze of flame leapt up between the transport's funnels. They crumpled up like scorched parchment. Her whole super-structure seemed to take fire at once and she stopped.

Again flashed the signal:

"Surrender or I'll ram."

The Tricolor fluttered slowly down through the damp, still evening air from the transport's main truck, and almost at the same moment a fussy little steam pinnace — which had been keeping itself snugly out of harm's way since the first French cruiser had gone down — puffed busily out of the harbour, and the proudest midshipman in the British Navy — for the time being, at least — ran from transport to transport, crowded with furious and despairing Frenchmen, and told them, individually and collectively, the course to steer if they wanted to get safely into Folkestone harbour and be properly taken care of.

Then out of the growing darkness to the westward long gleams of silver light flashed up from the dull grey water and wandered about the under-surface of the gathering clouds, coming nearer and growing brighter every minute, jumping about the firmament as though the men behind the projectors were either mad or drunk; but the signals spelt out to those who understood them the cheering words:

"All right. We'll look after these fellows. Commander-in-Chief's orders: Concentrate on Chilham, Canterbury and Dover."

"That's all right," said Erskine to himself, as he read the signals. "Beresford's got them comfortably settled already, and he's sending someone to help here. Well, I think we've done our share and we'd better get along to Dover and London."

He flashed the signal: "Good-bye and good luck!" to the shore, and shaped his course for Dover.

So far, in spite of the terrible losses that had been sustained by the Reserve Fleet and the Channel Fleet, the odds of battle were still a long way in favour of Britain, in spite of the enormous forces ranged against her. At least so thought both Erskine and Castellan until they got within about three miles of Dover harbour, and Castellan, looking on sea and land and sky, exclaimed:

"Great Heaven help us! This looks like the other place let loose!"

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