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Chapter XXI


THE defenders of Dover, terribly as they had suffered, and hopeless as the defence really now seemed to be, were still not a little cheered by the tidings of the complete and crushing defeat which had been inflicted by Admiral Beresford and the Ithuriel on the French at Portsmouth and Folkestone, and the brilliant capture of the whole of the two Expeditionary Forces. Now, too, the destruction of the Allied Reserve made it possible to hope that at least a naval victory might be obtained, and the transports prevented from crossing until the remains of the British Fleet Reserve could be brought up to the rescue.

At any rate it might be possible, in spite of sunken ships and shattered fortifications, to prevent, at least for a while, the pollution of English soil by the presence of hostile forces, and to get on with the mobilisation of regulars, militia, yeomanry and volunteers, which, as might have been expected, this sudden declaration of war found in the usual state of hopeless muddle and chaos.

But, even in the event of complete victory by sea, there would still be those terrible cruisers of the air to be reckoned with, and they were known to be as efficient as submarines as they were as airships.

Still, much had been done, and it was no use going to meet trouble halfway. Moreover, Beresford's guns were beginning to talk down yonder to the southward, and it was time for what was left of the North Sea Squadron and the Home Fleet to reform and manoeuvre, so as to work to the north-eastward, and get the enemy between the two British forces.

A very curious thing came to pass now. The French and German Fleets, though still much superior to the defenders, had during that first awful hour of the assault received a terrible mauling, especially from the large guns of the England and the Scotland — sisters of the Britain, and the flagships respectively of the North Sea Squadron and the Home Fleet — and the totally unexpected and inexplicable loss of their reserve; but the guns booming to the south-westward could only be those of Admiral Durenne's victorious fleet. He would bring them reinforcements more than enough, and with him, too, would come the three Flying Fishes, which had been commissioned to destroy Portsmouth and the battleships of the British Reserve. There need be no fear of not getting the transports across now, and then the march of victory would begin.

In a few minutes the fighting almost entirely ceased. The ships which had been battering each other so heartily separated as if by mutual consent, and the French and German admirals steamed to the south-westward to join their allies and sweep the Strait of Dover clear of those who had for so many hundred years considered — yes, and kept it — as their own sea-freehold.

At the same time private signals were flashed through the air to the Flying Fishes to retire on Calais, replenish their ammunition and motive power, which they had been using so lavishly, and return at daybreak.

Thus what was left of Dover, its furiously impotent soldiery, and its sorely stricken inhabitants, had a respite at least until day dawned and showed them the extent of the ruin that had been wrought.

It was nearly midnight when the three fleets joined, and just about eight bells the clouds parted and dissolved under the impact of a stiff nor'-easter, which had been gathering strength for the last two hours. The war smoke drifted away, and the moon shone down clearly on the now white-crested battlefield.

By its light and their own searchlights the French and German admirals, steaming as they thought to join hands with their victorious friends, saw the strangest and most exasperating sight that their eyes had ever beheld. The advancing force was a curiously composed one. Trained, as they were, to recognise at first sight every warship of every nation, they could nevertheless hardly believe their eyes. There were six battleships in the centre of the first line. One was the Britain, three others were of the Edward the Seventh class; two were French. Of the sixteen cruisers which formed the wings, seven were French — and every warship of the whole lot was flying the White Ensign!

Did it mean disaster — almost impossible disaster — or was it only a ruse de guerre?

They were not left very long in doubt. At three miles from a direction almost due south-east of Dover, the advancing battleships opened fire with their heavy forward guns, and the cruisers spread out in a fan on either side of the French and German Fleets. The Britain, as though glorying in her strength and speed, steamed ahead in solitary pride right into the midst of the Allies, thundering and flaming ahead and from each broadside. The Braunschweig had the bad luck to get in her way. She made a desperate effort to get out of it; but eighteen knots was no good against twenty-five. The huge ram crashed into her vitals as she swerved, and reeling and pitching like some drunken leviathan, she went down with a mighty plunge, and the Britain ploughed on over the eddies that marked her ocean grave.

This was the beginning of the greatest and most decisive sea-fight that had been fought since Trafalgar. The sailors of Britain knew that they were fighting not only for the honour of their King and country, but, as British sailors had not done for a hundred and four years, for the very existence of England and the Empire. On the other hand, the Allies knew that this battle meant the loss or the keeping of the command of the sea, and therefore the possibility or otherwise of starving the United Kingdom into submission after the landing had been effected.

So from midnight until dawn battleship thundered against battleship, and cruiser engaged cruiser, while the torpedo craft darted with flaming funnels in and out among the wrestling giants, and the submarines did their deadly work in silence. Miracles of valour and devotion were achieved on both sides. From admiral and commodore and captain in the conning-towers to officers and men in barbettes and casemates, and the sweating stokers and engineers in their steel prisons — which might well become their tombs — every man risked and gave his life as cheerfully as the most reckless commander or seaman on the torpedo flotillas.

It was a fight to the death, and every man knew it, and accepted the fact with the grim joy of the true fighting man.

Naturally, no detailed description of the battle of Dover would be possible, even if it were necessary to the narrative. Not a man who survived it could have written such a description. All that was known to the officials on shore was that every now and then an aerogram came, telling in broken fragments of the sinking of a battleship or cruiser on one side or the other, and the gradual weakening of the enemy's defence; but to those who were waiting and watching so anxiously along the line of cliffs, the only tidings that came were told by the gradual slackening of the battle-thunder, and the ever-diminishing frequency of the pale flashes of flame gleaming through the drifting gusts of smoke.

Then at last morning dawned, and the pale November sun lit up as sorry a scene as human eyes had ever looked upon. Not a fourth of the ships which had gone into action on either side were still afloat, and these were little better than drifting wrecks.

All along the shore from East Wear Bay to the South Foreland lay the shattered, shell-riddled hulks of what twelve hours before had been the finest battleships and cruisers afloat, run ashore in despair to save the lives of the few who had come alive through that awful battle-storm. Outside them showed the masts and fighting-tops of those which had sunk before reaching shore, and outside these again lay a score or so of battleships and a few armoured cruisers, some down by the head, some by the stern, and some listing badly to starboard or port — still afloat, and still with a little fight left in them, in spite of their gashed sides, torn decks, riddled topworks and smashed barbettes.

But, ghastly as the spectacle was, it was not long before a mighty cheer went rolling along the cliffs and over the ruined town for, whether flew the French or German flag, there was not a ship that French or German sailor or marine had landed on English soil save as prisoners.

The old Sea Lion had for the first time in three hundred and fifty years been attacked in his lair, and now as then he had turned and rent the insolent intruder limb from limb.

The main German Fleet and the French Channel Fleet and North Sea Squadrons had ceased to exist within twenty-four hours of the commencement of hostilities.

Once more Britain had vindicated her claim to the proud title of Queen of the Seas; once more the thunder of her enemies' guns had echoed back from her white cliffs — and the echo had been a message of defeat and disaster.

If the grim game of war could only have been played now as it had been even five years before, the victory would have already been with her, for the cable from Gibraltar to the Lizard had that morning brought the news from Admiral Commerell, Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, that he had been attacked by, and had almost destroyed, the combined French Mediterranean and Russian Black Sea Fleets, and that, with the aid of an Italian Squadron, he was blockading Toulon, Marseilles and Bizerta. The captured French and Russian ships capable of repair had been sent to Malta and Gibraltar to refit.

This, under the old conditions, would, of course, have meant checkmate in the game of invasion, since not a hostile ship of any sort would have dared to put to sea, and the crowded transports would have been as useless as so many excursion steamers, but—

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