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Chapter XXIX


AT daybreak on the nineteenth, to the utter amazement of everyone who was not "in the know," the Imperial yacht, Hohenzollern, was found off Tilbury, flying the Imperial German Ensign and the Naval flag, as well as a long string of signals ordering the aerial bombardment of London to cease, and all the Flying Fishes to return at once to Canterbury.

The apparent miracle had been accomplished in an absurdly easy fashion. About nine a.m. on the eighteenth a German orderly went into the post-office at Dover and handed in an official telegram signed "Von Roon," ordering the Hohenzollern to come round at once to Dover, as she was considered too open to attack there.

There was something so beautifully natural and simple in the whole proceeding that, although there were about a dozen German officers and non-commissioned officers in the room at the time that the orderly came and went without suspicion, the telegram was taken by the clerk, read and initialled by the Censor, and passed.

A few minutes later the orderly, marching in perfectly correct German fashion and carrying a large yellow envelope, walked out through the town northwards and climbed the hill to the eastward of the ruined castle. The envelope with its official seal took him past the sentries without question, but, instead of delivering it, he turned down a bypath to Fan Bay, under the South Foreland, gained the beach, took off his uniform in a secluded spot under the cliffs, and went for a swim. The uniform was never reclaimed, for when he reached the submerged Ithuriel Denis Castellan had a rub down and put his own on.

The captain of the Hohenzollern was only too glad to obey the order, for he also thought that it would be better protected from the dreaded ocean terror in Dover, so he lost no time in obeying the order; with the result that, just as he was entering the deserted Downs, the said terror met him and ordered him to the right — about under pain of instant sinking.

After that the rest was easy. The captain and officers raged and stormed, but not even German discipline would have prevented a mutiny if they had not surrendered. It was known that the Ithuriel took no prisoners. In five minutes after the irresistible ram had hit them they would be at the bottom of the sea, and so the Hohenzollern put about and steamed out into the North Sea, with the three wicked forward guns trained upon her, and the ram swirling smoothly through the water fifty yards from her stern.

At nightfall the course was altered for the mouth of the Thames. And so, with all lights out and steered by a thin shifting ray from her captor's conning-tower, the Kaiser's yacht made its strange way to Tilbury.

The instant she dropped her anchor a couple of destroyers ran out from the Gravesend shore and ranged alongside her. The next minute a British captain and three lieutenants followed by a hundred bluejackets had boarded her. The German Commander and his officers gave up their swords, devoutly hoping that they would never meet their War Lord again, and so the incident ended.

It will be easily understood that the Kaiser was about the most infuriated man in the United Kingdom when the Flying Fishes arrived at Canterbury and the Commander of the squadron described the arrival of the Hohenzollern in the Thames and asked for orders.

In the first place no one knew better than William the Second how priceless was the prize won by the impudent audacity of these two young British sailors. In his private apartments on board there were his own complete plans of the campaign — not only for the conquest of Britain, but afterwards for the dismemberment of the British Empire, and its partition among the Allies — exact accounts of the resources of the chief European nations in men, money and ships, plans of fortifications, and even drafts of treaties. In fact, it was such a haul of Imperial and International secrets as had never been made before; and that evening the British Cabinet held in their possession enough diplomatic explosives to blow the European league of nations to pieces.

Erskine and Castellan were honoured by an autograph letter from the King, thanking them heartily for their splendid services up to the present stage of the war, and wishing them all good luck for the future. Then the Ithuriel slipped down the Thames, towing half a dozen shabby-looking barges behind her, and for some days she disappeared utterly from human ken.

What she was really doing during these days was this. These barges and several others which she picked up now and then were filled with ammunition for her guns and fuel for her engines, and she dropped them here and there in obscure creeks and rock-bound bays from Newcastle to the Clyde, where they lay looking like abandoned derelicts, until such times as they might be wanted.

Meanwhile, very soon after the loss of the Hohenzollern, the Kaiser received two messages which disquieted him very seriously. One of these came by airship from Potsdam. It was an exhaustive report upon the papers which Lennard had left with him on that momentous night as it turned out to be, on which the War Lord had rejected the ultimatum of the Man of Peace. It was signed by Professor Döllinger and endorsed by four of the greatest astronomers of Germany.

Briefly put, its substance amounted to this: Mr Lennard's calculations were absolutely correct, as far as they went. Granted the existence of such a celestial body as he designated Alpha in the document, and its position x on the day of its alleged discovery; its direction and speed designated y and z, then at the time of contact designated n, it would infallibly come into contact with the earth's atmosphere, and the consequences deduced would certainly come to pass, viz., either the earth would combine with it, and be transformed into a semi-incandescent body, or the terrestrial atmosphere would become a fire mist which would destroy all animal and vegetable life upon the planet within, the space of a few minutes.

The second communication was a joint-note from the Emperor of Austria, the President of the Hague Council, the President of the French Republic, and the Tsar of Russia, protesting against the bombardment of London or any other defenceless town by the airships. The note set forth that these were purely engines of war, and ought not to be used for purposes of mere terrorism and murder. Their war employment on land or water, or against fortified positions, was perfectly legitimate, but against unarmed people and defenceless towns it was held to be contrary to all principles of humanity and civilisation, and it was therefore requested by the signatories that, in order to prevent serious differences between the Allies, it should cease forthwith.

The result of this communication was of course a Council of War, which was anything but a harmonious gathering, especially as several of the older officers agreed with the tone of it, and told the Kaiser plainly that they considered that there was quite enough in the actual business of war for the Flying Fishes to do; and the Chancellor did not hesitate to express the opinion that the majority of the peoples of Europe, and possibly large numbers of their own soldiers, who, after all, were citizens first and soldiers afterwards, would strongly resent such operations, especially when it became known that the Emperor's own Allies had protested against it; the result of the Council was that William the Second saw that he was clearly in a minority, and had the good sense to issue a General Order there and then that all aerial bombardments, save as part of an organised attack, should cease from that day.

The events of the next twenty days were, as may well be imagined, full of momentous happenings, which it would require hundreds of pages to describe in anything like detail, and therefore only quite a brief sketch of them can be given here. This will, however, be sufficient to throw a clear light upon the still more stupendous events which were to follow.

In consequence of the almost incredible destruction and slaughter during these first four awful days and nights of the war, both sides had lost the command of the sea, and the capture of the Hohenzollern in broad daylight less than a dozen miles from the English coast had produced such a panic among the rank and file of the invaders, and the reinforcements of men waiting on the other side of the Channel and the North Sea, that communication save by airship had practically stopped.

The consequence of this was that, geographically, the Allied armies, after the release of the prisoners from Portsmouth and Folkestone, amounted to some three million men of all arms, with half a million horses, and two thousand guns — it will be remembered that a vast number of horses, guns and stores had gone to the bottom in the warships which the Ithuriel had sunk — were confined within a district bounded by the coast-line from Ramsgate to the Needles, and thence by a line running north to Southampton; thence, across Hampshire to Petersfield, and via Horsham, Tunbridge Wells, Ashford, and over Canterbury, back to Ramsgate.

In view of the defeat and destruction of the expedition against London, the troops that had been thrown forward to Chatham and Rochester to co-operate with it were re-called, and concentrated between Ashford and Canterbury. The rest of England, Scotland and Ireland was to the present a closed country to them. The blockade on Swansea and Liverpool had been raised by the Ithuriel, and there was nothing to prevent any amount of supplies from the west and south being poured in through half a hundred ports.

Thus the dream of starving the British Islands out had been dissipated at a stroke. True, the dockyards of Devonport and Milford Haven had been destroyed by the airships, but copies of the plans of the Ithuriel had been sent to Liverpool, Barrow, Belfast, the Clyde and the Tyne, and hundreds of men were working at them night and day. Scores of battleships, cruisers and destroyers, belonging both to Britain and other countries, which were nearing completion, were being laboured at with feverish intensity, so that they might be fitted for sea in something like fighting trim; submarines were being finished off by dozens, and Thorneycroft's and Yarrow's yards were, like the rest, working to their full capacity.

The blind frenzy of rage which had swept like an epidemic over the whole kingdom during the first days of disaster had died away and in its place had come the quiet but desperate resolve that if Britain was to be conquered she should be depopulated as well.

All male employment, save that which was necessary to produce coal and iron, to keep the shipyards and the gun factories going, and the shipping on the west coast running, was stopped. In thousands of cases, especially in the north, the places of the men were taken by the women; and in addition to these, every woman and girl, from the match-girls of Whitechapel to the noblest and wealthiest in the land, found some work to do in the service of their country.

Every day, thousands and tens of thousands of the sons of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales were taken in hand by "Mr Sergeant What's-'is-Name," and drilled into shape with miraculous speed; and every day, as detachment after detachment went to the battle front, which now extended from North Foreland to Portland Bill, the magic of patriotism and the long-inherited habits of order and obedience changed the raw recruit into the steady-nerved, strong-hearted soldier, who learnt his duty in the grim school of battle, and was ready to do it to the end.

In less than a month Britain had become a military nation. It seemed at the time and afterwards a miracle, but it was merely the outcome of perfectly natural causes.

After all, every British man has a strain of fighting blood in him. Even leaving out his ancient ancestry, he remains the descendant of families who have given soldier-sons to their country during five hundred years of almost ceaseless war in one part of the world or the other. He is really born with battle-smoke in his nostrils, and the beat of the battle-drum in his heart-and he knows that, neither on land nor sea has he ever been finally beaten.

Remember, too, that this was to him a holy war, the holiest in which the sword can be drawn. He was fighting for freedom, for the possession of his land, for the protection of wife and child and kindred, and the heritage which his fathers of old time had handed down to him. Was it any wonder, then, that within the space of a few weeks the peaceful citizens of Britain, like the fabled harvest of the dragon's teeth, seemed to spring as men full-armed from the very ground? Moreover, this was no skirmishing with sharp-shooters over a vast extent of country, six thousand miles away from home, as it had been in South Africa. This was home itself. There was no right or wrong here, nothing for politicians to wrangle about for party purposes. Here, in a little corner of little England, two mighty hosts were at death-grips day and night, the one fighting for all that is dearest and most sacred to the heart of man; and the other to save itself from what could be nothing less than irretrievable disaster.

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