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A Change Of Scene

From: The World Peril Of 1910

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 Charner, 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!"

Next: The Night Of Terror Begins

Previous: A Glimpse Of The Peril

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