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The Eve Of Battle







From: The World Peril Of 1910

In twenty minutes the Ithuriel ran alongside the Britain, which was
one of the five most formidable battleships in existence. For five years
past a new policy had been pursued with regard to the navy. The
flagships, which of course contained the controlling brains of the
fleets, were the most powerful afloat. By the time war broke out five of
them had been launched and armed, and the Britain was the newest and
most powerful of them.

Her displacement was twenty-two thousand tons, and her speed twenty-four
knots. She was armoured from end to end with twelve-inch plates against
which ordinary projectiles smashed as harmlessly as egg-shells. Twelve
fourteen-inch thousand-pounder guns composed her primary battery; her
secondary consisted of ten 9.2 guns, and her tertiary of twelve-pounder
Maxim-Nordenfeldts in the fighting tops.

It was the first time that Erskine had seen one of these giants of the
ocean, and when they got alongside he said to Denis Castellan:

"There's a fighting machine for you, Denis. Great Scott, what wouldn't I
give to see her at work in the middle of a lot of Frenchmen and Germans,
as the Revenge was among the Spaniards in Grenville's time. Just look
at those guns."

"Yes," replied Castellan, "she's a splendid ship, and those guns look as
though they could talk French to the Frenchies and German to the
Dutchmen and plain English to the lot in a way that wouldn't want much
translating. And what's more, they have the right men behind them, and
the best gun in the world isn't much good without that."

At this moment they heard a shrill voice from the forecastle of the
nearest destroyer.

"Hulloa there, what's the matter?" came from the deck of the Britain.

"Four French destroyers coming up pretty fast from the south'ard, sir.
Seem to be making for the flagship," was the reply.

"That's a job for us," said Erskine, who was standing on the narrow deck
of the Ithuriel, waiting to go on board the Britain. "Commander,
will you be good enough to deliver this to the Admiral? I must be off
and settle those fellows before they do any mischief."

The commander of the destroyer took the letter, Erskine dived below, a
steel plate slid over the opening to the companion way, and when he got
into the conning-tower he ordered full speed.

Four long black shapes were stealing slowly towards the British centre,
and no one knew better than he did that a single torpedo well under
waterline would send Admiral Beresford's floating fortress to the bottom
inside ten minutes, and that was the last thing he wanted to see.

A quartermaster ran down the ladder and caught the letter from the
commander just as the Ithuriel moved off.

"Tell the Admiral, with Captain Erskine's compliments, that he'll be
back in a few minutes, when he's settled those fellows."

The quartermaster took the letter, and by the time he got to the top of
the ladder, the Ithuriel was flying through a cloud of foam and spray
towards the first of the destroyers. He heard a rattle of guns, and then
the destroyer vanished. The Ithuriel swung round, hit the next one in
the bows, ground her under the water, turned almost at right angles,
smashed the stern of the third one into scrap iron, hit the fourth one
abreast of the conning-tower, crushed her down and rolled her over, and
then slowed down and ran back to the flagship at twenty knots.

"Well!" said Quartermaster Maginniss, who for the last few minutes had
been held spellbound at the top of the ladder, in spite of the claims of
discipline, "of all the sea-devils of crafts that I've ever heard of, I
should say that was the worst. Four destroyers gone in five minutes, and
here he is coming back before I've delivered the letter. If we only have
a good square fight now, I'll be sorry for the Frenchies."

The next moment he stiffened up and saluted. "A letter for you, Admiral,
left by Captain Erskine before he went away to destroy those
destroyers."

"And you've been watching the destruction instead of delivering the
letter," laughed Lord Beresford, as he took it from him. "Well, I'll let
you off this time. When Captain Erskine comes alongside, ask him to see
me in my room at once."

The Ithuriel ran alongside even as he was speaking. The gangway was
manned, and when he reached the deck, Admiral Beresford held out his
hand, and said with a laugh:

"Well, Captain Erskine, I understood that you were bringing me a message
from Commodore Hoskins, but you seem to have had better game to fly
for."

"My fault, sir," said Erskine, "but I hope you won't court-martial me
for it. You see, there were four French destroyers creeping round, and
mine was the only ship that could tackle them, so I thought I'd better
go and do it before they did any mischief. Anyhow, they're all at the
bottom now."

"I don't think I should have much case if I court-martialled you for
that, Captain Erskine," laughed the Admiral, "especially after what
you've done already, according to Commodore Hoskins' note. That must be
a perfect devil of a craft of yours. Can you sink anything with her?"

"Anything, sir," replied Erskine. "This is the most powerful fighting
ship in the world, but I could put you at the bottom of the Channel in
ten minutes."

"The Lord save us! It's a good job you're on our side."

"And it's a very great pity," said Erskine, "that the airships are not
with us too. I had a very narrow squeak in Spithead about three hours
ago from one of their aerial torpedoes. It struck part of a destroyer
that I'd just sunk, and although it was nearly fifty yards away, it
shook me up considerably."

"Have you any idea of the whereabouts and formation of the French Fleet?
I must confess that I haven't. These infernal airships have upset all
the plans for catching Durenne between the Channel Fleet and the
Reserve, backed up by the Portsmouth guns, so that we could jump out and
catch him between the fleet and the forts. Now I suppose it will have to
be a Fleet action at sea."

"If you care to leave your ship for an hour, sir," replied Erskine, "I
will take you round the French fleet and you shall see everything for
yourself. We may have to knock a few holes in something, if it gets in
our way, but I think I can guarantee that you shall be back on the
Britain by the time you want to begin the action."

"Absolutely irregular," said Lord Beresford, stroking his chin, and
trying to look serious, while his eyes were dancing with anticipation.
"An admiral to leave his flagship on the eve of an engagement! Well,
never mind, Courtney's a very good fellow, and knows just as much about
the ship as I do, and he's got all sailing orders. I'll come. He's on
the bridge now, I'll go and tell him."

The Admiral ran up on to the bridge, gave Captain Courtney Commodore
Hoskins' letter, added a few directions, one of which was to keep on a
full head of steam on all the ships, and look out for signals, and five
minutes later he had been introduced to Lennard, and was standing beside
him in the conning-tower of the Ithuriel listening to Erskine, as he
said into the telephone receiver:

"Sink her to three feet, Castellan, and then ahead full speed."

The pumps worked furiously for a few minutes, and the Ithuriel sank
until only three feet of her bulk appeared above the water. Then the
Admiral felt the floor of the conning-tower shudder and tremble under
his feet. He looked out of the side porthole on the starboard bow, and
saw his own fleet dropping away into the distance and the darkness of
the November night. The water ahead curled up into two huge swathes,
which broke into foam and spray, which lashed hissing along the almost
submerged decks.

"You have a pretty turn of speed on her, I must say, Captain Erskine,"
said the Admiral, after he had taken a long squint through the
semicircular window. "I'm sorry we haven't got a score of craft like
this."

"And we should have had, your lordship," replied Erskine, "if the
Council had only taken the opinion that you gave after you saw the
plans."

"I'd have a hundred like her," laughed the Admiral, "only you see
there's the Treasury, and behind that the most noble House of Commons,
elected mostly by the least educated and most short-sighted people in
the nation, who scarcely know a torpedo from a common shell, and we
should never have got them. We had hard enough work to get this one as
an experiment."

"I quite agree with you, sir," said Erskine, "and I think Lennard will
too. There has never been an instance in history in which democracy did
not spell degeneration. It's a pity, but I suppose it's inevitable. As
far as my reading has taken me, it seems to be the dry-rot of nations.
Halloa, what's that? Torpedo gunboat, I think! Ah, there's the moon.
Now, sir, if you'll just come and stand to the right here, for'ard of
the wheel, I'll put the Ithuriel through her paces, and show you what
she can do."

A long grey shape, with two masts and three funnels between them, loomed
up out of the darkness into a bright patch of moonlight. Erskine took
the receiver from the hooks and said:

"Stand by there, Castellan. Forward guns fire when I give the word--then
I shall ram."

The Admiral saw the three strangely shaped guns rise from the deck,
their muzzles converging on the gunboat. He expected a report, but none
came; only a gentle hiss, scarcely audible in the conning-tower. Then
three brilliant flashes of flame burst out just under the Frenchman's
topworks. Erskine, with one hand on the steering-wheel, and the other
holding the receiver, said:

"Well aimed--now full speed. I'm going over him."

"Over him!" echoed the Admiral. "Don't you ram under the waterline?"

"If it's the case of a big ship, sir," replied Erskine, "we sink and hit
him where it hurts most, but it isn't worth while with these small
craft. You will see what I mean in a minute."

As he spoke a shudder ran through the Ithuriel. The deck began to
quiver under the Admiral's feet; the ram rose six feet out of the water.
The shape of the gunboat seemed to rush towards them; the ram hit it
squarely amidships; then came a shock, a grinding scrape, screams of
fear from the terrified sailors, a final crunch, and the gunboat was
sinking fifty yards astern.

"That's awful," said the Admiral, with a perceptible shake in his voice.
"What speed did you hit her at?"

"Forty-five knots," replied Erskine, giving a quarter turn to the wheel,
and almost immediately bringing a long line of battleships, armoured
cruisers, protected cruisers and destroyers into view.

The French Channel Fleet was composed of the most powerful ships in the
navy of the Republic. The two portions from Brest and Cherbourg had now
united their forces. The French authorities had at last learned the
supreme value of homogeneity. The centre was composed of six ships of
the Republique class, all identical in size, armour and armament, as
well as speed. They were the Republique, Patrie flagship, Justice,
Democratie, Liberte and Verite. They were all of fifteen thousand
tons and eighteen knots. To these was added the Suffren, also of
eighteen knots, but only twelve thousand seven hundred tons: she had
come from Brest with a flotilla of torpedo boats.

There were six armoured cruisers, Jules Ferry, Leon Gambetta,
Victor Hugo, Jeanne d'Arc, Aube and Marseillaise. These were all
heavily armed and armoured vessels, all of them capable of manoeuvering
at a speed of over twenty knots. A dozen smaller protected and
unprotected cruisers hung on each flank, and a score of destroyers and
torpedo boats lurked in between the big ships.

The Ithuriel ran quietly along the curving line of battleships and
cruisers, turned and came back again without exciting the slightest
suspicion.

Erskine would have dearly loved to sink a battleship or one or two
cruisers, just to show his lordship how it was done, but the Admiral
forbade this, as he wanted to get the Frenchmen, who still thought they
were going to easy victory, entangled in the shallows of the narrow
waters, and therefore with the exception of rolling over and sinking
three submarines which happened to get in the way, no damage was done.

The British Channel Fleet, even not counting the assistance of the
terrible Ithuriel, was the most powerful squadron that had ever put to
sea under a single command. The main line of battle consisted of the
flagship Britain, and seven ships of the King Edward class, King
Edward the Seventh, Dominion, Commonwealth, Hindustan, New
Zealand, Canada and Newfoundland; all over sixteen thousand tons,
and of nineteen knots speed. With the exception of the giant flagships,
of which there were five in existence--the Britain, England,
Ireland, Scotland and Wales--and two nineteen thousand ton
monsters which had just been completed for Japan, these were the fastest
and most heavily-armed battleships afloat.

The second line was composed of the armoured cruisers, Duke of
Edinburgh, Black Prince, Henry the Fourth, Warwick, Edward the
Third, Cromwell, all of over thirteen thousand tons, and twenty-two
knots speed; the Drake, King Alfred, Leviathan and Good Hope, of
over fourteen thousand tons and twenty-four knots speed; and the
reconstructed Powerful, and Terrible, of fourteen thousand tons and
twenty-two knots. There was, of course, the usual swarm of destroyers
and torpedo boats; and in addition must be counted the ten cruisers, ten
destroyers, and fifteen torpedo boats, which had escaped from Spithead
and the Solent. These had already formed a junction with the left wing
of the British force.

For nearly two hours the two great fleets slowly approached each other
almost at a right angle. As the grey dawn of the November morning began
to steal over the calm blue-grey water, they came in plain sight of each
other, and at once the signal flew from the foreyard of the Britain,
"Prepare for action--battleships will cross front column of line
ahead--cruisers will engage cruisers individually at discretion of
Commanders--destroyers will do their worst."





Next: The Strife Of Giants

Previous: A Crime And A Mistake



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