The Battle Of Flushing
: The Coming Conquest Of England
The strategy of red tape, by which the Commander-in-Chief's hands were
tied, was destined, as in so many previous campaigns, to prove on this
occasion also a fatal error to the English.
Sir Percy Domvile, the British admiral, had received with silent rage
the order of battle communicated to him from London--the same order that
had fallen into the hands of the Germans. More than once already he had
d to show the Lords of the Admiralty what injury might be caused
by being tied to strict written orders in situations that could not
be foreseen. He now held in his own hands the proof how little the
officials, pervaded by the consciousness of their own importance and
superior wisdom, were disposed to allow themselves to be taught. But
he was too much of a service-man not to acquiesce in the orders of the
supreme court with unquestioning obedience. Certainly, if he had been
able to gauge in advance the far-reaching consequences of the mistake
already committed, he would probably, as a patriot, rather have
sacrificed himself than become the instrument for carrying out the
fundamentally erroneous tactics of the plan of battle communicated to
him. For more was now at stake than the proud British nation had ever
risked before in a naval engagement. It was a question of England's
prestige as the greatest naval power in the world, perhaps of the final
issue of this campaign which had been so disastrous for Great Britain.
All-powerful Albion, the dreaded mistress of the seas, was now fighting
for honour and existence. A great battle lost might easily mean a blow
from which the British lion, wounded to death, would never be able to
. . . . . . .
At the time when the Konig Wilhelm entered the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal
at the head of the German transport fleet, the Prince-Admiral, who had
hoisted his flag on the Wittelsbach, led the fighting fleet from the
harbour of Antwerp into the Zuid Bevelanden Canal, which connects the
East and West Schelde, and separates the island of Walcheren from Zuid
Bevelanden. Anchor was then cast.
His squadron consisted of the battleships of the Wittelsbach
class--Mecklenburg, Schwaben, Zahringen, Wettin, and Wittelsbach (the
flagship of the Prince-Admiral), and the battleships of the Kaiser
class--Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Barbarossa, Karl der Grosse, Wilhelm
II., and Friedrich III.
These ironclads were accompanied by the large cruisers Friedrich Karl,
Prinz Adalbert, Prinz Heinrich, Furst Bismarck, Viktoria Luise, Kaiserin
Augusta, and the small cruisers Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Undine, Arcona,
Frauenlob, and Medusa.
The torpedo flotilla at the Prince's disposal consisted of the
torpedo-boats S 102 to 107, G 108 to 113, S 114 to 125, with the
division boats D 10, D 9, D 7, and D 8, built on the scale of
The three fast cruisers Friedrich Karl, Prinz Adalbert and Kaiserin
Augusta, with the torpedo-boats S 114 to 120, had been sent on as
scouts, to announce the approach of the enemy in good time. The cruisers
had been ordered to post themselves thirty knots west-north-west of
Flushing at intervals of five knots, while the torpedo-boats patrolled
on all sides to keep a look-out. After having reported the approach
of the English fleet to the main squadron by wireless telegraphy,
the scouts were to retire before the enemy out of range into the West
Schelde, and at the same time to keep up such a fire in their boilers
that the clouds of thick smoke might deceive the enemy as to the size
and number of the retiring ships. When out of sight of the English,
they were to wheel round and show themselves, and, if circumstances
permitted, take up the positions previously assigned them; otherwise
they were to act according to circumstances.
The object of this manoeuvre, calculated to mislead the enemy, was
A signal informed the Prince-Admiral that the English were in sight, and
a torpedo-boat detached from the scouting squadron brought more
exact information as to the number and formation of the enemy's
ships--information which exactly corresponded with the instructions
given in the order of battle, and was a fresh proof that it was intended
to adhere to them.
This provided a sure foundation for the tactical operations of the
German fleet. No alteration was necessary in the course of action
decided upon at the council of war on the previous day, and no fresh
instructions had to be issued to individual commanders.
The order of battle settled at this council of war ran, in the main, as
"The squadron will lie at anchor off Zuid-Beveland, fires banked, so
that they can get up steam in a quarter of an hour. The battleships will
anchor in double line, according to their tactical numbers. The cruisers
between Nord-Beveland and Zuid-Beveland. The torpedo-boats with their
division boats behind.
"At the signal 'weigh anchor' the ships carry out the order according to
their tactical number; the battleships through the Roompot; the cruisers
will re-enter the West Schelde through the canal and lie off Flushing
"The two other torpedo-boat divisions will accompany the squadron."
The course of events developed exactly in accordance with these
When the approach of the enemy's ships was announced, the
Prince-Admiral's flaghip signalled: "Weigh anchor! hoist top pennants!
clear for action! follow in the Admiral's wake! cruiser division and
torpedo-boats execute orders!"
Keeping close under the coast of Walcheren, the German squadron, full
steam up, advanced to meet the enemy.
Meanwhile the approaching English, having left their hospital and
munition ships and colliers in the open under the protection of the
cruisers and taken up their appointed positions, opened fire at a
distance of about 6,000 yards on Flushing and Fort Frederik Hendrik.
The English Admiral adhered so strictly to his instructions that,
with an incomprehensible carelessness, he neglected to search the East
Schelde with his second squadron, or even with his scouts. The entry of
the German ships which had been sent back from the open into the
West Schelde, evidently appeared to Sir Percy Domvile a sufficient
confirmation of the assumption that the whole German fleet was in this
arm of the river's mouth, for the clouds of smoke which they emitted
rendered an accurate computation of their strength impossible.
Thus, the Prince-Admiral's squadron was enabled to approach the enemy
so far unobserved that it would be able to take the British fleet in the
flank, when it had reached the west point of Walcheren.
At the signal: "Full steam ahead!" the German ships in the formation
agreed steamed against the surprised English, and opened fire from
their bow-guns. Naturally, the English Admiral at once ordered the first
squadron to take up its position behind the second, turned left with
both, and went to meet the enemy in double line.
This was the opportune moment, foreseen in the Prince's plan of battle,
for the advance of the cruisers lying in the West Schelde. In order
to deceive the enemy as to their number, they rapidly approached,
accompanied by the torpedo-boats which again sent up their clouds of
smoke. The English Admiral, completely surprised by the double attack,
was obliged to divide his attention.
Certainly this torpedo attack was still a hazardous undertaking, under
existing conditions. The English shot well, and two German boats were
sunk by the enemy's shells. Three others, however, hit their mark,
damaging three of the English ships so severely that they were incapable
It was especially disadvantageous to the English that their
torpedo-boats, owing to the unforeseen change in the formation of the
battleships, were deprived of the necessary protection. The German
destroyers were not slow to make full use of this favourable situation,
and began to chase them. In this engagement, which the speed of the
little vessels rendered especially exciting for those who took part
in it, the pursuers succeeded in destroying four English torpedo-boats
without themselves suffering any damage worth mentioning. The others
escaped, and, for the time, might be regarded as out of action.
The enemy having altered his front, the Prince-Admiral had turned right
about, so that he might enter into action with all the guns of one side.
The English Admiral also doubled, but the manoeuvre proved the cause of
a fatal misfortune. Whether the disturbance of the tactical unity by the
loss of the three torpedoed vessels was the cause of it, or whether the
first and second divisions were unaccustomed to manoeuvre together, the
Formidable carried out orders so clumsily, that she was rammed amidships
by her neighbour the Renown, and immediately heeled over and sunk in a
few minutes, carrying hundreds of brave English sailors with her into
The Renown herself, whose ram had caused the fearful disaster, had not
escaped without severe injury in the collision, which had shattered
the mighty floating fortress in all its joints. The two first fore
compartments, as the bulkheads did not hold together, had filled with
water. This caused the vessel to heel over; her value as a fighting
instrument was thereby sensibly diminished.
Thus the first great catastrophe in the battle was caused, not by the
power of the enemy, but by the clumsy manoeuvring of a friendly ship.
This naturally caused many of the spectators, deeply affected by
the sinking of the magnificent vessel and her gallant crew, to ask
themselves whether the great perfection attained in the construction
of modern ships of war was not to a great extent counterbalanced by
the defects that were combined with the increasing size and fighting
strength of these gigantic ironclads. No ship of the line, no frigate,
not even the little gunboat of earlier times could have disappeared from
the line of battle so speedily and without leaving a trace behind as
the Formidable, built of mighty dimensions and equipped with all the
appliances of naval technique. No doubt her armour-plate and steel
turrets would have been able successfully to resist a hail of the
heaviest projectiles, but a misunderstood steering order had been
sufficient to send her to the bottom. Neither the double bottoms nor the
division of the bulkheads, which should have prevented the inrush of
an excessive amount of water, had been able to avert the fate which
threatens every modern ironclad when severely damaged below the
water-line. The wooden ship of former times might have been riddled like
a sieve without sinking. But the stability of a modern ironclad could
be endangered by a single leak, whether caused by a torpedo or a ram, to
such an extent that the gigantic mass of iron would be drawn down into
the depths by its own weight in a few minutes.
A running fire now went on at a distance of about 2,000 yards, in which
the superiority of the Krupp guns was as clearly manifested as the
admirable training of the German artillerists, in which the English
were far inferior. Certainly, the German ships also suffered various
injuries, but no serious damage had as yet occurred.
The three torpedoed and helpless English warships offered especially
favourable targets to the German cruisers. The latter, taking up
positions at a suitable distance, kept up such a heavy fire upon the
vessels, which could scarcely move, that their surrender was inevitable.
But before deciding on this, the English offered an heroic resistance,
and many of their shots took effect. The conning tower of the Friedrich
Karl was pierced by a shell, and the brave commander with those around
him found a glorious soldier's death. Other more or less serious
injuries were sustained, and it was almost a miracle that no vital
damage was done to any part of the ships' hulls.
After the three English ships had been put out of action, it was
unnecessary for the cruiser division to remain any longer in this
quarter of the scene of action. They accordingly proceeded with the
utmost despatch to where the Prince-Admiral was engaged in the main
fight with the battleships. Here, indeed, assistance was needed. For,
although four of the enemy's ships were lost, the superiority in numbers
still remained with the English, especially as the Mecklenburg had been
obliged to sheer off, her steering gear having been shot to pieces.
When the English Admiral saw the cruisers approaching, so that they
could bring all their bow-guns to bear at once, he recognised that the
decisive moment was at hand.
The cruisers' guns inflicted severe damage on the English, for the crews
had practised shooting rapidly at a gradually diminishing distance. The
high deck structures of the battleships offered an admirable target,
so that in the extended English line of battle nearly every shot took
For Sir Percy Domvile rapid and energetic action now became a necessary
condition of self-preservation. In the circumstances, the capture of
the German fleet, which according to the order of battle was to be the
object aimed at, was no longer to be thought of; the only thing left to
the Admiral was to endeavour to destroy as many of the enemy's ships
as possible. The British flagship signalled "Right about," and the
commandants knew that this was as good as an order to ram the German
But this manoeuvre, by which alone Sir Percy Domvile could meet the
danger that threatened him in consequence of the attack from two sides,
had been provided for by the Prince-Admiral. It had been taken into
consideration at the council of war held on the previous evening, and
each commander had received instructions as to the tactics to be pursued
in such an event. A special signal had been agreed upon, and as soon as
the English ironclads were observed wheeling round, it was hoisted on
the Admiral's ship. Each of the German battleships immediately took up
the position prescribed by the plan of battle. The squadron separated
into two halves; the first division, wheeling into line behind the
flagship, made "left about" with it, while the second division, also
making "left about," took up its position between the left wing ship.
These tactics, quite unknown to him, were completely unexpected by the
English Admiral. His purpose was entirely frustrated by the speedy and
clever manoeuvre of the German ships, the plan of destruction failed,
and his own ironclads, while proceeding athwart, had to stand a terrible
fire right and left, which was especially disastrous to the two ships on
the wings. Overwhelmed by a hail of light and heavy projectiles, and in
addition hit by torpedoes, they were in a few minutes put out of action;
one of them, the Victorious, sharing the fate of the unlucky Formidable,
sank with its crew of more than 700 men beneath the waves.
But the youthful German fleet had also received its baptism of fire in
this decisive battle.
All the means of destruction with which the modern art of war is
acquainted were employed by each of the two opponents to snatch victory
from his adversary. The shells of the heavy guns were combined with the
projectiles of the lighter armament and the machine-guns posted in the
fighting-tops, so that in the real sense of the word it was a "hail of
projectiles," which came down in passing on the ships wrapped in smoke
Hermann Heideck had become so thoroughly familiar in India with the
horrors of war on land in their various forms, that he believed his
nerves were completely proof against the horrible sight of death and
devastation. But the scenes which were being enacted around him in
the comparatively narrow space of the magnificent flagship during this
engagement, far surpassed in their awfulness everything that he had
hitherto seen. Heideck was full of admiration for the heroic courage,
contempt of death, and discipline of officers and men, not one of whom
stirred a foot from the post assigned him.
As he only played the part of an inactive spectator in the drama that
had now reached its climax, he was able to move freely over the ship.
Wherever he went, the same spectacle of horrible destruction and heroic
devotion to duty everywhere met his eye.
The men serving the guns in the turrets and casemates were enduring the
pains of hell. In the low, ironclad chambers a fiery heat prevailed,
which rendered even breathing difficult. The terrific noise and the
superhuman excitement of the nerves seemed to have so dulled the men's
senses, that they no longer had any clear idea of what was going on
around them. Their faces did not wear that expression of rage and
exasperation, which Heideck had seen in so many soldiers in the land
battle at Lahore; rather, he observed a certain dull indifference, which
could no longer be shaken by the horror of the situation.
A shell struck a battery before Heideck's eyes, exploded, and with its
flying splinters struck down nearly all the men serving the guns.
Happy were those who found death at once; for the injuries of those who
writhed wounded on the ground were of a frightful nature. The red-hot
pieces of iron, which tore the unhappy men's flesh and shattered their
bones, at the same time inflicted fearful burns upon them. Indeed,
Heideck would have regarded it as an act of humanity to have been
allowed with a shot from a well-aimed revolver, to put an end to the
sufferings of this or that unfortunate, whose skin and flesh hung in
shreds from his body, or whose limbs were transformed into shapeless,
But those who had escaped injury, after a few moments' stupefaction,
resumed their duty with the same mechanical precision as before. Amidst
their dead and dying comrades, about whom nobody could trouble himself
for the moment, they stood in the pools of warm, human blood, which
made the deck slippery, and quietly served the gun which had not been
A very young naval cadet, who had been sent down to the engine-room from
the Prince-Admiral's conning-tower with an order, met Heideck on the
narrow, suffocatingly hot passage. He was a slender, handsome youth
with a delicate, boyish face. The blood was streaming over his eyes and
cheeks from a wound in the forehead. He was obliged to lean with both
hands against the wall for support, while, with a superhuman effort of
will, he compelled his tottering knees to carry him forward, his sole
thought being that he must keep upright until he had fulfilled his
errand. When Heideck inquired sympathetically after the nature of his
wound, he even attempted to wreathe his pale lips, quivering with pain,
into a smile, for in spite of his seventeen years he felt himself at
this moment quite a man and a soldier, to whom it was an honour and a
delight to die for his country. But his heroic will was stronger than
his body, wounded to death. In the attempt to assume an erect military
bearing before the Major, he suddenly collapsed. He had just strength
enough to give Heideck the Admiral's order and ask him to carry it out.
Then his senses left him.
In another battery the store of ammunition had been exploded by a
shell. Not a man had escaped alive. Heideck himself, although since the
beginning of the engagement he had recklessly exposed himself to danger,
had hitherto, by a miracle, escaped death that threatened him in a
hundred different forms. He had been permitted, by express command of
the Prince, to stay a considerable time in the upper conning-tower,
from which the Imperial Admiral directed the battle, and the deliberate
calmness of the supreme commander, steadily pursuing his object, had
filled him with unshaken confidence in a victory for the German fleet,
in spite of the numerical superiority of the English.
Ever since Heideck had heard the news of Edith Irwin's death from
Brandelaar, all purely human feelings and sensations that connected
him with life had died in his heart. He was no longer anything but the
soldier, whose thoughts and efforts were filled exclusively with anxiety
for the victory of his country's arms. All personal experiences were
completely forgotten as if they had taken place ten years ago. At this
moment, when the existence or extinction of nations was at stake,
his own life was of so little importance to him that he was not even
conscious of the foolhardy intrepidity with which he risked it at every
Majestic and powerful, sending forth death-dealing flashes from her
turrets and portholes, the Wittelsbach had hitherto proceeded on her
way, not heeding the wounds which the enemy's shot had inflicted in her
hull. An almost thankful feeling for the glorious ship which carried him
arose in Heideck's breast.
"You do honour to the great name you bear," he thought. Through
smoke and steam he looked up at the conning-tower, where he knew the
Prince-Admiral was. Then he saw it no more, for suddenly a thick, black
cloud overspread his eyes. He had only felt a slight blow in his breast,
but no pain. He tried to lift his hand to the place where he had been
hit, but it sank powerlessly. It seemed as if he were being turned round
in a circle by an invisible hand. Thousands of fiery sparks shot
up suddenly from the dark cloud--the night closed completely round
him--deep, impenetrable night, and still, solemn silence.
Major Hermann Heideck had found a hero's death.
. . . . . . .
A torpedo-boat that had been summoned by signal hurried up at full
speed to the Admiral's flagship which was lying on her side. A broadside
torpedo had struck the Wittelsbach; and although there was no fear of
her sinking, it was impossible for operations to be directed from her
Regardless of the danger it involved, the Prince-Admiral had himself and
his staff transferred by the torpedo-boat to the Zahringen, on which his
flag was at once hoisted.
. . . . . . .
The progress of the engagement had hitherto been favourable to the
German fleet to a surprising extent. Its losses were considerably less
than those of its numerically far superior enemy, and its ships, with
few exceptions, were still able to fight and manoeuvre. But as yet,
considering the strength of the ships still at the enemy's disposal,
it was too early to speak of a decision in favour of the German fleet.
Although the clever manoeuvre of the German squadron had frustrated the
intended attack of the English, and inflicted very considerable losses
upon them, it might still be possible for Sir Percy Domvile to atone for
his mistake and to bind the capricious fortune of war to his flag.
The same frightful scenes which Major Heideck had witnessed on board
the Wittelsbach had also taken place on the other German battleships
and cruisers. Blood flowed in rivers, and, if the murderous engagement
continued much longer, the moment could not be far off when it would no
longer be possible to fill the gaps caused by death in the ranks of the
brave crews. A few luckily-aimed English torpedoes, and no genius in the
supreme command, no heroism on the part of the captains, officers, and
crew would have been able to avert disaster from the German arms.
Then, suddenly a fresh, apparently very powerful squadron, was sighted
from the south-west, which, if it had proved to be a British reserve
fleet, must have decided the victory at once in favour of the English.
The moments that passed until the question was definitely settled were
moments of the keenest suspense and excitement for those on board the
German vessels. The relief was so much the greater when it was seen to
be no fresh hostile force, but Admiral Courtille's squadron, advancing
at full speed, just at the right moment to decide the issue.
The state of affairs was now changed at one stroke so completely to
the disadvantage of the English, that a British victory had become an
impossibility. The intervention of the French squadron, still perfectly
intact, consisting of ten battleships, ten large and ten small cruisers,
was bound to bring about the annihilation of the English fleet. The
English Admiral was quickwitted enough to gauge the situation correctly,
as soon as he had recognised the approaching ships as the French fleet
and assured himself of the enemy's strength. The orders given to form
again for an attack were succeeded by fresh signals from the English
flagship, ordering a rapid retreat. The English Admiral, regarding the
battle as definitely lost, considered it his duty to save what could
still be saved of the fleet under his charge. Before the French could
actively intervene the English fleet steamed away at full speed to the
Thundering hurrahs on all the German ships acclaimed the victory
announced by this retreat. The boats of the torpedo division and some
swift cruisers were ordered to keep in touch with the fleeing enemy.
The French Admiral in command had gone on board the flagship
Zahringen to place himself and his squadron under the command of the
Prince-Admiral and to come to an arrangement as to the further joint
operations of the combined fleets. For there was no doubt that the
victory ought to be utilised at once to the fullest extent, if it were
really to be decisive.
Deeply moved, the Prince embraced Admiral Courtille, and thanked him for
appearing at the critical moment. The French Admiral, however, excused
himself for intervening so late. "I was obliged," said he, "to wait till
it was night and steer far out to the south-west before I could turn
north; I had to do this, so as to be able to break through Prince Louis
of Battenberg's blockading squadron without being seen, under cover of
Meanwhile, the scouts sent after the enemy had returned with the
information that the English fleet had altered its course and appeared
making for the Thames. Further pursuit was impossible, as the English
Admiral had detached some ships, for which the German cruisers were not
Previous arrangements had been made for transferring the dead and
wounded to the ships signalled to for the purpose, and were carried out
without great difficulty, the sea being now calmer. Now that the fearful
battle had ceased, for the first time the crews became fully conscious
of the horrors they had passed through. The rescue of the wounded showed
what cruel sacrifices the battle had demanded. It was a difficult and
melancholy task, which made many a sailor's heart beat with sorrow and
compassion. The dead were for the most part horribly mangled by the
splinters of the shells which had caused their death, and the injuries
of the wounded, for whom the surgeons on board had, of course, only been
able to provide first aid in the turmoil of battle, were nearly all so
severe, that they could only be moved slowly.
After the German ships had signalled that they were again ready for
action, those which had the dead and wounded on board, together with
the German ships put out of action and the captured English ships, were
ordered to make for Antwerp. The combined Franco-German fleet, under
the supreme command of the Prince-Admiral, resumed its voyage in the
direction of the mouth of the Thames.