Only the Naval Reserve
BY RALPH E. CROPLEY
IN the history of the world there has never been a time when the sea has held the same dramatic appeal to mankind that it holds to-day. Many a ship sails from port and is never heard of again. Others return with their bridges shot away, their funnels riddled with shell-holes, and gaping wounds in their sides, and bring us tales almost unbelievable.
In comparison with the number of ships passing through the war zone, the number sunk has been almost infinitesimal; but this is due, not so much to the efficiency of the British Navy as to the merchant-ship men themselves. Without their unrecorded pluck and endurance during the past three years, as Admiral Jellicoe has said, ’the Navy, and indeed England, could not have existed.’ It is they who have gathered the great armies of the Allies from the ends of the earth. It is they who fuel and provision the dreadnoughts. With their lives the Allies have purchased every ton of food they have imported.
As members of the Naval Reserve, they have hunted submarines in all kinds of weather. They have swept the sea for mines, and hardly a day has passed when some of them have not been blown up. They man tugs, salvage the wounded, and convoy the well. They have been called upon for every sort of service — to navigate unlighted coasts, zigzagging at full speed, day and night, through dense fog, without blowing a whistle; to bring their torpedoed craft into port, expecting every moment to have her sink beneath them.
Some day the historian, and after him the poet, will tell their story. This chronicle of war, gathered piecemeal from the laconic narratives of imperturbable survivors, — British answers to Yankee questions, — from old sea friends of mine, under the mellowing influence of tobacco, and pieced together from odds and ends of information is here set down with a due sense of its inadequacy.
But, whoever tells the story, it stirs the blood to read of the Avocet, which left the river Meuse in calm weather and with a smooth sea, en route from Rotterdam to England. The land was still on the horizon when three German aeroplanes out of Belgium swooped down on her. Two were light aircraft, while the third, a battle-plane, was handled with great skill, attacking the ship from an elevation as low as eight hundred feet. The great plane would fly over her from stem to stern so as to have her full length for a target and not her beam only. But each time that it laid a course parallel to the ship, the Avocet’s officers would swing her to port or starboard, to get her out of line. Then the enemy overhead would sweep around in a circle, and the manœuvre would begin once more.
The two smaller aeroplanes were less skillfully manœuvred, flying across the ship from starboard to port and from port to starboard. If any one of the three had dared to descend to a lower level, the Avocet must have been hit and sunk; but the crew with their rifles maintained a constant fire upon them. Finally, the chief officer was fortunate enough to explode a distress-signal rocket within a few feet of the battleplane, and the most formidable antagonist had to keep a higher altitude.
The fight lasted half an hour. The Germans dropped thirty-five bombs, all of which fell close, several missing the mark by not more than seven feet; and throughout the fight the Avocet was in danger from floating mines as well. Furthermore, before running out of bombs, the battle-plane turned its machine-gun on the ship, hoping thereby to kill the crew or drive them to cover, so that, being no longer so cleverly handled, she would be an easier mark for the bombs.
When the three Huns flew away, the Avocet’s decks were littered with shrapnel; yet nobody was hurt, and the lookout man in the bows stuck to his post throughout. He actually reported a floating mine dead ahead, while the fight was at its hottest, so faithful a watch did he keep.
Even in these mad days, we can still wonder at the rash courage of the merchant skipper of the Straton, dashing in amid the wreckage of the sinking Runo, and saving two hundred lives despite the mines which could be seen floating about her. And who can fail to admire the dauntlessness of the old fishermen of Britain and of France, — men retired from the sea a score of years ago, — who, when their sons took up mine-sweeping, went back to the worn-out trawlers condemned by the Admiralty as unseaworthy, and with antiquated gear resumed the dragging of their trawls, assisted by their grandsons!
For over two years the majority of the Allies’ merchant ships traversed the danger zone and the Mediterranean without armament or convoy, and in many cases without wireless outfit. This statement is equally true of the transports: witness the case of the Ramazon, from which only three men were saved after she had been literally shelled to pieces by a U-boat.
Another case was that of the Mercian. She was jammed to the gunwales with some three thousand troops, bound for Gallipoli. She had no gun, nor was she convoyed. A submarine came up and began shelling her. Captain Walker took the wheel himself, and for over two hours drove his comparatively slow-moving ship in flight. Not once did his nerve fail, while the storm of shrapnel fell all over the ship. A brother captain of his told me that Walker’s coat was literally riddled, though not a shot wounded him; that there were about ninety troops killed on board. During the chase some of the troops and crew, thinking the game was up, attempted to launch a boat. As it was being lowered, one fall slipped and the bow dropped, spilling out all except about fourteen, who clung to the thwarts and seats. Suspended thus with one end dragging in the water, the boat retarded the Mercian’s speed and allowed the submarine to gain. Somebody had presence of mind to get an axe and cut the davit-falls which held the boat, and let her drop away. In going down she miraculously missed the propeller, which, however, cut off the leg of one of the wireless men. Two hours later, the men who had clung to the boat were all picked up by the transport Cardiganshire. They had all got to the lifeboat, which floated, although full of water. Some one, it seems, had hauled the wireless operator aboard, and put a tourniquet on his leg. The poor fellow was taken on to Malta, where he died. Captain Walker, by his nerve, saved the Mercian and twenty-nine hundred of the troops from destruction. If he had worn the uniform of the Army or Navy he would have received the Victoria Cross. As it was, I am told that he received from his government the Military Medal, only because the officers of the troops he had on board demanded it for him.
In one case justice has been done a merchant sailor, for he has received as noble a reward, I think, as was ever bestowed. The Teviot, a little tub of a cargo boat, some 330 feet in length, was leaving Ostend, and it was understood that she would be the last boat to leave that port for England and safety, as the Germans were in the act of entering the town. People fought desperately for a chance to board her, and she was crowded with refugees.
She was commanded by Captain Braithwaite — a man of forty-odd, robust and thick-set, with a complexion like raw beef, an accent thicker than gruel, and a resounding laugh that seemed to start in his boots.
Just as the Teviot cleared the breakwater and pointed her nose toward England, Braithwaite saw a party of nuns being chased along the beach by German soldiers. Without a moment’s hesitation, although the sea was fairly rough and refugees were clinging to the ship almost by their finger-tips, he backed his little craft toward the beach until he almost put her aground, then lowered his lifeboats, and, in spite of the rifle-fire along the beach, rescued eighty nuns, including the Mother Superior.
In an agony of terror, the poor nuns fell on their knees on the sand, and prayed that the boats might arrive in time. What a picture! the lifeboats in the surf, and the British tars splashing through it, each with a sister in his arms.
A letter endorsed by Cardinal Mercier was sent to Captain Braithwaite, in which the Mother Superior wrote that she had no hesitancy in saying that his action had saved the nuns from outrage. She added that, so long as her holy Order exists, prayers will be said for him and his children and his children’s children, and that all the influence that the Order can command will always be employed for the benefit of his family.
Prayers could not save him, poor fellow. He was drowned not long ago in the Mediterranean, when the big ship Aragon was torpedoed. Knowing him, as I did, and knowing the part that he played in the Dardanelles with his transport, the Cardiganshire, pushing her always to the fore, and seeing to it that his chief officer got the Military Medal rather than himself, I am sure that he went down on the Aragon’s bridge because there were still troops on board when she sank.
I have seen recently a letter from an officer of the Wilson Liner Toro, which was torpedoed in the Chops of the Channel two hundred miles from shore. Her crew of twenty-five took to the boats, twelve in one, thirteen in another, when the German pirate came alongside and called for the captain and took him aboard the submarine. Unless the submarine has been destroyed, he is interned in Germany today; for only by delivering captains there can the U-boat crews get their prize-money for breaking the laws of God and man.
Having stowed the Toro’s captain below, the commander ordered the masts and sails of the lifeboats destroyed before the eyes of the desperate crew. Then he shouted, in excellent English, ‘Now, row, you British bastards, row!’
For men in an open boat, two hundred miles from land, with oars for motive power, the chances are slim. Of the two boats from the Toro one has never been heard from. The other, after five days of rowing, when the oars were practically worn out, was picked up about fifty miles farther from land than where the ship was sunk. The rescuing craft was bound for Sierra Leone; she took the men there, where they trans-shipped for England aboard another vessel, which was in its turn torpedoed. It took the survivors of the Toro just nine weeks to make the two hundred miles!
On Tuesday evening, July 31, 1917, at eight o’clock, two hundred miles from shore, the Belgian Prince was torpedoed without warning. After the men had taken to the boats, the submarine steamed in among them and ordered them alongside. The captain was taken below, and the crew, thirty-eight of them, were lined up on the deck, which was just awash. Then the Germans removed their life-belts and stove in the Prince’s boats with axes, and going below, closed the trap-door. Thereupon, the U-boat promptly got under way, and steamed about two miles from the sinking Prince, where she submerged, offering her deck passengers the alternative of drowning, or swimming back two miles to the wreckage of their ship. The chief engineer happened to be provided with a pneumatic waistcoat. But for that, the ship might have gone down leaving no trace behind. He blew up this waistcoat of his, and for several hours supported a cabin boy, till the boy died from exposure. Finally, the engineer was himself picked up, after being in the water eleven hours. Another engineer did manage to swim back to the wreckage of the ship.
Less familiar, perhaps, is the case of the Anglo-Californian, early in July, 1915. She had left Montreal a week or so before, heavily laden with war materials. She had been advised of the sinking without warning, just four days earlier, off the Irish coast, of the big Leyland Liner Armenian, with a cargo of American mules; and it was but two months since the Lusitania massacre! Thus her officers and crew were keenly alive to the prospect of the new type of murder; and so, when a submarine emerged astern of her and fired a shell, Captain Parslow yelled down the tube to the engine-room to speed her up. At the same time, he sent out S.O.S. signals, and a number of destroyers started in his direction.
The submarine on the surface showed greater speed than the Anglo-Californian, and, as she rapidly overhauled her, fired shell after shell. It was not long before the wireless was put out of commission, and things looked pretty blue for the ship. Finding that he could not escape, Captain Parslow adopted the tactics of a cornered animal, manoeuvring his ship so that he kept her pointed at the enemy, thus preventing him from firing a torpedo with any good chance of success. The U-boat steamed round and round the big cargo boat, doing her best to get into a position where she could deal her a death-blow, all the while pouring shells into her. Frequently she came so close that riflefire was effective.
Throughout it all, amid that rain of death, Captain Parslow stood on the bridge and outmanœuvred the German assassin. Finally a shot struck the bridge itself. The concussion killed Parslow outright and mutilated his body terribly. His son, the second officer, who stood beside him on the bridge, was knocked down, but not hurt. As the submarine was then close in and using rifle-fire, young Parslow crawled on his stomach across the shell-torn floor, grabbed the steeringwheel, and, keeping an eye on the enemy through holes in the canvas about the bridge-rail, manœuvred the ship as cleverly as his father had done. Another shell burst on the bridge and broke a spoke of the wheel, but young Parslow still gripped it, and there he stayed until the British destroyers appeared — four hours after the fight began — and the submarine was forced to submerge.
The Anglo-Californian’s casualties were nine killed and eight wounded. As she entered Queenstown Harbor on the morning of July 5, she was a monument of German frightfulness, — her sides riddled with shell-holes, her decks splintered, and fragments of shrapnel embedded in them. Her escape was accomplished by no other means than the indomitable spirit of the Parslows, combined with their masterly seamanship.
The captain of the little collier, Wandle, in August, 1916, was blown off his bridge by the concussion from a shell, but picked himself up and saw to it that his crew replied to the submarines shot for shot, until he finally sank her. The Wandle had a triumphal progress up the Thames to London, her shattered bulwarks and shell-torn superstructure giving abundant proof of her daring.
The Tintoretto was bound from Gallipoli to Alexandria, empty. She had no wireless and her only armament was an old 12-pounder. Two U-boats lying alongside a supply ship came across her course. All three made for her. The Tintoretto’s first shot was a lucky one: it hit one of the submarines, which, for some reason or other, blew up. The other one was driven out of range of the 12-pounder, and the Tintoretto’s captain — his name was Trantor — went aft and with his own hands chopped a hole in the deck, so that his 12-pounder could be tilted to cover the submarine, whose gun outpointed it. The second U-boat was sunk at last, and then Trantor took on the supply ship. Although she was slower than the Tintoretto, she had a 4.7 gun, and Trantor was forced t.o run from her. On reaching Alexandria, his crew collapsed. Trantor was the toast of the town; but I have yet to learn that he has received from his government the recognition that his exploit deserved.
Captain Kinneir, of the Ortega, — an 8000-ton passenger liner then plying between Liverpool and Valparaiso and Panama, — was ordered to lay to by a German cruiser just north of Cape Horn. He steered his ship into Nelson Straits, a narrow, uncharted passage, with towering mountains on either side, — the gloomiest place in the world, — and got away because his pursuer dared not follow. There is no anchorage in the straits, and no ship of half her size had ever before ventured into them.
We have the record, too, of Frank Claret, captain of the Minnehaha, which went down four minutes after she was struck, forty-three of her crew being either killed or drowned. The captain rescued many of his men personally, swimming about and helping them to places where they could hold on till they were picked up. On the bridge or in the water, he was still master. One of the engineers was enormously fat. When the torpedo struck, he had on nothing in the world but an undershirt. Donning a life-preserver, he went overboard, and finally managed to hoist himself onto a raft, where he found a camp-chair waiting for him. There he enthroned himself with much comfort. The pleasant sight did much to cheer the crew as they clung to floating wreckage. Chief Officer Abbey gave his life-belt to an injured fireman, then became exhausted himself before help could reach him. One of the wireless boys took a message from the captain on the bridge, went back to the wireless room, and was drowned as he was sending the message. This was the Minnehaha’s first trip under convoy, after escaping disaster for over three years unescorted.
And what of Custance of the Arcadian, who took so many of us pleasure-seeking travelers to Bermuda, or entertained us royally during excursions to ‘the land of the Midnight Sun.’ A little slip of a man he is, whose eyes would not blink in a gale of wind — a man who takes everything terribly to heart. He arrived in New York on Christmas Day, 1917, after an absence of five weeks — arrived ready, as usual, to go to sea again, though he had just been torpedoed and had struggled a hundred miles into port, in the teeth of a gale, with the ship gradually sinking beneath him, and a crew of Chinamen who had to be held at bay with a gun.
It was Custance, in command of the tiny mine-sweeper Mingary, who held off three submarines and saved the battle cruiser Warspite as she was limping home from the Jutland battle. For two years he never saw his family, but stuck to his perilous mine-sweeping job around the Shetland Islands, that hell of storms and Germans! From the big cruising steamship Arcadian he went to his little mine-sweeper, and led the line in that hazardous work, once having the whole after part of his craft blown off. Then for a time he was on the Maid of Honor, a patrol yacht, every night convoying ships across to France and coming back by day.
Now, the nature of this work of the Channel patrol is forcibly described in this fragment of a letter from one of those engaged in it: —
‘The weather round about here has been too damnable for words lately, and life on a patrol boat has been no cinch. Came down harbor yesterday in a regular blizzard, — could barely see fifty yards ahead at times, and about three inches of snow all over the ship, — freezing like the devil. There’s an infernal no’westerly wind blowing, and this packet rolls about like a sickheadache. It’s no joke monkeying about in a tiny craft of this size, hunting “tin fishes.” In daylight it’s bad enough, but at night it’s extremely dangerous, as one can’t see the seas and one’s liable to half swamp one’s self in turning. And as far as any comfort below goes, there is n’t any. Everything is damp and cold, and the steward loses the greater part of your food in bringing it to you, and what you finally receive is a cold unpalatable mess. Yet, by God! it’s something to be out here having a chance to bag a bally German swine! ’
The Admiralty finally put Custance in hospital, but as soon as they let him out, off to sea again he went, and he is now doing most valuable service as commodore of a convoy.
The seafaring men who have ferried so many of us across the Atlantic have certainly upheld the traditions of their forefathers. They have fought with their heads as well as with their guns, like Haddock of the Olympic, who hoodwinked the Germans with his dummy dreadnoughts. To Haddock, and to Haddock alone, it is due that so many troops got to Gallipoli on unarmed transports while the Grand Fleet remained intact in the North Sea.
Haddock is a master of marine camouflage. His dummy Queen Elizabeth kept the whole Austrian fleet bottled up in the Adriatic. She was nothing more formidable than the old Royal Mail Liner Oruba, which used to run from New York to Bermuda. In this connection it is diverting to remember how our German-American press denounced England as a liar for saying that the famous battle-cruiser Tiger was not sunk by a submarine in the Mediterranean. The real Tiger was at that time, and still is, with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea, and I hear regularly from a former merchantship officer who fought aboard her in the Jutland battle, after she was said to have been sunk, and who has been raised to the rank of lieutenant-commander for valor. But her replica, Haddock’s dummy, — the old American Liner Merion, of the PhiladelphiaLiverpool line, — lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Captain Braithwaite, of whom I have already spoken, was present on a transport when the submarine let five transports go by in order to plug the dummy Tiger; he told me that it was most ridiculous to see men hustle canvas 6-inch guns below whenever a neutral ship hove in sight; and that, when the torpedo struck her, many men floated ashore astride wooden 14.7 guns. The torpedo worked more havoc on the dummy’s decks than with her side, for to get her down so that she would have the freeboard of a battle-cruiser, she had been loaded with cement and stones, and the explosion filled the air with flying missiles which fell back on her decks. The strangest feature of the whole episode is that, although loaded beyond the safety mark with a very heavy cargo, the dummy did not sink for twenty-four hours.
Haddock’s ‘Suicide Squadron’ of old liners is no more; but without their aid in convoying the transports to the Dardanelles, the German fleet might have succeeded in breaking through the cordon spread by the British Grand Fleet about the North Sea; for that fleet would have had to be weakened to supply ships for the service which the dummies performed.
It is unnecessary to introduce the Carmania to the American traveling public. Soon after the war began, she was prepared for service as an auxiliary cruiser. She came across to Bermuda and was taken up a tortuous channel to the Navy Yard. It is a wonder to this day how such a leviathan ever got safely into and out of that channel.
From Bermuda she steamed south, looking for the Kronprinz Wilhelm and the big Cap Trafalgar, which had been transformed into raiders. Three hundred miles off Rio de Janeiro she fell in with the Cap Trafalgar, protecting neutral steamers which had been sent out to coal the German raiders. Each ship was of about 20,000 tons and over 600 feet in length, and they were built for passenger liners, not fighting ships.
The Carmania was commanded by a regular naval officer, but she was navigated by merchant-ship officers.
The Cap Trafalgar was much more heavily armed than the Carmania. Her guns were 6-inch against the Carmania’s 4.7. The fight lasted two hours; then the Cap Trafalgar rolled over on her side and sank. About one hundred and fifty shots were fired on each side. The Carmania’s fire was aimed at the water-line, whereas the Cap Trafalgar fired at the Carmania’s superstructure. The latter’s main bridge was shot away, and she was manœuvred during most of the battle from the second officer’s bridge at the stern.
When the Cap Trafalgar sank, the Carmania was on fire fore and aft, and had not the British cruiser Bristol come to her assistance, she would have been gutted, as her whole water-system was shot to pieces. It was a wonderful battle, and the skillful manœuvring of the merchant-ship men kept the Carmania bow on to the Cap Trafalgar, thereby offering a smaller target.
After the battle the Carmania’s dead were buried, and the British cruiser Marlborough accompanied her to Gibraltar for repairs. The long trip of several thousand miles was accomplished safely; but she was navigated entirely from the tiny bridge at the very stern, the bridge on which the second officer keeps watch when she goes in or out of port. The fight took place in mid-September, 1914.
The other day the Carmania passed up the Hudson River, and a British merchant officer in the Naval Reserve, who was looking from my office window, came to the salute. That shows how merchant men feel toward the Carmania; for her fight with the Cap Trafalgar was the first big sea-battle of the war, and the merchant-ship men proved thereby their value to the nation.
The three Americans who refused to leave the tug Vigilant, and who brought her into port after she had been abandoned by her captain and the rest of the crew, are certainly worthy of niches in some Hall of Fame. She was one of the American tugs purchased by Great Britain, and started across the Atlantic under her own steam. It was in the late autumn of 1916; even in a calm summer sea such a voyage is a risky thing for a tugboat, and she was in difficulty from the start. During the entire trip she was smothered in huge seas; in mid-Atlantic she was so sorely tried that, when the Holland-America Liner Ryndam came along, the Vigilant’s captain deemed it his duty to abandon her and save the lives of his crew, for he had abandoned hope of getting her safely across.
But the three Yankees— Ferguson, Smith, and Welch—thought differently, and chose to stay by the ship. After the Ryndam had disappeared below the horizon, the weather grew worse, till the little tug was having a taste of the most violent gale seen on the Atlantic in 1916. She was simply buried beneath great seas, all the gear on deck went by the board, and at last the steering-gear got jammed and the tug was thrown on her beam-ends. As she wallowed in the trough, it seemed impossible that she could live; but the next minute found her still there, with Ferguson battened in the pilot-house, Welch at the engine, and Smith in the stoke-hold, firing the boiler whenever the lurching allowed him to keep his feet for a moment.
Live she did, or we should never have heard the tale. For three days the men had neither food nor drink; yet, weak to the point of exhaustion, and sustained only by their own Yankee grit and the incalculable good fortune which often smiles upon a daring adventure, they brought the Vigilant into Bantry Bay.
There are, of course, records which furnish more exciting reading; but until we entered the war, this was the first real exhibition for many years of old-time Yankee seamanship.
I have talked with many a naval officer about the part played by the fishermen of France and England in the war. One and all are loud in their praise, for the fishermen have proved to be, in very truth, the eyes and ears of the Navy. They have kept the sea in weather so vile that they would never have dreamed of facing it in times of peace. They have gone everywhere and done everything — done work for which no gold could adequately reward them. I know of a fishing trawler, without a gun, which pursued a Uboat and by sheer persistence forced her to submerge and let the merchant ship she was chasing make her escape. And there is the story of a fisherman at a trawler’s wheel, who, when the wheel was smashed in his hands by a shell from a submarine, kept on steering with the broken spokes while his mates fought on. Of the fisherman skipper of the Pelican it is told that he alone refused to abandon his craft when a mine got entangled in the minesweeping tackle as it was being hauled aboard; and, before anybody realized the danger, the mine was close alongside. The least lurch would have caused the vessel to be blown to atoms. Expecting each moment to be his last, the captain worked to clear away the mine. His nerve won the day; but as the mine drifted astern, for some unknown reason it exploded, and nearly swamped the lifeboat standing by.
This mine-sweeping business is terribly hard on the nerves. One moment a group of ships will be sailing along together on a tranquil sea. The next moment there comes a flash and a bang, and a ship and her crew have disappeared. And this is almost a daily occurrence somewhere in the danger zone. Because these hardy seamen do not wear the brass buttons of the regular Navy or Army, the general public has not shown the interest in them that it should have shown, nor has their valor been adequately rewarded.
The following copy of a letter written by Captain Chave of the Alnwick Castle to her owners was published in the English newspapers: it describes a typical experience of the sort that merchantmen have had to go through during this war.
FRENCH S.S. VENEZIA
At Sea, March 28, 1917.
THE UNION CASTLE MAIL S.S. Co., LONDON.
With deep regret I have to report the loss of your steamer Alnwick Castle, which was torpedoed without warning at 6:10 A.M. on Monday, March 19, in a position about 320 miles from the Scilly Islands.
At the time of the disaster there were on board, besides 100 members of my own crew and 14 passengers, the captain and 24 of the crew of the collier transport Trevose whom I had rescued from their boats at 5:30 P.M. on the previous day, Sunday, March 18, their ship having been torpedoed at 11 A.M. that day, two Arab firemen being killed by the explosion, which wrecked the engine room. . . .
I was being served with morning coffee at about 6:10 A.M., when the explosion occurred, blowing up the hatches and beams from No. 2 and sending up a high column of water and debris which fell back on the bridge. The chief officer put the engines full astern, and I directed him to get the boats away. All our six boats were safely launched and left the ship, which was rapidly sinking by the head.
The forecastle was now (6:30 A.M.) just dipping, though the ship maintained an upright position without list. The people in my boat were clamoring for me to come, as they were alarmed by the danger of the ship plunging. The purser informed me that every one was out of the ship, and I then took Mr. Carnaby from his post, and we went down to No. 1 boat and pulled away. At a safe distance we waited to see the end of the Alnwick Castle. Then we observed the submarine quietly emerge from the sea, end on to the ship, with a gun trained on her. She showed no periscope—just a conning tower as she lay there — silent and sinister. In about 10 minutes the Alnwick Castle plunged bow first below the surface; her whistle gave one blast and the main topmast broke off; there was a smothered roar and a cloud of dirt, and we were left in our boats, 139 people, 300 miles from land. The submarine lay between the boats, but whether she spoke to any of them I do not know. She proceeded northeast after a steamer which was homeward bound about four miles away, and soon after we saw a tall column of water, etc., and knew that she had found another victim.
I got in touch with all the boats, and from the number of their occupants I was satisfied that every one was safely in them. The one lady passenger and her baby three months old were with the stewardess in the chief officer’s boat. I directed the third officer to transfer four of his men to the second officer’s boat to equalize the number, and told them all to steer between east and east northeast for the Channel. We all made sail before a light westerly wind, which freshened before sunset, when we reefed down. After dark I saw no more of the other boats. That was Monday, March 19.
I found only three men who could help me to steer, and one of these subsequently became delirious, leaving only three of us. At 2 A.M., Tuesday, the wind and sea had increased to a force when I deemed it unsafe to sail any longer; also it was working to the northwest and north-northwest. I furled the sail and streamed the seaanchor, and we used the canvas boatcover to afford us some shelter from the constant spray and bitter wind. At daylight we found our sea-anchor and the rudder had both gone. There was too much sea to sail; we manoeuvred with oars, while I lashed two oars together and made another sea-anchor. We spent the whole of Tuesday fighting the sea, struggling with oars to assist the sea-anchor to head the boat up to the waves, constantly soaked with cold spray and pierced with the bitter wind, which was now from the north. I served out water twice daily, one dipper between two men, which made a portion about equal to one third of a condensed-milk tin. We divided a tin of milk between four men once a day, and a tin of beef (6 pounds) was more than sufficient to provide a portion for each person (29) once a day.
At midnight Tuesday-Wednesday, the northerly wind fell light, and we made sail again, the wind gradually working to northeast and increasing after sunrise. All the morning and afternoon of Wednesday we kept under way, until about 8 P.M. when I was compelled to heave to again. During this day the iron step of our mast gave way and our mast and sail went overboard, but we saved them, and were able to improvise a new step with the aid of an axe and piece of wood fitted to support the boat-cover strongback. We were now feeling the pangs of thirst as well as the exhaustion of labor and exposure and want of sleep. Some pitiful appeals were made for water. I issued an extra ration to a few of the weaker ones only.
During the night of WednesdayThursday the wind dropped for a couple of hours and several showers of hail fell. The hailstones were eagerly scraped from our clothing and swallowed. I ordered the sail to be spread out in the hope of catching water from a rain shower, but we were disappointed in this, for the rain was too light. Several of the men were getting lightheaded and I found that they had been drinking salt-water in spite of my earnest and vehement order.
It was with great difficulty that any one could be prevailed on to bail out the water, which seemed to leak into the boat at an astonishing rate, perhaps due to some rivets having been started by the pounding she had received.
At 4 A.M. the wind came away again from northeast and we made sail; but unfortunately it freshened again and we were constantly soaked with spray and had to be always baling. Our water was now very low and we decided to mix condensed milk with it. Most of the men were helpless and several were raving in delirium. The foreman cattleman, W. Kitcher, died and was buried. Soon after dark the sea became confused and angry; I furled the tiny reef-sail and put out the seaanchor. At 8 P.M. we were swamped by a breaking sea and I thought all was over. A moan of despair rose in the darkness, but I shouted to them, ‘ Bail, bail, bail! ’ and assured them that the boat could not sink. How they found the bailers and buckets in the dark, I don’t know, but they managed to free the boat, while I shifted the sea-anchor to the stern and made a tiny bit of sail and got her away before the wind. After that escape the wind died away about midnight and we spent a most distressing night. Several of the men collapsed, others temporarily lost their reason; and one of these became pugnacious and climbed about the boat uttering complaints and threats.
The horror of that night, together with the physical suffering, are beyond my power of description. Before daylight, however, on March 23, the wind permitting, I managed with the help of the few who remained able, to set sail again, hoping now to be in the Bay of Biscay and to surely see some vessel to succor us. Never a sail or wisp of smoke had we seen. When daylight came, the appeals for water were so angry and insistent that I deemed it best to make an issue at once. After that had gone round amid much cursing and snatching, we could see that only one more issue remained. One fireman, Thomas, was dead; another was nearly gone; my steward, Buckley, was almost gone; we tried to pour some milk and water down his throat, but he could not swallow. No one could eat biscuits; it was impossible to swallow anything solid; our throats were afire, our lips furred, our limbs numbed, our hands were white and bloodless. During the forenoon Friday, another fireman, named Tribe, died, and my steward Buckley died; also a cattleman, whose only name I could get as Peter, collapsed and died about noon.
To our unspeakable relief we were rescued about 1:30 P.M. on Friday, 23, by the French steamer Venezia of the Fabre Line, for New York for horses. A considerable swell was running, and in our enfeebled state we were unable properly to manœuvre our boat; but the French captain, M. Paul Bonifacie, handled his empty vessel with great skill and brought her alongside us, sending out a lifebuoy on a line for us to seize. We were unable to climb the ladders, so they hoisted us one by one in ropes, until the 24 live men were aboard.
The four dead bodies were left in the boat, and the gunners of the Venezia fired at her in order to destroy her, but the shots did not take effect.
I earnestly hope that the other five boats have been picked up, for I fear that neither of the small accident boats had much chance of surviving the weather I experienced. At present I have not regained fully the use of my hands and feet, but hope to be fit again before my arrival in England, when I trust you will honor me with appointment to another ship.
I am, gentlemen, your obedient servant,
To collect these little stories of the sea has required a deal of perseverance. For these men will talk to you about the excellent work of the American destroyers in the war zone, about what some other skipper has done; but never will you learn from the lips of a British merchant-ship officer of his own gallant deeds, of the stout heart he has shown in saving his ship and the lives of men, women, and children imperiled by the Teuton murderers. There have been no conscientious objectors among them. They have done what it has been necessary for them to do, facing death daily and hourly,