|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
28 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
THE SPORTSMAN'S PARADISE
I HAD written the two preceding chapters in continuation of my "Memories of the Sea," when I was visited by a severe illness, which kept me in bed for many months; and then came the great war, which had been long foreseen by those who had watched and noted the German preparations for it - preparations which were either not seen by the political lawyers who governed the United Kingdom, or which by them - in their wisdom - were ignored, as being of less consequence than party preparations for catching the votes of those who were ignorant of the ambitions of Germany and of the general trend of European politics.
It will be remembered that the grave and earnest warnings of Lord Roberts, and of those who supported him, were treated with contumely and even with spiteful ridicule by our ruling politicians, who wanted money - not for preparation for the inevitable war which that great soldier had so clearly foreseen, but for bribing the most ignorant and most numerous section of the community to keep themselves in power and in further enjoyment of the rich emoluments of their various offices.
Thus the great war found the British Empire totally unprepared; and while I write (in September, 1915) the consequences of this lack of foresight and sound statesmanship have not yet been fully revealed, though
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we have already seen enough to make us feel ashamed and disgusted with government by political lawyers.
I have not, however, taken up my pen to write about the war or of the causes which led to it; but rather - at the earnestly expressed wishes of my family - to continue writing my memories of life in the Navy in the last century.
I was at Antioch - in the spirit - when the war broke out, and I feel uncommonly glad that I am not there now - in the flesh; for much as I love my old friends the Turks, greatly as I admire many of their stirling national virtues - yes, virtues - I would not trust their friendship nor their humanity, so long as they are under the influence of a Power which has not only utterly disregarded every practice of civilized warfare, but has also perjured her national honour and good faith, and has openly behaved with a calculated and cold-blooded savagery unknown in Europe for many centuries.
And now to return to the cruise of the Rapid in the winter of 1878-79. Shortly after my return from Antioch to Alexandretta, I took the little ship across the Gulf of Scanderoon and moored her snugly in Ayas Bay, intending to make a fairly long stay there, though going for occasional cruises to exercise the crew and to avoid grounding on our own beef-bones, a danger which is popularly supposed to await any ship which remains too long at anchor at any one place; though I must admit that during all my long service of fifty-one years I never heard any strictly reliable evidence that this catastrophe had ever actually occurred, notwithstanding it is on record that the flagship on the Pacific station did once remain at anchor in Esquimalt Harbour for fourteen months without getting under way.
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The anchorage at Ayas Bay is about two miles from the little town - or rather village - of Ayas, and the country around is extremely wild and very sparsely populated, and is full of game, a veritable sportsman's paradise. Wild boar abound, and in winter there are woodcock, snipe, francolin, plover, wild geese, and a large variety of the great family of wild ducks, and from being so little disturbed they are not so difficult to approach as they are in more civilized countries.
The natives do not appear to shoot anything except the pigs; and, indeed, the actual natives do not shoot these, as they are Mahomedans, and, of course, would not touch the unclean beast; but at the time of our visit there was a party of Armenian Christians who had come across from the other side of the gulf after the pigs, which they shoot mainly for the skins. They also make a very rough kind of sausage from the flesh; but as they appear to put into these all the gristle and sinew they can find in the animal, the sausages were, to us, quite uneatable.
These Armenians were very good fellows, and we made great friends with them. They did not interfere with our shooting in the least; in fact, they assisted us greatly, as they knew all the best places; and as they used to shoot by night and we by day, and also acted as guides and beaters for us in the daytime, I don't know when they slept. Probably they did not remain out all night. We gave them no money pay, but used occasionally to give them presents of Navy tobacco, which they greatly appreciated; we also gave them all our pig-skins, and finally at the end of the campaign we took them and their skins across the gulf in the Rapid, and landed them at their homes, thus saving them a sixty miles' tramp with a good chance of being
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robbed by the way. "They considered themselves amply repaid for their services, and we parted the best of friends.
I had been told by my predecessor whom I relieved on the coast of Syria that there was a recognized formula of proceedings for that station, which included the spending of three or four of the worst winter months at Ayas Bay. The letter to the Commander-in-Chief ran somewhat as follows:
" Sir,-As I see by the sailing directions for the Eastern Mediterranean that the only safe anchorage on the coast of Syria during the winter months is in the Bay of Ayas, on the north shore of Scanderoon Gulf, I propose to proceed there in H.M. ship under my command, and to make that my headquarters when not cruising. I shall be in telegraphic communication with you through H.M. Consul at Alexandretta."
To which came the brief but welcome reply, " Approved."
My Commander-in-Chief at the time was Sir Geoffrey Hornby, affectionately known in the Navy as Uncle Jeff. He was himself a keen sportsman, and knew all about the attractions of Ayas Bay.
It again occurs to me that in writing an account of my two years' service in the Rapid I may possibly convey to the reader the impression that it was all beer and skittles, and that Queen Victoria kept a fine steam yacht for me, in order that I might enjoy some of the best wild shooting in the world, free of expense.
My two years' command of the Rapid certainly was the easiest and most enjoyable time I have ever had in the Navy, either before or since, and I made the most of it. But it must not be supposed that an independent
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command in the Mediterranean is all joy. The summer months are very trying. The heat is quite tropical, if not more so. Even those who live on shore in airy houses with green verandas and venetian blinds feel it and grumble; but the confined space of the cabin of a small ship adds greatly to the discomfort. My little cabin in the Rapid used to become a veritable oven by two o'clock in the afternoon, either at sea or in harbour. At sea there was generally a breeze of some sort to temper the heat; but in harbour there was no relief. It was useless to go on shore, as it was just as bad there. At Corfu, for instance, during the summer nobody appeared to stir out of their houses until after sunset; the streets were empty, and I found it difficult to get enough exercise to keep one in health.
It is not, however, my intention to grumble or to dwell upon the discomforts of the Mediterranean summer. In the Navy we get ups and downs, rough and smooth, and it is just as well to make the most of the smooth - when we get it. But I have made this digression - the second one of this nature - in order that the reader may not run away with the wrong idea that it is all smooth, even in the Mediterranean.
Shortly after the Rapid bad been snugly moored in Ayas Bay I went for a trip up the Jahun River to a famous sporting district, well known to naval officers who have had the luck to spend the winter on the coast of Syria.
The arrangements for camping out in the wilds of Asia Minor took some time to make, but early in January the expedition started. It consisted of my old friend and very dear chum Mirehouse, who, alas ! has since joined the great majority, the Second-Lieutenant of the Rapid, and myself. I also took my boat's crew of five
THE SPORTSMAN'S PARADISE 33
sailors, for beaters; my Maltese cook and my valet ; Joe Ferris, bumboatman, dragoman, and interpreter; and last, though not least, Sergeant Thomas of the Royal Marines. Sergeant Thomas was a Welshman and a keen sportsman. He accompanied me on all my shooting trips; he was the best, most intelligent and most indefatigable beater I ever saw. Nothing could stop him, not even the famous "wait-a-bit" thorn of the Levant. He was also my right-hand man in camp; he kept everybody in order, and they all obeyed him; and yet he seemed to do more hard work himself than any three other men. He was very silent, a man of few words and of great strength, both moral and physical. I looked on one evening while he conquered a big and savage Molossian dog which I bought from some natives for hunting wild boar out of the covers. The dog was tied up to a tree; the natives got their three dollars and departed. I then told my coxswain to look after the dog and feed him ; but the coxswain came to me in about half an hour and told me he could do nothing with the savage beast, as he called him; that he would not let him nor any of the other men go near him, and he would not eat. I then suggested that we should leave him alone till he got hungry, and perhaps that would tame him; but Sergeant Thomas, who was standing by, said he thought that would only make him worse; that he had had something to do with dogs, and he thought he could tame him if I would let him try. " All right, sergeant," says I; " see what you can do with him."
Karra was about the size of an ordinary Newfoundland dog, but with an unusually big head and teeth like a wolf, which he showed in a most truculent manner, snarling and growling savagely when anyone went near
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him. I asked the sergeant how he was going to tame him. " If you will attract the dog's attention, sir, in the other direction, I'll get hold of him." This I did, taking care to keep beyond the length of his rope. The sergeant then ran in and seized the dog by the throat, before he knew what was the matter. The rope was then cast off by the sergeant's directions; he lifted up the dog as if he had been no bigger than a fox-terrier, swung him round over his head two or three times, and brought him down on the ground with a terrific thud, knocking the wind out of him. This operation was repeated four or five times. The savage growls changed gradually into howls, and finally into piteous whines for mercy; then the sergeant dropped him, and he lay on his side panting, with all the wind knocked out of him. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently to get on his legs again he cringed up to the sergeant and licked his hands. " There, sir," says the sergeant, " I think that will do for the present." And it did, not only for the present, but for all time, and for ever after the sergeant could do whatever he liked with Karra, who obeyed his every command just like one of his own marines. We shall hear more of Karra later on; he was certainly one of the most remarkable dogs I ever came across.
Our camping-ground was about twenty-five miles up the Jahun River, on a suitable spot near some small patches of cultivation and about a quarter of a mile from the river bank. The spot was well known to Joe, our bumboatman and interpreter, who had accompanied many a party of sporting naval officers to the same place on former occasions. We started early. The steam pinnace towed one of the cutters loaded with our camp equipage; and arriving at our
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camping-ground a little after noon, we had plenty of time to pitch our tents and make ourselves snug before dark. It was my first camping-out expedition, and consequently I knew nothing about it; but my friend Mirehouse and our indefatigable sergeant seemed to be quite at home at the business; they gave the necessary directions and did most of the work.
Game was plentiful, and, to use a popular modern expression, we had the time of our lives, and fed the camp with our guns. The wild pigs were excellent eating; not a bit like pork, but more like venison, tender, fat and juicy. An old boar with big tusks might be a bit tough, but the sows and the young ones were very good, and we not only had enough for ourselves, but sent several consignments back to the ship, where they were much appreciated.
The francolin is a beautiful bird, rather larger than a partridge. I believe he is known in India as the black partridge of the Deccan. The flesh is white and delicate, and is a very pleasant change from woodcock, of which one soon gets tired. We also got wild duck and an occasional wild goose; but the latter is an overrated bird for the table, though he makes a very pretty overhead shot, and comes down with a flop.
Tastes vary, and our bluejacket beaters would not be bothered plucking woodcock for themselves. They liked pig, and as we usually had two or three hanging up on the trees in our camp, they could cut off a steak and fry it whenever they felt hungry, which seemed to be very often. But what they liked above everything was coots. There was a small lake not far from our camp, and besides wild duck, it was inhabited by hundreds of coots, which our sailors asked us to shoot for them. It was not much sport, as the coots were
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very tame, and we shot a large number of them, as it was for the pot. " Ah," said my coxswain, "some flavour about them birds, and they makes the most delicious soup." Coot soup ! I didn't taste it.
One of our beats for pigs was peculiar. There was an island in the river, covered with the densest jungle, and this jungle was the day resort of the pigs, but it was far too thick to give any chance for a shot at them. What appeared to happen was this: The pigs swam the river at nightfall and raided the patches of cultivation on the mainland, and then swam back again before it was daylight. We could see their tracks cut deep in the soft clay of the river banks; quite like a cattle track in a farmyard. There were four or five of these deepcut pig roads on our side of the river, where the bank was very steep, nearly perpendicular; it was obvious, therefore, that if the pigs were driven off the island they would land at one of these roads. There was fairly thick jungle on our side of the river also; so we placed our three guns well concealed at three of these roads and sent all the beaters we could muster, including our friends the Armenians, over to the island in a boat. They made a hideous noise, and the Armenians let off their long, gaspipe, single-barrelled guns, to the great danger of the other beaters, and they also set fire to the jungle in several places, and thus made it too hot for the pigs on the island. The river was here about sixty or seventy yards across, deep and fairly rapid. After a short time several pigs appeared on the island bank, looked round for a moment, then jumped into the river and swam across.
The roads on our side were not all guarded, as we had not enough guns, and it was impossible to tell at which road a pig would land, until he was quite close
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to the bank; but I had not long to wait before it was obvious that a pig was going to land at my road.
I was lying down, well hidden in bushwood, as I thought; but I could tell by the twinkle in his little eye that the pig saw me just before he landed. I was afraid he would turn, but not a bit of him; it is hard to turn a pig when once he has made up his mind where he wants to go to: he is a plucky beast, and woe betide anyone who gets in his way! I thought my pig would take some little time getting out of the deep water and climbing up the bank; but he came out like a jack-in-the-box, went up the steep road in about three bounds, and then when he reached the top and there was no fear that he would fall back into the river; I put a ball into him just behind the shoulder. He ran a dozen yards into the bush, and I heard him fall, though I could not see him. However, I knew he was dead.
Shortly after this another pig came down to the bank on the island side; he had a good look around, and must have seen either me or one of the other guns, for instead of jumping into the river, like a well-educated pig, he turned slowly round and was walking back into the bush; and as I knew that all the beaters were at the other end of the island, I fired. It was an end-on shot, and not an easy one, but I was lucky enough to rake him fore and aft. He went some little distance into the thicket, and then fell dead; and very fortunately one of the beaters came across him on his return to the boat, and he was brought over. The other two guns were unlucky, and did not get a shot.
Besides the pigs, we had good sport with the woodcock and the francolin, and also with the wild duck.
Beyond the little lake where we shot the coot for
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the sailors' coot soup there was a large shallow lake covered to a great extent with high canes, but with lanes of open water between the patches of canes. It was an ideal place for wildfowl-shooting, and there were plenty of them; so we built a cane raft to hold two, one gun and a marker, to try and note where the birds fell. The raft was moored and hidden in a patch of high canes, and another gun went round the lake in my little skiff, which we had brought up from the ship. The skiff put the ducks up, and the gun in her got some fairly good shots, and could pick up his birds; but the gun on the raft got the most beautiful overhead shots it is possible to imagine. His sport, however, was greatly clouded by the fact that he could not pick up his birds until the skiff came round again, and a large proportion of them were lost, as it was very difficult to mark the spot where they fell, and to find them amongst the high canes.
There was, however, something even more tantalizing for the man on the raft than the honest loss of dead birds, and that was that some of them were devoured almost directly they fell, by some large birds that were circling round high overhead. I know not if they were osprey or goshawks or fishing eagles, or what their real names were, though they were called some hard and strange names by the man on the raft, and still stranger names by his marker. These birds pounced down from a height out of range for a shot-gun, and as they descended with great rapidity it was very difficult to hit them as they came down; and although you knew that they were eating your duck within twenty or thirty yards of you, they were not in sight, and you could do nothing. It was easy enough to shoot them as they rose, for they rose slowly; but this was not
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much satisfaction when you knew that they had your duck inside them. Some of them were shot, however.
No doubt these birds of prey had just as much right to the wild duck as we had; but they were quite capable of killing their own, and it would have been more sport for them to do so. It would seem, therefore, that it was downright laziness on their part to come and steal ours.
The weather was, on the whole, very fine during our trip up the river. There were frosts at night, but the days were generally sunny, with a keen bracing air which was most exhilarating, and one never felt more than comfortably tired after the longest day's tramp.
On only one occasion did I ever know a pig to charge, and this case was so remarkable that I think it is worth recording. It was after our return to the ship that we landed one afternoon to beat a marshy canebreak near the mouth of the river, where we knew there were pig. We were obliged, from the nature of the ground, to beat " up wind," which is not in accordance with good pigging tactics, but was in this case unavoidable. There was a strong wind, which made a great noise in the canes. The beaters, all armed with boarding-pikes for self-defence, were sent down to leeward about a mile, with orders to spread out and beat up to the guns in line abreast. There was a long cold wait for the guns, and then I heard, but could not see, the beaters getting nearer and nearer, and I thought it was going to be a blank beat, when suddenly I heard a great and unusual noise amongst the beaters, and running towards them through the canes, I found that a pig, which had never been fired at or even seen by beaters or guns, had suddenly turned and charged back through the line of beaters. Young Henry Rose, the bowman of
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my gig, happened to be in his way, and before Rose had time to bring his boarding-pike to a defensive position, the pig had rolled him over, giving him a deep gash in the thigh as he passed him. But the strangest part of the whole business was that the old boar, instead of going back to his lair, from which he had been driven, turned again and walked quietly out of the cover into the open, close to Mirehouse, who shot him dead. He was the heaviest boar, with the best tusks, of any we killed. The tusks were mounted and given to Rose as a memento, and being a healthy young chap, he was quite recovered in a couple of weeks, though the wound was a deep one.
All things must come to an end, and so did the winter of 1878-79, and with it our delightful stay at Ayas Bay, the sportsman's paradise; but we had excellent sport with the woodcock and the francolin up to the very last.
When there was no longer any good excuse for lying at Ayas Bay, I went down to Beyrout, communicated with our Consul-General there, and then "showed the flag" at all the principal ports on the Syrian coast.
One day while we were lying at Beyrout, our headquarters in the summer, the Danish Consul came on board and asked me if I would accept a present of a small bear, which he had intended to keep, but found that it made so much noise at night that it kept his children awake, and he wanted to find a comfortable home for it. I said I should be happy to give the bear a comfortable home on board the Rapid, and was inquisitive enough to ask him how he got it, and this was what he said: "I was riding on the Damascus road one evening, about three miles from Beyrout, just as it was getting dusk, and I saw five small bears
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playing in the middle of the road; so I jumped off my horse, picked up one of them, put it in my pocket, and galloped into Beyrout."
I asked him why he did not pick up more of them. "Oh," he said, "I was afraid the mother bear must be somewhere near, and she would come looking for her baby, and catch me off my horse, and be very angry, and perhaps kill me, as I had no gun."
I sent for the little bear and got it on board. It was no bigger than a cat, and for some time we fed it on milk from a small bottle with the finger of a kidglove on the neck of the bottle. The little creature throve, and grew to be a big brown bear. It became omnivorous and very greedy. It would eat or drink anything, but much preferred stealing to waiting until it was fed. It was always loose, and roamed the ship at will and helped itself to whatever it fancied. It was most mischievous, and consequently became a great pet with the men. They would call it a "mascot" in the present day, but pet is a shorter word. The men played tricks on the bear, and the bear played tricks on the men, even to tearing their trousers, but they seemed to think that rather a lark. One day they made the bear very drunk, on a mixture of sardine oil and rum, and Bruin staggered along the deck just like an oldtime tar rolling down Common Hard when a ship paid off in Portsmouth Dockyard. This was a decidedly vulgar joke, and I asked that it might not be repeated, as it was bad for Bruin's morals.
During the hot weather I usually dined on deck, and one evening when the table was laid and my steward had gone below to fetch the dinner and I was on the bridge waiting, I saw Bruin walking aft towards the table, looking quite innocent, and as there was nothing
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to eat on the table but a small bit of bread, I suspected no mischief and called out, " Ah, Bruin, sold again!" But I was rather hasty, and it turned out to be the other way on; for when Bruin arrived at the table he stood up on his hind-legs, had a good look round, and finding nothing to eat, he caught hold of the corner of the table-cloth with his disappointed teeth and whisked everything off on to the deck, breaking glass and crockery. He then galloped off laughing all over his face, before I could get at him with a rope's-end. He was a charming pet, and full of fun.
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