|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
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H.M.S. " COLLINGWOOD " - MEDITERRANEAN
IN November, 1889, I commissioned the Collingwood at Portsmouth for service on the Mediterranean station.
I remember, in the days of my youth, there was a tradition which said that the highest ambition of a Post-Captain was the command of a line-of-battle ship in the Mediterranean in time of peace; but in war-time a frigate, as the latter was sure to make more prize-money.
So we see that even in the great, heroic days of old, people did think something about money; notwithstanding that when ships made prize-money, the lawyers generally grabbed more than half of it, as a reward for the immense trouble they took in deciding whether it was legal capture or not; and if there was no doubt upon the subject, they could always make one, so as to have something to argue about - the old story of the monkey, the two cats, and the bit of cheese. And, indeed, these honest gentlemen appear to be up to much the same game in 1916 as their predecessors played during the last great naval war.
The Collingwood was a great improvement on the old Inflexible. She was new, fast, and powerfully armed, with four breech-loading twelve-inch guns in barbettes. But she only carried a short armoured belt, both ends being entirely devoid of armour, though " protected," as it was humorously called, by a submerged armoured
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deck, which would only have helped to capsize her if the ends had been damaged.
The hotly disputed question of armoured belts is, I think, too technical to interest the general reader, and it may be enough to say that the sailors and the naval architects were at loggerheads on the subject. The sailors called the ships with short, thick belts " softenders." They thought that the naval architects miscalculated the chances of battle, and they eventually got their way, for all the battleships of the 1889 programme, and all those subsequently built, were provided with long belts. But as the French ships contemporary with the Collingwood all had complete water-line belts, I felt somewhat anxious as to what would happen if we had to fight our "hereditary enemy " while I was in command of a soft-ender. But we didn't, and now our gallant and chivalrous enemy, who always fought like a gentleman; is our very dear friend, and long may he remain so, and help us to fight a brutal and unchivalrous enemy.
I had delightful memories of the Mediterranean station, founded on my experience of two years in command of the Rapid ; but I soon found that it was one thing to command a small craft, too slow to keep up with the fleet, and consequently employed continuously on the most interesting detached services, and quite another thing to command a modern battleship a mere unit of a large fleet, and to be continuously tied to an Admiral's apron-strings.
I mean no disrespect to the Admiral's apron-strings, for having been a Flag-Captain myself, I know how necessary it is to keep up the strictest discipline in a fleet or squadron; yet it does sometimes become a little bit irksome to feel that you must not blow your
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nose without asking leave, by signal, of the Admiral to do so.
The three years I spent in command of the Collingwood were not without interest, even if they did not quite come up to my rosy expectations. But when do our experiences come up to our expectations ? And yet what a poor world it would be if we did not form rosy expectations.
For thirty-five years of my life I had been assiduously training myself to handle square-rigged ships under sail and to fight them at close quarters with muzzle-loading guns, even if I had to get up steam to do so. And then, lo and behold ! when I come to the summit of a Captain's ambition (a line-of-battle ship in the Mediterranean), I find the rules of the game completely changed. My dearly bought knowledge of seamanship is no longer of any use. I have to furl sails and coil up ropes and begin learning new tricks when nearly fifty years of age! Yet we are all in the same boat - English, Americans, French, Italians, Japanese, Germans. Though the two last have the advantage of having nothing to unlearn, as neither of them ever were sailors.
Could I, in the days of my youth, have foreseen that I should have to command a line-of-battle ship without masts and sails, I think I should have thrown up the Navy and gone to Kimberley to dig diamonds; or perhaps my training would have better qualified me for rearing sheep in New Zealand. In any case, I do not regret that - like Sam Weller - " my wishion was limited."
All the world knows that Malta is the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet, but the non-naval world scarcely knows what a gay place it is in winter; or, rather, I should say, " was," before the
Germans took to slaying women and children on the seas.
Very good opera companies used to come to Malta for the winter months; or it would be more correct to say that some very good individual singers came there, for the choruses and the rank and file were generally very weak. But, then, it was extremely cheap - two-and-six for a stall and boxes in proportion. Several stars, including Albani, made their debut at the Malta Opera House. The climate is said to be good for the voice, and the Maltese are very proud at having introduced to the world several great singers. But the opera was not the only attraction. There were balls, parties, picnics, polo, gymkana, and golf. Yes, golf. We used to play golf in the great ditch of the Florianne lines. The " greens " were sanded asphalt, and when there was a strong wind, the player was allowed to place his feet close to windward of his ball, to keep it from being blown off the green. Large feet and loose trousers were an advantage. At some of the holes it was necessary to loft over bastions, and then the royal and ancient game became something like rackets, for after two or three shots you might find your ball behind the tee from which you had started; but it was a game, and as fair for one as the other.
Very grand people came to Malta in the winter. Lords and Dukes and Grand Dukes and Princes and Princesses.
One winter the Grand Duke of Hesse came there with his three daughters: they were also the daughters of our own Princess Alice. One was Princess Henry of Prussia, one Princess Louis of Battenberg, and one (the most beautiful of the three) was unmarried, and afterwards became Empress of Russia. A German
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squadron paid us a visit. One of the cruisers was commanded by Prince Henry, and one of the battleships by Captain von Tirpitz, whom I found extremely friendly and agreeable, and quite the hearty Tar. We dined with each other and showed each other round our respective ships, and he specially invited me to go on board his ship to see the crew at general quarters, which I did; and he was obviously very proud of their smartness at gun drill. They certainly were smart, but they moved more like soldiers than sailors, and seemed to me to be lacking in elasticity, though Tirpitz had not allowed them to get fat.
Many of the officers of the Mediterranean squadron got their wives out from England for three or four of the winter months, and as these frequently brought with them other ladies, there were plenty of dances, riding picnics, and other innocent relaxations from the stern routine of naval discipline.
The great event of the season was the fancy-dress ball at the Governor's palace. The various and picturesque costumes of the East were always well represented, and the Maltese tailors and dressmakers were - through long practice - remarkably expert in designing and fitting them. Personally, I found that for one no longer young nor anxious to dance all the fast dances, the costume of an Arab sheik was both cheap and comfortable. Two or three bath towels, a yard or two of white cotton for a turban, and a couple of antiquated pistols hired for the occasion, were all that was necessary.
Some ambitious people went to the expense of getting costumes sent out from England, but it was generally agreed that these did not eclipse the native productions.
On one occasion several ladies were expecting their dresses from England by a P. & 0. steamer which
was due to arrive at Malta a few days before the great event of the season: but unfortunately it was blowing a gale, and the steamer, unable to enter the harbour, went on to Brindisi without stopping. Then there was weeping and wringing of hands, and hastily prepared substitutions, which, though they may not have been much more elaborate than bath towels and pistols, probably looked quite as well as the finery that had gone to Brindisi.
The summer and autumn at Malta are very trying, and no English people who can possibly get away from it stay there between the months of May and November. The fleet does all its cruising and manoeuvring during the summer months, and no doubt this has been the case for many years past, even in the old sailing days; and hence the tradition that officers who had spent much of their time on the Mediterranean station were only fine-weather sailors. At least, so they were dubbed by those who had spent their time in stormier seas, but would gladly have served in the Mediterranean if they had had the chance of doing so. Though, indeed, so far as bad weather is concerned, having served in all the seas of the world, except the Arctics, I know of no sea which can boast of worse weather during four or five moths of the year than the Mediterranean - not even the North Atlantic, with all its bluster.
The summer cruises of the fleet were nearly always in the Levant. Occasionally one division went to the westward and visited the Riviera, Toulon, and some of the Spanish ports; but my luck always took me East, and I cannot say that " the lure of the East " had any great fascination for me. The first summer was interesting, and I saw many places that I had not seen before. The second summer was less interesting,
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and by the end of the third I was (to use the expressive language of the fo'c'sle) " fed up " with the isles of Greece and the classic seas of the Levant.
One of our rendezvous was the spacious harbour of Moudros, in the island of Lemnos, which in the early nineties belonged to the easy-going old Turk, so that we could do pretty much as we liked there. And, indeed, we seem to be doing pretty much as we like there now (1916), though, at the moment of writing, I don't feel quite sure as to whom it belongs, and I feel at least equally doubtful as to whom it will belong when the great war is over. Moudros is a splendid, land-locked harbour, with sufficient depth of water for the heaviest ships and plenty of room. We used generally to hold our regattas either here or at Suda Bay, in Crete, which is also a fine and well-sheltered harbour.
There were red-legged partridges in Lemnos, but it was terribly hot work hunting them in August and September; and it literally was " hunting," for there was very little cover and they ran like hares. One day I was out hunting red-legs in the month of August with some brother Captains and my red setter Ruby. But Ruby was very little good in this climate; she could not stand the heat, and at the end of the first hour she was thoroughly done, and could do nothing but lie down and pant with her tongue hanging out. Then suddenly she disappeared, as if the ground had swallowed her up, which truly it had, for she had come to a well and promptly jumped down it. The well was about six feet deep, with perpendicular sides, and there was Ruby swimming about in the cool water and thoroughly enjoying herself; but she must inevitably have been drowned if we, too, had not found the well. So we made a human chain, and as I was the lightest and
Ruby was my dog, I had to form the bottom link. The next lightest of my brother Captains held me by the ankles and lowered me head first down the well; the other two held on to his legs, and so we fished Ruby out of the well and saved her life. But not one of us got a Carnegie medal, nor were even recommended for it.
One summer the fleet anchored off Jaffa, and there was a great Jerusalem pilgrimage. Nearly two hundred officers and a large number of the men went up. A carriage road had been made from Jaffa to Jerusalem since my last visit to Palestine, and both Admirals went up in a smart barouche; but there were not many carriages, so most of the party rode. Messrs. Cook and Son ran the whole show - transport and board and lodging at Jerusalem. I had been to Jerusalem before, as noted in an earlier chapter; but as the senior Captain had been placed in charge of the fleet, and as the commander of the Collingwood did not want to go, I went up again for the sake of the ride and the exercise, remembering the fun I had on my last expedition; but as it was the height of summer and very hot, the whole of the personally conducted expedition travelled by night, and there was no fun, or if there was, we couldn't see it. The hotels were frightfully congested, and it was with great difficulty that we could get anything to eat. Altogether it was a great crush and worry, and I was sorry I went.
Now there is a railway, in fact several railways, all over Palestine and Syria; but I am glad I saw that classic land in its pre-railway days.
During the summer cruises of the fleet we visited all the places of interest in the Levant. Athens, Smyrna, Salonica, Alexandria, Crete, Cyprus, and many of the minor Greek and Turkish islands, including Milo,
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where the famous Venus, now at the Louvre, was dug up; though how a gem of such surpassing beauty got into such a miserable, sun-baked, poverty-stricken islet as Milo, is difficult to understand. Truly the glory of the Greek islands has departed.
Was it not Byron who sang (I quote from memory, though I am sure it was Byron)
" The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece,
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose and Phoebes sprung.
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, has set."
It is very lazy of me not to get up and look for a Byron, but I think the above is not far out, and I can answer for it that their sun is as hot as ever it is likely to have been in their palmiest days, else my red setter would never have jumped down a well.
One of the Greek islands is a very curious place. Santorin is just a bit of the cone of an enormous extinct volcano. Not altogether extinct, either; for a tiny islet, near the centre of what was the crater, still smokes. Only a little more than half of the cone is above water. The inside wall is nearly perpendicular and several hundred feet high; but the outside of it slopes away gradually to the sea, and is extremely fertile, being covered with vines and supporting a dense population. There is no anchorage inside the crater, the water being too deep, but the fleet steamed through it each year that we cruised in the Levant. It was very interesting the first time we went through, less so the second, and by the third time it had become monotonous.
In July, 1891, the late Empress Frederick of Germany (Princess Royal of England) came out to the Mediterranean to visit her daughter the Crown Princess of
Greece, who had just brought into the world the present Crown Prince. Queen Victoria lent the Empress her yacht Victoria and Albert to bring her to Gibraltar, where she was met by the Surprise (our Admiral's yacht), which took her on to Athens. But as she had decided to stop for a day at Girgenti, in Sicily, to visit the famous ruins of the temple of Zeus, our Admiral sent a squadron, consisting of two battleships, Benbow and Collingwood, and the armoured cruiser Undaunted, to salute and greet Her Majesty. Captain Rawson of the Benbow commanded the squadron and Lord Charles Beresford was the Captain of the Undaunted.
Some extracts from a letter I wrote home just afterwards will give an idea of our trip in the unrestrained language of home letters
" I think you know about Girgenti, in Sicily, and Poestum, near Naples. They contain the best preserved Doric temples in existence, with perhaps the exception of the Parthenon at Athens. The Girgenti temples are well worth seeing, so Rawson, Beresford, and 1, took a carriage and drove out to see them. The Royal party were there at the same time, but we kept out of their way, as we thought they would probably ask us to lunch if they saw us, and as we were to dine with the Empress the same evening, we did not want to give them too much of our company; but they said afterwards they were greatly disappointed at not meeting us amongst the ruins. There were some wandering minstrels to serenade the Empress - they consisted of three blind fiddlers and a flute-player; and when they had got all they could out of the Royal party, they came on and serenaded us; and with the unerring instinct of the blind, they divined that we were sailors, and to our great astonishment they struck up 'Jack Robinson,' the well-known air of the sailor's hornpipe. This was too much for Charlie Beresford and me, and in spite of the heat, we danced a hornpipe in the temple of
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Zeus. And there was no earthquake .... But I must tell you all about our visit. The Surprise arrived very early yesterday morning, and of course we three Captains went on board in full dress, to wait upon Her Majesty; and she came out on to the quarter-desk, and was very nice, and talked to us for quite half an hour. The party consists of the Empress, two unmarried daughters, Count Seckendorf and Countess Bruehl - a jolly stout lady, very like the governess at ____. There are five maidservants and three flunkeys, and I don't know how they all fit into the Surprise, but there they are, anyhow . . . . We all dined with the Empress, who was most gracious and pleasant, and although she has a decidedly sad tone in her voice, she is a fair average talker and seems to take an interest in everything that is going on. She draws very nicely and made an artistic water-colour sketch of the ruins, which she showed us. I took my sketch-book, but was too busy dancing hornpipes to do any sketching. There is always a lion in the path.
" Neither of the Princesses is pretty, but they were friendly and jolly, and much like English girls of the period, even to smoking cigarettes, which Charlie Beresford supplied them with in the evening, after their mother had gone to bed.
" Next morning at eight o'clock the Surprise went on her way to Athens, and Benbow, Collingwood, and Undaunted escorted her for about twenty miles. Then we dressed ship, fired a royal salute, played our bands, cheered, wished her a prosperous voyage, and sheered off for Malta. The Empress made a gracious signal to our squadron, thanking us heartily, and saying how much she appreciated our attentions. I expect she is somewhat neglected in Germany now, and seemed thoroughly to enjoy the honours done her by English ships. Lord Walter Kerr's squadron is to meet her at Athens and do the honours there."
And now the Empress is dead, and Rawson is dead, and only Charlie Beresford and me left. King George
of Greece is dead, too; and the Kaiser's sister is Queen of Greece, and doing all she can to help her bullying brother to crush freedom and trample on small nations, but whether she is doing anything to help her adopted country remains to be seen.
During one of the visits of the fleet to Smyrna I went to visit the ruins of Ephesus, and I thought it would be a good way to celebrate my fiftieth birthday if I took all the Collingwood's midshipmen there and gave them a picnic amongst the ruins; and ruins they are indeed, scarcely one stone standing upon another. Of all the great cities of antiquity, the sites of which I have visited, Ephesus is the most completely wiped out, and it is difficult to believe that it was once a flourishing seaport, for it is now not only out of sight of the sea, but out of sight of any bit of navigable water of any sort.
As the trains from Smyrna to Ephesus did not suit as to times, I engaged a special, which I got at a very reasonable price, and we were taken there and brought back very comfortably, having spent a happy day amongst the ruins, though I am afraid our lack of archaeological knowledge prevented us from making as intelligent a use of our opportunity as we ought to have done.
It was only twenty-three years before our visit that the site of the great temple of Diana had been discovered by Mr. J. T. Wood, who had been sent out by the trustees of the British Museum to search for it, and who dug and searched and excavated round about Ephesus for eleven years (1863-1874). It was in 1869 that he discovered the buried ruins of the temple, nearly twenty feet underground, and a remarkably clever find it was. He first dug up a stone with an inscription on it, which gave an account of processions which took place to and
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from the temple, passing out of one gate of the city and coming in by another. Working with this clue, he got his bearings and dug, and finally unearthed the remains of the great temple, sending some of the marble blocks home to the British Museum, thus following in the footsteps of Lord Elgin, who had been so scornfully scolded by Lord Byron for doing the same thing.
I don't pretend to offer any opinion as to whether it is right or wrong for one country to despoil another of any of its treasures of antiquity. Perhaps when there are plenty of chunks of old stone (as the Yankees express it) knocking about amongst people who would probably use them to build cattle byres, there is no harm in doing so. At any rate, we can always console ourselves by saying, " They all do it."
Mr. Wood made sufficient excavations to enable the archaeologists to construct a complete plan of the temple as it stood in all its glory, nearly two thousand years ago, when St. Paul was mobbed by the trade unionists for spoiling their business.
Some of the marbles that have been unearthed look wonderfully fresh and crisp, and the huge pieces of the great fluted columns of the peristyle, which stood in double rows, enable one to form in imagination some faint idea of the grandeur of the great temple. But, like Antioch and Baalbec, it succumbed to earthquakes, and then the mud of the River Cayster covered the ruins.
While I am now writing (1916), I find that many of the places in the Levant which I knew well five-and-twenty and more years ago, have become once more famous, and are in the mouths of all the world: Salonica, the Dardanelles, Moudros, Corfu, Avlona, San Giovanni di Medua, and many others. But how diferent they
must all seem now to what they were in the piping times of peace. Yet the mere fact that one has been to a place and has local knowledge of it and of its surroundings, adds a special interest to everything we hear about it when it is involved in the hurricane of war. Thus Salonica is a place I used to know very well. We got isolated there in the Collingwood, in consequence of getting smallpox on board. We really caught it at Alexandria, but it did not break out until we got to Salonica, and as they would not have us anywhere else, we stayed there until we had stamped it out. That is to say, in the gulf, moored in a snug little bay about six miles from the town. Salonica was Turkish then, and we received from the Turkish authorities the greatest kindness, consideration, and attention. They took all our cases, as they occurred, at the Turkish hospital, and looked after them so well that we had only one death out of about thirty cases. We were only in a sort of semi-quarantine, and were allowed to land abreast of the ship and bathe, and walk about the country, but we were asked - though not absolutely forbidden - not to go into the town. The old Turk behaved like a gentleman, as he always does, except when he gets a fit of the tantrums, or is led away by others who want to make use of him to further their own designs.
We were greatly assisted by an Austrian doctor in the Turkish service. He supplied us with some fumigating stuff which he called International Mixture, and he showed us how to use it, on charcoal braziers. It made a horrible smell, but we were able to fumigate the whole ship by compartments, and without clearing out the crew, which was very convenient, and we finally stamped out the smallpox and got a clean bill of health.
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During our prolonged stay at Salonica I landed nearly every afternoon with my gun, and shot quail, bustard (the lesser bustard), a few ducks, and teal, and one day I shot two wild swans at the mouth of the Vardar River. There was always a large flock of four or five hundred of them feeding in the very shallow water where this big river runs out into the gulf; but they were very difficult to approach, and not much good for the larder when you got them: though the midshipmen, with their young teeth, managed them all right.
Avlona was another of my happy hunting-grounds. Within a few miles of that town, I got the finest wild boar I ever shot; and there is also a lovely trout stream there, out of which, during the spring and summer, we could always make sure of getting a good basket of speckled beauties, which rose freely to our English flies. Corfu I have already written about, and need not repeat what I have said, save to emphasize once more the supreme act of folly committed by a Radical Government when they gave it away to the degenerate Greeks, who forthwith allowed that beautiful island to go to the devil. It would have come in very handy now, if we had retained possession of it, and it is to be hoped that at the conclusion of this war, it will fall into the hands of someone who will make a better use of it than allowing either an Austrian Empress or a German Emperor to own a palace on its classic shores.
I am tempted to go on writing many more of my memories of the three years I spent in command of the Collingwood on the Mediterranean station, but if I do so I shall inevitably find myself overrunning my space, as I did in my first volume of memories; and I feel quite sure the long-suffering reader will not have patience for a third.
So I must get on. But before closing this chapter, I may note that it was during my time in the Collingwood, that an attempt was made to effect a radical change in our naval uniform. A committee was appointed by the Admiralty, of which the late Duke of Edinburgh was chairman, and they were ordered to draw up proposals for a " reform " in naval uniform. A copy of these proposals was sent to each Captain then serving afloat, and he was directed to state his opinion thereon.
The nature of these proposals may be gathered from my comments, sent in the form of a letter to my Admiral, the late Sir George Tryon:
" In compliance with your memorandum of December 31st, 1890, calling on me for my opinion upon the recommendations contained in the report of the committee on officers' uniform, I beg to submit the following observations upon some of the fundamental changes proposed therein:
" The proposal of the Committee to alter the shape of the full-dress coat, and to bring the skirt round the front of the waist and modify length of skirt, appears to me to be merely a euphemistic introduction to a foreign-looking semi-military tunic, in no sense more suited to the requirements of a modern dress coat than the present one.
" I am quite unable to agree with the Committee in their assumption that a tail coat is an ‘antiquated garment.' So far as my experience goes, it is at the present day the recognized full-dress of every civilized country in Europe and America, even including Ireland, where it is not only the full-dress of the peasant, but his fighting dress also, and it is not considered to be by any means an unsuitable garment for that purpose.
" The proposal of the Committee to abolish the present evening-dress. consisting of a tail coat, white waistcoat,
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and plain blue trousers, and to substitute for it a short jacket, embroidered blue waistcoat, and gold-laced trousers, is, to my mind, simply incomprehensible. The former is probably the neatest evening-dress worn by any naval or military service in the world. The latter would be a poor imitation of a horse artilleryman. On the most graceful of figures it would look flashy, incongruous, and unnautical; whilst if worn by men of portly and rotund forms, it would look most ungraceful, not to say comical.
" The proposal to abolish the distinction marks on the sleeve and to substitute shoulder-straps, would not, in my opinion, be any improvement; though I am in favour of abolishing the buttons on the sleeve, even in the case of midshipmen, as the march of civilization and the increased refinement of the young gentlemen renders them no longer necessary.
" In conclusion, I beg to remark that the general tendency of the Committee's proposals appear to be in a military and anti-nautical direction, and I am quite unable to see why the first service in the world should go out of its way to copy anybody."
I heard afterwards that the Duke of Edinburgh was very angry with me for daring to pour ridicule upon his pet scheme for " reforming " our naval uniform; but that did not disturb me much, as the proposals were finally laughed out of court.
It is on record that another Royal sailor - William IV - introduced red facings, instead of white, into the Navy, but the innovation lasted for only a very short time.
Our latest Royal sailor - George V - found something better to do than tailoring while he was in the Navy.
Sir George Tryon, I was told, had a hearty laugh over my letter, and sent it on to the Admiralty. He probably felt that his own portly figure would not have looked its best in the proposed evening-dress, not even if the
short jacket had been further adorned with the two-inch tails of a Sicilian brigand, as worn by Mr. Tracey Tupman at the fancy-dress ball.
Sir George, however, had (later) to forward on to me a reproof from My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who expressed their displeasure at the levity with which I had treated a serious subject.
Their Lordships' displeasure could not have been either deep-seated or vindictive, as they appointed me, shortly afterwards, to the very best Captain's appointment in the Service - Superintendent of Pembroke Dockyard.
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