|Links in my life on land and sea |
MOROCCO AND THE CRIMEA
Morocco and Riff pirates - Attack on Melilla - Safe fighting - Reckless Moorish courage - Sail for the Crimea - First glimpse of Constantinople - Deserted Sevastopol - The Valley of Death - Treasure trove - Balaclava - Mary Magdalene - A fight in a shanty - Equine dilemma - Touch and go of being left behind - England again - Leave the Retribution - Appointed to a sailing frigate.
ON our arrival at Gibraltar we received news of the crew of a British merchantman being held prisoners by the Riffs on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, and, in order to obtain their release, our ship was despatched to Melilla, a Spanish convict establishment on that coast, where we were to get into communication with the Sheiks. Melilla, a fortress on a rocky promontory of the desert, was one of the most terrible places on the face of the earth for cruelty and brutality. The condition of the miserable convicts - mostly chained - their scant food, the filthy water they had to drink : their floggings and shootings, and the noisome dens in which they lived, would have melted a heart of stone. Nevertheless, when His Excellency the Spanish Governor of this hell came on board to luncheon with his pretty Sevillana wife and her still prettier sister, we saluted him with seventeen guns, and would have saluted the ladies too, if it had been etiquette.
Again, my smattering of foreign tongues came in of use. After luncheon in the Captain's cabin - to which I had been invited - we landed and went up to the Governor's house, a delightfully-situated place, high up above the fortifications and commanding a magnificent view inland of rolling yellow desert, with a ragged outline of blue mountains beyond. Here the wives and daughters of several other Spaniards were also assembled, and in the evening we danced on a broad terrace, in the light of a brilliant Mediterranean moon, drank coffee and Spanish wines, unknown in England, and were extremely merry, little caring that not a hundred yards away, sweltering in their pestiferous cells and crowded corridors, their half-rotten rags hanging about their emaciated limbs, lay those other human beings - for whom the grace of God and bad luck had provided a different lot - cursing us, no doubt, as the strains of music reached their ears, and as their fancies pictured the bright eyes and graceful figures of their country-women; or their mouths ran dry at the thought of cooling drinks and the pure sea breeze. Yet numbers of these poor wretches were not so criminal as many of these officers, who notoriously grew rich by selling rations and clothing, or by conniving at the escape of convicts who could pay.
Next day we had a different kind of diversion, for the Riffs, who have been besieging Melilla ever since it became a Spanish possession, were making a fresh onslaught on the fortress. But beyond a moral certainty of being shot it was difficult to see with what object these reckless Moors almost literally ran their heads against its high stone walls, without any more chance of injuring their enemy than has a shrimp against a man in a diving dress.
The attack which I witnessed was simply idiotic.
STREET SCENE IN TANGIER.
A CHILDISH SKIRMISH
A band of desert horsemen - dressed in white, and waving flags - would dash up from behind low sandhills, where grew a few bushes of camel thorn, brandishing antique firelocks, which might possibly send a ball through a barn-door at twenty paces, and discharging these harmless weapons at random against the fortifications or at the houses.
Naturally, as this game had been going on for centuries, no one inside the walls showed any concern, beyond not exposing their heads over a parapet or at a window. On the other hand, a number of soldiers were ensconced in completely protected casemates, from which they picked off these desperate fanatics with entire safety to themselves. Then, after a few saddles had been emptied and a few poor horses rolled over or crippled, the Moorish Cavalry would retire, when a closely-packed horde of almost naked Riffs would come leaping, yelling, flourishing swords, and firing off more matchlocks, of course with the same result as had awaited the horsemen ; and retiring again only after some forty or fifty had been slain. At one part of the fortifications a long covered way, partly excavated out of the solid rock, but everywhere impervious to anything but dynamite, extended for perhaps a hundred yards into the desert, ending in a very strong redoubt, impossible to assault without scaling-ladders. Into this redoubt another midshipman and myself betook ourselves together with a few Spanish soldiers, all of us armed with rifles. Here, I am ashamed to say, we opened a brisk fire on the Riffs, but it did not occur to us that we were constructively committing murder, as I suppose we were, since practically we had nothing to do with the quarrel. And yet we blazed away with as much ardour as if we had been defending our own homes. But it has always been a satisfaction to me
that I do not think I hit anybody. The fight did not last long, probably not an hour, and before we left the redoubt, I saw dark masses of Riffs winding back over the sandhills like an army of ants, carrying with them their dead and wounded. Then a portcullis was opened, a drawbridge let down, and some twenty or thirty Spanish Cavalry dashed out, galloped towards the retreating enemy, fired a few shots and came scuttling back again, chased by about a dozen Moors on horseback, who had remained behind, hidden in a clump of bushes. Inside our redoubt the damage done - for a few shots came in through the embrasures - was the muzzles knocked off two rifles and a bit chipped out of the ear of a Spanish corporal.
Next day my ship proceeded to a spot where the English captives were to be handed over. This was done without much ceremony, and, as far as I know, without any ransom. That, probably, was extorted from the Sultan. The rescued men were a scratch lot, hardly worth all the fuss made over them - though possibly they themselves thought otherwise - and when we midshipmen heard that for six or eight months they had been living comfortably in the interior, had been gazelle-hunting, and had had the run of the whole place, we could not see what they had to growl at, and felt sure that we ourselves would willingly have gone into captivity for any number of months under the same conditions.
There were eleven of these mariners; their brig, the Hymen, had been captured by the pirates while lying becalmed off the coast. Exactly the same thing goes on now, and in another ship, many years after, I went again to the same place on the same mission.
* * * * *
The Russian War was now over, and we received
IMPRESSIONS OF SEVASTOPOL
orders to go to the Crimea to bring home troops, and, touching at Malta to coal, we reached Constantinople on June 18, 1856. My earliest recollections of that wonderful place are somewhat vague ; a confused picture of a vast, heterogeneous city, Oriental and European, all jumbled together ; of surpassingly beautiful mosques and delicate minarets, crowds of people of all nationalities jostling each other in narrow and filthy streets, mounds of dogs asleep with small woolly pups sprawling over them, Cavasses in gorgeous liveries, hamals in rags, all the tag-rag and bobtail of a great Eastern city. But I had very little time to see anything and left it without any idea of the extraordinary influence over my life it was destined to exert, and of the friendships which would there be formed.
We coaled rapidly and left for Kazatch, in the Crimea, in two days. Here we remained some time, and I managed to visit every place of interest from the Alma to Balaclava. But numbers of my messmates - with that want of interest in things peculiar to many naval men - devoted every hour of the day they could get ashore to playing cricket, and their evenings to the cafes and restaurants of the French Army at Kamish. I shall never forget my impression of Sevastopol viewed from the Redan, and the extraordinary spectacle of the so-called Valley of Death, a roadway literally paved with shot and shell. This road lay between two bare hills which gradually converged until they formed a narrow defile, and down this the troops had to march on their way to the trenches. It was literally paved with round shot, lying embedded in the earth and rocks. There seemed to have been enough projectiles to have wiped the Allied Armies off the face of the earth. Beyond lay the town of Sevastopol spread out on both sides of the winding harbour. It was a scene
of pitiless desolation, the annihilation of thousands of homes, their white stones in formless heaps, even the very direction of the streets obliterated by fallen masses of masonry. There was not a sound to be heard, the death-like silence only broken by the curious whistling cry of kites and the roll of the surf outside the harbour. As I rode down into this ruined city a sense of depression seized me - precisely as it did many years after in the Tundja Valley - and I can well remember the sickening feeling of the undeserved misery it had brought to thousands of poor wretches, in no way interested in the issue of the struggle. My companion, Farquharson (son of Invercauld) and I rambled aimlessly all over the place, too ignorant to understand its important strategic points. But the most vivid impression it left on us both was the incredible number of fleas we found everywhere, more especially in Fort St. Paul, which had been used as a hospital. We were wearing white ducks, and it is a fact that in a few minutes, in this fort, our legs were black with fleas as high as our knees. We beat a rapid retreat, but as the insects were swarming on us, inside and out, working away tooth and nail with the fury of their long fast, we rushed down to the sea, stripped off everything and plunged into the water. Then we came out and set to work to remove the fleas from our garments as best we could : carrying them to a place farther along the shore, and once more swimming about a little before putting them on. In that short time we had received five hundred bites, possibly five thousand, for the whole of the lower part of our bodies was as though we had had measles, whilst the irritation for several days was unbearable.
Roaming about Sevastopol we espied a roll of canvas lying under a heap of stones, near a vast pile of beams,
PICTURE OF THE CRUCIFIXION
coloured tiles, and woodwork which indicated the ruins of a church. We set to work and cleared away the fallen rubbish from the canvas, which we found to be an oil painting of the Crucifixion, about five feet long, artistically worthless, but, from the quality of the canvas and the style of the colouring, evidently very ancient. We rolled it up again, and bore it away in triumph, settling the ownership by my giving Farquharson a bottle of rum for his half interest ; the best bottle of rum I ever gave way. The picture hangs in my house to this day, and carries me back all those years with a vividness of impression that nothing can dim. But it was a risky speculation for me, for I ran every chance of losing both the picture and the rum, for looting was strictly prohibited, and whilst our Allies - French, Italian, and Turk - stole right and left, even from defenceless peasants, we British were not allowed to pick up so much as a broken scent-bottle as a memorial of that great war. I, however, managed to smuggle my picture on board after dark, stowing it away, somewhat irreverently, amongst seaboots, sardine tins, brass knockers, bells, or other trophies of raids on peaceful citizens all over the world, in the big square enclosure under the table of the midshipman's berth - called by us the "jolly boat" - where it lay in obscure safety until I got home.
I have frequently tried since by examining any plan I could get of Sevastopol to localise the spot where this church stood, which I assume was Roman, as pictures of this kind find no place in Orthodox or Greek churches, but I have always failed to do so. I have offered it to two Czars, but have never received a reply to either of my letters, and finally I called personally on a leading Russian priest - I need not say where - and was almost kicked out of the house by this frowsy
and ignorant fool, who, unable to talk French, persisted throughout our brief interview in talking some gibberish I could not understand. I imagine he thought that I was a Protestant missionary in disguise come to convert him ; or, possibly, he was only waiting to see what backsheesh I would offer him.
Again with Farquharson, I visited Balaclava and the heights of Inkermann and many other places, now historic, round which already myths were beginning to gather, persons and personages figuring therein as heroes, who, at the time, it had been a toss-up whether they ought not to have been tried for incompetence or worse, and shot.
It is unnecessary to describe Balaclava or its grand scenery - both so well known - beyond saying that the town which the war had caused to grow up about the anchorage, was the most ramshackle place the mind can imagine, where even the ribs of dead horses and mules had been impounded to assist in its architecture ; or where a cafe would be entirely constructed of British Army boots, embedded in dried mud, together with preserved-meat tins and empty bottles, knapsacks, busbees, and all other disjecta membra of the battlefield. There is a place near Balaclava where, to this day, millions of empty bottles and tin pans are still to be seen, memorials of the Crimean War. The inhabitants of this rag-and-bone town at the time I speak of, were not less remarkable than their abodes ; indeed, in their general appearance there was considerable resemblance. They seemed the refuse of civilisation, especially the women, who, here, as always, managed to touch a lower level than the lowest man, precisely as the better soar so infinitely above him.
My companion and I naturally went the rounds of Balaclava, and visited the harbour, where numbers
BALACLAVA: A TRAGEDY
of small craft were being loaded with tents and all manner of military stores, things sold to Jews for a tenth of their value. The heat was intense, for few places are hotter than the Crimea during the summer, and again it is Arctic in the winter. After wandering about all day amongst greasy Greeks, frowsy Frenchmen, perspiring Germans, unwashed Turks, and grimy Italians, we went into a soi-disant restaurant to have some food, where a French woman, very lightly clad - who could not have weighed less than seventeen stone - attended to our wants. She apologised for her lack of costume, with some lingering idea that English boys must be accustomed to see her sex more completely dressed, but I begged her not to géner herself, which so pleased her that, quite unsolicited, she put her huge bare arm round my neck and kissed me, saying,
"Ah! Tu paries Français, mon petit serin!" which I suppose justified, in her eyes, the liberty she was taking.
After our meal, which was decidedly savoury, we strolled into a neighbouring tent, where we found a roulette table, with a shocking lot of rascals standing round. We played, and were, naturally, cheated out of nearly every farthing we had - no great sum but our all - a loss which might have had very serious consequences. The next place of entertainment we tried was a long, low barn, fitted up with a stage at one end with candles - stuck in bottles for footlights - guttering in the wind. The place was crammed with soldiers of various nationalities and with a sprinkling of British bluejackets and marines. The heat was stifling and the aroma of the place most mixed, humanity and bad tobacco seeming to get the best in this conflict of almost visible stenches. The programme at this café chantant was strictly of the variety
order; the leading performers being French girls who screeched outrageously risqué songs in that shrill metallic voice found nowhere but of France. After each song - accompanied by dancing - these ladies would come down over the footlights and plump themselves indifferently on the first knee that presented itself ; their places on the stage being filled by two Greeks, a hump-backed male dwarf and a shrivelled hag of a woman, who both sang songs standing on their heads. After these and other similar performances the benches were cleared for general dancing, and then a row began through the levity of a bluejacket who had tried to make the Greek hag stand on her head once more. The dwarf flew about screaming like a wild beast, knives were out, French and Italian soldiers were going down right and left under the fists of the British man-of-warsmen, when suddenly the proprietor extinguished the lights, leaving us all fighting and scuffling in pitchy darkness. To escape from the mêlée was by no means easy, for the door was blocked by a crowd of women and men trying to get out, but at last Farquharson and I, after a desperate struggle, found ourselves again breathing the fresh night air.
We now went to look for our horses, for it was past eleven, and we had some fourteen miles to ride to Kazatch, if I remember the distance right. With difficulty we found the stall where we had left our animals, but to our dismay discovered that mine had gone dead lame, for he had been hired out in our absence to some bluejackets, and, in addition to the lameness, was absolutely done; in fact, the poor beast could not move a yard.
In this dilemma, and now penniless, we thought of hunting up a man called Oldfield, commanding a gunboat in the harbour, but decided against it, the
hour being so late and his view of the affair by no means certain. Then we bethought us of both trying to ride the same horse, but, when we mounted, the animal sent us flying to the amusement of a knot of loafers who had gathered round. To have walked all the way was impossible, as apart from the distance, the country was teeming with half-starved camp-followers and cut-throats. But to go somehow was imperatively necessary, for our ship was to sail next day. In the height of our difficulty, a good-natured Englishman came to our rescue, who in exchange for an order on my agents - Messrs. Stilwell & Co. - handed us over two sovereigns, which was the sum demanded for the hire of a horse.
More than thirty years after this, I met this kind-hearted man by the purest accident - in a train between Liverpool and London - and I leave it to unbelievers in psychic recognition to say why, absolutely a propos of nothing, the whole of this Balaclava scene flashed on my memory with such force that - though I had not said a word to him - I straightway asked him if he had been in the Crimea. He seemed extremely astonished, and still more so when I said, "Your name must be Booker, and you once gave a midshipman two sovereigns on a bill of his, to help him out of a difficulty in Balaclava." He thought for a moment and then said, "Yes, I do remember it ; but how can you remember me, after all these years?" I said," I don't remember you personally, but something tells me you are the man." He showed me his card, and I had never forgotten the name.
But to return to my story.
By this time it was very late, and we started off with dim ideas of our road, but after floundering through bogs and going miles out of our way we finally reached a hilltop from which we saw the blessed mast-
head lights of the men-of-war, twinkling in a pit of darkness below us.
How our horses scrambled down that hillside - which by daylight looked like a wall - Heaven only knows, but we rode straight for the lights, and when we reached the bottom found ourselves in the French camp and near the restaurant where we had hired our horses. The proprietor was furious at our having left his horse behind, until his vivandière, a fine, strapping Normande, came out with a lantern, and discovered that he had made the best of the bargain in the exchange ; as, indeed, he had.
With some difficulty we got a boat and were on board just after four, but, alas! only to find the First Lieutenant already on deck, superintending holystoning, who at once stopped our leave for a fortnight for not having returned earlier in the night. However, we did not mind this, being only too thankful we had not missed our ship, which was already getting up steam.
We sailed that day; having embarked a quantity of stores, and two officers for passage home - a Colonel Maclean, of the Artillery, and another whose name I have forgotten. We also had with us two horses, one Lord Raglan's charger, called Beaufort, the other a beautiful Shumla pony, which had belonged to my cousin Gloucester Gambier, of the Horse Artillery, who had been badly wounded at Inkermann, but recovered, and became Adjutant-General of Artillery.
* * * * *
An incident occurred in the homeward voyage which galled me very much at the time, as it would have any sensitive boy. In a dead calm we sighted an Italian speronare, a boat of the Calabrian coast. Tne men in it made signals of distress, and, going alongside, we found they had run short of water, having been
A FRIEND IN NEED
becalmed for days. I was sent for by Captain Barker, and going up on the bridge was told to ask if there was anything else they wanted, the conversation up to that point having been carried on in pantomime. They could not understand a word I said, nor I a word of their lingo, for they spoke only Neapolitan or Calabrese, and I only knew pure Tuscan. In consequence, I was dismissed from the bridge as an impostor, for I was believed, up to that time, to know Italian. It was useless for me to explain that the language these men spoke bore no more resemblance to real Italian than Breton does to Parisian French.
Very few books were carried on board ship in those days and still fewer read. There was a despairing collection - called by courtesy the ship's library - under the charge of the purser's steward, and as the selection was entrusted to some Admiralty pundit, it consisted of the dullest of novels and a few works relating to naval matters. Scattered sparsely, however, through the cabins of lieutenants, surgeons, and chaplains, such works as Shakespeare, Boccaccio's " Decameron," Boswell's "Life of Johnson," "Tom Jones," "Clarissa Harlowe," "Koderick Kandoin," Margaret of Navarre's " Heptameron," Massinger and Ford and Beaumont and Fletcher's plays and others of that type, might occasionally be found. I had a few books of my own, at the bottom of my chest, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Sale's Koran, Herodotus, Livy's "History of Rome," Ovid's " Metamorphoses," Anacreon, the Bible, the Apocrypha, and a student's Gibbon. I read every one of these books, spending hours stretched in a coil of rope in the main-top; and thus kept up something of what I had learnt at home.
Of the remainder of my service in the Retribution there is nothing to record. We paid off on the 23rd of August,
1856, and recommissioned next day, spending again many weary weeks at Sheerness, a life which became so deadly and unprofitable that my father used interest at the Admiralty, and I got appointed to a sailing frigate, the Iris, bound for the Australian station - which included New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea, and the whole of the Pacific Islands.
She was a six-and-twenty gun ship, of the old school, a mere tub to look at, but with the lines of a yacht below water, and was one of the fastest sailers afloat. She was only a thousand tons burden, which seems now absurd, as we had a very large complement of men and officers. As to ourselves we were seventeen in the midshipman's mess, so it is easy to imagine we were fairly well boxed up, and, indeed, much worse off for room than in the Retribution.
I joined at Chatham, where the Iris was fitting out, lashed alongside an old fighting ship of the great war, the Tartar. Only a few years ago this old ship was sold out of the service and broken up, and now, no doubt, the old figure-head is grinning over the wall at the bottom of Vauxhall Bridge Road, and telling wondrous tales of great sea fights to the other worthies who there keep him company.
And what wonderful stories they must be, of long vigils in stormy nights of snow, week after week, year after year, guarding their own and blockading the coast of the enemy, never coming into port even for repairs, hoisting in their provisions at sea. Here they all are, a lumpy Venus, a simpering Bellona, Mars with a horrid squint, and Agamemnon going about, for a century, with half his nose off; some cock-eyed old British Admiral or General, whom his countrymen delighted to honour with a ribbon, his breast puffed up like a pouter pigeon's ; some jolly old king, who harmlessly came to believe he really had been
HER MAJESTY'S FRIGATE IRIS
a sailor, with his hooked nose, fat cheeks and a general air of benign imbecility about him, a rakish cock to his hat suggesting rather a spree on the Hard at Portsea than a battle.
And here once more I may be allowed to draw a contrast between the Navy of my day and that of to-day. I do not think any of us hated the actual being "at sea" as, I gather, do the moderns. I believe we felt a pride in endeavouring to keep alive the old tradition that the Fleets of England "kept the sea," not only in the sense that we were actually out on the deep and in blue water, but that we were there to see that every other nation - French, German, Russian, or Italian - behaved themselves as became them in our special domain. The idea of any other flag being on the waters except by the grace of England never entered our heads. Outside their actual port, foreigners were afloat on sufferance, whilst to us, in all reality, the frontiers of England were the coasts of the enemy, or foreigner. When gradually a Fleet Reserve was formed it seemed to us like an old shed in which broken-down four-wheelers might be stored, and the officers in it not much better than worn-out old cabbies. In fact, dropping the metaphor, they were really very little better. The "reserve" was a kind of backwater into which had drifted all that was effete and useless. But now that is all altered, and, much as I admire the greatness of our modern Navy, I honestly think it a great pity that so much of this spirit has died out. Half the men in the Navy are now on shore in barracks, and the other half wish they were.
A further contrast between the old and new Services is the class of what, I may call, subsidiary fighting machines. In the place of the modern terrible engines of destruction, torpedoes, submarines, &c., there was a curious adjunct to our fighting force in the Baltic
Fleet, the mortar vessels - veritable relics of Nelson's days, though built for our special use. They resembled nothing so much as a washerwoman's tub. Though perhaps their lines were less likely to obtain speed, still, in the matter of capsizing and "turning turtle" they could easily have beaten any washing-tub that ever floated down a stream. Completely round and unseaworthy, these lumbering, useless craft were perpetually towed about the Baltic, with some vague idea, it may be supposed, of shelling the Russian forts. But they were rarely, if ever, used. I certainly was weeks and weeks off Cronstadt - which might have been laid in ashes if these blessed craft could have been trusted to fire without their mortar going out through the bottom - but I do not remember a single shot being fired from any of them.
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