Victory, page 28
Nelson’s plans, on the other hand, had given his fleet the weather gage; upwind from his opponents he could choose the manner and direction of his strike, and everyone knew now how this was to develop.
‘Let’s be about our business then, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Mr Pasco, I’ll trouble you to close up your signals crew – there’s a mort of work to be done.’
‘I have the ship, then, Mr Pasco,’ said Captain Hardy, releasing the officer-of-the-watch, who wasted no time in nodding to Bowden, transforming him in that instant from lowly midshipman-of-the-watch to a far more important signal midshipman.
Bowden mounted the ladder to his station – the poop-deck. Higher even than the quarterdeck, it afforded a magnificent all-round view of the ship forward to the bowsprit and on either side out to the ships in company. He tried to put away the thought that this was also probably the most exposed position on board.
King, the yeoman of signals, was already at the flag lockers, and the rest of the crew mustered quickly. The mizzen signal halliards were cast off and shaken free, an able seaman sent to verify others on the fore and main. The signals log was initialled and begun – and the first signal order of the day came from the quarterdeck: ‘Form the order of sailing in two columns.’
Robins, the master’s mate, flicked the pages of the Admiralty signal code expertly. ‘Number seventy-two!’ he called to the signals yeoman, who pulled out the two blue and white flags and thrust them at a pair of seamen to toggle on in the right order.
Robins pointed upwards immediately – this was not a difficult ‘lift’ to check. The seamen hauled lustily and the hoist soared up. Checking the expensive fob watch his father had presented to him, Bowden scrawled in the log that the signal had been made at six a.m. Then, glancing out to the fleet, he noted down the acknowledgements as they came.
This signal had essentially been to call the fleet to order after the loose formation of the night. Then, with a chill, Bowden remembered that the order of sailing was also the order of battle and, sure enough, it was closely followed by the order to bear up and sail east. Nelson’s first signals of the day were to lunge at the foe.
The next made it formal – number thirteen, ‘Prepare for battle’, which put into effect a two-pronged charge into the very centre of the massed enemy fleet, the lee column to the right led by Admiral Collingwood in Royal Sovereign and tasked to cut through and envelop the rear. Sailing parallel, the weather column to Collingwood’s left would be led by the commander-in-chief in Victory, seeking in one move to take on the enemy flagship and isolate his van.
It was becoming obvious, however, that unless the breeze picked up it would be many hours before they could hope to grapple and every sail possible was set, including the cumbersome stunsails, temporary extensions to the yardarms.
The sun rose above the horizon, strengthening and lifting a dreamy opalescent mist through which the stately progress of the Combined Fleet seemed a fairy argosy. Nelson ascended to the poop with Hardy to take advantage of its panorama of enemy and friend, the two staying in amiable conversation while the ship was piped to clear for action.
The well-practised evolution turned Victory into bedlam: teams of men stripped mess-decks and cabins of every comfort and piece of furniture that might be splintered by gunfire, struck them down into the hold or cast them overboard.
Next it was necessary to clear away some of the stanchions in the gun-decks with heavy mallets to provide more room to serve the guns, as well as unshipping inessential ladders until each of the three gun-decks was clear from stem to stern.
All hammocks were passed up and stowed, tightly rolled, in the nettings at the sides of the ship, protection against musket-balls. A net was stretched over the fo’c’sle and quarterdeck to catch falling wreckage from aloft while the two cutters at the davits aft were lowered and towed, other boats remaining on their skid beams.
The boatswain and his party were everywhere, laying out stores in strategic places for the repair of rigging torn by the French, notorious for firing high, together with preventer shrouds and braces, which duplicated vital lines. Where the tons weight of the lower yards was suspended at the mast, chain slings were secured. A lucky shot by the enemy at this point could end in unravelled rope and the heavy yard crashing down on the quarterdeck and men at the guns.
A spare tiller was brought and relieving tackles provided to work the steering from the tiller directly if the ship’s wheel was damaged. The carpenter and his crew laid out their tools and ensured that the narrow passageway circling the orlop at the waterline was clear. In action his duty was to make his rounds to watch for the sudden bursting in of a shot strike and then to move fast to stem the inward rush of sea with shot plugs, lead sheeting and bracing.
And the great guns were readied: gun-captains collected their pouches from the store with their quill firing tubes, prickers and reamers, spare gun-flints and slow-match. A slung powder-horn completed their outfit. Each then went to his gun and ensured the great beast was able to do its duty. Were the ready-use shot garlands fully populated by balls? Was there a salt-box with two cartridges in place waiting? Wads in the overhead net? The gun-lock was fitted and tried, equipment mustered in the racks – worms, wad-hooks, crows. Side tackles were ranged along and a training tackle applied to the rear of the gun.
The gun-decks were provided with arms-chests: pistols, muskets and cutlasses. All that was needed to board the enemy – or to repel boarders. In the centre of the deck broached casks of water and vinegar were placed at regular intervals.
Meanwhile the gunner and his mates unlocked the Grand Magazine and the powder rooms, passing through fearnought flapped screens and moving along cramped, lead-lined passages in felt slippers to the most dangerous place aboard. The smallest spark here would mean instant destruction and death not only for the men inside but the entire ship.
Throughout the day’s action they would be sweating here in the dimness using copper scoops to make up the cartridges to feed the guns, lit by specially sealed lanthorns and getting news only through the powder-monkey chain.
Finally, water was sluiced and sand scattered liberally along the gun-decks. In the bloody carnage of close-quarter fighting it would give much-needed grip to bare feet.
And quietly in the orlop, the lowest deck of all, Beatty the surgeon took charge of the cockpit, the space at the after end outside the midshipmen’s berth. Chests were brought and he laid out his instruments: bullet extractors, fleams, forceps, ligatures – and the saws and knives to sever limbs. Tubs were placed nearby to take these ‘wings and limbs’ and carboys of oil of turpentine were opened to seal the stumps.
As far as it was possible, HMS Victory was now ready for the fight. The first lieutenant, Quilliam, reported to Captain Hardy that all was complete and the hands were stood down. The next time they would be called upon was when the ship beat to quarters.
‘Sir, hands to breakfast?’ suggested Quilliam.
‘Make it so,’ Hardy replied.
The men scrambled noisily below – with the galley fire out there would be no hot food but ship’s biscuits, cheese and grog were acceptable fare with the enemy in sight, and there was much to contemplate and talk about over the mess tables. At the day’s end, which places would be vacant, which cheery faces would never be seen again?
Pasco glanced at Bowden. ‘You’ve been on watch, m’ lad,’ he said, with a smile. ‘I’d advise you to duck below while you can, shift into your fighting rig and get a bite to eat. Come back in an hour.’
Grateful, Bowden made his way down to the gunroom, now bare and stark. His sea-chest, like the others, had been struck below and he wedged himself up against the massive transom knee to munch his rations.
Around him were his shipmates, some keeping to themselves in inner reflection, others conversing in low tones. He did not feel like talking and finished his meal with an orange that Pasco had slipped him from the wardroom, sipping sparingly on a tin cup of grog.
Except . . . He had a slate on a string. He balanced it on his knee, pulled out a signal form and his pencil and composed his thoughts.
‘Dear Uncle,’ he began, at a loss for words in the rush of impressions.
Villeneuve is sighted this morning at dawn ESE five leagues. Capt Hardy estimates 33 French and Spanish in line of battle to the S. And what a parcel of lubbers they look too! As would give apoplexy to Adm Cornwallis, I should think.
We’ve clear’d for action and the men are in great heart, as well they should with Ld Nelson in company.
He chewed his pencil, trying to think what to say, but it was too weighty an affair for small-talk and, besides, what exactly was he writing? A midshipman’s dutiful letter to his benefactor – or his last words on earth to his family? Who knew when they would receive this? Others had begun their letters weeks before with the object of adding a last-minute postscript to go out in the mail with the dispatches that the commander-in-chief would be sending to the Admiralty just before battle was joined.
At this time, dear Uncle, I think of you and my family but, be assured, should it be by God’s good grace I shall fall in this action then I die in a most noble cause, and know that I will not disgrace your love and name. Do not grieve – it will be to no purpose.
His eyes stung and he caught himself, finishing,
Remember me to my friends. I bid you all farewell and put my life into the hands of the One who made me. Amen.
When Bowden returned to the poop it seemed so crowded. Besides the signal crew, the Royal Marines were assembling there, nearly three dozen of them. Captain Adair flashed him a confident smile as he checked his men’s equipment.
Bowden picked up the signal log. It had been fairly busy, mostly admonitions to individual ships to make more sail and take station. The two columns were now formed and heading for the waiting enemy line, but so slowly in the calm.
‘I say, aren’t the Crapauds sailing more than usually ahoo?’ Adair remarked, shielding his eyes and gazing across the glittering sea where the aspect of the enemy masts and sails was slowly changing.
‘Ha!’ said Pasco in amazement. ‘I do believe they’re putting about and running back to Cadiz!’
‘Be damned! Our Nel will be in a right taking if they get away,’ Pollard, another signal midshipman sniffed, his glass up on the leaders.
Victory’s bow, however, was resolutely tracking the new head of the enemy line, which was puzzling. From animated discussions the previous night, Bowden had understood that Nelson’s intention was to punch through the centre, and here he was, apparently abandoning his plan.
Then Victory beat to quarters – the martial thunder of the drummers at the hatchways started, the staccato rhythm of ‘Heart of Oak’. Sailors scrambled up from below to man the guns.
A first-rate like Victory had the greatest fire-power of anything afloat: three decks of guns each ranged the entire length of the ship on both sides, the heaviest on the lowest – a broadside of half a ton of cold iron, more if double-shotted at close quarters. And there was the secondary armament: a fourth level of twelve-pounders on the quarterdeck, more on the fo’c’sle, including the giant sixty-eight-pounder carronades.
Already at his station for quarters, Bowden stood aside as the marines formed up with muskets, ready to be employed from this vantage-point. Most of the 140 of their number were below decks serving at the guns.
The great ship settled to a watchful expectancy as she closed slowly with the enemy. Out on the beam were the frigates, their last service for their commander-in-chief to act as repeaters for signals sent by the flagship in the thick of the fight. They would otherwise stay outside the conflict.
A flurry of signals caught Bowden’s eye. They were from Royal Sovereign out on the lee column, instructing the line to sail on a larboard line of bearing. ‘What does Collingwood mean?’ Bowden asked Robins quietly, anxious not to show ignorance in front of Lieutenant Pasco, standing four-square at the front of the poop.
‘Not for me t’ say, but my guess is that Old Cuddy is giving leave to his ships to take on the enemy at will, not as a formed column. I dare to say he knows his business.’
Bowden nodded in understanding. The ships strung out were now going to fall on the rear individually, to envelop it, and there was Royal Sovereign well ahead of the others, aimed like a lance at the last third of the line. Before long they would be the first under fire.
It was galling, the snail-pace approach made even worse by a further drop in the slight breeze. How ironic, he mused, this calm before the storm that was certainly coming, when they needed the breezes so much in order to close before they could be shot to pieces.
Their bow-wave now was barely a ripple, their speed that of the stolid pace of a rank of soldiers on the battlefield tramping towards the opposing lines. But theirs was not to face the crackle of muskets: ahead were the massed broadsides of a wall of ships a whole five miles long, which they must endure head-on without firing a shot in return.
Over to starboard the lee division was nearing the enemy line. Villeneuve must open fire soon, but first his fleet had to hoist colours to accept battle – and thereby reveal which of the great ships was his flagship. It was nearing midday with the line a mile ahead when the colours broke free.
Instantly telescopes were up and searching. ‘There! Near dead centre!’ The pennants of a French commander-in-chief were at the main-mast head of an eighty-gun battleship next after the unmistakable bulk of the Santissima Trinidad, a four-decker and the largest ship in the world.
Then Victory’s band struck up – ‘Britons Strike Home’! The lusty rhythm was taken up gleefully:
The Gallic fleet approaches us nigh, boys,
Some now must conquer, some now must die, boys . . . !
From another ship came ‘Rule, Britannia’, and ‘Heart of Oak’ thumped out from a third. In the stillness a defiance of the worst the foe could bring against them echoed across the water.
Bowden saw then that Victory had altered course. No longer stretching out for the van, she had thrown over her helm and was heading directly for Villeneuve’s flagship. So the plan would stand as before: a concentrated drive at the very vitals of the enemy.
‘How curious!’ Robins murmured. ‘Shall we ever know why?’
‘Why what?’ Bowden asked.
‘Well, some would say that Nelson was waiting for Villeneuve to show himself before going straight at him. Others might believe that the entire purpose of his attack on the van was a feint to discourage ’em from turning back to rescue their centre.’
‘And you think . . . ?’
‘It might simply be,’ drawled the signals master’s mate, lowering his telescope, ‘that he couldn’t bear to see them return to Cadiz and made to fling himself before them, but when he could see that battle would be joined after all he fell back on his original design to cut out and destroy their commander. So, which is it to be?’
There was little time to ponder. With scattered flat thuds away to the right the opening shots of the battle were made at Collingwood in Royal Sovereign, heading his column. Bowden dared a quick move to the break of the poop to look down on the quarterdeck as though to check something but what he really wanted was a glimpse of the famous hero as he carried England’s fleet into battle.
Nelson was standing with his secretary and others, Hardy at his side, all watching developments intensely. Men waiting silently at the guns followed his gaze. Then came a succession of dull thuds and the rear of the enemy disappeared in gun-smoke.
Bowden could feel the tension but the sight of the great man affected him powerfully – the tigerish confidence radiating out, the u
He slipped back and stood tall before the seamen and marines, feeling the age-old battle-lust build. Then he heard behind him someone mount the poop ladder. It was Nelson, followed by Hardy.
Now able to see completely around the battlefield he minutely inspected the enemy position, the ships loyally in their wake and finally Collingwood’s column, in action.
‘Mr Pasco!’ he called.
‘I wish to make a signal to the fleet. Be quick, for I have one more to make, which is for close action.’
‘Sir?’ said Pasco, poised to take the communication.
‘You shall telegraph . . . let me see . . . “England confides . . . that every man will do his duty.”’
‘Aye aye, my lord,’ Pasco said, and Robins hurried over with the telegraph code book. Pasco found the place, then stopped and said, ‘If your lordship would permit me to substitute “expects” for “confides” the signal will soon be completed, because the word “expects” is in the vocabulary but “confides” must be spelt.’
Nelson, distracted, agreed. ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’
After giving the order to first hoist the telegraph flag, the signals lieutenant found the first number and told it to Robins, who chalked it on the slate and shouted, ‘Two-five-three!’
The yeoman of signals yanked out the flags from the locker and toggled them on to the halliards, spilling them clear for Pasco to check.
‘Hoist!’ The first lift of the signal soared up, and as it did so, Pasco found the next. ‘Two-six-nine!’ It was bent on to another halliard and one by one the hoists ascended. When it was completed Bowden noted the signal and time, then waited for the acknowledgements from the fleet.
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