Victory, page 29
While this was being done, Nelson was watching the lee column close in on the enemy, Royal Sovereign now nearly hidden in gun-smoke. ‘See how that noble fellow Collingwood takes his ship into action! How I envy him!’ he exclaimed to Hardy.
The first crump of shots sounded from ahead – Victory was now under fire herself. From this point on she would be the focus of aim for a hundred – two hundred – gun-captains and her ordeal was just beginning.
Another signal. ‘Engage the enemy more closely’ – ‘Number sixteen!’ This was the last that Nelson could be sure would be seen and was hoisted at the main-mast head, where it remained.
With barely suppressed emotion the admiral said, ‘Now I can do no more. We must trust to the Great Disposer of All Events, and the justice of our cause.’ He and Hardy descended to the quarterdeck and began a slow pacing up and down between the main-mast and the wheel.
Ahead, the enemy line was now a loose succession of ships, their details clear and forbidding, and it wasn’t long until the first ball struck Victory, reaching out in violence and punching loudly through the main topgallant sail.
Soon after, several other enemy ships joined in, the sound of firing building as the deadly cannonade intensified. Strikes could now be heard forward, and the whirr and slam of invisible projectiles overhead were chilling.
A quick shriek came as a seaman paid with his life for doing his duty; other anonymous screams penetrated above the continuous fearful thunder of guns from now six or eight ships, furiously hammering at the oncoming column. It was a race that would turn on whether the ships now at their mercy were smashed to submission and stopped, or whether they could get inside the enemy firing arc, pierce the line and deliver a battle-winning raking of the stern and bow each side as they passed through.
On the poop Bowden’s vitals froze at the awful feeling of exposure: at the ship’s side there were only deal boarding and rolled hammocks to keep out the storm of shot and, with nothing to do but keep at his post, a rising feeling of helplessness threatened to engulf him.
One of the marines was knocked sprawling as if kicked by a horse and his musket slid across the deck. He sobbed, writhing, and Adair motioned to another two to take him below.
Imitating Pasco, Bowden began a regular calm pacing. A strange detachment stole over him, a feeling of unreality that separated him from the chaos and fear. Through his feet he sensed Victory’s own guns opening up, their heavy thump quite distinct from the sharp concussion of a shot-strike. Nothing now could be seen of the enemy except the upper masts above the smoke – but Villeneuve’s pennons were still giving Victory her mark.
Bowden reached the poop rail and glanced down on the quarterdeck. One unfortunate had taken a ball squarely, his body flung grotesquely, its half-human features and an appalling amount of blood-soaked innards scattered widely. Nelson looked on sadly as it was dragged away.
Straightening, Bowden turned back, suddenly acutely aware of the whites of the eyes of the files of marines. Then, as if in a dream, the entire rank was torn down in a welter of blood and kicking limbs. Choking sobs were cut off and parts of half-clothed bodies were left lying on each other, like so many joints in a butcher’s shop.
The carnage was indescribable but the remaining marines held firm until a breathless midshipman arrived from the quarterdeck, ordering Captain Adair to disperse his men about the ship. Eight men killed with one shot! It couldn’t go on.
But it did: with the splinters still flying from a boat hit by a round-shot, Victory’s wheel was smashed, the big first-rate now in an uncontrollable lurch towards the enemy line until emergency tackles on the tiller in the gunroom could be rigged – but the ship fought on with undiminished fury.
Bowden felt the wind buffet of a cannon-ball. Next to him a seaman turned, apparently with a question: his mouth opened, and as it did so, blood spurted in a gush of scarlet from where his arm had been – carried off invisibly and without warning. The man gave a piteous moan and sank to his knees.
Dispassionately Bowden recognised that the intensity of the slaughter was such that it was more reasonable not to expect to survive – at some point one of the invisible whirling scythes of death would seek him out and put an end to his existence. Strangely, he felt peace, the resolution of hope against fear, but a deep sadness that for him the future was now shut off.
A seaman beside him was suddenly spun around, falling without a sound, and as he was dragged to the side there was an ear-splitting crack aloft. When Bowden looked up to see, his world turned dark and he was savagely pressed down.
It was some seconds before he realised he was suffocating under a smother of canvas. Near panic with claustrophobia he struggled for his knife and in a frenzy sawed and hacked at the cloth until the smoky daylight emerged.
A seaman helped him out; the mizzen topmast had been shot away and hung along the side suspended by the upper rigging, the sail draped over the poop. ‘Axes! Get this clear!’ he roared. ‘You, Clayton – on the lee side, Nicolson on the weather!’
He worked a bayonet free from a dead hand and began sawing at the tarred strands of a shroud. Panting, he stopped to look out – there was gun-smoke everywhere, a rain of splinters and stranded lines whipping down, but what froze him was the awesome sight of the enemy ships so very close.
Wreathed in smoke with livid gun-flash stabbing, they lay across Victory’s path but she was steering now for a gap astern of Villeneuve’s flagship and its next in line. Mesmerised by the terrible sight, he saw other ships beyond the gap equally as big and quite untouched.
The noise was appalling – a crescendo of violence that paralysed his thoughts. Hacking away the remains of the fallen rigging in a demented fury, he was utterly unprepared for what happened next.
The guns were falling silent.
He stared forward – they had at long last passed inside the firing arcs of the enemy guns. These could no longer bear on their ship and the long agony of her approach was over. The ornamented stern of the flagship – the name Bucentaure in gilt across it – now lay quiet and unresisting as Victory glided inexorably forward into the gap.
A furious cheering began, for now a terrible revenge would be taken on the enemy. Her guns ceased their fire. Bowden knew that they were being reloaded with double shot and wicked canister for what was to come; the enemy must know it too – he felt a wash of pity, for in all conscience they were only doing their duty.
But war was a merciless dictator – he could see French boarders forlornly massing, but right forward on the fo’c’sle Victory’s boatswain was carefully sighting along the immense bulk of the sixty-eight-pounder carronade, the firing lanyard in his hand.
The distance narrowed; heroes stood in Bucentaure, still firing muskets, anything – aware of what Fate would bring they must know what was to happen in the next moments. The magnificent arch of stern windows loomed, a diamond-shaped tricolour escutcheon in its centre, the midday sun glinting on its interior appointments – and the boatswain yanked on the gun-lock lanyard.
The entire structure dissolved in a deadly blast of glass and splinters, a cloud of reeking dust and fragments bursting out to flutter down on Victory’s decks. Then, as they passed slowly, the three decks of guns below began their frightful rolling crash.
At point-blank range and double-shotted, they fired in succession into the length of the wounded ship, smashing their lethal iron balls into the holocaust of its gun-decks. Shrieks and screams came from the dense, acrid gun-smoke but the cannonade mercilessly went on and on until an entire fifty-gun broadside had crashed into Villeneuve’s flagship.
Victory glided on beyond. Then her opposite broadside opened up to pound a vague shape in the drifting gun-smoke.
As Bowden saw the last rigging-entangled wreckage over the side he was knocked staggering by the sudden grinding lurch of a collision to starboard. He steadied himself and twisted round to see a French ship-of-the-line locked solid into Victory’s side. She appeared very ready for the e
Victory fought back: her marines levelled their muskets and blazed away at the swarming men assembling for boarding – but the ship’s tumblehome, the inward curving of her side – formed an unbridgeable cleft between the two vessels.
Muffled blasts from below told of terrible gun duels fought in the blackness of the touching sides and then came a hail of French musket fire from the vessel’s fighting tops. Grenades arced down causing dreadful injuries on Victory’s decks and the vicious whuup of musketry intensified.
Pasco appeared out of the smoke, his face working in agony before he crumpled, blood smearing the deck. But Bowden couldn’t help him – he and King were frantically reloading muskets for Midshipman Pollard, who’d ransacked the marines’ arms-chest for any remaining weapons.
As the wounded signal-lieutenant was dragged away they kept up a furious fire on Redoutable in a mechanical frenzy, aiming at the darting figures in the tops that were making a slaughter-house of Victory’s decks. This drew venomous fire in return, and as King handed over a loaded musket he was killed instantly with a bullet to the forehead.
The main-yard of the French ship jerked, teetered and then fell – hacked away by quick-thinking matelots who had made for themselves a perfect bridge across the chasm. With incredulous cheers the French swarmed up onto the yard and began racing across.
It was a complete about-face in fortunes: with so many of Victory’s upper-deck defenders brought down there was now the unthinkable possibility that the English flagship herself would be taken.
Captain Adair sprinted up with a file of marines and took position directly opposite to open fire. The leaders of the boarding fell into the yawning crevasse to a hideous death, crushed by the working together of the two hulls.
Those following hesitated – fatally. The boatswain had forced the starboard sixty-eight-pounder carronade around and blasted five hundred musket balls into their midst. They fell back, their triumphant battle-cries turning instantly to the screams of the dying. And at that moment Adair took a ball in the neck and pitched forward, dead.
Then a miracle came in the looming shape of Temeraire, which had been the next ship astern of Victory and now came up against the other side of Redoutable with a ponderous crash. Her carronades immediately took dreadful toll and then, together with Victory, her great guns in broadside smashed together into the vitals of the hapless ship.
It was a brutal slaughter but insanely the brave Frenchmen fought on until the blood-soaked hulk was in ruins – and her colours were struck.
A full-throated cheer roared out, redoubled when Victory’s men came to realise the perilous margin of their triumph. Bowden, stunned by the impact of the last hour, reeled over to the poop rail to watch Nelson taking the surrender. He couldn’t see him in the cheering crowds so he turned back wearily to the three men remaining standing on the poop.
Then urgent shouts came from the fo’c’sle – bearing down on them was the van of the enemy, fresh ships that were at last turning back to come to the aid of their centre. Yet Victory’s sacrificing had successfully pierced the line and other British ships, Neptune, Britannia, Leviathan, all had crowded through and now steered to face them. There would be no rescue.
Another burst of wild cheering broke out – it was the Bucentaure hauling down her colours, the commander-in-chief Villeneuve now a prisoner. And ahead the giant Santissima Trinidad, mauled by three English battleships was battered into submission and capitulated.
A wide-eyed seaman hurried up the ladder and blurted breathlessly, ‘L’tenant Pasco desires ’e should be told, how is y’ signals crew?’
‘He needs to know if we’re able to work signals,’ Robins said, looking about him. ‘Er, I’m senior hand. We’re still flagship and will need signals – I’ll see he gets ’em.’ He paused and added with gravity, ‘Mr Bowden, I’d be obliged should you inform L’tenant Pasco as we shall close up a team directly.’
The poop was a ruin of draped ropes and wreckage from aloft but the flag locker was still intact and somewhere signal halliards not shot away would be found. Bowden clattered down the ladder to the quarterdeck. It was in name and appearance a battlefield – decks torn up, shattered guns, wreckage and sanded blood-stains everywhere, but the men were still serving their guns and in the rigging passing stoppers to hold together vital shot-torn lines.
It took cold courage of an exceptional quality to leave the relative safety of the deck and mount the shrouds to expose their bodies in full view of snipers, staying to work there while a tempest of lethal langrel and chain-shot ripped through in an attempt to disable their ship.
At the main-hatchway the only ladder left in action was slippery with blood – it was by this route that the unfortunates were carried below.
On the gun-deck there was a different kind of hell: in the reeking, thunderous dimness it was the remorseless pain and labour of loading and heaving out the massive guns in a never-ending cycle. At any moment there could be the sudden eruption of a round-shot through the side in unstoppable killing violence.
In these acrid, smoke-filled confines the battle was being fought – and won – by the same gunners whose skill and tenacity had kept up a deadly fire the enemy could never match.
Bowden paused, awestruck at so much violence and noise in a confined space. The visceral rumble of the guns as they were run out, the squeals of their trucks as a counterpoint, their iron, now truly hot after hours of action, producing a violent recoil, some leaping insanely to strike the deckhead beams, their tons weight falling again with an appalling crash at extreme hazard to the tired men serving them.
The middle gun-deck was the same, a torment of clamour and darkness, and then to the lower gun-deck with the biggest guns of all, three-ton monsters chest-high to a man, bellowing out with a lightning flash and clap of thunder that hammered at the senses.
But nothing prepared Bowden for the Hades that was the orlop. No smoke hid the reality of suffering. The pitiless gleam of lanthorns played on the carpet of maimed bodies, the retching, moaning, bloody humanity waiting for their turn on stage – the concentration of light on the midshipmen’s mess table, where Surgeon Beatty was working on a spreadeagled man, who writhed and shrieked.
He finished his task. Bowden saw a brief glimpse of a piece of limb tossed into a tub with a meaty thump while the raw, pulsing stump was dealt with and the body, mad with pain, carried off by the loblolly boys. Straightening, Beatty wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and moved off to select the next, resembling an angel of death in his black smock, caked with blood and body fluids.
Bowden gulped, and in the gloom began stepping over the wretches in every state of agony, from uncontrollable convulsions to a deadly pale stillness. One man lay panting, his hands over the obscenity of his entrails, patiently waiting to die; another was propped up, his brutally mangled face unrecognisable, sobbing quietly. Everywhere Bowden looked, others were heroically controlling their suffering.
The blast and thunder of the guns on deck above was mercifully drowning the inhuman screeches and tormented moaning, but it was a scene that would stay with him for ever.
‘Er, L’tenant Pasco?’ he asked weakly, of a passing surgeon’s assistant.
‘There,’ the man said irritably, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. Bowden gingerly made his way over to the larboard side where a pair of lanthorns glimmered.
He saw Pasco by their light – but something about the tension in the group next to him caused him to hesitate. He made out Scott, the chaplain, and Burke, the purser, supporting someone against a broad knee at the ship’s side, one in a lace shirt with no indication of rank.
It was Nelson. Bowden’s gaze froze. Their cherished commander-in-chief was wounded. He couldn’t look away from the slight form, clearly in agony but with his eyes closed, Scott rubbing his chest and others hovering.
Bowden remembered himself and moved
Not sure if he’d been heard, he was about to repeat it when Pasco stirred and groaned, feeling tenderly for his right side and arm. ‘Report then, Mr Bowden,’ he said hoarsely. For some reason the guns above had just ceased their heavy rumble and thunderclap din.
‘Mr Robins is certain he’ll have a signals team together directly, sir.’
‘As will serve a flagship?’
‘He’s confident it will be so, sir.’
In the cessation of noise a faint but clear burst of cheering could be heard from above. ‘How goes the battle, then?’
‘We’ve taken Redoutable, Villeneuve and his flagship, and – and others I can’t name. We’ve won a famous victory, I believe, sir.’
Pasco slumped back with a smile. Bowden asked diffidently, ‘You’re wounded, sir?’
‘A grape-shot in the starb’d side is all,’ Pasco said, biting his lip. ‘Nothing as will stop me coming on deck when the sawbones lets me.’
Lowering his voice, Bowden ventured, ‘That’s Lord Nelson, sir. Is he – does he fare well, at all?’
‘I don’t know to be sure. The medical gentlemen are looking very grave, so I suppose it’s serious enough.’
Another muffled burst of cheering came down, longer than the first.
A peevish voice intervened: ‘What is the cause of that?’ It was Nelson, trying to rise.
Pasco levered himself up and told him, ‘It seems yet another enemy ship has struck to us, my lord. I have it from Mr Bowden here.’
‘That is good,’ Nelson said, his voice weak and gasping, clearly gratified. Scott helped him to a sip of lemonade and continued rubbing, while Burke on the other side held his shoulders.
Bowden rose to go but felt Pasco’s hand urgently on his ankle. ‘Sir?’
‘Hunker down, lad.’ Doing as he was told he felt Pasco fiddle at his back. ‘I thought so. Take off your coat.’
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