Authors: Paul Dowswell
Tags: #General Fiction
We met with Tom and James that dinner time. Hearing the two of them, chattering away in their Cockney and Geordie voices, took me straight back to the mess deck of the
. Their faces lit up when they saw the two of us. âWe 'eard you'd got away from the ship,' said Tom. âThought you might've slipped the cable, Sam!'
âWe both washed up close to Pentherick,' said James. âGot whisked doon to the
the next day, along with Mr Thomas here.'
Vincent Thomas nodded. He seemed friendly enough.
âMiddlewych is here too,' said Tom, âalthough he's servin' as a lieutenant, rather than first lieutenant.'
Middlewych! I was pleased. The last time I saw him, he was trying to persuade some drunken sailors to take to the waters as the
lay breaking up. He was the officer I liked the most.
âFoley seems decent enough,' I said.
James said, âAye. Foley doesn't have to act severe. He's proved his worth many times over. They say Lord Nelson thinks well of him.'
I saw Middlewych on deck, supervising the loading of provisions. âGlad to see you alive, Witchall. I'm sorry I couldn't secure you a better post on the
, but the captain knows you're a good lad.'
This sounded promising. I had gone to sea for adventure and advancement that would never cross my path as the shop assistant or school teacher my father wanted me to be. What was it Captain Foley had said â âthe makings of a midshipman'? And after that, a lieutenant! And to think how much I had resented being pressed into the Navy and how I had longed to escape. Now the prospect of becoming an officer was being dangled in front of my eyes.
The five of us former shipmates were all happy to make up a mess, especially as we were now all together as a gun crew. The mess tables were stowed between the guns of the gun deck and set up only when it was time to eat. The gun deck was also where we would sling up our hammocks to sleep.
Our table had room for six, with three on two benches either side. To make up the numbers we were joined that first evening by another seaman new to the ship named John Giddes. He worked as an assistant to the
Purser. None of us would have chosen him as a mess mate, but the officer of the watch bluntly told us he was joining us. Giddes was a lanky, dark-haired man with a narrow face and sullen eyes. He was handsome, I suppose, but had the air of someone caught doing something he shouldn't be.
As we sat down for supper Tom turned and spoke to him. âWhere you from, John?'
âI'm from London, like you,' he said.
âWhere abouts?' said Tom, seizing on the opportunity to find out more about him.
âLived all over,' he said. âWhitechapel, St Giles, Cheapside. Father was a cobbler.'
âWhere did he work?' said Tom. âI never knew any cobblers with Giddes on the sign.'
âAlways worked for some else, didn't he.'
âHow'd ye end up here?' said James.
âYou're a nosy lot, aintcha?' he said. âIf you must know, they took me off a merchantman bound for Liverpool.'
That was the end of that. What an odd man, I thought.
Talk turned to our duties on the carronade. Tom would be gun captain. Vincent Thomas would sponge out and load. James Kettleby would help move the gun. Richard would help him. Although only a year older than me, he was now judged strong enough to manhandle a cannon, especially a carronade as it was lighter than
a long gun. As Powder Monkey I would be running to the ship's magazine deep in the hold to fetch gunpowder when it was needed. Carrying a cartridge box that could blow me to bloody pieces made me shudder every time I thought about it. James added to my anxiety when he said, âPersonally I'd rather be on the gun deck than the quarterdeck. I don't like the idea of being oot in the open. We're too much of a target, especially for any sharpshooters up in the enemy's rigging.'
âWe'll have to make do with the job we've been given,' said Tom. He turned to me and told me more about our gun. âCarronades don't have the same range as the long guns, so we use 'em when the ship's up close to the enemy. They're lighter and smaller so they're quicker to reload. You'll have your work cut out keeping us supplied with powder, Sam. It's a long way from the quarterdeck to the after powder room, so you'll have to run faster than ever.'
Our meal finished we settled into uneasy small talk. Giddes was prickly silence. Vincent Thomas was cheery enough. He made me laugh as he chuntered along in a sing-song Welsh voice that didn't quite go with his massive bulk. But I noticed James and Tom seemed reluctant to smile at his stories.
That first day aboard the
seemed a long time ago. Now we were four days into our voyage, pushing
through the North Sea after leaving Portsmouth on the second day of March. The four o'clock bell I had been dreading tolled at last, followed by the shrill peep of the Bosun's whistle. All around was frantic activity as we tumbled from our hammocks. My bare feet landed in a puddle of freezing water that had sloshed in through the gunports during the night. James had told me to expect this in rough weather as the deck was only five feet above the waterline. The shock of it brought me fully awake.
Jack Tars are a hardy lot, but most of the crew were suffering from a wretched cough brought about by the cold. Many of these men had recently returned from the Mediterranean, and found this harsh weather a trial. They say Hell is burning hot, but its residents could just as easily be tormented by freezing cold.
Our first duty was to chip from the decks the ice that had formed overnight. So far we had made most of the voyage through thick fog, and today it still showed no sign of clearing. Distracted from my work I peered over the rail and could see nothing ahead but a dense drifting mist. Perhaps this was what Monsieur Montgolfier saw when he flew his balloon into a cloud?
âBosun, start that man,' barked Midshipman Pritchard, and one of the bosun's mates stepped forward and hit me with his rope. I was so cold the blow barely registered on my numb shoulders, and really, I deserved it. I crouched down again on the deck and began
chipping away with the chisel I had been issued.
âPut your back into it Witchall,' snapped Pritchard, strutting by in his thick woollen coat. He came up close and placed the toe of his boot over my hand splayed on the deck. He did not press down hard enough for it to hurt but it was a deliberately insulting gesture. âIf I have to tell you again, I'll have you flogged,' he hissed. I'd been told that the ship's Purser, Nathaniel Pritchard, was his father, and I wondered how far his influence had brought the boy a midshipman's berth.
When the decks were cleared of ice we were mustered to raise the anchors. It was exhausting work, especially with breakfast still three hours away.
Soon after dawn I was called to adjust the main royal and began to climb the rigging in the company of four of the topmen. I looked down on this vast warship, and the fraction of her crew who were scurrying to and fro about the deck. Despite all the hardship, and any lingering resentment about being pressed into the Navy, I felt a great sense of pride. The two hundred and fifty men on the
might have made up a village. Here there were five hundred sailors and a hundred marines. The ship had its own chaplain, even its own band. I thought that six hundred souls must make us more of a small town. Robert Neville was right about feeling safer on a 74. She was formidable.
I wondered how we would fare if we had to fight. Only
the incessant cold took my mind off the battle we were sailing towards. I had been in combat barely two months before. Now when I heard the roll of the drum that called us to quarters I could vividly recall the stench of blood and gunpowder, and the screams of the dying. I wondered if this time it would be me who would be torn to pieces by chain shot or gutted in hand-to-hand fighting.
Waiting for the order to drop the sail I strained my eyes towards the land, hoping to see a glimmer of light from a seashore cottage or even a town or village, but the fog was too thick. Close by, I knew, lay the coast of my home county Norfolk. I had heard we were near our assembly point at Yarmouth Roads, where the Royal Navy gathered its fleet to sail to the Baltic. This was as near as I had been to home since I was pressed the previous summer, and all at once I felt a great yearning for its familiar comforts and shelter. Far off in the darkness I heard the sound of cormorants calling to one another, and gannets and auks. Seabirds with nests by the shore. If I were one of them, I could fly in a straight line back to my sweetheart Rosie in Yarmouth, then still further north to Wroxham and home. If I were there now, I'd be tucked up in bed, instead of shivering up this mast, staring down at the grey waters crashing against the ship. The sea was cold enough to kill any man who fell into it in little more than a minute.
* * *
On the next day we met up with the other ships of the fleet. Up in the rigging again during a brief break in the fog, I counted over fifty vessels around us. I had never seen so many men-o'-war in one place in my life. Would being part of such a formidable armada make it less likely that I would be killed? The fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. I knew very little about him. Much to the men's excitement we were also sailing with Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. He was aboard the
and all of us hoped that he might pay our ship a visit sometime during the voyage, so we could get a glimpse of him.
We stayed at anchor at Yarmouth Roads nearly a week before setting sail. As we pushed further north rumours swept through the fleet. Our destination, it was said, was to be Copenhagen. Diplomats were there even now, trying to persuade the Danes to give up their alliance with the Swedes, Russians and Prussians.
I came across Robert Neville while I was on an errand to the orlop deck. Down there in the depths of the ship, we had some privacy and he could talk to me without formality.
âIt'll come to nothing I'm sure,' said Robert. âThe Danes are allies with the Prussians and the Swedes â two of their greatest enemies! Danes and Swedes fight like cats and dogs. The French won't lift a finger to support the Danes either, although they've probably promised
they will, and the Russians can't help them because their fleet is always frozen in at this time of year. I'm sure that as soon as we poke our noses over the horizon at Copenhagen they'll surrender right away.'
This was all very reassuring and I presented this as my own opinion to my mess table later that day. They were all impressed.
âI hope you're right Sam,' said Tom tersely. âI 'eard we get most of our timber and rope from the Danes and the Swedes. If we're at war with them both, then we'll have a job building new warships.'
The thought of us running out of material to make ships frightened me. As a small boy I had been taught that our Navy protected us from the French, who were our greatest enemies. I knew how narrow the English Channel was, and how, on a bright day, the French coast around Calais could easily be seen from England. I could imagine their leader, Napoleon, standing on the beach looking over to the cliffs at Dover and plotting an invasion. All at once I felt proud to be a British sailor.
John Giddes was still sullen, sipping his grog and shovelling down his pease. âCheer up,' I said, âat least we'll be helping to defend our country from the tyrannous French!'
âHark at the little hero,' sneered Giddes. âAre you tellin' me being pressed isn't tyranny?'
James laughed nervously and made a swift attempt at
changing the subject. âYe know, ten year or so ago, when the press gangs came roond Newcastle and Sunderland, the sailors in the harbour taverns got together and fought 'em off with their fists. Ye don't often hear aboot that in Portsmouth or London.'
âYou're a bunch of hard bastards you Geordies â is that what you're sayin'?' laughed Tom.
âAye,' said James. âNot like ye spineless Cockneys!' The pair then began a mock sparring contest.
Then James got serious, and lowered his voice to a whisper. âI've got me doubts aboot this experdition. Yer Vice Admiral, Hyde Parker, his heart isn't in it. What would you rather be doin' if ye'd just married a bonny young girl like what he has? Pacing yer quarterdeck in a freezing fog or entertaining yer new bride in a big four-poster?'
âBut Nelson is sailing with us too,' I said.
âTrue enough, lad,' said James, âbut he still has to do what Hyde Parker tells him.'
âMaybe the Danes will have quite a fleet waitin' for us?' said Tom quietly. âMaybe twice our number?' This was all treacherous talk, not for the ears of any passing bosun's mate.
Then John Giddes spoke up. He seemed impatient, exasperated, even. âYes but most of the Danish fleet is made up of old vessels. And their crews will be poorly trained, if that. Denmark ain't been at war for the best
part of a century. There'll be plenty of volunteers all right â we're out to attack their 'andsome capital after all â but they'll barely know one end of a gun from another.'
We all looked on, astonished. This was the most we'd heard him say so far. And I couldn't help noticing that although he usually talked like a Cockney, occasionally he sounded oddly well spoken.
âSo, my friend,' said Tom, turning to Giddes with a new-found respect. âWhat did you say you were doing before the press gang got you?'
âNever you mind,' he said, and that was the end of that.
As our voyage progressed the weather steadily worsened. We pressed on through endless fog and put down our anchors every evening. Vice Admiral Hyde Parker, it was said, was wary of travelling at night for fear of his ships colliding. On some mornings we spent an hour chipping ice from the rigging and clearing snow from the deck before we could weigh anchor. During the day, snow and sleet came and went, and the ship's timbers seemed so sodden I wondered that the
did not sink. There was no respite from the cold. When we ate and slept, great howling draughts whistled around the ship.