Authors: Paul Dowswell
Tags: #General Fiction
We listened to the rest of the battle from our lonely prison. The ships' guns were silent, then they started up. Shot screamed in from ashore, then stopped. We heard shouted commands and clattering against the hull, as the ship's boats were launched. The
weighed anchor and we began to move. As Richard and I dozed in the stifling fug there was a huge explosion, followed by a scattering of splashing sounds that went on for ten or fifteen seconds.
âSounds like a magazine went off,' said Richard. I wondered which ship had been blown to pieces, and
prayed it was not one of ours.
How long we stayed in the bread room I do not know. No one came with food or water so by the end of the day we were light-headed with hunger and thirst. The lock clicked. The door burst open. A marine sergeant shouted, âWitchall and Buckley! Present yourselves.'
Out we came. There was a squad of marines, bayonets fixed to their muskets, the blade points threatening in the dim light. This was just like getting pressed. When we tried to ask what was happening, we were abruptly told to shut our mouths. Up we went, through the levels of the ship, out on to the deck. It was dark, so I supposed it was quite late. It was piercingly cold, especially after our hours in the bread room. We were bundled off the ship and into one of the boats. Twenty minutes later the stern of Hyde Parker's flagship HMS
loomed above us. Hustled on board with great haste, we were taken to a small store room in the hold.
Waiting for us there was the ship's blacksmith. I was ordered to sit before him and two black iron hoops linked one to the other by a chain were fastened over my ankles. The hoops were held fast by a bolt swiftly hammered into place. No one spoke a word or would even meet my eye. After the door was locked and we were left to ourselves, Richard and I looked at each other, too bewildered to speak.
In the dim lantern light we could see there were two
benches, blankets and a bucket. A small plate with bread and cheese and two mugs of water had been left on the bench. We drank and ate greedily, relieved to finally have some food. âI can't believe what sort of trouble we're in,' said Richard. He seemed matter of fact, rather than frightened. I had been feeling stunned, and terrified at the prospect of being brought to trial on a false charge of cowardice. I was seething with anger at being duped by Pritchard. Richard's manner gave me courage.
âWe just need the chance to explain what's happened,' I said, feeling suddenly hopeful. I laid my head on the bench and tried to sleep, but my change of mood didn't last. Whenever I began to drift off, I could feel the hangman's rope around my neck and woke with a start.
The next few days were measured by the provision of bread and water to us in our cell by surly guards. We tried to ask them what was happening, but they collected and returned our bucket, plates and mugs without a word. We both lost track of the time of day, and even what day it was. I turned fourteen three days after the Battle of Copenhagen, but I couldn't tell you exactly when 5th April actually was. I was too miserable to even mention it to Richard.
This dreary routine was interrupted at last by a visit from Lieutenant Middlewych. He was friendly, concerned and matter of fact.
âIt's not looking good, boys. There's to be a court martial. The charge is cowardice and that you're in contravention of Section 12 of the Articles of War.'
It was such a relief to be able to finally talk to someone about what had happened to us. âThis is absurd, sir,' I said. âMidshipman Pritchard told us to go to the hold. Then he pointed his pistol at us and accused us of scarpering.' I was so livid I wanted to spit and I could feel my face glowing red with anger when I tried to talk about it.
Middlewych maintained a calm neutrality. âThat's precisely your problem, Witchall,' he said patiently. âIt sounds absurd. Can you imagine what the court will make of that?'
I blurted out my story about overhearing Nathaniel Pritchard and John Giddes in drunken conversation. Middlewych shook his head wearily. Then he spoke.
âOliver Pritchard is an officer of the crown. An officer in training, a very junior one maybe, but no Navy court is going to take the word of two boy sailors over the word of an officer, unless you have witnesses, and especially witnesses who are more senior in rank than Midshipman Pritchard. If you put these extraordinary accusations before the court with no proof to back up your story, they will show you no mercy.'
His tone softened. I could see by the look in his eye that he wanted to do all he could to help us. âIf you plead
for forgiveness and we get several of the crew to speak up on your behalf, you may just be looking at a flogging. I will speak for you. I have a very high regard for you both.'
Hearing someone speak well of us moved me. âThank you, sir,' I said. âDo you know when the trial will be?'
âWell, that's some good news at least. Sometimes men wait for months before their court martial, but as the fleet is all assembled, the Vice Admiral has decided to get it over with immediately. You're to be tried tomorrow morning. Think hard about what I've told you. One other thing â don't start blaming each other. I can't imagine you will, but that always looks bad.'
I felt indignant he'd even suggested it, but I suppose he meant well. As he prepared to go I asked him about the battle.
âThe Danes are calling for a truce,' said Middlewych briskly. âWe got off very lightly on the
. Barely more than twenty men down. All of your gun crew are fine.' He left us with a sorry smile.
Next day began with a bucket of water, brought along with our breakfast. âGet yourself washed and brushed up boys,' said one of our guards. âYou're up before the court at two bells on the forenoon watch.'
We were ushered up from the hold to the
's great cabin. Inside was all polished oak, plush red furnishings,
glistening silver and gold-braided uniforms. Richard and I were sat at a table facing the court, and the proceedings were abruptly explained. Five captains sat before us, assembled to act as a jury. An officer from the
was to act as prosecutor, and another officer known as the deputy judge advocate would advise the court on legal matters.
Having spent the previous few days in the hold, the light from the stern windows was blinding, and we felt like dirty urchins before these grandly dressed officers. This ceremony was no doubt supposed to remind us forcefully of the full majesty of the law. It worked. I felt almost too frightened to speak.
The prosecutor began by reading out Section 12 of the Articles of War:
Every person in the fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep back, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty's ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death
When he spoke the word âdeath', a horrible chill ran down my spine. We were on trial for our lives.
The prosecutor began to outline the case against us. âI intend to show that the two defendants deserted their posts at the height of battle, leaving not one, but two carronades on the larboard quarterdeck without powder at a critical moment.'
Oliver Pritchard was called first, and told the court with clear confidence how he had seen us running to the hold. âThe boys had clearly lost their nerve,' he said. âWhen I challenged them they clung on to each other like two frightened children. I thought then and there to shoot them, but I supposed justice would be best served by this court.'
The marine, Private Macintosh, was called next. He briefly told what he had seen. Then, much to my distress, I heard the prosecutor call Tom Shepherd to come forward to testify against us.
âJust after the shot hit the quarterdeck and the powder boy from the gun next to us was thrown overboard, they ran off together sir,' said Tom. âWe thought they was goin' for more cartridges, naturally, but that was the last we saw of them.' He must have caught the look of betrayal on my face, because he turned to me unhappily and said, âI'm sorry Sam, but that's what I saw.'
âThe witness will confine his comments to the court only,' barked the deputy judge advocate.
Tom shrugged, and I could see he was upset. âPlease sir,' he said to the judge, âmay I be allowed to speak up for the boys too, as well as against them?'
The man nodded curtly. âIn good time.'
Then the prosecutor called for his final witness. It was John Giddes.
âTell me exactly what you saw,' said the prosecutor.
âI was assistin' the surgeon in the after cockpit when I was sent to fetch fresh water,' he told the court. âI saw Witchall and Buckley collect their cartridges from the after powder room. Then there was a loud explosion above us and the ship shook violently. I saw these two look at each other, drop their cartridges just outside the powder room and run for the hold. Just at that moment Midshipman Pritchard and Private Macintosh returned to their station by the powder room and caught the boys. They were both tremblin' with fear. It was a clear case of cowardice.'
The deputy judge advocate spoke up again. âThe witness will confine his comments to the question he is being asked.'
The judge asked us what we had to say for ourselves. This was our big moment, and my heart began to beat hard in my chest. The next few minutes would decide our fate. We had talked about this at length, of course, and had decided that Richard would speak for the two of us. We had reluctantly agreed to follow Middlewych's
advice as we could see that there was no point telling the court what had really happened.
Richard was magnificent. Calmly and clearly he told the court of our record in combat and how we had gone out in the boat with Captain Hardy the night before the battle.
âOur records clearly show that neither of us has ever shown cowardice in the face of the enemy,' he went on, âand that the incident reported by Midshipman Pritchard is a clear misunderstanding of orders in the heat of battle.'
Then Middlewych himself came forward to speak up for us. We knew he could not directly accuse Pritchard of lying, although in his speech he did give our version of events equal weight. Then he said:
âShould the court choose to believe these boys are guilty of cowardice, I would ask them to consider this: just prior to the incident, they had witnessed another powder boy horribly mutilated and thrown over the side whilst still alive. This may have contributed to their alleged actions. Indeed the cartridge box carried by Buckley was covered in the blood of this very boy.'
I stared over at him, horrified. He seemed to be suggesting we were guilty. Middlewych would not catch my eye. Instead, he looked intently at the jury of captains as he continued.
âIf the court chooses to believe this incident was a
complete misunderstanding, I would say that both Witchall and Buckley had previously shown commendable courage under fire. Indeed, through their gallant actions they were central to the recapture of their former ship, the frigate
, when it fell into Spanish hands in January of this year. In my experience, these boys are not cowards. They are as brave as any man I have served with.'
That was better. I hoped he knew what he was doing.
Then Tom Shepherd came forward again. He spoke briefly about how we were both mess mates he was proud to serve alongside, and how he would trust us both with his life. Then he brought out a petition signed by more than fifty of our comrades on the
, begging the court for mercy.
That was it. The deputy judge advocate called a halt to proceedings and announced we were to retire while the jury deliberated. We spent an agonising hour back in our cell waiting for their judgement.
Richard said, âThe problem is that there's no one who can really stick up for us. They can only say what we were like before this happened.'
Silence descended between us. There was nothing more to be said and nothing to do but wait.
The lock was turned back. Out we went, trudging up the companionways with our legs in irons, chains clanking
on the steps. We shuffled into the great cabin to see a sea of grim faces. At the nod of the deputy judge advocate, all the officers of the court put their hats on. It was an ominous gesture.
The judge stood up and talked to us directly. âRichard Buckley and Samuel Witchall, this court finds you guilty of contravening section 12 of the Articles of War. You shall both be hanged by the neck at the yardarm of HMS
until you are dead.'
I thought I was going to faint. But I managed to stay on my feet. We were dragged off, a marine at each arm. Before we were taken below, Middlewych came over to us.
âDon't give up hope boys. I shall do my best for you,' he said.
When we returned to our cell, we both broke down and cried like the boys we were. Richard, who had spoken so confidently in court, sobbed, âWhy did I ever let my father talk me into serving in this navy? This could never have happened back home. Now I'll never see my family again.'
I could think of nothing to say that would console him. I could only begin to imagine my parents' grief when they heard the news. I thought with anguish of my sweetheart Rosie, and how I would never see any of them again.