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   Chapter 2 THE BATTLE OF THE BIGHT

The History of Caliph Vathek By William Beckford Characters: 30527

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


In his speech of August 3d in the House of Commons, Sir Edward Grey told his listeners that we had incurred no obligations to help France either by land or sea. In view not less, however, of the increasing difficulties of our diplomatic relations with Germany than of the spontaneous friendship that had been growing between ourselves and our French neighbours, the question of co?peration with the latter, in certain eventualities, had inevitably arisen and been discussed. It had also been pointed out that unless some conversations were to take place between the naval and military experts of both countries-unless some definite lines were laid down as to the methods by which each country was to help the other-such co?peration, even if desired, would almost certainly be fruitless. At the same time, in a letter written on November 22, 1912, to the French ambassador, Sir Edward Grey had made it clear that these discussions between their respective experts did not commit either Government to a specified course of action "in a contingency which has not yet arisen and may never arise."

When the contingency arose, however, the plans were there; and the mobilization and transport to France of our Expeditionary Force will remain on record as one of the most efficient military operations ever undertaken by any country. Second only to the rapidity and completeness with which the navy took command of the sea, were the speed and secrecy with which those first divisions were conveyed across the Channel. That in mere numbers they seem in retrospect to have been almost ridiculously inadequate is merely a measure of the colossal proportions that the war on land afterward assumed. Small as that army was, however, it was the largest force that we had ever sent oversea as a single undertaking; and it must be borne in mind that, in all probability, it was the most highly trained then in existence, and that its presence in France had both moral and material effects of almost incalculable importance.

Nobody who lived, or was staying, near any of our great southern railway lines during those early days of August will ever forget the emotions roused by that endless series of troop trains, passing with such precision day and night; and of the feelings produced in France by this visible pledge of our friendship there was instant and abundant evidence. Between August 9th and August 23d five Divisions of Infantry and two Cavalry Divisions were safely landed in France; and when it is remembered what a single division consists of some idea may be obtained of what that accomplishment meant.

Apart from the Headquarters' Staff with a personnel of 82, requiring 54 horses, 2 wagons, and 5 motor-cars, it embraced three Infantry Brigades, Headquarters' divisional artillery, three brigades of Field Artillery, one Howitzer Brigade, one heavy battery, a divisional ammunition column, the Headquarters' division of engineers, two Field companies, one Signal company, one Cavalry squadron, one Divisional train, and three Field ambulances-comprising a total personnel of over 18,000 men, 5,500 horses, 870 wagons, 9 motor-cars, and 280 cycles, the number of guns, including machine guns, amounting to 100; and with a base establishment for each division of 1,750 men and 10 horses.

Such was the task performed by the transport officers, every kind of vessel being assembled for the purpose, from the cross-channel packet boat accommodating not more than three hundred at a time to the giant Atlantic liner carrying as many thousands. Chiefly from Southampton, but also from Dover, Folkestone, Newhaven, Avonmouth, and many other ports, that constant stream of men, horses, provisions, and equipment poured ceaselessly for nearly a fortnight, screened by destroyer-escorts, and with aeroplanes and seaplanes keeping watch over them from the sky. Without a single casualty as the result of enemy action, they were mustered and marched into line of the French left flank; and that this great achievement should have been possible within so short a period from the declaration of war is perhaps the completest tribute that could be paid to the consummate skill of our naval dispositions.

Scarcely realized by those splendid battalions, whistling "Tipperary" on the way to Mons, and even now, perhaps, hardly appreciated by the bulk of their countrymen at home, it was the navy and the navy alone that made that glorious epic possible. With their eyes on Europe and the impending clash of the armies; hearing in imagination, under the unsuspected force of the heavy German artillery, the crumpling up of those iron-clad cupolas of the Brialmont forts at Liège-few would have thought twice, perhaps, even if they had known what they were doing, of those tiny submarines E6 and E8 creeping, the first of their kind, into the Bight of Heligoland. Yet but for them and their gallant crews and officers, Lieutenant-Commanders Talbot and Goodhart; but for the presiding destroyers, Lurcher and Firedrake and the submarines of the Eighth Flotilla-the passage of the Expeditionary Force might well have been impossible and the first battle of the Marne fought with another issue.

Within three hours of the first outbreak of the war, E6 and E8 stole out on their perilous errands; and it was upon the information brought back by them from those mined and fortified waters that the later dispositions were made. From August 7th onward, until the Expeditionary Force had been safely landed, the submarines kept their watch. In the lee of islands, at the mouths of channels, in hourly danger of detection and death, day and night, without relief, those cautious periscopes maintained their vigil. Farther to the south, guarding the approaches to the Channel, between the North Goodwins and the Ruytingen, were the two destroyers Lurcher and Firedrake, with the main covering submarine flotilla; while to the northeast of these, the Amethyst and Fearless, each with a flotilla of destroyers, took turns about on patrol duty during the passage of the army.

Nor must it be forgotten, so swift was the subsequent progress both in the range and effectiveness of submarine activity, that this was, at that time, a branch of the service scarcely tried and of unknown possibilities. The submarines used were of a type soon so outclassed as to become almost obsolete, the easiest of prey to net and torpedo, and working at a distance from their bases then unprecedented. Nevertheless, after the Expeditionary Force had been safely transported to France, they were, in the words of Commodore, afterward Vice-Admiral, Roger Keyes, "incessantly employed on the enemy's coast in the Heligoland Bight and elsewhere, and have obtained much valuable information regarding the composition and movement of his patrols. They have occupied his waters and reconnoitred his anchorages, and, while so engaged, have been subjected to skilful and well-executed anti-submarine tactics; hunted for hours at a time by torpedo craft, and attacked by gunfire and torpedoes."

That was written on October 17, 1914, when the action, now about to be described, had already made the Bight of Heligoland a familiar term to most people, but without conveying, perhaps, to more than a very few all that it meant from a strategical standpoint. Between three and four hundred miles from the nearest of our naval bases, and from some of the chief of them more than six hundred miles distant, it was in this small area that there was concentrated practically the whole of Germany's naval forces, the Kiel Canal connecting it with the Baltic, rendering these available in either sea.

Nor would it be easy to imagine, from the point of view of defense, either a bay of littoral with greater natural advantages. Bounded on the east by the low-lying shores of Schleswig-Holstein, with their fringe of protecting islands, and on the south by the deeply indented coast-line between the Dutch frontier and the mouth of the Kiel Canal, each of the four great estuaries, from west to east, of the Ems, the Jade, the Weser, and the Elbe, had been subdivided by sandbanks into a meshwork of channels than which nothing could have been easier to make impregnable. These were further guarded by the continuation of the scimitar curve of the Frisian Islands, beginning opposite Helder in Holland with the Dutch island of Texel, becoming German in the island of Borkum just beyond the Memmert Sands, opposite the mouth of the Ems, and continued, as a natural screen, in the successive islands of Juist, Nordeney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog, and Wangeroog as far as the entrance of Jade Bay, covering the approach to Wilhelmshaven.

Situated on the western lip of this channel, and connected by locks with the Ems and Jade Canal, this was one of the largest of Germany's naval bases and a town of about 35,000 inhabitants. In the next estuary, that of the Weser, and on the eastern coast of it, lay Bremerhaven, another naval base and important dockyard; and, on the same stretch of coast, at the point of the tongue of land between the Weser and the Elbe, lay Cuxhaven, yet a third and immensely powerful naval port. This, with the attendant batteries of D?se, was flanked at sea by the Roter and Knecht sandbanks and the little island of Sharhorn, and was only about forty miles distant from Heligoland, lying in the centre of the Bight and commanding the hole.

Probably, from an offensive standpoint, of less value, under modern conditions, than was generally supposed, the possession of Heligoland, as a fortified outpost, was, if only psychologically, one of Germany's greatest assets. Of rocky formation and rising, at its highest point, to about 200 feet, it was not only a useful observation post but a fortress of the utmost strength. With wide views extending to the mouth of the Elbe and the coast of the neighbouring estuaries, it also protected a roadstead capable of sheltering and concealing a fleet of considerable strength; and, in addition, it possessed a wireless station of the greatest strategical importance.

From an early period, indeed, the peculiar advantages of the island had been obvious to many observers. In the seventeenth century, it had been used as a convenient station by the traders in contraband between France and Hamburg, and, for the same purposes, toward the end of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, by British smugglers. During the Danish blockade of the German ports in the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1848, its advantages had become so manifest to the then British Governor that he made a special report about it to the Colonial Office. "Possessing pilots of all the surrounding coasts and rivers and with its roadstead sufficient for a steam fleet," it would in an emergency, he had pointed out, "amply repay the small cost of its retention in time of peace." Other considerations had supervened, however, and, in 1890, after having been in British possession for more than eighty years, Heligoland had been ceded to Germany, to become, in due course, the keystone of her naval defenses.

Such then was the Bight of Heligoland, commanded at its centre by the rocky island itself; flanked on each side by the sentinel islands of the Frisian and Schleswig coasts; and with its tributary river-mouths each an intricate meshwork of shallow and treacherous sandbanks. Subject to fogs, and responding to its prevalent winds with short steep seas of peculiar violence, it had been mined and protected since the outbreak of war with every means that ingenuity could suggest. As for the island itself, from which all women and civilians, with the exception of five nurses, had been removed, new guns had been mounted there, houses pulled down, and trees felled to assist the gunners; and it is only when this is remembered that some idea becomes possible of all that was involved in those first patrols, and in the affair of outposts, as one officer has described it, afterward to be known as the Battle of the Bight.

This was brought about as the result of the detailed information afforded by our scouting submarines, who had obtained an accurate knowledge of the procedure of the enemy's day and night patrols, and had reported that they could always collect a large force of destroyers round them whenever they showed themselves in the Bight. From this it became evident that a force, approaching at dawn from the direction of Horn Reef, would have every prospect of being able to cut off the enemy's returning night patrols; and an operation was accordingly decided upon, of which the following were the broad outlines. On the morning of August 28, 1914, the day appointed for the action, some submarines, with a couple of destroyers in attendance, were to penetrate into the Bight and expose themselves to the enemy, and were then to lure them, if possible, into contact with other forces that would be waiting. In close proximity, therefore, to the submarines it was arranged for two light cruisers, the Arethusa and Fearless, to rendezvous with two flotillas of destroyers, while, behind these, were to lie ambushed out at sea the Light Cruiser and Battle-Cruiser Squadrons. The general design, with full details as to the meeting-places, was communicated to each of the responsible commanders and, in absolute secrecy, from their various bases, the forces to be engaged put to sea.

Of these the first were the submarines under Commodore Roger Keyes, who accompanied them on board the destroyer Lurcher, with the Firedrake in attendance-those stout little vessels that had already made themselves familiar, during the passage of the armies, with the proposed scene of action. Setting out at midnight on August 26th, they escorted the eight submarines chosen for this hazardous duty, D2, D8, E4, E5, E6, E7, E8, and E9; and, while these were kept in the background throughout the next day, the Lurcher and Firedrake acted as their scouts. To the perils in store for them, in the way of detection, the fine weather and calm sea naturally added; but, at nightfall of August 27th, each submarine crept to its appointed station in close proximity to the German coast.

Meanwhile, at five in the morning of the same day, the Arethusa, under Commodore Tyrwhitt, had set out in her turn, with two flotillas of destroyers, meeting the Fearless at sea during the afternoon; and, farther north, at the same early hour, Vice-Admiral Beatty, in the Lion, had departed with the First Battle-Cruiser and First Light Cruiser Squadrons to be at hand in case of necessity. By the evening of August 27th, therefore, all were in their places; the submarines were feeling their way into the heart of the Bight; and the excitement of all engaged, during those hushed hours of darkness, can be readily imagined and perhaps envied. The night passed uneventfully, however, and, upon the flotillas and squadrons at sea, the day broke clear and sunny, but with a good deal of mist-in some places almost amounting to fog-veiling the entrance of the Bight and the neighbourhood of Heligoland.

The time was now come for the first open movement to be made; and, while the Lurcher and Firedrake began to search the waters, through which the b

attle-cruisers were to come, for possible hostile submarines, three of our own, E6, E7, and E8, designedly exposing themselves, proceeded toward Heligoland. Finding the sea clear, Commodore Keyes with the Lurcher and Firedrake then followed up the three submarines; and there we may leave them for the moment, turning our attention to the forces assembled in their rear under Commodore Tyrwhitt.

These consisted, as we have seen, of the Light Cruiser Arethusa, flying Commodore Tyrwhitt's broad pennant, the Light Cruiser Fearless, under Captain W. F. Blunt, and most of the destroyers of the First and Third Flotillas, and, at daybreak, they, too, began to push their way into the misty Bight. Nor had they long to wait for the enemy. Though the visibility was poor, seldom at first extending to more than three miles, and though the fighting in consequence afterward became confused, the general strategical plan soon proved itself to have been sound. Issuing apparently from berths between the Frisian Islands and the coast-line, a patrol of German destroyers, setting out toward Heligoland, suddenly discovered our forces on the east, or Bight, side of them. Previous to this, at about ten minutes to seven, a solitary German destroyer had already been sighted and chased, but now, for forty minutes, from twenty minutes past seven, a general action ensued-the Arethusa and Third Flotilla engaging the German destroyers, and steering northwest to cut them off from Heligoland.

So far the presence of the Arethusa, whose armament has already been described, had given us the advantage in this particular attack; but, just before eight o'clock, two German cruisers loomed out of the mist, one with four funnels and one with two. Whether these had come from Heligoland or had followed up the destroyer-patrol was not apparent, but they immediately joined action, and, for a quarter of an hour, the little Arethusa found herself being bombarded by both of them as well as by various destroyers.

Firing with every gun, the Arethusa, then only forty-eight hours out of the builders' hands, was already in as tight a corner as she could have asked for and beginning to suffer pretty heavily.

Twice she was hit below the water-line, but saved by the skill and promptitude of her engineers; shrapnel shells were bursting over her deck, and men were already dropping as the result of them; Lieutenant Westmacott was killed at Commodore Tyrwhitt's side; the foremost port gun was shot out of action, the gunlayer being blown out of his seat; gun after gun was wrecked and the torpedo tubes disabled, till only one 6-inch gun remained effective; and a bursting shell, exploding some ammunition, started a furious fire on the Arethusa's deck.

Fortunately, at a quarter past eight, Captain Blunt in the Fearless-of which a destroyer officer afterward wrote that "to see the old Fearless charging round the field of fight, seeking fresh foes, was most inspiriting"-and appeared on the scene, and attracted to herself the guns of the four-funnelled German cruiser. Thus relieved a little, for ten minutes longer, the Arethusa fought the other on a converging course, till a splendidly directed shot wrecked the German's forebridge, and she broke off toward Heligoland, which was just in sight.

Heavily as the Arethusa had suffered, the little destroyer Laurel, who, with one of her consorts, had first sighted the oncoming cruisers, had been punished, as was only to be expected, with even greater severity. For some little time engaging single-handed a German light cruiser and two destroyers, on every calculation of the chances of war, she should have been sunk a dozen times over. Struck first in the boiler-room, the after funnel was blown in, and the main steam-pipe damaged, four men being killed, but the remainder sticking to their posts with the utmost coolness and heroism. Next she was struck forward, three more men being killed and a gun being put out of action; and a few moments later her captain, Commander F. Rose, was wounded in the leg, but continued to direct the action. Soon afterward he was again hit, dropping on the bridge with the other leg wounded, but remained where he was, after a period of unconsciousness, until six o'clock in the evening.

Meanwhile the Laurel herself, while responding as best she could to the superior gunfire of the cruiser, was vigorously attacking the two destroyers, one of whom she succeeded in sinking and, when Commander Rose was no longer able to take charge, his "Number One," Lieutenant C. R. Peploe, continued the action, bringing his destroyer out, in the words of Commodore Tyrwhitt, "in an able and gallant manner under most trying conditions." Few on board, indeed, would have given much for her chances of ever coming out at all; and, when a final shell struck her near the centre gun, causing a violent explosion and setting her on fire, the likelihood of the Laurel making port must have seemed remote to the last degree. Thanks in a great measure, however, to the gallantry and promptitude of Alfred Britten, Stoker Petty Officer, who put out the fire, in spite of the close neighbourhood of several lyddite shells, no further damage resulted; while the mass of fumes, in which the disabled Laurel now lay heavily wreathed, served in some degree as a screen against further attack from the cruiser.

It was now nearly nine o'clock; fighting had died down; and, when Commodore Tyrwhitt called his flotillas together, it was found that the First Flotilla had also been in action and sunk V187, the German commodore's destroyer. Unfortunately two boats' crews from the destroyers Goshawk and Defender, lowered to pick up survivors from the sunk destroyer, had had to be left behind owing to an attack by a German cruiser during this work of mercy-a self-revealing act on the part of the second navy in the world. Apart from this, though many of our vessels, especially the Laurel and Arethusa, had been heavily battered, all the flotillas were intact; while, unknown to Commodore Tyrwhitt and his command, even the abandoned boats' crews were being rescued. For, peeping through her periscope, Submarine E4 had witnessed the whole occurrence-the sinking of V187, the subsequent work of rescue, and the approach of the hostile cruiser. Under her resourceful captain, Commander E. W. Leir, she had at once proceeded to attack the enemy; and, though she had not managed to torpedo her, she had driven her from the scene of action, returning, at the greatest risk, to the two boats. Coming to the surface, she had taken on board the whole of the abandoned British crews, as well as a German officer and two men. Being unable to embark the rest-eighteen wounded Germans-she had left them with a German officer and six unwounded men, provided them with water, biscuits, and a compass, and allowed them to navigate their way back to Heligoland.

While this unique action was in progress, and while the Arethusa was busy repairing her guns and replenishing her ammunition, let us return again to the Lurcher and Firedrake, whom we had last seen heading for Heligoland in the wake of the decoy submarines. These also had been successful in getting into touch with the enemy forces, and, at ten o'clock, the Arethusa, with most of her guns now in working order again, received a message from them that they were being chased by light cruisers, and at once proceeded to their assistance.

Having joined up with them, and being now close to Heligoland, Commodore Tyrwhitt thought it wiser to retreat a little to the westward, but, a few minutes later, sighted a four-funnelled German cruiser, which opened a very heavy fire upon the British force about eleven o'clock. The position being somewhat critical, Commodore Tyrwhitt ordered the Fearless to attack and the First Flotilla to launch torpedoes; but, though they did so with immense spirit, the cruiser evaded the onslaught and vanished in the mist. Ten minutes later she appeared again from another direction, to be attacked both by the Arethusa and the Fearless, the former especially escaping destruction from her only by the slenderest of margins. Salvo after salvo of shells plunged into the water, some of them barely thirty feet short of the Arethusa, while two torpedoes were also launched at her, but fortunately also fell short, leaving her unharmed.

Meanwhile both Commodore Tyrwhitt and Commodore Keyes had been communicating by wireless with Admiral Beatty, who, just after eleven, having evaded three submarines, ordered the Light Cruiser Squadron to the support of the light forces. While this was hurrying to their assistance, however, the Arethusa's 6-inch guns had proved too accurate for the German cruiser, who had broken off action, disappearing into the mist again in the direction of the Island. How badly she was damaged could only be guessed, but, four minutes later, yet another cruiser was sighted, the three-funnelled Mainz, which was immediately attacked both by the Arethusa and the Fearless. The blood of everybody was up now as never before, and, for twenty-five minutes, the assault was so fiercely pressed that, at the end of that time, the Mainz, in spite of her powerful resistance, was seen to be on fire and sinking by the head. Her engines had stopped, and it was just at this moment that the Light Cruiser Squadron appeared on the scene, reducing her, in a very few minutes, to a condition that, as Commodore Tyrwhitt put it, must have been indescribable.

How bad it was let a single quotation from a cruiser officer's diary suffice to indicate. Watching the deck of the Mainz through his powerful glasses, he was at first completely puzzled by two things-the absence of corpses and the enormous profusion of deck-sponges soaked in blood. It was not for some time that he began to realize that the one accounted for the other. "Enough said," he wrote, "a six-inch projectile does not kill a man nor even dismember him; it simply scatters him."

It was now a quarter past twelve, and, by this time, Admiral Beatty was himself on the spot. From the reports received by him from the various squadron and flotilla commanders, and the obvious presence now of many enemy ships, he had come to the conclusion that, in an action where speed was essential-the main German bases being so close at hand-the lighter forces might not be able to deal with the situation sufficiently rapidly. Bearing in mind the possibilities of a concerted submarine attack, and the conceivable sortie in force of a German battle squadron, he decided that his speed would probably baffle the first, and that the latter, if he were prompt enough, could not arrive in time; while, for anything less in the way of enemy attack, he had ample forces at his disposal.

Working up his engines, therefore, to full speed, he overtook the light cruisers just as they were finishing the Mainz, and, a quarter of an hour afterward, sighted the Arethusa fighting a rearguard action with a cruiser of the Kolberg class-recognized as the K?ln. Following the general plan, he at once steered to cut the latter off from Heligoland, and, seven minutes later, opened fire, chasing her at full speed out to sea. While pursuing the K?ln, another German cruiser, apparently the Ariadne, was seen right ahead, steering at high speed and at right angles to the Lion, who was herself now travelling at 28 knots. In spite of this, and that, before losing her in the mist, the Lion had only time for a couple of salvoes, she was set on fire, reduced to a sinking condition, and was soon afterward lost, as the Germans themselves admitted. This was just before one; mines had been reported eastward; it was essential that the squadrons should not be too far dispersed; and therefore Admiral Beatty, desisting from pursuit, ordered a withdrawal, and returned to the K?ln. She was sighted at 1:25, with her ensign still flying; the Lion opened fire upon her from two turrets; a couple of salvoes sufficed to sink her; and, within ten minutes, she had disappeared. By this time, the Arethusa, the Fearless, and the advanced destroyer flotillas had been in action almost continuously for more than six hours; the Arethusa's speed, owing to her injuries, was slowly diminishing knot by knot; upon the bridge of the little Laurel, Commander Frank Rose, with both his legs crippled, still kept his post; three German cruisers and two destroyers, including the commodore in command, were known to have been sunk; and, behind the mists in the Bight, nothing was more likely than that overwhelming reinforcements were hurrying to the spot. Under these circumstances, Admiral Beatty decided to withdraw his forces, covering their retirement with his powerful battle-cruisers; and it was while doing so that Captain Reginald Hall of the Queen Mary executed one of the smartest manoeuvres of the day. Watching from his bridge, and travelling at the time something approaching thirty knots an hour, he saw an enemy torpedo, ten knots faster, that, in a matter of moments, would strike him amidships. The destruction of the Queen Mary, had the submarine achieved it, would have more than outbalanced all the German losses, but, by very sharply turning full helm, the impact was just avoided in time-the battle-cruiser and torpedo, till the latter sunk, actually travelling side by side.

This was the last sign of hostile reaction to one of the most brilliant little raids in our naval history; and, for the closing picture, we must turn to Admiral Christian, who, with yet another squadron, had been waiting out at sea. To him and Rear-Admiral Campbell had been allotted the task of intercepting any vessels that might have escaped in this direction; and, at about half-past four, some of Admiral Campbell's cruisers met Commodore Keyes in the returning Lurcher. Limping along in company with him were the destroyers Laurel and Liberty, and on board her were 220 of the crew of the Mainz, Commodore Keyes having laid himself alongside the burning cruiser with the greatest chivalry and skill.

The Laurel was by this time quite unable to proceed farther under her own steam, and she was accordingly taken in tow by the cruiser Amethyst, the Bacchante and Cressy relieving the Lurcher of her prisoners, and sailing with them to the Nore. Meanwhile, the Arethusa, after her fiery ordeals, was in hardly better case than the Laurel, and, at seven o'clock, after struggling along homeward at about six knots an hour, found herself unable to proceed farther, and signalled for assistance. Two and a half hours later it was then pitch dark-and with no lights, of course, permissible, the Hogue took her in tow, the necessary arrangements being carried out with the aid of a couple of hand lanterns.

So the day ended without the loss to ourselves of a single vessel of any description; and when, many hours afterward, the news having preceded her, the Arethusa returned to harbour, scarred and lopsided-with her eleven dead and seventeen wounded officers and men-it was little wonder that every ship's syren of all that were assembled there blew her a welcome, and that every seaman who could scramble on deck cheered and cheered her again till he was hoarse.

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