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   Chapter 3 CORONEL

The History of Caliph Vathek By William Beckford Characters: 22061

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


The blood-red sun betrayed our spars,

Fate doomed us ere we started,

Out-gunned, out-manned, out-steamed, we sank,

But not, thank God, out-hearted.

Inevitably the chief interest of the naval story clusters about the waters of the North Sea; and most of its dramatic moments have had this ocean for their setting. But, behind the Grand Fleet and its thousand auxiliaries, watching all the outlets of the German bases, lesser squadrons and detached cruisers were keeping guard throughout the world. Similarly, though the vigour and promptitude with which the Expeditionary Force was rushed across the Channel before the end of August, have held, and rightly held, the first place in the popular conception of our armies' movements, it must be remembered that, during those weeks, many other thousands of men were elsewhere transported across the waters. It must be remembered that from India alone, before the end of August, two Divisions and a Cavalry Brigade sailed for Egypt en route for France; that, during September and October, yet another Brigade was sent from India to East Africa, in time to avert an invasion of the British Colony there that might have had most serious results; that, during October and November, twenty batteries of Horse, Field, and Heavy artillery, and thirty-two battalions of regular infantry were relieved by the transport from England to the East of an equivalent force of Territorials; and that a force of native infantry was despatched to assist Japan in the successful occupation of Kiao Chao.

That represented but a small proportion of the continual military movement that was going on from end to end of our scattered empire; and it was only one aspect of the tremendous problem that faced our navy in the outer seas. What this amounted to can best be comprehended, perhaps, by a brief consideration of what was actually accomplished. After the first week of August, the mercantile marine activities of the Central Empires ceased to operate. Six and a half million tons of shipping in all the seas of the world were thus almost instantly immobilized. Further, every German colony, but for its wireless, was isolated from its centre and prepared for capture; while of the two million men of enemy origin who might otherwise have returned home to join the armies, scarcely a handful-such was the navy's mastery-was, in fact, able to do so. Lastly, not a single Dominion, Colony, or Dependency of Great Britain or her Allies was invaded or seriously molested by an enemy naval force.

Now to have achieved all this, while at the same time containing the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea-and so containing it that not even a single squadron was able to break through on to our lines of commerce-is the best witness to the fundamental rightness of our initial naval strategy; although the test of war immediately emphasized what was then our chief need-an even larger number, such were our manifold requirements, of fast battle-cruisers. It was our shortness in this respect that, in the last analysis, led to the disaster of Coronel, arguable as the wisdom of certain of our oversea dispositions may not unjustly now seem to have been. And, while in our treatment of both the Goeben and Breslau, as regarded the Mediterranean, and the command of von Spee in the Far East and subsequently in the South Pacific, there are many points to be reasonably debated before the bar of naval judgment, neither problem can be fairly considered apart from the whole situation. In the present and following chapters we are concerned only with von Spee and the five vessels under his command.

To consider the vessels first, these consisted of two armoured cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and three light cruisers, the Nürnberg, the Dresden, and the Leipzig. Both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were most efficient units, each with a speed of over 22 knots, each with a displacement of over 11,000 tons, a belt of 6-inch armour amidships, and each carrying eight 8.2-inch guns, six 6-inch guns, eighteen 24-pounders, and four torpedo-tubes. The three light cruisers were each capable of a speed of about twenty-five knots, carried ten 4.1-inch, eight 5-pounder, and four machine-guns, with two submerged torpedo-tubes, and displaced between 3,000 and 4,000 tons. It will be seen at once, therefore, that they formed a homogeneous and easily manoeuvred squadron, and it may be readily admitted that they were not only gallantly but very skilfully handled; while their concentration-since, at the outbreak of war, they had been scattered over half the world-was a feat of no mean order, however open to criticism may have been the larger policy involved in it.

As for von Spee himself, he seems to have been of a type apparently all too rare in the German naval service, a chivalrous, modest, and efficient seaman, reticent in victory, and brave in defeat. Under his command, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had attained an extremely high standard of gunnery, and it is probable that in this respect they were second to none flying the German flag.

Leaving Kiao Chao during July, the war had found von Spee and the two larger cruisers many leagues distant among the Western Pacific islands and separated by thousands of miles from the other three cruisers, the Dresden, the Nürnberg, and the Leipzig. Of these the Dresden was in the Atlantic, divided from the other two by the American continent, and narrowly escaped capture at the hand of the British West Atlantic Squadron, of which Admiral Cradock was then in command. She successfully evaded him, however, and, making her way south, entered South American waters off the coast of Brazil, where her only possible antagonist at the time was the British cruiser Glasgow-a light cruiser of the Bristol class, displacing about 4,800 tons, capable of a speed of 25 knots, and carrying two 6-inch and ten 4-inch guns.

Meanwhile, on August 11th, with all her lights out, there had crept out of the port of Pernambuco a German steamer, the Baden, carrying 5,000 tons of coal, which met and supplied the Dresden at the Rocas Islands. Three days afterward, the latter sank the Hyades, homeward bound from the River Plate to Holland with a load of grain, and, on August 26th, she sank the British steamer Holmwood, also off the coast of South America. A fortnight later, on her way to the Pacific, the Dresden and her collier were creeping round Tierra del Fuego, and here they met a second collier, the Santa Isabel, which had left Buenos Aires on the 6th of August, nominally bound for Togo.

That was in the middle of September, and, about a fortnight later, with her name effaced, her masts altered, and her funnels repainted, the Santa Isabel entered Valparaiso, remaining there until the end of the month, when she cleared, nominally for Hamburg, but in reality to join von Spee. In the meantime the Dresden had announced her arrival in the Pacific by attacking the liner Ortega near the western entrance of the Magellan Straits; and it was only by the resource and seamanship of the latter's captain that the British ship succeeded in escaping.

Bound for Valparaiso with 300 French reservists on board, she had a normal speed of no more than 14 knots, while the Dresden, as we have seen, was at least half as fast again. But the Master of the Ortega was not to be beaten. Calling for volunteers to assist the stokers, he succeeded in working his old liner up to 18 knots an hour, and at the same time headed for Nelson's Strait-a perilous and uncharted passage. Chased by the Dresden, and with her shells plunging on each side of him, he made the dangerous channel in safety. The Dresden turned on her heel, afraid to follow him; and he successfully navigated, probably for the first time in history, an 8,000-ton liner through Nelson's Strait.

With the Dresden in the Pacific, all von Spee's future squadron was now at least in the same ocean, and both the Nürnberg and Leipzig, by stealthy degrees, were approaching the German admiral-the former, during September, having cut the cable between Bamfield in British Columbia and the Fanning Islands, and the latter having sunk the British steamer Bankfield off Peru, while en route to England with 6,000 tons of sugar; the oil tank Elsinore; and the steamer Vine Branch, outward bound from England to Guayaquil.

Whether, in the long run, it would not have been to Germany's advantage for these cruisers to have played their lone hands on the commercial trade routes; to have followed the example of the Emden and Karlsrühe rather than to have formed a fighting squadron, is a matter for argument. Coronel was their justification. The Falkland Islands saw their end. It was finally in the neighbourhood of Easter Island that they united with von Spee, who had in his turn eluded both the China and Australian squadrons, sinking a small French gunboat off Papeete, and bombarding the town on September 22d.

By this time, the Glasgow had been reinforced in Brazilian waters by Sir Christopher Cradock in the Good Hope and Captain Brandt in the Monmouth, with the armed liner Otranto in attendance; and they, too, after similar secret coaling, were making their way round Cape Horn into the Pacific. Time after time they had heard, faint and far, the wireless calls of the Dresden and her colliers-they had even, on more than one occasion, quite unsuspectingly, been within a comparatively few miles of her-but they had never found her and were but slowly able to divine her intention of joining von Spee.

That this admiral, with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, was making his way eastward was now probable, and the old battleship Canopus was in consequence on her way to strengthen Cradock with her 12-inch guns. Up to the last, however, all were uncertain of the enemy's exact whereabouts and strength; and this was the position when, on the last day of October, 1914, the Glasgow was detached to run into Coronel-not unknown to von Spee, who had instantly ordered the Nürnberg to hover outside and watch her movements.

Such had been the steps whereby, across so many leagues of water, the opposing squadrons had been collected; had felt their way tentatively, and, as it were, half blindfold, into the neighbourhood of each other; and were now, off the coast of Chile, each so far from home, on the verge of their fatal collision. With the character and strength of von Spee and his forces we have already briefly dealt; and, in Admiral Cradock, he had an opponent of an essentially British and traditional type. A lover of sport, particular as to his wines, of medium stature, bearded and swarthy, Sir Christopher Cradock was less identified with the modern and scientific school of naval officer than with those light-hearted adventurers, of whom Sir Richard Grenville in his little Revenge stands as an historic example.

Entering the navy in 1875, he had been attached in 1891 to the East Soudan Field Force, had acted as A.D.C. to

the Governor of the Red Sea, and been present at the Battle of Tokar. For his services in that campaign, he had received the Khedive's Bronze Star and the fourth class of the Medjidieh. Nine years later saw him with the British Naval Brigade in China at the capture of the Taku Forts and the relief of Tientsin, and for this he had received the China Medal with clasps, and, in 1902, the C.B. In 1904 he was given the testimonial of the Royal Humane Society for saving the life of a midshipman in Palmas Bay, Sardinia; in 1909 he was A.D.C. to the King, and received the K.C.V.O. in 1912. At the outbreak of the war, as we have seen, he was in charge of the West Atlantic Squadron.

Such was von Spee's opponent-a man perhaps, if anything, too ready to fight, whatever the odds though it must not be forgotten that, until retreat was impossible, he could hardly have been certain of the forces against him. Whether or not he should have deduced these-whether he had in fact done so-must remain a matter of opinion; the captain of the Canopus seems to have entreated him not to join issue without him; but it is equally clear that, if he had waited for the slow old battleship, von Spee, had he so desired, could have avoided action indefinitely.

Considered in the light of after events, indeed, no action of the war seems to have depended less on human prevision, or to have been so determined by natural forces and a leisurely and inscrutable destiny. From the beginning, the odds were against Cradock, just as, six weeks later, they were against von Spee; and when the Glasgow, the first to sight the enemy, saw the four funnels of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, there could have been little doubt, save for extraordinary good luck, of the final issue of the battle.

Opposed to these two cruisers, each faster than the Good Hope or the Monmouth, the Good Hope had an armament of two 9.2-inch guns as against the eight 8.2-inch guns of the Scharnhorst, while the Monmouth in reply to the Gneisenau, with an equal armament to the Scharnhorst, could oppose nothing more powerful than 6-inch guns which were therefore completely outranged. The Good Hope herself, indeed, owing to faulty construction and the heavy seas, was but little better off; the Otranto, an unarmoured liner, was wholly useless in such an emergency; the middle-aged Canopus, with her superior gun-power, was still plunging along 200 miles away; while the Glasgow, speedy and efficient as she was, was no match for the combined Dresden and Leipzig-to say nothing of the Nürnberg, who came up later to complete the destruction of the Monmouth.

It was about a quarter past four on the afternoon of November 1, 1914, Admiral von Spee being then some forty miles north of the Bay of Arauco on the Chilian coast, and the Nürnberg, which had returned after her vigil, having been once more detached on a scouting cruise, that the Glasgow and Monmouth, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau first sighted and identified each other. It had been a day of strong sunshine, sudden showers, high wind and a rough sea, and all the ships, especially the smaller cruisers, were rolling heavily and shipping a lot of water. When first sighted, the Glasgow and Monmouth, soon to be joined by the Otranto, were to the southwest of the German admiral, fifteen miles distant and pursuing a southerly course-obeying the order of Admiral Cradock to join up with the Good Hope. This was still invisible to the German squadron, but was sighted about forty minutes later, when Admiral Cradock took the head of the British line and both sides moved into battle formation.

The position at this moment-with the long prologue over and the curtain rising upon the first act was as follows: a little to the north and nearer to the land, that is to say somewhat east of the British line, the Germans were steaming south, the Scharnhorst leading, followed by the Gneisenau and the Leipzig. The Dresden was some miles astern, and the Nürnberg not yet in sight, though she had been recalled from her second patrol. On the British side, also steaming south, farther to sea, Admiral Cradock was leading, followed by the Monmouth and the Glasgow, the Otranto bringing up the rear, and with the Canopus far to the south, steaming north, but of course out of the picture.

This was at about half-past five, both sides being fully aware now of the strength and disposition of the other; both suffering severely from the strong head wind and high seas that were continually burying them, and both with their eyes upon the setting sun now dropping rapidly toward the horizon. How vital that sun was each had instantly perceived. For the moment, protected by the glare of it, it advantaged Sir Christopher Cradock, von Spee's squadron being brightly illuminated. But the distance was far too great for the British guns, and, in less than an hour, the conditions would be reversed. In less than an hour, himself in half darkness, von Spee would have the British silhouetted against the after-glow; and, in consequence, there had begun a race, which could have but one ending, for the inside or landward position.

Already nearer to the land than Admiral Cradock, and perceiving Cradock's manoeuvre to try and reverse this, von Spee had crammed full speed on, and was racing to forestall him, in the teeth of the wind, at 20 knots an hour. To do so was essential, and to secure this position he outraced the Leipzig and Dresden, his superior speed enabling him to draw parallel with Cradock, while ten miles of sea still parted the squadrons. Here, while keeping pace with the slower British vessels, he was able to slacken down and await the Leipzig and Dresden; and when, at ten minutes past six, these had joined him, he began to draw nearer to the doomed British squadron. This, as all had foreseen, was now a series of dark targets, tossing clearly outlined against the sunset, with the rising moon in the east to render a chance of escape even less possible; and, at a distance of a little over five miles, von Spee ordered the first shot.

The battle was now joined, and with every circumstance conspiring against the indomitable Cradock and his men. Handicapped by the seas as both sides were, the British, farther out, suffered more severely; while, to the expert gunners of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, discounting this one factor, they formed an ideal objective. Within five minutes the Good Hope was hit, and, though she replied at once, her fire was ineffective; while, during the next quarter of an hour, the Scharnhorst's gunners were finding her time after time. Meanwhile the Otranto had been ordered out of action; the Gneisenau. was pouring shell into the Monmouth; and the Leipzig and Dresden were engaging the Glasgow, who was gallantly spending to the best of her ability.

So the fight went on through the brief twilight and into the early moonlit darkness. Thirty-five hits upon the ill-fated Good Hope were counted by the Scharnhorst's gunners. One of her turrets was destroyed and a fire started, followed presently by an explosion that shook the whole air-the white flames mingling, in von Spee's own words, "with the bright green stars," like some dreadful firework. That as von Spee believed, was the end of her. But Cradock was not yet finished, though his guns were out of action. The opposing vessels were now only two miles apart and the Good Hope was trying to manoeuvre to let off her torpedoes. It was but an expiring effort, however; von Spee stood away a little; the Monmouth, totally outgunned, had already been silenced; a hurrying rain-cloud had added to the darkness; and, though the German gunners, sighting by the red reflection of the fires that they had kindled on the two British vessels, still continued to fire a round or two, their adversaries were powerless to respond.

It was now nearly eight o'clock. To the watching von Spee, the fires on the horizon had died down, the Good Hope's quenched by the seas that covered her, and the Monmouth's put out by the efforts of her crew. Though both vessels must, he knew, have been badly crippled, von Spee was unaware, of course, of their real condition, and had ordered his light cruisers to chase and attack them, himself crossing the British line, and turning his course northward.

Meanwhile the Monmouth, staggering along in the darkness, and slowly sinking by the head, was in touch with the Glasgow-the neighbourhood of the enemy and the state of the sea rendering any assistance from the latter impossible. The Glasgow herself had had an almost miraculous escape, not only from destruction, but even from serious damage. "I cannot understand," wrote one of her officers, "the miracle of our deliverance; none will ever. We were struck at the water-line by, in all, five shells out of about 600 directed at us, but strangely not in vulnerable places, our coal saving us on three occasions-as we are not armoured and should not be in battle line against armoured vessels. We had only two guns that would pierce their armour-the Good Hope's old two 9.2's, one of which was out of action ten minutes after the start. A shell entered the captain's pantry and continued on, bursting in a passage, the fragments going through the steel wall of the captain's cabin, wrecking it completely. Again no fire resulted."

Such was the position, with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau hunting them through the darkness up from the south, the Dresden and Leipzig between them and the land, and the Nürnberg steaming down from the north. To remain together would be to sacrifice both; the Canopus, still in ignorance, had to be warned; and the Monmouth seems to have signalled to the Glasgow, advising her to part company and make her escape as best she could. As senior officer, however, the decision rested with the Glasgow's captain; and it would be difficult to conceive a more poignant situation. Every instinct not only of himself but of all on board bade him stay with the Monmouth. But the reasons for not doing so were remorseless, and had, in the event, to be obeyed. Moreover, the enemy had already been sighted steaming abreast, about four miles away, morsing with an oil lamp; and the reluctant order to depart at full speed could no longer be delayed. Half an hour later, far behind them, the watchers on the Glasgow counted seventy-five flashes. On her way to rejoin von Spee, and almost by accident, the Nürnberg had run across the Monmouth and sunk her with point-blank fire.

Sir Christopher Cradock was a Yorkshireman, and, upon the monument to his honour, unveiled two years later in York Minster, were inscribed these words from the Book of Maccabees, than which none could have more fully expressed him-

God forbid that I should do this thing,

To flee away from them;

If our time be come, let us die manfully for our brethren,

And let us not stain our honour.

So ended the first act of this outer-sea epic. That another was to follow none knew better than von Spee.

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