Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Genesis of battle: a first-hand account of war at sea

Genesis of battle: a first-hand account
The classic naval encounter between the 38-gun HMS Macedonian and the USS
United States (44) in October 1812 as described by Samuel Leech gives a good
impression of how a ship prepared for battle and actually fought.

A lookout high in the rigging, possibly perched on one of the tops (a
platform fixed up each mast), indicated the presence of another vessel with
the words, 'Sail ho!'. The captain immediately came on deck and called for the
direction of the strange ship and enquired into its nationality. On hailing
the lookout again, after a few minutes passed, he received the information he
required. Once it was identified as an enemy - in this case an American - ship,
the captain issued his command and the ship was readied for battle:
All hands clear the ship for action, ahoy! The drum and fife beat to
quarters; bulk-heads were knocked away; the guns were released from
their confinement; the whole dread paraphernalia of battle was
produced; and after a few minutes of hurry and confusion, every man
and boy was at his post, ready to do his best service for his country ...
To ensure that every man remained at his respective station, the junior
midshipmen were told to shoot anyone who deserted his post. The guns were
loaded and the slow matches lit, in case the matchlocks misfired. A proportion
of the men were then allocated the task of making up a boarding party, should
one be required. Leech then described how:
A lieutenant then passed through the ship, directing the marines and
boarders, who were furnished with pikes, cutlasses, and pistols, [and told]
how to proceed if it should be necessary to board the enemy. He was
followed by the captain, who exhorted the men to fidelity and courage,
urging upon their consideration the well-known motto of the brave
Nelson, 'England expects [that] every man [will] do his duty'.
The men in the tops, usually responsible for working the sails, were issued with
small arms so as to direct fire down on the enemy. Below, on the main deck,
Leech was stationed at the fifth gun, where he was responsible for ensuring that
his gun was supplied with powder by running up and down the ladders to and
from the magazine with cartridges covered by his jacket. The ship was then
manoeuvred to enable the starboard guns to come into action, with a telltale
sound indicating the start of the engagement. Leech recorded that:
A strange noise, such as I had never heard before, next arrested my
attention; it sounded like the tearing of sails, just over our heads. This I
soon ascertained to be the wind of the enemy's shot. The firing, after a
few minutes' cessation, recommenced. The roaring of cannon could now
be heard from all parts of our trembling ship, and, mingling as it did with
that of our foes, it made a most hideous noise. By-and-by I heard the shot
strike the sides of our ship; the whole scene grew indescribably confused
and horrible; it was like some awfully tremendous thunder-storm, whose
deafening roar is attended by incessant streaks of lightning, carrying
death in every flash and strewing the ground with the victims of its
wrath; only, in our case, the scene was rendered more horrible than that,
by the presence of torrents of blood which dyed our decks.
Throughout the fight Leech heard the cries of the wounded all around him some
men dismembered by shot and others disfigured by flying splinters. The
wounded were carried below to the cockpit, the dead heaved overboard. One
of the powder monkeys was severely burned in the face when a cartridge in his
hands caught fire. 'In this pitiable situation,' Leech wrote, 'the agonized boy
lifted up both hands, as if imploring relief, when a passing shot instantly cut
him in two.' One of the other members of the gun crew lost his hands to a
passing shot, followed by a second which opened his bowels. With no hope of
survival, he was thrown overboard by his comrades:
Such was the terrible scene, amid which we kept on our shouting and
firing. Our men fought like tigers. Some of them pulled off their jackets,
others their jackets and vests; while some, still more determined, had
taken off their shirts, and, with nothing but a handkerchief tied round
the waistbands of their trowsers, fought like heroes.

Men aboard ship, frightened though they might have been, had no means of
escape from the combination of shouts, screams, smoke and the roar of gunfire.
There was little choice but to carry out the tasks for which they had been
trained, as Leech further observed:
We all appeared cheerful, but I know that many a serious thought ran
through my mind ... To run from our quarters would have been certain
death from the hands of our own officers; to give way to gloom, or to
show fear, would do no good, and might brand us with the name of
cowards, and ensure certain defeat. Our only true philosophy, therefore,
was to make the best of our situation by fighting bravely and cheerfully.
Soldiers and sailors throughout history have sought protection in battle through
prayer. Even those, like Leech, who had no particular religious dispositions, still
sought divine intervention when faced with the imminent prospect of death:
I thought a great deal ... of the other world; every groan, every falling man,
told me that the next instant I might be before the Judge of all the earth.
For this, I felt unprepared; but being without any particular knowledge of
religious truth, I satisfied myself by repeating again and again the Lord's
prayer and promising that if spared I would be more attentive to religious
duties than ever before. This promise I had no doubt, at the time, of
keeping; but I have learned since that it is easier to make promises amidst
the roar of the battle's thunder, or in the horrors of shipwreck, than to keep
them when danger is absent and safety smiles upon our path.
As fate would have it, her American adversary easily outgunned the Macedonian,
and Leech, together with the remainder of the crew, was taken prisoner.