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17 Jul

Chapter XVI




After a couple of days spent rattling around a relatively empty vessel while she chugged around the Western Approaches, the Birkenhead docked off Queenstown in the precincts of Cork Harbour on the fifth of January. It was a miserable morning; wet, and as hard and cold as flint, while the terraces of ugly slated houses in view beyond the quay stuck out like rows of monstrous teeth. I felt equally wretched, and I thus did not reject Captain Lakeman’s offer to ‘Irish up’ the mug of tea around which I wrapped my numb fingers from a silver hip flask when our paths crossed on deck. I inwardly blessed him for a saint in soldier’s clothing, for I desperately needed a dare of the hog. I was shivering within the shabby grandeur of a much loved topcoat cut in Saville Row that had been the height of practical fashion for any young blood a quarter of a century since but which, like me, was now showing its age. This had been pressed back into service after the distressing loss of a newer garment a few years ago that I never had the means to replace. Even with all my tender loving care (for I could still patch and sew with ease, and always had a needle and thread about me), it had to be admitted that this old coat had seen much better days, its black wool turned to a deep grey, much as my once raven hair was similarly beginning to fade. In terms of costume, my act as a man of reasonable and stable means was no longer convincing.

Lakeman looked me over with a critical yet concerned eye. ‘If you will forgive me for saying so, old chap,’ said he, ‘I fear you are not best dressed for the coming journey.’

This was perfectly true, but his remark stung all the same. In my youth I had been something of a dandy, and when I later found myself famous I always took pleasure in dressing well. My present wardrobe mostly dated from that period, which was almost half a lifetime ago. When I lamented this situation, my dear wife would gently tease that there were few men of my age who could still comfortably wear garments purchased in their twenties. As I knew that my tendency to self-deprecation upset her, I would always try to refrain from replying that my svelte frame was more to do with the fact that we were half-starved than a youthful physical demeanour. Grace saw me through eyes clouded by a love that I treasured but never really understood, but however I looked I felt every second of every one of my forty-three years that morning.

‘I’ll be too hot when we cross the Equator,’ I said, trying to conceal my embarrassment with something like wit. I did this a lot around people who were better off than I was. I would normally have been burning with resentment and contempt by that point, but I could not help but like this fellow. Brandy always made me magnanimous.

My companion had another healthy pull on his flask, and then took my arm conspiratorially. ‘Step into my office,’ he said, guiding me in front of him and indicating that we should make our way below deck to our neighbouring quarters.

Seaman Bewhill, a man with the misfortune to possess a face that resembled a rat that had recently taken a punch, leered at us suggestively as we made our way towards the bulkhead door. I was suddenly taken with the horrid feeling that Lakeman and I must look like illicit lovers, sneaking off for some filthy assignation. I had previously made the acquaintance of Seaman Bewhill, so he may have just been attempting civility, his strange countenance warping a perfectly innocent look into something twisted. His duties on board included having charge of the ship’s poultry, under the supervision of the Quartermaster, which made him, in naval parlance, a ‘duck fucker.’ My discomfiture was fleeting, however, for the sensation in my breast at that moment was more akin to that of a schoolboy on an adventure. Lakeman’s general exuberance had a way of generating that effect, I was finding, although whether this was natural or intentional I had yet to discover.

Lakeman must have had a similar thought regarding Bewhill’s interpretation of our intentions, for he beamed at the young seaman as he passed and then slapped him on the shoulder convivially. ‘For shame, man,’ said he, ‘it’s not all rum, sodomy and the lash!’ He bellowed with laughter at his own joke, and the poor bemused seaman looked quite worried, before deciding that the prudent course of action was to return, with exaggerated attention, to his running bowline, or whatever the hell it was that he was supposed to be doing.

Although adjacent to my quarters, Lakeman’s cabin was at least twice the size. ‘Yours is bigger than mine,’ I said. He grinned but said nothing.

His berth had the appearance of a gentleman’s outfitters. There were fancy military clothes hanging from every bulkhead. There were also two huge trunks left casually open and bursting with finery, as well as several crates marked Fortnum & Mason. I considered copping up that I’d once been a tailor’s apprentice, but thought better of it and took a polite interest. Lakeman was particularly proud of the uniform he had commissioned for the rangers, and was showing me a beautiful leather storm coat that had been designed especially for himself and his officers. The thing was cut from quarter inch cowhide and lined with black silk. It was very long, and very black, vented, buckled, and about half a ton in weight.

‘I’ll wager this’d stop the bite of a lion or a spear from a Basuto warrior,’ said Lakeman, ‘so I reckon it’ll do well enough against sea and storm.’ I agreed that this would certainly be the case. ‘How tall are you?’ said he. I told him I was an inch or two above six feet, and he proceeded to rummage through one of the trunks, which contained several of these coats, examining the labels stitched beneath the inside pockets. He eventually found what he was looking for, and tossed the chosen item to me. ‘Try this on,’ he said. It fit as if bespoke. The leather was surprisingly supple given its newness, and wonderfully warming. ‘Marvellous!’ said Lakeman. ‘Consider it yours.’

I was dumbfounded. ‘I can’t accept this,’ I said, feeling more than a little foolish.

‘Of course you can. I’ll not have your freezing to death on my conscience.’ He appeared quite genuine, but I am always wary of such outwardly spontaneous generosity, not that I’ve encountered it very often, because there is invariably a price to be paid later. That said, I was equally aware of the vacillating eccentricities of the rich and shameless. This fine garment, the value of which could probably support my family for a year, meant absolutely nothing to him. He had purchased half a dozen or so, in addition to kitting out his own private army.

‘Fair enough,’ said I, ‘thank you.’

‘Just give me a good puff in the Chronicle,’ said he.

I assured him that I would. He was exactly the kind of character that would capture the imagination of the readers: exotic, heroic, reckless, and probably mad; a compelling protagonist as we say in the trade.

I was thus comfortable in the fresh and freezing air for the first time since embarking at Portsmouth as I watched the main contingent of redcoats boarding later that morning. ‘Have you joined the rangers, Mr. Vincent?’ Captain Wright had inquired, regarding my new toggery with affected curiosity.

I took his jest in good part and returned a self-conscious grin. ‘I fear I’ll never make a soldier, sir,’ I said.

Wright gestured vaguely towards a huge marching column, slowly coming into view in the distance. ‘That’s what they all say,’ he said.

HMS BirkenheadI had elected not to go ashore to view the barracks earlier, as Seton, Wright and Salmond were all in agreement that the men should be embarked and quartered as soon as was reasonably possible, and it was obvious that the last thing they needed was me getting in the way. I thought it prudent to keep on Major Seton’s right side as much as I was able, at least so soon into my assignment. Although Salmond and Lakeman were perfectly happy to grant interviews, both having axes to well and truly grind and thus desirous of some free publicity, Seton and his staff were going to be much more difficult to get on the record. And the thing with army barracks, in any event, is that when you have seen one you have pretty much seen them all. I had visited several in and around London for Henry Mayhew a couple of years back. I think Lakeman would have liked the guided tour, but he had his hands full keeping his rangers from jumping ship and making for the nearest public house.

Despite Wright’s joshing, I felt quite up in the stirrups. I stood upon the main deck looking every inch a gentleman again, although probably in the manner of Varney the Vampire given all the black leather, and observed the approaching column. The soldiers were, I noted, in less than perfect formation as they marched through the town in the relentless rain to the steady beat of drum and fife. The local yahoos were out in force as well, many brandishing small, crudely fashioned union flags with which to wave the young soldiers away to war. Rough looking working men were cheering with an alarming fervour, while their women blew kisses and, in many cases, screamed with almost equal passion. Which were friends, family or deserted lovers I could not tell.

Some raggedy arsed street children had broken from the crowds lining the streets, and were marching alongside the troops, their exaggerated goosesteps a grotesque reflection of the movements of the brightly dressed rankers, mostly raw recruits, and the majority not much older than the shabby doubles that ran beside them. After what we’ve done to them, why any Irish man, woman or child, whether Protestant or Catholic, should want to hold a British flag with any intention other than to wipe their arse with the thing, let alone take the Queen’s shilling, was and remains a constant source of mystery to me. I am not sure that it is exactly patriotism, but the economy of garrison towns depends on the military at every level. The relationship is symbiotic and parasitic, and about as healthy.

The column, which was about four hundred men strong, marched on along the slippery cobblestones, until it finally started to dribble onto the quayside, where boats and barges were waiting to ferry the soldiers across to our vessel. Non-commissioned officers were screaming at the bemused and bedraggled young men as they arrived, and I inwardly recoiled at the emotional violence of it all. The rocking of the barges caused many of their occupants to evacuate over the sides, and it must have been a profound relief to the passengers when the seamen struck their oars and the tiny boats came alongside. Looking down, I could see the redcoats rise to their feet unsteadily to face their next ordeal. When I had come aboard it was via a broad and steady gangplank, but these poor devils had to grab hold of scramble-nets and scale the ship’s implacable hull, which rose sixty-odd feet above their heads with nothing but unforgiving water below, its surface as hard as a cement pavement if encountered from that height. Indifferent marines waited at the rails to haul the exhausted soldiers aboard, while many of those that had embarked as I had in Portsmouth hung around on deck shouting encouragement or abuse (it could have been either). Miraculously no one fell, and soon the first contingent of soldiers stood shivering on the deck, while the grim seamen pulled back towards the quay for the next batch. For them this was going to be a very long day, their incremental trips amounting very probably to several miles when taken collectively. As I always do among such hard men, I marvelled at their stamina.

The soldiers were lining up and stealing glances along the deck, trying to get the measure of their new location and circumstances. The old hands among them were immediately obvious, for they were the men who looked neither nervous nor curious, but merely bored. I saw rather than heard Sheldon-Bond barking at a sergeant I did not recognise. He pointed with his swagger stick towards the absurdly small open hatch in front of the great funnel by which the swoddies presently stood, and the sergeant saluted smartly and turned to give the order. I loathed that hatch, and my heart went out to those about to be thus extruded. In full pack, the soldiers could barely fit. I could see them awkwardly clutching their tall muskets to their bodies in order to scrape through, as one by one the ship swallowed them up.

And so it went on. To give Seton his due, the embarkation was a masterpiece of organisation. Administration was, by reputation, his true gift, and before this promotion he had been an Assistant Quartermaster General. As far as I could ascertain from my research, he had recently been promoted without purchase to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the 74th without ever seeing battle.[12] And now he was in absolute command of all the five hundred or so redcoats on board, a mongrel force of mostly raw recruits under the age of twenty from ten different regiments, and heading out to reinforce the Cape.

I was no tactician, but I found the War Office’s choice confusing, as did Lakeman, who, although young and easily dazzled, it would seem, by killing technology, was decidedly of the old school when it came to notions of leadership. It was possible, on the other hand, I thought, that Seton’s appointment was a sign of things to come, when wars would be viewed not in terms of valour and glory, but in human resource management. Blue Books and over-promoted desk clerks seemed to be the spirit of the age. Lakeman did not comprehend what he called the ‘half-military, half-civilian’ existence of the British officer, and doubted the abilities of many of them to successfully undertake a campaign against any form of serious opposition or, as he put it, organise a nun shoot in a convent. His ill-disguised yearning to belong to a class he despised was a familiar sentiment to me, although I kept this insight well to myself. I still felt much the same about the literary lions of London.

He thus took it upon himself to test his theory that evening, as we dined once more with Salmond, Seton and his staff. Several new faces had appeared at the table. There was Ensign Russell of the 74th, a slight young man who kept himself to himself but attended to Seton like a personal assistant. Lieutenant Granger was a mealy looking boy, and still rather green around the gills; like Cornets Rolt and Bond, he looked no more than twenty years old. He had attached himself to the Lancers, and although the cavalrymen were inclined to look down upon the ground pounders, the trio shared the culture and language of the English public school system and were chattering inanely about the coming fight against the formidable (and thus far undefeated) Basuto Chiefs Sandili and Mosesh as if it were a game of cricket. I wondered if the African rebels knew the rules.

The other junior officers, Giradot of the 43rd and Lucas of the 73rd, had embarked at Cork, and although most likely the same age as their fellows, they had a yeastier look about them for having at least been posted outside London for the first few months of their first commissions. Surgeon Bowen was an older man, and I presumed from his conversation that he was of the same generation as Seton and myself, although he had not worn quite so well, having very little hair upon his small, round head besides a carefully clipped beard. I suspected that his somewhat boyish face had gone down well with the ladies in his youth, but in the middle age his appearance was not dissimilar to that of an ornamental gnome. Like most medical men he knew how to drink.

Seton and Wright were discussing the new intake. Seton looked nervous, but as that was his permanent expression it was difficult to read. I fancied I knew that look, which had more to do with an active mind turning upon many issues at once, and leaving the features to settle as they may. I am often likewise accused of looking either worried or stern, when all I am doing is concentrating upon the thesis of an essay or the plot of a story. My suspicion was that Seton’s faraway look had a similar origin, although what exercised his intellect was military logistics.

Wright was certainly taking Seton to be concerned, and as the decanter was sent again upon its rounds he set about doing his best to reassure his superior. ‘Soldiers are not dissimilar to children,’ he was saying. ‘They require discipline and routine, and will kick up something rotten when the ordinary pattern of their lives is disturbed.’

The British fighting man, Captain Wright was firmly convinced, from his personal experience, he assured the present party, was the finest soldier on God’s green earth, but these men did like their routines. They were like dogs, he reflected, so must similarly be kept well fed and watered, not spared the rod, and let loose the leash every now and again.

‘Treated thus,’ he maintained, ‘they will follow you anywhere, but, conversely, let them become too unsettled and any officer will have a surly, disorganised rabble on his hands.’

Wright’s point was essentially that the secret to a straightforward and effective command was to keep your men busy. Salmond did not comment, but a measured nod indicated his assent to this opinion.

Bowen was more direct. ‘What you have here,’ said he, swigging hungrily at his glass, ‘is a monstrous regiment of bog trotters and Papists. Most of the poor devils have made their mark because they’re starving, and I doubt if one among them could write his own name, or name his own father.’

Wright smiled. ‘I want them to shoot, not write,’ he said. I considered raising Lord Lytton’s essay upon the subject of the pen being mightier than the sword, but decided to hold my tongue. This was not the right crowd.

Bowen assured us that he spoke from the position of one who had lately observed theses young man as they had assembled at the barracks over the last few weeks. ‘These new boys are farm labourers, gentlemen, not soldiers,’ he said. ‘They are undisciplined, and slow to learn on the square.’

‘It sounds to me,’ said Lakeman suddenly, hacking his way into the conversation, as was his wont, for the professional soldiers would not discourse with him otherwise, ‘that these fellows will not last twenty minutes against the Basuto horsemen.’

Granger was brave enough to venture an opinion. He had forlorn hope written all over him, that one. He would either rocket through the ranks like that idiot Cardigan or get his brains blown out for Britain as soon as he went up country. ‘But they’re just savages,’ he said.

Lakeman looked the young lieutenant straight in his Etonian eyes. ‘The Basuto warrior,’ said he, with a tone that was intended to convey authority, but which struck me as a touch melodramatic, ‘is a well-trained, self-disciplined and highly motivated soldier. These “savages” gave your Colonel Somerset a run for his money in ’46, and swept away your so-called Warden Line at Viervoet last summer, which is why your men, and mine, are now en route to the Cape to shore up Harry Smith’s defences.’

Granger turned as scarlet as his dress tunic. ‘By God, sir, you’ll take that back,’ said he, in a sort of strangulated squeak. Had he a gauntlet to hand, I have no doubt he would have thrown it down. The other officers scowled.

Unlike Somerset at Burns Hill and Hobbes Drift, however, Lakeman held his ground.[13] ‘Calm down, Lieutenant,’ said he, in a measured tone, ‘we are all on the same side. I am merely enumerating the facts as I understand them.’

‘I would venture, sir,’ returned Granger,’ that you are on no man’s side but your own, and further more I resent the comparison you have the temerity to draw between your motley crew of sots, beggars and thieves, and the soldiers of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.’

I perceived that the man was trembling, either with rage or nerves, but most likely both. He was as tense as a pane of glass when warped and twisted, and I suspected that like most Englishmen, myself included, Granger detested a scene in public.

‘Hear, hear,’ muttered Wright. His junior officers all nodded in agreement. The atmosphere felt suddenly galvanic, like the September air before a storm breaks upon it. The entire wardroom had fallen silent, and all eyes, soldiers and sailors too, were on my new friend.

Lakeman was as cool as a riverboat gambler. ‘I’ll wager my passage,’ said he, ‘against ten guineas from each of you gentleman, that my motley crew could best an equal number of your farm labourers on the square or in the field on any day of the week.’

Salmond positively bellowed with laughter, thankfully breaking the unbearable, key-bending pressure of the moment. ‘God strike me blind, sir,’ he roared at Lakeman, causing Seton to wince, ‘but you’re a devil’s card! I’ll take that wager, what say you, Major?’

The final remark was addressed to Seton, who was now in an impossible position. The honour of not only his but all regiments represented on board was now at stake. Even though all his charges were safely squared away, he was going to be forced to unpack, rendering the entire day’s business redundant.

Lakeman regarded him coolly, and Seton acted as he knew he must. ‘Very well,’ he finally said, ‘I accept your challenge.’

‘Bravo, sir!’ said Salmond.

Granger was ordered to confer with Giradot and Lucas, who had a working knowledge of the men newly boarded, and to select a force of the best of them equal in number to Lakeman’s contingent. Salmond, meanwhile, called for Mr. Brodie, Master of the ship, to go ashore with a note for the commanding officer at Cork Barracks, that he might liaise with the local civic authorities in the hope of arranging some sort of field day in which Lakeman’s rangers could compete with Seton’s infantrymen on the square and in a skirmish. Our good Captain appeared considerably more excited at the prospect than did his opposite number, who looked decidedly uneasy.

Lakeman was obviously delighted. ‘If it please you gentleman,’ said he, ‘we will exempt Mr. Vincent from our little wager, for he is not a soldier.’

The others agreed. It had not occurred to me that I had ever been included, and inwardly my nerves quivered like a taut wire that had just been struck. This would have been a debt I could not pay. Captain Salmond was similarly excused, and instead offered the role of senior arbiter, which he cheerily accepted. That much arranged to his satisfaction, Lakeman then excused himself to begin preparations immediately. I considered following him, but he was right, I was no soldier, so what, really, would have been the point? Of equal consideration was the fact that it was undoubtedly in my best interests to appear as impartial as possible in the present company, although I was already surreptitiously willing Lakeman to win, for it would be a tedious journey indeed without his companionship. In any event, the real story, which it was now my unspoken task to record, was to be the physical act itself, not the foreplay.

‘Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war,’ said Salmond, laughing like an undertaker going through the Society obituaries in the Times.

Major Seton did not offer a reply.

Click here to read Chapter XVII

Stephen Carver
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