Been a long time since I added anything to the ‘Creative Writing’ area of my blog. This is a short, 2,500-word piece that I finished recently and which I thought I would share with everyone:
Battle of the Dauntless
Northeast Atlantic, west of Spain
Timbers creak and waves slosh gently against a bobbing hull, like so many mothers’ hands reaching to comfort a crying baby. Sunlight, fresh and warm, beams down on white sails, furled for the time-being, and on ropes and rigging, some taut and which creak from tension, some slack and limp from lack of use. On the deck, I watch the men at work, coiling ropes, scrubbing decks and doing general maintenance. I head through one of the hatchways towards the back of the ship and knock on the door of the Great Cabin.
“Come!” a voice calls out. I open the door and step inside.
“Ah! Good morning, Mr. Colton!”
Captain Christopher Peale sits at one end of a table. Capt. Peale is a tall man, some six foot two inches in height and of solid build, with long, dark blond hair done up in the back in a rough ponytail to keep it out of the way. I smile at him in a way that exists between friends.
“Good morning, Christopher,” I said. Behind closed doors, I had decided to indulge in my social rather than professional relationship with the captain. The captain smiled and beckoned me to sit down. Next to the captain, a man in his late thirties, was another man of a similar age. Dr. James Frost. I have known Christopher Peale since we were a pair of ‘snotties’, midshipmen, both aged some twelve years old. Dr. Frost has been our ship’s surgeon these past five. We say ‘surgeon’ but he is both physician and surgeon and so much the better.
“Any news?” Christopher asked. I shook my head.
“Everything is as it should be,” I said.
“Excellent,” said Christopher. “Well Jack, James, I fancy we can help ourselves to the first drink of the day”.
Being First Lieutenant and a close friend and colleague of both the captain and surgeon always brings certain privileges with them, which I was happy to take advantage of. Our morning drink was interrupted when someone knocked on the door.
“Come!” Christopher called out.
Second Lieutenant Arthur Collins or ‘Artie’ as we called him, opened the door.
“Sail ahead, sir!” he said, “You’d best come see!”
Christopher nodded. “Very good. Thank you, Collins. Doctor, back to your quarters; Jack, close the windows and then join me on the foredeck”.
The men left the cabin and I leaned out to close the windows in the ship’s stern. Looking down, I read the large, white letters which spelt out the word ‘Dauntless’ on the stern. I closed the cabin door and headed up on deck.
“You see?” Christopher asked. He pressed a spyglass to my hands. I extended it and observed a ship several yards away. I could make out the red, white and blue French flag flapping in the wind and then I noticed a bright, white flash. The sun glinting off a spyglass lens!
“He’s spotted us!” I said. I handed the glass back to the captain.
“So he has, the dog! Lieutenant Colton, alert the officers, beat to quarters and clear for action!”
“Aye sir!” I said, nodding. “Mr. Collins! Mr. Barkley, Mr. Shears! Beat to quarters and clear for action! Quickly, now!”
Soon, all was a flurry of activity as orders were shouted hither and thither. Piercing notes from the bosun’s pipes squealed and warbled through the air and voices yelled out loud and full of conviction.
“Mr. Jones, run up the colours! Midshipman Bell, two points starboard!” the captain shouted. I rushed below. A marine, dressed in his distinctive red and white uniform stood rapidly beating a drum, setting the pace for action. Men raced towards the gun-decks.
“Cast loose!” I and the other officers shouted and the gun-crews undid the ropes restraining the cannons to the hull of the ship.
“Run out the larboard battery!” yelled the captain, “Roundshot! Carronades and chase-guns to be loaded with grapeshot and case!”
“Run out!” I yelled. My friend Arthur yelled out the same. I bent down next to the nearest gun-crew and helped them to run out their gun. The Dauntless was a 5th Rate Ship-of-the-Line with forty-four guns: Twenty 18-pounders, twenty 12-pounders, four 6-pounder chase-guns as well as eight 18-pounder carronades, not counted in the ship’s armaments.
The view of the sea from the open gunport was small, and running the cannon-muzzle out through the gunport was hard work. Even with the help of the ship rolling in the swell, it still took the entire five-man gun-crew to push out the piece on its gun-carriage or pull it out using ropes and pulleys. Then, the action started.
Nothing could possibly describe over twenty cannons firing in quick succession, one after the other, after the other, after the other! As each order of “Fire!” was given, the gun-captain pulled on the lanyard that operated the gunlock and the whole contraption would explode! White smoke, flames and a jet black iron cannonball would come hurtling out and off into the distance. The gun leaps back with a kick like a stubborn mule, making the gun-deck shake from the blast! Through the gunport I could see the shots smashing into the timbers of the other ship. We had now drawn alongside the enemy which was firing back at us. Heavy iron cannonballs smashed into the hull, showering splinters everywhere!
“Reload!” I shouted. I heard gun-captains yelling out orders which echoed in my ears, a confusion of incomprehensible sounds.
“Worm! Sponge! Cartridge, wad, shot, wad, ram! Prime! Run out! Level! FIRE!”
The gun-decks were filled with choking, blinding smoke enough to make one double over in coughing and sound enough to make one deaf to all things around him. The steady ‘thud!’ of the guns firing, the whistling and droning of shot and the inevitable shattering and splintering of wood and the screams of the maimed, wounded and the fading groans of the freshly deceased filled the air. Through the smoke and blood and splintered wood, youths of fourteen, twelve, ten and even younger, were jogging back and forth in a relay race of death. Slung over their shoulders were cylindrical kegs. These unfortunate lads were the powder-monkeys . A sudden cannon-blast hit the side of the ship! One of the boys was thrown back against a support-beam! He screamed and fell to the ground. I snatched up his empty keg and jogged through the ship.
“Mr. Collins! Mr Barkley keep them spitting! You boys, get a move on! Sharpish, now!”
I sprinted through the ship, sliding down the staircases and ladders until I reached a large, copper-lined room: The Magazine. There, the Ship’s Gunner helped me fill the powder-keg with cartridges before sending me back up to the guns. From there, I headed up on deck to witness the full fury of the action.
The deck was a mess of wood, smoke and bodies. The carronades and chase-guns were firing on the enemy ship while the captain screamed out orders. After taking in sail so that we’d fall behind the enemy, the captain had ordered all sails set and the ship turned hard a’larboard. This swung our ship left, so that it passed by the stern of the enemy ship.
“Mr Shears! Run out the starboard battery!” the captain yelled. We ducked as something whistled past our ears and wrapped itself around a mast! I reached up and untangled a length of chain-shot and held it up to the captain .
“Bloody frogs can’t shoot worth a damn!” he shouted over the roar of cannons. I laughed.
“Take that below and have one of the lads send it back to them proper-like!” he ordered. I passed the chain-shot below with orders to fire it back before helping one of the ship’s boys to carry a wounded man below.
The surgeon’s quarters were below, aft, a room below the captain’s cabin. The windows were opened and Dr. Foster and his Mate were working double-time to attend the injured, which was everything from cuts and scrapes hastily washed and bandaged, to amputations requiring the use of the tourniquet, rum, laudanum, the flesh-knife and the bone-hacksaw.
“Another one, doctor!” I called out, helping the man into the room and sitting him on a bench. The ship rocked from another cannon-blast! But it wasn’t that which was preventing the doctor from paying attention to me. The blood drenching the floor was getting intolerable. The doctor’s loblolly-boy was scooping out handfuls of sand from a sack and throwing it onto the floor to try and soak it up, but wasn’t having an amazing amount of luck. I left them to their work and headed upstairs.
“What’s happening?” I shouted to the third lieutenant.
“Raking fire!” he shouted, “Give us a hand!”
Raking fire was always Captain Peale’s favoured method of attack. Indeed it was probably every captain’s favourite method, given the opportunity. And at the moment, the opportunity was golden.
“Fire as you bear!” I shouted to the men. “With a will, lads! Come on!”
Cannons were run out on their carriages and one by one, the lanyards were pulled and the guns fired!
“Off with the rudder, now!” Arthur shouted, “Gun-captains! On the down-roll…FIRE!”
There was a sickening blast! Shot smashed into the lower hull of the enemy ship, disabling its steering.
“Reload!” I shouted, “On the up-roll boys!…Steady…On the up-roll, FIRE!”
The ship groaned! Cannon-shot smashed into the stern of the French ship, ripping it to pieces! Just then, Fourth Lieutenant Shears ran up to me.
“Captain wants you on deck! Mr. Barkley, you’re to be here and command the guns, Mr. Collins also! Mr. Colton, cap’n wants men to lead boarding-parties!”
Up on deck, we prepared to board. I selected a brace of pistols and muskets and touched my hand to my side to ensure the security of my sabre. Again, it became a muddle of orders shouted out and begging to be heard, like drowning sailors in a sea of words.
“Boarders to me!”
“Marines! Fix bayonets!”
“Grappling-hooks away! Bring forth boarding-planks! Handsomely, now! Make sure they’re secured!”
We charged across from our ship to the enemy’s. It was almost impossible to see anything. The smoke from the gunfire was as thick as a winter fog in London. Some of us swung over on grappling-hooks while others ran across the boarding-planks, jumping onto the quarterdeck of the enemy ship. I fired both my pistols scoring direct hits before shrugging my musket off my shoulder. Shoot, stab, swing, club! Move on! Sword, swing, stab, left, right! I am given a stark reminder of how hard it is to actually pierce the human torso, said task requiring quite an expenditure of strength on my part with the use of my bayonet. Behind me, I hear the captain charging forward with his men. I turned around for an instant and noticed two carronades on our ship firing caseshot onto the enemy quarterdeck to try and scatter and kill them. Two loud explosions nearby told me that Captain Peale was deploying his weapon of choice: a double-barrelled blunderbuss, a monster that was originally a coach-gun but which had been modified with a spring-loaded bayonet at the front for better use in close-quarters combat . Something black whistled over my head and hit the deck! The grenade rolled along the planking and clattered and bounced down the steps into the inside of the ship. It was followed by a loud blast and screams that alerted all around that it had hit its target!
“Jack! Lieutenant Colton! Take your men below and spike the guns!” the captain shouted as he held off two men with his sword. A dozen men and myself headed below. Spiking of the guns was not immediately necessary; the devastation wreaked by twenty cannons raking the enemy’s stern had already put most of the French guns wholly out of action. The few guns that needed spiking were already spiked by the French to stop us using them. We fought our way through the interior of the ship and then back up onto the quarterdeck where we were once again exposed to the full extent of the battle, with the crews of two ships fighting in a confined space. Men were thrown overboard, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned or slashed as British forces swept through the ship. Supporting fire from our still-active cannons soon gave us the upper hand. By degrees, we managed to corner the French until Christopher managed to get the enemy captain in front of him.
“Your name, Monsieur?” Captain Peale asked.
“Capitan Jacques Petard,” said the French captain. He was significantly older, probably in his fifties, with greying hair and scars from previous battles displayed like medals on his face.
“And do you surrender both your ship and your men to me?”
“Oui, monsieur capitan, and to whom do I have the honour of surrendering my ship?”
“Christopher Peale, Royal Navy, captain of His Majesty’s Ship Dauntless”.
Captain Petard unsheathed his sabre, and held it delicately between his fingers, handing it to Captain Peale, who sheathed it in his empty scabbard.
“Strike your colours,” Captain Peale said, “You and your men will be confined below decks until such time as we have made landfall. Lieutenant Shears, assemble some men to serve as a skeleton crew aboard ship, and half the full complement of marines to maintain order. Let us gather stock of these events and then proceed to repairs”.
The remaining French sailors were then confined to the lower decks of their ship, where marines were posted to guard them. Repairs were started almost immediately, by clearing and cleaning the decks and burying the bodies of sailors from both sides at sea. Each body was sewn up in its own hammock with a cannonball around its ankles to make it sink. The recovering wounded rested in the ship’s infirmary the ship’s carpenter proceeded to sound the vessel to check for damage.
“What orders, sir?” I asked as I directed the men in the repair of the ships.
“Once we’re underway, we’ll set a course East-Northeast”.
“East-Northeast…that would have us sailing to England, sir…”
“It would indeed, Jack. We’re going home. Alert Mr. Jones, will you?”
By the next morning, with most important elements of the ship repaired, we set a course East-Northeast and sailed for home, with our captured prize no more than three ship-lengths behind us at any point during the journey.
“All in all, a very successful action,” Christopher said to myself and the other officers as we gathered in his cabin for our first proper dinner since we set our course for home.
“Indeed sir,” said Lieutenant Collins, brushing back his own blond hair and reaching for a brandy, “A most successful action indeed”.
“And what’s the butcher’s bill?” I asked.
“Fifteen dead, twenty wounded, five of them seriously so”.
“Define serious,” Captain Peale said.
“Two amputations, one concussion, two musket-ball wounds. I’ve removed the musket-balls but those two will have to be rested for a long time before they’re well enough to resume duties again, sir”.
Christopher sighed, “War’s a damnably messy thing, gentlemen. A hellish thing. But the action is done, so let us think of home and to our ships at sea”.
One by one, we raised our glasses and clinked them together.
“To our ships at sea” .