Shipboard Life during the Age of Sail

 

Before the 1930s, commercial air-travel was but the dream of fools. And before the mid 1800s, an ocean-voyage in a ship powered by something other than oars or the wind, was seen as absurd. From the earliest days of the Age of Sail, starting in the 1500s, until sailing ships were finally declared obsolete by the faster and more powerful steamships, life at sea was hard, dangerous and scary, even at the best of times. A voyage from England to America, India or even as far as Singapore or Australia, took weeks, even months of travel-time, stopping off at ports on the way, to pick up fresh supplies and to deliver and pick up cargo.

What was life onboard a sailing ship like? What kind of food did people eat? How did they sleep? Go to the toilet? How the hell did they even know where they were GOING? These questions, and more, will hopefully be clearly answered in the contents of this post.

Navigation.

Arguably, the most important part of a sea-voyage was navigation; knowing where the hell you were going, and how to get there. Navigation required a lot of skill when you were out in the middle of the ocean without a landmass within sight to act as a point of reference. So, how was it done?

Determining direction was easily accomplished by using a standard compass, with a needle which would point to Magnetic North. Using a compass, you could determine your direction. This was easy enough; even without a compass you could determine your direction, based on the movement of the sun. But how did you determine your position?

Finding out your co-ordinates (the two reference-points which, when put together, would pinpoint your position on the globe), took considerably more skill. Using a sextant or octant, you were able (by measuring the angle of the sun against the horizon), to determine how far north or south you were. This, with some practice, became fairly easy. The real challenge was determining how far east or west you were, from a given point. Longitude (east-west bearing) had been nearly impossible to determine accurately, until the last quarter of the 18th century. An English clockmaker named John Harrison created the world’s first marine chronometer, a clock (or watch) which was accurate enough to be used for navigation at sea. The most accurate clocks in the world at the time, were big longcase pendulum clocks (grandfather clocks). While they could keep almost dead-accurate time, they were useless out in the middle of the ocean, where the waves would throw the pendulum-swing out of kilter. Pocket-watches small enough to be brought out into the ocean were too inaccurate to serve as reliable time-standards. Over the years, Harrison refined his chronometer until it was good enough to be used at sea. His reward for his invention? A princely ten thousand pounds from the British government.

The Marine Chronometer.

The marine chronometer was arguably the most important invention of the 18th century. Without it, ocean-travel as we know it today, would likely never have taken place at all. Using the chronometer (which was set at Greenwich Mean Time), a navigator could determine how far from land he was, by counting the time-difference between the time on the clock, and the position of the sun at noon each day. Marine chronometers (‘chronos’ meaning ‘time’, ‘meter’ for ‘measure’), had to be incredibly accurate. A variation of just a few seconds each day, was enough to throw a ship off-course by MILES. In his voyage from England to Australia in the 1780s, Captain Cook (who agreed to test Mr. Harrison’s new invention), recorded in his papers that this newfangled clock managed to keep an accuracy of +/-5 seconds after one month at sea. Now that’s good timekeeping!

With navigation solved, the ship was ready to be provisioned. What kinds of things did a ship carry back in the 1700s?

Provisions.

When a sea-voyage could last a month at its shortest, stocking enough provisions onboard ship was of vital importance. Provisions included everything. Water, food, spare sails, spare spars, spare ropes, nails, oakum, pitch, tar, gunpowder, shot, cargo, medical supplies, clothing, candles, coal, timber and oil.

The modern refrigerator as we know it today, did not exist until the 1930s. How the hell did they stop all the food from going rotten?

Preventing food-spoilage was a big problem onboard ships. Captains typically loaded their vessels with foods that could last for weeks or months without needing refrigeration. So how was it done?

Shipboard food included such delicacies as salted pork, dried or salted fish, hard-tack (also called a ship’s biscuit), grains such as oats or cornmeal, and maybe a bit of nice cheese. Drinks included barrels of water, wine, rum and grog (which was watered-down rum). So, what were all these things?

Pork was salted. That is to say, it was packed into massive barrels of salt, to preserve it. Fish was either dried, to prevent it from going mouldy, or it too, was packed into barrels and salted. Grains such as oats, barley and cornmeal, which would be used for making porridge, were stored in sacks and barrels, tightly sealed. And last but not least, there was the ever-present, ever-despised hard-tack or the ‘ship’s biscuit’.

If you’ve ever eaten an ANZAC biscuit, you’ll know how hard and tough it can be. Hard-tack made ANZAC biscuits feel like overcooked pasta. Hard-tack was a special kind of cookie which was baked so that when it came out of the oven, it was literally rock hard. You could drive a nail into a plank of wood with this thing, and it wouldn’t break. Hard-tack was notoriously difficult to eat. But why did they stock it? Because hard-tack is like the cockroach of foodstuffs. It can survive almost anything. Provided that it was sealed properly and kept dry, hard-tack could keep fresh for months, even years at sea. Hard-tack was so damn tough that if you ate it ‘raw’, you’d probably break your teeth off! So instead, sailors would dunk it into their tea or coffee to soften it up a bit before taking a bite out of it. But before you dunked it into the tea, you had to bang it on the table a few times to knock out the beetles and weevils and other nasty little insects that had taken up residence inside your lunch.

You’ll notice that there is a distinct lack of greenery in the shipboard diet. Keeping things like fruits and vegetables fresh onboard a sailing ship with no fridges, was a nearly impossible task. Fruit goes mouldy after a few days, a few weeks if you’re lucky. And greens were important, and still are important, for preventing the horrific disease called scurvy.

Scurvy was nasty. It caused your joints to ache, it made your gums bleed, it made you go dizzy and faint, and when it was really bad, your teeth rotted and you’d be spitting your pearly-whites all over the floor. To prevent this, sailors drank great quantities of fruit-juice. It’s for this reason that British sailors were called “Limeys”; because they drank gallons and gallons of lime-juice. On the same ticket, German sailors ate pounds and pounds of sauerkraut. It’s for this reason that Germans are called “Krauts”.

Sleeping.

It’s well-known that sailors slept in hammocks onboard ships, even as recently as the mid 20th century. But why would you want to sleep in a rocking, rolling hammock that could pitch you out onto the floor when the ship hit a swell?

Ship’s hammocks are not like garden hammocks. They’re more compact. When you get in, the sides of the hammock spring upwards and wrap around you, so that you’re as snug as a bug in a rug. Being wrapped up like this prevents you from falling out if the ship rolls. Sailors didn’t sleep in beds because there was no room for them. And at any rate, it was easier to be thrown out of a bed than a hammock, during a storm. Naval tradition dictated that when a sailor died, he was sewn up in his hammock (with the last stitch through his nose, to make sure he wasn’t snoozing), he had a pair of holystones (a type of scouring-rock, used to clean the deck) tied, with a rope, around his ankles…and then his body was tipped into the sea.

Lighting.

Open flames were forbidden on sailing-ships. While the only source of light was fire, its use was strictly regulated. All candles had to be housed in lanterns, for extra safety, and the only fire permitted onboard, was in the galley stove. Most ships would have had a stern lantern (a big lantern hammered onto the back of the ship), to act a bit like the tail-light of a car. It would make it easier to spot in the dark. When escaping an enemy ship, captains usually doused the stern lantern to remain hidden in the dark.

Entertainment.

When a sea-voyage could take months at a time, keeping yourself entertained was pretty important. Sailors would play cards, dominoes, chess, checkers or play on whatever musical instruments they had, like flutes or violins. The most well-known aspect of shipboard entertainment during the Age of Sail was the sea-shanty. A shanty was a song which sailors sang onboard ship, while they worked. The most famous shanty, “The Drunken Sailor”, was typically sung when the crew was downstairs, running around the capstan, hauling up the anchor. The chorus “Hey, ho, and up she rises!” was the cue for sailors to start pushing on the capstan-bars to raise the anchor.

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. I).

 

Usual disclaimer: I’m a not a historian or an expert on any specific period or aspect of history. I’m just an all-round history buff, trying to educate and interest people in the parts of history which I find fascinating and exciting. Enjoy the article and feel free to post comments.

During the ‘blackpowder era’ of firearms warfare, battle on land could be terrifying, with cannons and shells and musket-balls flying all over the place, and sure it was terrifying, but try doing it two hundred miles out in the middle of the ocean onboard a rocking, rolling wooden warship where defeat meant drowning in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the English Channel. These were the very real dangers faced by sailors and marines of the British Royal Navy during the period from 1792 until 1815, starting with the French Revolution and ending with the end of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe in the mid 1810s. What was battle like, out on the high seas back then and what happened during and after battle?

Ships of the Period

The first, all-metal ships did not appear until the mid 19th century. Before then, all vessels were made of wood. A warship of the 1790s, as typified by the ‘Man-o’-War’, was a multi-decked, three-masted affair with cannons and ropes and sails and all manner of other things onboard. Ships were wind-powered by massive sails and Mother Nature. The majority of the construction was of wood hammered onto wooden frames, with the gaps between the wood filled in with pitch (a black, tarry substance) and oakum, which was the broken-down fibres of old ropes. Oakum and the pitch were absorbent and sticky; contact with water made the hulls of the ships (mostly) watertight. While ships were able to deliver considerable firepower from either their starboard (right) or larboard (left, later changed to ‘port’) ‘batteries’ of guns (cannons), they were very vulnerable to attack from the front or back. The front, consisting of the bowsprit and the strengthened, curved, angled hull, was harder to destroy with cannonfire, but the stern of the ship, where the Great Cabin (also called the captain’s cabin) was located, was about as weak as soggy tissue-paper. With big, glass windows and few cannons, the stern was the weak-point of all vessels of the period.

Weaponry

Weapons to be found on ships during the Age of Sail consisted of bladed weapons such as boarding-axes, cutlasses, rapiers, daggers and bayonets, and firearms, such as pistols, muskets, rifles (what few that there would have been), and blunderbusses. There were also the various classes of large guns (cannons). These guns were massive, iron beasts which fired a variety of shot (ammunition) at any enemy ships. Firearms of this period were all single-shot, flintlock or matchlock weapons. They were slow to reload and inaccurate beyond a few hundred yards, for the cannons, and a few dozen yards, for smaller firearms.

Clearing for Action

If you were a captain onboard a British Man-o’-War during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic wars, and you saw an enemy, French warship sailing towards you, you had two options. To either prepare for battle, or to high-tail it out of there. When escape was impossible (due to being unable to pick up enough speed, or from being out-gunned), the order would be given to ‘clear for action’, or to ‘beat to quarters’.

‘Beating to quarters’ literally meant beating on a drum. The drummer set the pace of how fast everyone was expected to move. On the order to beat to quarters or to clear for action, everyone was expected to be in their places as soon as possible. The surgeon and his mate and the loblolly-boy were roused or set on alert to recieve injured sailors. Powder-monkeys (young boys, or even women!) were sent down to the powder-magazine at the bottom of the ship to fetch up gunpowder, and cannons were loaded and readied for action. The captain ordered his officers around to make sure that everything went smoothly. Officers were in charge of such things as organising the firing of the guns, relaying orders and helping to move away injured sailors. At the start of battle, the ship’s colours (national flag) were raised on one of the masts, to clearly identify the nationality of the ship (in case of mistaken identity) and valuables were put safely away.

The Heat of Battle

A real naval engagement was a terrifying thing to be in on. While in movies it looks glamourous and exciting, there was very little glamour about all the smoke and blood and guts and bullets whizzing around everywhere. As the two combatant ships drew up alongside each other, they would attempt to broadside (fire their full complement of guns on one side of the vessel) each other to cause the most damage. Although they were simple machines, naval cannons could pack a mighty punch. A single cannonball could blast a hole in a ship big enough for a man to crawl through. During combat, more sailors died from their injuries or infections, than actually died from being struck by cannon-blasts. In most cases, it was not the cannonball which killed you. It was the thousands of splinters of wood which the cannonball blasted aside as it smashed into the ship, that would slice into your body like knives and kill you through infection.

Dozens of cannons going off all at once produced amazing amounts of smoke, and the noise was literally deafening. Shouted orders were useless in such chaos, so instead, bosuns (boatswains), issued commands to the sailors using “bosun’s pipes”, long, metallic whistles which were capable of letting out piercing, shrill notes, which could be heard through the battle.

How fast a ship could fire its guns (and possibly win a battle), was dependent on many things. First, the skill of the gun-crew. Cannons were incredibly heavy firearms and they took an amazing amount of muscle to operate properly. Secondly, came the speed of the powder-monkeys. Gunpowder for the cannons was stored in the powder-magazine at the very bottom of the ship. The magazine was a large, copper-lined room, below the waterline, where gunpowder was stored in sacks and barrels. The walls were lined with copper because copper didn’t spark, like iron did. Powder-monkeys (usually young boys) had to be very fast in running the powder from the magazine up to the gun-deck as quickly as they could, in a relay fashion, slinging their powder-kegs from one to the other, back and forth, up and down.


A gun-crew firing an 18-pounder cannon. From left to right: The powder-monkey (with his cylindrical powder-keg), the gun-captain (with the burning taper), and the four other members of his gun-crew, waiting to arrest the cannon when it begins its recoil, after firing.

Naval Surgery

Injuries from cannonfire could be horrific. Imagine having your arm blasted away by an 18-pound, solid iron cannonball, travelling fast enough to smash a hole in the side of a ship with bulkheads over a foot thick. Injured sailors were stretchered, carried or dragged from the gun-decks, to the infirmary at the back of the ship, near the Great Cabin. Here, the ship’s surgeon and the surgeon’s mate, together with the loblolly-boy (another assistant), had to look after and treat patients maimed by the battle upstairs. The treatments and surgery available, were mediocre at best and chances of survival or recovery varied wildly. Badly infected limbs would have to be amputated with a knife and hacksaw.

Bullets, shrapnel and other foreign bodies were removed from patients without anasthetic, the same for amputations. A surgeon was considered especially skilled if he could remove an arm or leg within two minutes. The only relief from the pain was lots of grog, or lots of laudanum (which is a mix of rum and opium). It was a kind of painkiller that dulled the pain and made the patient groggy, but it didn’t completely knock them out, so they could still feel a considerable level of pain. The surgeon’s quarters were often so drenched with blood, that he would pour sand (like what you find at the beach), onto the floorboards of his cabin and surgery, to soak up all the pints of blood which were spilling onto the floor and which caused a slipping-hazard.

Ships during the Napoleonic era would have had a surgeon and a mate. Note that: A surgeon. Not a doctor, a surgeon. Because so many of the injuries would have required amputation, it made more sense to have a surgeon onboard instead of a physician. Stephen Maturin in the “Aubrey & Maturin” series by Patrick O’Brian is a physician, and yet takes on the lesser position of surgeon onboard his friend’s ship, when he is in-search of a medical-man onboard his vessel.

The Weather Gage

One key factor in naval battles of the Age of Sail, was of course…the weather. Specifically the wind. How strong it was and in which direction it was blowing. Of course, the wind and its direction wasn’t the end-all of all battles, but it was certainly important. If the wind is blowing from north to south and there are two ships sailing side by side in an either easterly or westerly direction, the nothernmost ship is said to have the weather-gage. The direction of the wind means that it can easily sail away from an attacker, or sail southwards quickly, to engage the enemy. The southernmost ship, having to fight against the south-blowing winds, would have to trim (take in) sails to be able to move upwards to meet the attacking ship, which could, if it desired, sail away and disengage from the action.

This article is continued in Part II, below.

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. II)

 

The second part of my two-part post on sea-battles during the Age of Sail (1500s-mid 1800s).

Cannons and their Ammunition

In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, a warship’s main armaments, as typified by the frigate or Man-o’-War of the period, consisted of rows of cannons lined up on gun-decks inside the ship. While cannons such as these were simple to learn how to load and fire and operate in general, they were not easily worked, especially in the heat of battle, when a single cannon-blast might decide the outcome of an engagement. Cannons were massive, unwieldly, metallic beasts. Even the smallest of cannons, which fired roundshot of a weight of six pounds, could weigh several dozen pounds, not including the gun-carriage which the cannon rested on.

Firing a cannon was not a simple, one-man-presses-the-button operation back in the 1790s. It took skill, co-ordination and discipline to do it properly. Given their size and weight, it took several men to get a gun loaded and ready to fire. A typical gun-crew consisted of five men: a gun-captain, who was in charge of aiming and firing the gun, and four subordinates, who were in charge of loading the gun and running it out. When the enemy was sighted and the order was given to prepare the guns, this is how they were loaded:

1. The gun is charged with gunpowder, either loose gunpowder poured down the barrel with a special scoop, or a bag or pouch of gunpowder shoved down the barrel with a ramrod.

2. The gun is loaded with its ammunition. Depending on the size or type of ammo, it may need forcing down with a ramrod.

3. The charge and shot are wadded down with wadding (usually old, ripped up cloth), to prevent the ammunition from rolling out or moving unexpectedly.

4. The gun is primed and made ready to fire. On earlier cannons, this meant shoving a metal spike into the touch-hole at the top of the cannon-breech and feeding in either a burning match-cord (for a fuse), or a burning taper, to set off the charge. In later cannons, the gunlock (a type of flintlock firing-mechanism adapted for cannons) would be charged with powder and prepared to fire.

5. The gun is run out on its gun-carriage, pushing open the gun-port in the side of the ship. As cannons could weigh several hundred pounds, even when empty, running out a gun took a considerable amount of strength. Smaller guns could be pushed out by hand, but larger, 36 or 42-pounders would have to be winched out by ropes and pulleys, requiring the efforts of the entire, five-man gun-crew.

The order of ‘fire!’ is given. At this point, either the match-cord is lit, the taper is put to the touch-hole, or the lanyard operating the gunlock mechanism is pulled. The gunpowder explodes and propels the ammunition out of the muzzle, directly at the enemy. The recoil of the gun going off was significant. For safety reasons, sailors never stood directly behind a cannon, as the recoil could throw the gun back and either knock them over, or even worse, the wheels of the gun-carriage could roll over their shoes, crushing their feet! The ropes attached to the cannons didn’t just make it easier to run the cannons out, they controlled the powerful kick of the recoil, once the gun had discharged.

6. The gun is then swabbed with a sponge, to douse any embers inside the cannon, and the process from 1-5 is repeated all over again.

Cannons were simple to operate, even if they weren’t very easy to maneuver. But their simplicity-of-design allowed for a wide range of ammunition to be fired out of them, creating all kinds of hell for the enemy being fired at. While in theory, anything that could fit down the muzzle could be considered ammunition, there were several purposely-manufactured types of ammo which gun-crews used.

Roundshot. The classic, round, iron cannonball. These came in various sizes, the smallest being six pounds, the very largest being forty-two pounds. Roundshot was used to blast holes in the hulls of enemy ships. Roundshot was the mainstay of most battles, and the damage it could cause was considerable, to say the least. At thirty yards, roundshot from an 18-pounder cannon, could blast a hole straight through the hull of a ship three feet thick.

Hotshot. These days, someone who’s a ‘hotshot’ is someone who thinks he’s really skilled or effective at doing something. A little over 200 years ago, ‘hotshot’ was an actual type of ammunition! It is, as the name suggests, quite literally, ‘hot shot’. That is to say, a cannonball (roundshot), heated until it was smoking, red hot, before it was loaded into a cannon and fired at the enemy. Hotshot was both very effective and very dangerous, for obvious reasons. Hotshot required fires to heat the cannonballs red-hot. Onboard a sailing ship made of wood in the middle of the ocean, fire is the last thing you want. Hotshot was usually ‘baked’ on the galley stove, before being loaded into the cannon with a special scoop. Extra wadding was placed inside the cannon, to prevent the shot from setting off the gunpowder charge prematurely. Once loaded, the hotshot was fired just like any other cannonball, but with significantly more damage.

Once the ball had smashed through the enemy hull, it would roll around, too hot to touch. If it stopped anywhere for a long enough period of time, it would set the entire ship on fire, causing absolute chaos and distracting the enemy, probably long enough for you to blow the hell out of them.

Case-shot and grape-shot. Pretty-sounding names, aren’t they? Grape-shot. Sounds like a drink. Grape-shot and case-shot (more-or-less the same thing), consisted of several dozen musket-balls, chain-links, nails, bolts, shards of glass or whatever else you could find, shoved into a metal can (case) or into a cloth bag (grapeshot), and loaded into a cannon. When this was fired, it turned the cannon into one hell of a massive shotgun, spraying musket-balls (or other shrapnel) all over the place. It was particularly effective against groups of enemy soldiers or sailors, huddled together onshore or on the open deck of a ship.

Chainshot and bar-shot. Chainshot and bar-shot were two small cannonballs (or iron bars) linked by a length of chain and loaded into a cannon. Once fired out of the gun, the chain links unravelled, turning the shot into nothing short of a bolas from hell. Chainshot and bar-shot were particularly effective in slicing rigging (ropes), ripping sails to shreds, or dismasting an enemy ship. These whirring, whizzing necklaces of death could render a ship totally immovable once they had put the rigging and sails out of commission.

Explosive shell. The explosive shell was a hollow cannonball filled with gunpowder and stoppered with a match-cord fuse. Once the cannon was fired with this inside it, the ball would whizz through the air, the fuse (ignited by the gunpowder in the cannon) would burn until it reached the gunpowder inside the shell, blasting the thing open and sending metal everywhere.

Winning a Battle.

While cannons could pack a hell of a punch, it was a slow punch at best. To make the most use out of his cannons, the captain or commanding officer of the attacking ship, would be sure to target various weak-spots in the enemy ship, to get the biggest bang for his buck, so to speak. The four best places to shoot at were:

The rigging and the masts. Blowing them apart with chainshot and bar-shot rendered the enemy ship unable to move. You could now blow it to pieces as you wished.

The hull. Blowing holes in the enemy ship’s hull at, or below the waterline, would cause it to sink. Game over. While easy in theory, it took a fair bit of skill and timing to achieve successful destruction of a ship’s hull and make it sink. Most cannons could not be angled far down enough, to shoot into the hull on their own. They needed the help of the ship which they were mounted on. And the ship needed the help of Mother Nature.

On a ship rocking and rolling around at sea, if the ship was broadside to the waves, it would cause one side of the ship to be higher than the other, as it slid up and down the crests and troughs of each wave. Captains used this angling of their ships to their advantage, and would call out one of two orders, to fire ‘on the up-roll’ or ‘on the down-roll’. To fire on the ‘up-roll’ meant to fire when your side of the ship was angled upwards. Firing in this position meant that you could blow the masts off the enemy ship. On the other hand, firing on the ‘down-roll’ (when your side of the ship was angled downwards), meant that you could send your shot down, closer to the waterline, blasting holes in the enemy’s hull and sinking it.

The quarterdeck. The quarterdeck was the main deck of most ships and on smaller ships, it was also the gun-deck. Shooting at this area with case-shot and grape, would kill several dozen sailors, allowing you to board (if you wished) without fear of immediate attack.

The stern. Ships of the Napoleonic era (and before) were notoriously vulnerable at the stern, where there were few cannons to protect it, and where there were large windows, letting light into the captain’s cabin. This lack of protection allowed the attacking ship to destroy the enemy in absolutely horrific ways, if they could pull it off successfully. To successfully attack the stern of another frigate, you had to execute the maneuver known as ‘crossing the T’, where your long axis crossed the enemy’s short axis at the stern. You then had to carry out the firing-procedure known as ‘raking’. Raking fire was devastating, to say the least. It worked like this:

As each of your cannons passed the stern of the enemy, the gun-captain or officer in charge, would yell out the order: “Fire as you bear!”, which meant to discharge your cannon when you sailed past the enemy stern. This sent your shot smashing through the back windows of the ship and right down through the middle of it, destroying cannons, ripping through masts and killing and maiming enemy sailors, who had nowhere to run. Firing at the stern could also disable the enemy’s steering which meant they couldn’t come about (turn around) to face you, broadside-to-broadside, and give you a payback round. Firing at the stern could also sink the ship, leading to a decisive victory in your favour.

During battle, there were three basic outcomes: Sinking, burning or boarding.

Sinking a ship invovled blowing its hull to pieces and then leaving it (and the crew) to drown. Any sailors you picked up would become prisoners of war.

Burning a ship (either with hotshot or flaming torches) meant that it would turn into a massive, floating fireball, probably killing most people onboard.

Boarding a ship involved coming up alongside it, throwing grappling-hooks over the side and swinging over, onto the enemy ship. Boarding-parties (led by officers or the captain), could be ensured of heavy, close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat with enemy sailors. Weapons included muskets, bayonets, daggers, cutlasses and pistols. If you were lucky, you could beat the enemy and take his ship intact, as a prize (for which you could be handsomely and richly rewarded).

Winning a battle at sea was a great triumph for you and your men, and a great shame and dishonour to the enemy. An official surrender or defeat was recognised when the enemy captain surrendered his sword to either the attacking captain, or the attacking officer in command. Another way of surrendering was to ‘strike colours’. ‘Striking your colours’ was the action of lowering the naval flag of the country which your ship was a part of. Continuing to fight after the striking of colours was considered dishonourable, cowardly and above all…a serious crime.

Myths and Legends of the Fountain Pen

 

There are several myths, legends and beliefs (mistaken or otherwise), about the love of my life; the fountain pen. Here, I will try to answer or debunk some of these assumptions and confusions.

1. Fountain pens leak.

No they don’t. No good fountain pen will ever leak. I can understand where people get this impression from – fountain pens are delicate instruments filled with water-based ink. They HAVE to leak, right!? Well…no, they don’t, actually. You see, in the earliest days of fountain pen invention, yes, leakages were very common. This caused pen-manufacturers around the world to refine, alter and improve the fountain pen to such a level that it doesn’t leak at all. The very design of the pen was so that it would not leak. As a result, no functional, good-quality fountain pen will leak.

“But I can see ink on the nib!” you might say.

Yes, you might see this. But this is not classified as leaking. A real, leaking pen will have great drops or smudges of ink dribbling out of it. Ink on the nib is called ‘nib-creep’ (yes, that is the actual term for it). Nib-creep is caused by minute imperfections in the cutting of the nib-tines, and by various brands of fountain pen inks. As I explained in “Natural, Inky Goodness”, fountain pens work by gravity and capillary action. If the slit in the pen-nib is cut poorly, and there are rough spots in it, ink is liable to seek out these spots and seep out of the slit and go all over the nib. This does not damage the pen, nor is it a sign of a poorly functioning pen, it just means that the slit of your pen needs smoothing to prevent this. If you can’t be bothered sending your pen away to a repairman to do this, then I suggest trying a different brand of ink.

2. Fountain pens can’t be used on airplanes.

There is a “Yes” and “No” kind of answer. The concern here is that the pen will leak while you’re up in the air, due to pressure-differences (remember how I said air-pressure regulates inkflow?). So…Does a fountain pen leak in an airplane? Yes, if it’s not cared for properly. Can you safely use a fountain pen in an airplane? Yes, provided you take a couple of very simple precautions.

“What are they?” you ask.

The answer is suprisingly simple. To prevent the pen from leaking during ascent or descent of the aircraft, you must keep the pen in a nib-up position. This means capping the pen and keeping it point-facing-upwards during takeoff and landing. This is best-done by keeping the pen clipped to your shirt-pocket or keeping it vertically inside your coat-pocket during these times. Doing this keeps ink away from the nib and prevents leakage. It allows free-flow of AIR during the pressure-changes, without the chance of ink dribbling out of the nib.

Once airborne and safely at cruising altitude, it is perfectly safe to take out your fountain pen and fill in the crossword on that long, 18-hour flight from London to Singapore. Just remember to keep the pen capped, and nib-up when not in use. Also, ignore people who tell you that fountain pens DO NOT leak on planes. Believe me, they do. It’s happened to me, but only because I was stupid. The tip about keeping the pen nib-up when it is not in use is a failsafe technique for preventing this kind of catastrophe.

3. Gold nibs are better than steel nibs.

Yes and no. This myth surfaced back in the old days, probably during WWII. During the war, steel was an important metal in the American and British war-efforts, so fountain pen nibs were all made of gold. In Japan, gold was seen as an important war-material (why, I don’t know), but it caused Japanese pen-manufacturers to make their nibs out of steel. Unfortunately, stainless-steel had not been fully developed at that time, which caused the steel nibs on Japanese pens to rust. Gold, being a largely unresponsive metal, doesn’t rust in contact with the water-based ink of fountain pens, so it was naturally the better metal to make nibs from. In this respect, yes, gold is better than steel. Or at least, it was true back then. Now in the 21st century, there really is no difference, since stainless steel doesn’t rust like its WWII predecessor did.

“But is there any difference in writing feel or quality?” you might ask.

Some say ‘yes’, some say ‘no’. Certainly, gold looks a hell of a lot nicer, but does it really affect the writing-quality? No. In this respect, a gold nib is just as good as a steel nib. The ONLY place where this might make a difference, is when you have a fountain pen with a flexible nib. Gold, being a softer metal, flexes and bends more comfortably and smoothly than a steel nib, which is more rigid and firm.

4. You can use any kind of liquid ink in a fountain pen.

Absolutely not! ONLY…and…ONLY fountain pen ink should be put into a fountain pen. Do not try Indian ink, powdered ink, Chinese ink or iron-gall ink (especially not IGI, because it has shellac and other nasty things inside it, which will destroy your pen entirely) in your fountain pen. Fountain pen ink is about 99% water, with specially-developed pigments inside it, to give it whatever special and distinctive colour it has. This is the only thing you should put into your pen (that, or water). Ink from manufacturers such as Parker (Quink), Sheaffer (Skrip), Waterman, Montblanc, Lamy, Visconti, Private Reserve or Noodlers is generally safe to use (steer away from Montblanc blue/black, though; that has shellac in it and it may not be 100% advisable to use this ink).

5. Fountain pens can shoot ink incredible distances!

A staple of slapstick cartoon comedy since the 1930s, is the scene where a character grabs a fountain pen (usually a lever-filler), and opens the lever in the pen-barrel, to eject a stream of ink into his adversary’s face, drenching him in blue liquid. Or maybe you watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and saw Sean Connery squirt his enemy with a pen full of black ink. Can a fountain pen do this in real life?

Yes, and no. Can a fountain pen squirt ink? Yes, depending on the type of filling-system. Squeeze-fillers and some lever-fillers can actually do this rather effectively. Can fountain pens squirt ink considerable distances? No. The ‘range’ of ink-squirtage is actually rather pathetic if you care to try it in real life. You’d be lucky to get a couple of feet, or even twelve inches, if you were really lucky.

6. If someone else takes your fountain pen and writes with it, it’ll permanently damage it and you won’t be able to use it anymore.

You’d be surprised how many people still believe this. It is FALSE. The fear here, is that if you have a fountain pen, and a friend borrows it, even for two micro-seconds, to jot down a phone-number, the nib will be irrepairably shaped to his hand and that this’ll somehow damage the nib. Or alternatively, you can’t let someone use your fountain pen because the nib has grown ‘used to’ your hand and that anyone else using the pen will damage the nib.

100% bupkiss.

YES, a fountain pen’s nib WILL wear down as you write with it. YES, a fountain pen MIGHT ‘mould’ itself to your hand and your particular style of writing. But NO, this doesn’t mean you can’t let someone use your pen and fear that he’ll alter its writing characteristics. It takes DECADES of DAILY, INTENSE WRITING to wear down a fountain pen nib. A five-second jaunt in someone else’s hand is unlikely to damage it, unless they press the nib into the paper like a ballpoint pen (which will cause the nib to break!) or if they slam it into the paper, causing the tines to bow and break.

Feel free to post questions and pester me with other fountain pen myths or legends that you might be interested in, and I’ll try and answer them.

“Natural, Inky Goodness: The Joy of the Fountain Pen”

 

In this day of high-speed internet-access, ipods, iphones, PCs, laptops and blackberries, it may come as a shock to many, that there are still weirdos out there who write stuff by hand. You know, with a pen, on a piece of paper? What manner of people are these who would subject their delicate digits and palms to such torture and who *gasp!* even gain some sort of masochistic pleasure out of it?

Well, I happen to be one of them, so I’ll try and provide an answer.

As a writer (albeit an unpublished one), I do a great deal of pen-pushing every single day, and my choice as my instrument of torture is the subject of this article; the classic, gold-nibbed, ink-filled fountain pen. What? Yes they still exist! Yes, people still make them, and what’s more, there are still people who use them, such as myself. I love fountain pens!

My reasons for loving them are perhaps not always obvious or understandable to others, but here I will try and explain my affection for these archaic ink-splatterers and why I choose them over some sort of more modern writing apparatus.

The first reason is that fountain pens are functional history. They last for decades, centuries, even. Think for a moment, of all the great novels written with fountain pens, think of all the great and famous documents signed with them, drafted with them, written with them. The Instruments of Surrender for WWI and WWII were all signed with fountain pens from leading pen-manufacturers, such as Parker and Waterman, with designs just as famous as the companies themselves. The last ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the 1920s, during the last years of his life, were all written with a very famous fountain pen called the Parker Duofold. Fountain pens last for decades and, with proper maintenance, can last for decades more. As an avid collector of fountain pens, I can firmly and safely say that a fountain pen made 80 years ago writes just as well today as it did back in 1922.

My second reason for liking fountain pens is the sheer uniqueness of them. How many people out there still use fountain pens? Probably not many. Using a fountain pen sets you apart from the crowd. It makes you different, unique, special. Unfortunately in the modern world, using a fountain pen also means that you have to be a filthy-rich snob who happens to be a doctor, lawyer, judge or Donald Trump. So a fountain pen makes me look like a rich snob, does it? That’s just yet another reason to use one! They make you look good! And everyone wants to look good.

My third reason for using fountain pens also happens to be the chief reason why I don’t use ballpoint pens. Variety. Or, lack of variety, when it comes to ballpoints. A ballpoint pen is bland, boring, yawn-inducing and about as eye-catching as a plank of wood. It’s plain, utilitarian, boring and comes in only four ink-colours – Blue, red, black and green. A fountain pen, by comparison, comes in more varieties than Heinz, Skittles and Smarties combined. Countless shades of inks to write out an entire rainbow, a million different pen-designs, manufacturing materials and dozens of nib-styles to create almost any kind of script imaginable. The loopy, narrow-wide roundhand script of the American Declaration of Independence would be impossible to write with a ballpoint pen, but perfectly achievable with a fountain pen with a flexible nib.

On the surface, the fourth reason doesn’t seem to make much sense, but once I’m done, I think it should make about as much sense as to why you don’t make teapots out of chocolate.

Cost is the fourth reason why I use a fountain pen over another writing instrument. Yes, I know, fountain pens can be expensive. Them being expensive surely means that they can’t possibly be cost-effective, can they? Well, yes they can.

A ballpoint pen costs $1. For that one dollar, you get a pen that’s non-refillable, that’s ugly, that writes like a hammer and chisel, and which causes cramps and frustration and which you’ll never use until it’s out of ink, anyway. Most likely, you’ll chuck it out into the bin where it’ll eventually end up in landfill, its disgusting, pastey ink leeching into the groundwater. Yum!

A decent fountain pen can be got for around 20-40 dollars. For this money, you have something that will LITERALLY last your whole life. You have something that’s light, comfortable, easy to use, stylish, smooth, refillable and which you’ll be proud to pass onto your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (should you live that long!). A bottle of ink costs $20 and for twenty bucks, you have 50ml of ink in a glass bottle (that’s recyclable!), which will last for two, three, maybe even four years, before you need to buy another one (this is based on personal experience). You buy your first fountain pen say, at the age of 18 when you’ve just left school. 70 years later, you could use that pen to write out your will, with almost no environmental impact (this is for the greenies out there. Think about this, people!) and with major plusses in the pleasure-department. Fountain pens are looking significantly more appealing now, aren’t they?

The fifth and final reason for selecting a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen or indeed, even a rollerball pen, is the most practical reason of all. Sheer writing pleasure and comfort. I’ve heard several people describe writing with a fountain pen as being ‘unique’, ‘a joy’, ‘effortless’, ‘stress-reducing’, hell, even ‘erotic’. There HAS to be something there that’s good, for people to say such wonderful things, right?

Well of course there is. And here, in a nutshell, is that goodness. A fountain pen is just purely a better writing instrument. Both on a technical level, a comfort level and a medical level, and it all boils down to the fact that fountain pens were made to be comfortable writing instruments to begin with. It is built into their very design.

A ballpoint pen works by pressure, and pressure alone. You need to PRESS the pen-point into the paper to create the FRICTION to rotate the ball to pick up the ink to press it into the paper to create the lines. Without pressing, you don’t rotate the ball, you don’t get ink. How long could you write comfortably under these conditions? A few lines? A couple of paragraphs? More than a page? I doubt it.

A fountain pen, by comparison, works purely by the force of gravity and literally nothing else. No pressing, no forcing, no exertion at all, on your part, except mental exercise. Fountain pen ink is mostly water. Not paste. So, it flows, under gravity, under its own weight, through the pen. Simple air-pressure and capillary action is all that is needed to regulate the flow of ink. No pressing needed at all. The weight of the pen concentrating all that weight into the tip of the pen-nib means that you don’t have to add any additional pressure, which means all your efforts can be directed to WRITING instead of digging the Western Front into your notepad. Don’t believe me? Try this test. Get a ballpoint pen and rest the point on a sheet of paper and the barrel between your thumb and index-finger. Push it and pull it along the page. At best, you’ll get a broken line of faint ink. Try the same thing with a fountain pen and you’ll get a nice, strong, even line of ink which never skips or breaks. I’ve done this myself, and yes, it does work.

Given all these wonderful traits, it’s obvious that a fountain pen is a significantly better writing instrument. Do you do a lot of writing? Are you a student in highschool or university? Are you a working-man or woman who writes reports and fills out forms all day? Buy a fountain pen. They’re smoother, more comfortable, more stylish and more cost-effective in the long-run. As a testament to how comfortable these things are, I wrote the entire four-and-a-half page draft for this post with a fountain pen with hardly any wrist-cramps or strains at all. If you have those symptoms, chuck out the Bic Cristal and buy yourself a Waterman Harmonie.

Cheers!

Shahan Cheong

The Front – A Short Story

 

The Front

By Shahan Cheong

Bertie staggered through the mud of the communication-trench, trying not to trip over the dead bodies, scraps of wood and metal and the occasional loose duckboard. It was getting dark quickly now, and Bertie didn’t fancy being caught outside in the middle of the night. He felt his way through the mazes of trenches rather than saw, since he had only the light of the rapidly setting sun to guide him, with no lamps or fires being allowed out in the trenches after dark. He reached a T-intersection in the trenches. To his left, he heard some men softly singing some sort of anti-German propaganda-song and some muffled laughter. He turned right and kept going, his boots clunking on the sodden duckboards beneath him.

“Bertie!” a voice called out, “I say Bertie! Is that you?”

The young soldier stopped and carefully looked around. He could see, in the dim light, sheets of canvas hanging over the openings into dugouts, but he wasn’t sure from behind which canvas the voice which had spoken his name, had called from.

“Hello?” he whispered. Then he saw a pair of eyes peeping out from the small space between a dugout opening and the canvas that hung over it. The eyes saw a man about five feet, seven inches tall, with a steel helmet on top and wearing the brown, khaki uniform of the British Army. The eyes saw that he was young, in his early twenties, with brown hair and a thin, long face with eyes that darted around, trying to locate the voice which had spoken to it.

“Bertie!” the voice hissed again. Bertie looked to his left and saw the canvas cover of the dugout move a bit. Bertie crept forward.
“Is that you, Rollo?” Bertie asked. Bertram Small, twenty-three, crept towards the canvas covering which hung over the dugout and pushed it aside. It was Rollo.

Rollo was Bertie’s partner, his trench-buddy, his friend. They’d been friends ever since school, and when the war started, both of them had enlisted in the army to go off to the trenches and fight. Rollo’s real name was Harold Greene. He was a bit taller than Bertie, with lighter hair and paler skin. Rollo reached out and tugged Bertie into the dugout, and then let the canvas drop back again, to block out the light of the oil-lamp standing on a folding table at the back of their dugout. Bertie groaned and crawled into bed.
“Got the time, Bertie?” Rollo asked.
“Nine thirty,” said Bertie, handing his friend his pocket-watch.
“Thanks! My watch stopped…There we are!” he said, winding up his watch and resetting the time. “Well…goodnight old chap! Big day tomorrow!”

Bertie yawned. Don’t remind me, he thought. Don’t remind me!

The next day dawned cold and frosty. Bertie and Rollo shivered in their rickety camp-beds. Bertie yawned and rolled over.

Squeak!

‘Squeak?’ Bertie thought. ‘Squeak’ what?
Then he saw the rat.

“Blast it!” he groaned. He reached out and grabbed the rodent by the tail before it could run away. He crawled out of bed and tugged back the canvas covering and threw the rat out into the muck of No Man’s Land before coming back inside. Bertie sat down on his bed, changed his socks, which he had to do at least twice a day, to fight off the dreaded ‘Trench Foot’, and put on his other pair of boots (he had two pairs of boots. If one pair was soaked and unusable, he could switch to the other pair and use those until the original had dried out again). He got up and dressed. He didn’t dress much, as he went to sleep in his uniform, but he put on his jacket, did up his watch and chain, wrapped a scarf around his neck and reached for his rifle. Rollo yawned and started dressing, too.

Washing was impossible in the trenches. While there was no shortage of water, little of it was fit to drink and even less fit for washing, so most men just woke up, dressed, ate breakfast and started shooting. Breakfast was hard-tack, porridge, sausages and bread; nothing particularly tasty, but at least filling.

“Right lads,” said the colonel, as the boys ate in the trenches, sitting on old crates or on fire-steps, “Today’s an all-out assault. We’ve had good luck so far, but today, we’re going to use that luck to actually do something! Here’s the order of attack: We’ll open with a quick artillery barrage. You men will get in position on the front line. Remember to spread out, so you don’t make such a big target, crossing No Man’s Land. Stick to small groups of two and three. The tanks go out first. When I give the signal, you chaps move out and stick behind the tanks. Those tanks are your moving shield! You don’t stick a finger out from behind them unless you have to! You shoot diagonally away from the tanks, instead of straight ahead, that way, you’re still covered. As you make your way across, airplanes will be overhead. Their job is to provide you cover from the air. Don’t run ahead of the tanks, if you do, you’ll be hit by friendly fire. Once the first wave of planes has done its work, you boys can go ahead. But move slowly and make good use of cover”.

The colonel tugged out his pocket-watch to check the time.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” he said, “up to the front, now! Pick your partner and make sure you can get over the parapet easily. I want three ranks in each trench, ready to move out!”

“Come on, Rollo,” said Bertie, and the two friends headed through the trenches along with everyone else. They lined up in front of the fire-step with their fellow soldiers and then heard more soldiers gather up behind them in another two rows.

Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!

They could hear the far-off, muffled reports of British artillery guns opening fire and every few seconds, the corresponding blast of a shell hitting the ground somewhere far away in the direction of the enemy lines. A new sound could be heard now, the sound of constant, mechanical movement; a steady, rumbling, clattering sound. Tanks started rumbling forward. Not two or three, but entire rows of them, maybe ten or a dozen at a time! Large tanks for firepower, and smaller tanks for better mobility.
The colonel blew his whistle. Bertie took a deep breath and then scrambled over the top.

What lay before him was No Man’s Land. Hundreds of square yards, square miles, even, of hell on earth. All he could see was a mess of tree-stumps, shell-craters, broken rifles, dead bodies, deceptively deep rain-puddles, blood, mud, rocks, rats and the shattered remains of other, earlier, failed attacks, from both sides. Here and there lay the wreckage of the occasional downed aircraft, its wings snapped off until the fuselage looked like little more than a coffin on wheels with a propeller attached to it. The morning sun shone weakly through the clouds; smoke from the artillery barrage obscured the sight. In the distance, Bertie could see the barbed wire of the German lines, which looked rolls of grey cotton-wool with the smoke-haze from the artillery-barrage still swirling around it.

Rollo tapped Bertie on the shoulder, “Come on, Bert!” he said, “We need to keep moving! Over here!”

The two men joined about four others and hid behind one of the tanks, firing out from behind them at an angle so that they would present less of a target to the enemy. Inside the tank, it was deafeningly loud. The tank-crew fired their belt-fed machine-guns and fired off tank-rounds at the enemy wire, trying to blast holes in the German defences. The sound of whistles being blown alerted Bertie to the fact that the Germans had decided not to sit in their trenches and wait for death to find them. They poured over the tops and went running and jumping from crater to crater across the mire of No Man’s Land.

Banding together, the men behind the tanks fired at their enemies, their rifles making sharp, loud reports which stood out in amazing contrast to the constant, chunnering and metallic rattling of the machine-guns. Crack! Crack, crack, crack! The sporadic rifle-fire split the air like snapping branches.

The tanks kept advancing, trying to pick their way through the shell-blasted ground on which they drove, twisting and turning around craters which yawned open to greet them. It was like driving through a minefield, except without the possibility of the bottom of the tank being blown out, just having the entire thing hopelessly bogged in the mud.

The collective stenches of gunpowder, smoke, exhaust-fumes and burning petrol hung in the air like invisible feathers, floating down to earth, floating down to hover annoyingly, like bees, at the same level as soldiers’ noses. Bertie hacked and coughed and tried to clear his throat and get the smell of burning out of his nostrils. He kept firing! Crack! Crack! Two more soldiers of the German army to be replaced.

Crack! Whing!

Bertie’s hand flew up to his helmet and felt around. Nothing. The bullet had ricocheted off into…only God knew where. This was getting too bloody warm, Bertie thought. Apparently Rollo thought the same, because he tugged on Bertie’s sleeve.

“Down here!” Rollo shouted through the ceaseless gunfire and the occasional deafening, ground-shaking blast from artillery cannons, from far behind the front lines, “We’ll be smaller targets!”

Bertie and Rollo jumped into a crater. Then they heard the loud, discordant ‘chreeeeep!’ of the colonel’s whistle. For half a second, they dared to look behind them, and both boys saw dozens, maybe hundreds more soldiers wearing the brown uniform of the British Army, marching and picking and stumbling their way through the muck towards them. Bringing up the rear was the C.O. He jumped carefully from shell-hole to shell-hole as if he was playing some weird game of wartime hopscotch.

‘Clunk!’

Somewhere behind the German lines, an artillery-gun fired off its round. Bertie looked up and saw the long, black, phallic shape of the artillery round speeding towards them! Bertie let out a yelp of terror and the two men stumbled, tumbled and tripped over each other in their haste to escape the rapidly descending bringer of certain doom.

WHAM!

The shell slammed into the ground and Bertie felt himself being blasted off his feet! He heard the shrill chirrup of a whistle and gruff, German voices. He heard the words:

“Schnell!” and “schiessen!” and Bertie rolled quickly into another hole, only just in time! A second later, he heard the steady, metallic clattering of a machine-gun close at hand.
“Bloody hell!” Rollo said. He tugged something out of his pocket, a grenade. He tugged out the pin and counted. One, two, three…

He lobbed the grenade through the air and covered his ears, waiting for the blast. It came almost instantly! Screams could be heard and Rollo started throwing more grenades towards the German trenches. A few more men dived into the shell-hole and started throwing their own grenades at the enemy. One or two might miss, but it was impossible for so many men, in the crowded space of a front-line trench, to escape a hail of six or more grenades coming down at once!

A high pitched whistle could be heard overhead and the group of men covered their ears. Bertie could hear the rumbling of a tank over the shriek of the falling shell, a deafening explosion…and then the reassuring, almost comforting sound of a tank’s engine, was no more. He peeped over the crater and swore!

The artillery shell had scored a direct hit on the tank and had blasted it open like the top of a sardine can! Shards of useless metal lay everywhere and smoke billowed out of the shattered machine. A door opened and a couple of surviving men staggered out, coughing violently. Bertie could smell burning petrol and within minutes, the tank was on fire!

“Blast!” Rollo said, “Bertie let’s get the hell out of here!”
“But…”
“Do you REALLY want to be around once that fire reaches the ammunition?”
“Point taken,” Bertie said, “Come on chaps!”
Harold and Bertram jumped out of the shell-hole with about four or five other men behind them. They realised their earlier grenade attack had produced the unintended bonus of knocking a machine-gun nest out of commission. Airplanes up above had bombed the barbed wire, which had also been blasted apart by tank-cannons and friendly artillery fire. With reinforcements coming in from the rear, the men picked a likely spot in the wire and pushed through.

Enemy soldiers in the front-line trenches surged out and Bertie and his friends retreated, forming ranks and firing instinctively. The men pushed forward, with other soldiers throwing grenades over their fellow Tommies heads, to give them a better chance once they were in the trenches.

“You boys, over here!” Bertie could hear the colonel shouting, “Through here, quick! Move fast, forget your rifles! Shotguns! Where are you chaps? Perkins, get into that nest and stay there, blast anything you can find to shoot at!”

Bertie and Rollo found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers. Bertie had discarded his rifle, which was useless in such an event, anyway, and had resorted to using his combat-knife instead, swinging and stabbing. He thought about how much he wished he had a sword right about now. A sword provided the sharpness necessary to finish off the Boche, but also a reassuring distance from your target to lessen the chances of counterattacks.

With a final grunt, Bertie downed his attacker and he joined his fellows who were now pouring into the trenches! Up above, allied aircraft with the RFC roundels on their wings strafed and bombed everything that moved which wasn’t dressed in a British uniform.

Fighting in the trenches was tricky at best. The soldiers were reduced to side-arms, daggers and trench-knives. More soldiers with shotguns ran along the tops of the trenches, firing down into them, spraying the enemy with lethal blasts of buckshot. Suddenly, Bertie felt something hot and painful! He gasped as he felt something warm and sticky on his uniform and stared down. Blood, warm, red, life-giving, life-taking, terrifying-to-look-at, blood, was slowly staining his shirt a darker and darker shade of brown. He felt no pain anymore now…it seemed to be gone as quickly as it had come. Everything seemed to have gone. Everything was quiet and in slow-motion. Bertie gasped and collapsed against the side of the trench and his eyes rolled into his head…

*

“You ah’right, laddie?”

Bertie opened his eyes. Where was he? The first thing he was aware of was an intense, bright, sterile whiteness. He was in heaven. Yes…Heaven was white. It would, wouldn’t it be? Up with all those fluffy clouds and all that? Yes…heaven…

“Come on laddie! Wake up!”

Bertie coughed, yawned, blinked and opened his eyes again. A middle-aged man with a moustache was standing over him. Bertie cleared his throat.

“Where am I? Who are you!?” he asked. His voice seemed weak, quavery, completely unlike his usual steady one.

“Easy lad,” said the man. Bertie now noticed that the man, whoever he was, had a strong Scottish accent.

“My name is Dr. Francis McKenna, you’re in no danger, laddie…”

Bertie’s hearing seemed to tune out for a second. He didn’t hear what the doctor was saying. He stared about the place. Everything was white and clean. White sheets, white paint, shiny steel rails, and nurses in neat blue-grey and white uniforms. At least, he thought they were nurses. He looked back at Dr. McKenna, who was wearing a black suit. He had a thick, brown moustache and he fiddled a lot with the Double Albert watch-chain on his waistcoat.

“…and you’re being invalided back to England…” Dr. McKenna said. “Now you just relax!”

“Bertie!”

Bertie turned to see a figure in a brown uniform hobbling towards him. Harold waved and grinned. Bertie noticed he was limping and was moving around on crutches.

“Rollo!” Bertie said. “What happened to you?”
“Broke my blasted leg is what happened!” said Rollo, “Damned nuisance, those shoddy Kraut ladders are. Nearly at the top and ‘crack!’ down I go, eight feet! Hurt like Billy-O, but I’ll be alright. You just need to relax!”
“I don’t know” Bertie groaned, “where am I, Rollo? What’s happening?”

“You’re on His Majesty’s Hospital Ship, the Glenart Castle, my dear,” said a female voice. The two men turned to see a large, plump, homely woman in her forties coming towards them. She had dark brown curly hair and a double-chin.
“My name’s Susan, I’m the matron here…”
“How long have we been at sea?” Bertie asked.
“Not left port yet!” said Susan, chuckling. “Still in Cherbourg! From what I hear, young Mr. Small, you were out of it for quite a bit! That bullet must’ve given you a very nasty turn…Aaah, but you’ll patch up alright. I’ll send Millie in with somethin’ to eat! You boys settle down. Mr. Greene, you really should not be moving around on that leg of yours. It’ll only get worse if you try and do it once we’re out at sea, you know!”
“Sorry, matron,” said Rollo.
“Sit down before you fall down, and I’ll go get Millie,” said the matron.

“After we got in, you got hit by a chap behind you. He was aiming for another man but he missed and got you instead. I saw you go down like a ton of bricks!…”

Bertie looked at his friend, “What happened next? Did we win?”
“Did we ever!” said Rollo, grinning, “We did! We got that whole trench-system! I got this leg falling down a ladder when I was goin’ back to tell others what’d happened. They stretchered you out of the trench and they put us both on the same train out of that hell-hole to this place! You got treated a bit on the train, me too, they did a bit more once we reached here and that was it. They gave you so much laudanum and morphine to stop the pain you were barely conscious at all. No wonder you don’t remember nothin’. But not to worry! Another few days and we’ll be back in London! And here’s Millie with some sandwiches and tea…thank God…”

The End


HMHS Glenart Castle