By David W. Bone
Those who understand something of a sailor’s feeling for his ship will appreciate the restraint with which Captain Bone describes the loss of the Cameronia, his command, torpedoed in the Mediterranean during the War. You will notice (forgive us for pointing out these things) how quietly the quoted title pays tribute to the gallantry of the destroyers that stood by the sinking ship; and the heroism of the chief officer’s death is not less moving because told in two sentences. This superb picture of a sea tragedy is taken from Merchantmen-at-Arms, a history of the British Merchants’ Service during the War; a book of enthralling power and truth, illustrated by the author’s brother, Muirhead Bone, one of the greatest of living etchers.
David William Bone was born in Partick (near Glasgow) in 1873; his father was a well-known Glasgow journalist; his great-grandfather was a boyhood companion of Robert Burns. Bone went to sea as an apprentice in the City of Florence, an old-time square-rigger, at the age of fifteen; he has been at sea ever since. He is now master of S.S. Columbia of the Anchor Line, a well-known ship in New York Harbor, as she has carried passengers between the Clyde and the Hudson for more than twenty years. Captain Bone’s fine sea tale, The Brass-bounder, published in 1910, has become a classic of the square-sail era; his Broken Stowage (1915) is a collection of shorter sea sketches. In the long roll of great writers who have reflected the simplicity and severity of sea life, Captain Bone will take a permanent and honorable place.
A SENSE of security is difficult of definition. Largely, it is founded upon habit and association. It is induced and maintained by familiar surroundings. On board ship, in a small world of our own, we seem to be contained by the boundaries of the bulwarks, to be sailing beyond the influences of the land and of other ships. The sea is the same we have known for so long. Every item of our ship fitment—the trim arrangement of the decks, the set and rake of mast and funnel, even the furnishings of our cabins—has the power of impressing a stable feeling of custom, normal ship life, safety. It requires an effort of thought to recall that in their homely presence we are endangered. Relating his experiences after having been mined and his ship sunk, a master confided that the point that impressed him most deeply was when he went to his room for the confidential papers and saw the cabin exactly in everyday aspect—his longshore clothes suspended from the hooks, his umbrella standing in a corner as he had placed it on coming aboard.
Soldiers on service are denied this aid to assurance. Unlike us, they cannot carry their home with them to the battlefields. All their scenes and surroundings are novel; they may only draw a reliance and comfort from the familiar presence of their comrades. At sea in a ship there is a yet greater incitement to their disquiet. The movement, the limitless sea, the distance from the land, cannot be ignored. The atmosphere that is so familiar and comforting to us, is to many of them an environment of dread possibilities.
It is with some small measure of this sense of security—tempered by our knowledge of enemy activity in these waters—we pace the bridge. Anxiety is not wholly absent. Some hours past, we saw small flotsam that may have come from the decks of a French mail steamer, torpedoed three days ago. The passing of the derelict fittings aroused some disquiet, but the steady routine of our progress and the constant friendly presence of familiar surroundings has effect in allaying immediate fears. The rounds of the bridge go on—the writing of the log, the tapping of the glass, the small measures that mark the passing of our sea-hours. Two days out from Marseilles—and all well! In another two days we should be approaching the Canal, and then—to be clear of ‘submarine waters’ for a term. Fine weather! A light wind and sea accompany us for the present, but the filmy glare of the sun, now low, and a backward movement of the glass foretells a break ere long. We are steaming at high speed to make the most of the smooth sea. Ahead, on each bow, our two escorting destroyers conform to the angles of our zigzag—spurring out and swerving with the peculiar “thrown-around” movement of their class. Look-out is alert and in numbers. Added to the watch of the ship’s crew, military signalers are posted; the boats swung outboard have each a party of troops on guard.
An alarmed cry from aloft—a half-uttered order to the steersman—an explosion, low down in the bowels of the ship, that sets her reeling in her stride!
The upthrow comes swiftly on the moment of impact. Hatches, coal, a huge column of solid water go skyward in a hurtling mass to fall in torrent on the bridge. Part of a human body strikes the awning spars and hangs—watch-keepers are borne to the deck by the weight of water—the steersman falls limply over the wheel with blood pouring from a gash on his forehead…. Then silence for a stunned half-minute, with only the thrust of the engines marking the heartbeats of the stricken ship.
Uproar! Most of our men are young recruits: they have been but two days on the sea. The torpedo has gone hard home at the very weakest hour of our calculated drill. The troops are at their evening meal when the blow comes, the explosion killing many outright. We had counted on a proportion of the troops being on the deck, a steadying number to balance the sudden rush from below that we foresaw in emergency. Hurrying from the mess-decks as enjoined, the quick movement gathers way and intensity: the decks become jammed by the pressure, the gangways and passages are blocked in the struggle. There is the making of a panic—tuned by their outcry, “God! O God! O Christ!” The swelling murmur is neither excited nor agonized—rather the dull, hopeless expression of despair.
The officer commanding troops has come on the bridge at the first alarm. His juniors have opportunity to take their stations before the struggling mass reaches to the boats. The impossibility of getting among the men on the lower decks makes the military officers’ efforts to restore confidence difficult. They are aided from an unexpected quarter. The bridge-boy makes unofficial use of our megaphone. “Hey! Steady up you men doon therr,” he shouts. “Ye’ll no’ dae ony guid fur yersels croodin’ th’ ledders!”
We could not have done it as well. The lad is plainly in sight to the crowd on the decks. A small boy, undersized. “Steady up doon therr!” The effect is instant. Noise there still is, but the movement is arrested.
The engines are stopped—we are now beyond range of a second torpedo—and steam thunders in exhaust, making our efforts to control movements by voice impossible. At the moment of the impact the destroyers have swung round and are casting here and there like hounds on the scent: the dull explosion of a depth-charge—then another, rouses a fierce hope that we are not unavenged. The force of the explosion has broken connections to the wireless room, but the aerial still holds and, when a measure of order on the boatdeck allows, we send a message of our peril broadcast. There is no doubt in our minds of the outcome. Our bows, drooping visibly, tell that we shall not float long. We have nearly three thousand on board. There are boats for sixteen hundred—then rafts. Boats—rafts—and the glass is falling at a rate that shows bad weather over the western horizon!
Our drill, that provided for lowering the boats with only half-complements in them, will not serve. We pass orders to lower away in any condition, however overcrowded. The way is off the ship, and it is with some apprehension we watch the packed boats that drop away from the davit heads. The shrill ring of the block-sheaves indicates a tension that is not far from breaking-point. Many of the life-boats reach the water safely with their heavy burdens, but the strain on the tackles—far beyond their working load—is too great for all to stand to it. Two boats go down by the run. The men in them are thrown violently to the water, where they float in the wash and shattered planking. A third dangles from the after fall, having shot her manning out at parting of the forward tackle. Lowered by the stern, she rights, disengages, and drifts aft with the men clinging to the life-lines. We can make no attempt to reach the men in the water. Their life-belts are sufficient to keep them afloat: the ship is going down rapidly by the head, and there remains the second line of boats to be hoisted and swung over. The chief officer, pausing in his quick work, looks to the bridge inquiringly, as though to ask, “How long?” The fingers of two hands suffice to mark our estimate.
The decks are now angled to the deepening pitch of the bows. Pumps are utterly inadequate to make impression on the swift inflow. The chief engineer comes to the bridge with a hopeless report. It is only a question of time. How long? Already the water is lapping at a level of the foredeck. Troops massed there and on the forecastle-head are apprehensive: it is indeed a wonder that their officers have held them for so long. The commanding officer sets example by a cool nonchalance that we envy. Posted with us on the bridge, his quick eyes note the flood surging in the pent ‘tween-decks below, from which his men have removed the few wounded. The dead are left to the sea.
Help comes as we had expected it would. Leaving Nemesis to steam fast circles round the sinking ship, Rifleman swings in and brings up alongside at the forward end. Even in our fear and anxiety and distress, we cannot but admire the precision of the destroyer captain’s manœuver—the skilful avoidance of our crowded life-boats and the men in the water—the sudden stoppage of her way and the cant that brings her to a standstill at the lip of our brimming decks. The troops who have stood so well to orders have their reward in an easy leap to safety. Quickly the foredeck is cleared. Rifleman spurts ahead in a rush that sets the surrounding life-boats to eddy in her wash. She takes up the circling high-speed patrol and allows her sister ship to swing in and embark a number of our men.
It is when the most of the life-boats are gone we realize fully the gallant service of the destroyers. There remain the rafts, but many of these have been launched over to aid the struggling men in the water. Half an hour has passed since we were struck—thirty minutes of frantic endeavor to debark our men—yet still the decks are thronged by a packed mass that seems but little reduced. The coming of the destroyers alters the outlook. Rifleman’s action has taken over six hundred. A sensible clearance! Nemesis swings in with the precision of an express, and the thud and clatter of the troops jumping to her deck sets up a continuous drumming note of deliverance. Alert and confident, the naval men accept the great risks of their position. The ship’s bows are entered to the water at a steep incline. Every minute the balance is weighing, casting her stern high in the air. The bulkheads are by now taking place of keel and bearing the huge weight of her on the water. At any moment she may go without a warning, to crash into the light hull of the destroyer and bear her down. For all the circling watch of her sister ship, the submarine—if still he lives—may get in a shot at the standing target. It is with a deep relief we signal the captain to bear off. Her decks are jammed to the limit. She can carry no more. Nemesis lists heavily under her burdened decks as she goes ahead and clears.
Forty minutes! The zigzag clock in the wheelhouse goes on ringing the angles of time and course as though we were yet under helm and speed. For a short term we have noted that the ship appears to have reached a point of arrest in her foundering droop. She remains upright as she has been since righting herself after the first inrush of water. Like the lady she always was, she has added no fearsome list to the sum of our distress. The familiar bridge, on which so many of our safe sea-days have been spent, is canted at an angle that makes foothold uneasy. She cannot remain for long afloat. The end will come swiftly, without warning—a sudden rupture of the bulkhead that is sustaining her weight. We are not now many left on board. Striving and wrenching to man-handle the only remaining boat—rendered idle for want of the tackles that have parted on service of its twin—we succeed in pointing her outboard, and await a further deepening of the bows ere launching her. Of the military, the officer commanding, some few of his juniors, a group of other ranks, stand by. The senior officers of the ship, a muster of seamen, a few stewards, are banded with us at the last. We expect no further service of the destroyers. The position of the ship is over-menacing to any approach. They have all they can carry. Steaming at a short distance they have the appearance of being heavily overloaded; each has a staggering list and lies low in the water under their deck encumbrance. We have only the hazard of a quick out-throw of the remaining boat and the chances of a grip on floating wreckage to count upon.
On a sudden swift sheer, Rifleman takes the risk. Unheeding our warning hail, she steams across the bows and backs at a high speed: her rounded stern jars on our hull plates, a whaler and the davits catch on a projection and give with the ring of buckling steel—she turns on the throw of the propellers and closes aboard with a resounding impact that sets her living deck-load to stagger.
We lose no time. Scrambling down the life-ropes, our small company endeavors to get foothold on her decks. The destroyer widens off at the rebound, but by clutch of friendly hands the men are dragged aboard. One fails to reach safety. A soldier loses grip and goes to the water. The chief officer follows him. Tired and unstrung as he must be by the devoted labors of the last half-hour, he is in no condition to effect a rescue. A sudden deep rumble from within the sinking ship warns the destroyer captain to go ahead. We are given no chance to aid our shipmates: the propellers tear the water in a furious race that sweeps them away, and we draw off swiftly from the side of the ship.
We are little more than clear of the settling fore-end when the last buoyant breath of Cameronia is overcome. Nobly she has held afloat to the debarking of the last man. There is no further life in her. Evenly, steadily, as we had seen her leave the launching ways at Meadowside, she goes down.