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The Ramming of the Victoria page 2

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And then the thousands of eyes watching the drama from the other ships beheld a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle, for all of a sudden, "with a great roll and a wild plunge, the enormous vessel buried her bow beneath the surface of the sea; there were a few wild cries, the ship trembled, and then she turned over with her keel high in the air, her screws rapidly whirling. Those on deck leaped as the vessel careened; those below had no opportunity to close the doors or to reach the open, and thus they perished." Out of all the engine-room complement, only Engineer Rawlinson was saved. The people on the starboard side had, of course, the remotest chance of all, and few escaped. Among those few were Dr. Moon, one officer, and a sailmaker, who actually travelled right round the ship under water.

The huge battleship must have presented a truly terrifying sight as she poised thus for her downward plunge, enveloped in vast billows of smoke from her furnaces, her propellers whizzing like catherine-wheels in empty space. "She continued heeling over," continued one of the midshipmen already quoted, "and it was simply agonising to watch the wretched men struggling out of the ports over the ship's bottom in masses.... You could see the poor men who in their hurry to jump over, jumped on to the screw, being cut to pieces as it revolved. She heeled right over, the water rushing in through her funnels." It was at this moment that Commander Jellicoe, who was lying in his berth sick with fever, dashed on deck in his pyjamas and sprang overboard, when Midshipman West, who was also struggling in the water, put his arm around him and so enabled him to get away from the ship, thus preserving, had he known it, a life of inestimable future worth to the nation.

A moment later the huge hull turned completely over to the starboard side with a mighty lurch; there was a great explosion of steam, and then she began to sink bow first. "You could see all the men eagerly endeavouring to crawl over her bottom.... We watched the stern rise right out of the water and plunge down, the screws still revolving. It was simply a dreadful sight. We could not realise it." Several hundred men were thrown on the deck as the hull pitched over, and were sucked down into the vast pit made in the sea by the disappearing vessel. And then came the crowning touch - a happening so utterly ghastly that one shudders while writing it down. Let one of the eyewitnesses tell it in his own words:

"Another moment and a new horror was visited upon the struggling men. The powerful engines, deep down in the heart of the ship and enclosed in the watertight compartments, kept throbbing and working, and the formidable steel flanges of the twin screws whirled round and round at first high up in space, and then gradually came nearer and nearer to the surface of the water until the ship descended in the midst of the mass of human beings struggling for life, when the propeller-blades struck the calm sea and sent an enormous cloud of spray into the air; and then as the ship disappeared the suction increased until it became a perfect maelstrom, at the bottom of which these deadly screws were moving like circular saws, gashing and killing the poor creatures who had battled vainly for life.

"Then came the scene that caused the officers on the decks of the remaining vessels of the Fleet to turn sick. Shrieks were heard, and then the waves and the foam were reddened by the blood of the hundreds of victims. Arms, legs wrenched from bodies, headless trunks, were tossed out of the vortex to linger on the surface for a few moments and then disappear."

The stricken leviathan plunged into the depths with a giant gurgle, the sea rushed in to fill the gulf into which she had vanished. A few minutes later came the muffled reports of two mighty explosions as the boilers burst: the water heaved and seethed, a vast cloud of steam went bellying up, and spars and other wreckage were shot to the surface, killing or disabling many poor fellows they struck on the way, yet coming to others in the nature of a godsend. One who owed his life to the explosions was Lord Gillford, who was twice submerged. On the first occasion he narrowly escaped being dragged to the bottom by a drowning man; on the second, he had his feet clutched and was pulled down to a dreadful depth. He could hear the engines of the sinking ship still throbbing and pounding when far below the surface. Then, however, came the bursting of the boilers, which providentially freed his feet from the grip of those terrible dying hands. But to many who might otherwise have escaped the explosion meant the end. "Thus in less than ten minutes death in three awful forms came to the officers and crew of the Victoria - death from drowning, from the knife-like screws, and from the scalding water of the bursting boilers."

Aghast at the almost incredible tragedy they had witnessed, the crews of the lifeboats from the other warships pulled with might and main for the patch of debris-littered water which marked the Victoria's grave. "When I got there," continues that same midshipman who described the first rush to the rescue, "there were about a hundred men almost touching the boat; before you had time to look round there were only about twenty left, all the rest being sucked down by the tremendous rush of water caused by the ship sinking.... I cannot tell you what an awful thing it was to see the poor fellows' faces and hear them shriek as they were sucked under.... I spotted one man under some wreckage and just managed to catch hold of his hair as he was sinking and haul him into the boat. He breathed for a short time, but died before we got back to the ship. He had an awful wound in his temple, which had stunned him."

The news that the mighty Victoria, rammed by a ship of her own fleet, had sunk in 80 fathoms within a quarter of an hour, was received at Portsmouth and the other naval centres at first with complete incredulity and disregarded as a hoax in very bad taste. Only too soon, however, the tidings were fully confirmed: the flagship was gone indeed, carrying with her 22 officers and midshipmen and 336 of her splendid crew. England was thrown into consternation from one end to the other. The list of dead contained the names of many men with long and honourable service to their credit. Fleet Engineer Felix Foreman, for instance, had been engineer of the Bittern at the bombardment of Alexandria; Fleet Paymaster Valentine Dyer J. Rickcord had served in the Terrible in the Black Sea all through the Crimean War and in the Argus through the Ashantee War; while the Rev. Samuel Sheppard Oakley Morris, the Victoria's chaplain, had been a Welsh clergyman of great distinction and a well-known oarsman, having rowed in the Oxford trial eights. As for Admiral Tryon, his loss was irreparable. Many years earlier in his career he had served as a lieutenant on board the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert, and the Queen consequently knew him well. She grieved very deeply and a State Ball which should have taken place on the night of the 23rd was instantly cancelled. "Her Majesty's heart," said the Court Circular, "bleeds for the many homes which have been plunged into mourning and deep affliction by this dreadful misfortune." Not less overwhelmed with grief and astonishment was the Duke of Edinburgh, who was an intimate friend of Tryon's and had himself commanded the Mediterranean Fleet in 1891.

As for Lady Tryon, she was utterly prostrated. Only three weeks had elapsed since her return to England from Malta. On the evening of the sand she had held her first reception of the season, entertaining some 200 guests. Now, on the 23rd, while she was still resting from her fatigue after the brilliant function, came her brother, Lord Ancaster, together with her Guardsman son, to break the cruel news. Among those who hastened to bring their condolences were many of the most exalted names in the land - Admiral and Mrs. J. A. Fisher, Admiral Sir Anthony Hoskins and Lady Hoskins, Earl and Countess Spencer, the Marquis and Marchioness of Salisbury, Lord Carrington, the Lord Chamberlain, and the Duke of Edinburgh, representing respectively the Queen and the Prince of Wales and Duke of York, the Duchess of Teck, and Lord Charles Beresford. On a visiting-card left by this last caller was written, "The whole Navy weeps with you in your cruel grief, officers and men alike. The State has lost its most brilliant seaman, the Navy its most generous and affectionate friend."

At Malta, too, the disaster had caused the most widespread dismay, for those on board the lost flagship had included a very large number of Maltese. On the 30th, when the Edgar and the Phaeton came in with the rescued on board, huge crowds were assembled on the bastions to witness their arrival. The survivors, however, were at once transferred to the gunboat Orion, and no outsiders at all were permitted to communicate either with this vessel or with the two ships which had brought them. The court-martial on Captain Bourke and his officers and crew for the loss of the ship took place on July 19th, on board H.M.S. Hibernia, and its findings have already been chronicled earlier in this chapter.

The Camperdown, too, had suffered very serious damage in the collision, received a large jagged rent in her bows which had given rise at first to fears that she might fill and sink also. Happily, however, it had been found possible to plug the hole at Tripoli, after which the ship proceeded to Malta for fuller repairs. But the credit for the Camperdown's survival belonged really to a Maltese stoker, off duty below at the time of the collision, who had the presence of mind and courage to rush and close the doors, a task he only succeeded finally in performing when the water was up to his neck.

At a special meeting of the Royal Humane Society a medal was presented to Lieutenant H. D. Farquharson, of the Marines, for having saved the life of Mr. Charles J. Pawsey, Admiral Tryon's secretary, in circumstances of exceptional gallantry. Pawsey, it appeared, had mounted the rail of the "Admiral's Walk," but, finding the propellers already exposed, had crossed to the starboard side and dropped from there. Farquharson had been swimming to the assistance of Commander Jellico when a swirl of water separated them. When he looked round and saw Pawsey, however, he at once seized him, turned on his back, and held him up in the water. Medals were also awarded to Lieutenant F. G. Loring, Cadet Philip D. Roberts-West, First-Class Petty Officer W. Johnstone, and First-Class Boy W. Kerr, this last-named for having saved Chief Engineer Artificer M.Jones when both Jones's legs were broken.

Much discussion arose as to the ultimate implications of such a catastrophe as the loss of the Victoria. The New Tork Herald remarked that "The lesson to be drawn from this tragic disaster will revolutionise the opinion of the world with regard to the value in naval warfare of the costly modern battleship," and Lord Brassey observed that "The calamity affords a powerful argument in support of those who, like myself, are opposed to the extreme dimensions of modern war-vessels. Ships of enormous tonnage, sometimes as much as 14,000 tons, (!) are constructed and we seek to protect them with armour; but, however effective armour-plate may be against guns, they are clearly no adequate protection against the ram." This view was supported, too, by Lord Charles Beresford, who contended that there was not a vessel afloat which would have stood such a ramming.

On the other hand, there were experts in plenty to argue that, so far from placing battleships of the class of the Camperdown and Victoria in a disadvantageous light, the disaster had afforded a very striking object-lesson in the power and efficiency of such vessels in war-time. While suchlike controversies raged on the slopes of high Olympus, however, there were people in less exalted circles who held that the most emphatic lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe was that of the unfailing courage of the British sailor in the most trying circumstances. As for sailormen themselves, they needed no telling that the loss of the Victoria was just another example in support of every seaman's, prejudice against ships which have changed their names.

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