Accounts of the ‘Hearts of Oak’
As the European age of empires developed it was inevitable that, as an island state, Britain would develop as a nation of sailors and that in consequence its need for a powerful navy would exceed that of its European neighbours who could potentially expand by land and therefore have a need to defend long land borders. So the ‘great age of sail’ was epitomised by the Royal Navy. From the time of Drake and the defeat of the Spanish Armada the British navy grew in in both its renown and its efficiency. In the eighteenth century, as the wars with France raged, the Royal Navy’s finest commanders became national heroes and gained everlasting fame. By the turn of the nineteenth century the greatest threat to European stability was the rise of Revolutionary, Consulate and Imperial France under Napoleon Bonaparte. This brought about momentous conflicts on both land and sea. It was a period defined by Britain’s greatest sailor, Nelson—a commander so revered and capable that no Frenchman was his equal. However, Nelson was no anomaly, the British navy produced a succession of great commanders who were almost his equal. This was a time when British sea power was at its zenith; after the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy would not fight another major action until Jutland in the First World War. The author of this book—originally titled The Sailors Who Nelson Led—specialised in Napoleonic history and presented it as a series of interesting vignettes. This book’s companion title, Wellington’s Soldiers, is also published by Leonaur.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The going up of the flags to “Prepare for battle” was received throughout the fleet with a tremendous outburst of cheering. There was really next to nothing left to be done on board the ships. All through the cruise, as has been told, the squadron had been sailing ready, to all intents, for instant action by day or night. All that remained to be seen to was the final clearing up of decks for action, hardly more than a quarter of an hour’s work. In less than fifteen minutes, on an average, on board every one of the ships the decks were all clear, fore and aft, and the men were standing at their guns ready to fire the first shot.<br>
At once the drums clashed out the warning ruffle, the battle summons on board ship:<br>
R-r-r-ap, tap. R-r-r-ap, tap. R-r-r-ap, tap-tap-tap.<br>
At once, everywhere, all sprang to their allotted duties.<br>
The decks were quickly wetted and sanded over, for the grim purpose of, as far as possible, preventing the planks from getting too slippery with blood. The great horn battle-lanterns were hooked up, one lantern swinging over each gun; the usual practice before action whether by night or day. In the low, confined space between decks, the thick powder-smoke rendered it impossible to do without them, poor as was the gleam they gave. The guns—all ready, of course, long since, loaded and double-shotted—were cast loose; the firing-locks, with fresh flints, were screwed or clamped on the vents. Match-tubs, each with a coil of lighted slow-match inside, were placed on deck near by the guns, one to each gun, so as to be available in case the vent-mechanism of the locks went wrong. Spare breechings and tackles, for running the guns in and out, were brought up from the hold and placed in readiness for use near the hatchways.<br>
Pistols and boarding-axes—“tomahawks,” the men called them—and half-pikes were stacked along the ship’s side between the guns, ready to be picked up in an instant at any call of “Repel boarders!” A supply of cannon-shot, round-shot, sufficient for the first dozen rounds, were laid on the deck close by each gun, in rope grummets, to keep them from rolling about; and “bunches” of grape also. The cook’s fires were drawn and swamped; the magazines opened and cartridges ranged, ready for instant serving out to the powder-boys, two of whom attended each gun’s crew. Fire-screens of canvas, or “fearnought” (thick stuff like blanketing), were rigged at the hatchways and drenched with water as a precaution. Filled fire-buckets were ranged along various parts of the deck, and in the channels outside the bulwarks, where the shrouds were made fast to the hull; the lumbering, clumsy ship’s fire-engine was hoisted up on to the poop and the hoses screwed on.<br>
All bulkheads and cabin furniture and the gear not likely to be wanted was lowered down into the hold or else summarily thrown overboard, with spare casks and other impedimenta. These included, on that afternoon, a number of unfortunate bullocks, taken on board at Syracuse to be killed, as wanted, as food for the crews. The poor beasts had to be thrown overboard and left to drown, one ship—Hood’s Zealous—so disposing, as the log tells us, of eight unfortunate bullocks. They could not remain on deck with the enemy’s cannon-balls flying about, and there was nowhere below for them to be stowed. The yards aloft were lashed firmly and slung in chains to prevent them coming down, when struck by shot, on to the heads of the men fighting the upper-deck guns; splinter nettings were stretched over the upper deck, also, to catch heavy splinters from aloft and other minor wreckage that might fall in the same way. All that and more had to be done on board throughout the squadron in clearing for action. All was finished, and everything ready for firing the first shot on board in every ship in less than fifteen minutes.