George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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Speaking as a practised officer of the Commissariat Department, his attention was much more drawn to the difficulties in connection with the task of obtaining enough to eat. As regards shelter and sleep, he was ready enough to make shift with anything that offered of the former, and many a time the open sky was his cover, and a blanket or waterproof sheet his only protection from the rain.

He fared worst, save in the way of sociability, when following in the track of those gallant, thoughtless Sons of Freedom, the Garibaldians. On one occasion he and a companion made their way to one of the many battlefields by the side of one of the Italian lakes, where the ground that had been defended by the Garibaldians was covered with scattered trees. Beyond these the hillside was bare, but dotted with huge boulders of stone, which had been taken advantage of by the Austrian Tyrolese riflemen, and where they sheltered themselves to pick off the young patriots.

Down below, the road ran by the shore of the lake, and here the Austrian column had done their best to cut off the Garibaldians. On passing through this debatable ground the road rose considerably, and it became necessary for the two correspondents to practise care lest they should be mistaken for enemies, for by the side of the road were numbers of the shelter arbours run up by the Garibaldians, and these were occupied, for the sake of the shelter they afforded from the burning sun.

Here Henty describes the beauty of the scene across the valley at the head of the beautiful lake. Full in view were two villages, occupied, the one by the followers of the great Italian patriot, the other by the Austrians. The mountain road had been guarded on one side by a low parapet wall to save it from the rushing storm waters that swept down from above after heavy rains, and here in two places ominous preparations had been made in readiness to check any advance on the part of the Austrians, the parapet being cleared away to form embrasures, out of which grinned the muzzles of the field-pieces, ready to belch forth their deadly shower of grape and round shot. Here, too, was a deep ravine coming down at right angles to the road, offering excellent ground for a tactician to place his forces to advantage and deal out destruction upon advancing troops.

Along the side of the ravine ran the road to the Italian village, for which the two correspondents were making, in the hopes of obtaining food and shelter. As they passed on they found parties of Garibaldians encamped along the whole length of the road, and their sentries were ready to stop farther advance and demand their business and their passes. These, however, were found to be en r?gle, and they were allowed to continue their journey to the village, which they soon found was occupied by portions of a couple of regiments and a battalion of Bersaglieri, by far the finest and most reliable portion of Garibaldi’s forces.

Henty and his friend, warned by previous experience, had taken the precaution to carry supplies with them, the said supplies being of the simplest description, a substance, in fact, which is always welcome to a hungry man, made delicious by the addition of the proverbial sauce.

In other words, they carried in their satchels portions of the homely cake-bread of the country, upon which they depended, feeling no anxiety about obtaining their share of the abundant spring water of the district.

Thus provided, they had but one trouble, and that was as regarded lodgings. They went at once to the only inn of the village, to find it closed. This was discouraging, and they passed on, to find that almost all the shops of the little place were also closed. Checked by this, they made for a group of the Bersaglieri, who seemed to be well supplied with their little thin cigars, the pale-blue threads of smoke from which curled lightly out in the evening sunshine.

The deeply-bronzed soldiery politely exchanged salutes as the travellers questioned them about the prospect of finding a resting-place for the night, the answer to which was: “Have you any bread?”

“Yes,” replied Henty. “Well, then,” said a Garibaldian, with a smile which showed his white teeth, “you may think yourselves very lucky, signori, for we have had none to-day, and though we have had notice that some will come in this afternoon, it is more likely that it will not.”

This was disconcerting; but feeling that they could travel no farther they determined to persevere, in the hope that something might turn up; and if matters did prove to be at the worst they still had their open carriage, which would, at all events, with its cushions make sleep more easy, and keep them off the ground.

They had given a lift to one of the Garibaldians, and though amused by their predicament, he laughingly tried to assist them by suggesting that they should go on, and stop and knock at every door until they found someone who would give them a lodging. The notion seemed to be good, and to carry out the Italian’s suggestion they drew up at the best-looking house they could see, and knocked boldly at the door.

This was opened by an elderly priest, who raised his eyebrows in wonder, and glanced at the carriage and its occupants, and then at the Garibaldian who was acting as their guide, when an eager conversation ensued in the soft fluent Italian tongue. The guide, speaking with energy, explained with enthusiasm that those whom he had brought to claim the priest’s hospitality were two English gentlemen, whose hearts were in the Italian cause, and who, much interested, had come out on purpose to see the war; they were weary with their long journey and sought a refuge for the night – a lodging for which they were perfectly ready to pay with the customary generosity of their nation.

It was all very flowery, but most effective, for the priest smiled and bowed and bade them enter, declaring his readiness to place a room at their service, but shrugging his shoulders as he told with much gesticulation how he lamented that owing to the exactions of the Austrians, who had been there only the week before, and many of whom had been quartered in the house, he had nothing in the way of food to offer them; however, anything they could procure his servants would cook.

Perhaps it was due to perseverance having been rewarded and to having gained a lodging that, hungry though they were, they began to contemn their supply of bread. Surely, they thought, in a village like this it should not be impossible to find something more tasty, now that fate had provided them with a cook. So they sallied out, and leaving the more frequented streets, which swarmed with the hungry volunteers, they turned down first one lane and then another with no result. At length Henty, tired by his journey, was beginning to feel a return of the despondency which attacks a hungry man, when he stopped short, catching his companion by the arm and holding up his hand, for from a small house on one side of the lane he heard a familiar suggestive sound, which is precisely the same in the boot of Italy as it is in some rustic English county. It was the welcome cluck of fowls, shut up somewhere behind bars for safety. This promised a prize if negotiation were carried to a successful issue, and hands involuntarily plunged into pockets, to be followed by the faint and smothered chink of coin. Money should be able to purchase poultry at some price or other, even in times of war; if not, as it was a time of war, and as the two young Englishmen were upon a foraging expedition in a foreign country, why should they not —

Dark thoughts suggested themselves, and visions of a bright fire and a browning chicken began to dawn and sharpen the rising appetite, but they were dissipated at once by the opening of the door, at which they had loudly knocked. An animated parley commenced with the occupant of the cottage, the said parley ending at last in the correspondents becoming the masters of a couple of fowls, whose united ages, by the way, they found, when they came to eat them, must have been a long way on towards the age of one of themselves.

But all the same they felt satisfied in their ravenous condition at having obtained even these world-worn birds at only about five times their proper price, especially as on returning towards the priest’s house they again encountered the friendly Garibaldians, who had been less fortunate than themselves.

There was still another drawback, that which comes to a hungry man even though he has obtained a whole fowl to himself, and this was the waiting while it was cooked. While this was in process Henty had to try and curb his impatience by examining the beauty of the scenery. But at last the repast was ready, and their friend the priest made them up beds, on which they passed the night in a far more luxurious manner than they had anticipated.

Chapter Seven.
The Battle of Lissa

There were times when Henty had to take shelter from the Austrian fire, and others when he found himself exposed to that of the friendly army, whose skirmishers, made plainly visible by their scarlet shirts, began to send up little puffs of smoke from behind hedges and amongst trees, while crack! crack! the reports of the rifles rang out and echoed down the ravines, to die away amongst the distant hills.

Then, too, one of his narrow escapes happened when he was on his way to Brescia. He had some difficulty in getting there, for every vehicle was requisitioned for the public service, and he thought himself extremely lucky in being able to get his luggage sent on, leaving him free to undertake the walk of some five-and-twenty miles. This was no serious undertaking to a well-shod athlete, being only one-fifth more than a tramp across our own Dartmoor, but with this difference, that the home walk would be through the crisp bracing air some fifteen hundred feet above the sea, while here the labour was very heavy, the heat of the Italian July sun being tremendous.

However, just when he had proceeded half-way on his journey, and was suffering severely from the torrid air, which felt too hot to breathe, he, little anticipating what was to prove the outcome, congratulated himself upon what he looked upon as a stroke of luck, for, hearing wheels behind, he drew up by the side of the road, to stand panting and wiping his streaming brow, signing to the military driver of a government cart. This man willingly agreed to give him a lift as his destination was the same, and explained that he was going to fetch a load of ice for the benefit of the wounded.

It was rough travelling, but the change from the labour of tramping the road, which seemed to return the heat of the sun with fivefold power, was delightful, and the rattle and bumping of the clumsy cart by contrast became almost an exquisite pleasure.

In this way five more miles were added to those which he had walked, and in describing the adventure which followed, Henty na?vely remarks that doubtless he should have ridden happily the whole distance into Brescia had not the ill-groomed, blind mare which drew the cart, suddenly conceived that she was being ill-treated by the addition of this stranger to her load. She accordingly stopped short and began lashing out most viciously, nearly breaking the arm of the soldier who was driving, and then dashed off at full speed. Seeing that she was blind, her course was not a very long one, and before they had gone far down the mountain road which gradually grew more and more shelf-like, the mare’s flight became wildly erratic, until she checked herself most painfully by running her head against the rocks which rose up on their right. After holding his breath for some time Henty relieved his overburdened chest in a deep sigh, for he had been debating in those brief minutes whether he should not risk everything and trust to his agility to spring out. He now, however, began to breathe freely, and, dropping down from the cart into the road, he stared about him at his position, and realised how very near he had been to bringing his correspondent’s task to a sudden end. Had the mare in her blindness turned to the left instead of the right, horse, cart, and its occupants would have gone headlong over the low protecting parapet at the side, deep down a stony precipice, with only one result.

In his matter-of-fact way Henty goes on to say: “This was not a thing to be tried twice, and I once more set off to walk, and in a mile came to a village, where by great luck I found a vehicle which brought me into Brescia in safety.”

In his eagerness to obtain the fullest information about the military proceedings between the opposing armies, Henty never spared himself. Wherever there was an engagement pending, or taking place, if it were in the slightest degree possible he would be there, running all risks, and at any cost; so that when the news came of the possibility of there being a naval engagement between the Italian and Austrian fleets, it was only natural that with his sailor-like proclivities Henty should wish to be present.

As we have seen, he was well provided with introductions and credentials which facilitated his being with the army; but these hardly seemed likely to benefit him much with the navy. However, he was not the man to be daunted by difficulties. If a naval fight did take place, it was bound to be one of special interest, for though for years past the old-fashioned wooden walls and two– and three-deckers of this and other countries had been gradually changing into armour-clads, this was to be the first occasion when an encounter would take place between the ponderous monsters. It was an event which would prove, not only to scientists but to their captains and crews, how they would behave.

The question that arose, therefore, was how the representative of the Standard could get on board one of the vessels. Doubting what reception would be given to one who announced himself as a war correspondent, Henty proceeded, sailor-like, upon another tack. After the training he had gone through and the work he had done, he considered himself justified in posing as an engineer eager to grasp exactly what would take place under fire, and in this character, as a scientific man, the difficulty was solved, for he was allowed to be present at the naval battle which took place in the Mediterranean off Lissa, the principal island of Dalmatia, some forty miles from the mainland, on the 20th of July, 1866.

It was no trivial affair, but one as worthy of notice as any of the great battles of history, for the Italian fleet which set sail consisted of twelve iron-clads and eight wooden frigates, with their attendant gun and despatch boats.

The island was strongly fortified by the Austrians, and the battle began with an attack upon the forts, which responded fiercely, and the grim reality of the encounter was soon learned by those on the iron-clads when shells began to burst on board. But this attack was only in anticipation of the coming of the Austrian fleet, which was soon after signalled as being in sight, and its formidable nature was evident directly it approached. Its three lines were composed of seven iron-clads, one wooden ship of the line, five wooden frigates, two corvettes, and twelve gunboats, the last mentioned carrying six guns each.

The two fleets were not long in coming to close quarters, and it was soon proved that sailors could fight as well in iron-clads as in the towering old wooden craft of yore.

The thunder was deeper from the much heavier modern guns, the impact of the modern missiles (elongated bolts, not balls) and the crash of the bursting explosive with which they were charged far more awful; but amidst the noise, confusion, and deafening explosions the spectator could grasp but little of what was taking place outside the vessel he was on.

There was a certain grim novelty about being rammed, and the shock sent everyone who was not holding on, prostrate, convinced, or at least quite ready to imagine, that the vessel struck must be sent to the bottom. But this portion of the encounter did not prove to be so damaging as was anticipated, probably owing to the close quarters into which the two fleets were brought, and to the want of impetus of the striking ship. In fact, as the broadsides were exchanged, and the vessels were passing and repassing each other, they were in such close neighbourhood that at times the muzzles of the guns almost touched each other, and the effect was terrific. Numbers of men were killed on board the vessel upon which Henty made his mental notes. Shells crashed upon the iron armour, and were in some cases thrown off, but others passed in through the port holes and burst inside, committing terrible havoc, while at one time a broadside was received which glanced off. A vast amount of damage was done, though, when they ran stem on to the nearest opponent with an awful crash and then backed off, to see dimly through the smoke that the Austrian adversary was evidently sinking.

The result was that the Battle of Lissa supplied ample proof of the consequences following an encounter between two iron-clad fleets; but it was days after the noise and turmoil of the battle were at an end that Henty found an opportunity to pay a visit to the Italian fleet with the object of ascertaining how the various systems of iron-plating had borne the hammering of the shot and shell during this novel sea-fight.

His first visit was to a vessel of nearly six thousand tons burden, and before going on board he was pulled slowly round her, stopping from time to time to examine the shot marks in her side. And now it was surprising to see how little damage had been done. The shot had made round dents of four to five inches in diameter, and from one to two and a half inches deep, but the marks made by the shells in the armour-plate were more ragged, some of the dents being from eight to twelve inches in diameter, rough and uneven, while, when a shell had struck where the plates joined, pieces were broken completely off. Altogether, as far as her iron armour was concerned, this vessel, which had been engaged for more than an hour with two or three Austrian iron-clads, came out of the ordeal remarkably well. Not one of her plates was penetrated, cracked, or seriously loosened; but on getting round to her stern her weak point was at once noticeable, and that was the rudder, which was quite unprotected. Some six or seven feet of the unarmoured stern also was quite exposed, a fact which resulted in the loss of a sister ship, whose rudder was disabled almost at the beginning of the contest, so that she soon became an easy prey to her adversaries.

In the case of the Re de Porto Gallo, the vessel Henty visited, her iron-plating was covered with a casing of wood, some nine inches thick, to a height of two feet above the water-line, and upon this her copper sheathing was fastened. The whole of her port bulwark, with the exception of some fifty feet at the stern, was carried away by a collision with the adversary, the two vessels grinding together along their whole length.

On mounting to the deck, Henty goes on to say, he first began to see to what a terrible fire she had been exposed. Her rigging had been cut to pieces; black ragged holes where shells had struck and burst were to be seen; her boats were completely smashed to pieces.

In the case of another vessel, the shot and shell marks were rather deeper, and the dents and ragged marks of the shells indicated that she had had to encounter heavier metal, while Henty’s keen scrutiny showed him that the iron-plating which protected her must have been of a much more brittle nature; but even here it was quite plain to him that the protection afforded by the ponderous iron plates was most effective, and it was remarkable, considering how close the adversaries had been together, that more serious damage had not been done.

In noticing Henty’s account of the iron clothing of the Italian fleet, and the effect upon the ships of the enemy’s guns, it must be borne in mind that some forty years have wrought vast changes in naval warfare, and it can easily be conceived how different would have been the havoc wrought if the encounter had been with the armament of such a vessel as, say our own unfortunate Montagu, or the Sutlej, with the twin occupants of its revolving turrets and the ponderous bolt-shaped shells they could hurl.

These investigations appear to have been of the greatest interest to the young correspondent, but he was not satisfied; the sailor within him made itself heard. He was satisfied with the value of armour-plates in protecting a man-of-war, but he wanted to know how, plated with these ponderous pieces of iron, such vessels would behave in a heavy sea.

He had not long to wait, for he wrote directly afterwards that there had been a heavy squall, and one of the iron-clad fleet had had to run for the harbour, rolling so much from her weight, and shipping so much water, that she went down; but, fortunately, all hands were saved.



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