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his duty. To prevent anyone from trying to impose upon these hatchway sentries, it was the rule that all powder-boys going for powder should display their cartridge cases as they reached the ladder. The gunner, also, had orders to refuse to give powder to anyone without a proper case.
When all was ready the lieutenant, and sometimes the captain, made the tour of the decks to cheer the men, and to give their final orders. At the same time the carpenter and his mates took up their stations on the orlop-deck and in the hold, with their shot plugs ready for immediate insertion.
Many of the sailors delighted in battle, not because they were fond of fighting, but because discipline was relaxed during the fight, and, in spite of the extra duty, for a day or two afterwards; and because a victory meant prize-money and a jolly time in port. A fight broke the monotony of a cruise. It made the officers rather more humane in their treatment. Lastly, it was exciting in itself. It was, however, less popular among the men than among the officers. If an officer was badly hurt he got promotion and half pay. If a man was maimed he had nothing but Greenwich Hospital to look for. If he could not get into the hospital he was free to starve, saying with Goldsmith's sailor, that those who got both legs shot off, and a consequent pension, were born with golden spoons in their mouths. Nevertheless, they always went ino action cheerily. Their motto was “The hotter the war the sooner the peace," and they knew that they would not be discharged till peace had been declared. Even those who were stationed in the waist or midship guns were merry as they went to quarters. "The very idea of going into action" was "a source of
joy to them.” They were as brave as they were careless. A hot engagement was meat and drink to them. The thought of a general action kept them from their beds.
It was their custom, when going into action, to strip to the waist. They took their black silk handkerchiefs, and bound them very tightly round their heads over their ears, so that the roar of the guns might not deafen them for life. It was remarked that men going into action always wore a sullen frown, however merry they were in their talk. Before the firing began they used to settle among themselves what amount of prize-money they would win, and how they would spend it. They also made their wills, not in writing, but verbally: “If they get me, Jack, you can have my kit. Tom, you can have my trousers to buy you a mourning ring," etc., always merrily, as though the prospect of death was very remote. They would also whisper to each other, as they came down to the enemy, as to her strength, size, and appearance, guessing her nationality, length of absence from home, etc., from the cut and shape of her masts and sails, and the colour of the bunt patches in her top-sails.
It is not known how a gun-deck looked during the heat of an engagement; for those who saw most of the fighting have left us but a poor account of their experiences. We may take Smollett's word for it, that it was “a most infernal scene of slaughter, fire, smoke and uproar.” We can imagine fifteen or sixteen cannon in a row, all thundering and recoiling and flashing fire; on the other side of the ship a similar row, nearly certain to be thundering and flashing fire, if the action were general, instead of a duel between ships. Up above, immediately overhead, not more than a foot from one's hat crown, was a similar double row of cannon, with heavy carriages which banged and leaped at each recoil. Up above those, perhaps, if the ship were a first or second rate, was yet another gun-deck, with its thundering great guns and banging gun-trucks. And above that, as a sort of pendant, was the upper battery of carronades, making a terrible roaring at each shot; and marines firing their muskets, and topmen firing their swivels, and blocks and spars and heavy ropes coming down from aloft with a clatter. And every now and again, if not every minute, the awful ear-splitting crash, "like the smashing of a door with crowbars," as a shot struck home, and sent the splinters scattering. Then, continually, the peculiar hissing and screaming of the passing round shot made a lighter music, "like the tearing of sails,” to the bass of the cannon. One heard, too, the yells of perhaps five or six hundred men, as they tugged at the tackling, or hove the guns round with the handspikes. Then there were wounded men screaming, and port-lids coming down with a bang, and perhaps a gun bursting, or thudding clean out of its carriage, as a shot struck a trunnion; and every now and then a horrible noise, as a ball exploded a cartridge on the deck.
So much for the racket. The noise was the clearest impression one could gather. One could see little enough when once the firing had begun. A large ship, fighting only one broadside at a time, burned from 500 to 1100 lbs. of powder every minute, according to the heat of the battle and the distance of the target. It was black powder, and the decks were black with smoke after the first broadside, if they were engaging to windward, for the smoke blew back at the ports, and poured up the hatches like the reek of factory chimneys. In the murk
and stench one might see the flash from the spouting touch-holes, as the “huff” leaped out, to burn a hole in the beams above. One could mark the little light of the slow matches at those guns where the flints of the locks had broken. One could see a sailor's face in the glow, as he blew at the red end to clear away the ashes.
The least pleasant part of a ship of war in action was the waist or midship part, near the main rigging. It was the custom in these sea engagements to converge a broadside fire upon some central point in the opposing ship's side. The men stationed in the waist or main battery always suffered more in proportion than the men at the after or forward guns. That part of a ship's lower-deck between the fore and after hatchways, was known as "the slaughter-house," on account of the massacre which generally took place at that part. In the midst of the fury and confusion, with the ship shaking like a tautened rope from the concussion, and the blood "flowing like bilge water," there was yet a certain order and human purpose. The lieutenants walked to and fro about the batteries, regulating the fire, and keeping the men to their guns. The powder-boys skipped here and there on their errands for powder. The half-dozen men told off for cockpit duty came and went with the wounded, or paused at the gun-ports to heave a dead or dying man overboard, "with no other ceremony than shoving him through the port.” Now and then some men left their guns and ran on deck to do any sail-trimming which might be necessary. Others broke away to bring up shot from the hold. If the ship carried any women or sailors' wives they, too, were employed about the deck in carrying water or powder. The master-at-arms went his rounds slowly, passing from deck to deck, asking for complaints, and noting
how things were going. He had to make a note of the losses at the guns, of the expenditure of powder, and of the shot-holes between wind and water. His visits were godsends to the men working below the gun-deck in the magazines. The work there was mechanical, not feverish, like the work of the men at the guns. They had time to think, and found the situation “not one of danger, but most wounding to the feelings, and trying to the patience.” One of the gunner's crew of H.M.S. Goliah, a 74-gun ship engaged at the battle of St. Vincent, has told us that
“I was stationed in the after-magazine serving powder from the screen, and could see nothing; but I could feel every shot that struck the Goliah: and the cries and groans of the wounded were most distressing, as there was only the thickness of the blankets of the screen between me and them. Busy as I was, the time hung upon me with a dreary weight. Not a soul spoke to me but the master-at-arms, as he went his rounds to inquire if all was safe.
No sick person ever longed more for his physician than I for the voice of the master-at-arms.
I would, if I had had my choice, have been on the deck; there I would have seen what was passing, and the time would not have hung so heavy."
If, during the engagement, the ships came grinding together, with a crash which knocked the lower-deck ports in, the matter was settled by boarding. The two or three men of each gun's crew who were told off as boarders were then “called away.” They dropped their gun-tackles, drew their cutlasses and pistols, and skipped up on deck, into the enemy's rigging, and down on to her decks, to carry her by hand-to-hand fighting. More generally the action was determined by superior gunnery.