"One night they got a scare on shore; thought that the men on the Longships were sending up distress signals. It was bad weather, and every now and again the coast-watcher saw a green light on the Longships. And what do you think that green light was? Just the water running over the bright light when it flashed! As it washed the glasses it showed up green."
There were curtains of sailcloth put over the windows to obscure the sunlight. I asked the P.K. about this, and he told me that the great magnifying lens of the light would burn things if the sun got on it for long enough. So, much as they like the sun in Cornwall, they have to keep it out.
"I shall be on duty to-night from twelve until four o'clock," observed the P.K. "But I've got accustomed to the running of the machinery."
So down we went. The last I saw of the P.K. was when the old Cornishman, emptying cans of oil into the tank to supply the light which warns mariners, shouted:—
"Getting pretty fresh now. Hope to see you again."
XII. WATCHERS OF THE COAST
Circling Great Britain are thousands of expert coast-watchers, whose duty not only is to watch for ships, wrecks, and smugglers, as in the days before the war, but also to be on guard for enemy submarines and suspicious craft. It is the oft-spoken opinion of many an inland inhabitant that certain sections of the coast would afford a base for U-boats. However, these persons have no conception of the thoroughness with which John Bull guards his coast-lines. Mile after mile, shores and rocks are under the eye of alert navy men and volunteers, the latter being civilians who have spent their lives by the sea. They know their business, and even though they are volunteers, the discipline is rigid. But they are not the type of men to shirk their duty, for they would take it as missing a God-given opportunity if their eyes were closed at the time they could help their country most. After travelling around part of the coast-line, a stranger leaves with the opinion that there is little chance for a man even to swim ashore under cover of night.
From John o' Groat's to Land's End and all around Ireland, these coast-watchers—men over military age, wiry and strong, with eyes like ferrets—scan the rocks and beaches hour after hour, noting passing vessels, receiving and detailing information, and always keeping up communication with the ring and its various centres. Their little stone huts are on the highest point in their particular area, and their homes usually are only a couple of hundred yards distant. Their chiefs are coast-guards of the old days called back to their former service in the Royal Navy. These men rule the volunteers with a rod of iron. No matter what section of the coast one may pick, the coast-watcher is ready with his glasses or telescope. Suspicious acts of any individuals receive speedy attention, and each batch of the guards vies with the next for keen performance of duty.
There is a halo of interest around these men, tame as their work may appear to them at times. Take the watchers on the Scilly Isles, for instance. They are as good as any around Great Britain. It is second nature for them to watch the sea. It is a desire with them, something they would not miss. Their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were watch-dogs on that area of the ocean. Go to St. Mary's, and you will see a coast-watcher, up soon after dawn, take a stroll along the beach, even when he is not supposed to be on duty and before he has tasted his morning tea. The family telescope is at his eye, as he wants to get a good look at what the sea has been doing, and what is there. To the uninitiated, it seems to have the same paucity of interest as any other shipless stretch of water; but to this expert it has a story. He notes the clouds, the sun, the very rocks; and they say that his gaze is so sharp that it would spot a champagne-cork floating some distance away. But be that as it may, there is no enemy periscope that is going to pass unobserved at a certain distance by this hawk-eyed, wind-seared man.
He goes to his cottage for breakfast, and talks about the sea, then leaves the table, and has another good look; and it is sadly disappointing to any of these men to have missed a passing ship. Prior to the declaration of hostilities, a wreck was the greatest piece of news to the community; but now it is the glimpse of fast English warships, and the anticipation of sighting a German U-boat, and thus being the cause of the craft's doom.
"Gun-firing heard at ten minutes past twelve o'clock to-day," said one man, reading from a slip he had just made out on the subject.
The man to whom he spoke happened to have been out of hearing distance, and he could not believe it until a second man came along with the same report. It was handed down the line, over to other shores, and the watchers speculated as to what had taken place.
Arthur Oddy, who has charge of half a dozen watchers, told me that his one great regret was that he had not seen a sign of the war, barring uniforms. Nevertheless, for more than two and a half years he has scanned the sea and shore of his district with dutiful care, and has seen to it that his men have not been amiss in their share of the tedious task. His station is very near the Last House in England, at Land's End—a tea place kept by Mrs. E. James.
"What is that out there?" exclaimed a stranger, suddenly. "Looks like part of a boat."
"That," declared Oddy, "is the Shark's Fin—a rock."
True enough, the rock of that name might have at times been a giant fish or a wrecked submarine. It was lashed by the foamy waters, disappeared, and then showed a bit, again was swallowed up, and seemed to reappear a yard or so further along from where it first was seen. Finally, you observed that it was a sharp, dangerous rock.
A mile or so farther along that coast I encountered John Thomas Wheeler, the wearer of several medals, including a gold one received since the war commenced from the King of Sweden. In peace time, just before the war, Wheeler did his bit to save wrecked mariners. He is still doing it in war time, with his eyes open for everything. As we stood there, with the sea lashing the shingly beach and hammering the rocks, Wheeler, chief officer of that station, recalled the story of the wreck of the Trifolium, a Swedish sailing ship.
"It was terrible rough," said Wheeler, "when through the darkness we saw the green light of the distress-signals. I shot off a rocket with a rope to the forepart of the vessel. The men, who were clinging to the rigging, paid no attention to it. Then I sent off another rope between the main and the mizzen masts. First, they paid no heed to that; but, finally, one man in oilskins jumped into the sea to catch hold of part of the rope. He was followed by others. Perilous though it was on that night, we walked out to help the men ashore. One after another, gasping and unconscious sailors were landed. Then the ship broke in half, and soon was torn to bits by the sea. I was looking for more men, as I had seen one poor chap under the steel mast when it fell. A wave struck me, and I found myself caught between two rocks. It looked all up for me, as I could not move."
Wheeler's awful position was not at first realised, and his cries for help could not be heard through the din of the ocean. Finally, he was struck down by the turbulent sea, and one of his men, signalling to another, went to their chief's rescue. Wheeler was unconscious when he was brought up on the beach. For his share in the rescue work, besides the King of Sweden's medal, Wheeler received medals from the Royal Humane Society and the Board of Trade.
In that corner of England every one is on the qui vive for the unexpected. The women have their telescopes and glasses, and they do their share, despite the fact that the regular men of that locality are on duty. Mrs. James's tea-refreshment place is often the near-by house to where men are scanning the horizon with their glasses, noting the flags on vessels, if they have any in these days, and keeping up a peace-time look out, for it is a dangerous point in bad weather. The Last or First House in England, whichever one wishes to consider it, is covered with names and initials of persons from all over the world. Curiously enough, since the war there have been no wrecks in that theatre, while in the six months prior to the great conflict there were two or three.
Local heads of the coast-watchers or guards have the prerogative of commandeering horses or automobiles when necessary. If there is a ship ashore or on the rocks, signal-rockets are sent up to collect the coast-guards; and it would seem that a couple of these would wake most of the persons in that corner of England.
The real business of the coast-guards, and that to which they devote themselves in peace or war, is firing rockets over a ship in distress and trying to land the crew.
It was ten or twelve miles from that point that I met a chief watcher who had been blown up in a British battleship, and had thus earned a period of shore duty. He was "carrying on" for humanity and country, and only a short time before he had been the means of rescuing the crew of a small neutral sailing ship—a German victim.
We sped on farther north, and every three or four miles there was the inevitable watcher, who can telephone, telegraph, and fire rockets when occasion demands. It is all a modernised coast-guard system, the men being first ready for ships in distress, but always on the alert for the enemy.
XIII. CROSSING THE CHANNEL IN WAR TIME
This is the story of a British naval officer's trip to the Western fighting ground as he told it to me the day he returned to London:—
"'Four days!' said I to myself. 'Not very long in which to get a real taste of the World War on land.' However, the morning after I had received 'leave' I departed from London in an automobile and as we sped through the country there seemed, at first, to be little to remind us that England was at war—except, perhaps, the many busy persons on all farms and fields. Finally, we came across a mobile air-station on which were two aeroplanes with folded wings. It was something which made you think.
"In a South Coast port, however, there was military activity everywhere. On the waters, far out from the harbour, which one imagines as denuded of craft, I saw dozens of ships. There were large and small tramps, mine-sweepers, and trawlers, and you were fascinated by the sight. There was a dread lest one of them might disappear through a mine or a torpedo any instant.
"Thousands of soldiers were at the dock, waiting to embark on ships for France. A couple of thousand of them belonged to the Scotch Labour Battalion, ready for work with pick and shovel. Their speech was almost like a foreign language as they 'Jock'd' and 'Donal'd,' joked and sang, when they swung aboard the vessel in single file.
"There was no waving of handkerchiefs and no shouting good-byes when the black-and-tan craft was ready to leave. The skipper was on the bridge. He looked down at an officer ashore, nodded his head, and the other returned the nod. Hawsers were instantly slipped, and the steamer skipped away from the British port on the minute, and soon met her escort—destroyers, out of sight not long since, now ready for their job. These slender speedsters of the sea never stop; so everything must be done according to schedule. Four of the destroyers surrounded us as we ploughed through the water.
"From the bridge came the order for every soul aboard to put on a life-belt, and our friends from Scotland hastened aft to obtain the equipment, scurrying and bustling about the damp cabin for the best belts.
"Half-way across the straits we met the opposite number vessel to ours. She had an escort of three warships, so that for a flash there were seven destroyers on the breast of that water. But it was not for long. A swish, and they were nearer England and we nearer France, they getting some of our smoke and we some of theirs. Steamers go into the French port stern first, and soon I found myself treading French soil. Our Scotch labourers were hurried off the vessel, and they vanished with extraordinary quickness; and this also reminds me that no sooner was our steamship safe in the harbour than the warships nipped off to England, and all you could see in a few minutes was a wreath of water and smoke as they raced homewards.
"The skipper of the passenger craft has seen exciting times. While I stood on the bridge with him and his first officer, he told me of a night he won't easily forget. He was running the Queen, and going over empty, having smuggled aboard a staff officer who had missed the other vessel. It was darkening, and the Queen was about four miles off the British coast when this skipper saw dark hulls, blanched lines, and flaming funnels—all showing terrific speed. First, he took the strange craft to be new French destroyers; but they hailed him in English, and, of course, for an instant he thought then they were British warships, when suddenly it dawned on him. 'By God, they're Germans!' he ejaculated to the staff officer. 'Nip into the cabin, and get those clothes off and into an oilskin, fast as you like.'
"The army man got it done just in time, for an officer and two men from one of the German destroyers sprang aboard the Queen after the enemy warship had bumped the passenger craft. The German demanded the captain's papers, and was told that everything had been thrown overboard.
"The Germans were pale, and the pistol in the officer's hand shook dangerously. The skipper declared that the only papers relating to the Queen were in his cabin.
"'Get those papers, or I'll blow your head off,' said the German. Below, the captain moved his hand to his hip pocket to get his keys, the German started, and put the muzzle of his revolver close to the Britisher's head. As the captain was unlocking a drawer, the German again became suspicious, and warned the skipper. The Briton told the German to get the papers himself, and, finally, the useless document relating to the Queen was taken from the drawer. It was snatched up and pocketed by the German officer. Meanwhile, his men had fixed bombs in vital parts aboard the passenger craft, and the order was given to abandon ship.
"Just before the bang came and the Queen sank, the German decided that he wanted to take the skipper with him. Fortunately, the captain had been missed in their tremulous excitement. However, the Germans could not wait, and they had to go away without the skipper. It was an experience no man would forget; and the British of it is that this same man, who had a pretty good chance of spending many months in a German prison camp, is still guiding vessels flying our flag from France to England and England to France.
"In Boulogne, I had to take a train for Paris. It was the longest train I ever set eyes on. One end of it seemed to be in the dock station while the other was on the outskirts of the town. You can get an idea of its length when I say that it had to stop twice at all stations. There was no attempt at speed until we got within twenty miles of Paris."
In a railroad station in Paris this officer encountered a friend who was a commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, and the traveller thereupon decided that nobody could give him a better idea of the war in the brief time at his disposal than this man. Hence, after a dash to the hotel and taking chances of getting his suitcase, the sea-fighter, with only a tooth-brush and a piece of soap, finally joined the flying man, and off they went to the war. My naval friend continued:—
"War stared at us after we had passed through Chantilly, and on the way to Amiens we sped by forty or fifty ambulances. It was at the Cafe Gobert, in Amiens, that we got out of the automobile and had luncheon. That town was thronged with nonchalant women and blue-clad poilus. Following our refreshment, we continued our journey. We ran into soldiers and guns, aeroplanes, and more guns of all calibres; there must have been two miles of them in one batch that we passed on the way to Arras, as well as 'umpty' parks of lorries.
"The first steam engine that I got a chance of seeing since leaving England was an antiquated London, Chatham, and Dover locomotive attached to a long train of cars filled with provisions and so forth, helped out by Belgian and French engines. The rail-head, not far from that particular 'somewhere,' reminded me of Whiteley's shop in London. Then I observed a dozen fire-engines painted khaki colour. There were officers' baths, coal and wood on lorries, tents, and everything you can think of—and a lot you can't. Ammunition dumps were on our right and left, and the occasional gleam of a sentry's bayonet let you know that somebody was on watch.
"As I was the guest of the Royal Naval Air Service, it was naturally gratifying to come to the home of that service or section of it; the spot which had been barren land two days before was now the scene of great activity. Mess tents were comfortably fixed up, electric light being obtained from lorries. There were workshops on lorries. The Royal Flying Corps also had a station near by. These ingenious Air Service men do all their repairing on the spot. If a lorry gets stuck in the mud they just use enough lorries until they pull it out.
"Our Rolls-Royce darted into the air on one stretch of bad road. It bumped out our dynamo, and we made the rest of the way along the dark road behind a staff car.
"By that time there was no doubt but that we were at the war—passing between two lines of our heavy artillery on the snow covered ground. The splashes of fire—red on the glistening white—formed a memorable picture.
"Every now and again, the snow was lighted up by the star-shells, which hung in the air and then dropped like a rain of gold on the silver ground. The thunder of the guns was pleasing, and as each shell sped on its errand, the unforgettable scene became more beautiful, with the glow from the star-shells and the sight of men, silhouetted in the temporary light against the white-blanketed earth, going about their duty, as some of them had done for more than two and a half years. On we dashed, until we heard a challenging voice, and discerned a French poilu.
"'Aviation anglaise,' announced my friend. After satisfying himself, the sentry permitted us to continue on our way. A little further on, to our chagrin, we learned that a lorry had broken down on a bridge, and that if our car could not pass it, it would mean a detour of nine miles. However, our excellent chauffeur was equal to the occasion. After bending the mud-guards, following the taking of measurements, he drove the machine over in safety with not half an inch to spare.
"Guns boomed as they had been booming for thirty months. This gives you food for thought at the front. Finally, we came to Dunkirk, and there enjoyed uninterrupted repose after our long ride in the biting weather. Next morning I was up early, and before I had breakfast I watched a seaplane turning and twisting, riding first tail downward and then head downward, dropping a thousand feet, and then righting itself, and outdoing the looping-the-loop idea. I ventured commendation for this pilot's exploits.
"'Pretty good youngster,' said the commander. 'Soon be able to give him a journey he's been longing to have.'
"This youngster certainly seemed to me a past master in the flying art.
"My interest next was centred on several barges probing their way through the canal. They were manned by soldiers in khaki, and these soldier-sailors belonged to the I.W.T.—the Inland Water Transport.
"Later, I had the satisfaction of firing off one of the big guns at the Huns, and then of going into an observation post from whence we watched shells bursting on the German lines. The Germans were fairly silent, while we were putting over quite a lot of stuff. My next shot at the Boche was with 'Polly,' whose shell spat forth at her opposite number, known on our side of the lines as 'Peanought.'
"It was decidedly interesting in the trenches, almost as near the German lines as we are at any point. There was the occasional thunder of the artillery, coupled with the report of a rifle, which told that the sniper was on the job, and now and again the 'bang-zizz' of the German trench mortar projectile—known better as 'Minnie.'
"At the seaplane station I met a young officer who two days before had flown over from England in the early morning and was to dine that same night with friends in London. His only worry was that he might possibly miss the boat to take him back to keep the dinner engagement. Then there was a young man—eighteen years old, to be specific—who had accounted for thirteen of the enemy aeroplanes.
"My next experience was aboard a destroyer which took me to England. I had not worn an overcoat during my trip, but I was glad of a duffel coat on that speedy craft."
The commander glanced at his watch, and observed he had just half an hour in which to get to King's Cross Station.
Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note.