MAKE ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE PERILS OF THE SEA

In the _Gazette_ of July 1804 it appeared that Robert Blakeney,
gentleman, was appointed to an ensigncy in the 28th Regiment of
infantry. Relying on the delusive promise that zeal would meet certain
reward, I immediately joined my regiment near Cork, where they lay
encamped, forming part of a corps under command of Sir Eyre Coote. On
the second day after my joining, the whole of the troops marched to
Kinsale, and having taken up a position on some high ground looking
down on the bay, the men commenced firing ball with as much anxiety as
if the whole French flotilla, filled with ruthless invaders and headed
by Napoleon in person, were attempting a landing underneath. Some
seagulls were seen to fall, and it was confidently reported that many
others were wounded. As soon as the fight was over, the men sat down to
dine with all those proud feelings which soldiers are wont to entertain
after a victory. Never shall I forget the thrilling emotion which
agitated my whole frame at seeing the blood fall from the hand of one
of the soldiers, wounded through the clumsy manner in which he fixed
his flint. I eyed each precious drop that fell with glowing sensations
such as would blaze in the breast of a Napoleon on beholding an old
dynasty diadem, or inflame the heart of a Scot in contemplating a new
place in the Treasury.

I now became on the effective strength of the 1st Battalion, which I
joined the next year. Both battalions of the regiment were removed to
Parsonstown, and thence proceeded to the Curragh of Kildare, where
twenty thousand men were encamped under the command of Lord Cathcart.
Second lieutenants were now given to all first battalion companies,
so that immediately on our arrival here the three senior ensigns of
the regiment, Robert Johnson, Robert Blakeney and Charles Cadell, were
promoted; and thus I again joined the 2nd Battalion in camp. On the
breaking up of this encampment, the two battalions of the regiment were
separated. The 1st proceeded to Mallow and thence to Monkstown, where
they shortly after embarked for Germany in the expedition commanded by
the above-mentioned nobleman. The 2nd Battalion, to which I now again
belonged, were ordered to do garrison duty in Dublin.

[Sidenote: A USEFUL CAPTAIN.]

In the December of this year, being ordered to proceed to Exeter
on the recruiting service, I embarked on board the mercantile brig
_Britannia_, Captain Burrows, bound from Dublin to Bristol; and a more
ignorant drunken lubber never commanded a vessel. The wind, which
might be considered a fresh breeze at leaving the port, blew hard as
we entered the Bristol Channel, when our ignorant master nearly ran us
foul of Lundy Island, which more through good luck than able seamanship
we fortunately weathered. As we proceeded the gale became tremendous;
the billows rolled in majestic, yet horrific, grandeur over our heads,
sweeping everything off deck; and then the master, far from encouraging
the crew and by good example inspiring them with a due sense of the
duty which they had to perform, added to their terror and dispirited
all by his degrading and worse than useless lamentation, calling
aloud on his wife and children, then in Bristol. An attempt was made
to run the vessel into the small port of Ilfracombe, but this failed
through the ignorance and terror of the master. Still impetuously
driven forward, we approached the small village of Combemartin, when
a loud crash was heard, caused, if I recollect right, by striking
against a sandbank; and then the captain, in his usual consolatory
language, cried out that all was lost and every soul on board must
perish. A gentleman passenger now came down to the cabin, and, vainly
endeavouring to restrain his unwilling yet manly tears, embraced his
wife and two young children, who lay helpless in one of the berths.
The innocent little babes clung round his neck, beseeching him to take
their mamma and them on shore. He endeavoured to soothe their grief;
but that which he considered it to be his painful duty to impart was
most heartrending. He recommended them and his wife to remain tranquil
in their berths, saying that it was totally useless to attempt going
on deck, for all hope was lost, and that they should turn all their
thoughts to Heaven alone. The scene was excessively affecting, and
acted, I confess, more powerfully on my feelings than all the dangers
with which we were surrounded; for although I had lain the whole time
in my berth so overpowered with sea-sickness as to be incapable of
any exertion, I now started up and hurried on deck just as the brutal
drunken skipper was knocked down by a blow from the tiller whilst
trying to direct it. Urged by the impulse of the moment, I seized
the abandoned tiller, and moved it in the direction which I saw the
late occupant attempt. At this critical moment we descried a person
on horseback making signals. This gentleman, having witnessed our
failure to enter Ilfracombe, and foreseeing our inevitable destruction
should we be driven past Combemartin, rode at full speed along the
shore, waving his hat sometimes in one direction, sometimes in
another. Assisted by one of the passengers–I think a Mr. Bunbury (all
the sailors were now drunk)–I moved the tiller in conformity with
the signals made by the gentleman on shore, and in a short time we
succeeded in guiding the vessel through a very intricate and narrow
passage between rocks and banks, and finally ran her aground on a shoal
of sand. The storm still continuing to blow furiously, the vessel beat
violently from side to side against the sandbanks; but some men having
contrived to come off from the village, to which we were now close, and
fastening ropes to the mast, bound her fast down on one side, when the
whole crew got safe to land. We subsequently learned that eight vessels
were that morning wrecked in the Bristol Channel.

It must be allowed that much credit was due to the fishermen of
Combemartin for the alacrity they showed in giving us their assistance;
but it must also be confessed that while we remained for a few hours
in the village they appeared to be the rudest and most uncouth people
I ever met with in Great Britain. Every man in the village claimed to
be the first who came to assist us, and as such demanded a suitable
reward. Much of our luggage disappeared in being removed from the
vessel to the shore, and was heard of no more. The greater part of my
own goods, through my own ignorance of voyaging and the carelessness
and inattention of the master being left exposed on deck, was washed
away during the storm; but what money I possessed was luckily hoarded
up in my trousers pocket; and in truth my trousers were the only part
of my dress I had on during the whole time I was on deck assuming
the functions of pilot and captain, the skipper being in a state of
torpidity from fright and drunkenness. As soon as we could procure
means of transport, which took some hours, we proceeded to Ilfracombe;
for Combemartin was incapable of affording accommodation for so large a
party.

Credit was given to me for having saved the crew, but I took none to
myself. It was the first time I had ever been on board of any vessel
larger than an open fishing-boat, and I was consequently as ignorant of
steering a ship as of training an elephant. Any part I took, therefore,
was perfectly mechanical, and the inventive and true merit was solely
due to the gentleman on shore, by whose directions I was guided. Being
subservient to the will of another, I could have as little claim to
credit for judgment or plan, principle or reflection, as could a
wine-wagged billy-punch or a tail-voter in the House.

[Sidenote: A LESSON IN CHIVALRY.]

Next morning I proceeded to Exeter, but previous to my departure my
attention was called to two Dublin ladies, fellow passengers, who,
being bound direct for Bristol, were not prepared to meet the expenses
of a land journey thither. They appeared much distressed in mind, and
declared they would rather die than leave any part of their luggage in
pledge. I lent them a few guineas out of my own small stock, upon which
they took my address, promising to remit the money as soon as they
arrived at Bristol; but, gaining experience as I advanced, I found that
I should have taken their address, for I never after heard of or from
them.

After having remained some months in Devonshire on the recruiting
service, I was ordered to join the 1st Battalion of the regiment,
then quartered at Colchester, after their return from the fruitless
expedition into Germany. We did not long remain here. On July 24th of
the next year the regiment marched from Colchester to Harwich, and
there embarked to join a second expedition, commanded by Lord Cathcart.
So profoundly was our destination kept secret, and so ignorant were we
all of the object in view, that we could not even conjecture whither we
were going, until on August 8th we arrived in the Sound, and anchored
late that night close under Elsinore Castle, during the loudest storm
of thunder, accompanied by the most brilliant lightning, I ever
witnessed. At intervals the immense fleet, consisting of men-of-war,
transports and merchantmen, the islands of Zealand, the extent of the
Sound, together with the opposite Swedish coast, as if suddenly emerged
from darkest chaos, instantly became more visible than if lighted by
the noonday sun in all his splendour. These astonishing elemental
crashes and dazzling shows were as suddenly succeeded by deathlike
silence and darkness so impenetrable that not an individual could be
distinguished even by those who stood nearest on deck. Yet, although
the ground of the night was perfectly dark, still, guided by the vivid
flashes with which it was relieved, every vessel of this apparently
unwieldy fleet fell into her proper berth, and, duly measuring the
appropriate length of cable, swung securely to her anchor; and, strange
to say, not a single casualty took place through the whole. The scene
altogether was excessively grand, and truly presented what in hackneyed
poetic phrase is termed sublime. The jarring elements seemed to portend
evil to the descendants of Odin, nor were there wanting some with evil
eye who foreboded something rotten in the state of Denmark.

For some days the most friendly intercourse was maintained between the
inhabitants and the British officers. Parties from the fleet landed
daily, were hospitably received, and both liberally and cheerfully
provided with all such articles as could contribute to their comfort;
no suspicion of our hostile intentions was even conjectured by the
deluded Danes. At length, the true object of our designs being
suspected, a Danish frigate which lay near us slipped her cable on the
night of the 13th and contrived to get away in the dark; but on her
escape being discovered at daybreak, the _Comus_ sloop of war was sent
in pursuit. Since it was a dead calm, she was towed out by the boats of
the fleet.

The scene is still fresh in my memory, and I fancy that I see the long
line of boats manfully urged forward, our brave jolly tars, after
every two or three strokes of the oars, crying out, “Hurrah! hurrah!
for the Danish black frigate!” At length the _Comus_ came up with
her in the Cattegat on her way to Norway, and after a short conflict
brought her back a prize into her own port, and this hostile act put an
end to all further intercourse on friendly terms. Some English boats
which approached the shore next morning were fired at, and none were
thenceforward allowed to land.

On the 15th we dropped down to Humlebek, a village about seven miles
distant from Copenhagen; and on the following day, covered by seventeen
ships of the line, a proportionate number of frigates, gunboats, etc.,
commanded by Admiral Gambier, the military commanded by Lord Cathcart
landed with fire and sword upon ground suddenly considered hostile. No
previous intimation of intended hostility was given, as is customary
amongst all civilised nations, when real injuries have been suffered,
or imaginary ones held forth as a pretext for political aggression.

At this village (Humlebek) it was that a hundred and seven years
previous to this our attack the Alexander of the north landed from the
_King Charles_, the largest ship then known to the waves and carrying
one hundred and twenty guns. Here it was that this extraordinary man
heard for the first time the whistling of bullets. Ignorant of the
cause, he asked General Stuart by whom he was accompanied; and the
general with characteristic frankness answered, “It is the whistling
of bullets fired at your Majesty.” “Good,” replied the warlike young
monarch; “henceforth it shall be my music.”

But how different were the motives which urged the hostile descent in
1700 from those which inspired our attack in 1807–as different as was
the beardless Charles, not yet eighteen, in the bloom of youth, with
the fiery martial genius which soon made him the terror of Europe,
and burning with anger at national aggression and personal insult,
from our leader, who was already descending into the vale of years,
and who could have felt no greater stimulus than military discipline
in strictly obeying orders which he probably disapproved! Military
excitement there was none. On our landing, no whistling bullets
greeted the veteran’s ear, nor inspired the young soldier to deeds of
deathless glory. Laurels there were none to reap, for the defence of
the capital depended principally on undisciplined militia and young
students at college. To add still further to the contrast, the Swedes
landed as open and declared foes, whereas we, coming with no less
hostile intent, professed ourselves bosom friends.

On the night of our landing (August 16th) we advanced through a
lofty forest. During our march an alarm was given that the foe were
approaching. Orders were instantly issued to load with ball and fix
bayonets, when many a sleek-chinned boy lost or gained the flush on
his cheek. I now forget in which class I ranked, as, with many others
present, it was the first time I expected to come in contact with a
national foe, for such the Danes were some few hours before declared.
The alarm proved false, and we felt grievously disappointed or happily
consoled, according to the feelings of the individual.

[Sidenote: A SECOND LESSON IN CHIVALRY.]

Next morning we continued our march towards the capital; but ere
we reached the immediate vicinity of Copenhagen our march was
interrupted by an occurrence not ordinary in warfare. A dense column
of dust proclaimed the advance of some large body, which we naturally
considered to be hostile. Horsemen were soon discovered, when we
immediately formed in battle array; but we soon learned that the
approaching foe were no other than a civic cavalcade, who escorted
the Royal Princesses of Denmark to a place of safety, having been by
special permission allowed to retire from the scene of premeditated
slaughter. The royal carriages slowly advanced, accompanied by many
of the principal nobility of Denmark, and attended by a small escort
of dragoons. The unfortunate Princesses wept bitterly, as did many
of the nobles who were with them. In witnessing their grief it was
impossible to remain unmoved. The whole appeared a sorrowful funeral
procession, although all were living bodies. As the royal mourners
passed between our hostile ranks, arms were presented, colours dropped
and bands played the National Anthem, “God save the King,” thus adding
to the poignancy of their woe by vain pageant and heartless courtesy.
This distressing ceremony being ended, we pushed forward, and, having
arrived before the destined town, each corps took up their proper
position.

Our station was near the village of Frederiksborg, in a wheatfield
whose golden ears o’ertopped the tallest grenadier; the stems we
trampled down for bedding, giving the grain to our sumpter animals.

This being the first time I ever adventured from the shores of Great
Britain, everything was new to me and consequently enjoyed. I saw
the first Congreve rockets ever fired against an enemy. They seemed
reluctant to add to the conflagration, many of them in the midst of
their orbit turning back to whence they were sped. I witnessed the
fall of the lofty and majestic steeple, bearing the three crowns,
awfully tumbling down among the blazing ruins. The loud and tremendous
crash, heard for miles around, was terrific; and it must have been a
heartrending spectacle to the proud and patriotic Danes, who witnessed
the destruction of such a noble monument of national grandeur.
Immediately after the deafening crash, still growling in the distance,
suddenly there arose an immense body of fire, which, detaching itself
from the ruins, illumined the whole island, blazing in spiral form
towards the heavens, as if to demand retribution. I saw well the
splendour of the scene, being that night an outlying piquet with
Captain (now Sir Frederick) Stovin. In the meantime the inhabitants
were most liberally served with shells, shot and rockets.

While the siege was thus actively carried forward, a report was made
that some Danish troops, so called, had occupied in hostile array an
eminence in our immediate vicinity. A detachment were immediately sent
against them, of which one wing of the 28th Regiment formed a part,
and in this wing I was a feather. On our arrival at the base of this
eminence we did actually discover a confused multitude congregated on
the summit; but upon our preparing to charge they instantly took flight.

[Sidenote: ABANDONED PONTOONS.]

The affair, although of no consequence, was not unattended with
trophies. On the ground occupied by the discomfited Danes were found
many old rusty sword-blades, and very many pairs of wooden shoes, with
which the Danish troops were loosely shod, for, becoming nervous at the
threatened charge, they freed themselves from those encumbrances and
fled in light marching order, determined, if closely pursued, rather
to attempt swimming across the Belt than carry further their cumbrous
pontoons. The proud victors returned to the trenches.

For what took place in the interior of the island, since I was not
there, I will refer the curious to the despatches written home on the
occasion, wherein these skirmishes or manœuvres, if I recollect right,
are in glowing language fully detailed. All our batteries–constructed
generally in the most beautiful and highly cultivated gardens,
belonging to the nobility and wealthy citizens of Copenhagen–opened
their fire on September 1st, which with but little intermission
continued until the 6th. On the 7th, when about to be stormed, the
capital surrendered, after having four hundred houses, several
churches, and many other splendid buildings destroyed, and eleven
hundred inhabitants of all ages and sexes killed.

As soon as the first paroxysms of furious excitement, wild despair
and just indignation of the unfortunate inhabitants had somewhat
abated, a certain number of officers from each regiment, with written
passports, were permitted to visit the still smoking city. The
spectacle was lamentable and well calculated to rouse every feeling
of sympathy. Many houses were still smouldering, and in part crumbled
to the ground; mothers were bewailing the melancholy fate of their
slaughtered children, and there was not one but deplored the loss of
some fondly beloved relative or dearly valued friend. Yet they received
us with dignified, though cool courtesy, in part suppressing that
horror and antipathy which they must have felt at our presence, though
some indeed exclaimed that their sufferings were the more aggravated
as being inflicted contrary to the laws of all civilised nations. The
unfortunate sufferers seemed not to reflect that war was will, not law.

In less than six weeks after the fall of Copenhagen (which time was
occupied in rendering the Danish ships seaworthy, and spoiling its
well-stored arsenal to the last nail and minutest rope-yarn) we
departed, carrying away with us, as prizes, eighteen sail of the line,
fifteen frigates, five brigs, and twenty gunboats.

It would be useless to enter into further detail on this painful
subject. The partial conflagration of the Danish capital, and the rape
of her fleet by her friends the British, are already too well known
throughout Europe, as well as the reasons adduced in vindication,
namely “precaution”–surely a most unjustifiable policy. The great
Aristides, characteristically called the “just,” would have spurned
the proposal of such ignoble policy, as may be seen by his celebrated
reply to the treacherous proposition of Themistocles to burn the fleet
of their allies. Aristides, being deputed by the assembly to ascertain
the proposition of Themistocles, who would deliver it only in secret,
on his return declared that nothing could tend more to the advantage
of Athens than the proposition of Themistocles, nor could anything
be more unjust. The high-spirited people of Athens, indignant that a
proposition of such nature should be mooted, rejected it with contempt,
not deigning even to listen to its import.

The descent on Copenhagen was a flagrant outrage of that divine precept
which inculcates that “that which is morally wrong can never be
politically right.”