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1. The Fight

It was the 17th September 1894.

Off the mouth of the Yalu river — in the bight where the Korean Peninsula touches China — lay at anchor the Chinese fleet. Inside the mouth of the river were the transports, the disembarkation from which it was the fleet's object to cover. Not many miles distant on the Korean seaboard fighting was in progress between the soldiers of Japan and China. The little David of the islands had challenged and attacked the sick Goliath of the Continent.

On board the flagship — the battleship Ting Yuen — an air of cheerfulness pervaded most on that fine September morning.

It cannot be said that hopes rose high even with the most sanguine of us; for was there not the damning fact of the shortage of projectiles, and, with the reputation he already possessed, what might not Liu Poo-chin — the Commodore — do or fail to do ? But at all events there was a certainty now of something happening. The army had failed as it was bound to fail, and the stake of the fleet, so far delayed, was to be played.

On it alone now lay the fate of China; on it, had we but known it, depended more: the epoch of a series of world events that led to the Great War.

The air of cheerfulness was mostly with the seamen. How brisk and smart they were; how lovingly they decorated their guns in various ways. No doubt about their eagerness could be felt. The officers in their cloth top-boots, baggy trousers and semi-foreign coats with the dragon stripes and the coloured buttons of their rank, were not so cheerful. They had the knowledge of how much we were handicapped, and there was, besides, that thing so indescribable, the enervating permeance of mandarinism. Yet there were really good men among them. Li Ting-sing, the Commander, in his quiet way was one; Woo, the Flag-Lieutenant, nicknamed the Stork,' great wag and American student; Lieutenants Shin and Kao of the flagship; Tsao, executive officer of our sister ship Chen Yuen; Captain Tang, who went down in the Chih Yuen, and many others, whose names I now forget, were notably good officers in every way. But, all in all, it can be said that in fighting qualities the men of the deck and engine-room staffs were excellent, the warrant officers generally good, and the commissioned officers, with however many exceptions, least so and it was mandarinism that caused this difference in fighting value.

Ting, the Admiral, revered as a chief, respected and admired as an official and a friend, was praying to his gods for the success of his beloved country, and particularly that Liu Poo-chin, his Commodore and technical right hand, might not fail him; for Ting with his lack of technical knowledge of ships was in effect a sort of First Lord of the Admiralty afloat.

Von Hanneken, the German Co-Admiral, walked the deck with thoughtful and anxious mien. He was a man of long and trusty service with the Chinese and of great capacity and daring; his responsibility was felt the more by reason of the burlesque touch of his position, for he also was no sailor.

And Liu Poo-chin, the Commodore, Flag-Captain and virtual Admiral — suave, polished, clever, trained in the British Navy — was considering how, if the enemy were met, his skin could best be saved.1
1 — It is with some degree of compunction that I let stand this and other definite statements of Liu Poo-chin's mentality that of course can only be inferred; but the inference is overpowering to me.

Eight bells had struck, the boatswain had piped to dinner, and it was a roast pigeon that I sat down to in solitary state. Such is memory. An officer burst into the room. The Japanese are in sight, sir.' On deck the crew poured up from below to look at the faint columns of smoke on the horizon. On the bridge, whither I hurried, were gathered the Admiral, the Commodore and von Hanneken. A brief consultation as to time available; again the pipe to dinner sounded and the men streamed down below once more. The Flag-Lieutenant stayed busy with his signals, and already the funnels of the fleet were belching out the heavy smoke of our Tongshan coal.

It took but little time to have that meal. Followed a very busy time for me — guns, magazines, projectiles, cartridges and fire precautions — all were in order, requiring only glancing at. No time for other things in that half-hour; but then I joined the party on the bridge. The anchor was being housed, the great ship throbbed slightly under the initial impulse of her engines; flags were fluttering aloft; black volumes trailed to leeward from the funnels of the fleet. And there to the southward was now not merely a cloud of smoke but a string of vessels emitting it. The moment was at hand; but new impressions could not claim attention then.

Was everything all right ? I looked around.

Below me was the low and rounded summit of the conning- tower with its upper entrance; within it, close to that entrance, stood the Commodore alongside the steering quartermaster.

On the forepart of the flying-bridge, which reached the foremast and lay partly over the diagonally placed pairs of ten-inch guns, stood the Admiral and von Hanneken. Not much longer must they stay there, for the flying-bridge was a half-permanent structure, which would be destroyed when the barbette guns were fired right ahead. What of the other vessels ? Were they smartly taking station ?

My heart stopped beating. The Chen Yuen was on our quarter and hastening up as if she wished to get abeam; and the movements of the other vessels were similarly strange. The signal, which had ordered the disposition of the fleet, was at that moment coming down. A glance at it confirmed the fear I felt. The signal was for Line Abreast with leaders in the middle instead of Line Ahead of Sections, as had been decided by the Admiral in consultation with his captains.

Liu Poo-chin had made his coup. Here the result of the deep and anxious thought as to how, when we met the enemy, his skin could best be saved. With the battleships in the centre and the weakest vessels on the wings, the enemy would give the latter first attention; it would be a respite for a time, for an hour perhaps or more; it would avoid the immediate concentrating fire on his ship that would result from Line Ahead. Of course, an incomplete solution of his problem, but the best that he could do.

On the forepart of the flying-bridge stood the Admiral and von Hanneken. Obviously they had not, so far, realized the situation. Then it jumped to my mind that on me — junior and inexperienced as I was — depended action. What I advised would probably be done. Was the treacherous act to be amended or was it to be allowed to stand ? Quickly I made up my mind. The unexpected signal had already caused confusion in the fleet; to alter it would make confusion worse confounded; I feared disintegration. The lesser evil was to let the signal stand. Right or wrong, that was the view I took and acted on. I leapt the conning-tower and joined my chiefs.

'The Commodore has made the wrong signal; it is Line Abreast, leaders in the middle; look at the fleet; but to alter it now would make confusion worse.' And this view was adopted.

Meanwhile the line abreast formation was not completed.

The weak wing vessels, feeling the tragedy of their position, hung back, and thus our fleet assumed a crescent shape. The fleets approached. They were perhaps ten thousand yards apart, and, moving as they were, the Japanese would cross ahead of us and fall on our weakest wing, the starboard one.

Obviously a needed order was for our fleet to alter course together four points to starboard. It was by no means certain that it would bring our battleships in first contact with the enemy, but it would tend in that direction. The Commodore would never recommend the move, the Admiral and von Hanneken would hardly see the need; and, whatever others thought, not one would dare to make suggestions. So once again I joined my chiefs and offereel my advice, and again it was adopted. Von Hanneken moved aft to instruct the Flag- Lieutenant and remained there with him. Up went the signal; the answering pennants flew from the several vessels; and then down came our flags as the indication that the ships should alter course.

I stood above the entrance to the conning-tower below which was the Commodore, and waited for the movement of the helm. None came. Commodore, the signal to alter course has been hauled down. If you do not port at once you will put the fleet in worse confusion.' The Commodore then gave the order Port,' but in a lower voice said Steady, steady,' resulting in the movement being stopped. Sick with rage, I flung a curse at him, jumped the conning-tower top and ran to Ting. I hardly realized that he was now alone, and that I could not speak to him — I knew but little Chinese and he knew no English. I reached the Admiral's side, and then a roar of sound and then oblivion; for Liu had given the order for the ten-inch barbette guns to fire, and Ting and I were standing on the flying-bridge immediately above them. That bridge was quite well named: it flew, and so did Ting and I.

And that was how the Yalu battle opened.

The opposing fleets were not ill-matched. The Chinese had ten vessels large and small,including the two well-armoured battleships.

On the Japanese side were twelve vessels, which were more modern than those of the Chinese and with a much greater fleet speed, but they included no battleships. In guns above six-inch the Chinese carried the heavier weight; in puns of six-inch and under, the Japanese had a great preponderance.

Thus the Chinese fleet, so far as guns and armour were concerned, was at least equal to that of the enemy. Gunnery was fair; discipline left something to be desired, but the seamen could be counted on to fight well. The very serious factor was the outrageous lack of ammunition. For this lack there was reason to believe that not merely negligence, but actual treachery on the part of the Arsenal Directorate was to blame. This shortage of ammunition was without doubt known to the Japanese and a factor in their challenge. Another serious factor — as yet but partly known — was that Liu Poo-chin, the Commodore, on whom the Admiral must rely for technics, was a pathological coward, not merely in the face of danger but in scheming to avoid it at whatever cost. So without question, we on the Chinese side, were handicapped considerably.

The fight began at one o'clock. I have no first-hand evidence of the movements of the fleets; it was quite impossible to gain impression of them. Moreover I was completely blind in one eye — for the day — as the result of that opening salvo.

My view of what went on was limited to seeing — more or less continuously — through clouds of smoke and the splashing water caused by the rain of Japanese projectiles — one or more of the enemy vessels. From the beginning, for the reason given, the Chinese fleet was in a disordered crescent-shaped formation, with the two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen at its apex. Any possibility of remedying this condition was prevented by the destruction of all our signalling apparatus during the first half-hour under the concentrated fire of the Japanese. Throughout the fight the enemy was as orderly as in manoeuvres; in general it appears to have circled round us, we steaming on an inner circle. Gradually the vessels on that inner circle became, from one cause or the other, fewer and fewer. The Japanese lost no vessels, but several were severely damaged and left the scene. At about half-past five the enemy broke off the fight and steamed to the Korean coast, leaving the remnants of the Chinese fleet alone, and that remnant then proceeded to Port Arthur.

No authoritative reason for this discontinuance of the battle — there was about another hour of daylight — appears to have been made known, but a reasonable supposition is that the failure of the concentrated fire of the Japanese fleet over a period of four and a half hours to disable the two battleships was a large factor in the decision.

Of our fleet of ten but four were left, and one of these was gutted out by fire. Three were sunk by gunfire, including the Chih Yuen commanded by the gallant Tang, who, believing in close quarters, tried to ram the Yoshino and failed. With him sank poor Purvis. Two fled incontinently at the beginning of the fight; another I cannot account for.

And as we turned and steamed away I tried to form a judgment on the situation. The breaking off of the battle by the enemy meant damage to their vessels; they had no dock at hand; almost certainly the crippled ones would beach on the Korean coast: could not our two battleships turn round and fall upon them in the morning ? We still had ammunition for another hour. It was the one and only chance that still remained for China, and I thought of that sound fighting rule, not to underestimate one's opponents' possible distress. If I made suggestions to that end would they be carried out ?

Perhaps, for Ting would have agreed to anything we asked.

Von Hanneken ? Perhaps, but I never knew. I kept my judgment to myself. A chance for something great, and I missed that chance from inability to rise above the strain and above the pain of concussion of the eyes, the violent spasms that accompanied it, and the rupture of both ear drums. Von Hanneken was wounded in the thigh, and Ting was badly crushed. There was also the factor of the Commodore; and so we took defeat.

What was the explanation of the Commodore's act in opening fire while the Admiral and I were standing — well in sight — over the ten-inch guns ? I never knew and I never heard the thing discussed. Where the Admiral fell I do not know. His leg was crushed, and of course he was much shaken. He objected to being taken to a cabin, and sat upon the deck inside the superstructure where he could see men working and be seen by them.

By that opening salvo I was catapulted over the conning-tower for a distance of thirty feet or more. Consciousness was gained with sense of total blindness and the roar of battle. My coat had been blown off me except that my hands were still encased in the sleeves, now inside out. Dazedly the realization of the cause of my plight, and dazedly wonderment as to what would now happen to me. Then came the joy of returning sight in one eye, and the agony of recurrent spasms in the other — a splinter, of course, and a big one, but fumbling with my fingers failed to find it.

It was inside the superstructure, where I had been carried to and dumped — presumably as dead — that I found myself.

Bruised and stiff but uninjured in limb I made my way to the armoured flat above the engine-room, which now served for sick-bay. It was very dark; but dull oil lamps. Doctor, I have a splinter in my eye, please pull it out.' I was led by him to a lamp and told there was no splinter. It is too dark here, you cannot see; let us go amidships' — where through the shell gratings, like heavy boiler fire-bars, light filtered as well as falling debris and the roar of guns and bursting shell. Ah, you are scared, are you ? Well, come again to your damned lamp. . . . What, no splinter ? You lie, blast you. You cannot see, that's what's the matter.'

What follows is not a pretty story, but so sharp in detail does it linger in my mind that I risk the telling of it. Remember that I had lost my consciousness in raging anger at the cowardice of one; and now, as I believed, the cowardice of another stood in the way of relief from pain that was a very hell. Another foul spasm — and there that long and scraggy neck that spoke of opium. — In frenzied pain and rage I flew at it, grasped it with both hands and tried to wring it, both struggling on the deck — a nightmare of madness and sheer futility, for my hands but slithered round that weak thin neck, which now seemed made of steel. Reason returned; relief at failure; shame for the attempt; apologies briefly worded and I tottered to the ladder whence I came. I could not mount it; men came to my assistance and pushed me up. Then came the realization of my weakness and how that weakness had preserved me from a beastly deed. Let it be said that there was no splinter; it was concussion that had caused the pain.

My replaced coat torn up the back, minus a cap, and one eye bandaged, I moved from group to group of gunners. There was little I could do but put on an air of fortitude I did not feel. Fear ? Yes, fear. Not that cold oppressive fear that shivers up the spine and weighs down on the stomach; not that fear that paralyses limb and mind; and not that glorious fear which gives the undermind control and whets the wit and makes for sense of power. No, not these, but that minor fear where an effort must be made to cause the head and not the nerves to guide — for round about are the loathsome things of bloody war with which the world is now but too familiar.

And in the conning-tower there brooded the only fear that rightly can be called obscene — the fear that hatches schemes for safety by the sacrifice of others That fear was felt by Liu Poo-chin.

I now met Woo, the Flag-Lieutenant, who was one of those who showed himself on deck though he might well have harboured in the conning-tower. Just then a man was killed close by and made a nasty mess. So this is civilization; this is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us; but let me tell you this: if I escape this day I shall be an advocate of arbitration.'

Later I felt as if a red-hot iron had touched my head. No blood; the skin was merely grazed, presumably by the smooth curved fragment of a bursting shell. That was the nearest approach to being wounded by the enemy, though half of those exposed were killed.

The sea for some short distance towards the enemy boiled with the turmoil of splashing shot, which ricochetting overhead made the fighting tops most undesirable spots where every one was killed. Through this spray and through the drifting smoke the enemy were seen at varying distances. The sights are on one fires and waits the proper interval to see the splash perhaps; that splash means failure; if a hit is made, there is no sign except it be with ten-inch shell. One of those large projectiles — those solitary three — got home in the bowels of the Matsushima and wrecked but did not sink her. It was Heckman on the other battleship who claimed the credit of that shot.

At the barbettes the monster guns were belching flame and smoke and pumping out those sadly little practice shell. The crews were grimly cheerful. No slightest sign of fear among these men. One was wounded somewhat badly as I looked on and was told to go below and stay there. On the next visit to this gun the wounded man — bandaged and partly disabled — was busy with his work.

In the 'tween-decks cartridges were gathered for the light gun battery. I was passing by when a penetrating shell scattered the stock, and the working party fled expecting an explosion. Just then a little ammunition boy, who had been carrying with another a six-inch shell, stood frantic because his mate had run. With anxious eagerness he let me know as best he could that the after six-inch gun was short of shell.

A charming smile of thanks, as for a favour granted, showed on his face when his mate's place was taken by myself. In later years, to my surprise, I found this story of the boy embodied in a poem.

At the barbette guns von Hanneken looked on. He, too, was one of those who stayed on deck among the men, although there was little he could do save giving an example; and he had been somewhat badly wounded early in the fight. He saw his junior, and they talked. What had each seen ? What were the grounds for the statement that some Japanese had sunk ? The evidence was not enough to draw conclusions.

Poor Nicholls lay a mangled wreck. ' Pain ? No, no pain, but I know that I am finished; for God's sake don't let me be taken to that awful flat. Let me die here in peace where I can see the fight. Now go about your job and don't mind me.' Thus spoke the British sailor. I concurred, but rigged a tourniquet and applied a pad; and perhaps poor Nicholls had as good a chance on deck as in the flat. But slowly he sank as from time to time I visited him, and later had his pain and asked for morphia and got it; and spoke about his daughter and what he wished about her: and so he died.

In a passage sat the Admiral. His injury was such he could not walk or stand; but where he sat he saw men passing. He smiled at them and made remarks, which sent them on their way more cheerful. I came by, and in broken Chinese and in broken English we exchanged encouragement. Then with a hand-touch of sympathy, of deference and of admiration, I passed sadly on, thinking of the pathos of poor Ting's position.

Once or twice were grateful intermissions in the fight of ten or fifteen minutes, and I thought of half-time in a football match or, more, the calm that is in the middle of a storm; but apart from these the fight went on from one to half-past five.

At that time came what seemed to be another intermission.

Ting's fleet — the little that was left of it — was steaming east, the enemy were all ahead of it. The distance increased; the enemy were out of range. Then came the realization that it was not an intermission but the finish of the fight. Relief — unexpected and immense. Short time before the heavy load of something more than uncertainty. The dwindled numbers of the Chinese ships; the question of the stock of shell and cartridges; the continuous concentrated fire from a still considerable number of the enemy, gave no great promise of another day for us. And now not only surcease from the strain of danger but even hope of some success attained, for there were those who vouched for having seen some enemy vessels sink.

Von Hanneken and I celebrated the event with champagne and biscuits on the ladder leading to the bridge, and took note of the difference this implied between a fight on shore and one at sea.

Throughout the vast jazz music of the fight there ran for me a thread of Tennysonian rhythm. So all day long the noise of battle rolled ' — perhaps a youthful sense of saga, but very potent; for that rhythm remains persistent in my mind for all that happened on that day, and shapes the diction of this tale against my will.

Regarding the nature of my story there is this to be remembered. For one who fights among his fellows and for his country there are certain inhibitions in description. He is one of hundreds, thousands, millions, and he may not be able, for good reasons, to tell his tale in full; but for the mere adventurer those inhibitions do not hold to the same degree.

He stood alone or largely so, and what he did bulks largely in his eyes, and naturally so. The whole psychology is different. And let it be noted how very different are their circumstances — the one supported by a sense of duty and by devotion to his country, and surrounded by his kind; but with no reward, except by some uncommon chance. The other alone, and with little to support him other than the spirit of adventure, and often feeling foolish for being where he is; but, on the other hand, with prospects of reward perhaps out of all proportion to his services.

It remains to be added that the reason for the crescent- shaped formation of the Chinese fleet is here recorded for the first time.