Chapter 1: Glory and Agony
Lt. Jeremiah Anson took one last look around the dimly lit gun deck. All port side guns had a full crew of eight whilst the starboard side 18-pounders were manned by crews of five, the minimum. Then again, the looming action would be to the port side. He crouched low to peer through the nearest gun port and saw the damaged French two-decker trying to make its way to safety. She would be their target.
His presumption was confirmed when a runner came down from the quarter deck.
"Mr. Anson, sir! Captain Merle's compliments and will you open fire to port as soon as your guns bear!"
"Very well, Mr. Snell. My compliments to the Captain and I shall open fire in a minute or two."
"Aye-aye, sir!" the young volunteer shouted and ran back up the companionway.
HMS Odin was part of Lord Nelson's rearguard, a 36-gun frigate with 18-pounders on her gun deck and large bore carronades on her fo'c's'le and quarter deck. Her class was among the most powerful of the British frigates, but it was still craziness to attack a ship of the line, even if she was a damaged 74-gun Frenchman.
Yet, Captain Merle was ambitious and he had not yet won a knighthood. A successful action against a superior foe would earn him the coveted star and sash of a Knight Companion of the Bath.
Again looking through the gun port, Anson could see that the Frenchman was altering course to larboard. Instead of showing its towering stern, the two rows of gun ports came into view. Anson stood up.
"Port side gun captains! Enemy a half cable length athwart! Quoins out! Take aim!"
He waited for the gun captains to raise their arms. "On level keel, fire!"
Thirteen 18-pounder guns discharged within a few seconds causing a horrible din in the confined space of the gun deck. Anson had wax in his ears to protect his eardrums, but his ears were still ringing. The roar of the quarter deck and fo'c's'le carronades came only seconds later. The smoke from the guns was wafting across the deck and out to port masking the enemy for almost a minute. By then, the guns were swabbed, reloaded and trained again. The French ship was showing her broadside now with her guns run out. Better not wait!
"Take aim! Stand back! On level keel, fire!"
Again, the thirteen guns of the port side battery discharged, overwhelming the men with their thunder and dense smoke. Into that thick smoke crashed the French broadside. Bursting wood, ringing metal, and screaming men formed a cacophony of sounds that shook Anson deeply. He forced himself to function.
"Loblolly boys! Get those wounded down! Gun crews! Swab out and load! Come on you men! Let's show them what gunnery is!"
It was a weak enough effort at cheering the men up, but they responded. The constant gun drills and the iron discipline made them perform their duties in spite of the terror in their hearts. Like a precise machine, the gun crews kept loading and firing whilst the frigate drew closer to the enemy.
The young volunteer must have been tugging at Anson's sleeve for some time, but he only noticed it now.
"Sir, sir! Captain Merle's down. He took a wood splinter to the groin, sir."
"Where's Mr. Croft?" Anson shot back. Croft was the First Lieutenant.
"He was smashed by a round shot! Torn to pieces he was, sir! There's nobody on the quarterdeck save for the master."
Anson looked about. His second in command on the gun deck, the third lieutenant Mr. Carlin, was only a boy of eighteen, a recent promotion, but he would have to take over.
"Mr. Carlin, take command down here! I'll be on the quarterdeck."
He made his way along the gun deck and up the companionway to the quarterdeck. Mr. Tully, the sailing master, was standing beside the wheel. The marines were manning the sides, and the gun crews of the quarterdeck guns were busy loading and firing. Things were not as bad as he had feared.
Tully was doing his duty. The Odin was crossing the Frenchman's stern, and there was nothing the French captain could do about that. Time to hit them hard!
"Mr. Snell! My compliments to Mr. Carlin, and we're crossing the Frogs' stern at pistol shot range. Will he double-shot the guns and give passing honours!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" the boy shouted and ran down into the inferno of the gun deck.
The French ship was badly handled as Anson could see. Not even two thirds of her guns were operated properly, and the sails were not well trimmed. She must have been in action against one of her British counterparts and made her escape badly damaged.
Not for long though. Odin was now crossing her stern at half pistol shot distance.
"Back the tops'ls!" Anson roared.
Odin slowed, and starting with the foremost 18-pounder, her main deck guns and carronades opened up. Again, smoke was billowing around them, but here on the quarterdeck it did not block the view altogether. The stern gallery of the enemy took a punishment as every shot found its mark. The 32-pounder carronade on the quarterdeck bellowed, and the grapeshot hit the stern at main deck level, probably wreaking terrible havoc.
Now they were past the Frenchman.
"Ready to go about!" Anson shouted.
Odin had barely enough speed for the rudder to bite, but she gibed nicely, and then they prepared to pass the Frenchman a second time, now with their fresh starboard battery. The frigate handled much better and was much faster than the heavily damaged ship of the line, and they were able to deliver another series of crippling blows into their enemy's stern.
Through the dense smoke came the shape of another ship. Anson recognised her as one of their own, HMS Undine, 32. She was coming up to the starboard side of the French ship. Anson saw that she was preparing for boarding. It was indeed time to finish the enemy.
"Port side gun crews! Arm yourselves and prepare for boarding! Starboard battery, load canister!" he ordered almost giddy with excitement. They would board and take a 74-gun ship, and he was in command! Glory and advancement were only a narrow strip of water away. One last time, he checked the priming in his pistols and stuck them back into his belt. Then he unsheathed his utilitarian sword and dropped the scabbard to the deck. Now they were close, and Anson could see French sailors ready to repel them.
"Starboard battery, fire!" he almost screamed with suppressed excitement. A staggered broadside followed, and the French either took cover or were swept away by the hailstorm of musket balls.
"Mr. Tully, lay her alongside! Topmen, ready to lock the yards! Grapnels ready!"
The approach seemed to take an eternity, but once they were alongside, things happened at dizzying speed. They bumped against the much higher side of the 74, the grapnels were thrown, and then Odin's crew scrambled like madmen up the Frenchman's side, with Anson in the lead as was proper. They made it to the upper gun deck and turned aft. Only a handful of French sailors blocked their path and were overwhelmed, and then they had taken the quarterdeck.
A quartermaster took the wheel and started to turn the ship into the wind while Odin's crew began to sweep the upper gun deck. Here, the French crews were more numerous, but now Undine came alongside and spewed a boarding party onto the Frenchman's deck. In a matter of minutes, the waist was clear of organised resistance, but a pocket of brave French still held the fo'c's'le.
They were closing in on them when suddenly a smoke cloud billowed from the fo'c's'le. Anson had received a minor cut on his thigh and was holding it with his left hand when a load of canister from a swivel gun hit him. In horror, he looked down at what had been his left hand and at the now gaping wound in his thigh. It took all his strength to remain on his feet, but he had to keep going. Young Carlin would never get the Odin away, and their hard-won victory would disappear like the smoke of a gun.
"Get those men on the fo'c's'le!" he croaked, and a bunch of seamen stormed up and dispatched the small crew of the swivel gun. "You there, tie up my arm!"
Suddenly, there was a young French lieutenant in front of Anson whilst a sailor did his best to put a tourniquet on the stump of Anson's arm.
"Je me rends!" the French almost whimpered. His coat was torn and blood soaked from a chest wound.
"Will you strike, sir?" Anson was able to ask.
The young officer nodded. Anson turned to young Mr. Snell. "Get Mr. Carlin! And find me a surgeon's mate!"
The pain was setting in by now where his left hand had been, and his leg wound was bleeding profusely. He would probably die, he realised. He felt lightheaded already and weak. He looked at the French lieutenant and saw the same thoughts in the man's eyes.
"Bugger!" he said with a forced smile.
"Merde!" the young lieutenant agreed.
A British captain made his way aft then.
"I am Captain Thorn, HMS Undine. I believe it best if I took ... Good God, Lieutenant! That's a grievous wound! Please, I beg you, find a surgeon before you bleed to death!"
With a seasoned captain taking over, Anson could surrender to the dizziness that encroached on him. He found a surgeon's mate at his arm who led him across the deck and to the bulwark.
"The Doctor's already waiting, sir, Mr. Anson," he spoke soothingly. "Better not let him wait too long."
The agonies of the following hours would remain branded into his mind for the rest of his life. Mr. Samuels, the ship's surgeon, was not a butcher. He was a wise and knowledgeable man. Working in the captain's cabin, he amputated the left hand right at the wrist before he carefully patched the torn flesh of the left thigh. The bone had been scratched but not broken, but the lacerations were substantial. Samuels did his very best, but he was dubious as to whether Anson would ever have much use of his left leg again.
Meanwhile, driven by the untiring Vice Admiral Sir Cuthbert Collingwood, the British officers and crews slaved to bring the battle-torn ships through a storm, and afterwards to patch them up for the return to England.
Acting-captain Jeremiah Anson was barely conscious during those days. The surgery had left him weak and exhausted, and he drifted in and out of feverish sleep for almost a week.
Captain Thorn had sent his second lieutenant, a Mr. Onedin, over to lead young Mr. Carlin who had to grow up terribly fast. With the help of the sailing master and the surviving master's mates, they was able to bring both Odin and their prize La Gallante through the storm. Odin had not suffered too much in the battle, but her prize had the pumps going almost constantly. The French prisoners worked themselves raw to keep the ship afloat for the victors.
Captain Merle had died under the surgeon's knife even before they fired their last broadside, and Lt. Croft had been killed instantly even earlier. This left Anson in command since Mr. Onedin was junior to him. Therefore, in his few lucid moments, Anson dictated a report to the late Captain Merle's secretary. His signature was little more that a feeble scribble, but still the report went to the admiral over his name. He made certain to give praise to Mr. Tully and to Lt. Carlin, the former for keeping order on the quarterdeck, and the latter for doing his very best. Still, he, Jeremiah Anson, had commanded a frigate at Trafalgar! The thought invigorated him a little.
Anson was awake when Odin dropped her anchor, and he heard the cheers from the shore and the sound of the church bells as Portsmouth welcomed the victorious sailors. By this time, even Mr. Samuels was optimistic that Anson would survive. No signs of the gangrene had shown so far, and the surgeon was quite proud of his work. For three more weeks, Anson lay recuperating in the Odin's after cabin, until a day shortly before Christmas when a young captain came aboard with orders to assume command.
He brought with him orders instructing Lt. Jeremiah Anson, in acting command of His Majesty's frigate Odin, to appear at Admiralty House in Whitehall as soon as his health permitted the travel. Lt. Anson was assured that, having commanded HMS Odin through most of the battle, he would be awarded a captain's share of the prize monies due. He was also assured of a speedy advancement to commander's rank, like the other first lieutenants of Nelson's victorious fleet.
For the next four weeks, Anson was kept in a semi-private room in the infirmary on shore. His stump was healing nicely enough, but his thigh wound kept him from moving around. He was not a patient man in those days. He was desperate that his career was all but ended. He had lost his left hand, and only the Good Lord knew whether he would ever be able to walk again with his ruined left leg. Who would give him a command? They would give him commander's rank, but then beach him for life.
Even the soothing thought of the promised promotion to commander was all but taken from him when young Jonathan Carlin visited him at the infirmary sporting a single epaulette on his left shoulder. They had promoted Carlin to commander! The eighteen year-old would now and forever be Anson's superior! Anson believed that he hid his jealousy well, but in the following night he lay awake and for the first time, he contemplated ending his ruined life.
Fortunately, the next morning brought an unexpected visitor. The man was in his mid-fifties, tall and energetic, and with a commanding presence. Anson knew him as Sir Robert Connington, and he was the squire for whom Anson's father had been caretaker. Anson's father had died of an accident when young Jeremiah had been fifteen years old, and he had been twelve when his mother succumbed to a wasting illness. Sir Robert had taken charge of the orphan boy and he had seen to it that he was accepted into HMS Gorgo, 32, as midshipman. Over the years to follow, Anson had written letters at every year's end to report about his progress in the service, but also to thank for the annual allowance of £120 that supplemented his meagre pay. Sir Robert claimed that the money was owed to Anson's father, and the young midshipman and later lieutenant did not look to closely into the gift horse's mouth. Now Sir Robert was standing at the door to Anson's room looking the young man over with eyes that showed pride and sorrow at the same time.
"Good morning, Sir Robert," Anson greeted his visitor, acutely aware that the £120 might be all that would stand between a half-pay lieutenant and starvation.
"Good morning to you, young Mr. Anson," Sir Robert replied. "I read the reports, of course, and let me tell you at once that the entire county is proud of you!"
Anson swallowed but forced himself to answer politely. "That is far too kind, Sir Robert."
"Poppycock! You showed your mettle clear enough for all to see! Even at the admiralty ... Well, first things first. I came to rescue you from this horrible place. I have my coach waiting outside where we've slung a hammock for you to rest comfortably. Our good Doctor Waingrove accompanies me, and he will tend to your care on the way home."
"Home?" Anson asked incredulously.
"Of course! You'll spend a few weeks out at Fernwick Hall until you're well enough to report to the Admiralty. We'll have to fit you with ... Damn, it! You'll need a stuffed glove to cover your stump, and a well made crutch, too. I'll see to that, and then we'll move you to London."
"I ... I don't know what to say, Sir Robert," Anson protested.
"Then keep a still tongue, young man! Your father served me well for nigh on twenty years, and I don't have a son of my own. You're my successor in the Navy, and blast those fools at Whitehall if they try to cheat you out of your rewards!"
Connington had served under Admiral Rodney. He had not won much distinction in the Navy, and the title he held was an inherited baronetcy, but he represented the borough of Fernwood in Parliament.
"I shall be grateful for your support, Sir Robert," was all Anson could answer.