The Birkenhead Drill

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It came out of the fog.

            An old ghostly Bataavian man-o-war, glowing crimson, its tattered black sails full even though the sea was silent for miles. Gunports open wide along the broadside, cannons primed and ready to fire. And not a soul of crew on board.

            The look-out was the first to cry the words everyone knew and dreaded in these seas, south of the Cape: ‘The Flying Bataavian! Straight ahead!’

            The sailors, always prone to superstition, fell into disarray. The captain and the officers tried to stem the chaos, but it was too late. Panic spread like wildfire. The helmsman, deaf to orders, turned the Birkenhead to the starboard, trying to evade the wraith of a ship coming towards them.

            A terrible sound of iron plating and wooden hull cracking, splintering and tearing came from the bottom of the Birkenhead as it struck an unseen reef. The frigate shook and stalled. ‘Astern! Astern!’ cried the captain, and the crew obliged – backwards seemed the only way to go. The ghostly Bataavian was now almost upon them. The paddle-wheels turned with effort and the frigate started sliding off the rock. That was a deadly mistake. Sea rushed into the hole, the plates buckled, the bulkheads ripped open. Whoever was still under the deck, drowned in an instant. The flooded engines hissed and stopped. The Birkenhead began to break in two.

             ‘Drop the anchor!’ the captain cried, ‘lower the quarter boats! Women and children first!’

The thick oaken door of his cabin muffled the sounds of alarm whistles and bugles. With no sense of urgency an old Bataavian physician was finishing packing his meagre belongings into a black leather bag. 

            ‘Master von Siebold,’ the cabin boy pleaded, glancing anxiously at the porthole. He could see nothing through it but raging seawater.

            ‘You go, boy, if you are in such a hurry,’ the old man said, nodding, ‘I have witnessed my share of sinkings. It will be hours before the entire ship submerges.’

            He hesitated for a moment, picking up a small black lacquer figurine of a dragon. ‘My dear Ine,’ he smiled to himself sadly, ‘I wonder if you found a husband yet?’ 

            The cabin boy could take it no longer and dashed for the door. At the same time, it burst open. Several soldiers grabbed the physician by his black coat, dragging him out onto the deck, their eyes mad with fear and anger. ‘It’s all your fault, Bataavian! Look, your people are coming to get you!’ they cried and hissed, pointing towards the ghostly ship. They pulled the old man, still clutching desperately to his black leather bag, over to the side of the quickly sinking frigate, ready to throw him overboard to pacify the angry spirits of the sea.

            ‘Seventy Fourth! Halt! Are you men or beasts? Stand to attention when an officer speaks!’

            A voice demanding immediate respect barked out behind them. The soldiers turned around and stood rigid at once, as they faced their regimental commander in full Highland dress, impeccably neat and absurdly out of place in the middle of the southern ocean.

            ‘Release this poor man and go on the poop deck. That’s the Captain’s orders. I will deal with that insubordination later.’

            The chaos on board was by now mostly under control. The discipline and sense of duty prevailed at last over fear and superstition.

            ‘Doctor,’ the commander said, reaching out his hand, ‘if you could please go to the boats. I believe there is still place.’

            ‘Thank you, Colonel Seton, but I’m sure there are younger and more useful men among your crew who would benefit from saving. I am old, and all my family is lost.’

            The Colonel looked at the physician for a moment, then nodded sharply, with respect.

            ‘In that case, I will be honoured to accompany you to the poop deck. All my men are there, awaiting salvation – or death.’

            Only the stern section of the frigate was still above the water, filled with soldiers of the Seventy Fourth and Ninety First Foot, standing, silently, as the ship sank slowly and surely. All the women and children were safely away on the ship’s surviving quarter-boats, all the horses driven into the sea so that they might try to swim ashore on their own.

            Calm and composed now, the soldiers and the officers observed the Flying Bataavian in its full glory as it passed them by without a single sound, and without a single shot.

            ‘What do you think, Doctor?’ the Colonel asked, pointing at the ghostly ship, now disappearing back into the fog.

            ‘An illusion of Xhosa shamans, no doubt,’ replied Von Siebold, ‘they are very crafty with shaping mists and clouds.’

            ‘Very crafty indeed,’ the Colonel said, nodding, ‘I wonder if we’ll ever win this war.’

            The ship’s Captain approached the two. ‘Colonel, we are done for here. Perhaps you should release your men to make for the boats, if they can.’

            ‘Nonsense, Captain. The boats would be swamped. Stand fast, men! We will die like gentlemen!’

            ‘Aye, Sir!’

            And so they stood there, valiant, as the water came creeping up to the poop deck, then to their feet, ankles, knees... some of the soldiers started climbing onto the rigging, a few hurled themselves into the abyss, but others remained unmoved even as another piece of bulwark broke off with a tremendous crash.

            'Ho! In the skies!' somebody pointed up.

            ‘Another illusion,’ spat another.

            ‘No, it looks like... it’s dragons!’

            The men started cheering as the two brightly-shining dots dived towards them like a couple of bullets, soon growing into mighty silver-scaled dragons. They hovered several feet above the sinking remnants of the Birkenhead, beating their great leathery wings and shaking their horned heads. One was ridden by a man seven foot tall, slim, silver-haired, with vertical pupils in amber eyes like a cat – a Faer Folk. The other rider, black-haired and green eyed, wore the scarlet uniform of a Royal Marines Ardian. He cried out in a firm calm voice.

            ‘Ahoy, there! I’m Ardian Dylan ab Ifor of the Second Dragoons. Is the commanding officer still among you?’

            ‘Lieutenant Colonel Seton, of the Seventy Fourth Foot. Damn nice to see you, Ardian.’

            ‘We’ve noticed your signal flares. The Lioness is steaming at full speed and should be here in an hour. Can you make it that long?’

            ‘We will do our best.’

            ‘My dragons can pick up some of the weak and wounded in the meantime,’ the Ardian said, scratching a scar running through his face in thought, ‘select the first ten, Colonel, we’ll be back in no time. Edern, you stay and keep an eye on the sharks.’

            ‘Aye, Ardian,’ the Faer Folk said, saluting.

            ‘Well, Doctor,’ Colonel Seton turned to the Bataavian, ‘this time I must insist. You will go with the first sortie. Somebody must take care of the wounded.’

            ‘I yield to that,’ the physician agreed and reached out his hand, ‘it was an honour to meet you, Colonel.’

            'Likewise, Doctor,' the soldier said and shook the old man's hand with vigour.