H.G. Wells: The War in the Air (1908)
The Battle Of The North Atlantic
The Prince Karl Albert had made a profound impression upon Bert.
He was quite the most terrifying person Bert had ever
encountered. He filled the Smallways soul with passionate
dread and antipathy. For a long time Bert sat alone in Kurt's
cabin, doing nothing and not venturing even to open the door lest
he should be by that much nearer that appalling presence.
So it came about that he was probably the last person on board to
hear the news that wireless telegraphy was bringing to the
airship in throbs and fragments of a great naval battle in
progress in mid-Atlantic.
He learnt it at last from Kurt.
Kurt came in with a general air of ignoring Bert, but muttering
to himself in English nevertheless. "Stupendous!" Bert heard him
say. "Here!" he said, "get off this locker." And he proceeded
to rout out two books and a case of maps. He spread them on the
folding-table, and stood regarding them. For a time his Germanic
discipline struggled with his English informality and his natural
kindliness and talkativeness, and at last lost.
"They're at it, Smallways," he said.
"At what, sir?" said Bert, broken and respectful.
"Fighting! The American North Atlantic squadron and pretty nearly
the whole of our fleet. Our Eiserne Kreuz has had a gruelling
and is sinking, and their Miles Standish--she's one of their
biggest--has sunk with all hands. Torpedoes, I suppose. She was
a bigger ship than the Karl der Grosse, but five or six years
older. Gods! I wish we could see it Smallways; a square fight in
blue water, guns or nothing, and all of 'em steaming ahead!"
He spread his maps, he had to talk, and so he delivered a lecture
on the naval situation to Bert.
"Here it is," he said, latitude 30 degrees 50 minutes N.
longitude 30 degrees 50 minutes W. It's a good day off us,
anyhow, and they're all going south-west by south at full pelt as
hard as they can go. We shan't see a bit of it, worse luck! Not
a sniff we shan't get!"
The naval situation in the North Atlantic at that time was a
peculiar one. The United States was by far the stronger of the
two powers upon the sea, but the bulk of the American fleet was
still in the Pacific. It was in the direction of Asia that war
had been most feared, for the situation between Asiatic and white
had become unusually violent and dangerous, and the Japanese
government had shown itself quite unprecedentedly difficult. The
German attack therefore found half the American strength at
Manila, and what was called the Second Fleet strung out across
the Pacific in wireless contact between the Asiatic station and
San Francisco. The North Atlantic squadron was the sole American
force on her eastern shore, it was returning from a friendly
visit to France and Spain, and was pumping oil-fuel from tenders
in mid-Atlantic--for most of its ships were steamships--when the
international situation became acute. It was made up of four
battleships and five armoured cruisers ranking almost with
battleships, not one of which was of a later date than 1913. The
Americans had indeed grown so accustomed to the idea that Great
Britain could be trusted to keep the peace of the Atlantic that a
naval attack on the eastern seaboard found them unprepared even
in their imaginations. But long before the declaration of
war--indeed,on Whit Monday--the whole German fleet of eighteen
battleships, with a flotilla of fuel tenders and converted liners
containing stores to be used in support of the air-fleet, had
passed through the straits of Dover and headed boldly for New
York. Not only did these German battleships outnumber the
Americans two to one, but they were more heavily armed and more
modern in construction--seven of them having high explosive
engines built of Charlottenburg steel, and all carrying
Charlottenburg steel guns.
The fleets came into contact on Wednesday before any actual
declaration of war. The Americans had strung out in the modern
fashion at distances of thirty miles or so, and were steaming to
keep themselves between the Germans and either the eastern states
or Panama; because, vital as it was to defend the seaboard cities
and particularly New York, it was still more vital to save the
canal from any attack that might prevent the return of the main
fleet from the Pacific. No doubt, said Kurt, this was now making
records across that ocean, "unless the Japanese have had the same
idea as the Germans." It was obviously beyond human possibility
that the American North Atlantic fleet could hope to meet and
defeat the German; but, on the other hand, with luck it might
fight a delaying action and inflict such damage as to greatly
weakenthe attack upon the coast defences. Its duty, indeed, was
not victory but devotion, the severest task in the world.
Meanwhile the submarine defences of New York, Panama, and the
other more vital points could be put in some sort of order.
This was the naval situation, and until Wednesday in Whit week it
was the only situation the American people had realised. It was
then they heard for the first time of the real scale of the
Dornhof aeronautic park and the possibility of an attack coming
upon them not only by sea, but by the air. But it is curious
that so discredited were the newspapers of that period that a
large majority of New Yorkers, for example, did not believe the
most copious and circumstantial accounts of the German air-fleet
until it was actually in sight of New York.
Kurt's talk was half soliloquy. He stood with a map on
Mercator's projection before him, swaying to the swinging of the
ship and talking of guns and tonnage, of ships and their build
and powers and speed, of strategic points, and bases of
operation. A certain shyness that reduced him to the status of a
listener at the officers' table no longer silenced him.
Bert stood by, saying very little, but watching Kurt's finger on
the map. "They've been saying things like this in the papers for
a long time," he remarked. "Fancy it coming real!"
Kurt had a detailed knowledge of the Miles Standish. "She used
to be a crack ship for gunnery--held the record. I wonder if we
beat her shooting, or how? I wish I was in it. I wonder which
of our ships beat her. Maybe she got a shell in her engines.
It's a running fight! I wonder what the Barbarossa is doing," he
went on, "She's my old ship. Not a first-rater, but good stuff.
I bet she's got a shot or two home by now if old Schneider's up
to form. Just think of it! There they are whacking away at each
other, great guns going, shells exploding, magazines bursting,
ironwork flying about like straw in a gale, all we've been
dreaming of for years! I suppose we shall fly right away to New
York--just as though it wasn't anything at all. I suppose we
shall reckon we aren't wanted down there. It's no more than a
covering fight on our side. All those tenders and store-ships of
ours are going on southwest by west to New York to make a
floating depot for us. See?" He dabbed his forefinger on the
map. "Here we are. Our train of stores goes there, our
battleships elbow the Americans out of our way there."
When Bert went down to the men's mess-room to get his evening
ration, hardly any one took notice of him except just to point
him out for an instant. Every one was talking of thebattle,
suggesting, contradicting--at times, until the petty officers
hushed them, it rose to a greatuproar. There was a new bulletin,
but what it said he did not gather except that it concerned the
Barbarossa. Some of the men stared at him, and he heard the name
of "Booteraidge" several times; but no one molested him, and
there was no difficulty about his soup and bread when his turn at
the end of the queue came. He had feared there might be no
ration for him, and if so he did not know what he would have
Afterwards he ventured out upon the little hanging gallery with
the solitary sentinel. The weather was still fine, but the wind
was rising and the rolling swing of the airship increasing. He
clutched the rail tightly and felt rather giddy. They were now
out of sight of land, and over blue water rising and falling in
great masses. A dingy old brigantine under the British flag rose
and plunged amid the broad blue waves--the only ship in sight.
In the evening it began to blow and the air-ship to roll like a
porpoise as it swung through the air. Kurt said that several of
the men were sea-sick, but the motion did not inconvenience Bert,
whose luck it was to be of that mysterious gastric disposition
which constitutes a good sailor. He slept well, but in the small
hours the light awoke him, and he found Kurt staggering about in
search of something. He found it at last in the locker, and held
it in his hand unsteadily--a compass. Then he compared his map.
"We've changed our direction," he said, "and come into the wind.
I can't make it out. We've turned away from New York to the
south. Almost as if we were going to take a hand--"
He continued talking to himself for some time.
Day came, wet and windy. The window was bedewed externally, and
they could see nothing through it. It was also very cold, and
Bert decided to keep rolled up in his blankets on the locker
until the bugle summoned him to his morning ration. That
consumed, he went out on the little gallery; but he could see
nothing but eddying clouds driving headlong by, and the dim
outlines of the nearer airships. Only at rare intervals could he
get a glimpse of grey sea through the pouring cloud-drift.
Later in the morning the Vaterland changed altitude, and soared
up suddenly in a high, clear sky, going, Kurt said, to a height
of nearly thirteen thousand feet.
Bert was in his cabin, and chanced to see the dew vanish from the
window and caught the gleam of sunlight outside. He looked out,
and saw once more that sunlit cloud floor he had seen first from
the balloon, and the ships of the German air-fleet rising one by
one from the white, as fish might rise an become visible from
deep water. He stared for a moment and then ran out to the
little gallery to see this wonder better. Below was cloudland
and storm, a great drift of tumbled weather going hard away to
the north-east, and the air about him was clear and cold and
serene save for the faintest chill breeze and a rare, drifting
snow-flake. Throb, throb, throb, throb, went the engines in the
stillness. That huge herd of airships rising one after another
had an effect of strange, portentous monsters breaking into an
altogether unfamiliar world.
Either there was no news of the naval battle that morning, or the
Prince kept to himself whatever came until past midday. Then the
bulletins came with a rush, bulletins that made the lieutenant
wild with excitement.
"Barbarossa disabled and sinking," he cried. "Gott im Himmel!
Der alte Barbarossa! Aber welch ein braver krieger!"
He walked about the swinging cabin, and for a time he was wholly
Then he became English again. "Think of it, Smallways! The old
ship we kept so clean and tidy! All smashed about, and the iron
flying about in fragments, and the chaps one knew--Gott!--flying
about too! Scalding water squirting, fire, and the smash, smash
of the guns! They smash when you're near! Like everything
bursting to pieces! Wool won't stop it--nothing! And me up
here--so near and so far! Der alte Barbarossa!"
"Any other ships?" asked Smallways, presently.
"Gott! Yes! We've lost the Karl der Grosse, our best and
biggest. Run down in the night by a British liner that blundered
into the fighting in trying to blunder out. They're fighting in
a gale. The liner's afloat with her nose broken, sagging about!
There never was such a battle!--never before! Good ships and
good men on both sides,--and a storm and the night and the dawn
and all in the open ocean full steam ahead! No stabbing! No
submarines! Guns and shooting! Half our ships we don't hear of
any more, because their masts are shot away. Latitude, 30
degrees 40 minutes N.--longitude, 40 degrees 30 minutes W.-
He routed out his map again, and stared at it with eyes that did
"Der alte Barbarossa! I can't get it out of my head--with shells
in her engine-room, and the fires flying out of her furnaces, and
the stokers and engineers scalded and dead. Men I've messed
with, Smallways--men I've talked to close! And they've had their
day at last! And it wasn't all luck for them.!
"Disabled and sinking! I suppose everybody can't have all the
luck in a battle. Poor old Schneider! I bet he gave 'em
So it was the news of the battle came filtering through to them
all that morning. The Americans had lost a second ship, name
unknown; the Hermann had been damaged in covering the
Barbarossa.... Kurt fretted like an imprisoned animal about the
airship, now going up to the forward gallery under the eagle, now
down into the swinging gallery, now poring over his maps. He
infected Smallways with a sense of the immediacy of this battle
that was going on just over the curve of the earth. But when
Bert went down to the gallery the world was empty and still, a
clear inky-blue sky above and a rippled veil of still, thin
sunlit cirrus below, through which one saw a racing drift of
rain-cloud, and never a glimpse of sea. Throb, throb, throb,
throb, went the engines, and the long, undulating wedge of
airships hurried after the flagship like a flight of swans after
their leader. Save for the quiver of the engines it was as
noiseless as a dream. And down there, somewhere in the wind and
rain, guns roared, shells crashed home, and, after the old manner
of warfare, men toiled and died.
As the afternoon wore on the lower weather abated, and the sea
became intermittently visible again. The air-fleet dropped
slowly to the middle air, and towards sunset they had a glimpse
of the disabled Barbarossa far away to the east. Smallways heard
men hurrying along the passage, and was drawn out to the gallery,
where he found nearly a dozen officers collected and scrutinising
the helpless ruins of the battleship through field-glasses. Two
other vessels stood by her, one an exhausted petrol tank, very
high out of the water, and the other a converted liner. Kurt was
at the end of the gallery, a little apart from the others.
"Gott!" he said at last, lowering his binocular, "it is like
seeing an old friend with his nose cut off--waiting to be
finished. Der Barbarossa!"
With a sudden impulse he handed his glass to Bert, who had peered
beneath his hands, ignored by every one, seeing the three ships
merely as three brown-black lines upon the sea.
Never had Bert seen the like of that magnified slightly hazy
image before. It was not simply a battered ironclad that
wallowed helpless, it was a mangled ironclad. It seemed
wonderful she still floated. Her powerful engines had been her
ruin. In the long chase of the night she had got out of line
with her consorts, and nipped in between the Susquehanna and the
Kansas City. They discovered her proximity, dropped back until
she was nearly broadside on to the former battleship, and
signalled up the Theodore Roosevelt and the little Monitor. As
dawn broke she had found herself hostess of a circle. The fight
had not lasted five minutes before the appearance of the Hermann
to the east, and immediately after of the Furst Bismarck in the
west, forced the Americans to leave her, but in that time they
had smashed her iron to rags. They had vented the accumulated
tensions of their hard day's retreat upon her. As Bert saw her,
she seemed a mere metal-worker's fantasy of frozen metal
writhings. He could not tell part from part of her, except by
"Gott!" murmured Kurt, taking the glasses Bert restored to him--
"Gott! Da waren Albrecht--der gute Albrecht und der alte Zim-
mermann--und von Rosen!"
Long after the Barbarosa had been swallowed up in the twilight
and distance he remained on the gallery peering through his
glasses, and when he came back to his cabin he was unusually
silent and thoughtful.
"This is a rough game, Smallways," he said at last--"this war is
a rough game. Somehow one sees it different after a thing like
that. Many men there were worked to make that Barbarossa, and
there were men in it--one does not meet the like of them every
day. Albrecht--there was a man named Albrecht--played the zither
and improvised; I keep on wondering what has happened to him. He
and I--we were very close friends, after the German fashion."
Smallways woke--the next night to discover the cabin in darkness,
a draught blowing through it, and Kurt talking to himself in
German. He could see him dimly by the window, which he had
unscrewed and opened, peering down. That cold, clear, attenuated
light which is not so much light as a going of darkness, which
casts inky shadows and so often heralds the dawn in the high air,
was on his face.
"What's the row?" said Bert.
"Shut up!" said the lieutenant. "Can't you hear?"
Into the stillness came the repeated heavy thud of guns, one,
two, a pause, then three in quick succession.
"Gaw!" said Bert--"guns!" and was instantly at the lieutenant's
side. The airship was still very high and the sea below was
masked by a thin veil of clouds. The wind had fallen, and Bert,
following Kurt's pointing finger, saw dimly through the
colourless veil first a red glow, then a quick red flash, and
then at a little distance from it another. They were, it seemed
for a while, silent flashes, and seconds after, when one had
ceased to expect them, came the belated thuds--thud, thud. Kurt
spoke in German, very quickly.
A bugle call rang through the airship.
Kurt sprang to his feet, saying something in an excited tone,
still using German, and went to the door.
"I say! What's up?" cried Bert. "What's that?"
The lieutenant stopped for an instant in the doorway, dark
against the light passage. "You stay where you are, Smallways.
You keep there and do nothing. We're going into action," he
explained, and vanished.
Bert's heart began to beat rapidly. He felt himself poised over
the fighting vessels far below. In a moment, were they to drop
like a hawk striking a bird? "Gaw!" he whispered at last, in
Thud! . . . thud! He discovered far away a second ruddy flare
flashing guns back at the first. He perceived some difference on
the Vaterland for which he could not account, and then he
realised that the engines had slowed to an almost inaudible beat.
He stuck his head out of the window--it was a tight fit--and saw
in the bleak air the other airships slowed down to a scarcely
A second bugle sounded, was taken up faintly from ship to ship.
Out went the lights; the fleet became dim, dark bulks against an
intense blue sky that still retained an occasional star. For a
long time they hung, for an interminable time it seemed to him,
and then began the sound of air being pumped into the
balloonette, and slowly, slowly the Vaterland sank down towards
He craned his neck, but he could not see if the rest of the fleet
was following them; the overhang of the gas-chambers intervened.
There was something that stirred his imagination deeply in that
stealthy, noiseless descent. The obscurity deepened for a time,
the last fading star on the horizon vanished, and he felt the
cold presence of cloud. Then suddenly the glow beneath assumed
distinct outlines, became flames, and the Vaterland ceased to
descend and hung observant, and it would seem unobserved, just
beneath a drifting stratum of cloud, a thousand feet, perhaps,
over the battle below.
In the night the struggling naval battle and retreat had entered
upon a new phase. The Americans had drawn together the ends of
the flying line skilfully and dexterously, until at last it was a
column and well to the south of the lax sweeping pursuit of the
Germans. Then in the darkness before the dawn they had come
about and steamed northward in close order with the idea of
passing through the German battle-line and falling upon the
flotilla that was making for New York in support of the German
air-fleet. Much had altered since the first contact of the
fleets. By this time the American admiral, O'Connor, was fully
informed of the existence of the airships, and he was no longer
vitally concerned for Panama, since the submarine flotilla was
reported arrived there from Key West, and the Delaware and
Abraham Lincoln, two powerful and entirely modern ships, were
already at Rio Grande, on the Pacific side of the canal. His
manoeuvre was, however, delayed by a boiler explosion on board
the Susquehanna, and dawn found this ship in sight of and indeed
so close to the Bremen and Weimar that they instantly engaged.
There was no alternative to her abandonment but a fleet
engagement. O'Connor chose the latter course. It was by no
means a hopeless fight. The Germans, though much more numerous
and powerful than the Americans, were in a dispersed line
measuring nearly forty-five miles from end to end, and there were
many chances that before they could gather in for the fight the
column of seven Americans would have ripped them from end to end.
The day broke dim and overcast, and neither the Bremen nor the
Weimar realised they had to deal with more than the Susquehanna
until the whole column drew out from behind her at a distance of
a mile. or less and bore down on them. This was the position of
affairs when the Vaterland appeared in the sky. The red glow
Bert had seen through the column of clouds came from the luckless
Susquehanna; she lay almost immediately below, burning fore and
aft, but still fighting two of her guns and steaming slowly
southward. The Bremen and the Weimar, both hit in several
places, were going west by south and away from her. The American
fleet, headed by the Theodore Roosevelt, was crossing behind
them, pounding them in succession, steaming in between them and
the big modern Furst Bismarck, which was coming up from the west.
To Bert, however, the names of all these ships were unknown, and
for a considerable time indeed, misled by the direction in which
the combatants were moving, he imagined the Germans to be
Americans and the Americans Germans. He saw what appeared to him
to be a column of six battleships pursuing three others who were
supported by a newcomer, until the fact that the Bremen and
Weimar were firing into the Susquehanna upset his calculations.
Then for a time he was hopelessly at a loss. The noise of the
guns, too, confused him, they no longer seemed to boom; they went
whack, whack, whack, whack, and each faint flash made his heart
jump in anticipation of the instant impact. He saw these
ironclads, too, not in profile, as he was accustomed to see
ironclads in pictures, but in plan and curiously foreshortened.
For the most part they presented empty decks, but here and there
little knots of men sheltered behind steel bulwarks. The long,
agitated noses of their, big guns, jetting thin transparent
flashes and the broadside activity of the quick-firers, were the
chief facts in this bird's-eye view. The Americans being
steam-turbine ships, had from two to four blast funnels each; the
Germans lay lower in the water, having explosive engines, which
now for some reason made an unwonted mu tering roar. Because of
their steam propulsion, the American ships were larger and with a
more graceful outline. He saw all these foreshortened ships
rolling considerably and fighting their guns over a sea of huge
low waves and under the cold, explicit light of dawn. The whole
spectacle waved slowly with the long rhythmic rising and beat of
At first only the Vaterland of all the flying fleet appeared upon
the scene below. She hovered high, over the Theodore Roosevelt,
keeping pace with the full speed of that ship. From that ship
she must have been intermittently visible through the drifting
clouds. The rest of the German fleet remained above the cloud
canopy at a height of six or seven thousand feet, communicating
with the flagship by wireless telegraphy, but risking no exposure
to the artillery below.
It is doubtful at what particular time the unlucky Americans
realised the presence of this new factor in the fight. No
account now survives of their experience. We have to imagine as
well as we can what it must have been to a battled-strained
sailor suddenly glancing upward to discover that huge long silent
shape overhead, vaster than any battleship, and trailing now from
its hinder quarter a big German flag. Presently, as the sky
cleared, more of such ships appeared in the blue through the
dissolving clouds, and more, all disdainfully free of guns or
armour, all flying fast to keep pace with the running fight
From first to last no gun whatever was fired at the Vaterland,
and only a few rifle shots. It was a mere adverse stroke of
chance that she had a man killed aboard her. Nor did she take
any direct share in the fight until the end. She flew above the
doomed American fleet while the Prince by wireless telegraphy
directed the movements of her consorts. Meanwhile the
Vogel-stern and Preussen, each with half a dozen drachenflieger
in tow, went full speed ahead and then dropped through the
clouds, perhaps five miles ahead of the Americans. The Theodore
Roosevelt let fly at once with the big guns in her forward
barbette, but the shells burst far below the Vogel-stern, and
forthwith a dozen single-man drachenflieger were swooping down to
make their attack.
Bert, craning his neck through the cabin port-hole, saw,the whole
of that incident, that first encounter of aeroplane and ironclad.
He saw the queer German drachenflieger, with their wide flat
wings and square box-shaped heads, their wheeled bodies, and
their single-man riders, soar down the air like a flight of
birds. "Gaw!" he said. One to the right pitched extravagantly,
shot steeply up into the air, burst with a loud report, and
flamed down into the sea; another plunged nose forward into the
water and seemed to fly to pieces as it hit the waves. He saw
little men on the deck of the Theodore Roosevelt below, men
foreshortened in plan into mere heads and feet, running out
preparing to shoot at the others. Then the foremost
flying-machine was rushing between Bert and the American's deck,
and then bang! came the thunder of its bomb flung neatly at the
forward barbette, and a thin little crackling of rifle shots in
reply. Whack, whack, whack, went the quick-firing guns of the
Americans' battery, and smash came an answering shell from the
Furst Bismarck. Then a second and third flying-machine passed
between Bert and the American ironclad, dropping bombs also, and
a fourth, its rider hit by a bullet, reeled down and dashed
itself to pieces and exploded between the shot-torn funnels,
blowing them apart. Bert had a momentary glimpse of a little
black creature jumping from the crumpling frame of the flying-
machine, hitting the funnel, and falling limply, to be instantly
caught and driven to nothingness by the blaze and rush of the
Smash! came a vast explosion in the forward part of the flagship,
and a huge piece of metalwork seemed to lift out of her and dump
itself into the sea, dropping men and leaving a gap into which a
prompt drachenflieger planted a flaring bomb. And then for an
instant Bert perceived only too clearly in the growing, pitiless
light a number of minute, convulsively active animalcula scorched
and struggling in the Theodore Roosevelt's foaming wake. What
were they? Not men--surely not men? Those drowning, mangled
little creatures tore with their clutching fingers at Bert's
soul. "Oh, Gord!" he cried, "Oh, Gord!" almost whimpering. He
looked again and they had gone, and the black stem of the Andrew
Jackson, a little disfigured by the sinking Bremen's last shot,
was parting the water that had swallowed them into two neatly
symmetrical waves. For some moments sheer blank horror blinded
Bert to the destruction below.
Then, with an immense rushing sound, bearing as it were a
straggling volley of crashing minor explosions on its back, the
Susquehanna, three miles and more now to the east, blew up and
vanished abruptly in a boiling, steaming welter. For a moment
nothing was to be seen but tumbled water, and--then there came
belching up from below, with immense gulping noises, eructations
of steam and air and petrol and fragments of canvas and woodwork
That made a distinct pause in the fight. It seemed a long pause
to Bert. He found himself looking for the drachenflieger. The
flattened ruin of one was floating abeam of the Monitor, the rest
had passed, dropping bombs down the American column; several were
in the water and apparently uninjured, and three or four were
still in the air and coming round now in a wide circle to return
to their mother airships. The American ironclads were no longer
in column formation; the Theodore Roosevelt, badly damaged, had
turned to the southeast, and the Andrew Jackson, greatly battered
but uninjured in any fighting part was passing between her and
the still fresh and vigorous Furst Bismarck to intercept and meet
the latter's fire. Away to the west the Hermann and the
Germanicus had appeared and were coming into action.
In the pause, after the Susquehanna's disaster Bert became aware
of a trivial sound like the noise of an ill-greased, ill-hung
door that falls ajar--the sound of the men in the Furst Bismarck
And in that pause in the uproar too, the sun rose, the dark
waters became luminously blue, and a torrent of golden light
irradiated the world. It came like a sudden smile in a scene of
hate and terror. The cloud veil had vanished as if by magic, and
the whole immensity of the German air-fleet was revealed in the
sky; the air-fleet stooping now upon its prey.
"Whack-bang, whack-bang," the guns resumed, but ironclads were
not built to fight the zenith, and the only hits the Americans
scored were a few lucky chances in a generally ineffectual rifle
fire. Their column was now badly broken, the Susquehanna had
gone, the Theodore Roosevelt had fallen astern out of the line,
with her forward guns disabled, in a heap of wreckage, and the
Monitor was in some grave trouble. These two had ceased fire
altogether, and so had the Bremen and Weimar, all four ships
lying within shot of each other in an involuntary truce and with
their respective flags still displayed. Only four American ships
now, with the Andrew Jackson readings kept to the south-easterly
course. And the Furst Bismarck, the Hermann, and the Germanicus
steamed parallel to them and drew ahead of them, fighting
heavily. The Vaterland rose slowly in the air in preparation for
the concluding act of the drama.
Then, falling into place one behind the other, a string of a
dozen airships dropped with unhurrying swiftness down the air in
pursuit of the American fleet. They kept at a height of two
thousand feet or more until they were over and a little in
advance of the rearmost ironclad, and then stooped swiftly down
into a fountain of bullets, and going just a little faster than
the ship below, pelted her thinly protected decks with bombs
until they became sheets of detonating flame. So the airships
passed one after the other along the American column as it sought
to keep up its fight with the Furst Bismarck, the Hermann, and
the Germanicus, and each airship added to the destruction and
confusion its predecessor had made. The American gunfire ceased,
except for a few heroic shots, but they still steamed on,
obstinately unsubdued, bloody, battered, and wrathfully
resistant, spitting bullets at the airships and unmercifully
pounded by the German ironclads. But now Bert had but
intermittent glimpses of them between the nearer bulks of the
airships that assailed them....
It struck Bert suddenly that the whole battle was receding and
growing small and less thunderously noisy. The Vaterland was
rising in the air, steadily and silently, until the impact of the
guns no longer smote upon the heart but came to the ear dulled by
distance, until the four silenced ships to the eastward were
little distant things: but were there four? Bert now could see
only three of those floating, blackened, and smoking rafts of
ruin against the sun. But the Bremen had two boats out; the
Theodore Roosevelt was also dropping boats to where the drift of
minute objects struggled, rising and falling on the big, broad
Atlantic waves.... The Vaterland was no longer following the
fight. The whole of that hurrying tumult drove away to the
south-eastward, growing smaller and less audible as it passed.
One of the airships lay on the water burning, a remote monstrous
fount of flames, and far in the south-west appeared first one and
then three other German ironclads hurrying in support of their
Steadily the Vaterland soared, and the air-fleet soared with her
and came round to head for New York, and the battle became a
little thing far away, an incident before the breakfast. It
dwindled to a string of dark shapes and one smoking yellow flare
that presently became a mere indistinct smear upon the vast
horizon and the bright new day, that was at last altogether lost
So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship
and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history
of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with
the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean
war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and
resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world
produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange
monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and
heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn
was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were
sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought
in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up,
several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of
countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius,
and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and
material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted
and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil
unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and
lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost--that was the
law of a nation's existence during that strange time. Surely
they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria
in the whole history of mechanical invention.
And then cheap things of gas and basket-work made an end of them
altogether, smiting out of the sky!...
Never before had Bert Smallways seen pure destruction, never had
he realised the mischief and waste of war. His startled mind
rose to the conception; this also is in life. Out of all this
fierce torrent of sensation one impression rose and became
cardinal--the impression of the men of the Theodore Roosevelt who
had struggled in the water after the explosion of the first bomb.
"Gaw!" he said at the memory; "it might 'ave been me and Grubb!
... I suppose you kick about and get the water in your mouf. I
don't suppose it lasts long."
He became anxious to see how Kurt was affected by these things.
Also he perceived he was hungry. He hesitated towards the door
of the cabin and peeped out into the passage. Down forward, near
the gangway to the men's mess, stood a little group of air
sailors looking at something that was hidden from him in a
recess. One of them was in the light diver's costume Bert had
already seen in the gas chamber turret, and he was moved to walk
along and look at this person more closely and examine the helmet
he carried under his arm. But he forgot about the helmet when he
got to the recess, because there he found lying on the floor the
dead body of the boy who had been killed by a bullet from the
Bert had not observed that any bullets at all had reached the
Vaterland or, indeed, imagined himself under fire. He could not
understand for a time what had killed the lad, and no one
explained to him.
The boy lay just as he had fallen and died, with his jacket torn
and scorched, his shoulder-blade smashed and burst away from his
body and all the left side of his body ripped and rent. There
was much blood. The sailors stood listening to the man with the
helmet, who made explanations and pointed to the round bullet
hole in the floor and the smash in the panel of the passage upon
which the still vicious missile had spent the residue of its
energy. All the faces were grave and earnest: they were the
faces of sober, blond, blue-eyed men accustomed to obedience and
an orderly life, to whom this waste, wet, painful thing that had
been a comrade came almost as strangely as it did to Bert.
A peal of wild laughter sounded down the passage in the direction
of the little gallery and something spoke--almost shouted--in
German, in tones of exultation.
Other voices at a lower, more respectful pitch replied.
"Der Prinz," said a voice, and all the men became stiffer and
less natural. Down the passage appeared a group of figures,
Lieutenant Kurt walking in front carrying a packet of papers.
He stopped point blank when he saw the thing in the recess, and
his ruddy face went white.
"So!" said he in surprise.
The Prince was following him, talking over his shoulder to Von
Winterfeld and the Kapitan.
"Eh?" he said to Kurt, stopping in mid-sentence, and followed the
gesture of Kurt's hand. He glared at the crumpled object in the
recess and seemed to think for a moment.
He made a slight, careless gesture towards the boy's body and
turned to the Kapitan.
"Dispose of that," he said in German, and passed on, finishing
his sentence to Von Winterfeld in the same cheerful tone in which
it had begun.
The deep impression of helplessly drowning men that Bert had
brought from the actual fight in the Atlantic mixed itself up
inextricably with that of the lordly figure of Prince Karl Albert
gesturing aside the dead body of the Vaterland sailor. Hitherto
he had rather liked the idea of war as being a jolly, smashing,
exciting affair, something like a Bank Holiday rag on a large
scale, and on the whole agreeable and exhilarating. Now he knew
it a little better.
The next day there was added to his growing disillusionment a
third ugly impression, trivial indeed to describe, a mere
necessary everyday incident of a state of war, but very
distressing to his urbanised imagination. One writes "urbanised"
to express the distinctive gentleness of the period. It was
quite peculiar to the crowded townsmen of that time, and
different altogether from the normal experience of any preceding
age, that they never saw anything killed, never encountered, save
through the mitigating media of book or picture, the fact of
lethal violence that underlies all life. Three times in his
existence, and three times only, had Bert seen a dead human
being, and he had never assisted at the killing of anything
bigger than a new-born kitten.
The incident that gave him his third shock was the execution of
one of the men on the Adler for carrying a box of matches. The
case was a flagrant one. The man had forgotten he had it upon
him when coming aboard. Ample notice had been given to every one
of the gravity of this offence, and notices appeared at numerous
points all over the airships. The man's defence was that he had
grown so used to the notices and had been so preoccupied with his
work that he hadn't applied them to himself; he pleaded, in his
defence, what is indeed in military affairs another serious
crime, inadvertency. He was tried by his captain, and the
sentence confirmed by wireless telegraphy by the Prince, and it
was decided to make his death an example to the whole fleet.
"The Germans," the Prince declared, "hadn't crossed the Atlantic
to go wool gathering." And in order that this lesson in
discipline and obedience might be visible to every one, it was
determined not to electrocute or drown but hang the offender.
Accordingly the air-fleet came clustering round the flagship like
carp in a pond at feeding time. The Adler hung at the zenith
immediately alongside the flagship. The whole crew of the
Vaterland assembled upon the hanging gallery; the crews of the
other airships manned the air-chambers, that is to say, clambered
up the outer netting to the upper sides. The officers appeared
upon the machine-gun platforms. Bert thought it an altogether
stupendous sight, looking down, as he was, upon the entire fleet.
Far off below two steamers on the rippled blue water, one British
and the other flying the American flag, seemed the minutest
objects, and marked the scale. They were immensely distant.
Bert stood on the gallery, curious to see the execution, but
uncomfortable, because that terrible blond Prince was within a
dozen feet of him, glaring terribly, with his arms folded, and
his heels together in military fashion.
They hung the man from the Adler. They gave him sixty feet of
rope, so, that he should hang and dangle in the sight of all
evil-doers who might be hiding matches or contemplating any
kindred disobedience. Bert saw the man standing, a living,
reluctant man, no doubt scared and rebellious enough in his
heart, but outwardly erect and obedient, on the lower gallery of
the Adler about a hundred yards away. Then they had thrust him
Down he fell, hands and feet extending, until with a jerk he was
at the end of the rope. Then he ought to have died and swung
edifyingly, but instead a more terrible thing happened; his head
came right off, and down the body went spinning to the sea,
feeble, grotesque, fantastic, with the head racing it in its
"Ugh!" said Bert, clutching the rail before him, and a
sympathetic grunt came from several of the men beside him.
"So!" said the Prince, stiffer and sterner, glared for some
seconds, then turned to the gang way up into the airship.
For a long time Bert remained clinging to the railing of the
gallery. He was almost physically sick with the horror of this
trifling incident. He found it far more dreadful than the
battle. He was indeed a very degenerate, latter-day, civilised
Late that afternoon Kurt came into the cabin and found him curled
up on his locker, and looking very white and miserable. Kurt had
also lost something of his pristine freshness.
"Sea-sick?" he asked.
"We ought to reach New York this evening. There's a good breeze
coming up under our tails. Then we shall see things."
Bert did not answer.
Kurt opened out folding chair and table, and rustled for a time
with his maps. Then he fell thinking darkly. He roused himself
presently, and looked at his companion. "What's the matter?" he
Kurt stared threateningly. "What's the matter?"
"I saw them kill that chap. I saw that flying-machine man hit
the funnels of the big ironclad. I saw that dead chap in the
passage. I seen too much smashing and killing lately. That's
the matter. I don't like it. I didn't know war was this sort of
thing. I'm a civilian. I don't like it"
_I_ don't like it," said Kurt. "By Jove, no!"
"I've read about war, and all that, but when you see it it's
different. And I'm gettin' giddy. I'm gettin' giddy. I didn't
mind a bit being up in that balloon at first, but all this
looking down and floating over things and smashing up people,
it's getting on my nerves. See?"
"It'll have to get off again...."
Kurt thought. "You're not the only one. The men are all getting
strung up. The flying--that's just flying. Naturally it makes one
a little swimmy in the head at first. As for the killing, we've
got to be blooded; that's all. We're tame, civilised men. And
we've got to get blooded. I suppose there's not a dozen men on
the ship who've really seen bloodshed. Nice, quiet, law-abiding
Germans they've been so far.... Here they are--in for it.
They're a bit squeamy now, but you wait till they've got their
He reflected. "Everybody's getting a bit strung up," he said.
He turned again to his maps. Bert sat crumpled up in the corner,
apparently heedless of him. For some time both kept silence.
"What did the Prince want to go and 'ang that chap for?" asked
"That was all right," said Kurt, "that was all right. QUITE
right. Here were the orders, plain as the nose on your face, and
here was that fool going about with matches--"
"Gaw! I shan't forget that bit in a 'urry," said Bert
Kurt did not answer him. He was measuring their distance from
New York and speculating. "Wonder what the American aeroplanes
are like?" he said. "Something like our drachenflieger.... We
shall know by this time to- morrow.... I wonder what we shall
know? I wonder. Suppose, after all, they put up a fight....
Rum sort of fight!"
He whistled softly and mused. Presently he fretted out of the
cabin, and later Bert found him in the twilight upon the swinging
platform, staring ahead, and speculating about the things that
might happen on the morrow. Clouds veiled the sea again, and the
long straggling wedge of air-ships rising and falling as they
flew seemed like a flock of strange new births in a Chaos that
had neither earth nor water but only mist and sky.