Three generations of Blackwoods have served the Royal Marines with distinction. Now it is the turn of young Jonathan Blackwood to take up arms. In 1915, he fights from the sea, supported by the Royal Navy in the battlefields of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, helpless to save either himself or his men. Two years later in Flandrs, Blackwood finds that Hell can get worse as he and his men fight on the horrific Western Front
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The Royal Marines Saga, No. 3
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1993 Highseas Authors Ltd.
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The smart two-wheeled trap stopped on the brow of the last hill, the sturdy pony steaming in the bitter winter air, irritated no doubt, knowing that a warm stable was so close to hand.
The groom held the reins lightly and glanced at his passenger. "Here, sir?"
"Just for a minute." Captain Jonathan Blackwood removed his hand from the man's arm and thrust it back into his greatcoat pocket. For these few moments he needed to get a glimpse of the great estate: Hawks Hill, where he had been born and had grown up with his brothers. There was an icy haze above the red-brick walls by the gatehouse; like a sequence in a dream, he thought vaguely. The distance helped to remind him of what it had once been like, when as children they had played and explored the old house and its maze of cellars and attics. It had been built originally as a fortified Tudor farmhouse, but had been added to considerably over the years. There was still part of a moat to one side of the wall, now a home for geese and swans.
Jonathan looked down at his uniform, that of a captain in the Royal Marine Artillery. The badges and marks of rank were the only things that distinguished himself and other marines from a regiment of the line.
For this was mid-January, 1915. He felt his body stiffen as he saw a tree bare of leaves standing alone by the roadside. Another memory. Did anyone here in Hampshire, or anywhere else in the country, know or guess what was happening out there across the English Channel? The war, which had already raged for five months; the war that would, it was confidently predicted, be over by Christmas, which had already ground to a bloody stalemate of unbelievable and horrific proportions. It was certainly no nearer to finishing than when the might of the German armies had crushed the first resistance of the French and then their allies, British regular troops commanded by the legendary General Kitchener.
The groom watched him curiously. He had been working only a short while at Hawks Hill but had heard stories of the Blackwoods. All had served in the Royal Marines except the first in the family to own this house and estate: Major-General Samuel Blackwood, still spoken of by the locals as "the last soldier," even though they knew little but rumour about him, as it had happened in the eighteenth century. All the Blackwoods had gone into the corps after that, although even members of the family did not quite understand the reason.
This was not much of a job, he thought; but the food was plentiful and he was with horses, something he knew well. He smiled grimly. Anything was better than being over there where this officer in the creased greatcoat had been.
Blackwood did not even notice the scrutiny. He was still staring at the solitary tree, almost black in this light, and shining in the last flurry of January rain.
He had seen a forest like that, but every tree had been blasted by fire and explosives. Stripped of branches and life, cut through by mortar and howitzer until there had been nothing, except the endless patterns of trenches which now stretched right across Europe from the Channel to the Swiss border. How could they know what it was like? How could anyone?
He cleared his throat. "All right, carry on, Marker. Let's go down." He heard the man's intake of breath, doubtless surprised that this youthful-looking officer should have taken the trouble to discover his name.
Closer to, the neglect and decay were more evident. Sagging gates, rusty and unpainted for years, weeds sprouting in the curving drive. Jonathan Blackwood bit his lip. Had all the childhood memories been another dream? There was a feeling about the house now, as if it were brooding, waiting for him. Parts of the estate and small-holdings had been sold off to pay the debts of Hawks Hill's last lord and master, Major-General Harry Blackwood, whose extravagances, grand dinners and balls had been the talk of the county and further. He had long been master of the local hunt, and to preserve its standards and impress others, he had spent more money than he could properly afford.
The wheels came to rest below the imposing entrance. He thought of his cousin Ralf, who had also lived here after the death of his father. They were about the same age, although Ralf was in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, a "red" marine as opposed to the blues of the artillery. But as one testy staff colonel had snapped, "There are only khaki marines until this lot's over, so don't you forget it!"
His mind returned reluctantly to David, his oldest brother. How quickly life had all gone, from youths to men with only brief leaves in which to know and understand one another. His middle brother Neil had been killed by a Boer sniper in South Africa. David, like his father before him, had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Two in one family, everyone said. Now both were dead. Jonathan tried to contain the sudden twist of anguish. It had all shown such promise. David had met and married Sarah, who had been betrothed to Neil before his death. She had been a happy, lively girl, the perfect foil for David's seriousness, and those experiences of his which she could never share.
The old general had also had an eye for the ladies, and as he had aged, the need to impress them had never faltered. Jonathan did not know how it had come about. It was said that the old man had challenged Sarah to a race. She was a good horsewoman, but the mount must have been too strong for her; she had been thrown at a ditch and was dead when the doctor reached Hawks Hill.
David had been away with the Home Fleet. It had all been over and done with when he had reached here.
He had always been a grave, self-controlled man in the face of tragedy, but this final time he could not contain his anguish. He had gripped his younger brother's hand and had spoken one word. "Why?" It still seemed to hang in the air over this place.
He climbed down and said to the groom, "I'll need you tomorrow. Bright and early."
The man nodded. "Mr Swan has got everything done, sir." When the captain did not reply he flicked the reins and the pony turned automatically towards the stable yard.
Jonathan thought of Swan, who had been David's Marine Officer's Attendant, and a whole lot more. Batman, servant, body-guard, friend. He was now in his forties, still a Royal Marine, but only in his heart. Curiously enough, he had been the first to learn of David's death when the postman had brought the news from the village.
But perhaps it was only right that he had been the first, a man who had been closer than anyone to David in Africa and then in China during the savage Boxer Rebellion. Then back to the fleet again, until that last link in the chain of tragedy which had left its mark on this house and estate had recalled him. After Sarah's death David had been given extended leave to help his father, who had suffered a stroke which had left him as helpless as a child. He had died soon afterwards, and the doctor had confided that the general's heavy drinking had not helped.
Jonathan walked into the familiar hallway with its fine, curving staircase. He heard Swan's hurrying footsteps and braced himself for the meeting.
Swan had been left in charge of the house after David had fired the steward. Like the empty gatehouse, carelessness and neglect were a sign of the times.
"I'm sorry, but this house is not open to visitors yet!"
Jonathan started. He had been so immersed in his thoughts that he had failed to see the man in a neat suit who was sitting at a small dark desk onto which, in other days, the general had thrown the visiting cards of callers.
Swan came out and Jonathan was shocked by his appearance. He may only have been in his early forties, but he looked ten years older.
There was nothing feeble in his tone however. "You calls the captain sir in this house!" He shot Jonathan a worried smile. "He owns it."
The official stammered, "I — I'm very sorry." He glared at Swan. "Er — sir." He tried again. "I thought you would have known about the proposed conversion of the house and buildings into a convalescent home for officers."
"I did know." Jonathan glanced around. The paler patches where paintings and portraits had once hung. Proud faces, the smoking walls of gunfire in battles from Trafalgar to the Crimea.
Each panorama had been careful not to show the true horror of war as he had seen it in France.
Swan said, "We've prepared the other wing, sir. Just like Major David wanted it." He waited for the government official to go and said doggedly, "I should have been with him. How could it have happened?"
Jonathan walked into the other room and tossed a dust sheet away from his father's favourite chair. It was already getting dark and it was not even four o'clock, and the rain was falling again, tapping on the tall windows; the sound which had frightened him as a small child. Was that why he still hated a thunderstorm, he wondered. Once he had been here alone, and when the lightning had filled the place with livid flashes and the thunder rolled against the hillside like an artillery bombardment, it had been as if those very pictures had come to life, men fighting their battles in miniature. He forced it from his mind and concentrated on Swan's despairing question. How could it have happened? From the first day, upon his entering the corps, the invincibility of the Royal Navy had been drummed into him as it was into every schoolboy in the country. The Royal Navy was the mightiest fleet in the world: it did indeed rule the waves, the sure shield every Briton accepted as his right. A source of pride, unchallenged since Nelson had fallen at Trafalgar.
But in times of peace when almost daily troopships had left Southampton and Liverpool unmolested to deal with trouble in obscure parts of the Empire, for "a skirmish" as the general had often scornfully described such campaigns, the dangers of all-out war seemed unreal. The minds of planners and peacetime senior officers ashore and afloat refused to change, so that when war with Germany broke out they found they had been outstripped. Jonathan had been on a short staff course, and had been astounded by the complacency still rife in those first months. Throughout the fleet, gunnery officers were still chosen for flag rank; others were largely ignored. As for tactics, the torpedo and the possible use of aircraft as weapons were discounted and thought vaguely ridiculous.
He looked at Swan and replied, "It was stupidity. There's no other answer."
He could see it as if he had been there. Three of the navy's big 12,000-ton cruisers, Aboukir, Cressey, and Hogue, had been sailing near — too near — the Dutch coast without an escort. Only a month had passed since the declaration of war. On that calm September morning between seven and eight o'clock a German submarine had closed with the cruisers and had sunk all three, with a terrible loss of life. David had been in one of them ...
Swan watched him, unwilling to break the stillness. He had never known this Blackwood very well. There was much of Major David about him although he was taller, slim and straight-backed, with unruly brown hair and level blue eyes which were now deeply troubled.
His features were tanned and somehow boyish, although Swan knew he must be at least thirty; still only a captain but promotion was slow in the corps. Maybe he only looked young because he hadn't grown a moustache like so many Royal Marine officers. But there was fire too; Swan had been close to officers long enough to recognise it when that stupid official had challenged him.
"I'd like a drink, Swan."
Swan grinned, his apple-red face lighting up for the first time. "Course, sir. Got some good Scotch ..."
"Then bring it, and I want you to join me."
Swan frowned. "Wouldn't be proper, sir. I knows me place."
Jonathan leaned back in the chair and watched the light dying outside.
"But this is your place, Swan. And I want you to be here when I come back ..."
The picture refused to form. Suppose I don't come back? The Royal Marines would soon be in the thick of it. He pressed his eyes tightly shut. The place in France where he had been completing his course with a Home Counties regiment had almost been overrun. They had counter-attacked, and he had seen them die, not in dozens as their colonel had predicted, but in hundreds. In the twinkling of an eye: men falling, being blown to pieces, blinded in the ruthless exchange of fire and bayonet. They gained a few yards but lost it when the Germans had thrown in another assault.
When he opened his eyes again he saw Swan with the decanter and two glasses. He smiled, and the shadows fell away. "Good."
Swan said, "Cook's got something nice for your supper, sir."
Jonathan reached for one of the old general's finely-cut goblets and saw that his hand was shaking. But the Scotch was superb, one of the general's prize malts.
He said, "Here's to the Royals, eh?"
Swan watched him warily. "Is it going badly over there, sir?"
Jonathan held out his goblet again and stared at it. Was it empty already? Then he looked at the wall where one of the great pictures had been and said softly, "It's not a war, Swan." He held the refilled glass very tightly, and saw that his hand was steady. "It's sheer bloody murder."
Some time later, Swan picked up his own glass and tiptoed away as Jonathan's head fell against the chair.
He paused and looked back. With his face relaxed in sleep he was very like his brother, he decided.
Albeit for one night only, a Blackwood had come home.
* * *
Twenty miles south of Hawks Hill and the surrounding Hampshire countryside, the bustling naval port of Portsmouth seemed to cringe under a blustery wind. The broad harbour, usually so sheltered from all but the fiercest gales, was alive with cruising wavelets that broke into cat's paws against the sides of anchored and moored warships, while smaller craft were tossed about in clouds of spray. Every kind of ship was in evidence. Light cruisers, two elderly pre-Dreadnought battleships, and low-lying torpedo-boat destroyers, somehow sinister with their raked black hulls, seemed to fill every buoy and berth. Beyond them, poking above the dockyard jetties and walls, were the upper-works and fighting-tops of many more, being repaired, refitted, or constructed to prepare for rising losses at sea.
At the top of the harbour and shining in spray like the symbol she was, Nelson's old flagship Victory, painted now in Victorian black and white, was a reminder, if one was ever needed, that this was the home of the world's greatest navy.
But on this particular January morning the eyes of almost everyone from sodden boats' crews to idlers on the walls of Portsmouth Point or across the tossing water on the Gosport side, were turned to the largest ship ever to appear. H.M.S. Reliant, one of a new class of super battle-cruisers, seemed to rise contemptuously above them all. There were other battlecruisers in the fleet; in fact they had been the only major warships to have been committed to action with the Germans off Heligoland Bight, when, in support of vessels of the Harwich Force, they had sunk three enemy cruisers in the first weeks of the war.
But Reliant was something quite new and entirely different from her predecessors, and mounted six 15-inch guns in three turrets, all of which could be trained on separate targets at the same time. She also carried a formidable armament of seventeen four-inch guns. But it was her size that awed the casual onlookers, while to those who served such ships her massive armament, 32,000 tons and length of nearly 800 feet spoke of unprecedented strength. Big as she was, she retained the graceful lines of a light cruiser. She had two funnels, the forward one slightly taller than the other, so it seemed that this huge ship was leaning ahead, as if eager to go.
Her abbreviated trials had been completed just before Christmas, and now fully manned with a complement of 1,250 officers and men, stored, ammunitioned, her bunkers topped up with oil, she was as ready as any untried ship could be.
Excerpted from The Horizon by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1993 Highseas Authors Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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