Battle of Fatshan Creek
THE boat action of Fatshan Creek is justly considered the most desperate cutting - out affair of the China war, and it is reckoned that more Englishmen were killed and wounded in this fight than fell before the walls of Acre.
It must be remembered that up to this date all the operations in China had been carried out by open boats propelled by oars, but now we were reinforced by a fleet of smart little gunboats, commanded by most capable officers, eager for any service.
On the evening of May 28, 1857, I was ordered on board the Haughty gunboat, Lieutenant Vesey Hamilton in command, with my pinnace and my old crew, and away we went up the river, buoyant with the prospect of paying off old scores with the rascals who had defied us so long and given us a dressing on 4th January. Next day we reached the rendezvous, where we found several small craft already assembled. Some of the boats had had a sharp brush with a batch of mandarin junks a day or two previously in Escape Creek, and captured several of them. Fine rakish-looking craft, armed with a long 32-pounder gun in the bows and several smaller ones on the broadside,
THE OPPOSED FORCES
they drew but three feet of water, and were thus well adapted to navigate in shallow waters.
On 31st May our force was all complete. Sir Michael Seymour's flag was flying on board the Coromandel, tender to the flagship; a party of marines who were told off to carry a fort at the entrance of the creek were also on board this vessel. Besides the Coromandel, we had the Haughty and Plover gunboats, the hired steamers Hong-Kong and Sir Charles Forbes, and all the available boats of the squadron.
The enemy's force consisted of one hundred heavily armed junks, the pride of the imperial navy. Eighty of these were moored some three, miles from the mouth of the creek, commanding an almost impregnable position, their broadsides bearing on the only direction from which they could be attacked; the remaining twenty were moored about four miles farther up the creek, with their guns concentrated on a narrow passage and a bar, which the boats would have to cross to get at them. The junks presented a picturesque and formidable appearance, with banners and streamers flying, guns run out on one side, and boarding nettings triced up ready to drop on us when we got alongside, so as to spear us when entangled in the meshes. All had stink-pots at the mast-heads, and it was evident that they were prepared to give us a warm reception, and were confident of success. And well they might be; for, owing to the shoalness of the water, not one of the gunboats could get to close quarters, so that the brunt of the action would fall as usual upon the row-boats. In fact, as it turned out, the junks were lying on the mud at low water, but this we had no means of ascertaining at the time.
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
On the night of the 31st May all our preparations were complete, and we lay down to get a few hours' rest, so as to be ready for action at daylight.
An old messmate of mine in the Rodney, a midshipman named Harry Barker, had just arrived on the station in the Tribune, and was now about to be initiated to Chinese warfare for the first time. We yarned about old times till near midnight, when I wished him good night. I never saw him again. A few hours later he was on his way to Hong-Kong with a grape-shot through his lungs, from which he died.
My orders were to lie alongside the Plover for the night, as she was to tow us into action in the morning. At 3 A.M. we roused out and had a basin of ship's cocoa and a biscuit, and by daylight we were ready. The morning of the glorious 1st June - happy anniversary of Lord Howe's action, and also of that of the Shannon and the Chesapeake - broke fine and warm, the sun shining in a cloudless sky. The Coromandel, with the Admiral on board, was already under weigh, leading into action, towing the boats with the marines who formed the storming-party - she took the passage between Hyacinth Island and the mainland.
The Admiral's last orders were that no one was to weigh anchor till the Coromandel was well up with the fort, so we waited till she was abreast of Hyacinth Island and already engaged with the fort.
The next to weigh was the Hong-Kong, flying the broad pendant of Commodore Keppel, closely followed by the Haughty and Plover, with the boats towing alongside.
Passing the Coromandel aground, the gunboats took
Battle of Fatshan Creek
KEPPEL LEADS STRAIGHT FOR THE JUNKS.
the right-hand passage and stood towards the junks, which at once opened fire, the compliment being returned by the gunboats. Presently, to the disgust of the gallant commanders of those vessels, the gunboats, with the exception of the Haughty, grounded; so now came our turn. The boats shoved off, and with a rattling cheer made a dash for the junks under a terrific fire of round-shot, grape, canister, scrap-iron, and bags of nails. Fortunately for us, the space to be traversed was only a few hundred yards, otherwise not a soul could have lived through it. As it was, every boat was struck in several places, and many a poor fellow lost the number of his mess in those few minutes. The water was ploughed up by the storm of shot, and the air whistled with the hail of grape and canister. However, before the Chinamen could reload we were alongside. Without waiting to drop the netting and spear us like eels in the meshes, they jumped overboard on one side as we clambered up on the other, and the first lot of eighty junks was ours. Meanwhile the marines had done their work in gallant style, and captured the fort without any serious opposition.
But our work was by no means accomplished: the remainder of the fleet, numbering twenty junks, were still to be accounted for, so having set fire to the first lot of junks, Keppel called out to the boats to follow him, and all who heard him responded to the call, the boats of the Calcutta being well to the fore.
Leading the way in his galley, the gallant commodore made straight for the junks, the heavy boom-boats following as fast as they were able. All went well for a while, as we rapidly swept towards the junks without a shot being fired on either side. It
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
looked as if we were going to have a walk over. We were soon to be undeceived.
When within about 400 yards of the junks the stream became forked, the low land between being an island. We took the right-hand branch, and had not gone up it many yards when the boats grounded. We were fairly caught, and the Chinamen were masters of the situation. The junks were all aground, and knowing that our boats would also ground on the bar, they laid their guns for the spot, and as soon as they saw us in difficulties, opened upon us a concentrated fire. The uproar was awful, and loud above the din could be heard the beating of gongs and the yells of the Chinamen.
Not a shot could we return, as the boats got broadside on, and the crews were employed in trying to shove them off the sandbank, whilst a perfect hail of shot poured upon us. The commodore's galley was cut in three pieces, and every boat was struck; men were falling fast; we could not stay where we were; to advance was impossible, there was nothing to do but retreat. Keppel gave the order and jumped into the Calcutta's barge, which with my pinnace was close at hand. The graphic picture of this event, painted by Mr Brierley from description, though correct in most details, is misleading, inasmuch as two boats are depicted close to the commodore's galley, one flying the white ensign, the other the blue, which would seem to imply that one boat was the Calcutta's, the other the Raleigh's. This mistake may be perhaps excused, seeing that Brierley was not present, and he would naturally wish to put one of the Raleigh's boats well to the fore, the picture being painted for Sir Henry Keppel; but as a matter of
Plan of The Battle of Fatshan Creek, June 11 1857
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
fact, the two boats almost touching the commodore's galley at the moment were, as I have said, the Calcutta's barge, with Lieutenant Culme-Seymour, the Admiral's nephew (now Admiral Sir Michael Culme-Seymour), in charge, and my pinnace, under Lieutenant Winnyat, I being forward working the gun. Having got the boats afloat, we reluctantly turned our backs to the enemy and retreated down the creek. My boat was badly hulled below the waterline; a round-shot passed through both sides, smashing the magazine, but fortunately not exploding it, and wounding the two stroke-oarsmen : however, we plugged the hole with a bluejacket's frock, and finding our launch in a sinking state, we ran alongside her and took out her crew and her gun. Our boat was now so deeply loaded we could scarcely keep her afloat. The Chinamen continued to pepper us as long as we were within range, one shot breaking all the oars on one side of the barge.
Having rested alongside of the gunboats till the tide rose, we again shoved off and resumed the attack. There was no hitch this time : we passed the bar all right, and with a cheer dashed at the junks. My old boat could hardly keep up, so deep was she in the water, and leaking like a basket; but we staggered on, firing our 12-pounder brass howitzer into the brown of them. The Chinamen knew now that the game was up, and firing their last broadside as we closed on them, they deserted the junks and escaped across the paddy-fields.
Taking possession of the junks, we pushed on to the city of Fatshan, where we piped to dinner; for although it was only 9 A.M., we had been hard at it since sunrise, and stood in need of refreshment. The
SIR HENRY KEPPEL'S ACCOUNT OF THE ACTION.
junks meanwhile had been set on fire, and made a fine spectacle : their shotted guns exploded now and then, and occasionally one would blow up, sending guns and masts into the air.
After a short spell at Fatshan - a dirty, unfortified town, which we did not molest - we returned to the gunboats to hear the news. Besides young Barker, there was a long list of killed and wounded, both officers and men ; but really nothing like what might have been expected, considering the odds against us and the strong position we had to assail.
Had the Chinamen stuck to their guns till we were close alongside, and then carried out their intention of first netting and then spearing us in the meshes, the result might have been very different. However, the Admiral had every reason to be satisfied: the attack was well planned and gallantly executed, and was a complete success.
Our work in the Canton river was now concluded for the present. By this action we had utterly destroyed the mandarin fleet, and we returned to Hong Kong, where my old boat was hoisted in for repairs.
Since writing the above I have read Sir Henry Keppel's account of the action, from which it would appear that the Raleigh's boats did all the work, and no mention is made of the Calcutta's, who had borne all the burden of the events in the Canton river long before Keppel and his crew appeared on the scene, and were well to the fore on this occasion. In making these remarks I have no wish to detract in any way from Keppel's gallant action - nothing could be finer than the way he led us to attack the second lot of junks; but, with many other followers of our gallant old chief Sir Michael Seymour, we do not like
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
to see him practically ignored, and all the honour and glory of the action reflected on Keppel and the Raleighs, whereas the whole plan of the action had been carefully prepared beforehand by the Admiral, and carried out by him in person.
On June 27 Lord Elgin arrived in H.M.S. Shannon and landed under the usual salutes. As Special Commissioner his Excellency was armed with extraordinary powers to deal with the high Chinese authorities. Baron Gros, representing French diplomacy, took up his quarters on board the French frigate Capricieuse. America was represented by Mr Reid on board the Minnesota, and Russia by Count Putiatine.
From this time till the close of the year negotiations were said to be proceeding between the foreign diplomats and the Chinese authorities, but nothing came of them, and in the month of December it was decided to bombard the city of Canton. In the mean time several more vessels had arrived from England, including the Amethyst frigate of twenty-six guns, and several gunboats.
Having passed my examination for lieutenant, in the early part of the year I had the good fortune to be promoted at the age of nineteen and retained in the flagship as acting lieutenant. The operations, concluding with the bombardment and capture of Canton, being a matter of history, I will pass over quickly.
On 14th December Sir Michael Seymour with his Staff proceeded up the river in the Coromandel, and on the 19th the island of Hassan was taken possession of by the marines and small-arm men of the squadron. This was a most important
BACK AT HONG-KONG
position directly facing the city. Several 13-inch mortars, which had arrived from England, were mounted on the Dutch-folly Fort, and on the 28th December and following day that city was bombarded, and Fort Gough was stormed, on which occasion the gallant Captain Bate was killed.
On January 5, 1858, the city walls were stormed, and Commissioner Yeh and the Tartar general taken prisoners. Yeh was without doubt one of the most cruel tyrants that ever lived. He claimed that during the previous two years he had beheaded 70,000 of his countrymen, and it is computed that during his time of office over 100,000 men, women, and children had been slaughtered by this monster. Yeh was sent as a prisoner on board the Inflexible, and in her conveyed to Calcutta, where he soon afterwards died.
By the middle of January, arrangements having been made for the ransom of the city, the troops were withdrawn and returned to Hong-Kong, and in February the blockade of the Canton river was raised, and the muddy stream was once more thronged with junks, sampans, and flower-boats, plying their usual avocations.
Things had settled down to their normal condition at Hong-Kong when we heard of some murders and robbery having been committed by pirates in the neighbourhood of the island, so an expedition was at once organised for their pursuit The Forester gunboat was detailed for this service and I was ordered to accompany her with the pinnace and cutter of the flagship, also two midshipmen, and an assistant-surgeon, named Murphy, under my orders.
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
After leaving Hong-Kong we steered for Lintin Island, where we hoped to find the piratical vessels; but before reaching that place we observed a junk under the land, to which we gave chase. The crew of the junk, finding escape impossible, ran their craft ashore and deserted her. Leaving a party on board the junk, we again shaped our course for Lintin, keeping a sharp look out, but seeing no junks, till having rounded the island we were about to give up the search and return, when we spied a white pole rising as it were out of the ground. A closer inspection proved it to be the mast-head of a large junk or lorcha, moored in a snug little harbour, the entrance of which we could not at once perceive. Manning the boats, we pulled in and made out the entrance, which was so narrow that we had to toss oars to get through. The passage opened into a lovely little harbour with a village at the head of it. This was the pirates' stronghold, and a more perfect retreat could not be found. Off the village lay a fine lorcha with her broadside commanding the entrance. We fully expected a desperate resistance, and were prepared for it. With a cheer we dashed at the vessel and boarded, when to our surprise we found both the lorcha and village deserted. The pirates had no doubt observed us from the shore, and finding their retreat discovered, had cleared out. This was a great disappointment; however, we had secured a fine prize, so taking the lorcha in tow, we brought her off to the gunboat, which had been waiting for us outside, and made her fast astern. We found her to be an English vessel which the pirates had captured.
A FALSE ALARM.
She had a valuable cargo on board, besides a quantity of beer, wine, and spirits, but no signs of the crew could we discover. They had all been murdered by the pirates.
Having placed a corporal's guard on board to keep sentry over the liquor, we returned to the Forester and prepared to make all snug for the night. And now a most ridiculous thing happened. We had not long retired to rest, and were rolled up in our blankets on deck, when about midnight we were roused up by frightful yells from the lorcha. We could make out, "Help! the pirates are on us !"
To seize our swords and revolvers and jump into the cutter alongside was the work of a few moments, and hauling the boat astern by the hawser, we were soon alongside and swarmed up the side, expecting to be confronted by some of the pirate crew, when, to our astonishment, not a pirate could we see. The corporal and the sentry were both sprawling on the deck, calling loudly for assistance, and declaring that the pirates had knocked them down. A glance showed the true state of affairs. The gallant marines had broached the cargo, and had lost the use of their legs, both being gloriously drunk. The vessel was rolling considerably with the swell, and the lorcha's main-boom had got adrift and was swinging to and fro, and had knocked them both down several times. In their drunken stupidity they imagined that the pirates had attacked them, and so raised the alarm. Having relieved this precious guard we turned in again, and were undisturbed for the rest of the night. The next morning we returned to Hong-Kong with our prize in tow.
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
On February 22, 1858, a few days after the expedition with the Forester, I was ordered to repair to the Algerine gunboat, with two of the Calcutta's boats, the pinnace and cutter, as before, and the same officers, all under the orders of Lieutenant Forbes, commanding the Algerine. Our orders were to search in the neighbourhood of Mirs Bay for some notorious pirates who had for a long time committed a series of atrocities in those waters, plundering and murdering inoffensive fishermen or any defenceless trading vessels they might happen to come across. We took with us two fishermen as informers to direct us to the pirates' haunt.
Running through the Lymoon passage, we met with a very heavy sea, which caused the gunboat to knock about to such an extent that her 68-pounder gun broke adrift and gave us some trouble to secure. On approaching Mirs Bay the water became smoother, and we steamed through a group of islands, disturbing large flocks of wildfowl, but seeing nothing of the game we were after.
By sundown we had pretty well explored the greater part of the bay without success, and we began to fear that the informers were romancing; but they seemed so positive, pointing to certain likely spots on the chart where they said we should be sure to meet some of the rascals, that we decided to continue the search the following day, and the Algerine anchored for the night. Next morning at daylight we weighed anchor and stood farther in to the bay to the northward, threading our way through a perfect labyrinth of islands in which the pirates could easily hide and carry on their games with impunity. We were
HUNTING THE PIRATES.
approaching a place called Grass Island, behind which we were assured by the informers we should certainly find some of the scoundrels, so we arranged a plan whereby to cut off their retreat should they attempt to bolt, the Algerine going round to the north of the island, whilst I with the boats went round the south. We had not gone far before we fell in with a small junk which had evidently been sent out as a decoy to lead us in the wrong direction. Having captured her and left a guard on board, we now gave chase to a large lorcha which we observed standing out to sea, endeavouring to escape. This she would have had no difficulty in doing, as there was a strong breeze blowing, and these craft sail well, and we should have had no chance with her but for the fact that we were so placed as to be able to head her off. As we approached her we noticed that she carried several guns on her broadside, and that her decks were crowded with men, whilst we had but our 12-pounder brass howitzer and crew of fourteen men. If we ever entertained any doubts as to her character, we were soon enlightened by a shower of grape with which they favoured us, the shots fortunately going over our heads. The compliment was promptly returned, whereupon the cowardly crew altered course and steered straight for the shore, with the evident intention of running the craft aground. It was a bold manoeuvre, and a risky one, as a heavy surf was breaking on the rocks; but they managed the vessel beautifully. When close to the breakers they let go two anchors; the lorcha swung round, with her bows to seaward and her stern touching the rocks. The crew then
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
escaped over the stern and scrambled up the hills, their movements being assisted, or at all events hastened, by the shots we sent after them. Some may have been drowned in the surf; but of this I could not be sure, as we had to look to the safety of the boats, which were now on a lee shore with half a gale blowing.
Being desirous of getting on board the lorcha, I went in as close as we dared in the pinnace, and then got into the cutter, a handier boat in a surf. Having dropped her anchor, we veered in till I was able to jump aboard with the coxswain and two bluejackets. The cutter was nearly swamped in this evolution, and shipped a sea which filled her to the thwarts, so she hauled off to bale whilst we proceeded to search the vessel.
We found her to be a beautiful model, mounting seven guns on each side, and a 32-pounder in the bows, sufficient to have sunk us with a broadside if they had stuck to their guns. She was fully equipped with swords, pikes, gongs, josses, &c., all of which we collected with a view of saving. One of the crew who had not had the courage to jump overboard we made prisoner.
Down in the hold we found an old man chained by the arms, legs, and neck to the bottom of the vessel: he had been captured by the pirates, and had already been tortured several times. Having released the poor fellow, we brought him on deck, and prepared to leave the vessel. With that object I hailed the cutter and then set fire to the ship. The cutter now veered in as before, when a heavy sea broke right over her, half filling her, and she had to haul off to bale.
A PIRATE LORCHA BURNED.
Meanwhile the wind and sea were steadily increasing, and the flames, fed by the high wind, had spread, so that the whole of the after-part of the vessel was burning, and we were driven forward into the bows. At this moment two small Chinese fishing-boats hove in sight, and seeing our critical position, the men most gallantly came in to take us off ; but the sea tossed their frail craft against the sharp bows of the
Destruction of piratical lorcha by Calcutta's pinnace
lorcha, dashing them to pieces, and to our dismay the two poor fellows in them were drowned in the surf without our being able to afford them the least assistance. The cutter's crew now veered breakers, small casks for holding water, astern by lines, hoping they might drift down to us, but the wind and sea took them wide of the mark. Dr Murphy, who was in the cutter, now took off his
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
coat, and with a line round his body was preparing to jump overboard, to swim to our assistance ; but no swimmer could live in that sea, so I hailed him to stay where he was.
By this time the flames had spread with great rapidity, and the whole midship part of the vessel was in a blaze; the fire was working steadily forward to where we were standing, and the heat was intense. Moreover, the craft showed signs of breaking up, and the rocks were already through her bottom. Every moment I expected the magazine to explode, and it seemed to be a choice of being blown up or drowned.
We were now huddled together in the bows of the lorcha, the bluejackets and myself, the prisoner, and the poor old man who was too feeble and helpless to save himself. The boat was plunging at her anchor only a few yards away, so I told the bluejackets to throw away their rifles and save themselves if they thought they could reach her. Two of them did so, and jumping overboard, were hauled into the boat by lines which were thrown to them. There now remained the coxswain and myself and the prisoner, whom we did not like to desert: he was so weak from starvation he could scarcely stand. They now made a supreme effort in the cutter to help us, and she came so close under the bows we were able to pitch the old man into her, and jumping overboard ourselves, we were dragged into the boat ; the oars were manned, the cable hauled in, and we were soon clear of the breakers and safe. We had not got more than fifty yards from the lorcha when she blew up, sending her guns and spars flying over our heads into the sea, and covering us with splinters and burning pieces of wood.
Fight With Piratical Junks in Mirs Bay
THE ALGERINE ENGAGES THE PIRATES.
We now pushed on to join the Algerine as arranged; but seeing a junk escaping up a creek, we gave chase and captured her, the crew deserting on our approach. This was an old craft, and had evidently been a trader until captured and turned into a pirate. She had only two guns mounted. Leaving our prisoner and a couple of hands aboard, we now gave way to join the Algerine, whose guns we could plainly hear. On rounding a point we came upon her engaging two large piratical junks, which were moored head and stern off a village, their broadside commanding the approach. Our arrival was most opportune, as we found one man badly wounded on board the gunboat, and as she had no doctor, Murphy's services were needed.
It seems that these junks opened fire on the Algerine directly she came in sight round the point. Her gallant commander, Forbes, was in his glory, working the pivot gun with his coat and hat off, and giving the Chinamen a severe dressing at close range, in which we were delighted to join. The junks were returning a scattered but ill-directed fire from about twenty or thirty guns of all sizes, when a well-directed shell from the Algerine blew up the largest of them, sending her masts, guns, and crew into the air - a magnificent sight, which we greeted with three cheers.
Nothing daunted by the fate of their comrades, the crew of the remaining junk replied with yells of defiance and continued the action ; but presently her fore-magazine exploded, blowing out her bow and killing several of the crew: the remainder jumped overboard and made for the shore. We now manned the boats and pulled in for the village, which we
BATTLE OF FATSHAN CREEK.
destroyed, and examined what was left of the junks. One was burnt to the water's edge ; the other was partially destroyed, her stern with about ten guns being still above water. By this time we had had a hard and exciting day's work, and being a bit tired and hungry, we returned to the Algerine and piped to dinner.
Whilst enjoying our well-earned repast, we noticed numbers of the pirates come down from the hills and go on board the junk, whose stern was still above water, probably to save some of their effects. Not wishing to molest them further, as they had received a pretty severe lesson, we sat watching them, smoking our cigars, when suddenly the after-magazine of the remaining junk blew up, sending the greater part of them into the air. We then pulled in again to try and recover some of the guns; but they had mostly sunk in deep water, so having picked up a few which were in shoal water, we re-embarked, and shortly after got under weigh for Hong-Kong.
As the Algerine steamed away we saw several of the pirates watching us from the hills, showing that they were not all exterminated; but we had destroyed their stronghold and their ships, and a great many of their people, which must have had a discouraging effect on the survivors. They had fought well, with a halter round their necks it is true, and one might have been sorry for them if it were not for their horrible brutality to those unfortunates who fell into their hands.
We towed back the two small junks we had captured, which were of no value, and reached Hong-Kong the same night. Had we been able to save the lorcha and the two large junks, we should have
A MUNIFICENT REWARD!
made a handsome sum in prize-money, as their spars and guns were of considerable value. As it was, we got nothing beyond the warm approval of our Commander-in-Chief, the thanks of the Lords of the Admiralty, and subsequently a liberal Parliament voted us the munificent sum of £180, to be divided amongst the officers and ship's companies engaged in the undertaking!
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