DECEMBER 2, 1914
The Ship of Mercy.
On Thursday, October 29th, we sailed away from Halifax. All along the water front were gathered citizens who waved us cheerful farewells. The steamships in the harbor tooted their whistles, while here and there "good bye, good luck" signals fluttered from the halyards.
But, best of all, as we ranged alongside H. M. S. Suffolk, the magnificent band of that fighting ship was seen formed up on her quarter-deck and there burst forth as we approached. "The Maple Leaf Forever," followed at once with the music of that simple song which is now thrilling the British Empire, "Its a Long Way to Tipperary."
As we passed by McNabs Island and out toward the harbor mouth I turned my spyglasses seaward and there saw the long buoy-marked track which all steamers must follow and which is swept for mines every morning. The little Canadian patrol boat Petrel, which is now kept in constant service off Halifax, was the last to signal us a greeting. With the hand-signal flags an officer "wig-wagged" to us his commanders wishes for a good trip and the chief officer of the Tremorvah "wig-wagged" back our thanks. We passed out along the indicated pathway, the pilots boat drew alongside, the pilot left us and we were at sea.
All trips at sea have a monotonous sameness in times of peace. In times of war there is always a little tremor of expectancy that something out-of-the-ordinary may occur. The Tremorvah is bound, we know not where, for our ship is under admiralty orders and our destination will not be known until a British signal station is reached. The course was given to our captain as a "sealed order" to be opened at sea and that course proved to be a southerly one, well out of the beaten path of ocean travel. Within forty-eight hours of our leaving Halifax we had passed four steamships, one of them coming so close that I managed to secure a snap shot. After that we were all, all alone with naught but sea gulls and Mother Carey chickens to bear us company.
A southeaster met us in the teeth and a big southerly swell rolled up and that was not all that came up. There are times in ones life when even disaster would be welcomed and at least one of the Tremorvahs passengers would have voiced no protest had the Karlsruhe slipped in from the mist and the darkness and placed a well-directed shot in the vitals of our ship. Fortunately for me I was not that one but one of my two fellow passengers was receiving his introduction to Western Ocean weather.
The days followed each other in their sameness. Gradually we drew nearer the Gulf Stream and warmer, brighter weather. The wind came round to the westward, fresh but not strong, and the scurrying clouds overhead and the glistening whitecaps all around us reminded me of days gone by when I had sailed in the Caribbean Sea with the sheets well eased off before the trade winds. A few flying fish would have completed the picture but our latitude was too far north for such tenderlings.
One of my fellow passengers is Mr. E. B. Elderkin, of Amherst, well known to all familiar with the progress of Nova Scotia exhibitions and now Nova Scotias Commissioner of Immigration. Mr. Elderkin is in charge of our cargo, which, by the way, is valued at one hundred and sixty thousand dollars and is doubtless being anxiously awaited by those who have in charge the feeding and clothing of the Belgian refugees. Mr. Elderkin has already visited Belgium, Holland and France, also Germany. At the present moment he has no particular desire to visit the latter country but is persistently expressing the hope that when we reach The Lizard we will receive orders from the Admiralty to proceed to Ostend or Antwerp with our cargo. The hope is prefaced, of course, with the belief that before this the allies have succeeded in driving the Kaisers troops out of Belgium.
Captain Tregoning, on the other hand, is averse to going to Belgium. "Ill have to obey orders," says he, "but surely there are enough refugees in England to need this cargo. Ive no use for those bloomin mines and theres no telling where there may be a stray one knocking about." I take notice, however, that the captain is preparing for eventualities and is taking care to have the crew well trained in boat drill. I held the watch on a boat drill this morning and the boys had the life boats ready to drop into the sea four minutes after the whistle sounded the call. Now if a mine will only be considerate enough to hit us in a spot which will give us five minutes or so to spare we will be all right. It would be exciting. A Morning Chronicle man, Mr. H. C. Crowell, who is the third of our passengers, says "it would make a good story." The captain's comment on Mr. Crowell's remark was too torrid for publication.
The day we left Halifax, the news had arrived that the S. S. Manchester Commerce had struck a mine in the North Sea and had gone to the bottom. There was also serious news from all along the Channel coast. The Germans still held Ostend and Antwerp and were pretty well all over Belgium. The situation was indeed serious, and seemed especially so to those of us who were to accompany the Tremorvah. And we have no wireless aboard this steamship! Since leaving we have not had a word of war news. Perhaps the Germans have come out of the North Sea! Perhaps Count Zeppelin has invaded London with his fleet of aircraft! At the time I am writing his, our twelfth day at sea, we are in ignorance of the news.
We passed some trawlers this morning. They were out of hailing distance. I heard, "Chips," the ships carpenter, remark: "Well, I should say the bloomin country must be there all right or them fellers wouldnt be out ere." And that was the feeling that most of us had.
As I write I can look out of one of the saloon ports and in the dim distance see the Irish coast. We are back in the track of shipping and the great ships are passing inward and outward. Surely Britannia is still on the job of ruling the waves!
At seven oclock in the evening came the call from the look-out: "Light on the port bow, sir." The three passengers couldnt see it, but shortly an occasional faint flash could be seen on the horizon. The captain told us it was The Bishop, a flash light on the outermost of the Scilly Islands. By ten oclock we had the light on our beam and were headed away for The Lizard, at which point we had to report to the Admiralty. I turned in. I awoke at eight bells in the second watch, four oclock this morning, and found my way to the lower bridge. The navigating officer alone is allowed the privilege of the upper bridge. Brilliant flashes of one-tenth of a second duration came from the revolving light on The Lizard. We were about two miles off shore. By and bye came a flash from a hill a little to the eastward of the lighthouse and from the flash signal of the Tremorvah there was a response. There was a brief conversation in the dots and dashes of the Morse code. A signal went to the engine room, the steamer swung on a different course and as the captain came down from the upper bridge he said to me, "No order." "That means what, sir?" I ventured to ask. "It means," said he, "that we now have to run up Channel to Start Point and there get in touch with the Admiralty again. If there are no orders there I know my destination." I turned in again.
We had breakfast at eight. The steward came into the saloon and said to the captain: "Theres a cruiser bearing down on us, sir, across the starboard bow." In a few moments we were all on deck with our spy glasses. On came the dark grey gunboat and her signals of enquiry fluttered from her halyards. She evidently was satisfied with our response and hauled off, heading toward a big steamer away astern of us. Then came a torpedo boat destroyer, one of those low, dark fliers than can reel off thirty knots or more an hour. The Tremorvahs speed is ten. There was some more signalling and then the little craft came around our stern and close beside us. A brisk breeze was blowing and the Channel seas dashed over the little craft. These destroyers have a complement of from sixty to eighty men but I cannot understand how they are quartered. A megaphone conversation was carried on and instructions were given to us regarding the course to steer to keep clear of mines. I noticed that our captain insisted on having the instructions repeated several times. He has certain prejudices against going close to a mine field and being a Cornishman his prejudices are strong ones. The destroyer was so close that we could have thrown a biscuit abroad but its not wise to throw things at such a craft. I wanted a snapshot but I didnt have the nerve to point my camera until she swung away from me and Im afraid that the picture I have is not a very good one.
At Start Point we got orders to return to Plymouth, thirty miles astern. A northwest gale had set in, kicking up a terrific sea and the last lap of our journey saw our worst weather. We buffeted the gale, making slow headway and reached the entrance to Plymouth Harbor at sunset. A big warship passed out across our bow. A submarine bobbed up alongside and took a peep at us. Finally, a pilot boarded us and brought us to our anchorage. My next letter will tell of Plymouth. This goes ashore by the pilot.
P. F. LAWSON.