The Amphion Tragedy

thomas-tegg-hms-amphion-1796-1780-frigate

Thomas Tegg’s depiction of the blast

It had been a busy few days for Captain Israel Pellow and the 219 officers and men that made up the crew of HMS Amphion, an Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate sporting an armament of no less than 32 guns. In the early afternoon of the 22nd September 1796, the ship was alive with the kind of activity associated with the eve of departure from port. In 1796, HMS Amphion was a 16-year old warship and had seen action against American revolutionary forces having participated in a successful raid on New London in Connecticut on September 10th 1781.  The warship had also seen action against the French having recaptured the British sloop Bonetta, which had been captured at Yorktown.

Laying in Plymouth harbour alongside a sheer-hulk, a type of floating crane, that was assisting in repairs and refitting the sailing vessel, the number of persons onboard had swelled to well over 300 as family members visited their husbands, fathers and brothers before they sailed the following morning. Captain Pellow on the other hand was waiting for another type of visitor to come aboard his vessel. A 64-gun Dutch warship, the Overyssel, was also in Plymouth and expected to sail the next day as well. Pellow had invited her captain, William Swaffield, to dine aboard the British warship that afternoon with him and his first Lieutenant. The Dutch ship’s captain accepted and the three men had sat down together in the captain’s cabin aboard Amphion before 1600hrs to dine together.

Suddenly and without prior warning, Pellow and his guests were hurled out of their seats as the ship shook violently and roared with the deep, booming sound of an explosion. The three men were badly dazed and confused by the violence of the blast and as the floor beneath them began to change angle it was clear that some terrible calamity had befell the ship. Pellow and the First Lieutenant, both barely able to stand from their own injuries, made a desperate bid for survival by throwing themselves out of the galley window unsure if they were fit enough to swim or not but certain they would die if they remained. Pellow managed to clamber on to a chain from the sheer-hulk and as luck would have it a boat that had rushed to the scene spotted and then rescued the two men but their dinner guest, Captain Swaffield, failed to materialise. A Royal Marine who was guarding the door to the cabin also survived but had no recollection of events from the initial blast up to when he too was rescued by a boat in the water making his own escape a complete mystery.

The blast originated on the aft gun deck and was so powerful that it threw mangled bodies and splintered timber high in to the air and even sent four of the ship’s 32 guns over the side and on to the sheer-hulk. The majority of those who perished were killed in the initial blast which caused scenes of appalling horror aboard the warship with sailors and their family members overcrowded on her decks being cut down by flying debris. In one horrifying scene, a wife of one of the sailors had the lower half of her body blown clean off. Her upper half was found still clutching her infant that was, amazingly, still alive and rescued by one of the other survivors who managed to get them both off before the vessel went down.

Exact figures are difficult to ascertain given the fact that families were allowed onboard to say goodbye to their loved ones but most sources agree that at least 300 perished in the blast including women and children. The remains of the warship sank alongside the sheer-hulk in over 60ft of water with pieces of the warship and some of her crew still washing up on the shore months later. Captain Swaffield’s body was found a whole month later sporting a massive skull fracture which was presumed to have occurred during his escape attempt.

Lacking the modern forensic technology of today, the precise cause of the blast will never truly be known. However, an investigation in to the ship’s company following the blast revealed that at least one gunner was known to be pilfering supplies of gunpowder for sale on shore. When questioned about the sailor, one survivor remembered seeing him drunk shortly before the blast occurred leading many to believe that he had gone down to the gunpowder stores possibly to steal more of the powder to sell or trade for liquor. Either through smoking or dropping a lamp in his drunken state, he detonated the gunpowder.

The horrific scene of the mother and child was later remembered in a poem by English poet Felicia Hemans;

Till then we had not wept—
But well our gushing hearts might say,
That there a Mother slept!
For her pale arms a babe had prest
With such a wreathing grasp,
The fire had pass’d o’er that fond breast,
Yet not undone the clasp.
Deep in her bosom lay his head,
With half-shut violet eye—
He had known little of her dread,
Nought of her agony.
Oh! human love, whose yearning heart,
Through all things vainly true,
So stamps upon thy mortal part
Its passionate adieu:
Surely thou hast another lot,
There is some home for thee,
Where thou shalt rest, rememb’ring not
The moaning of the sea.

 

 

 

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“For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

The Christmas Truce 1914

trucecutting

The Christmas Truce

by Carol Ann Duffy

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France, the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel, sparkled and winked.
A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.
An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

In a copse of trees behind the lines, a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin holding his winter ground –
then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

Somebody kissed the gold of his ring;
a few lit pipes;
most, in their greatcoats, huddled,
waiting for sleep.
The liquid mud had hardened at last in the freeze.

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair.
The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.

On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain –
no sign of life,
no shadows, shots from snipers, nowt to note or report.
The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.

Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes,
as Christmas Trees in their dozens shone, candlelit on the parapets,
and they started to sing, all down the German lines.

Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporised
by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then –
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht …

Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man;
a gift to the heart from home,
or childhood, some place shared …
When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.

A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.

All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!
A young Berliner, brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man, to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

I showed him a picture of my wife. Ich zeigte ihm
ein Foto meiner Frau.
Sie sei schön, sagte er.
He thought her beautiful, he said.

They buried the dead then, hacked spades into hard earth
again and again, till a score of men
were at rest, identified, blessed.
Der Herr ist mein Hirt … my shepherd, I shall not want.

And all that marvellous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves…

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

High Flight

High Flight

High Flight
by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jnr (1922-1941)

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark nor even eagle flew;
And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God

Twelve Little S-Boats

The S-Class submarine was a diesel-electric attack submarine operated by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. The first batch of the production line covered 12 vessels and all were delievered before the war broke out. This batch suffered 75% losses and this lead to a rather morbid poem being devised based on a 19th century nursery rhyme. It is unclear who wrote the poem or how it came in to being but it became well known among the submarine service.

Seraph

For those not familiar with the class, Starfish, Seahorse, etc are the names of the submarines.

Twelve little S-boats “go to it” like Bevin,
Starfish goes a bit too far — then there were eleven.
Eleven watchful S-boats doing fine and then
Seahorse fails to answer — so there are ten.
Ten stocky S-boats in a ragged line,
Sterlet drops and stops out — leaving us nine.
Nine plucky S-boats, all pursuing Fate,
Shark is overtaken — now we are eight.
Eight sturdy S-boats, men from Hants and Devon,
Salmon now is overdue — and so the number’s seven.
Seven gallant S-boats, trying all their tricks,
Spearfish tries a newer one — down we come to six.
Six tireless S-boats fighting to survive,
No reply from Swordfish — so we tally five.
Five scrubby S-boats, patrolling close inshore,
Snapper takes a short cut — now we are four.
Four fearless S-boats, too far out to sea,
Sunfish bombed and scrap-heaped — we are only three.
Three threadbare S-boats patrolling o’er the blue,

Two ice-bound S-boats…

One lonely S-boat…

The survivors, left ominously blank in the fatalistic rhyme, were HMS Sealion (scuttled), HMS Seawolf (broken up), and HMS Sturgeon (sold).