Directly he got on board the flagship, Frobisher, through his interpreter, sent a message to the admiral, asking whether he would see the captain of the Chih' Yuen immediately, upon urgent business, and alone; for the Englishman had no mind to have the interview interrupted by the presence of Prince Hsi. Whatever happened, that individual must be kept in ignorance of the fact that his treachery was so strongly suspected as to be almost a certainty, otherwise he would be on his guard; and it was Frobisher's intention, if Admiral Ting agreed, to leave the man in ignorance of the suspicions he had aroused, until he should grow careless and over-bold, and then to pounce suddenly upon him and catch him red-handed. The Englishman knew that unless the man were actually caught in the act, so that there could be no possible doubt as to his treachery, he possessed sufficient money and influence to worm himself out of almost any predicament, however strong appearances might be against him.
Fortunately the admiral was still awake, and, what was more to the point, was alone; and he immediately sent back word by the messenger that if Captain Frobisher would kindly step down into the cabin, he would grant him the interview, with pleasure.
Frobisher descended to the admiral's private quarters, dispensing with the services of the interpreter--since Ting spoke English--thereby ensuring that the conversation should be strictly private. Then he proceeded to give as succinct an account as possible of the occurrence that had just happened, not hesitating to express the opinion that Prince Hsi was playing the role of traitor.
Admiral Ting was much alarmed at hearing that a Japanese destroyer had been detected prowling about in the offing, but did not express any surprise when Frobisher mentioned his suspicions about the Prince. Indeed, he admitted that, although he had nothing definite to go upon, he had for some time past been extremely doubtful as to Hsi's loyalty to his country. The man was so highly connected, however, and had so much influence at the Chinese Court, that all the efforts that Ting had made to get him transferred had been unsuccessful; and he had only succeeded in making of his Highness a bitter enemy. What reason the fellow could have for wishing to betray his country it was impossible to say, and Ting could only surmise that he must have lost a great deal of money at play, of which he was inordinately fond, and was looking to Japan to fill his coffers again in return for services rendered.
Ting averred that all he could do would be to have the Prince watched closely; but, if he were actually detected in the act of attempting any treachery, the admiral vowed that he should be punished, happen what might.
As there could be no longer any doubt that the Japanese fleet was in the neighbourhood--or, if not near at the moment, very soon would be, when the destroyer had delivered her report--it had become necessary to act at once. There were no facilities for disembarkation at night, as has already been mentioned; but under the new circumstances it was imperative that the troops should be landed immediately, so that the fleet might be free to go out and fight without being obliged to leave any ships behind to cover the landing. Ting therefore ordered a gun to be fired, and the signal to be made for all captains to come aboard; and he announced that the disembarkation was to take place at once, the process to be facilitated as much as possible by the various ships' search-lights, which would give enough illumination to prevent accidents. Consequently, about midnight the work commenced, much to the annoyance of the soldiers, who did not, of course, know the reason, and had been looking forward to another comfortable night on board.
Every boat belonging to the fleet, as well as the pontoons and rafts carried on board the transports for the purpose, was called into requisition, and very soon a long procession of craft of all shapes and sizes was seen plying to and fro between transports and shore, guided by the powerful rays of the search-lights. The horses were simply slung by means of broad straps to the end of a whip, hoisted out of the ships, and swung overboard, the straps being released as soon as they were in the water, when they swam ashore of their own accord, being caught upon their arrival by the soldiers who had already landed, and picketed.
So rapidly and methodically was the work carried out--due principally, it must be acknowledged, to the efforts of the British officers belonging to the Navy ships--that when daylight broke, about four o'clock, the disembarkation was already half completed.
Meanwhile Ting had issued orders for a full head of steam to be kept up on board every ship, transport as well as man-of-war, for he intended to put to sea the instant that the last man was ashore. He had no desire to be caught where he was by the Japanese fleet, especially since he would then be seriously hampered in his movements by the helpless, unarmed transports. Anxious eyes were often turned seaward to where the torpedo-boats were still carrying out their patrol duty in the offing; and more than one brave man heaved a sigh of relief as hour after hour passed without one of them steaming in at full speed to give notice that the enemy were in sight.
At length, about ten o'clock in the morning, the last horse had swum ashore, and the last boatload of soldiers was on its way. The rafts and pontoons were hoisted in and secured, and the boats, as they returned, were run up and swung inboard; the various captains hied them to the bridges of their respective ships, from the steam-pipes of which white feathers of steam were escaping; and at midday, just twelve hours after Frobisher's midnight visit to the admiral, the signal for departure floated up to the yard of the Ting Yuen. The fleet steamed slowly and majestically out of the roadstead, in two columns, with the transports well away to starboard, on the opposite side from which the enemy might be expected to appear; the torpedo-boats spread themselves out fan-wise, carrying out their office as scouts; and the course was shaped for Wei-hai-wei, under the guns of which the transports would be safe from capture.
They had been steaming for about five hours, and had covered a little more than a quarter of the distance to Wei-hai-wei, when a puff of smoke burst out on board one of the torpedo-boats, the one farthest away to port, or toward the north-east, followed by the sharp, ringing sound of one of her twelve-pound quick-firers. This was the signal agreed upon, should the enemy heave in sight; and the fact that the little craft had already turned and was steaming at full speed toward the flagship gave sufficient proof that the long-expected moment had at last arrived. In fact, by the time the torpedo-boat reached the Ting Yuen it was possible to make out no fewer than thirteen coils of smoke away on the eastern horizon, showing that the enemy's fleet was arriving in force, steaming in line abreast, and that it outnumbered the Chinese squadron by three ships. Thus, as two of the latter were not fit to take their place in the fighting line, the ratio was about one and a half to one in favour of the Japanese, so far as numbers were concerned.
Judging from the numbers that nearly, if not quite, the whole of the Japanese fleet was present, Ting immediately ordered the transports to break away and make for Wei-hai-wei at full speed, the men-of-war undertaking the duty of preventing any of the enemy getting past and going in pursuit--in itself an unlikely contingency, since the Japanese admiral would need all his ships if he was to gain a victory over China--the transports consequently quickened their pace, being all fast steamers, and gradually began to draw away from the slower and more unwieldy battle squadron. And here it may be stated that they were not pursued, and all arrived safely at Wei-hai-wei without any mishap whatever.
Ting now hoisted the signal to clear for action, and a scene of bustle and orderly confusion at once ensued. All the boats belonging to the squadron were hoisted out and lowered, and the San-chau went the rounds, collecting them all. Having done this, she took them in tow and steamed slowly away to the westward, so as to be out of the way when the hostile fleets presently came to grips.
Stanchions were taken down and stowed away, the magazines were opened, ammunition placed in the hoists, the guns loaded, and the fire-hose connected and laid along the decks, which were thoroughly drenched to lessen the possibility of fire. Buckets of fresh water for the use of thirsty and wounded men were placed in convenient positions round the decks; and lastly, all the lighter and loose furnishings in the cabins, ward-rooms, and gun-rooms were taken down and put out of the way, to avoid their being smashed through the terrific vibration when the great guns began to fire.
The fire-control officers made their way with their range-finding instruments into the fire-control tops, the captains went to their conning-towers, and word was sent below to the engine-room staff warning them of what was coming, so that steam might never be lacking. Finally, the shell-proof gratings were slid over the engine-room hatches, watertight doors were closed, and in grim silence the Chinese fleet steamed ahead, waiting for the word which would start the mighty guns roaring and the great, armour-piercing shells hurtling through the air on their errand of destruction.
By the time these preparations were complete, the Japanese fleet had approached closely enough to allow of its various units being easily distinguished through a telescope from the level of the deck; and Frobisher observed that the largest ships were placed at the starboard extremity of the long line, the smallest and weakest being at the other end. The size of the cruiser nearest the Chinese fleet he estimated at about nine thousand tons; then came two of about seven thousand, then two more, of six thousand or so, then three of four thousand; and next five small cruisers and gunboats, ranging from one thousand to two thousand tons. Besides these there were four destroyers of about three hundred and fifty tons; and he guessed that the fighting speed of the fleet would be about twelve or thirteen knots, against the Chinese ten-- a vast advantage, enabling the possessor practically to choose his own time and position for fighting.
Comparing the two fleets, Frobisher came to the conclusion that, despite the preponderance possessed by China in her two powerful battleships, Japan's was the stronger, since she possessed more ships, while several of her smaller cruisers were larger than China's largest. When to this was added the fact of the extra three knots speed, it began to look as though China would find all her work cut out to come off victor. But if there is one thing more certain than another it is that, before the beginning of this battle, there was not a single officer among the whole Chinese fleet who did not feel convinced that China was going to win; and after-events proved that, had the issue lain in their hands alone, their stout hearts would have forced the victory, notwithstanding the disparity between the two fleets.
The Japanese fleet had now approached to within about six miles, and the gun-layers were beginning to fidget, and to wonder when the action was to commence. Then a signal broke out on board the Chinese flagship, and the two columns swung grandly to starboard in a wide sweep, until their bows pointed full at the Japanese ships.
Suddenly a bugle shrilled forth its challenging order--"Commence firing", and with a crash that made the very air vibrate, the great guns on board the two battleships opened fire, sending their ranging shots so truly that the announcement from the fire-control stations of "Range correct" seemed superfluous. Fire had been opened with the guns laid to eight thousand yards, and all four heavy, armour-piercing shells had found their billets. The historic battle of the Yalu had commenced.
Nor were the Japanese behindhand in accepting the challenge. With what appeared to be almost lightning speed, the Japanese admiral, Nozu, changed his formation from column in line abreast to column of divisions steaming in echelon, the starboard division being led to starboard by the cruiser Yoshino, of nine thousand tons, and the division to port being led by the Fuji, of about the same measurement, these two being the most powerful ships possessed by the Japanese. This particular formation enabled the Japanese to direct the whole of their fire against the Chinese ships, since the two divisions of their fleet were to pass on the inside of the Chinese double column, while the double Chinese column would prevent their ships in the port line from firing to port, and those in the starboard line from firing to starboard. Likewise the inner line of each of the Japanese divisions sheltered the outer line from the fire of the Chinese port and starboard columns respectively. This amounted, in plain language, to giving the Japanese four times the volume of gunfire that the Chinese could bring to bear, and was a masterly stroke of genius on the part of Nozu which Admiral Ting did not comprehend until it was too late to remedy matters, and he found himself hopelessly enveloped in the net.
As yet, however, the action had only commenced. Through the observation slits in the walls of the Chih' Yuen's conning-tower Frobisher saw, as the Japanese fleet completed its evolution, several dazzling flashes of flame dart out from the turrets of the Yoshino and the Fuji, and simultaneously it appeared as though the entire Japanese fleet had fired at the same moment, so fierce and so continuous were the flashes of the discharges. He felt his ship reel and stagger as no less than five heavy shell, fortunately not armour-piercers, struck her almost simultaneously, and he heard the shrieks and cries of men in mortal agony as the deadly flying fragments scattered like shrapnel about the decks.
This would never do, said Frobisher to himself; if this kind of thing continued, his ship would be put out of action before she had an opportunity of giving back as good as she received. So, without waiting for the admiral's signal for "General action", he pressed one of the electric buttons close to his hand in the wall of the conning-tower, and the two 9.4's in the Chih' Yuen's forward barbette roared out their hoarse defiance, dropping their shells full upon the Yoshino's after turret, where they burst with an explosion like that of a small powder-magazine, but without doing much damage. Had they fallen under the muzzles of the guns, neither of the weapons would have been heard from again.
But although the turret itself appeared uninjured, Frobisher would have been quite satisfied with the execution wrought if he could but have looked inside. The guns' crews within, while in the act of serving their weapons, had, some of them, become aware that the after end of the turret had suddenly glowed red-hot for a moment; after that, none of them knew what had happened, for they had all been killed as by a lightning stroke, by the terrific concussion of the two shells striking together; and had a man been foolish enough to place his hand on that spot even five minutes afterward, he would have left the skin behind, so intense was the heat generated by the impact.
Frobisher, however, could not know this, and he sent word to the lieutenant in charge of the barbette to plant his shells, if possible, on or near the guns of the enemy which were already in action, leaving the after guns until later. And presently he had the satisfaction of seeing one shell after another crash down on the very spot where the Hakodate's single gun protruded from her turret. When the flash of the explosion and the yellow fumes of the bursting charge had cleared away, there became visible a black, ragged hole where the gun-port had been, and the gun itself, blown from its mountings, was pointing its muzzle upward to the sky, useless for the rest of the action.
Both fleets had now broken their formation to a large extent, and the fight had resolved itself more or less into a series of individual actions between ship and ship. The Chinese flagship was close alongside the Fuji, giving her a most unmerciful hammering with her eighty-ton monster guns, which sent their high-explosive shells crashing through her sides as through match-boarding, these subsequently bursting inside, between decks, carrying death and horrible mutilation in their train. The plucky Chen Yuen and her gallant British captain, who, with Frobisher, most distinguished himself that day, had been laid in between the already severely punished Yoshino and the celebrated Matsushima, which, so far, had not received a single injury, although she had entirely disabled and very nearly sunk the little Chinese unarmoured Hai-yen. The latter, with only one boiler available, and a very low pressure of steam in that, most of her guns disabled, her captain killed, and all her officers wounded, could do no more; and when the Chen Yuen came up and drew the Matsushima's fire upon herself, a quartermaster, one of the few surviving petty officers, steered her slowly and painfully, like a crippled-animal, out of the press, when, unpursued--being too small fry to trouble about--she turned her bows in the direction of Wei-hai-wei, and hobbled into port some twenty hours later, the dismal forerunner of the shattered and broken remnant that was so soon to follow her.
Frobisher, knowing the strength of his own ship, with her strongly-reinforced and far-protruding ram, determined to try whether he could not do more wholesale execution with it than with his guns alone; for he could already see that the superior number of the Japanese ships and their consequent heavier weight of metal were beginning to tell severely upon the Chinese fleet. He therefore singled out as his prey the Surawa, one of the smaller protected cruisers, determining to experiment upon her before charging blindly into one of the heavily-armoured ships; for the loss of the Chih' Yuen, or indeed of any more of the Chinese ships, at this juncture would be fatal to their hopes of gaining a victory.
Accordingly he telegraphed down to the engine-room for full steam, and passed the word "Prepare to ram". Then, sweeping round in a circle that caused the cruiser to heel at a considerable angle, he set her going at full speed in the direction of his intended victim, firing his fore barbette and machine guns as he went, so as to demoralise her crew and, if possible, prevent them from escaping the blow. A perfect hurricane of lead and steel descended on the Chih' Yuen's decks and sides as the ships of the Japanese squadron awoke to what was intended, and in a few seconds her fore-deck was swept bare, as though by a gigantic plane. But the cruiser was well into her stride, and as long as no shot penetrated to her boilers she was bound to carry out her design.
The captain of the Surawa rang frenziedly for full steam ahead, but although the Japanese craft certainly did gather more way, the menacing stem of the Chih' Yuen followed her, relentless as fate. Then, suddenly, the Surawa plumped into the stern of the Nagasaki, cutting her down to the water-line, and rebounded under the impact, to find the bows of the Chinese ship on the point of cutting into her. The Chih' Yuen's men flung themselves to the decks in preparation for the shock, and many of the Surawa's crew leaped overboard to avoid it.
A second later it came. The Chih' Yuen sank her iron ram into the side of the smaller craft as irresistibly as a knife sinks into butter, and although the shock was terrific the Chinaman took no harm. The Surawa, on the contrary, heeled over until the sea lapped over the edge of her deck, both her masts snapped like matchwood, and the funnel guys broke, letting the smoke-stack topple into the sea.
"Full speed astern!" roared Frobisher down the speaking-tube, forgetting that the order was in English. The engineers understood--perhaps the command was expected--and slowly the Chih' Yuen's destroying ram withdrew itself from the gash in the other cruiser's side. In less than a minute, so deadly was the wound, the Surawa rolled heavily to port, settled sluggishly on an even keel once more, and then suddenly heeled over again and capsized, her boilers exploding as she did so, and down she went, carrying with her over three hundred of Japan's bravest hearts.
Frobisher, emboldened by success, looked round for more prey. The Nagasaki, wounded to death by her sunken sister, was slowly settling down; she could be left. Ha! why not try for bigger game--why not try for the flagship, the Yoshino herself? If the Chih' Yuen's ram crumpled--well, she would surely destroy the Yoshino as well, and the sacrifice would be worth the gain. By Jove, he would try it! The name of Captain Frobisher should be on men's lips that day, or he would know the reason why.
A hideous wreck above her gun-deck, with funnel pierced, both masts tottering to their fall, guns dismounted, and planks stained red with the life-blood of many a gallant Chinaman, the Chih' Yuen quickly gathered sternway, piling the water up in a white, foaming mass under her round counter, while the vengeful guns of the Japanese squadron never ceased to thunder their hatred of the destroyer of two of their ships. Frobisher himself was obliged to relinquish the command to Drake for a few minutes, while the surgeon bound up a bad scalp wound which was blinding him with blood, this having been received from a fragment of flying shell that had managed to penetrate through the observation slit of the conning-tower.
Then, quite by accident, the cruiser added another success to her roll of destruction that day. The enemy's destroyers had for some time past been hovering round, in the hope of getting home a torpedo which would send a Chinese ship to the bottom, and one of these had considered the opportunity favourable when the Chih' Yuen was entangled in the wreck of the Surawa. She had stolen up astern, and had come to a standstill a few hundred yards away from the cruiser, intending to send a Whitehead into Frobisher's stern; but the air-chamber proved to have been leaking, and it became necessary to pump some more air in before the torpedo could be discharged. Her men were so busy attending to this that they did not observe the Chih' Yuen gathering sternway until it was too late, and they only awoke to their danger as the cruiser's stern crashed into them, rolled them over, and sent them headlong to the bottom in a wreck of bursting steam-pipes, spilling furnaces, and crumpling machinery.
With a fierce laugh Frobisher pushed away the surgeon, who had finished, and himself seized the spokes of the steering-wheel and spun them over until the cruiser's bows headed for the Yoshino. Then he rang for full speed ahead.
But the pause between the checking of the Chih' Yuen's sternway and her gathering speed ahead would have been fatal had it not been for Drake. Another of those stinging little wasps, the destroyers, had dashed past at full speed, and, although severely punished by the cruiser's machine-guns, had managed to discharge a torpedo full at her side. The cruiser was helpless, unable to move until her engines had overcome the inertia, and for a few seconds it looked as though nothing could save her. But with a hoarse cry Drake dashed out of the conning-tower, where he was of course assisting Frobisher, ready to take charge if the latter were killed, and without a moment's hesitation leaped overboard, swimming powerfully toward the rapidly-approaching torpedo.
"Come back, you madman!" shouted Frobisher. "What are you about?" But Drake either could not or would not hear; he kept on his way, regardless of the hail of rifle and machine-gun bullets which flicked the water into foam all round him.
Then Frobisher and his crew saw what the gallant Englishman was about. As the deadly missile approached, hissing its way along the surface of the water, Drake stopped swimming and awaited it, and, as it swept past, flung his arm round the smooth, glistening machine. His arm was nearly torn from its socket, but he managed to get a grip upon the thing just forward of its greatest diameter; and, once he had secured his hold, he was not going to let go again. Then with fierce, strong strokes Drake began to kick out with his feet, pushing strongly at the nose of the torpedo as he did so; and, wonder of wonders! the menacing head gradually swung away from the Chih' Yuen's side. She was saved!
But that was not enough for Drake. The torpedo might hit some other Chinese craft, so, encouraged by his first success, he did not cease his efforts until he had turned the Whitehead completely round and got it headed direct for a cluster of three Japanese cruisers. Then he struck out for the Chih' Yuen, and was hauled aboard just as the cruiser was beginning to forge ahead once more. The torpedo, unnoticed, plugged into the side of the unsuspecting Soya, and a huge column of white water, upon which the ship appeared to rise bodily, announced the fact that it had done its deadly work effectively. And so it had, for before another five minutes had elapsed that unit of the Japanese Navy had also capsized and disappeared!
But while the Chih' Yuen had been piling up successes for herself, and earning laurels for her brave young skipper's brow--laurels with which the Chinese Government was afterwards only too proud to crown him--and while the gallant Englishman who captained the battleship Chen Yuen had been engaging no fewer than five Japanese ships at one and the same time, ay, and beating them off, too, matters had been going badly for the rest of the Chinese fleet. It is no exaggeration to say that if all the Chinese captains had fought as stubbornly as did the Englishmen, and if the ammunition had not proved, as it did in so many instances, to be faulty, the Chinese fleet would undoubtedly, in spite of the superior numbers of the enemy, have utterly destroyed the latter, and obtained full command of the sea. Japan would have been put back twenty-five years, there could have been no Russo-Japanese war, and China, instead of being, as she now is, a third-rate Power, might have held the premier position in Asia, as Japan so splendidly and skilfully does now. But, as so often happens, greed and dishonesty, self-seeking and cowardice on the part of high officials, nullified the efforts of the brave seamen who unavailingly gave their lives for their beloved country.
When Frobisher, intending to ram the Yoshino, came to look about him, his heart sank as he saw the havoc that had been wrought among the rest of the Chinese squadron. But, alas! worse by far was yet to come.
Note. The term "echelon" means, literally, "steps", or a zig-zag formation of columns, such as is shown in sketch Number 2, where the Japanese formation has been altered from "line ahead", as in sketch Number 1, to "echelon."