The Angel of the Revolution, by George Griffith

Chapter 34.

The Path of Conquest.

This narrative does not in any sense pretend to be a detailed history of the war, but only of such phases of it as more immediately concern the working out of those deep-laid and marvellously-contrived plans designed by their author to culminate in nothing less than the collapse of the existing fabric of Society, and the upheaval of the whole basis of civilisation.

It will therefore be impossible to follow the troops of the Alliance and the League through the different campaigns which were being simultaneously carried out in different parts of Europe. The most that can be done will be to present an outline of the leading events which, operating throughout a period of nearly three months, prepared the way for the final catastrophe in which the tremendous issues of the world-war were summed up.

The fall of Berlin was the first decisive blow that had been struck during the war. Under it the federation of kingdoms and states which had formed the German Empire fell asunder almost instantly, and the whole fabric collapsed like a broken bubble. The shock was felt throughout the length and breadth of Europe, and it was immediately seen that nothing but a miracle could save the whole of Central Europe from falling into the hands of the League.

Its immediate results were the surrender of Magdeburg, Brunswick, Hanover, and Bremen. Hamburg, strongly garrisoned by British and German troops, supported by a powerful squadron in the Elbe, and defended by immense fortifications on the landward side, alone returned a flat defiance to the summons of the Tsar. The road to the westward, therefore, lay entirely open to his victorious troops. As for Hamburg, it was left for the present under the observation of a corps of reconnaissance to be dealt with when its time came.

When Berlin fell the position of affairs in Europe may be briefly described as follows:— The French army had taken the field nearly five millions strong, and this immense force had been divided into an Army of the North and an Army of the East. The former, consisting of about two millions of men, had been devoted to the attack on the British and German forces holding an almost impregnable position behind the chain of huge fortresses known at present as the Belgian Quadrilateral.

This Army of the North, doubtless acting in accordance with the preconceived schemes of operations arranged by the leaders of the League, had so far contented itself with a series of harassing attacks upon different points of the Allied position, and had made no forward movement in force. The Army of the East, numbering nearly three million men, and divided into fifteen army corps, had crossed the German frontier immediately on the outbreak of the war, and at the same moment that the Russian Armies of the North and South had crossed the eastern Austro–German frontier, and the Italian army had forced the passes of the Tyrol.

The whole of the French fleet of war-balloons had been attached to the Army of the East with the intention, which had been realised beyond the most sanguine expectations, of overrunning and subjugating Central Europe in the shortest possible space of time. It had swept like a destroying tempest through the Rhine Provinces, leaving nothing in its track but the ruins of towns and fortresses, and wide wastes of devastated fields and vineyards.

Before the walls of Munich it had effected a junction with the Italian army, consisting of ten army corps, numbering two million men. The ancient capital of Bavaria fell in three days under the assault of the aërial fleet and the overwhelming numbers of the attacking force. Then the Franco–Italian armies advanced down the valley of the Danube and invested Vienna, which, in spite of the heroic efforts of what had been left of the Austrian army after the disastrous conflicts on the Eastern frontier, was stormed and sacked after three days and nights of almost continuous fighting, and the most appalling scenes of bloodshed and destruction, four days after the surrender of the German Emperor to the Tsar had announced the collapse of what had once been the Triple Alliance.

From Vienna the Franco–Italian armies continued their way down the valley of the Danube, and at Budapest was joined by the northern division of the Russian Army of the South, and from there the mighty flood of destruction rolled south-eastward until it overflowed the Balkan peninsula, sweeping everything before it as it went, until it joined the force investing Constantinople.

The Turkish army, which had retreated before it, had concentrated upon Gallipoli, where, in conjunction with the allied British and Turkish Squadrons holding the Dardanelles, it prepared to advance to the relief of Constantinople.

The final attack upon the Turkish capital had been purposely delayed until the arrival of the French war-balloons, and as soon as these appeared upon the scene the work of destruction instantly recommenced. After four days of bombardment by sea and land, and from the air, and a rapid series of what can only be described as wholesale butcheries, the ancient capital of the Sultan shared the fate of Berlin and Vienna, and after four centuries and a half the Turkish dominion in Europe died in its first stronghold.

Meanwhile one of the wings of the Franco–Italian army had made a descent upon Gallipoli, and after forty-eight hours’ incessant fighting had compelled the remnant of the Turkish army, which it thus cut off from Constantinople, to take refuge on the Turkish and British men-of-war under the protection of the guns of the fleet. In view of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, and the terrible effectiveness of the war-balloons, it was decided that any attempt to retake Constantinople, or even to continue to hold the Dardanelles, could only result in further disaster.

The forts of the Dardanelles were therefore evacuated and blown up, and the British and Turkish fleet, with the remains of the Turkish army on board, steamed southward to Alexandria to join forces with the British Squadron that was holding the northern approaches to the Suez Canal. There the Turkish troops were landed, and the Allied fleets prepared for the naval battle which the release of the Russian Black Sea Squadron, through the opening of the Dardanelles, was considered to have rendered inevitable.

Five days later was fought a second battle of the Nile, a battle compared with which the former conflict, momentous as it had been, would have seemed but child’s play. On the one side Admiral Beresford, in command of the Mediterranean Squadron, had collected every available ship and torpedo-boat to do battle for the defence of the all-important Suez Canal, and opposed to him was an immense armament formed by the junction of the Russian Black Sea Squadron with the Franco–Italian fleet, or rather those portions of it which had survived the attacks, or eluded the vigilance of the British Admiral.

The battle, fought almost on the ancient battle-ground of Nelson and Collingwood, was incomparably the greatest sea-fight in the history of war.

The fleet under Admiral Beresford’s command consisted of fifty-five battleships of the first and second class, forty-six armoured and seventy-two unarmoured cruisers, fifty-four gunboats, and two hundred and seventy torpedo-boats; while the Franco–Italian Allied fleets mustered between them forty-six battleships, seventy-five armoured and sixty-three unarmoured cruisers, forty gunboats, and two hundred and fifty torpedo-boats.

The battle began soon after sundown on the 24th of August, and raged continuously for over sixty hours. The whole issue of the fight was the question of the command of the Mediterranean, and the British line of communication with India and the East viâ the Suez Canal.

The prize was well worthy of the tremendous struggle that the two contending forces waged for it; and from the two Admirals in command to the boys employed on the most insignificant duties about the ships, every one of the combatants seemed equally impressed with the magnitude of the momentous issues at stake.

To the League, victory meant a deadly blow inflicted upon the only enemy now seriously to be reckoned with. It meant the severing of the British Empire into two portions, and the cutting of the one remaining channel of supply upon which the heart of the Empire now depended for its nutrition. To destroy Admiral Beresford’s fleet would be to achieve as great a triumph on the sea as the armies of the League had achieved on land by the taking of Berlin, Vienna, and Constantinople. On the other hand, the defeat of the Franco–Italian fleets meant complete command of the Mediterranean, and the ability to destroy in detail all the important sea-board fortresses and arsenals of the League that were situated on its shores.

It meant the keeping open of the Suez Canal, the maintenance of communication with India and Australia by the shortest route, and, what was by no means the least important consideration, the vindication of British prestige in Egypt, the Soudan, and India. It was with these enormous gains and losses before their eyes that the two forces engaged and fought as perhaps men had never fought with each other in the world before. Everything that science and experience could suggest was done by the leaders of both sides. Human life was counted as nothing in the balance, and deeds of the most reckless heroism were performed in countless instances as the mighty struggle progressed.

With such inflexible determination was the battle waged on either side, and so appalling was the destruction accomplished by the weapons brought into play, that by sunrise on the morning of the 27th, more than half the opposing fleets had been destroyed, and of the remainder the majority were so crippled that a continuance of the fight had become a matter of physical impossibility.

What advantage remained appeared to be on the side of the remains of the Franco–Italian fleet; but this was speedily negatived an hour after sunrise by the appearance of a fresh British Squadron, consisting of the five battleships, fifteen cruisers, and a large flotilla of gunboats and torpedo-boats which had passed through the Canal during the night from Aden and Suakim, and appeared on the scene just in time to turn the tide of battle decisively in favour of the British Admiral.

As soon as this new force got into action it went to work with terrible effectiveness, and in three hours there was not a single vessel that was still flying the French or Italian flag. The victory had, it is true, been bought at a tremendous price, but it was complete and decisive, and at the moment that the last of the ships of the League struck her flag, Admiral Beresford stood in the same glorious position as Sir George Rodney had done a hundred and twenty-two years before, when he saved the British Empire in the ever-memorable victory of the 12th of April 1782.

The triumph in the Mediterranean was, however, only a set-off to a disaster which had occurred more than five weeks previously in the Atlantic. The Russian fleet, which had broken the blockade of the Sound, with the assistance of the Lucifer, had, after coaling at Aberdeen, made its way into the Atlantic, and there, in conjunction with the Franco–Italian fleets operating along the Atlantic steamer route, had, after a series of desperate engagements, succeeded in breaking up the line of British communication with America and Canada.

This result had been achieved mainly in consequence of the contrast between the necessary methods of attack and defence. On the one hand, Britain had been compelled to maintain an extended line of ocean defence more than three thousand miles in length, and her ships had further been hampered by the absolute necessity of attending, first, to the protection of the Atlantic liners, and, secondly, to warding off isolated attacks which were directed upon different parts of the line by squadrons which could not be attacked in turn without breaking the line of convoy which it was all-essential to preserve intact.

For two or three weeks there had been a series of running fights; but at length the ocean chain had broken under the perpetual strain, and a repulse inflicted on the Irish Squadron by a superior force of French, Italian, and Spanish warships had settled the question of the command of the Atlantic in favour of the League. The immediate result of this was that food supplies from the West practically stopped.

Now and then a fleet Atlantic greyhound ran the blockade and brought her priceless cargo into a British port; but as the weeks went by these occurrences became fewer and further between, till the time news was received in London of the investment of the fortresses of the Quadrilateral by the innumerable hosts of the League, brought together by the junction of the French and Russian Armies of the North and the conquerors of Vienna and Constantinople, who had returned on their tracks after garrisoning their conquests in the East.

Food in Britain, already at war prices, now began to rise still further, and soon touched famine prices. Wheat, which in the last decade of the nineteenth century had averaged about £9 a ton, rose to over £31 a ton, its price two years before the Battle of Waterloo. Other imported food-stuffs, of course, rose in proportion with the staple commodity, and the people of Britain saw, at first dimly, then more and more clearly, the real issue that had been involved in the depopulation of the rural districts to swell the populations of the towns, and the consequent lapse of enormous areas of land either into pasturage or unused wilderness.

In other words, Britain began to see approaching her doors an enemy before whose assault all human strength is impotent and all valour unavailing. Like Imperial Rome, she had depended for her food supply upon external sources, and now these sources were one by one being cut off.

The loss of the command of the Atlantic, the breaking of the Baltic blockade, and the consequent closing of all the continental ports save Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp, had left her entirely dependent upon her own miserably insufficient internal resources and the Mediterranean route to India and the East.

More than this, too, only Hamburg, Antwerp, and the fortresses of the Quadrilateral now stood between her and actual invasion — that supreme calamity which, until the raid upon Aberdeen, had been for centuries believed to be impossible.

Once let the League triumph in the Netherlands, as it had done in Central and South–Eastern Europe, and its legions would descend like an avalanche upon the shores of England, and the Lion of the Seas would find himself driven to bay in the stronghold which he had held inviolate for nearly a thousand years.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37