Siberian Exile Pioneer Hero Tsybulenko

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6436-6460:

On the afternoon of 19 November 1877, an undistinguished-looking 17-metre schooner named Dawn dropped anchor alongside the Customs House on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. An excited crowd of onlookers had gathered to catch a glimpse of the ship. The Dawn had just completed the first successful maritime voyage from the Yenisei River in Eastern Siberia to St. Petersburg. It had crossed the Kara and Barents seas, before circumnavigating Scandinavia by way of Vardø, Christiania (Oslo), Stockholm and Helsingfors (Helsinki) to finally reach the Russian capital. By common consensus both in Russia and abroad, this was a prodigious feat of seamanship: a half-decked sailing boat without a keel and with a crew of only five had navigated the ice floes and storms of the barely charted, and notoriously dangerous, Arctic seas. The ship had already enjoyed a triumphal passage through the coastal towns and cities of Norway, Sweden and the Grand Duchy of Finland, where it had been enthusiastically received by crowds of well-wishers; its crew had been celebrated in the national press and treated to feasts in its honour.

By the time the Dawn reached the Customs House on Vasilevsky Island, however, it bore only four of the five crew members who had set out from the Yenisei on 9 August. Andrei Tsybulenko was absent, as the daily St. Petersburg News drily noted, “for reasons beyond his control.” Tsybulenko had been arrested that morning when the ship docked in the naval base of Kronstadt, following a tip-off from the Russian consul in Christiania. Tsybulenko was, it had emerged, an exile from Yenisei province who had illegally made the passage from Siberia back to European Russian and was, therefore, a fugitive from justice. On orders from the minister of the interior, Aleksandr Timashev, he had been taken into custody and detained in the Kronstadt fortress. The authorities intended to deport Tsybulenko back to Yenisei province, where he would remain in exile for the rest of his life, but by January 1878, Tsybulenko had been released from custody and had received an official pardon from Alexander II and even awards and commendations from both the influential Imperial Society for the Advancement of Russian Merchant Shipping and the Ministry of Trade.

Tsybulenko’s remarkable reversals in fortune—from exile in Eastern Siberia, to member of a celebrity crew of intrepid seamen, to prisoner of the state in Kronstadt, and finally to pardoned fugitive—reflect mounting public opposition to the use of Siberia as a penal colony. From the 1850s, leading figures in Russia’s scientific, commercial and political elites began to challenge the established view of Siberia as a frozen, inhospitable wasteland, suitable only as a place of banishment for the empire’s criminals. They argued for a re-imagining of Siberia as a rich economic colony, one which had been neglected by the state and crippled by the exile system but which harboured, in fact, a wealth of natural resources awaiting exploration and development. These strategic criticisms of the government’s use of Siberia as a continental prison joined the rising tide of moral opposition to a system characterized by brutal floggings, by destitution and degradation of the blameless wives and children of convicts and by the martyrdom of revolutionaries.

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Wordcatcher Tales: 難得糊塗

I just came across a handwritten four-character Chinese phrase on a souvenir magnetic bookmark from Taiwan that leaves me uncertain about its meaning, despite many attempts to parse it.

The first character of what turned out to be 難得 (simplified 难得) nándé ‘rare(ly)’ was written with the more complicated (11-stroke) bird radical 鳥 (called tori in Japanese) on its right, rather than the simpler (9-stroke) 隹 (called furutori ‘old bird’ in Japanese). I searched and searched both the common and rare (難得!) sections of the Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables but couldn’t find a copy to cut and paste into this post. The two ‘bird’ shapes can be combined into one character (in either order, 鵻 or 䳡), but both kanji appear to be obsolete. (According to my old Canon Wordtank Kanjigen, the kanji 鵻, pronounced sui in Sino-Japanese, once named a kind of squab with a short tail.)

The second pair of characters, 糊塗 (simplified 胡涂) hútu, means ‘muddled, confused, bewildered’ or ‘stupid, foolish’ as an adjective in Chinese. But the Japanese verb 糊塗する koto suru means ‘gloss over, patch up’, literally ‘coat with glue’, from 糊 nori ‘starch, paste’ (with the ‘rice’ radical 米) and 塗 nuru ‘paint, daub’ (as in 塗物 nurimono ‘lacquerware’ or 塗工 tokou ‘painter, plasterer’).

So, the four characters on the bookmark probably intend to praise the astute reader as ‘rarely bewildered’, but they could also suggest that the reader is ‘rarely plastered’, is ‘rarely pasty’, or even perhaps ‘rarely [reads] glossy [magazines]’.

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Vagabonds of Siberia, 1800s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4293-4327:

A bird’s eye view of the Siberian taiga in the nineteenth century would have revealed a steady trickle of figures, stooped under heavy bundles, trudging westwards either alone or in small groups. The “hunchbacks,” as the peasants called them, were escaped convicts who had fled the marching convoys, the mines, the prisons and the penal settlements and were making their way across the forests in the direction of European Russia. Answering the spring call of the migrant cuckoo and taking advantage of the warmer weather, thawed waterways and thickening vegetation that provided them with camouflage and with food, the fugitives set forth. These were the foot soldiers of what became known as “General Cuckoo’s Army.”

The numbers of fugitives told a sobering tale. Abandoned and imprisoned in penury and squalor and with quite literally nothing to lose, Siberia’s convicts absconded from every single prison, factory, settlement and mine in their thousands. Between 1838 and 1846, the authorities apprehended almost 14,000 male and 3,500 female fugitives in Siberia (figures that probably represented just half of those convicts who were at large). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of escapes only increased as the overall exile population expanded. One government report on the state of exile in Eastern Siberia in 1877 recorded that, in three districts surveyed in Irkutsk province, half of the more than 20,000 prisoners had run away, their “whereabouts unknown.” By 1898, a quarter of the exiles assigned to Yenisei province, 40 per cent of those assigned to Irkutsk province and 70 per cent of those assigned to Primorsk province in Eastern Siberia were unaccounted for. Purpose-built penal labour sites witnessed a similar exodus. Such figures would suggest that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anywhere up to a third of Siberia’s 300,000 exiles were on the run in what ethnographer Nikolai Yadrintsev termed “an endless perpetuum mobile from Eastern Siberia to the Urals.”

The tsarist government was populating Siberia not with industrious colonists but with hordes of destitute and desperate exiles who roamed Siberia as beggars, at best, and petty thieves and violent brigands, at worst. Their victims were the Siberians themselves, both the indigenes and the migrant peasant settlers from Russia. Brutalized by the conditions of their captivity, fugitives visited a plague of theft, arson, kidnapping, violent robbery, rape and murder on Siberia’s real colonists. Seeking strength and protection in numbers, they sometimes formed armed gangs capable of terrorizing not just isolated villages but entire towns and cities. The exile system had transformed Siberia into Russia’s “Wild East.”

Some exiles known as brodiagi, or vagabonds, made for themselves a life of escape, recapture, spells in prison and then escape again. Overwhelmingly male, the brodiagi embraced a semi-nomadic existence in Russia, fuelled by a combination of charity and criminality. Like most pre-industrial societies, the Russian Empire had a rich variety of migratory traditions and a large diaspora encompassing fugitive peasants, Cossacks, peddlers, gypsies, migrant hunters, pilgrims, peripatetic sectarians, travelling merchants and the nomadic tribes of the taiga, steppe and tundra. These migratory peoples had played a significant role in Russia’s expansion across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1823, the state criminalized vagrancy in European Russia, a fact which accounted for a large part of the sudden upsurge in the numbers exiled to Siberia over subsequent decades. Between 1827 and 1846, the almost 50,000 vagrants constituted 30 per cent of all those exiled. Most of those convicted of vagabondage in Russia in this period were deserters from the army and fugitive serfs, and they presented in either case a direct challenge to Nicholas I’s cherished vision of a disciplined society. The numbers arrested for vagabondage declined in European Russia after the abolition of serfdom effectively decriminalized the unauthorized movement of people. In Siberia, however, the exile system gave vagabondage a new lease on life.

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Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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Aboard a Zeppelin to Africa, 1917

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6233-6255, 6268-6280, 6300-6317, 6404-6408:

L59, pushed by a tailwind from the direction of the German Reich, rumbled south from Jamboli in the freezing dawn of November 21, 1917, at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The great lumbering airship cast her shadow over Adrianople in Turkey at nine forty-five a.m., and over the Sea of Marmara’s chop a short time later. At Pandena, on the southern shore, she picked up the railroad tracks to Smyrna, a steel ribbon barely visible after sunset. At seven forty p.m., L59 pulled free of the Turkish coast at the Lipsas Straits. Now the Greek Dodecanese Islands—Kos, Patmos, Rhodes—passed below, nestled like dark jewels in the black Mediterranean waters, notoriously stormy this time of year. But tonight, the Zeppelin surged forward beneath a clear sky and brilliant stars. [Lieutenant Commander Ludwig] Bockholt, who had made his life in the navy, had long ago learned to steer by them when necessary.

L59’s crew of twenty—excluding Bockholt and [medical doctor Max] Zupitza—included twelve mechanics to service the five Maybach 240-horsepower engines (one in the forward control car, two opposed on the belly one-third of the way back, and two aft, each driving a single, massive twenty-foot propeller); two “elevator operators” (the elevators, movable flaps at the tail, controlled the upward or downward incline of the nose cone); a radio operator; and a sailmaker, whose job it was to sew up tears in the muslin envelopes affixed within the belly filled with the flammable hydrogen/oxygen mixture that kept the massive airship afloat.

As in the seaborne navy, watches divided the day into four-hour increments. As L59 approached the island of Crete at eight thirty p.m., a quarter of the crew just gone off watch opened their dinnertime cans of Kaloritkon, a bizarre sort of self-heating MRE. These undigestible, oversalted tubes of potted meat literally cooked themselves via a chemical reaction when exposed to air—heating food over open flame and smoking being strictly verboten aboard the flammable airship. The Kaloritkons, which everyone hated, took much water to wash down, and water was scarce, with barely 14 liters allotted per man for the duration of the voyage. At ten fifteen p.m., L59 passed above Cape Sidero at Crete’s eastern extremity at 3,000 feet. Then the stars by which Bockholt had been guiding the Zeppelin to Africa suddenly disappeared, blotted out by a solid mass of black, churning clouds, shot through with bright veins of lightning. The Zeppelin headed into this cloud bank and, buffeted by thunderclaps and driving rain, was also suddenly consumed by a strange, vivid flame, cool to the touch, that seemed to dance across every surface of the doped canvas envelope.

“The ship’s burning!” called the top lookout—alarming, but no cause for alarm: This was St. Elmo’s fire, named after Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors. Technically a luminous plasma generated by coronal discharge in an atmospheric electrical field, it burned a vivid violet-blue and, in nontechnical terms, was entirely beautiful….

At five fifteen a.m., the sun cracked the rim of earth and the huge airship passed over the African continent at Ras Bulair on the Libyan coast. Miles of desert lay ahead; no Zeppelin had flown across such a landscape before. Now the level wastes of sand and rock stretched monotonously below L59’s keel, from horizon to horizon. Soon, the sun, blazing down, began to dry her canvas skin, still drenched and heavy from the storm. The airship grew lighter as the watery sheen evaporated; lighter still as fuel consumption continued apace. Then the gas in her envelopes, expanding with the heat, blew out the automatic valves into the atmosphere and soon, L59 became dangerously light and increasingly difficult to handle. To compensate, Bockholt flew her “nose down” throughout the day, shifting 1,650 pounds of ballast aft as a counterbalance.

In the late morning, hot desert air rose in bubbles of buoyancy, alternating with heavy downdrafts of cooler air. This caused a roller-coaster effect that made most of the crew violently airsick. Even the hardened navy veterans among them, used to storms at sea, were not immune to the stomach-churning sensation of weightlessness as L59 plunged into the downdrafts and precipitously rose again. Despite all this, L59 plowed ahead and made the Farafra Oasis around noon. This incandescent patch of green slid by below, its date palms rustling in the hot wind….

Flying a Zeppelin is a difficult undertaking under the best conditions: Gas expands and contracts according to changing temperatures; lift and buoyancy fluctuate; all must be counterbalanced ceaselessly by the release of ballast water, the measured shifting of cargo, the canting of nose or tail via clumsy elevator flaps—and all this becomes doubly difficult over the desert. Bockholt had lightened his airship by 4,400 pounds of ballast in the last full heat of day and had even tossed some boxes of supplies overboard. He knew the rapidly cooling temperatures of the desert at night would contract the gas, causing the Zeppelin to sink. To counterbalance this sinking effect, he had planned to fly the ship at four degrees “nose up” on her four remaining engines.

But he had not counted on the humid, dense air of the Nile Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, ambient temperatures had reached sixty-eight degrees by ten p.m.; they rose steadily after midnight and still L59’s lift capacity gradually diminished. Finally, at three a.m., L59 began to lose altitude precipitously. The engines stalled. Forward thrust gone, the Zeppelin sank through the atmosphere from 3,100 feet to just under 1,300, not high enough to clear a looming desert escarpment; a minute later, her main radio antennae sheared off upon contact with an outcropping of red rock.

Now Bockholt ordered his crew to lighten the ship even further. With all engines stopped, 6,200 pounds of ballast and ammunition went overboard. The crew watched cases of ammunition, much needed by the Schutztruppe, shatter and explode on the ragged slopes below. But this sacrifice had its desired effect: Gradually, the sinking super Zeppelin stabilized; slowly, she rose into safer atmospheres:

“To fly steadily at 4 degrees heavy at night can easily be catastrophic, especially with sudden temperature changes in the Sudan, as at Jebel Ain,” Bockholt later confided to L59’s war diary, “particularly if the engines fail from overheating with warm outside temperatures. . . . Ship should have 3000 kg of 4 percent of her lift for each night to take care of cooling effect.”

Clearly, it was a complicated business.

L59, now less than 125 miles west of Khartoum, had two-thirds of the perilous journey behind her. But presently, to the dismay of all aboard, Bockholt turned the great airship around and pointed her nose cone due north ….

At last, at seven thirty a.m. on November 25, 1917, L59 made her docking station at Jamboli. Her mooring ropes dropped, the ground crew drew her down and walked her into the long shed. China Show had ended in failure. The twenty-two aeronauts, wobbly-legged, nearly deafened by the droning Maybachs at close quarters, stumbled down the ladders to the ground in the gray Balkan morning. They had been in the air for almost four days and had covered 4,200 air miles—the longest distance in the shortest time of any airship to date.

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German East Africa Import Substitutions

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3843-3870:

The British blockade of German East Africa—challenged briefly by Königsberg before she hightailed it up the Rufiji—was nearly a complete success. Shortages of basic necessities made themselves painfully felt everywhere. The colonists soon lacked adequate supplies of soap, toothpaste, candles, fuel, beer, booze, rubber, cloth, chocolate, castor oil, and, most important, quinine, without which life in the tropics became impossible for Europeans. One or two blockade runners reached the Swahili Coast after many ha[r]dships—notably the Krönborg-Rubens and the Marie von Stettin—but these were heroic exceptions. The aim of any blockade—complete starvation of the enemy—seemed within reach of the British Royal Navy for the first few months of 1915.

Then, with the begrudging help of Governor Schnee, still stewing away at Morogoro, von Lettow organized the colony to produce some of the most needed items. German East Africa, rich in natural resources, mostly lacked the necessary infrastructure—factories, refineries, laboratories, warehouses—to turn these resources into commercial goods. But presently, the colonists took it upon themselves to manufacture a variety of products for both civilians and Schutztruppe—now reaching its peak popularity as patriotic enthusiasm, fueled by the victory at Tanga, swept the colony.

Planters’ wives revived the neglected art of spinning using native cotton; African women, given scratch-built looms, wove bolts of cloth. Between them, they more than made up for the lack of imported fabric. Leather torn from the backs of native buffalo herds and tanned using chemicals extracted from the colony’s plentiful mangrove trees got cobbled into the boots so critical for the Schutztruppe—soon to march unimaginable distances over rough landscapes, much of which could not be traversed barefoot. Candles materialized from tallow; rubber from tapped trees: carefully dripped along rope, the raw, milky stuff was then hand-kneaded into tires for GEA’s few automobiles, including von Lettow’s staff car. A kind of primitive, homemade gasoline called trebol powered these vehicles—it was a by-product of distillates of copra, which also yielded benzene and paraffin. Soap came from a combination of animal fat and coconut oil. Planters and small businessmen eventually produced 10,000 pounds of chocolate and cocoa and 3,000 bottles of castor oil. Meanwhile, new factories sprang up in Dar es Salaam to make nails and other metal goods, including some ammunition. Rope woven from pineapple fiber proved both durable and less susceptible to rot than hempen rope from Germany; cigars and cigarettes rolled from native-grown tobacco made their way into every soldier’s kit. At Morogoro and elsewhere, home brewers distilled schnapps and moonshine. The latter, at 98 proof and optimistically labeled “whiskey,” was issued to the troops as part of their basic rations.

All this ingenuity, however, would be rendered useless without quinine. Before the war, the colony had gotten its supply from distributors in the Dutch East Indies, now cut off by the blockade. Dwindling supplies meant European populations of the colony would have no defense against their greatest enemy—not the British or rebellious natives but the malaria-bearing anopheles mosquito. At von Lettow’s urging, the famous biological research center at Amani turned its chemists to developing a quinine substitute in their laboratories. The chemists researched furiously, tried formulations of this and that, and at last came up with an effective type of liquid quinine distilled from cinchona bark. Called “von Lettow schnapps” by his men, this foul-tasting, much-reviled elixir nevertheless met most of the army’s needs for the next year or so.

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Monitor-class Gunboats in WWI

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4586-4635:

In 1913, the Brazilian Navy, eager to dominate the upper reaches of the Amazon, had ordered three curious, old-fashioned gunboats from the Scottish shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness. These vessels, called monitors because of their resemblance to the original ironclad warship (that “cheesebox on a raft,” the USS Monitor of the American Civil War), were little more than floating gun platforms. An unusually shallow draft of about six feet allowed the monitors to work close inshore and navigate rivers impassible to deeper-hulled warships. Their heavy armaments—two 6-inch and two 4.7-inch guns—made them formidable opponents. Indeed, these guns were as large as anything carried aboard German battle cruisers like Königsberg.

The monitors, 256 feet long and 1,256 tons unloaded, sported a single prominent funnel and an 80-foot central mainmast. Projected top speed of a painfully slow twelve knots proved much slower in practice. Each carried a minimal coal supply and so could not manage long voyages, which was just as well: Waves crashed over their narrow freeboard at stem and stern; with a direct wind from either port or starboard they wallowed and threatened to swamp—all obvious liabilities for any oceangoing vessel. But for river wars, they were just the thing.

Brazilian Navy officials eagerly awaited delivery of their new warships. They had already been christened Solomos, Madeira, and Javery and were undergoing acceptance trials when war broke out in August 1914. An ocean voyage being impossible under their own steam, the monitors would soon be towed across the Atlantic to the Amazon by oceangoing tugs. Suddenly, the Admiralty stepped in and confiscated the three ungainly vessels; their use was immediately required for Great Britain’s war against Germany and the Central Powers. The Brazilians’ reaction to this seizure must have been utter dismay: They had spent freely on lavish interior fittings and other cosmetic niceties. Indeed, the Brazilian monitors were perhaps the most luxurious naval vessels anywhere in the world.

When British officials came aboard for an inspection tour, they looked around aghast: Behind the monitors’ steel bulkheads, painted a jaunty Coast Guard white, the interiors resembled a posh gentleman’s club—or a high-class bordello: Captain’s cabin and officers’ quarters, ready room and gun room were done up in glossy oak paneling agleam with brass touches. Persian carpets decorated the decks. Blue linen tablecloths flecked with white embroidered anchors, monogrammed china, and chairs with interchangeable seats (wicker for hot weather, velvet for cold) had been specially made for the officers’ mess. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The British Navy inspectors allowed themselves a moment of envious awe, then took to the interior with crowbars and sledgehammers. The monitors’ gleaming white hulls—calculated to dazzle any Amazonian Indian approaching in a canoe—were immediately covered in wartime gray; any remaining brass fittings ended up a tarry black. All the luxurious accoutrements—carpets, tablecloths, interchangeable chairs—ripped out and discarded, ended up in a heap on the docks. Renamed Humber, Severn, and Mersey, the squat little ships were made ready for war.

Now dubbed the “Inshore Flotilla and Squadron,” they engaged in early action along the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915 and played an appreciable part in the “Race to the Sea” campaign of the first weeks of the war: As trenches were dug in a frantic burst all the way across Flanders to the English Channel, the monitors lying just offshore supported the action on land with their big guns. Coming under fire from German field artillery, they sustained damage and casualties, but played their role well. Churchill credited them with preventing the fall of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne and saving what was left of the Belgian Army….

Flotilla officers, an odd mix of merchant marine and naval reservists, suited their curious ships. Most, getting on in years, had already pursued a variety of nonmilitary careers—including the stage and the teaching of German to high school students —before being recalled to service in August. Captain E. J. A. Fullerton, first of Mersey, then Severn, the flotilla’s commander, had been a gym instructor at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and had served aboard King Edward VII’s yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert, in the last days of the Belle Epoque. When promoted to captain in January 1915, he provided a pint of beer to every sailor in the flotilla for a toast to his health.

Following action in Belgian waters, the Admiralty ordered the monitors to the Dardanelles to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. There, along with several of the most obsolete vessels in the British Navy, they were to help force the straits—the goal of the campaign being the capture of Constantinople from the Turks by naval action alone. Made as seaworthy as possible, with topmast stowed and hatches battened, the monitors wallowed down the European coasts and through the Straits of Gibraltar in heavy seas, towed by their tugs at the punishingly slow speed of six knots. They arrived at Malta in March, next stop Turkey. All officers and men of the Inshore Flotilla and Squadron had been sent ahead as passengers aboard the HMS Trent.

But by this time, the Turks under the famous Mustapha Kemal—later Ataturk—with German help had sunk three British battleships off the Dardanelles and disabled three more. British Admiral John de Robeck, in charge of naval operations, abruptly called off his battered fleet, in favor of an amphibious invasion force. Now, suddenly, the monitors had become redundant. They languished in the fortified harbor at Valetta for weeks—until Admiral King-Hall, from his watch on the far-off Rufiji Station, got wind of their presence in the Mediterranean. These clumsy, powerfully armed, shallow-draft vessels might have been made expressly for his ongoing battle against Königsberg.

After some wrangling with the Admiralty, King-Hall secured the use of Mersey and Severn and their officers and crews, though not Humber. The pair of monitors, again fixed to their oceangoing tugs via steel cables, began another long journey—this time 5,000 miles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and to the clotted, crocodile-infested channels of the Rufiji Delta.

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