Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 35 - Assault and Battery

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[-369-]

CHAPTER XXXV

ASSAULT AND BATTERY.

"HA, ha!" said he, with a sardonic laugh.
    "What do you mean? I asked, indignantly.
    "Ha, ha!" repeated he, more sardonically than before "it's a hoax;" and then he roared with delight. "He" was the booking-clerk at the Faversham railway-station; "I" was a passenger just alighted, and inquiring whether there would be any special return trains to London ;and "it" was a paragraph about a night-attack by volunteers, which had appeared in the newspapers.
    Now, though a hoax in itself is a most delightful thing, requiring great subtlety of wit to invent, and great delicacy of humour to carry through, still when, after travelling more than fifty miles, at great trouble and inconvenience, for a special object, you find you have mistaken an asinine bray for the genuine bugle-call, you are apt to be annoyed. So I was beginning to wax very wroth, and to feel anything but pleasantly disposed towards Faversham, its volunteers, local population, railway, and belongings in general, when I was accosted by the station-master, from whom I learned that, though the numbers engaged would not be so large as had been stated in the newspaper paragraph, the night-attack would certainly be made; that from the condition and drill of the men the operation would probably be very creditably [-370-] carried out; and that, though there were no special return trains to London - indeed, I seemed to be the only stranger in the place - there was a capital hotel, where I should be taken excellent care of.
    I found the hotel, forming one side of the queer little market-square, and immediately confronting the lopsided little town-hall, with its big-faced clock and its supporting pillars forming a little arcade, in which, probably, the merchants of Faversham most do congregate. I found the landlord astonished at the idea of a stranger coming so far to see so little, but, undoubtedly, delighted at the chance of driving me in an open trap to the scene of action, and of beholding the military display. I ordered my dinner, and I set out to do Faversham. Easily done. Such quaint old-fashioned, gable-ended houses, with all their woodwork newly grained, with plate-glass substituted for the old diamond panes, with the date of erection, in many cases, neatly picked out as something to be proud of; and with a perpetual current of business pouring into them, bespeaking trade and prosperity; such clean broad trimly- kept streets, stretching here away into a pleasant country, there away to new red-brick buildings, suggestive of benevolent townsfolk and heavy legacies; such a charming old church, with a singular spire springing from a curious arch; such a picturesque schoolhouse close by, with such a ringing, fresh, girlish voice within, heard through the open window singing-oh, so sweetly !-the Evening Hymn such a capital range of red-brick houses, with stone mullions and copings judiciously introduced, with bay windows thrown out here, and twisted chimneys put on there, and with, in the middle, a large, handsome, evidently public building, with big doors and those fine old medieval hinges, which make such a show, but which are not particularly useful. Of a passing rustic, or rather semi-rustic, an agricultural labourer with a maritime flavour, I asked what [-371-] that (pointing to it) was. The person looked at me for a moment seriously, then grinned, and said, "Faversham."  "Of course, I know; but that?" pointing again. A longer stare; then "Houses" was the reply. "Of course, but that?" with an unmistakable forefinger. "A-ah!" - long drawn-out sigh of relief -  "Institoot." The Albert Institute, well endowed, well supported, well attended, well conducted. Faversham's tribute to the memory of the Prince Consort, and a very sensible tribute too.
    Dinner despatched, I found the landlord awaiting me in an open phaeton, and away we sped to the scene of the operations, some four miles distant. Our passage through the streets was impeded by the streams of people all pouring out in the one direction, old and young, women and children, all full of spirits. Sitting on the box by the landlord, I had been wondering at the perpetual shouts of laughter we occasioned, at the never-failing roar of delight with which our appearance - like that of some popular actor - was greeted, and I was about to ask my companion for an explanation, when, turning round for an instant, I saw a shock-beaded ragged man solemnly trotting by the side of our trap, to which he was holding with one hand. "Who's your friend?" I asked the landlord. "Oh" said he without turning, "'tis only Buzzy Billy!" Being to my shame ignorant of this celebrity, I was compelled to press the question further, and then learnt that Buzzy Billy was the "softy," the omadhaun, in plain English the idiot, of the town, who, like most idiots, had a certain amount of nous, which fitted him for work which no one else cared to do, and that be was attached as our retainer to hold the horse and look after the trap while we were farther afield, with the certainty that no amount of excitement could beguile him from his duty. Which result, on such an occasion, could not have been predicated of any other male in Faversham. As running footman Buzzy Billy [-372-] discharged his duties well, distributing slaps of the head among the boys with great impartiality, with a hand about the size and colour of a shoulder of mutton, invariably meeting all suggestions of a "lift" with the sarcastic remark, "Get 'long wi' ee!" They wouldn't let me ride, much less such as you!"
    As we rode along, I learned from the landlord that the night's proceedings had been originated by a gentleman, the proprietor of extensive powder-mills in the neighbourhood, who, at his own cost, had raised among his own workmen two batteries of artillery, numbering one hundred and twenty men, who are provided by him with uniform and accoutrements, whose expenses are paid, and from whose wages he never makes any deduction when drills, gun-practice, and military evolutions call them from their regular work. These artillerymen, constituting the Second Kent Artillery Volunteers, were reckoned among the crack corps of the county; and of this I had an opportunity presently of judging, as we drove past the grounds of their founder, who is also their major, where they were drawn up in line - as well-built, trim, well-equipped a body of men as one could wish to see. These were the repelling force; the attacking body, consisting of the Sheerness Dockyard Battalion, had preceded us, and we could occasionally catch the refrain of a tune played by their band far ahead. By this time a bright clear moon had risen, the air was fresh and frosty, and the ground firm and in capital marching condition; the road was filled with pedestrians, all chatting and laughing, with here and there a stray horseman, or a chaise-cart, or a van laden with company. If there had been sunlight and dust, and hundreds more vehicles, it would have looked rather like the road to the Derby ; as it was, it dimly resembled the outskirts of a country fair. At last we began to approach our destination; the horse and chaise were left in Buzzy Billy's charge ; and we proceeded [-373-] on foot across a marshy piece of ground to a big barn, the battery about to be assaulted. A little inspection showed that this big barn was surrounded by a ditch, that it had heavy earthworks, and that through the embrasures loomed suspiciously the muzzles of two twenty-four-pounder guns. Its occupants had not yet arrived, so we followed the fortunes of the enemy, and pursued our way across the marsh-ground until we came to Ore Creek, in which lay the three little ship-launch gunboats under cover of whose fire the attack was to be made. The scene was a strange one to the left, aground like a stranded whale, stood the hull of a brig, now used as the coastguard station, and tenanted by the chief boatman, who, with his family and friends, was calmly standing in the bows and watching the operations. From the shore, gun detachments, all plainly visible in the moonlight, were embarking to board the gunboats under the lee of the coastguard ship; the commander of the attacking force was silently mustering his men, dealing out to them their ammunition, and giving them their final instructions. A knot of the local population, principally boys and women (the majority were up at the battery), stood by in excitement which bordered very closely on trepidation; far out to the left one could perceive the track of the little river Swale, and the twinkling lights of the Isle of Sheppey ; while the horizon on the left was cut by the black spars of a collier brig, curiously suggestive of yard-arm execution, and of immediate readiness for the reception of those smugglers who once abounded in these parts, and of whose exploits Thomas Ingoldsby has been the pleasantest narrator.
    While the gun detachments were silently stealing towards the gunboats, which, mastless, black, immobile, lay like three porpoises floating side by side in the creek, the attacking force, having been properly rested, were divided into two parties one to advance against the battery in [-374-] front, the other to harass it in flank. All seemed to promise well for the onslaught; when, far away in the direction of the battery, was seen a flash, followed by a tremendous roar, which woke all the echoes of the neighbourhood; the invaded were on the look-out, and had commenced the action. Forthwith the gunboats came to the support of their men, and one after another the little. six-pounders blazed away with an intermittent fury which spoke admirably for the manner in which. they were served. Under their cover the two portions of the attacking force advanced, firing volleys upon the supports of the defenders, who were promptly called out. So admirably was all this done, that it gave one (I should think) a very fair notion of real warfare; the roar of the guns and the rattle of the small-arms were incessant ; through the thick clouds of smoke which rolled over the marshes came hoarse words of command, all ending in that peculiar bellow which ought to convey a great deal to the soldier, as it is utterly unintelligible to the civilian. Happily there were no groans of the wounded, the substitute being the faint shrieks and Lar'-bless-me's of the female portion of the spectators. At first the attacking party carried all before it, and when it arrived at the battery beat off the supports, swarmed into the ditch through the embrasures, and up into the battery itself, to find the enemy retreated and the guns spiked. But, having learned from a prescient bystander that it was not at all unlikely a reverse would take place, I made my way by a detour to the top of a hill, where I passed the retreated Kent Artillery Volunteers comfortably ensconced behind a masked battery, hidden, like Tennyson's "Talking Oak," to the knees in fern, and awaiting the advent of the invaders, who by this time had left the captured battery and were pursuing their successful career.
    These devoted youths advanced until they were very unpleasantly near the covered muzzles of the guns, when [-375-] they were received with a salvo which, had the guns been shotted, certainly would have finished the attacking force. They wavered, halted, and then at word of command executed a strategic movement of retreat ; which, in plain English, looked very like running away. Then the invaded ran after them; then the invaded's supports fired after them; then the retreating attackers faced about and fired on the advancing repellers; then the gunboats began to boom again, the battery guns began to blaze away at the gunboats, and the people who were running away ran away a little, turned round and fired, and the people who were running after them ran forward a little and fired ; and so on, with a perpetual roaring and shouting, and running, until the attackers had been beaten off, and were supposed to have retired to their gunboats, and to be in full sail down Ore Creek.
    Now did the local population, finding they were neither hanged nor shot nor blown up, as most of them expected, overcome the trepidation under which during the attack they had laboured, and shout great shouts and roars of joy (such as Kentish lungs can alone give vent to), and of applause to both parties engaged. Now did the invaders return from the creek, and prove by their actual presence that they had not sailed away ; and now did they and the repellers, both somewhat grimy and sulphurous-smelling, fraternise and march back in amity to Faversham; where, in the assembly-rooms, at the expense of the generous major, was set forth a great repast of beef and bread and beer, which was freely and immediately pitched into by all present ; and there was as much interchange of opinions on the night's work, of homely jokes and pleasant banterings, as full mouths and sharp appetites would permit. Now did I return to the coffee-room of the hotel, and finish my night's adventure with a glass of grog, and a chat with such a specimen of the cheery, honest, quaint old English naval [-376-] officer as it had never been my good luck to meet before, and as I had hitherto believed was only to be found in the nautical novels of Captain Marryat.
    The night-attack at Faversham was a good thing, well conceived, ably planned, well carried out. All drill and no amusement makes Jack (or anybody else) a dull volunteer. To read, we must learn to spell; but to be always at spelling, even in words of four syllables, would be a dreary task. The formation of fours, the marching in sections and subdivisions, the manual and platoon, the judging-distance drill, etc., are all admirable initiatory exercises ; but to keep interest alive in the men, to throw something like a fascination round the pursuit, you must give them something more than this. This something more is to be found in periodical reviews, in out-camping, in sham-fights, in such a special manoeuvre as is here recorded. All that was done at Faversham was on a miniature scale, but the well-arranged programme was kept to the letter, and was carried out with signal success. May it be the prelude to larger operations of like kind!