HMS SURPRISE, after a miraculous escape from the Bay of Navarino, fights on to aid the Greek navy in their struggle against Ottoman superiority.
After delivering her cargo of the Tsar’s gold to a secret hideaway, unable to make way against strong headwinds and closed within a narrow strait, the frigate is surrounded by a closing Turkish fleet, her destruction or capture seemingly inevitable. A miraculous escape is made through shallow, uncharted waters.
At last, temporary repairs made to substantial damages, Surprise and her tender, the schooner Eleanor, make their way home, heading for Falmouth, yet the fog of Cape St. Vincent presents a dreadful catastrophe for them.
Home at last but troubled by so many shipmates lost, Captain Patrick O’Connor and Dr Simon Ferguson contemplate their future as bleak destitution looms before them when scores of banks fail in the great financial crash of 1825.
There is an inevitable and insidious effect on men at war, usually termed ‘combat fatigue’. Generally unknown before the First World War, prior to which battles were fought in one or two days with the soldier able to recuperate for a relatively lengthy spell afterwards, the prolonged exposure to danger in the trenches of the Western Front inflicted traumatic changes on the infantryman. Robert Graves, who fought at Ypres, reported: “At six months the infantry officer was more or less all right; by nine to ten months he became a drag on the other officers; after a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless.”
In the Second World War, Brigadier G.W.B. James, a regimental medical officer and holder of the Military Cross and bar, reported: “Prolonged exposure to killing and the threat of being killed wore men down such that by late 1942 (in the Western Desert campaign, starting September 1940) there was complete and utter exhaustion… while brief periods of rest did little to restore the cumulative effects of constant mental strain.”
One widely-recognised study of such effects is by Swank and Marchand on US infantry in north-west Europe, written in November 1944: “The first symptom of combat exhaustion made its appearance at D-Day plus 25 to 30 in most soldiers. It could not be relieved by 48 hours of rest. The soldier lost confidence in himself and sleeplessness became evident despite his exhaustion. By D-Day plus 40 to 45, emotional exhaustion appeared as a slowing of mental processes; memory defects became extreme and there was also a lack of concentration. In some men they suffered physical symptoms such as paralysis of an arm or visual defects. For 98% of men, after 60 days, they were tense, sleepless and irritable. Some were emotionally unstable to the point that they became angry or cried at the slightest provocation or became irritated towards their friends for trivial reasons. Some became anxious, hyperactive and restless.”
The more complex detail of these effects on soldiers is beyond a book of fiction such as this; however, these issues rarely, if ever, make an appearance in fiction, and that hardly does justice to the story or delivers authenticity for the reader. In my own books I have strived to write with a degree of attention to these cruel realities. Alan Lawrence April 2018
Pat had passed a sleepless night, a degree of trepidation about the forthcoming day, about Miaoulis’s intentions, seizing all his thoughts whilst he turned over and over within his cot. He had resigned himself to sleeplessness long before the dawn, and with a feeling of resignation he stepped up to his quarterdeck, a muted greeting offered to the handful of men on watch. He was a passionate astronomer and stepped across to stand at the rail, sparing himself a few minutes before engaging in his duties. He stared upwards, gazing towards the heavens, its marvels fast fading, until he became aware of a silent Simon, who had appeared at his side. Concerned for his friend, still self-evidently in an excruciating state of unhappiness, and cognizant of the fears plainly pressing upon them both, Pat strived for a cheering voice; ‘A penny for your thoughts,’ this offered in a whisper, as if he did not dare to break the enduring contemplation of them both, not wishing to shatter the serenity of the emerging dawn, the sense of peacefulness all about them certain to be short-lived and of such great value to Pat himself in that precious moment.
‘A penny… a penny indeed… most generous of you and, I venture, strikingly innovative.’ The surgeon, barefoot and dressed only in a nightshirt, scowled but offered nothing more. He shivered in the slight, chill breeze, little warmth in the dawn so far, the light, just passing the cusp between the twilight and the dawn proper, holding to that strange air of crystal clarity the Mediterranean alone seemed to possess.
‘Oh,’ Pat sighed, ‘as a lad in Connemara a penny was greatly valued and never spurned, oh no; and as for amassing the very great fortune of twelve of them, why, I could only dream of possessing a shilling… and a pound… now there was wealth for you, and far beyond my imagination that was!’ Pat laughed out loud at the memory, the tiny relief that it presented.
Simon nodded, the bare trace of his own smile registering in Pat’s scrutiny, and standing together they gazed across the bay, the indistinct shapes of a score of Greek brigs becoming ever clearer as the sun peeked higher over the mountains of the Mani.
‘Brother, I beg your pardon…’ murmured Simon.
‘Eh? For what?’
‘I spoke to you yesterday intemperately… on the regrettable nature of revenge… and man’s passion for it.’
‘Oh that, no, never in life; I paid it no mind. I venture you spoke the truth of the matter… were in the right of things… as ever.’
A silent minute more passed before Simon spoke again, ‘Do you reflect, brother… in the brief spells of tranquillity such as this? Do you wonder… have fears for what this day might bring… for our shipmates, for all your men… for yourself perhaps?’
Pat sighed deeply, a long, long exhalation, his face wholly in sympathy with his feelings, ‘Every day, old friend… not a one passes without I am in contemplation of what might befall us… all of us… and many a night I dream…’ Another heartfelt sigh, ‘That is to say, I am on occasion beset by nightmares.’
‘I make no doubt that must be the most unwelcome affliction.’
‘Why, for sure it is. In my sleep I sometimes recall the faces of those shipmates we have lost… Jelbert being only the latest of many. It is something of a… a black burden. In those hours… in the moments when I awaken I… I endeavour to turn my thoughts elsewhere… I dally in my cot – in discomfort, I grant you – seeking sleep again… I dream… I imagine a Galway hooker… sails filled and pressing her far over, flying in a westerly… out to the Arans…’ Pat’s face lost the mask of strain for the first time, ‘… or a calm day off the Gannoughs in a currach with rod and line… a brace of salmon in the basket for supper… Fergal with me and homeward bound… to my dear Sinéad… ‘ a wistful smile, ‘… for a supper by the fire… sitting in the warmth of the peat, a glass of whiskey at hand. Oh for such happy days, eh?’
‘I would dearly wish to be with you in those precious hours… in those places of blessed sanctuary, I would so,’ Simon spoke very quietly, his heartfelt aspiration plain in his voice. Another long pause, ‘Tell me, is it ever in your mind to consider for how long we will endure… will persevere with this accursed Greek venture?’
‘Oh, as for that… there is nothing to be done, save to fight… to fight this ship… our ship… to fight the barky. In Devonport I made my decision… that man Jelbert again, eh… and I am here, we are here… all of us, with the Greeks, we are bound to them… come rain or shine. One might venture that we are in the lap of the gods… Greek gods now… and precious little do I know of them,’ Pat managed a weak laugh.
Simon sighed, an air of resignation overtaking him; plainly Pat’s thinking was not to be shifted, at least not far and not today. ‘Then let us hope we do not encounter that demonic sea goddess and are turned to stone.’
‘The fearsome Medusa.’