Easter Monday with the Camera
Easter Monday with the Camera
Portsmouth is never at any time a dull place. The coming and going of men-of-war and of transports, the large garrison, the crowds of "blue jackets," and the annual fashionable influx into Southsea — all prevent its ever becoming so. When the town is en fete, however, and puts up her triumphal arches, decks herself with gay ribbons, and assumes her other coquettish airs, she is as lively as any Spanish city in carnival time. Those who had the good fortune to see her last Easter will not readily forget her attractions.
From Saturday to Monday the main streets of the borough were a gay spectacle. Above, every variety of flag and banner were festooned across from house to house, or fluttered from window or roof. Mottoes, devices, and illuminations glittered and glanced on every side. The pavements were crowded with uniforms. Blue marines and red marines, linesmen and dragoons, royal artillery and blue jackets, volunteer artillery and engineers, spruce London Scottish and grey Artists, riflemen, black, blue, red and grey from the metropolitan corps — all swarmed and jostled and pushed from one end of Commercial Road to the other. Very serviceable the citizen soldiers looked, with bayonet and water bottle, blanket and haversack — ready apparently to go anywhere and do anything, more particularly to drink. Considering that on Saturday night there were some fifteen thousand men in the town order was wonderfully well preserved. There was only one disturbance of any consequence which I observed, where some regular engineers having given offence to a few volunteers a free fight ensued, in which a couple of sailors joined, fighting apparently like Hal of the Wynd — each for his own hand and with the strictest impartiality. In this skirmish the volunteers had decidedly the best of it, and remained in possession of the field.
Easter Monday morning broke bleak and raw, and it became a problem of some difficulty to know how camera and stand and carriers were to be conveyed to the top of the Portsdown ridge, some three and a-half miles from the town. Vehicles were at famine prices, and even the 'bus companies had run up their fares in a way which prompted all public-spirited citizens to "boycott" them. As my two companions and myself included ourselves in this category we proceeded to put our principles into practice — a resolution which led to sore heels, blisters, and much dust and exasperation. As far as we can learn, our abstention had not any perceptible effect upon the market value of 'bus shares. We have given up "boycotting" large companies since then.
Trudging along three miles of very dusty road with a camera in one's hand is not the most blissful of human employments. more particularly when the crowd upon the footpaths the whole way is so thick that you have to regulate your pace by that of others. You tread on the heels of those in front of you, and while they are expressing their opinion of you and of your proceedings in flowery and scriptural language, you are yourself trodden on by those behind. Vehicles of every sort and description clattered along the causeway, and as no rule of the road appeared to be observed it was dangerous to go off the footpath for a moment.
The lines of Hilsea having been passed, the first sign of warlike operations became visible in the shape of a pontoon bridge thrown across the canal by the engineers to allow the garrison to make their sortie. A little further on in a bye-road there stood a commissariat waggon of the London Scottish, with a guard of half-a-dozen men smoking round their stacked rifles — a pretty little warlike "bit" for the photographer; but the hurrying, remorseless crowd prevented any possibility of taking it. We were glad to reach the prettily-decorated village of Cosham, and gladder still to get a glass of bitter beer, for we were coated with dust and as dry as if we had swallowed Paley's Evidences of Christianity.
The battle was to begin at twelve o'clock, and as we were anxious not to miss any of the slaughter we made a forced march so as to get on the ridge before that hour. There is not a finer natural theatre in the world than the Portsdown hill and the country around it, nor any place where such a large number of spectators can follow operations upon a large scale and grasp the drift of them. On one side beneath you is the village of Cosham and the little town of Portchester, with its historical castle, and on each side the broad stretches of Portsmouth harbour and Langstone harbour. In the background lies the great Hampshire seaport itself, and beyond it the silver streak of the Solent, bounded on the horizon by the long, well-wooded shores of the Isle of Wight. On the other side the declivity is as sharp, and the spectator looks down on an undulating, fairly open country, rolling away for some twelve miles to Butser Hill and the Petersfield district. The main roads stand out like lines of chalk — as, indeed, many of them are — upon the landscape. Both views, to the north and to the south, make splendid photographs, but we had already done them justice and were in quest of rarer game.
To understand anything about the manoeuvres it was necessary to have a highly-trained imagination. To grasp them thoroughly argued an immense power of fancy, only to be obtained, as one of my companions declared, by the aid of stimulants. The great forts which line the summit of the ridge, and command the country round for miles, are to be supposed not to exist. This is out of consideration for the wives and families of the invading army. Then the sea is also abolished and put out of the question. For the day Portsmouth was an inland town, defended by a garrison of some two thousand men. A reinforcement of four thousand or so are on their march from the westward to strengthen the place. An enemy, however, numbering ten thousand or so, comes down from the north in a highly-reprehensible and vindictive manner, and interposes itself between the town and the relieving column, and endeavours to prevent its getting into the town. This was the cause of all the trouble.
Looking down at the wooded country to the north and west it was difficult to believe that some fifteen thousand troops were within a radius of a few miles. The mystic hour of twelve arrived, and whereas we civilians had fondly imagined that that moment would be the signal for a roar of firing, for bidden troops to rush out of ambuscades, and for a general lively time, to our intense disappointment nothing whatever occurred. The landscape was as placid as before, and not a human being to be seen in the north valley except an occasional staff officer or umpire galloping furiously along.
Presently a couple of Middlesex Yeomanry, with t heir carbines unslung, came trotting along the ridge, followed by twenty or thirty of the same corps. These were the extreme advance guard of the northern force. Almost at the same moment a brass-helmeted body of men, looking like a mounted lire brigade, came galloping up from the other direction. These were the scouts of the western army. There was the material for as pretty little cavalry skirmish, and the crowd's flesh began to creep: but no gore was shed, for the Middlesex men scampered back to their supports and the Hampshires dismounted and occupied sonic broken ground in mounted infantry fashion. We tried a plate over this maneuvering of cavalry, but it was not a success. The dim weather necessitated a somewhat long exposure, and it was no easy matter to keep our camera on its legs, or to get a clear foreground in front of the lens.
By this time there was a glitter of arms away to the eastward, and column after column of troops — black, grey, and red — appeared in sight marching up the valley, with a double line of skirmishers in front of the leading brigade. This was the attacking force. Their advance was directed towards the relieving or western army, but a rattle of musketry in the distance showed that the garrison had made a sortie and were engaging the flank of the invaders. At the same moment the head of the western force began to appear near Fort Southwick, and very shortly the skirmishers of both sides were hard at work. The sight in the valley now was a pretty one. Two long lines of smoke showed the position of the hostile skirmishers. Behind these on both sides were regiments hurrying up in open order to join in the fray; behind that again was the main body coming up in columns of companies, while the cavalry, finding the situation becoming somewhat warm, were slowly retiring. We would have found it impossible owing to the crush to have done any good work was it not for the kindness of a sergeant of mounted engineers, which corps was keeping the ground. Seeing our difficulty, he very kindly allowed us to come outside the line of demarcation, and so to work without having the apparatus broken or being elbowed off our legs. In this way we succeeded in getting a series of plates of the proceedings; but, as I have said, the weather was against any very brilliant results.
In the meantime there were terrible doings in the valley. The fighting line of both sides had been strongly reinforced, until it had absorbed the greater portion of either army. These two long lines were blazing away at each other with the greatest sangfroid, at distances which varied from fifty yards to two hundred. Occasionally a regiment would rise and make a rush forward or backward in a way which would have entailed a premature interview with their Creator had it been done in actual warfare. The reckless hardihood of these men was almost incredible. They were too brave to lie down, so they strutted about regardless of rifles and Nordenfeldts, with a cool contempt of danger which came like a revelation upon one of my companions, who had seen some real hard fighting in his lifetime, and who bore in his waistcoat pocket a certain piece of bronze called the Victoria Cross — as honestly earned as ever a decoration was. "Why," he remarked. "there wouldn't have been any of them left at all. 'he would have been utterly annihilated;" and we forthwith began planning out graveyards and arranging for the decent interment of the belligerents.
So far we had, all things considered, no reason to be dissatisfied with Our day's work from a photographic point of view. When the "cease firing" sounded, however, and the march past was about to begin, we found the crowd so dense about the saluting point that photography was not only out of the question, but it was absolutely necessary for us to abandon our apparatus if we wished to see anything ourselves. Handing it over, therefore, to the care of a friendly sutler, we elbowed our 'vay through the crowd — there must have been more than a hundred thousand people on the side of the hill — and eventually secured a position not very far from the staff, where were the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the popular Governor of Portsmouth, and many others of light and leading, including the French military attaché — a gaudy warrior in red trousers and sky-blue coat, who seemed, to judge by his expression, to think very small beer of our citizen army.
The march past began with the scanty force of yeomanry, and then for rather over an hour regiment followed regiment until the whole had gone by, some of the principal ones being cheered by the crowd. The local Hampshire corps, some eight hundred strong, went by in the opinion of experts in better style than any of the metropolitan regiments, which may be explained by the fact that belonging to a military town they have constant opportunities of imitating and competing with the regulars. The Victorias, the Artists, the London Irish and Scotch, the Westminsters, the Second Sussex Artillery, the Inns of Court, and the Tower Hamlets all did well. The Nordenfeldts — grim-looking machines, pulled along in the rear of the Victoria Rifles — created considerable curiosity among the crowd. "What's them?" asked one fellow near us. "Them's the regimental cookin' apparatus," another answered, with a look of superior wisdom. "For cooking the enemy's goose," we ventured to suggest, but that joke fell upon barren ground and was lost. Taking them all in all the general opinion seemed to be that, though there were a good many weedy men in the ranks, the average of physique was very fair — undoubtedly superior to that of most of the present short-service regiments.
There was one episode in the fight upon Saturday which was somewhat amusing. Among the defenders there was a troop of the 4th Dragoon Guards — the heroes of the Kassassin charge — and these slashing horsemen took a great delight in chasing and chevying any of the opposing yeomanry who came near them, thinking, no doubt, that it was capital fun to take a "rise" out of these amateur soldiers. One innocent-looking yeoman, after this game had been going on some time, rode straight towards the dragoons, and then, as if surprised at finding himself in the jaws of the lion, turned and fled. Away clattered the whole troop in hot pursuit, and rode right into a nice little ambuscade prepared by the Westminster Rifles, where they were all made prisoners. The innocent-looking yeoman had been a decoy duck, and the crest-fallen dragoons rode back, sadder and wiser men.
With the conclusion of the march past the proceedings terminated, and the various regiments began to file off the ground in different directions.
Our sutler had moved off with his cart containing the camera and carriers, and it took an hour's seeking before we discovered him. However, at last we unearthed the delinquent and recovered our invaluables, after which we turned our backs on the battlefield, where the carrion crow was already flapping its heavy wings over the empty ginger-beer bottles, and struck out for home.
Just outside Cosham we overtook an omnibus, which, for a wonder, was not full. We said nothing, but looked at each other. Should we be partners in holstering up this monopoly — this indefensible overcharge? We had spent the last week in denouncing it. Were we to submit to it now? We got inside the 'bus while we were turning the question over in our minds, and arrived at Portsmouth before we had been able to come to any definite conclusion.
A. Conan Doyle, M.B., C.M.