In 1877-78, on unofficial secondment, the British officer Nicholas Dawlish served in the Ottoman Navy in the last stages of the vicious Russo-Turkish War. That story is told in Britannia’s Wolf. But since then more than a third of a century has passed… it is now 1914...
It did not make it any easier, any less bitter, that he had known that this day would surely come. Over three months, possibility had grown to probability, then to inevitability, that the war raging in Europe would engulf the Near East also. Clandestine negotiations – and inducements – had failed to persuade the hard-eyed young army officers who now governed Turkey not to throw in their lot with Germany and Austro-Hungary. In the end – as Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish knew it always would – it had been hatred of Russia that had decided the issue. A few days since, those young officers, unborn when he had himself worn the Sultan’s uniform, had finally identified their nation as German’s ally by a surprise bombardment of the Russian port of Odessa. So now, today, November 5th 1914, Britain would announce her solidarity with her Muscovite ally by declaring war on Turkey.
And that knowledge broke Dawlish’s heart. It was not just recognition of what loss and suffering war would bring across the ramshackle empire that stretched from the Balkans to Mecca, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. But more, a personal wound, a bereavement, a brutal destruction of memories of loyalty and affection.
The now familiar dawn noise had awakened him, the start of the day’s grim and well-established routine in the courtyard before the hotel at Charing Cross Station. The night’s hospital trains had arrived from the Channel ports, each with its freight of misery, and motor ambulances were already loading shattered bodies to be distributed across London. Too badly wounded for further treatment in France, these suffering men might be lying within hours on operating tables where exhausted surgeons – Dawlish’s own daughter Jessica among them – must make hard, fast, brutal decisions about amputation or worse. It depressed him that he knew that there was no end in sight – that indeed yet worse would come. The fighting raging around Ypres was bleeding away the last strength of the small expeditionary force – the flower of Britain’s peacetime army – sent to stand by the French and Belgians.
He bathed and dressed – civilian clothes, for the first time since he had been summoned from retirement. This small suite had been his home since then – indeed this entire floor of the hotel had been taken over for accommodation of senior officers. But for short visits to ships and shore establishments, each day had begun with a dawn walk to the Admiralty, a matter of three hundred yards, and had ended in return in late evening darkness. But not today…
This floor and all the hotel’s entrances were guarded by marines. A private escorted the waiter who brought a meagre breakfast on a tray and a sergeant – an older man, recalled to service like Dawlish himself – arrived with the locked case containing the most recent signals. Dawlish felt his hand tremble slightly, as it always did, as he turned the key. Relief washed through him as he saw no personal message, for he had instructed that if there was bad news of his half-brother Ted, now serving with the Naval Air Service in Flanders, it should be at the top of the pile. Despite that relief, his depression deepened as he sipped his coffee and scanned the signals. The German naval squadron that had sunk two large British cruisers off the coast of Chile four days ago – the Royal Navy’ first defeat at sea in a century – had disappeared back into the vastness of the South Pacific and was headed to… where? Increasing numbers of merchant ships were falling victim to German mines and submarines which were proving more effective than ever anticipated. And now, with Turkey in the fray, the Eastern Mediterranean would also be a battleground, and the deserts too that extended beyond to the oilfields on which the navy’s most modern ships depended for their fuel.
The old sergeant would carry back to the Admiralty the few short instructions Dawlish dashed off for his staff. They had been planning for this eventuality and only a few small adjustments were needed. He himself could do nothing more in the coming hours. At eleven o’clock this morning Prime Minister Asquith would announce the declaration of war and immediately afterwards coded orders would crackle by wireless to bases at Malta, at Gibraltar, at Alexandria and at Aden. Because of them men would die and women would weep in the months, perhaps years, ahead. And not just British only…
|Herbert Henry Asquith. Prime Minister
The immediate task, however painful, would not detain him long, as he had arranged a private meeting at eight o’clock. He stepped from the hotel into the morning’s chill – the line of waiting ambulances seemed endless – and walked up the Strand. He caught a glimpse of himself in a large shop-window – a silver haired and silver bearded man immaculately attired, still with an air of energy despite his almost sixty-nine years, a man clearly comfortable in exercise of power and authority. It seemed hard to identify him with another man, almost four decades younger, dark haired and athletic, hungry for advancement and careless of its cost, whose actions had been responsible for this task today.
The bank would not open for another two hours but the manager, Lithgow, was waiting in the lobby as the commissionaire admitted Dawlish and closed the door behind him.
“I think you could almost find your own way, Sir Nicholas,” Lithgow said as he led him down steps to the vault. He had been a senior clerk when Dawlish had first brought his treasures for safe-keeping here, and at every visit since they had assured each other that they did not look a day older.
They passed through armoured doors and grills and stood at last in a room lined with safe-deposit boxes. Lithgow turned a key to release one and pulled it out, then laid it on a table.
“You have your key, Sir Nicholas? Yes? Good! I’ll wait outside until you’re ready.”
As he turned to go, Dawlish noticed for the first time a black band on his right arm. Lithgow saw that Dawlish was looking at it, and suddenly the air of cheerful efficiency was gone.
“My grandson,” he said. “Two months ago. At a place called Venizel.” He paused, clearly fighting to keep his composure. “He didn’t suffer, thank God. A single shot to the head.”
And Dawlish recognised the same lie as he written himself in so many letters to bereaved families. Death was always instantaneous, all put painless, always without agony or mutilation.
A few, inadequate, words of condolence and then Lithgow, shoulders slumped, left.
Dawlish opened the box. He pushed deeds and other papers aside and found the two items, loosely wrapped in green velvet, which he had come for. His hand was shaking as he laid them on the table and removed the cloths.
He opened one of the two small leather-covered boxes. Resting on a bed of white satin was a seven-pointed star of green enamel, a red circle at its centre bearing a gold crescent. A tiny diamond sparkled at each point and the topmost was linked by another golden crescent and star to a green and red ribbon from which it would hang when worn.
Suddenly he was back in a dingy pavilion of the Yildiz palace where a pale figure, in a threadbare frock coat buttoned to his throat and with a faded fez, too large, resting on his ears, had handed him this thing of breath-taking craftsmanship and beauty, the Nishani Osmani, the Order of Osman, First Class. Sultan Abdul Hamid II had looked like an impoverished clerk in some obscure ministry as he had mumbled his thanks for the havoc that Dawlish had wreaked on Russia’s Black Sea Coast. But the thanks should have been better due to a multitude of others, humble men who had died in an attack on an inland railway bridge, in a nightmare escape from pursuing Cossacks, in a brutal ship-to-ship duel with a Russian ironclad. Most individual names and faces had faded, yet the overriding memory was of loyalty to the death, less to the remote Sultan skulking in his shabby palace and more to Dawlish himself. Turks are the best friends and worst enemies you can wish for, he had been told, and so it had proved, the leadership he had given them, his willingness to share their hardships, repaid a thousandfold in blood and courage.
The second box contained a no less exquisite piece, one he had been awarded several months later, just before he left Ottoman service. The Mejidye Nishani was another seven-pointed silver star, red enamel and gold at its centre, diamonds sparkling on the rays. Most valuable of all were the three words it bore in Arabic script. Zeal. Devotion. Loyalty. Hundreds of Turks, seaman and marines and soldiers, had given all that, and more, during the final, savage, winter-campaign in Thrace. A memory was vivid of three Ottoman officers reminding him in a freezing hut that it was Christmas Day and bringing him a small wooden box of lokum. They had shared it in brotherhood with the watery coffee which Dawlish had fortified with a dash of brandy from his flask. And there had been brutal labour when building earthworks, endless marches in snow and ice, battle with Russian reconnaissance forces and a desperate effort to rescue Florence, who had become his wife after, from marauding Bashi Bazooks intent on rape, murder and pillage. Too many good men had died in so short a time, of cold and disease no less than of wounds.
And from eleven o’clock their sons and grandsons – perhaps even those men themselves, whichever still lived – would be the enemy. It was hard, bitter, to accept.
He closed the boxes, rewrapped them in the velvet. He had never worn either decoration – his service in Turkey had been unofficial. He had seen them perhaps a dozen times in the years since, had written in his will that they should pass to children whom Jessica and Ted might have in the future. He had never thought of them as assets, had no idea of their monetary value. Only that it was high.
Lithgow came in when summoned. With him he brought a separate, smaller, deposit box into which he locked the decorations.
“I have the authorisations for release here.” Dawlish failed to supress the tremor in his voice as he took papers from his briefcase.
They signed them in the lobby, the bank’s commissionaire and Dawlish’s guard witnessing the signatures. Then Dawlish was on the street again, walking back to the hotel to change into his uniform. He had already authorised a reputable dealer to collect the decorations, to arrange valuations, to get the highest price, ideally by private sale. The money realised would go to supporting the convalescent home for amputees into which Florence was turning their home on their small Hampshire estate. She was as cheerfully driven now as when he had once found her – cold, filthy, lousy and hungry, but indomitable – caring for Bulgarian refugees in a squalid caravanserai as all Hell brewed around it.
The Nishani Osmani and Mejidye Nishani were gone forever – it was enough to remember, with sorrow and respect, the men who had earned them with him. He had no need of diamonds, not when the most precious treasure of all which he had brought from Turkey was still his.
Florence, worth more than a mountain of diamonds.
Tears were starting in his eyes but he shook them away. In thirty minutes he would be in uniform again and in his Admiralty office. No time for sentiment.
For there would be an important announcement at eleven o’clock.
© Antoine Vanner
About the author
“Antoine Vanner is the Tom Clancy of historical naval fiction” – Author Joan Druett
Vanner’s own adventurous life, his knowledge of human nature, his passion for nineteenth-century history and his understanding of what was the cutting-edge technology of that time, make him the ideal chronicler of the life of Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish. Vanner lives in Britain. He spent many years in international business and continues to travel extensively on a private basis.
Find out more
For details of his latest novel see Britannia's Gamble on Amazon
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