Laying Mines on a Hostile Coast
By Gabriele D'Annunzio
[The New York Times/Current History, March 1916]
Italy's most famous living poet is now a Lieutenant in the Italian Navy, and writes occasional articles describing his experiences. This poetic and graphic description of a mine-layer's work was contributed to The London Telegraph of Dec. 29, 1915.
It can be said of the Italian war what Percy Bysshe Shelley said of the Medusa's head which he saw in Florence, and which he attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: "Its beauty and its horror are divine."
This night of danger and death is one of the sweetest that ever spread its blue veil over the face of the heavens. The sea darkens, and in its innumerable pulsations the nocturnal phosphorescence is already discernible. Here and there the rippled surface of the sea glitters with an internal light as a quivering eyelid, disclosing mysterious glances. The new moon is like a burning handful of sulphur. Ever and anon the black cloud of smoke rising from the funnels hides it or appears to drag it in its spirals like a moving flame.
Life is not an abstraction of aspects and events, but a sort of diffused sensuousness, a knowledge offered to all the senses, a substance good to touch, smell, taste, feel. In fact, I feel all the things near to my senses, like the fisherman walking barefooted on the beach covered with the incoming tide, and who now and then bends to identify and pick up what moves under the soles of his feet. The aspects of this maritime city are like my passions and like the monuments of Nineveh and Knossus, places of my ardor and creations of my fancy, real and unreal, products of my desire and products of time. This city is one of those tumultuous harmonies whence often the most beautiful elements of my art are born. Nothing escapes the eyes Nature gave me, and everything is food for my soul. Such a craving for life is not unlike the desire to die in order to achieve immortality.
In fact, tonight death is present like life, beautiful as life, intoxicating, full of promises, transfiguring. I stand on my feet, wearing shoes that can easily be unlaced, on the deck of a small iron-clad on which there is only space enough for the weapons and the crew. Steam is up. The black smoke of the three funnels rises toward the new moon, shining yellow in the cloud, burning like a handful of sulphur. The sailors have already donned life-saving belts and inflated the collars which must support the bead in the agony of drowning. I hear the voice of the second officer giving the order to place in the only two boats the biscuits and the canned meat.
A young officer, muscular, but agile as a leopard, who has Boldness' very eyes, and has to his credit already an admirable manoeuvre in conducting the destroyer from the arsenal to the anchorage, pays for the champagne. We drink a cup sitting around the table, on which the navigation chart is spread, while the commander of the flotilla dictates, standing, to the typist the order of the nocturnal operation, which is to be issued to the commanders of the other ships. A suppressed joy shines in the eyes of all. The operation is fraught with dangers, is most difficult, and the cup we drink may be our last.
An ensign, who is little more than a boy, and a Sicilian, who resembles an adolescent Arabian brought up in the Court of Frederick of Serbia, rubs in his hands a perfumed leaf, one of those leaves which are grown in a terra cotta vase on the parapets of the windows looking into the silent lanes of the city. The perfume is so strong that every one of us smells it with quivering nostrils. That single leaf on that terrible warship, where everything is iron and fire, that leaf of love, seems to us infinitely precious, and reminds us of the gardens of Giudecca and Fondamenta Nuove left behind.
The commander continues to dictate the order of the operation with his soft Tuscan accent, with some same telling words that Ramondo d'Amoretto Manelli used in the epistle he sent to Leonard Strozzi when the Genoese were vanquished by the navy of the Venetians and Florentines.
Ours is a marvelous exploit. We are going to plant mines near the enemy's coast, only a bare kilometer from its formidable batteries. The ensign fastens the black collar around his neck, and will presently inflate it with his breath.
We are ready. We sail. The firmament over our heads is covered with smoke and sparks. Along the gunwale, on each side of the ship, the enormous mines in their iron cages rest on the supports projecting over the water. The long torpedoes are ready for the attack, protected by their iron tubes, with their bronze heads charged with trytol, beasts in ambuscade. The sailors, their heads covered, are grouped around the guns, whose breeches are open. All the available space is strewn with weapons and contrivances, and full of alert men. In order to go from stern to prow it is necessary to crouch, bend, pass under a greasy torpedo, leap over outstretched sailors, strike the leg against the fastening of a torpedo, squeeze against a hot funnel, entangle one's self in a rope, receive squarely in the face a dash of foam while grasping the railing.
I ascend the bridge. We are already clear of the anchorage. It is dark. The moon is dipping in the sea. In an hour it will have disappeared. The ship quivers at the vibration of the machinery. The funnels still emit too much smoke and too many sparks. On board all the lights are out, even the cigarettes. Darkness enshrouds alike both prow and stern. The last order megaphoned resounds in an azure dotted with sparks and stars which are only inextinguishable sparks. A light mist rises from the water. The wake foams, and the sea ahead parts in two broad furrows along the sides of the ship, giving forth, now and then, strange reflections.
Following in our wake the second destroyer looms up darkly, and after her all the others in line. When the route is changed to reconnoitre the coast, from the great central wake many oblique ones part, designing an immense silver rake.
The commander is against the railing, leaning out toward darkness, with his whole soul in his scrutinizing eyes. Now and then he turns his ruddy face and transmits an order with exact and sharp words. The helmsman at the wheel never once removes his eye from the compass, lighted by a small lamp in a screened niche. Clearly he is a man of the purest Tyrrenean race, a true comrade of Ulysses, with a face which seems to have been modeled by the trade wind. Near by is the signal box. "Half Speed," "Full Speed," "Slow," "Stop." Through the speaking tube the orders are transmitted to the engine room. "Four—Three—Zero."
We are making twenty-three knots an hour. The foam of the great wake glitters under the stern lights. "A little to the right."
The navigating officer is bending over the chart, held down by lead weights covered with cloth, measuring, figuring with the compass and the square, under the blue light of a shaded lamp. A great shooting star crosses the August sky, disappearing toward the Cappella. Impatience gnaws my heart. I strain my sight to discern in the darkness the signal which has been prearranged. Nothing is to be seen yet. I descend from the ladder and move toward the stern, skirting the row of torpedoes, leaping over the outstretched sailors. From the stern the dark silhouettes of the other destroyers in line are visible. All of a sudden the signal is flashed in the direction of the prow. We are nearing the spot of our operation. Every will is strained.
The speed is reduced to six knots. The funnels still emit too much smoke and too many sparks. The commander is furious. Orders are megaphoned and every word seems to crowd the adventurous air with danger. The manoeuvre is executed with a sort of rhythmic precision. Maintaining their distance, and one by one, every ship files to the starboard of us, standing black over the foaming wake, lighted every now and then by a strange phosphorescence.
"On reaching the eastern route for the planting of the mines, extinguish the stern lights," cries the megaphone. Under the playing searchlights the enemy's coast is clearly visible. We are in low water, and the speed is further diminished.
We almost touch bottom, and proceed by feeling our course ahead. We also take soundings continuously to avoid running aground. The ships seem to pant and puff grievedly, as great mammals in danger of running ashore.
"Reverse engines. Full speed!"
One of the ships feels she cannot manoeuvre any longer, having actually struck bottom, and endeavors to free herself. She lies ahead of us, and within speaking distance. We see the water glitter under the blue light of her stern lanterns. It seems to us now that every other ship is in danger. The sky is veiled. Long Medusan tresses of clouds drag the constellation as the net drags silvery fishes. The engines throb painfully.
The commander is there, all soul, defying the darkness with his eyes. What if at that moment the enemy should sight us?
"The Invitto leads."
His clear orders through a series of manoeuvres draw away the flotilla from the shallow waters and on to the safe course. Beyond, on the shore, the enemy's searchlights are seen crossing each other like white blades. Under the light the shore seems so near as to give one the illusion of being about to drop anchor. We are all tensely waiting. In a few seconds we shall be in the prearranged spot. Minutes seem hours. The rubber stoppers have been removed from the tubes. The mines are ready, on their supports, to be lowered into the sea. The sailors await the order standing.
The minutes are eternal. We may be detected every second. The shore is only a mile from us. The funnels are our despair. They still emit too much smoke and sparks. At last a warning is heard from the bridge.
The Lieutenant looks at his watch, lighting the dial with the lamp hidden in his hand. The enormous mines, whose heads are charged with destruction, are there silent, like gigantic, gray, petrified sea Medusas, fixed on their support, whose double tooth projects over the waters.
"Ready!" "Let go!"
The first mine rolls over with the sound of a shattering barrel, falls in the foaming sea, disappears.
"Ready!" "Let go!
Eighteen seconds elapse. The second falls, followed by the third, fourth, and all the others, on every ship which maintains a diagonal course nearing the coast. In three minutes the operation is over; the mines are planted in the exact spot. The teeth of the crew gleam in a wild smile. Each sailor sees in his heart -the enemy's battleships rent and sinking.
We resume our position at the head of the line, returning on our course with the initial speed. The ships seem now to me to be quivering with warlike joy. In the distance over the mainland the white beams of the searchlights still cross each other. Ever and anon a rocket explodes. Our wake now is so beautiful as to resemble a whirling milky way. A sailor mounts the bridge and gives us a cup of steaming coffee, whose aroma titillates our nostrils and our heart. We light our cigarettes.
But here is a Marconigram.
"Look out, two submarines are lying in wait for you on the safe route."
And in the first quiver of dawn, with expanded lungs, we again breathe danger and death.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald