EXTRACTS FROM THE LETTERS AND LOG
OF MY GRANDFATHER, ADMIRAL GEORGE PALMER
My grandfather, George Palmer, was born at Sallington, Sussex in 1829. He entered the Royal Navy in 1845 and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. The first record of his that we have a letter dated 8th September 1854 and the second is the log he kept from 10th July 1855 until 13th July 1862. His letter is headed ‘HMS President. At sea’, and dated 8th September 1854 (a week after the dramatic events described in the letter). He was aged 25, a Lieutenant in HMS President and the Crimean War was 6 months old. His ship was part of the Pacific Fleet and Petropaulovski is a good natural harbour on the eastern side of the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia.
My dear Father and Mother,
You will both perceive by my writing that something is wrong, but make your minds easy, for it will be all right before this reaches you; the fact is I have been wounded at the last attack we made on Petropaulovski. We landed the Marines and Blue Jackets, a fatal mistake because Jack does not understand bush fighting, but I will give you the whole account. [He encloses a sketch map which I have copied at Annex A and this helps to make his description much clearer.] On 28 th August the Admirals went in the Virago to reconnoiter the position of the enemy, they discovered a frigate inside the harbour, a long battery of the 11 guns on the spit commanding the entrance and flanking the frigate’s fire and the Shakoff battery on the high point to the left of the harbour as you go in and mounting five heavy guns. There was also a battery mounting three guns oh a bluff to the right, another of five guns on a long saddle between two hills and commanded by another battery of five guns on the other side of the harbour. This last one also commanded the frigate which turned out to be our old friend Aurora. On the extreme left was a half-moon battery mounting five guns and another one of the same description was in a gorge leading to the town and commanding the road leading from the former battery. This road passed between the lake and a high hill. At the back of the town the hills rise high and, if you can picture all this, you will form some idea of the strength and position of Petropaulovski. However I have forgotten to mention that the Aurora had her sea broadside guns in, 22 in all, and the Dwina corvette had hers too. Aurora’s other broadside of course being taken out and landed (which you will see by the number of batteries they contrived to throw up) since we saw her at Callao. I enclose a small chart of the place.
All the squadron stood into Awatska Bay (the main bay inside which Petropaulovski lies) on the 29th of August, the President leading. We ran through the narrow channel in line of battle until we came off the small harbour of Petropaulovski and, off here, we anchored out of gunshot. The shore batteries fired some shots but they all fell short. Virago stood a little closer in and dropped one or two shells into the battery. She soon however anchored out of range. And now I have to relate the most horrible and unprecedented occurrence that it has been my lot to witness or ever hear of.
Early the next morning, being all ready for action, our Admiral went on board the Forte to have a last talk with the French Admiral relative to the plan of attack. He returned on board quite elated and, after examining the batteries through his glass, went down below. I was on one of the hammock-nettings seeing some of the rigging more effectially cleared away from the muzzles of my bull-dogs (for these are my quarters). I heard down below something like the cap of a rifle going off, as if somebody was seeing the nipple clear before using it. In another moment the Commander rushed up to me and said, ‘The Admiral has shot himself, for God’s sake keep it from men if you can.’ But it was of no use, no bulkheads being up, and a crowd soon collected round the quarter-gallery. He had shot himself with one of his own pistols. The French Admiral and Sir Frederick Nickson of the Pique (now our senior officer till we meet Captain Frederick of the Amphitrite) were immediately sent for and then, to everyone’s horror and amazement, our Admiral said, ‘I have commited a great crime, I hope God will forgive me’. Everyone, of course, had thought that he had done it accidently whilst loading his pistols. You cannot conceive the sensation this news created in squadron, just as all were going into action; in fact the Pique was lashed alongside the steamer and her anchor was up. The Forte was to have been lashed to the other side of the steamer and ourselves towing astern and here was the man whom everybody depended upon for receiving orders and he goes and puts an end to himself before a French Squadron and not only commits sin but dishonours his own Flag and disgraces not only his ship and squadron but casts a reflection upon the whole British Navy. He was quite sensible for 2½ hours (the affair took place at about one in the afternoon) during which time he constantly spoke of his wife and sisters. He said that the thought of taking into action so many brave followers, when a fault of his might ruin everything, caused him to commit the act but that he felt the torments of Hell for what he had done. He died about 4pm after receiving the Holy Sacrament.
How you can call this sad affair nothing more nor less than temporary insanity. Anxiety and indecision preying upon a mind never very strong (as we could see before we reached Rio) was the cause of it, for we are all certain that ten minutes before he went down the ladder on the main deck he had no thoughts of what he has going to do. The French Admiral (a poor old man who in his youth was page to the Empress Josefine) could only take his hand and say, ‘Courage mon ami’. Of course the squadron remained where they were for that day but this unfortunate affair was the cause of all our after misfortunes.
On the 30th August, at 8am, we were all engaged with the batteries, the firing commencing about 9am. The President engaged the Shakoff Battery, the Forte likewise. The Pique was engaged with the three gun battery on the right and, when that was silenced but not before 10.45am, the Virago under cover of the Pique guns landed our Marines under Captain Parker (since killed) and spiked the guns. The Shakoff Battery ceased firing at 11am and the defenders deserted it. Captain Burridge sent me in the barge to cooperate with a party of the Pique’s to reinforce the Marines, as a large body of men were leaving the town to intercept them. Ten minutes later I found myself up the cliff into the three gun battery and told Captain Parker my mission. We were all then extended in skirmishing order on the ridge of the hill ready for the enemy who were coming out of the town in force, but I hailed the Virago (by orders I had received) to shell these gentry well, which she did very nicely. The Aurora then opened fire on us but found us out of range. Just at this time a small party of Russians appeared coming up to the battery, not knowing we had landed. Their astonishment was laughable when they found their mistake and they turned tail and ran. I had two cracks at them with my long rifle and they flew like a wind. However an officer came on shore to tell us to come on board immediately as the party advancing were too strong for us. We accordingly went to the ships and went to dinner, the outer battries being effectually silenced. (I forgot to say that the previous day a large boat had been seen coming up for the harbour from the other side of the Bay about five miles off. Captain Conolly took one cutter and I took the other to go and capture her, thinking she was the Aurora’s launch. We pulled down to her and found she was a large boat full of bricks, with nine men, one woman and three children; a miserable prize for two such gallant officers! I never saw prisoners appear so cool or take anything so matter of fact in all my life.)
At 2.10 in the afternoon the Forte got under weigh and stood in for the long spit battery but was dreadfully mauled before we could get to her assistance, as we were anchored by the stern and the sea breeze had set in strong right astern so we could not slip the cable. However the pair of us soon silenced our long friend on the spit and then, to the astonishment of everybody, we stood out of range and anchored. What for I do not know, except the Forte’s said they had had enough of it.
The next day we went over in the Virago, five or six of us, and buried the poor Admiral on a small woody point in a beautifull little bay (for you must know that this Awatska Bay is an immence size) and this little Bay of Tareinski is itself large enough to hold all the Navy in England. We had to cut away a path through the brushwood and long rank grass with our swords. We buried him under a solitery tree and the only inscription was ‘D.P. August 1854’ cut in the tree trunk. I made a sketch of the place and took a piece of the bark of the tree.
Later, on looking for a watering place in the Bay, we came across some Yankees cutting wood and they offered to guide us to the road leading to the back of the town. We thought this quite providential as Frenchmen, who were now our senior officers, were talking about going away. However the Englishmen would not hear of such a thing, the ships’ companies all came off and a strong correspondence took place which caused the French Admiral to agree to place of attack by land. Six hundred and seventy men were to landed from the squadron some distance to the left of the Fish-house battery and, under the guidance of the Yankees (who were bitter against the Russians, having been made to assist at the building of the batteries), were to reach the town from the other side of the Lake. But the plan somehow got altered and, at 7 bells (3.30am) in the middle watch on Monday 4th Sep, the Virago came and took ourselves and the Forte in tow (all the landing party were on board the Virago). At 7am the President was dropped within 500 yards of the saddle battery (‘D’ on the sketch map) and a bush action took place. (I forgot to say that the landing party so weakenet the crews of the ships that the remaining men from the Pique had to man President’s guns and the Eurydice did the same for the Forte.) In the meantime we went on the Virago, exposed to horrid raking fire, and dropped the Forte about 400 yards from the Fish-house battery. Just before we did this, we observed two shots go clean through the hull of the President and her gaff and starboard main brace were shot away; hot work we all thought. But we didn’t escape either. I say we for the Forte was lashed to us (the Virago) on her port side so as to shelter the steamer, which is our mainstay, from the shot and shell. Before we dropped the Forte she had a shell clean through the quarter of her foreyard and others that took a piece out of her mainmast, her starboard foremast shroud and her spare maintop mast stay. Her crop jack brace was also shot away.
The shore expedition was under the command of Captain Burridge and Captain le Grandier, a fine fellow, led the French. We saw the dear old President firing beautifully and I myself saw one of her shot cut two Russians clean in halves. Still the Russians stuck to their guns and it was only after an hour’s heavy firing that the President silenced the saddle battery. The Forte meanwhile was pegging away at the Fish-house battery and a shell from her set the Fish-house on fire and burnt all their winter stock of fish. After this battery was silenced we all landed under cover of the frigate’s guns. Poor Captain Parker took command of the Marines and French riflemen, all the Blue Jackets being under Captain Burridge and le Grandier. Hollingsworth had the first company consisting of 50 rank and file and your humble servant. You will perhaps wonder to find me in such an important position but poor Matyate had to be invalided home from the Landwick Islands and so I am no longer junior (between you and me, I am a horribly ambitious felloe and – but no matter).
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