Being half-British and half-Polish leaves me in a quandary when it comes to military history. My one-half is unused to winning too many recent military battles – being squashed between two superpowers. Doesn’t account for bravery though. If the Poles could win by bravery alone, Stalin and Hitler would have ended up shovelling dog shit on lonely Dog Shit Mountain. If only.
My other-half has more of a record of military success. A lot of it of through pure cunning and a detached sense of island privilege – but I’m not complaining. My British family also have the scars to prove their fighting spirit – and not all of them were physical. Like so many of his generation, my Grandpa Harry never elaborated on his wartime experiences.
So, when coming upon a piece of military history which binds cunning, bravery, success and defeat together, I can’t help but smile. Feels like my halves become whole.
We came upon such an example today. Diamond Rock is an ancient volcanic plug less than a mile off Martinique. It’s as steep as a ladder and seemingly barren.
In the early 19th century, British Naval Commodore Sir Samuel Hood remarked that Diamond Rock would be the perfect site for a British vessel to repel the French. Since the British and the French were still battling it out for control of the Eastern Caribbean.
Hood’s remark was like something said in a wishful-thinking type conversation. Somehow though, Hood didn’t get the wishful part. In 1804, he commissioned Diamond Rock into a ‘stone frigate’. A sloop called H.M.S. Diamond Rock. Talk about re-branding.
In calm conditions, Hood had a crew of men run lines ashore and hoist two eighteen-pounder cannons onto the rock’s summit 176 metres high. As well as the incline, the island was without water and urghh, snake-infested. The navy still managed to place four 24-pounder cannons at various heights of the rock. The 120-man crew slept in caves below.
They lasted eighteen whole months. Eighteen months of enthusiastically blasting French boats coming round the corner towards the southern coast of Martinique.
Not only that, but the British somehow made it homely. They had a small herd of goats and a flock of guinea hens to bolster food supply. They established a hospital in a cave at the base of the rock. Despite all odds, the cave hospital was a popular place for sailors with injuries and fever. Maybe the snakes helped with the nursing?
We stared at H.M.S. Diamond Rock, making our own way around Martinique’s corner. Because of their high positions, the cannons had a long range and were quite the significant threat to passing vessels. We could only be grateful there were no cannon balls straying onto Quest’s decks today.
After eighteen months of failing to rid themselves of the troublesome ‘stone ship’, French Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse finally came up with the perfect plan. From Martinique, he cut loose a skiff loaded with rum in the direction of H.M.S. Diamond Rock. 107 British naval men were repatriated to Barbados a week later, just about sober again. Were the British Navy relieved to be free of their rocky burden? Their heavy weight? Their unsinkable ship?
History shows us that ideas can be crazy. Bravery can be reckless. Cunning can be outweighed. And yet H.M.S. Diamond Rock was so out-there, so completely barmy, its story surpassed the context of military nationhood. What could we do? Only one thing. We saluted.