The War of the Worlds – Battlegroup Charlemagne
Chapter One - Departure
Under a crushing onslaught from a completely unstoppable foe, even the mightiest and proudest of nations loses whatever massive amount of confidence and hope it previously had. Such was the state of Great Britain during the Martian invasion. Before, they considered themselves omnipotent, the master of the Earth, capable of anything. Now, they were just barely able to survive against an enemy of low numbers, but incredible power.
The minor victory over the Martians at Weybridge was only a brief morale boost, quickly crushed when they swept into London. Only one had been killed, partly due to a careless mistake by that Martian, which had charged straight into an artillery barrage. But now the Martians had stopped making mistakes. They were reaching the coast – and now Britain's last line of defence was not inland, but on her shores. The Royal Navy was desperately trying to prevent a Martian breakout over the channel into mainland Europe, and to secure the passage of refugees onto the continent. They found the Martians to be more vulnerable at sea, though not by much. The bravery of those such as Captain Sir Robert Lacy-Stephenson of HMS Thunder Child led to some minor victories, but it would be only a matter of time before the Royal Navy was completely destroyed. Due to its diminished state, British ships were now resorting to low-intensity hit and run attacks, before going into hiding in deep water, where the Martians could not reach them. As for the army, much of it was in disarray, most units deserting and resorting to banditry just to stay alive. Other units remained loyal and hid in the Scottish highlands and the Welsh mountains, only emerging to lay mines. As for the civilian population, much of it was massacred and lawless. Society itself was breaking down on the British isles. Martian final victory was looming.
Taken all this into account, it was clear to all that this mighty nation was reduced to ruins. It was therefore not surprising that Britons such as Mrs Elphinstone and indeed, the British government in exile to the North, hoped and believed that foreign nations would come to their aid, and fare better against the Martians.
Across the channel, people on the continent felt the pain and suffering of their English brothers and sisters, and were determined that their armies go to England to join the fight. Mass demonstrations occurred in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Vienna, Brussels and even in the United States supporting such a move. The War had seen only sparse fighting outside Britain, where six of the ten stars from the red planet had landed. Another two had landed outside Paris, but had been dynamited by the alerted French army. Another had landed in East Prussia, but had met a similar fate at the hands of the German army.
The Tenth cylinder landed between Moscow and St. Petersburg. This time the Martians had been able to emerge and wreak havoc in Russia, but had been stopped from advancing on the two cities. The Russians had put up a brave resistance, encouraged by the Tsar himself, who bravely remained in the capital to organise the defences. Mounted Cossacks lured the Tripods into well laid minefields. Three Tripods had been destroyed this way, the limit that a cylinder could carry, but at the cost of heavy casualties. Luckily for the Russians, that cylinder had also not been carrying any black smoke canisters. But the heat-ray prevented any assault on the cylinder, and had massacred a courageous but foolhardy Cossack charge against the Martian's encampment in Russia. So the Russians kept it under siege, bombarding it with inaccurate long-range artillery fire. As a result, the situation in Russia was a stalemate – neither side was able to defeat the other completely.
Despite the limited level of action in Europe, and the demands of their people, the leaders of the foreign nations though it wise to keep their troops on their own soil, while sending humanitarian aid to Britain. They would be ready to defend it if the Martians broke out from Britain, or if they managed to land more cylinders. Reports of Martian flying machines reinforced this view – the Martians had about two in operation, according to sketchy reports. But many military men in these countries sympathised with their peoples. One of these men was Admiral Francois De Grannes of the French navy, commander of the Channel Squadron of the Northern fleet.
"It is bad business, my friend" said he. "The English are our fellow men. Surely we must help them, and show that the French are an honourable people, coming to the aid of their former enemies against this alien threat?"
He had been lobbying the President of the French third republic Felix Faure to send a naval squadron, possibly with some ground forces, to assist the British. He had been doing this ever since he heard of the Martian destruction of Weybridge. The amount of casualties the English had suffered, and the ruthlessness of the Martians, appalled him greatly. His lobbying became fiercer when London fell. But still the president preferred to "wait and see". De Grannes had tried to persuade him that since the Martians were advancing on the channel, there would be no time to "wait and see". But it was to no avail. At that moment, he was sitting down at a meal in the naval base at Cherbourg. His fleet was sitting in port, still waiting for the order to deploy to the English coast, which he desperately wanted to give. With him was his deputy, Vice-Admiral Jean-Paul Dominique. Dominique understood and sympathised with his superior, but was cautious about any deployment against the Martians.
"They seem to repel any kind of attack thrown against them. They only seem to be harmed when they are defended against. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let them come to us. We know that warships do not last long against them, given what happened to the Thunder Child."
"I think you are wrong, Jean-Paul. If we remain on the defence, they will break us with time. An enemy can only be weakened if you take the fight to him. Besides, it would be an honourable cause to at least ensure the passage of refugees to France. That man Lacy-Stephenson was a truly honourable man. He destroyed three Martians – three! At the cost of his own life and the lives of his crew. They were all brave men, and saved many innocent lives. Every man on board the Thunder Child should be awarded the Legion d'honneur, and every other honour of every nation of the world. They were true heroes of humanity. If only we had men like that in our government."
The Vice Admiral could not think of any way to argue against this. Deep inside, he agreed with every word. But as a military man, he had to obey orders, even those he detested. Besides, given how much the British armed forces were devastated by the Martians, it was doubtful that the French or anyone else would fare much better. Just then there was a knock at the door. Admiral Des Grannes answered.
A junior naval officer appeared at the doorway.
"His Excellency the maritime prefect of the Northern fleet wishes to see you."
Des Grannes excused himself and left the table, heading down the corridor to the maritime prefect's ornate office, permitted entry by two sentries at the door. He entered, the two exchanged salutes and the Admiral sat at the prefect's desk.
"You wished to see me, Excellency?"
"Yes Admiral. It seems your wishes have come true after all."
He handed him a telegram, which was addressed directly from Paris. It instructed Des Grannes to prepare a Battlegroup and head for the coast off Folkestone. He was speechless. The prefect continued.
"The Martians have encircled a large British army on the Folkestone coast, along with over two million refugees and local civilians. There is a large fleet of civilian craft taking those refugees to Pas des Calais. The Martians are getting closer to the position. And if Folkestone falls, they may be able to cross the sea and invade Calais. So the army is planning to send troops across the channel to assist the British. Marauding tripods have attacked refugees and other crossing ships, and made both the evacuation and reinforcement of the coast difficult. You are to assemble a Battlegroup to secure the channel, protect the refugees and our troops and prevent the Martians from overrunning the coast and crossing the channel."
The Admiral was stunned. He had been pleading constantly for a chance to fight the Martians. Now he would get it.
"You may choose your ships, but you are limited to two battleships, two cruisers and eight destroyers. We need ships in reserve, to protect our own coast. Any questions?"
"May I announce my choice of flagship?"
"I wish to take the battleship Charlemagne. She is not yet commissioned, but her sea trial performance has been excellent. I wish to commission her now for battle."
"You wish to put one of our newest and most advanced vessels at risk?"
"It's the best chance we have against the Martians. She has two large guns fore and aft in large turrets – they could rip apart one of those tripods from long-range. Her rangefinders are up to it."
"Very well. Against my better judgement. What other ships do you request?"
Eventually Des Grannes came up with a complete task force. The Charlemagne would serve as his flagship, and would be accompanied by the heavily armoured battleship Bouvet – that ship would be able to take a lot of punishment, even from a heat-ray. The two cruisers would include the armoured cruiser Dupy de Lome, which could do 23 knots – vital in evasive action and hit and run attacks. Her companion would be the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner. The eight destroyers would be equipped with mines, torpedoes and light guns. Des Grannes felt that more ships were needed, but he would have to make do. The government didn't look like it was going to compromise any further. It was a death or glory mission, but Des Grannes was prepared to do it. The prefect gave a final word.
"You have two hours to prepare Battlegroup Charlemagne for voyage. Godspeed."
All round the docks, the chosen ships were loaded with ammunition and supplies. Shells were stocked into magazines, torpedoes threaded into their tubes, mines stacked on the rear decks of destroyers. Captains gave motivational speeches to their crew. Naturally there was fear of what they were about to face, but all were eager to fight for the survival of mankind, to assist their fellow men and deliver a blow to the alien invader. The crews worked furiously to ready their ships, and soon the fleet was ready to leave. Admiral De Grannes took his place on the bridge of the Charlemagne, which had been hastily comissioned moments ago. He had volunteered to lead the group himself. Vice Admiral Dominique was given deputy command, and joined his superior on the bridge. The Admiral gave the first order.
"All ships – prepare to depart!"
One by one, they all left the Cherbourg docks – eight destroyers, Amiral Charner, Dupy de Lome, Bouvet and finally Charlemagne. As soon as they were in deep water they got into formation – the four capital ships inside a ring of destroyers. Battlegroup Charlemagne then headed along the English Channel, to an uncertain fate.