As the steamer sails into Fort de France Bay there will be noticed, just off the southern point of the harbor, a minute island lying close to the shore. This is Ilet a Ramiers, or the Wood Pigeons Island. It is very insignificant, being only about 100 feet high and 300 feet in circumference at the summit, yet it played a remarkable part in some of the hardest fighting that Fort de France ever saw.
It was in February 1794 that the trouble began, and, of course, the British were at the bottom of it. General Grey had come, in fact, to Martinique to capture it, bringing with him nineteen ships and 7000 soldiers. Now the first thing that stood in his way was this very Wood Pigeons’ Island. Its name is deceptive ; for it was equipped by the French with no less than twenty-two heavy guns, its stores of ammunition were abundant, and, above all, it was furnished with the necessary appliances for heating shot. So long as little Ramiers was capable of firing twenty-two cannon balls at a time, whether red-hot or not, it was impossible for any. ship to enter the harbour. Grey did not wish to leave his nineteen vessels out in the open, and as he could not creep in by the north shore on account of Fort St. Louis he deter-mined that the battery on Ilet a Ramiers must cease to be.
He landed a force, far away on the south of the island, at three points, Marin, Trois Rivieres and Pointe Bourgos. He then marched to the headland overlooking Pigeon Island, fighting as he went. If it be remembered that Martinique was then little more than a heap of hills and pathless forest, this was no small achievement. He occupied a morne some 400 yards from the island. To the summit of this height he dragged his guns after two days of prodigious labour. He then had Ilet a Ramiers in the hollow of his hand. He bombarded it until he silenced it, whereupon the British fleet crept into the harbour by the southern shore, out of reach of the guns of St. Louis.
So far this was well, but to gain possession of Martinique it was necessary that Grey should capture St. Pierre and take the Forts Bourbon and St. Louis. To effect these ends another force was landed on the east coast at Galion Bay. Here it broke up into two detachments. One party made for Morne Bruneau, a hill commanding Fort Bourbon ; the other started for St. Pierre. This march of the English upon St. Pierre was probably the most remarkable feat ever accomplished in any West Indian campaign. The troops went by the coast to the Capot River, then turning westwards they climbed up 4000 feet to the pass of La Calebasse, hard by the very crater of Mont Pele. Thence they descended to St. Pierre and took that cheerful town without resistance. This famous march was astounding in many ways. It was made through an unknown country under a tropical sun. The invaders had to find their way across miles of jungle, had to clamber up precipitous hills and crawl down into black ravines. Every fort and redoubt they came upon they had to take, and did take.
The method of their fighting was as astonishing as the obstinacy of their advance. They were armed, of course, with flint-lock muskets. Now General Grey had a prejudice against the firing of guns by soldiers. He considered the proceeding slow, wasteful and noisy, and, when employed to fight men who were ensconced behind earthworks or fort walls, a measure far from satisfactory. He believed in the bayonet, in the eighteen inches of cold steel. Shouting and volley firing were very effective on the parade ground, but for actual fighting his faith was in clenched teeth and a blade of good old Sheffield steel. Before commencing any march, therefore, the General’s first care was to remove the flints from his men’s muskets so that they advanced into a hostile country armed only with bayonets, When an outpost was reached there were two courses open to Grey’s soldier, either to stand still and be shot down or to rush the slope at the point of the bayonet and so get the business over. Thus it was that this redoubtable general received the nickname of ” No flint ” Grey.
The French regarded ” No flint ” Grey and his men with unfeigned dislike. This new British mode of attacking a fortified place was nothing less than hideous. The Frenchman, peeping out from behind a gabion, was rather inspired by the sound of firearms. There was the noise of battle to cheer him as well as a cloud of smoke to hide much that he had no great desire to see. Moreover, to make an assault under musket fire effective, it must be carried out in the daylight. The attack at the point of the bayonet by ” No flint” Grey was by choice undertaken at night.
Such an assault was awful to contemplate. It meant invisible men creeping up to trenches in the dark and in silence. The defender of the redoubt would have a fearful sense of something advancing through the gloom, something gliding towards him like a black mist. He would wish to fire off his piece or to shout, merely to break the benumbing silence. Then would come the rustle of unseen bushes, the snapping of a twig, the crunch of a nailed boot on a stone, sounds a thousand times more terrifying than the rattle of a hundred muskets. He knew that the next moment would be heard the rushing of feet, and the pump-like sough of panting breath ; then a claw of a hand would grip the parapet of earth, gleaming eyes would rise out of the mirk, and finally a great and awful figure would spring up with a death-cold bayonet and a half-muttered English oath. It is little to be wondered if the Martinique soldier thought he could better face the devil than ” No flint ” Grey.
In the memorable march to St. Pierre many entrenched positions were taken in this fashion. The very last redoubt to be stormed was rushed at two o’clock in the morning, at an hour when the courage of a man who watches is apt to be at its chilliest. It is needless to tell how Fort Bourbon and Fort St. Louis were taken, or how the island passed into the possession of the British. The account of this daring and splendid feat of arms has been vividly described by Fortescue in his ” History of the British Army.”
It is only necessary to devote one word to the fall of the great fortress of St. Louis. This fort, as has been already mentioned, juts out into the sea. The taking of it, therefore, was a matter for the fleet to handle. If the orthodox procedure had been followed, the men-of-war would have approached the works near enough to have bombarded them. During the manceuvre they would themselves have formed easy targets for the gunners on the seaward bastion. The spirit of ” No flint ” Grey had, however, taken hold of the sailor-men. They recognised that the regulation method of dealing with the fort would be tedious and unexciting.
So Captain Faulkner, with no more ado, put all sail upon his ship the Zebra, and making full tilt for the fort and its line of cannon, ran his vessel aground against the very walls of the battery. Boats and men were ready for the escalade, so while the unhappy Zebra heeled over as if in a swoon, the captain and his crew tumbled over the side and in a few minutes they were swarming up the sea-wall of the fort, hanging on to any gaps between the stones, or to any tufts of weed, using their comrades’ shoulders as a mounting step until they could climb in through the gun embrasures. They carried with them cutlasses and boarding pikes, but the Frenchmen, liking these weapons no better than the bayonet, threw down their arms and watched with mingled feelings the unfurling of the British flag above the fort.
There is one other spot in Martinique which is so full of brave memories that it can never be passed by a Briton without a tribute of pride to the sailors of bygone days. Off the south-west corner of the island is an uninviting rock called in the charts Diamant Rock. It is bare and smooth like a bent knuckle. Its weather-stained sides are grey, shaded with pink. It is inaccessible except at a small spot on the west side. That any living thing but a seabird could reach its summitwhich is 574 feet above the water-levelwould seem improbable.
Now in 1803, when Admiral Hood was doing battle with the French in these parts, he found that the enemy’s ships were constantly escaping from him through the Fours channel which lies between this rock and Diamant Point. So he laid his seventy-four, the Centaur, alongside the pyramid of stone for the purpose of placing a battery on its summit. It seemed a mad scheme enough. But his men clambered somehow to the top of the rock, dragging ropes and tackles with them. These they dangled over the precipice down to the Centaur’s deck. In the course of time a gun, swinging in the air like a dead minnow on a line, was being hauled up the sheer wall. Other cannon followed, by the same aerial route, until at last on the top there was a battery composed of three long twenty-fours and two eighteens. It would have been little surprise to the islanders if these men, who looked like ants on a boulder, had pulled up the Centaur herself after the guns.
One hundred and twenty men and boys were landed, under the command of Lieutenant James Maurice, to garrison the fort. The boys, it may be imagined, had the best time of their lives. James Maurice made creditable use of his exalted position. He swept the sea with his cannon and did a woeful deal of damage, as the French were compelled to allow. His rock was entered in the Admiralty books as ” H.M. Ship, Diamond Rock.” For sixteen weeks he held the post to the joy of his comrades. The old admiral had a face as keen and fierce as an east wind, but whenever he looked towards the Fours channel a very generous smile must have swept over his tough features.
At last his Majesty’s ship “Diamond Rock” had to haul down her flag for the very good reason that the powder was exhausted and the water-tanks dry. Even when reduced to this discouraging plight the rock dwellers did not yield meekly, for at the very last it took two French seventy-fours, a frigate, a corvette, a schooner, and eleven gunboats to bring them to surrender. The commandant of the stone ship, when he handed his sword to the French captain, may well have apologised for all the trouble he had given.