"Sea Constables"

A Tale of '15

(notes edited by
Lisa Lewis and Alastair Wilson)
the story
notes on the text
Most of the notes below come from ORG, updated and amended where necessary by the present writers. Comments on the differences between editions, and on the menu eaten by the characters, are new.
[Oct 23 2011]


Publication history

The story was first published in Metropolitan, September 1915; and Nash’s Magazine, October 1915; illustrated by Fortunino Matania. Written February-March 1915 (Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries). The provisional title on the manuscript was “The Neutral,” altered to “Sea Constables.” A comparison between Nash’s and the book version shows that approximately 500 words were cut; the more substantial exclusions are quoted below.

The story

Five months after the outbreak of World War I, four men are dining in a luxury London hotel. Maddingham, Winchmore and Portson are wealthy members of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who have made themselves and their private yachts available for patrol duties round the British coast. They exchange stories of a neutral blockade-runner whom they have been shadowing, and reproach Tegg, an officer of the Royal Navy, for missing a chance to have the ship impounded. He explains that the Admiralty had ordered the neutral’s release for political reasons. The chase then continued until the neutral fell ill with pneumonia and took refuge in a small Irish port, begging Maddingham to take him to London to see a certain doctor. Maddingham refused, he says, and the man died. The story complete, the four disperse to their duties again.

Historical background

The World War I background to the story has been well explained by G.H. Newsom in the Kipling Journal, March 1984, 12-28. In January 1915, when, according to the magazine version, it is supposed to take place, the British were applying a “distant blockade” which would intercept and examine (or try to do so) all ships making for Germany or sailing from Germany in the south-western approaches and in the gap between Scotland and Norway.

The British depended heavily on American supplies, but support for the British and French was controversial in the United States, where many German Americans favoured the other side. The “Neutral” is one such sympathiser, who has volunteered himself and his ship to serve the German cause by running a load of fuel through the blockade into the area where German mines are laid, and German submarines lie in wait for British shipping. If he is detained by the British authorities and his cargo confiscated, there could be an outcry in American newspapers, causing public opinion to react in Germany’s favour.

Neutrality in war

The annotator in ORG comments: “up to 1914 the civilised world expected that international law would be observed in war. Even such a realist as Churchill rejected as unthinkable Lord Fisher’s prediction that German submarines would sink merchant ships without providing for the safety of their crews: total war, with the heavy bomb and the torpedo, had not erased the distinction that always been drawn between warrior and non-combatant.” The Kiplings had accommodated Belgian refugees on the estate at Bateman’s, and had heard from them the atrocity stories that were circulating about the behaviour of the German army in Belgium.

The activities of U-boats and minelayers, says ORG, were seen as: ”equally crude and lawless … Kipling spoke for most of his countrymen when he reproached neutrals who merely stood aside … A fortiori, to him a neutral who sought profit in aiding the general enemy was beyond forgiveness. With the benefit of hindsight, we may now regard it as unlikely that a U-boat would have relied upon refuelling from a vessel, however neutral, in patrolled waters around the British Isles, but rumours of that sort of goings on were common early in the war and Kipling may easily have got the idea of this story from some circumstantial yarn.”

The menu

Nicolas Freeling, a professional chef turned successful crime writer, discussed this story in Cook Book (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1972; quotations from this are by kind permission of the author) pp.140-7. He wrote: “The story unfolded during this dinner party is a nasty one, of a change in men’s souls, of minds perverted, generosity soured, ideals as things a combatant can no longer afford – and a strong suspicion of self-respect lost.” The characters, he thought, “attack their food in a pathetic endeavour to recapture health and life.”

Freeling’s comments on their menu are interesting, but for details of the various dishes it is probably better to rely on The Complete Guide to Modern Cooking by G.A. Escoffier (1845-1935), tr. H.L. Cracknell and R.J. Kaufmann (London: Heinemann, 1979). Escoffier was Directeur de cuisine at the Savoy Hotel, and co-founder (with Cesar Ritz) of both the Ritz in Paris and the Carlton in London (memoir by Pierre P. Escoffier, op. cit. xx). It therefore seems likely that Kipling’s fictional “Carvoitz” would have used his recipes.