"Cruisers"

(notes by Mary Hamer and
Alastair Wilson)




notes on the text
the poem
[November 20 2007]


Publication

Published in the Morning Post, also the New York Herald and New York Sun August 14 1899, and the New York Tribune, September 3 1899. It was also published separately in 1899 as a broadside of eleven stanzas.

Verses 5 and 6 were modified when it was collected in The Five Nations. Also collected in I.V. (1919), and in D.V. (1940), the Sussex Edition, vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26. Reprinted in Songs of the Sea 1924. We have printed the proof version under the text of the poem, with the changes which Kipling made between proof and print underlined. These give an indication of how thorough Kipling was – there is not a verse to which some amendment has not been made.

Background

The Cabinet’s decision to send 10,000 troops to defend Natal, a crucial step in the lead-up to the Boer War, was only taken on 26 August 1899, nearly a fortnight after this poem was first published. Kipling, influenced by his friend Sir Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner in South Africa who wanted a showdown with the Boers, may therefore be seen as having urged the country on to war in 1899.

Naval Background

In each of the two years before the publication of this piece, Kipling had spent two weeks as a guest of Captain E.H. Bayly (known, it would seem, as “Chawbags” Bayly) on board HMS Pelorus, a small third-class cruiser, and during those periods had seen the work of a cruiser attached to a battlefleet, as Pelorus was.

From about 1885 until the onset of World War I, each summer the ships of the fleet in Home waters carried out annual manoeuvres. These were intended to train the fleet for war, and to investigate tactical problems. Admirals’ reputations could be made and broken by their performance in command of the Red Fleet or the Blue Fleet. When this poem was written, France was seen as the threat, and there was one battle squadron in Home waters: the main part of the British fleet was in the Mediterranean. By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, with the Entente Cordiale a fact, and the perceived threat being Germany, Britain kept two battle squadrons in Home waters, the Channel Squadron, and the Atlantic Fleet. In the later years, from 1905 to 1914, the nature of the manoeuvres changed slightly, with the perceived threat.

In 1899, the Channel Squadron would have been divided into two sections, Red and Blue, each reinforced by ships from the reserve, for which officers in comfortable billets in the harbour training ships were dragged away to spend a couple of summer months in the south-western approaches or the Irish Sea, playing hide-and-seek from Lough Swilly round to Bantry Bay, and across to Ushant.

Ever since Trafalgar, the aim of the British battlefleet had been to bring the enemy’s battlefleet to action, and to destroy it (that aim held good at Jutland in 1916). But in the days before radar, and satellites, and reconnaissance aircraft, it was not an easy matter to find the enemy. You knew, it might be assumed, where his base was: you could deduce what his aim might be – but so long as the potential enemy was France, it was unlikely that he would seek battle. (Not that the French were unwilling foes, far from it, but set-piece battles did not suit their strategy of a guerre de course, to strike at Britain’s trade, or to effect a lightning invasion.)

Thus, the battlefleet, of heavily armoured and heavily gunned ships, would patrol a suitable central area between the enemy’s base and his presumed target, and the cruisers, faster, and more lightly protected and armed, would seek out the enemy. Their job was, in effect, to use the Duke of Wellington’s words, to enable the Admiral to 'see the other side of the hill'. Having found the enemy, they would report – no wireless – either by returning to the main fleet and making a visual signal by flag, lamp or semaphore, or by heading to the nearest friendly port where a message could be sent by telegraph and then by despatch vessel to the Commander-in-Chief. In the meantime, another cruiser would be given the job of shadowing the enemy fleet.

In the broadest of terms, that was the task for the Pelorus during the summer manoeuvres of 1897. And from listening to the wardroom discussions, Kipling gained a very fair idea of what a cruiser did.

In many ways it was similar to what had been done in the French Wars against Napoleon a century earlier. But no-one really knew what the effect of steam-power might be, nor what would be the effect of its limitations (there had been no ‘proper’ war at sea, so far, in the steam era). Steam-power might give you the freedom to go in any direction regardless of the wind, and at speeds far beyond the capability of a sailing ship, but it also had its limitations: a ship’s coal supply was finite, and there might not be stocks of coal readily available, or they might not be available at all. Engines broke down, and were less easy to repair than jury-rigging a mast, say. And the cloud of smoke was frequently visible well beyond the range at which a sailing ship’s topsails could be seen. So the manoeuvres were designed to try to find the answers to some of these new problems.

Another task for a cruiser was to discover and capture the enemy’s merchant ships, making them lawful prize of war (to the financial advantage of the crew of the cruiser).

Examples

Kipling was remarkably prescient, and/or had learned his lesson well in the short time he spent in the Pelorus, because both World War I and II showed examples of classic cruiser work, exactly as he described.

At the start of World War I, before 'the laws were clean gone', Captains Joe and Howard Kelly, commanding the cruisers Dublin and Gloucester respectively, carried out an exemplary shadowing operation on the German battle cruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean.

The battle of Jutland, in May 1916, saw both sides 'accosting and decoying': the first encounter was between Beatty, with the British battle cruiser force, scouting ahead of Jellicoe’s main fleet, and von Hipper, with the German Scouting Group, doing the same for von Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Von Hipper lured Beatty towards the German fleet, but when Beatty saw them, and realised exactly what they were, in turn he lured the Germans back into the arms of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet.

In World War II, the shadowing of the German Bismarck by the cruisers Suffolk, Norfolk and Sheffield exemplified the actions described by Kipling 42 years earlier.


[M.H./A.W.]

©Mary Hamer and Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved