THE FRINGES OF THE FLEET
By Rudyard Kipling
The ships destroy us above
And ensnare us beneath.
We arise, we lie down, and we move
In the belly of death.
The ships have a thousand eyes
To mark where we come . . .
And the mirth of a seaport dies
When our blow gets home.
The Trawlers seem to look on mines as more or less fairplay. But with the torpedo it is otherwise. A Yarmouth man lay on his hatch, his gear neatly stowed away below, and told me that another Yarmouth boat had “gone up,” with all hands except one. “’Twas a submarine. Not a mine,” said he. “They never gave our boys no chance. Na! She was a Yarmouth boat —we knew ’em all. They never gave the boys no chance.” (5)Yet the third article, the first of the two devoted to submarines, begins by re-emphasising that the submarine belongs in the Navy, and by looking at the question of ‘chance’ from the opposite perspective:
Like the destroyer, the submarine has created its own type of officer and man —with language and traditions apart from the rest of the Service, and yet at heart unchangingly of the Service. Their business is to run monstrous risks from earth, air, and water, in what, to be of any use, must be the coldest of cold blood. (6)The primary meaning of the phrase ‘in cold blood’ in this context is coolness, holding one’s nerve; it translates the French sang froid. This is the quality required to survive the pressure of the ‘monstrous risks’ associated with serving in a submarine. But shadowing this sense is the other meaning of callousness, the ability to inflict suffering with deliberate intent. This quality, too, is necessitated by the particular way in which a submarine operates. Kipling uses the phrase again, in the fourth article, the one headed by ‘“Tin Fish”’; and here the meaning seems to have shifted a little, a shift marked by the appearance of a phrase from the poem:
“But submarine work is cold-blooded business.”As readers, we tune in here to a conversation which has already started; the first word we hear, ‘But’, implies an objection to something which has just been said. What was it? My guess is that the narrator has remarked that ‘submarine work’ has something thrilling about it, and the ‘owner’, or commander of the submarine, responds by saying that, on the contrary, it is a ‘cold-blooded business’. The narrator presses the point: can’t you ‘feel when the torpedo’s going to get home’, and isn’t that a thrill? Behind the commander’s matter-of-fact rebuttal lies the fact that firing a torpedo is a matter of calculation of relative speed and distance, and in submarines of this period was an extremely inexact science. It may well involve the human eye, brain and hand, but the commander who gives the order does so coolly, detached from the consequence of his action. Note that the phrase ‘cold-blooded business’ refers here to what the submarine does, the destruction it inflicts, rather than the coolness required to endure the ‘monstrous risks’ it runs of being, itself, destroyed. This change from passive to active turns the phrase a little towards the meaning of callousness, of lack of emotional engagement. And this turn is reinforced, I think, by the twice-repeated phrase used to describe the torpedo’s successful blow, the phrase get home.
(This was at a little session in a green-curtained “wardroom” cum owner’s cabin.)
“Then there’s no truth in the yarn that you can feel when the torpedo’s going to get home?” I asked.
“Not a word. You sometimes see it get home, or miss, as the case may be.[”] (7)
And then they talked of that hour of the night when submarines come to the top like mermaids to get and give information; of boats whose business it is to fire as much and to splash about as aggressively as possible; and of other boats who avoid any sort of display —dumb boats watching and relieving watch, with their periscope just showing like a crocodile’s eye, at the back of islands and the mouths of channels where something may some day move out in procession to its doom.Notice the shift here from direct quotation to reported speech, which allows Kipling’s own voice gradually to take over, to impose its diction and rhythm. Readers who know their Second Jungle Book will recall, in the image of the periscope as a crocodile’s eye, the great cunning crocodile, the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, in ‘The Undertakers’, that tremendous sardonic tale of revenge finally taken on a cold-blooded assassin. It is extraordinary to find the Mugger resurrected here as an assassin in British colours, waiting for his prey in the form of the German High Seas Fleet. But if a Royal Navy submarine can lurk like a crocodile, what price war as a good show and a clean fight? The truth is that Kipling’s imagination has left propaganda behind, and is attentive, as it is in ‘“Tin Fish”’, to an impartial vision of human death and fate.