A Fleet in Being – II

by Rudyard Kipling

Entered suddenly about noon on Sunday, after the disconcerting fashion of cruisers, one of our side flying the general recall, and telling us to go down to the Flag. But when we reached that place we found neither Flag nor battle ships, but the Powerful and the Terrible, who took us under their wing—all six of us, second and third-class cruisers. Till that point we had been sizeable ships, but those two huge things dwarfed us to mean little tramps. One never gets used to the bulk and height of these berserk Campanias. Then we all began talking. Who knew anything about anything; and who had dragged who round the walls of what? Our next astern gave us one slateful of information which was rather dizzying. That a cruiser at 7:30 that morning had reported to the Battle Fleet, who had spent the night patrolling outside Blacksod Bay, ‘Enemy to the Westward.’ That the Fleet had given chase; that the Flagship had fired one gun when she came within three miles of the said enemy fifteen miles West of Blacksod Bay. That the enemy had gone in to Blacksod Bay, and, he believed, our own battleships had gone south to Bantry. (I have already explained rudely what the enemy had done.)

That was all we could then arrive at. (The Fleet will learn no more when the Real Thing arrives.) I went forward to hear the text commented on.


Said the voice of unshaken experience, ‘We’ve been ’ad. Don’t tell me.’

‘We ’aven’t. We’ve intercepted the beggar,’—a young sea-lawyer began. ‘’E was rendezvousin’ back to Blacksod.’

‘What were the rules any’ow?’ a voice cut in.

‘We wasn’t fightin’ rules—we was fightin’ a man. I tell you we’ve been ’ad. Didn’t I say so when we come round on that long slant from Rockall way? ’E’s got round us some’ow.’

‘But look ’ere. The signals make it out we’ve won.’

‘’E won’t make it out we’ve won, though. Both sides’ll claim it.’

‘That’s what they always do. When I was in——’

And one went on to tell of other Manœuvres in which he had apparently taken a leading part, while we jogged Southward behind the Powerful as far as the Eastern entrance to Berehaven. But there were no battleships in Bantry Bay. They had gone on to target practice, and presently we cruisers dispersed among the headlands for the same business, with orders to rendezvous a few miles South of the Fastnet, that well-worn mile-post of the Transatlantic liner.


No description will make you realise the almost infernal mobility of a Fleet at sea. I had seen ours called, to all appearance, out of the deep; split in twain at a word, and, at a word, sent skimming beyond the horizon; strung out as vultures string out patiently in the hot sky above a dying beast; flung like a lasso; gathered anew as a riata is coiled at the saddle bow; dealt out card-fashion over fifty miles of green table; picked up, shuffled, and redealt as the game changed. I had seen cruisers flown like hawks, ridden like horses at a close finish, and manœuvred like bicycles; but the wonder of their appearance and disappearance never failed. The Powerful spoke, and in ten minutes the cruiser-squadron had vanished; each ship taking her own matches and sulphur to make a hell of her own. And what that hell might be if worked at full power I could, presently, guess as we swung round a headland, and the bugles began. At this point the gunner became a person of importance (in the Navy each hour of the day has its king), and the captains of the guns separated themselves a little from the common herd. Remember, we were merely a third-class cruiser, capable, perhaps, of slaying destroyers in a heavy sea, but meant for the most part to scout and observe. Our armament consisted of eight four-inch quick-fire wire guns, the newest type—two on the foc’sle, four in the waist, and two on the poop, alternating with as many three-pounder Hotchkiss quick-firers. Three Maxims adorned the low nettings. Their water-jackets were filled up from an innocent tin-pot before the game began. It looked like slaking the thirst of devils.


We found an eligible rock, the tip of a greyish headland, peopled by a few gulls—the surge creaming along its base—and a portion of this we made our target, that we might see the effect of the shots and practise the men at firing on a water-line. Up came the beautiful solid brass cordite cartridges; and the four-inch shells that weigh twenty-five pounds apiece. (The little three-pounders, as you know, have their venomous shell and charge together like small-arm ammunition.) The filled belts of the Maxims were adjusted, and all these man-slaying deviltries waked to life and peered over the side at the unsuspecting gulls. It was ‘still’ throughout the ship—still as it will be when the Real Thing arrives. From the upper bridge I could hear, above the beat of the engines, the click of the Lieutenants’ scabbards (Why should men who need every freedom in action be hampered by an utterly useless sword?); the faint clink of a four-inch breech swung open; the crisper snick of the little Hotchkiss’s falling-block; and an impatient sewing-machine noise from a Maxim making sure of its lock-action. On his platform over my head the Navigating Officer was giving the ranges to the rock.

‘Two thousand seven hundred yards, sir.’

‘Two thousand seven hundred yards,’—the order passed from gun to gun—‘ten knots right deflection—starboard battery.’ The gun-captains muzzled the rubber-faced shoulder-pieces, and the long lean muzzles behind the shields shifted fractionally.

‘Try a sighting shot with that three-pounder!’

The smack of cordite is keener, and catches one more about the heart, than the slower-burning black powder. There was a shrillish gasping wail—exactly like the preliminary whoop of an hysterical woman—as the little shell hurried to the target; and a puff of dirty smoke on the rock-face sent the gulls flying. So far as I could observe there was not even a haze round the lips of the gun. Till I saw the spent case jerked out I did not know which of the clean, precise, and devilish four had spoken.


‘Two thousand four hundred,’ the voice droned overhead, and the starboard bow four-inch quick-firer opened the ball. Again no smoke; again the song of the shell—not a shriek this time, but a most utterly mournful wail. Again the few seconds suspense (what will they be when the Real Thing comes?) and a white star on the target. The cruiser winced a little, as though some one had pinched her.

Before the next gun had fired, the empty cartridges cylinder of the first was extracted, and by some sleight of hand I could not see the breech had closed behind a full charge. A Martini-Henri could hardly have been reloaded more swiftly.

‘Two thousand three hundred,’ cried the reader of that day’s lessons, and we fell seriously to work; high shriek and low wail following in an infernal fugue, through which, with no regard for decency, the Maxims quacked and jabbered insanely. The rock was splintered and ripped and gashed in every direction, and great pieces of it bounded into the sea.

‘Two thousand one hundred.’

‘Good shot. Oh, good shot! That was a water-liner. . . . That was the Marines’ three-pounder. Good! . . . Ah—ah! Bad. Damn bad! Short! Miles short! Who fired that shot?’

A shell had burst short of the mark, and the captain of that gun was asked politely if he supposed Government supplied him with three-pound shell for the purpose of shooting mackerel.

And so we went on, till the big guns had fired their quota and the Maxims ran out in one last fiends’ flurry, and target-practice for the month was over. The rock that had been grey was white, and a few shining cartridge-cases lay beside each gun.


Then the horror of the thing began to soak into me. What I had seen was a slow peddling-out of Admiralty allowance for the month, and it seemed to me more like squirting death through a hose than any ordinary gun-practice. What will it be when all the ammunition-hoists are working, when the Maxims’ water-jacket puffs off in steam; when the three-pounder charges come up a dozen at a time to be spent twenty to the minute; when the sole limit of four-inch fire is the speed with which the shells and cases can be handled? What will it be when the Real Thing is upon us?

And the smiling, careless faces answered with one merry accord: ‘Hell! Every kind of Hell! But—things will happen.’

In ancient days there was an etiquette in sea battles. No line-of-battle ship fired at a frigate unless the latter deliberately annoyed her. Then she blew the frigate out of the water. What will be the etiquette next time? Suppose a cruiser met a battleship with one set of engines unusable crawling along at eight knots. Would she jackal the lame thing and tempt her into wasting ammunition? It is a risky game to play with sides no thicker than an average tea-tray; but under circumstances it might be lucrative. Would she—and a fast cruiser can do this—try to rush her by night, destroyer-fashion? At the beginning of the war she might do all sorts of things; at the end of it she would take exactly that kind of liberty which experience of the other side’s personnel had shown to be moderately safe. There is no saying what she could or could not do in heavy weather, and Navies that do not like heavy weather; tumble-home boats unused to working in a sea; a beaky and a plated Navy, with big tops that roll and strain, might suffer.

Therefore we must pray for foul weather, head-seas and steep swells, gale that bewilders, cold that numbs, and small fine rain that blinds, chills, and dispirits. Our men know them.


Under these conditions the possibilities of a good sea-boat are almost illimitable, given always the men who know how to handle her—the men who will take their chances. And as in the Army so in the Navy runs the unwritten Law: ‘You must not imperil the property of the taxpayer committed to your charge or you will be publicly broke; but if you do not take every risk you can and more also you will be broke in the estimation of your fellows. Your men will not love you, and you will never get on.’ To do him justice the junior officer steers a very fair line between the two councils. Thanks to our destroyers, which give him an independent command early in his career, he studies a little ingenuity and artifice. They are young on the destroyers—the chattering black decks are no place for the middle-aged—they have learned how to handle 200ft. of shod death that cover a mile in two minutes, turn in their own length, and leap to racing speed almost before a man knows he has signalled the engine-room. In these craft they risk the extreme perils of the sea and make experiments of a kind that would not read well in print. It would take much to astonish them when, at the completion of their command, they are shifted, say, to a racing cruiser. They have been within spitting distance of collision and bumping distance of the bottom; they have tested their craft in long-drawn Channel gales, not grudgingly or of necessity because they could not find harbour, but because they ‘wanted to know, don’t you know;’ and in that embroilment have been very literally thrown together with their men.


This makes for hardiness, coolness of head, and above all resource. You realise it when you hear the dear boys talk among themselves. The Naval man’s experience begins early, and by the time he has reached his majority a Sub-Lieutenant should have seen enough to sober Ulysses. But he utterly refuses to be sobered. There is no case on record of a depressed Sub. It takes three of him to keep one Midshipman in order; but the combined strength of the Assistant Engineer, the Doctor, and the Paymaster will not subdue one Sub-Lieutenant. He goes his joyous way, impartially and picturesquely criticising his elders and his betters; diverse, undulating, and irrepressible. But when he stands on the bridge at midnight and essays to keep the proper distance in front of the next steel ram dreamily muttering through the water, ten knots an hour, two hundred yards behind him—why then the Sub sweats big drops till he gets used to it. Let us suppose he is third in a line of four, that the hour is near midnight, and he has been on watch since eight. So far, we have kept our distance beautifully: we have even sneered at the next line a mile away to the right, where they have once or twice been ‘all over the shop.’ In twenty minutes there will come relief, a bowl of hot cocoa, three pulls at a pipe, and blessed bed. The Sub watches the speed-lights of the next ahead, for as those lanterns change so must he adjust his pace. But the next ahead is using up all the basest coal she can find, and the wind blows not less than two million samples of it into his straining eyes. He has—he had—the distance absolutely correct; he would swear to it. The Quartermaster by the tiny wheel half heaves up one big shoulder. Till that moment he has given no sign of life. The Sub’s heel taps impatiently on the planking; his mouth hovers over the engine-room voice tube; his lips open to speak to the Quartermaster in case—in case it should be necessary to sheer out of line; for something has gone wrong with the next ahead. She has badly overrun her station, and sheers to the left of our leading ship. The Sub wipes the cinders out of his left eye and says something.


Now begins the fun. The leading ship has slowed a certain number of revolutions—say, from ten knots to nine and a half; but she has not changed her speed-lights in time. We slide out to the right of our next ahead, swiftly and quietly. And now we must all mark time, as it were, till our leader straightens herself. That which was a line has suddenly become a town on the waters; representing roughly three-quarters of a million sterling in value, ten thousand tons weight, and eight hundred lives. Our next ahead lies on our port bow, and—oh, horror!—our next astern is alongside of us. Heaven send that the Captain may not choose this hour to wake. The Sub has slowed her down to eighty-five, but engines are only engines after all, and they cannot obey on the instant. Meantime we can see into the chart-room of her that should have lain behind us. A Navigating Lieutenant sprawled half over the table, cap tilted over forehead to keep out the glare of the lamp, is poring on a chart; we can hear the officer of the watch on her bridge speaking to his Quartermaster, and there comes over to us a whiff of Navy tobacco. She is slowing—she has slowed with a vengeance, and when ships slow too much they lose steerage-way, and, what is far worse, they wake the Captain. This strikes the Sub with lurid clearness; but the impetus of the recent ten knots is on us all, and we are all going much faster than we think. Again his foot taps the deck.


Are they never going to slow in the engine-room? The pointer on the dial before the Quartermaster moves through some minute arc, and our head falls off to the left. It is excessively lonely on this high and lofty bridge, and the spindle-shaped hull beneath looks very unmanageable. Our next ahead draws away slowly from our port bow, and we continue at a safe distance to starboard of her. The line is less of a lump and more of a diagonal than it was. Our next astern is sliding back to where she belongs. Now, two revolutions at a time, the Sub lets us out till he sees our erring sister ahead return to her place, and joyfully slinks in behind her. The Sub mops his heated brow, thanking Heaven that the Captain didn’t wake up, and that the tangle was straightened before the end of the watch. But speed-lights unless properly handled—as ours are handled—are, he doubts not, an invention of the Devil. So, also, is the Fleet; so are all cruisers; and the sea and everything connected therewith.

Now comes the judgment! Our leader, of course, cannot signal back down her line, but the signal must be repeated from the leading ship of the line to starboard. Thus, you see, we read it diagonally. A dull glow breaks out at the mast-head of that transmitter of wiggings—and a wigging it is for somebody—a wigging in drunken winks—long and short ones—irresistibly comic if you don’t happen to be in the Service. Once again we are saved. The avenging electric spells out the name of our next ahead, a second-class cruiser—and then—‘Why don’t you keep station? Let us thank God for second-class cruisers and all other lightning-conductors!

The middle watch comes up; the Sub demands of the stars and the deep profound about him: ‘Who wouldn’t sell a farm and go to sea?’ descends the bridge in one light-hearted streak, and three minutes later is beautifully asleep, the ship’s kitten purring under his left ear. But the Captain was awake all the time. The change of speed roused him, and he lay watching the tell-tale compass overhead, his mouth at the bridge voice-tube; one eye cocked through the open port, and one leg over the edge of the bunk—in case. The Sub must learn his business by himself—must find confidence in isolation precisely as the Captain did a quarter of a century ago. It is not good for him to know that he is being watched.

Next morning the Captain makes a casual allusion to ‘massed fleets in line of sixes and sevens.’ ‘It was our next ahead, sir,’ says the Sub deferentially. ‘Yes, it was the next ahead when I was a Sub,’ is the reply. ‘I know that next ahead.’ Then the wardroom, to whom the Sub has been confiding the success of his manœuvres, ask him whether he got to windward of the ‘owner’—much.


And that is one of the ways in which youth gets learning. On a big battleship, they tell me, the Sub is little better than the Midshipmen he despises. He lives in the gun-room, he goes to school, he is sent on errands, and if he is good he is allowed to preserve discipline while a fraction of the decks are being washed. But on a third-class cruiser he is a watch-officer, an ornament of the ward-room, pitched into responsibility, and he enjoys himself, as I have tried to show.