A Fleet in Being – III

by Rudyard Kipling

(The Kipling Society presents here Kipling’s work as he
wrote it, but wishes to alert readers that the text below
contains some derogatory and/or offensive language)


Apropos of signals—to go on where I left off—we were to have more than enough of them after target-practice. We finished first of all the cruisers, and went on to our rendezvous the Fastnet, but if we had listened to the passenger—he wanted to lower a boat and investigate the shattered rock—we should have been spared many sorrows. But we were zealous, Mr. Simple, and we went to the Fastnet; and it was hazy, and through the haze we heard a horrible elemental moaning that should have warned us. The battleships which we had not found at Bantry were scattered about those waters at their practice. Then I remembered that a twelve-inch gun discharges a projectile weighing some 800lb. and ranging about ten miles. And we went to the rendezvous encircled by these deep mutterings of invisible monsters, and behold! we came slap on the Flagship, who was running torpedoes. Any other of the big ones would not have mattered, but our luck sent us to the Flag. There was a feeling of calamity in the thick air, and I know one man who was not in the least relieved when she signalled: ‘Where are you bound?’ We replied we were waiting as ordered on that spot, for the rest of the cruisers, and remained in a deferential attitude, while the Flagship maintained her horrible composure.


Thinking no harm, we drifted some two miles to leeward, which was our fatal mistake, though we kept a skinned eye on her. Presently we saw a signal, but end on, as flags are apt to be when the signaller is dead up wind and the signallee down. We hung our answering pennant at the dip to show that we saw but could not understand, and scuttled up to the Flagship as fast as might be. The first part of the signal was an order to close, and the second expressed a desire to speak to us by semaphore. (Our signalmen’s faces were studies in gloom about this crisis; and the sad moaning of the guns went on afar.) We learned that the Flag had been trying to attract our attention for some time, and did not appreciate our négligé déshabillé, or words to that effect. There is no excuse in the Navy, and we took what was served out to us by the gibbering semaphore in silence, standing at attention. To tell the truth, we had been rather pleased with our target-practice, and this sudden dash of cold water chilled us. But there is a reason for all things. Now, we must signal the name of the officer of the watch (frantic searchings of heart among the officers) and the signalman (the signalmen had got beyond even despair), on duty on Friday morning last. What the nature of their crime was we knew not, and it was not ours to ask; but later we heard it had something to do with somebody else’s error. We gave that information (the Flag could have learned much more if she had asked for it) and I effaced myself with a great effacement forward, where the wits of the foc’sle were telling the signalman of Friday morning what sorts of death and disrating awaited him.


‘We’ve lost the game,’ said one man. ‘First come first served. That shows it,’ and with this dark saying I was forced to be content.

Then the Flag removed herself, her sixty signalmen, her four-deep strings of signals, and her grim semaphore. Truly was it written:

Every day brings a ship,
Every ship brings a word,
Well for him who has no fear
Looking seaward, well assured
That the word the vessel brings
Is the word that he would hear.’

Anon the cruisers popped over the horizon, led by the Powerful—all save one—and the Powerful wished to know where that one had gone. Now the rendezvous given us by the Powerful could have been read in two ways. We all knew how the mistake had arisen, and, with one exception, had all repaired to the place which our leader had in her massive mind. But there was no ship, of course, that could stand up to and gently rebuke the Powerful save her sister ship the Terrible, who signalled politely: ‘I suppose the —— is waiting at rendezvous signalled by you?’ To this the Powerful stiffly, with many flags: ‘When ships have any doubt about signal, officers should reply: Not understood!’ The Terrible, more politely than ever: ‘Your signal perfectly understood,’ meaning thereby, ‘My friend, you made a mistake, and you jolly well know it.’ We small craft stood back and sniggered while this chaff flew between the two mammoths. The thing must have weighed on the Powerful’s mind, for late that evening, as we were going home, she woke up and began talking about it in flashes from the mast-head, to the effect that when signals were obviously wrong ships should do something or other laid down in the Regulations.


But really it made no difference. The missing cruiser cast up presently with one funnel blistered and a windsail rigged aft, which gave her a false air of being hurried and hot; and home we cruisers all went to Portland, past the Wolf and the toothed edges of the Scillies, astonishing the crowded Channel traffic—sometimes a Jersey potato-ketch full of curiosity; or a full-rigged trader of the deep sea, bound for one or other of the Capes; a Norwegian, Dane, German, or Frenchman; and now and again a white-sided, brass bejewelled yacht.

For a few minutes every funnel was in line. Then one saw the Powerful pulling out for a sailing ship, and blotting half the horizon with her hull. Then a second-class cruiser would flicker from the line to starboard, all spangled with her mast-head, her speed, helm, and sailing-lights as the pale glimmer of a fishing-smack’s lantern crawled out astern of her: And now it was our turn to give way.

That was a Royal progress. No blind man’s bluff off the Lizard or dreary game of hunt-the-Needles such as the liners play, but through the heavenly clear night the leisurely, rolling slow-march of the overlords of all the seas.


And the whole thing was my very own (that is to say yours); mine to me by right of birth. Mine were the speed and power of the hulls, not here only but the world over; the hearts and brains and lives of the trained men; such strength and such power as we and the World dare hardly guess at. And holding this power in the hollow of my hand; able at the word to exploit the earth to my own advantage; to gather me treasure and honour, as men reckon honour, I (and a few million friends of mine) forbore because we were white men. Any other breed with this engine at their disposal would have used it savagely long ago. In our hands it lay as harmless as the levin-rods of the Vril-Ya. Thus I stood, astounded at my own moderation, and counted up my possessions with most sinful pride.

The wind, and the smell of it off the coasts, was mine, and it was telling me things it would never dream of confiding to a foreigner. The short, hollow Channel sea was mine—bought for me drop by drop, every salt drop of it, in the last eight hundred years—as short a time as it takes to make a perfect lawn in a cathedral close. The speech on the deck below was mine, for the men were free white men, same as me, only considerably better. Their notions of things were my notions of things, and the bulk of those notions we could convey one to the other without opening our heads.


We had a common tradition, one thousand years old, of the things one takes for granted. A warrant officer said something, and the groups melted quietly about some job or other. That same caste of man—that same type of voice—was speaking in the commissariat in Burma; in barracks in Rangoon; under double awnings in the Persian Gulf; on the Rock at Gibraltar—wherever else you please—and the same instant obedience, I knew, would follow on that voice. And a foreigner would never have understood—will never understand! But I understood, as you would have understood, had you been there. I went round, to make sure of my rights as a taxpayer under Schedule D; saw my men in my hammocks sleeping, without shading their eyes, four inches from the white glare of my electric; heard my stokers chaffing each other at my ash-shoot; and fetched up by a petty officer who was murmuring fragments of the Riot Act into my subordinate’s attentive ear. When he had entirely finished the task in hand he was at liberty to attend to me. ‘Hope you’ve enjoyed your trip, sir. You see’ (I knew what was coming) ‘we haven’t quite shaken down yet. In another three months we shall be something like.’

No ship is ever at her best till you leave her. Then you hold her up as a shining example to your present craft. For that is England.

My Marine—the skirmisher in South American Suburbs—stood under the shadow of the poop looking like a stuffed man with an automatic arm for saluting purposes; but I knew him on the human side. ‘Goin’ off to-morrow, ain’t you, sir? Well, there are only twenty of us ’ere, but if you ever want to see the Marines, a lot of ’em, it might perhaps be worth your while to’—and he gave me the address of a place where I would find plenty of Marines. He spoke as though his nineteen friends were no-class animals; and a foreigner would have taken him at his word.


The entire Ward-room explained carefully that their commodious coffee-grinder must not be taken as a sample of the Navy at its best. Wasn’t she a good sea-boat? Oh, yes; remarkably so. Couldn’t she go on occasion? Oh, yes. She could go, but, after all, she wasn’t a patch on certain other craft, being only a third-class cruiser—practically an enlarged destroyer—a tin-pot of the tinniest. ‘Now in my last ship,’ the Captain began. That was an unlucky remark, for I remembered that last ship and a certain first night aboard her in the long swell of Simon’s Bay, when the Captain took Heaven and Earth and the Admiralty to witness that of all cluttered-up boxes of machinery and bags of tricks his new command was the worst. To hear him now she must have been a trifle larger than the Majestic with twice the Powerful’s speed. We are a deceptive people. ‘Come and see us next year when we’ve shaken down a bit,’ said the Ward-room, ‘and you’ll like it better.’ That last was impossible, but I accepted the offer.

Our cruiser was about to refit at some Dockyard or other in a few days, and I gathered that it would be no fault of the Captain, the Ward-room or the warrant officers if she did not arrive with a list of alterations and improvements as long as her mainmast. So it is with every new ship. The dear boys take her out to see what she can do, and in that process discover what she cannot do. If by any arrangement or rearrangement of stay, stanchion, davit, steam-pipe, bridge, boat-chocks, or hatchway she can, in their judgment, be improved, rest assured that the dockyard will know it by letter and voice. She never gets more than half what she wants, and so is careful to apply for thrice her needs.


To her just and picturesque demands the Yard opposes the suspicion of Centuries, saying, unofficially: ‘You are all a set of discontented and impenitent thieves. Go away.’ The ship, considering her own comfort and well-being for the rest of the commission, replies, also unofficially: ‘Ah, you’re thinking of the So-and-so. She a nest of pirates if you like: but we’re good. We’re the most upright ship you ever clapped eyes on, and you’re the finest Yard in the Kingdom. You’re up to all the ropes. There’s no getting round you, and you’ll pass our indents. We won’t give you any trouble. Just a few minor repairs, and our own people will carry them out. Don’t disturb yourself in the least. Send the stuff alongside and we’ll attend to it.’

And when the stuff comes alongside in charge of a slow-minded understrapper they do attend to it. They talk the man blind and dumb, sack his cargoes, and turn him adrift to study vouchers at his leisure. Then the First Lieutenant grins like a Cheshire cat; the carpenter, so called because he very rarely deals with wood, the armourer and the first-class artificers sweat with joy, and the workshop lathes buzz and hum. But the understrapper gets particular beans because a great part of his stuff was meant for another ship, and she is very angry about it.


Late in the afternoon the defrauded vessel sends over a boat to the Early and wants to know if she has seen or heard anything of some oak baulks, a new gangway grating, some brass-work, and a few drums of white paint.

‘Why, was that yours?’ says the First Lieutenant. ‘We thought it was ours.’

‘Well, it isn’t. It’s ours. Where is it?’

‘I’m awfully sorry, but—I say, won’t you come and have a drink?’

They come—just in time to see the brass rods in position, the oak baulks converted into some sort of boat-furniture; the gangway platform receives their weary feet, and a fine flavour of paint from a flat forward tells them all they will ever know of the missing drums.

Then they call the First Lieutenant a pirate, and he, poor lamb, says that he was misled by the chuckle-headed understrapper who brought the stuff alongside. Words cannot express the First Lieutenant’s contrition. It is too bad, too bad, but you know what asses these Dockyard chaps can be.’

With soft words and occasional gin and bitters he coaxes the visitors into their boat again, for he has studied diplomacy under West African Kings. They return to their own place, being young and guileless, and their reception is not cordial. Their Captain says openly that he has not one adequate thief in the ship, and that they had better go into the Church. They should have captured the understrapper early in the day. He will speak to the other Captain. And he does, like a brother, next time he meets him, galley passing galley, going to call on the Admiral.

‘You infernal old pirate! What have you done with my paint?’ cries the robbed one.

‘Me, sar? Not me, sar. My brother Manuel, sar? That paint mafeesh. Done gone finish. Kerritch hogya.’ This from the other potentate.

The coxswains duck their heads to hide a grin. And that is one of the ways they have in the Navy, (see Note I.)

The Early Bird departs with a reputation that would sink a slave-dhow, to try the same trick on Hong Kong or Bombay Yard.


This and more—oh! much more—did my friends fore and aft convey to me in that blissful fortnight when I was privileged to watch their labours. I heard, undilutedly, what a boy thinks of punishment and the man who reported him for it; how a carpenter regards a Dockyard ‘matey,’ what are the sentiments of a signaller towards an Admiral and of a stoker towards the Authorities who have designed his washing accommodation. I overheard in the darkness of beautiful nights, fragments of Greek drama from the forward flats which it is my life’s regret that I cannot make public; lectures on all manner of curious things delivered by the ship’s jester; and totally unveracious reports of conversations with superiors retailed by a delinquent Marine.

Fire and collision-drill, general quarters and the like take on new meaning when they are translated for you once, by the Head who orders them and again by the tail who carry them out. When you have been shown lovingly over a torpedo by an artificer skilled in the working of its tricky bowels, torpedoes have a meaning and a reality for you to the end of your days.


Next time you see the ‘blue’ ashore you do not stare unintelligently. You have watched him on his native heath. You know what he eats, and what he says, and where he sleeps, and how. He is no longer a unit; but altogether such an one as yourself—only, as I have said, better. The Naval Officer chance met, rather meek and self-effacing, in tweeds, at a tennis party, is a priest of the mysteries. You have seen him by his altars. With the Navigating Lieutenant ‘on the ’igh an’ lofty bridge persecuting his vocation’ you have studied stars, mast-head angles, range-finders, and such all; the First Lieutenant has enlightened you on his duties as an Upper Housemaid, (see Note Ia.) and the Juniors have guided you through the giddy whirl of gunnery, small-arm drill, getting up an anchor, and taking kinks out of a cable. So it comes that next time you see, even far off, one of Her Majesty’s cruisers, all your heart goes out to her. Men live there.