So home, blown through and through with fresh air; sore with hanging on to the car and laughing at nothing; to dine with two Cruiser Captains aboard one of the big fleet-rams. My hosts had been friends since their Britannia days (it is this uniformity of early training that gives to the Navy its enduring solidarity), and, one reminiscence leading to another, I listened enchanted to weird yarns in which Chinese Mandarins, West Coast nigger Chiefs, Archimandrites, Turkish Pashas, Calabrian Counts, dignity balls, Chilian beachcombers, and all the queer people of the earth were mingled.
‘But it’s a lonely life—a lonely life,’ said one. ‘I’ve commanded a ship since Eighty something, and—you see.’
How could one help seeing? Between the after-cabin and the rest of the world (with very few exceptions) lies the deep broad gulf that is only overpassed by sentries, signalmen, and subordinates entering with reports. A light tap, a light foot, a doffed cap, and—‘Rounds all correct, sir.’ Then the silence and the loneliness settle down again beyond the hanging red curtain in the white steel bulkhead. Herman Melville has it all in White Jacket, but it is awesome to see with bodily eyes.
Sometimes the talk gets serious, and the weather-bitten faces discuss how they would ‘work her in a row.’ Each delivers his opinion with side-digs at his neighbour, less heavily armoured or more lightly gunned, but the general conclusion (which I shall not give) is nearly always the same. It is a terrible power that they wield, these Captains, for, saving the Admiral, there is no one that can dictate to them in the exercise of their business. They make their ships as they make or unmake the careers of their men. Yet, mark how Providence arranges an automatic check! It is in the Navy that you hear the wildest and freest adjectives of any Service, the most blistering characterisation of superiors, the most genuinely comic versions of deeds that elsewhere might be judged heroic.
Things are all too deadly serious and important for any one to insult by taking seriously. Every branch of the Service is forced to be a humourist in spite of itself; and by the time men reach the rank of Captain the least adaptable have some saving sense of fun hammered into them. A Captain remembers fairly well what song the Midshipmen were used to sing about the Lieutenant; what views he held in his own Lieutenancy of his Commander, and what as a Commander he thought of his Captain. If he forgets these matters, as in heat, on lonely stations, or broken with fever some men do, then God help his ship when she comes home with a crop of Court-martials and all hands half crazy!
But to go back to methods of attack. You can hear interesting talk among the juniors when you sit on a man’s bunk of an afternoon, surrounded by the home photographs, with the tin-bath and the shore-going walking sticks slung up overhead. They are very directly concerned in War, for they have charge of the guns, and they speculate at large and carelessly. We (I speak for our cruiser) are not addicted to swear in the words of the torpedo Lieutenant because we do not carry those fittings; but we do all devoutly believe that it is the business of a cruiser to shoot much and often (see Note III). What follows is, of course, nonsense—the merest idle chaff of equals over cigarettes; but rightly read it has its significance.
‘The first thing to do,’ says authority aged Twenty-One, ‘is to be knocked silly by concussion in the conning-tower. Then you revive when all the other chaps are dead, and win a victory off your own bat—à la illustrated papers. ’Wake up in Haslar a month later with your girl swabbing your forehead and telling you you’ve wiped out the whole Fleet.’
‘Catch me in the conning-tower! Not much!’ says Twenty-Three. ‘Those bow-guns of yours will stop every shot that misses it; an’ the upper bridge will come down on you in three minutes.’
‘Don’t see that you’re any better off in the waist. You’d get the funnels and ventilators and all the upper fanoodleums on top of you, anyhow,’ is the retort. ‘We’re a lot too full of wood, even with our boats out of the way.’
‘The poop’s good enough for me,’ says Twenty-Four (that is his station). ‘Fine, light airy place, and we can get our ammunition handier than you can forward.’
‘What’s the use of that?’ says he in charge of the bow guns. ‘You’ve got those beastly deck torpedo-tubes just under you. Fancy a Whitehead smitten on the nose by one little shell. You’d go up.’
‘So’d you. She’d blow the middle out of herself. If they took those tubes away we could have a couple more four-inchers there. There’d be heaps of room for their ammunition in the torpedo magazine.’
We are blessed with a pair of deck torpedo-tubes, which weigh about ten tons, and are the bane of our lives. Our class is a compromise, and the contractors have generously put in a little bit of everything. But public opinion (except the Gunner) is unanimous in condemning those dangerous and hampering tubes.
‘Torpedoes are all rot on this class unless they’re submerged. Two more four-inchers ’ud be a lot better. They’re as handy as duck-guns. I say, did you see that last shrapnel of mine burst over the target? I laid it myself.’ Twenty-Three looks round for applause, but the other guns deride.
‘That’s all luck,’ says Twenty-One, irreverently.
‘Mine burst just beyond. It would have been dead right for an end-on shot. It would have snifted her just on the engine-room hatch. Sound place that. It mixes up the engines.’
‘Mahan says, somewhere, that broadside fighting is going to pay with our low freeboards, because most shots go wrong in elevation. Of course, broadside-on, a shell that misses you misses you clean. It don’t go hopping along your upper works as it would if you were end-on.’
‘Oh, I meant my shot for an end-on shot, of course,’ says Twenty-one; and some one promptly sits on him.
‘No-o,’ says Twenty-Four, meditatively. ‘What we really want if we ever go into a row is weather—lots of it. Good old gales—regular smellers. Then we could run in and beak ’em while it’s thick. I believe in beaking.’ (That belief, by the way, is curiously general in the Navy.)
‘D’you mean to say you’d ram with a tea-tray like ours? I’m glad you aren’t the skipper,’ I interrupt.
‘Oh, he’d beak like a shot, if he saw his chance. Of course, he wouldn’t beak anything our size—it ’ud be cheaper to hammer her—but take the —— (he named a ship that does not fly Our flag). If you got in on her almost anywhere she’d turn turtle. And she cost about a million and a quarter. It’s just a question of L.S.D.’
‘And what ’ud we do afterwards, please?’
‘Ah, that’s our strong point. What happened when that collier drifted down on us at Milford? It only improved our steaming power, didn’t it? We’re a regular honeycomb of compartments forward. I believe you could swipe off twenty foot of her forward, and she’d get home somehow,’ says an expert, enthusiastically.
‘Bit risky,’ says Twenty-One. ‘That ship you talked of is awfully plated up topside, but all her underpinnings are pretty weak. If you could lob in a few shell under some of those forward sponsons of hers, I believe she’d crumple up with the weight of her own guns. But (sorrowfully) you’d need a nine point two to do that properly.’
‘Beak her! Beak her! Catch her in a gale, coming out of harbour’ (the speaker named the very port). ‘It takes their people a week to get their tummies straight.’
‘Yes, but they never come out of harbour. At least they didn’t in the old days. And if they do, we sha’n’t be allowed a look-in. We shall be used for scouting—coaling all day and steaming all night. But we want those deck-tubes taken out all the same.’
‘I’d like target-practice every week,’ says another. ‘Say four times our present allowance of practice-ammunition. It ’ud wear the guns out, but it ’ud pay.’
And so the talk goes on; varying with each ship. Some of them are all for torpedoes, and have submarine vaults the size of a small church devoted to this game; but we, being what we are, are mainly for guns, and the Gunner who is in charge of the torpedoes has a hard time of it when he runs his quarterly trials.
‘A beautiful thing,’ says he, as the silver-coloured devil flops from the tube and tears away towards the mark. . . . ‘Well, I’m blowed.’ The torpedo has sheered away to the left, and now is poisoning the air with its garlic-scented Holmes light, fifty yards from the target.
‘What did I tell you?’ says some one sotto voce. ‘We could have got in a dozen shots from the four inch while you were touching off that boomerang.’
‘They’d hang you on the —— if you laughed at torpedoes.’
‘I wouldn’t if ours were submerged, but with these deck-tubes one never knows how they’ll take the water. That thing must have canted as it fell.’
The Gunner looks grieved to the quick, but is presently consoled by a few score pounds of guncotton, and goes off with grapnels and batteries to practise ‘sweeping’ and ‘creeping’ at the mouth of the bay with a few score other boats. They mine and countermine expeditiously in the Channel Fleet. The process is a technical one, and need not be described here, for there is no necessity to make public either the area covered with mines or the time that it took to lay them. The Gunner returned with a detailed account and some fish that had been stunned by concussion.
‘It was a nice little show,’ he said. ‘A very nice little show. Did you happen to see our smoke?’
I had seen one end of Bantry Bay ripped up from its foundations, but did not inquire farther.
Many things are impressive and not a few terrifying in the Fleet, but the most impressive sight of all is the swift casting-forth from the trim black sides of the instruments and ministers of death. They vary hourly, according to the taste and fancy of the speller. A wisp of signals floats from the Flagship. Our little cruiser erupts—boils like a hive—and some one takes out a watch. There is a continuous low thunder of bare feet, a clatter, always subdued, of arms snatched from the racks, a creaking of falls and blocks, and the noise of iron doors opening and shutting. Of a sudden the decks stand empty; the Maxims have gone from the bulwarks, and the big cutters are away, pulling mightily for the Flagship. From each one of our twelve neighbours pour forth the silent crowded boats. They cluster round the Flag, are looked over, and return. They are not merely boats with men in them. They are fully provisioned; the larger ones have boat-guns, the smaller Maxims, with a proper allowance of ammunition and spare parts, medical, chests, and all the hundred oddments necessary for independent action. All or any one of them can be used at once for patrol work or for landing parties, can be switched off from the main system, as a light engine is switched off up a siding. Each unit is complete and self-contained. In ten minutes the boats are back again, the Maxims replaced, the rifles stacked and racked, the provisions and water returned to store. The ordinary routine of ‘man and arm boats’ is over.
Another signal (see Note IV.) will turn out, transport, land, embark, and disembark three thousand armed men, with twenty-one field guns, in the inside of three hours; leaving six thousand men in the ships to carry on if necessary the work of a bombardment; or you can vary the programme and load a mere thousand or so into eight identical double-funnelled fifteen-knot steam launches—one from each battleship—and play miniature Fleet-manœuvres to your heart’s content. They are as used to performing evolutions together as are their big parents. They can tow half-a-dozen cutters a-piece and work in four feet of water. As an experiment you can land your twenty-one-field guns with sufficient men to throw up earthworks round them; or you can yoke men to the guns and drag them up the flanks of mountains. Or, as in mining operations, you can turn loose all hell with a string to it—pay it out and swiftly drag it back again. One never wearies of watching the outrush and influx of the landing parties; the swift flight of the boats; the minute’s check at the beach; the torrents of blue and red pouring over the bows; and the loose-knit line of mingled red and blue winding away inland among the boulders and heather.
Long practice so perfectly conceals Art that the thing presents no points of the picturesque; makes no noise; calls for no more comment than the set of the waves before a prevailing wind. Only when you go over certain MS. books, giving the name, station, and duties of every man aboard under all conceivable contingencies, do you realise how wheel works within wheel to the ordered, effortless end.
You can disarrange the clockwork as much as you please, but the surviving cogs and rachets will still go on and finish the job; for I do honestly believe that, if any accident removed from the Fleet every single Commissioned Officer, the Warrant and Petty Officers would still carry on with resource and fertility of invention till properly relieved. The public is apt to lump everything that does not carry the executive curl on its coat-sleeve as some sort of common sailor. But a man of twenty-five years’ sea experience—cool, temperate, and judgmatic, such an one as the ordinary Warrant Officer—is a better man than you shall meet on shore in a long day’s march. His word is very much law forward. He knows his men, if possible, better than the officers. He has seen, tried, approved, and discarded hundreds of dodges and tricks in all departments of the ship. At a pinch he can wring the last ounce out of his subordinates by appeals unbefitting for an officer to make, by thrusts at pride and vanity, which he has studied more intimately than any one else. Hear him expounding his gospel to a youth who does not yet realise that the Navy is his father and his mother and his only Aunt Jemima; go out with him when he is in charge of a cutter; listen to him in the workshop; in the flats forward; between the pauses of practice-firing, or up on the booms taking stock of the boats, and you will concede that he is a superior and an adequate person.
‘Yes, I suppose it’s all very nice,’ said one of them, while I applauded and admired some manœuvre that he did not trouble to raise an eyelid for, ‘but just think what we could do if we had the men all together for three years steady! As it is, we’re practically a Training Squadron. When we get back to Plymouth they’ll snatch a hundred of our best men an’ turn ’em over to the Mediterranean, and we’ll have to take up a lot of new ones. The Mediterranean have got the better trained men, but they haven’t our chances of working together.’
‘But the men are trained when you get ’em, surely?’
‘Yes; but you get the same lot in one ship all through her commission, and you put a polish on ’em.’
‘P.Q. 2,’ cried a signalman. That was a well-known message. It meant: ‘Get into your boats as fast as you know how and pull round the Fleet.’ The men leaped on to the nettings and fell outboard like dolphins.
‘That shows it,’ said the Warrant Officer with a sniff. ‘Look at that man crawlin’ into his place’ (to me he seemed to be flying). ‘Our first boat ought to be away in fifteen seconds’ (it was quite thirty before the last drew clear). ‘There go the Arrogants.’ His face darkened. Was it possible that that tip-tilted, hog-backed cruiser had——
‘We’re well first away,’ said a Lieutenant.
‘Hum! We ought to have been more previous,’ said the Warrant Officer. ‘The Arrogants nearly beat us. We love the Arrogant, but we do not allow her to lead if we can help it.’
Another time we were not so lucky. The tale is worth telling to show (a) how one is at the mercy of one’s subordinates, and (b) how there is no excuse in the Navy. At odd hours, chiefly in the black night, the Admiral, feeling lonely, calls up one boat from each ship to his gangway, and the signal, which we will label T.V.K., reads: ‘Cutter to Flagship from each ship; third-class cruisers to send whaler.’ Warned by experience, the First Lieutenant, whom it is not easy to catch napping, had the whaler’s crew sleeping all handy by, where one order would send them out like fly-stung cattle. A cutter requires about three times as many men, and on a small cruiser one cannot keep these together. Enter, then, at 11:45 p.m., a zealous signalman with the words: ‘Cutter to the Flagship.’ In his haste he had omitted to read the conclusion of the signal vouchsafing us the whaler, and (this was his black error) told no one that it was ‘T.V.K.,’ which would have explained the situation. No, he needs must say ‘cutter’; so cutter it was. After the men had been variously dug out of their hammocks and the heavy boat got away, the Flagship wanted to know why we were several scandalous minutes behind our time. It was a direct reflection on the ship and its smartness; a galling and unanswerable wigging that makes men dance and swear with rage. We could only have said that the signal was misread, which would not have helped us in the least; so we shut our mouths and killed the signalman next morning. His own chief, the hawk-nosed Yeoman of Signals, flung him bound to the executioner, saying: ‘He ought to have known, sir; he ought to have known.’ So he was boiled, scraped, and sand-papered, his hair was cut and his number was taken; after which he went forward and heard precisely what the lower deck thought of him. Then a visiting Captain’s galley hanging on to the gangway rubbed it in gracefully and casually, and a fat beef-boat condoled with us ironically, and the whaler (see Note V.) heard all about it next time she went sailing without an officer in the stern-sheets. It was most annoying, but can’t you see how easily this sort of accident may happen?