A Fleet in Being – VI

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)


I had the honour of dining on the Flagship next night, and so contagious is the naval spirit that I went there, as it were, annoyed and uneasy over the matter of the misread signal. One cannot regard an Admiral in the exercise of his duty as a mere human. It is in his power to make you get up an anchor by hand if he thinks you are slack; he can stop your coaling and bid you man and arm boats in the middle of the grimy mess; he can make you repeat a certain business till you are sick and dizzy; or he can raise you to high honour by signalling: ‘Well done, So-and-so. Evolution creditably performed.’ He blocks up all the horizon when he appears on it. At six miles off, across the windy blue, the spirit may move him to chat with you, and if your best signalman have not his best telescope at his best eye, and the Admiral be forced to repeat his remarks, you will hear about it at closer range.


The loneliness of a Captain is society beside the isolation of an Admiral. He goes up on the after-bridge, and moves some £10,000,000 worth of iron and steel at his pleasure. No man can stop him, few dare even suggest. Then comes the sea, as it did round the Orkneys, and a little roaring ‘roost’ marked with a few hair-lines on the chart—a tide-rip racing between ledges—buffets his stately galleons, and drives them lightly out of all formation. One never connects a clergyman with St. Paul; but one cannot look at an Admiral without speculating on our apostolic Succession of the Sea. With these powers were clothed Nelson and the rest—‘Admirals all.’ And this particular piece of flesh and blood is of the same order, and rank, and breed, and responsibility—the Admiral in command of the Channel Fleet. And now it is peace. (‘Yes, I have enjoyed my visit very much, thank you, sir.’) But if War came to-morrow? What would he do? How would he think? What does he think about now? He would go up on the bridge with the Flag-Lieutenant, and the ships would be cleared for action. (‘No, I’ve never seen a Temperley transporter at work.’) And then—and then . . . .?

It was a strange dinner for one guest at least—with its flowers and crystal and quiet conversation; the band playing on deck, and the lights of the Fleet twinkling all down the Bay.

There was a Prince in it who was also a Flag-Captain, and he set one thinking; and there were Commanders and Lieutenants in it, and it was all very pretty and gracious; but between me and the menu rose a vision of last year’s play-war—a battleship cleared for action, naked and grim, like a man swimming with a knife between his teeth—a wet and streaming hull thundering through heavy, rain-hammered seas.


‘Well, now you’ve done that,’ said Twenty-One, ‘suppose you come and dine in a Gun-room.’ (We have none on the cruiser, being all ward-room, with a cabin apiece.) ‘I’ll chaperon you to the best disciplined Gun-room in the Fleet. We’ll show you.’

So we went, Twenty-One and me, to another huge battleship, precisely like the Admiral’s; but this time Captains, Commanders, and Lieutenants were invisible, or showed only as superior luminaries far along the decks. We dealt with nothing above the rank of Sub-Lieutenant, and the greetings of that grade are cordial and warm. Down below—it was twice the size of our ward-room—we found their Gun-room, which differs in appointments and fittings from everything Marryat conceived, but I think the old unquenchable spirit persists. Of the twenty odd inhabitants, a dozen at least were Midshipmen, and therefore, as Twenty-One explained, ‘didn’t count.’ They talked among themselves in subdued eager whispers, dropping in to the meal as they came off duty. The senior Sub-Lieutenant (quite nineteen years old) was responsible for the justly vaunted discipline; and it is no small thing to reduce to silence boys of sixteen to eighteen, all full of natural and acquired deviltry. But it was done according to the custom of the Navy and the etiquette of the Gun-room, whose laws change not.


Here the young Nelson learns to obey, in silence and at a run. He has been broken in on the Britannia, but the Gun-room gives him enduring polish. The Admiral knows a Midshipman rather as the Almighty knows a blackbeetle; the Captain knows him as the Head of Harrow might know a babe in a perambulator; the First Lieutenant knows him as the Head of the Games knows a fag in the Lower Third; but the senior Sub-Lieutenant of the Gun-room knows him as a brand to be snatched from the burning; and works over him accordingly. In return, the Midshipman patronises the Admiral at a safe distance; is blandly superior to his Captain—also at a safe distance; sings time-honoured lampoons about the First Lieutenant at a very safe distance; but most strictly obeys the senior Sub-Lieutenant. For seven years, counting his time in the Britannia, he dresses at a chest and sleeps in a hammock, getting to know himself and his associates with that deadly stark intimacy that only flourishes in the Navy. There are no excuses in his Service. He must not answer back; and he must do what he is told—not immediately, but sooner, much sooner. These are the years that weed out those that have mistaken their calling. The incompetents go home, and curse the Navy evermore. The virtuous stay on and learn to steal brass boiler-tubes for their boats; learn to smoke secretly in the fighting-tops (they are forbidden tobacco till eighteen); fall into and out of all manner of tight places that require dexterity and a cheek of cold-drawn brass; pick up more than they learn under the Instructor from the talk of the Warrant Officers and men and the carefully-watched mistakes of their elders; and when they reach commissioned rank impart their lore to their successors with a dirk-scabbard.


If ‘White Jacket’ had not served before the mast, what a picture he might have given us of the Gunroom! It is at once a Republic and a Despotism—the Extreme Left and the unswerving Centre of old tradition. Individually it is always in hot water; collectively it can and does criticise with point and freedom anything and everything on its horizon, from Fleet Manœuvres to the fit of an Instructor’s collar. Pungent, merciless, indomitable is the Gunroom, but it preserves discipline. The senior Sub-Lieutenant (one could not help thinking of O’Brien when he cured Peter of the sea-sickness) stuck a fork into the equivalent for a beam overhead. Ere it ceased vibrating the Midshipmen had gone, flitting like bats; had flung themselves backwards from their seats, and were through the door.

‘That’s when we think the conversation might hurt their little morals,’ said my host. ‘But they can move much quicker than that.’

‘Make ’em do it again,’ said Twenty-One—a Midshipman three years ago. ‘You’re getting awfully slack, I think. What do you do when——?’ he presented a contingency.

‘Oh, then we——’ The Sub-Lieutenant described the course of action with minute particularity, adding: ‘Wouldn’t you like to see it done?’

Set it to my account that I saved somebody’s darling from being butchered to make a Gun-room holiday. But the Midshipmen have an asylum of their own in the School-room, where, I was assured, they were worked within an inch of their lives. The remnant seemed unusually healthy, for when we went out to visit a big smoking-concert on the Flagship I caught glimpses of limber youths racketting in dumb show round their hammocks.

Not being privileged to have speech with them, I asked Twenty-One what the ‘protective diplomacy’ of Midshipmen might be. He gave me to understand that stirring a hornets’ nest with the bare toe was tame and pale beside too thoroughly irritating the junior members of the Gun-room. Had himself been concerned in such revolutions.

‘We got licked, of course,’ he concluded cheerfully, ‘but the seniors let us alone after that. Wasn’t it a beautifully disciplined Mess, though? I wish you could see ’em at sea in weather. There’s a Midshipman (he used the other term) told off to every scuttle to open it between waves. If he lets in any water of course he catches it. I had about five years of that sort of thing. Well, now we’ll go over to the concert.’


Said a shrill voice casually: ‘Are you goin’ to patronise our Uncle Henry’s show to-night?’

‘I think I ought to. I don’t want him to think I’m cutting him. Besides, he’d like to meet one zealous an’ efficient officer. It ’ud cheer him up.’

I whipped round, to see two small boys of blank countenances studying the deck-beams. It was humanly conceivable that ‘Uncle Henry’ might be the Admiral’s nickname, but could two Midshipmen—? I fled lest the ship should blow up under me, and left those zealous and efficient ones to their dignity.

Imagine a quarter-deck seventy-five feet wide and a hundred and twenty long, awninged over, decked with flags and a triple row of white and purple electrics, the massed bands of the Fleet at the far end, and all the rest, from the stern to the snowy barbette, a whirl of uniforms of all ranks: Captains with and without aiguillettes; Commanders, Officers of Marines, in their blue-faced mess-jackets, with the laurelled globe on the lapel, Engineers, Paymasters, Clerks, and the others—a shifting carpet of blue and gold and red and black. The muzzles of the forty-six ton guns sheered up above us, and high over all, on the top of the barbette, which was disguised with flags and carpets, sat the Admiral. It was an amazing spectacle—the Fleet at play, and for some reason, it made me choke. One recovered here men last met at the other end of the world—at Gaspé, Bermuda, Vancouver, Yokohama, Invercargill, or Bombay—rovers and rangers in Her Majesty’s men-of-war. Then we danced; for this also is the custom of the Navy, that when a man has been working like several niggers all day he should, on chance given, dance. And that is why the Naval man dances so well. He begins, as I have seen, on the Britannia, whose decks are fairly open. Then he dances on such occasions as these, in and out among all the fittings of a battleship’s deck.

‘Makes us awfully handy with our feet,’ said Twenty-One, mopping himself in the pauses of a waltz. ‘Won’t you take a turn? No end good exercise.’

‘No, I’m afraid of the ladies,’ I replied.

‘They are rather solid,’ said Twenty-One reflectively, as a Post-Captain reversed on to his toes. ‘My partner doesn’t protect me as a gentleman should. He threw me at a Paymaster just now.’

How in the course of their work they had saved up enough energy for this diversion was beyond me. They danced, fair heel and toe, unsparingly a couple of hours, for the sheer, downright exercise of it. And they were by no means all youths in the game either. We dropped panting into the boats, and saw behind us the whole gay show fade, flicker, and twinkle out. The Flagship had returned to her ordinary business. To-morrow she would take us back to Portland on our speed trials.


*         *         *         *         *         *        *

‘Isn’t it scandalous? Isn’t it perfectly damnable?’ said an officer after we had got under way, pointing to the foul, greasy columns of smoke that poured from every funnel. ‘Her Majesty’s Channel Squadron, if you please, under steam, burning horse-dung.’

Truthfully, it was a sickening sight. We could have been seen thirty miles off, a curtain of cloud, spangled and speckled with bits of burning rubbish and lumps of muck. The First Lieutenant looked at the beach of clinkers piling up on his hammock-nettings and blessed the Principality of Wales. The Chief Engineer merely said, ‘You never know your luck in the Navy,’ put on his most ancient kit, and was no more seen in the likeness of a Christian man. Fate had hit him hard, for, just as his fires were at their pink of perfection, a battleship chose to get up her anchor by hand, delaying us an hour, and blackening the well-cherished furnaces. ‘No. 2 Welsh’ (this must have been an Admiralty jest) needs a lot of coaxing.


But we were not quite such an exhibition as the Arrogant. She showed like chemical works in full blast as we swept out of Bantry and headed south for the Scillies. Then up came the Blake (see Note VI.), a beautiful boat, giving easily to the swell that was lifting us already, and she dodged about left and right till we asked: ‘What are you trying to do?’ ‘Trying to get out of your smoke,’ said she, vomiting cascades of her own the while. Meantime the Fleet-rams were doing their best to blind and poison us, and the battleships sagged away to leeward looking like wet ricks ablaze.

It was not the ignominy of the thing—the mere dirt and filth—that annoyed one so much as the thought that there was no power in the State which owes its existence to the Navy whereby a decent supply of State-owned, State-dug coal could be assured to us. There had been a strike, and while masters and men were argle-bargling ashore Her Majesty’s ships were masquerading in the guise of chimney-sweeps on the high seas.

The delay, the disorder, the cruel extra work on stokers, not to mention the engineers, who at all times are worked pitilessly, is in Peace no more than merely brutal. In war it would be dangerous.


As if that were not enough, the swell that the battleships logged as light (Heaven forgive them!) began to heave our starboard screw out of the water. We raced and we raced and we raced, dizzily, thunderously, paralytically, hysterically, vibrating all down one side. It was, of course, in our four hours of full speed that the sea most delighted to lift us up on one finger and watch us kick. From 6 to 10 p.m. one screw twizzled for the most part in the circumambient ether, and the Chief Engineer—with coal-dust and oil driven under his skin—volunteered the information that life in his department was gay. He would have left a white mark on the Assistant-Engineer, whose work lay in the stokehold among a gang of new Irish stokers. Never but once have I been in our engine-rooms; and I do not go again till I can take with me their designer for four hours at full speed. The place is a little cramped and close, as you might say. A steel guard, designed to protect men from a certain toothed wheel round the shaft, shore through its bolts and sat down, much as a mudguard sits down on a bicycle-wheel. But the wheel it sat on was also of steel; spinning one hundred and ninety revolutions per minute. So there were fireworks, beautiful but embarrassing, of incandescent steel sparks, surrounding the Assistant-Engineer as with an Aurora Borealis. They turned the hose on the display, and at last knocked the guard sideways, and it fell down somewhere under the shaft, so that they were at liberty to devote their attention to the starboard thrust-block, which was a trifle loose. Indeed, they had been trying to wedge the latter when the fireworks began—all up their backs.

The thing that consoled them was the thought that they had not slowed down one single turn.


‘She’s a giddy little thing,’ said the Chief Engineer. ‘Come down and have a look.’

I declined in suitable language. Some day, when I know more, I will write about engine-rooms and stokers’ accommodation—the manners and customs of Naval Engineers and their artificers. They are an amazing breed, these quiet, rather pale men, in whose hands lie the strength and power of the ship.

‘Just think what they’ve got to stand up to,’ says Twenty-One, with the beautiful justice of youth. ‘Of course, they are trained at Keyham and all that; but fancy doing your work with an eight-inch steam-pipe in the nape of your neck, an’ a dynamo buzzin’ up your back, an’ the whole blessed shoot whizzin’ round in the pit of your stomach! Then we jump about an’ curse if they don’t give us enough steam. I swear I think they’re no end good men in the engine room!’

If you doubt this, descend by the slippery steel ladders into the bluish copper-smelling haze of hurrying mechanism all crowded under the protective deck; crawl along the greasy foot-plates, and stand with your back against the lengthwise bulkhead that separates the desperately whirling twin engines. Wait under the low-browed supporting-columns till the roar and the quiver has soaked into every nerve of you; till your knees loosen and your heart begins to pump. Feel the floors lift below you to the jar and batter of the defrauded propeller as it draws out of its element. Try now to read the dizzying gauge-needles or find a meaning in the rumbled signals from the bridge. Creep into the stoke-hold—a boiler blistering either ear as you stoop—and taste what tinned air is like for a while. Face the intolerable white glare of the opened furnace doors; get into a bunker and see how they pass coal along and up and down; stand for five minutes with slice and ‘devil’ to such labour as the stoker endures for four hours.


The gentleman with the little velvet slip between the gold rings on his sleeve does his unnoticed work among these things. If anything goes wrong, if he overlooks a subordinate’s error, he will not be wigged by the Admiral in God’s open air. The bill will be presented to him down here, under the two-inch steel deck, by the Power he has failed to control. He will be peeled, flayed, blinded, or boiled. That is his hourly risk. His duty shifts him from one ship to another, to good smooth and accessible engines, to vicious ones with a long record of deviltry, to lying engines that cannot do their work, to impostors with mysterious heart-breaking weaknesses, to new and untried gear fresh from the contractor’s hands, to boilers that will not make steam, to reducing-valves that will not reduce, and auxiliary engines for distilling or lighting that often give more trouble than the main concern. He must shift his methods for, and project himself into the soul of, each; humouring, adjusting, bullying, coaxing, refraining, risking, and daring as need arises.

Behind him is his own honour and reputation; the honour of his ship and her imperious demands; for there is no excuse in the Navy. If he fails in any one particular he severs just one nerve of the ship’s life. If he fails in all the ship dies—a prisoner to the set of the sea—a gift to the nearest enemy.

And, as I have seen him, he is infinitely patient, resourceful, and unhurried. However it might have been in the old days, when men clung obstinately to sticks and strings and cloths, the newer generation, bred to pole-masts, know that he is the king-pin of their system. Our Assistant-Engineer had been with the engines from the beginning, and one night he told me their story, utterly unconscious that there was anything out of the way in the noble little tale.


It was his business so to arrange that no single demand from the bridge should go unfulfilled for more than five seconds. To that ideal he toiled unsparingly with his Chief—a black sweating demon in his working hours, and a quiet student of professional papers in his scanty leisure.

‘An’ they come into the ward-room,’ says Twenty-One, ‘and you know they’ve been having a young hell of a time down below, but they never growl at us or get stuffy or anything. No end good men, I swear they are.’

‘Thank you, Twenty-One,’ I said. ‘I’ll let that stand for the whole Navy if you don’t mind.’