A Fleet in Being


by Rudyard Kipling


A ship who attempted to dress on her service allowance of paint would in three months be as disreputable as a battery or regiment which kept its mess or band on the strict army footing. Therefore, over and above anything that they may secure by strategy and foresight, the officers must dip into their own pockets to supply the many trifles (none of them cheap) which make for the smartness of a ship. This was forcibly brought home to me when I admired a shield and scroll-work at the bows of a large cruiser. ‘Yes,’ said a friend, ‘it takes about fifty books (of gold-leaf) to gild that decently.’

‘No. Seventy,’ said another.

‘How d’you know?’

‘Well, somebody’s got to gild it, and the Yard don’t give you seventy books for nothing,’ was the significant reply.

If there were any means of reckoning, the tax-payer would be somewhat astonished at the sums spent by Navy and Army for the privilege of serving the Queen. Both services have curious and crusted tales bearing on this head.


As the comfort and efficiency of the ship, not to mention the Captain’s peace of mind, depend on the First Lieutenant, the Captain as a rule takes good care to pick his own man. Here are a few of the First Lieutenant’s duties. He must act as a strainer between the Captain and the ship; holding back the unessential, passing on the vital. That is to say, he must be a subtle and discriminating editor. He must make all his arrangements; for the ordering and disposition of every soul aboard, through the next day, week or month; with the cheerful foreknowledge that the bulk of them will be knocked into a naval cocked hat by the exigencies of the service. He must then retire into himself with a pack of printed cards, one for each man, and work out the whole puzzle afresh. At the same time he must not allow his own irritation to affect his dealings with the Wardroom, whose official head he is, and whose members are (a) his subordinates, and (b) gentlemen of leisure assembled of an evening for a quiet rubber. He must get the utmost out of them, not by the menace of his authority, because that means a smash-up sooner or later, but because of their genuine liking for him as an individual. The Wardroom is young, very male, and unable to avoid meeting itself every day and all day long. You will concede that a certain amount of tact may be necessary in handling it? He must, further, see with those eyes which he is authorised to wear at the back of his head, that no warrant or petty officer, no ship’s corporal, or master-at-arms is abusing authority to spite some man or boy. He must still further see that no official, yielding to a natural desire for popularity, is quietly letting down the discipline of the lower-deck. He must know the Captain’s mind seventeen and two-thirds seconds before the Captain opens his mouth, because he will need that time to think out arrangements to meet the order. He must be the soul of rectitude and honour, but he must grasp the inwardness and frustrate the outwardness of every trick and trap sprung on him twenty times a day. In the Captain’s absence he is the visitors’ host and chaperone, and as visitors in harbour may range from Royalty to ragamuffins, his manners must be in the widest sense of the word, adaptable. Finally, at all crises, where the “blue” goes there must he lead: leaping the larger abyss; standing nearer to the danger; walking the more slippery foothold, passively enduring longer the exposure; and through it all he must keep the cool eye and balanced head of authority.

And the public is surprised when a naval officer proves that he is a diplomat!


The Captain’s coxswain is always an important person. As a rule the Captain has known him for a long time, often for ten or fifteen years, and the man follows his superior’s fortunes with unswerving loyalty, till he blossoms into the dignity of coxswain of the Admiral’s barge, beside whom dukes are not even three a penny. He is, by virtue of his office, the smartest man in the ship, and by training becomes a clean-shaved miracle of tact and discretion. Each boat’s crew have a life of their own, a little world, into which they enter, picking up where they left off, so soon as cutter or whaler leaves the ship’s side; but I fancy the esprit de corps is most strongly developed in the Captain’s galley. On one occasion we had been out all day fishing, and the wind forced us to row the long seven miles back to the fleet, against the tide, round rocky points fringed with conflicting currents. It was a lumpy and disheartening sea, leaden grey in the twilight except where the shoals cast up wisps and smudges of half-phosphorescent white—a three hours’ journey, enlivened by the incessant dry roar and rattle of the surf around Roancarrig and the answering growl of the waves on the mainland. I watched the untiring machine digging out over the steep-pitched cross-waters; eight pair of shoulders rising and falling against the first stars and the smoke of spray about the bows; till every muscle in me ached out of sympathy. Thrice they were invited to rest themselves, for they had been ten hours at work, and there was six hundred pounds’ dead weight of fish in the boat; and thrice they replied: ‘Oh, we can jog on like this, sir.’ So they jogged with never a quiver or a falter through all the tumble, and when we reached still water, under the lee of the ships, they spurted up the avenue as though returning from a call on the flagship half a mile away. I demanded of the coxswain how this thing was done.

‘Oh, you get used to it,’ said he. ‘Besides, that wasn’t anything particular. Sometimes you have the boat half full of water, jumping out and coming down like a hammer. That’s the time you learn to row.’

‘I see. Why didn’t some of you miss your stroke in that tumble coming round the point when we took the water over the bows?’

‘Well,’—still the same smile—‘if you did that—why, you wouldn’t be in the galley. There’s all the other boats to practise that in. You’ve never seen her properly under sail, have you?’

For sheer luxury of motion, commend me to a galley which has just “taken on” a brother captain’s craft for a small walk down the bay. The rig is simplicity itself: there is a man to every rope that vitally communicates with anything: and the most highly trained shifting-ballast in the world, spread low between the thwarts, obeys the wave of the hand.


Many men will tell you that our ships are under-gunned. So they are—on paper: but on paper a gun merely represents a tube sticking out of the side. One does not see the little group of from three to nine men who work it in action; the ammunition hoist that feeds it; or the pile of live shell and cartridge that would lie beside it. These things take up space, and the more space you supply, the less will the gun be disconcerted by its own or a neighbour’s disaster. Our people do not like to work in crowds. They prefer, as we do ashore, to manage their own little shows alone. The effect of wounded men kicking and hiccoughing in a crowded secondary battery is bad for cool aiming; besides which, idlers, cooks and servants might be jostling the workers in their efforts to get the wounded below. On an open deck, with fair intervals between the guns, the wounded can be moved out of the way at once; and if the gun itself, by any chance, be dismounted, there is a margin of safety for its inboard collapse, and room for a working-party to take charge of it. I am speaking now of light armaments behind shields. The knowledge that one lucky shot might wreck two or three guns together does not make for happiness. This is why our guns are comparatively few in number, but exceedingly handy to work. A ship knows, of course, exactly where the crowd would of necessity be gathered in any craft opposed to her. Two or three shots in a nest of crowded guns, open ammunition-hoists, and piles of ‘ready’ cartridges, will do more moral and intellectual damage than the effacement of one or two guns in a line strung evenly from bow to stern.


You must understand here that the Flagship was not only our central authority, but Reuter’s Agency as well; and that between orders for drills were sandwiched little pieces of news from the world ashore. One peaceful morning the Yeoman of Signals came to the captain’s cabin at the regulation pace, but with heightened colour and an eye something brighter than usual. ‘Signal from the flagship, sir,’ said he, reading off the slate. ‘Omdurman fallen: killed so many, and wounded so many.’ ‘Thank you,’ said the captain. ‘Tell the men.’ On this, I went forward to see how the news would be received. We were busy painting some deck-houses, and the work continued to an accompaniment of subdued voices—the hushed tones of men under the eye of authority. Word was passed to the lower deck and the stokehold: and the hum of talk rose, perhaps, half a note. I halted by the painters. Said one, dipping deep in the white lead: ‘Um, ah! This ought to make the French sickish. Almost ’ear ’em coughin’, can’t you?’ Said another, reaching out for the broadest and slabbiest brush: ‘I say, Alf, lend us that Khartoum brush o’ yours.’ After a long pause, stepping back to catch the effect of a peculiarly juicy stroke—head a little aside and one eye shut: ‘Well, we’ve waited about long enough, ’aven’t we?’ Bosun’s mate with a fine mixture of official severity and human tolerance: ‘What are you cacklin’ for over there! Carry on quiet, can’t you?’ And that was how we took the news of the little skirmish called Omdurman.


Our whaler would go out between lights under pretence of practising, but really for the purpose of insulting other whalers whom she had beaten in inter-ship contests. Boat-racing is to the mariner what horse-racing is to the landsman. The way of it is simple. When your racing crew is in proper condition, you row under the bows of the ship you wish to challenge and throw up an oar. If you are very confident, or have a long string of victories to your credit, you borrow a cock from the hen-coops and make him crow. Then the match arranges itself. A friendly launch tows both of you a couple of miles down the bay, and back you come, digging out for the dear life, to be welcomed by hoarse subdued roars from the crowded foc’sles of the battleships. This deep booming surge of voices is most moving to hear. Some day a waiting fleet will thus cheer a bruised and battered sister staggering in with a prize at her tail—a plugged and splintered wreck of an iron box, her planking brown with what has dried there, and the bright water cascading down her sides. I saw the setting of such a picture one blood-red evening when the hulls of the fleet showed black on olive-green water, and the yellow of the masts turned raw-meat colours in the last light. A couple of racing cutters spun down the fairway, and long after they had disappeared we could hear far-off ships applauding them. It was too dark to catch more than a movement of masses by the bows, and it seemed as though the ships themselves were triumphing all together.


Do not believe what people tell you of the ugliness of steam, nor join those who lament the old sailing days. There is one beauty of the sun and another of the moon, and we must be thankful for both. A modern man-of-war photographed in severe profile is not engaging; but you should see her with the life hot in her, head-on across a heavy swell. The ram-bow draws upward and outward in a stately sweep. There is no ruck of figure-head, bow-timbers or bowsprit-fittings to distract the eye from its outline or the beautiful curves that mark its melting into the full bosom of the ship. It hangs dripping an instant, then, quietly and cleanly as a tempered knife, slices into the hollow of the swell, down and down till the surprised sea spits off in foam about the hawse-holes. As the ship rolls in her descent you can watch curve after new curve revealed, humouring and coaxing the water. When she recovers her step, the long sucking hollow of her own wave discloses just enough of her shape to make you wish to see more. In harbour, the still waterline, hard as the collar of a tailor-made jacket, hides that vision; but when she dances the Big Sea Dance, she is as different from her Portsmouth shilling photograph as is a matron in a macintosh from the same lady at a ball. Swaying a little in her gait, drunk with sheer delight of movement, perfectly apt for the work in hand, and in every line of her rejoicing that she is doing it, she shows, to these eyes at least, a miracle of grace and beauty. Her sides are smooth as a water-worn pebble, curved and moulded as the sea loves to have them. Where the box-sponsioned, overhanging, treble-turreted ships of some other navies hammer and batter into an element they do not understand, she, clean, cool, and sweet, uses it to her own advantage. The days are over for us when men piled baronial keeps, flat-irons, candlesticks, and Doré towers on floating platforms. The New Navy offers to the sea precisely as much to take hold of as the trim level-headed woman with generations of inherited experience offers to society. It is the provincial, aggressive, uncompromising, angular, full of excellently unpractical ideas, who is hurt, and jarred, and rasped in that whirl. In other words, she is not a good sea-boat and cannot work her guns in all weathers.