The Fringes of the Fleet


by Rudyard Kipling

BE WELL assured that on our side
Our challenged oceans fight,
Though headlong wind and leaping tide
Make us their sport to-night
Through force of weather, not of war,
In jeopardy we steer.
Then welcome Fate’s discourtesy
Whereby it shall appear
How in all time of our distress
As in our triumph too,
The game is more than the player of the game,
And the ship is more than the crew!Be well assured, though wave and wind
Have mightier blows in store,
That we who keep the watch assigned
Must stand to it the more;
And as our streaming bows dismiss
Each billow’s baulked career,
Sing welcome Fate’s discourtesy
Whereby it is made clear
How in all time of our distress
As in our triumph too,
The game is more than the player of the game,
And the ship is more than the crew!Be well assured that on our side
Our challenged oceans fight,
Though headlong wind and leaping tide
Make us their sport to-night
Through force of weather, not of war,
In jeopardy we steer.
Then welcome Fate’s discourtesy
Whereby it shall appear
How in all time of our distress
As in our triumph too,
The game is more than the player of the game,
And the ship is more than the crew !

ON THE edge of the North Sea sits an Admiral in charge of a stretch of coast without lights or marks, along which the traffic moves much as usual. In front of him there is nothing but the east wind, the enemy and some few our ships. Behind him there are towns, with M.P.’s attached, who a little while ago didn’t see the reason for certain lighting orders. When a Zeppelin or two came they saw. Left and right of him are enormous docks, with vast crowded sheds, miles of stone-faced quay-edges, loaded with all manner of supplies and crowded with mixed shipping.

In this exalted world one met Staff-Captains, Staff-Commanders, Staff-Lieutenants, and Secretaries, with Paymasters so senior that they almost ranked with Admirals. There were Warrant Officers, too, who long ago gave up splashing about decks barefoot, and now check and issue stores to the ravenous, untruthful fleets. Said one of these, guarding a collection of desirable things, to a cross between a sick-bay attendant and a junior writer (but he was really an expert burglar), “No! And you can tell Mr. So-and-so, with my compliments, that the storekeeper’s gone away—right away—with the key of these stores in his pocket. Understand me? In his trousers pocket.”

He snorted at my next question.

Do I know any destroyer-lootenants?” said he. “This coast’s rank with em! Destroyer-lootenants are born stealing. It’s a mercy they’s too busy to practice forgery, or I’d be in gaol. Engineer-Commanders? Engineer-Lootenants? They’re worse! . . . Look here! If my own mother was to come to me beggin’ brass screws for her own coffin, I’d—I’d think twice before I’d oblige the old lady. War’s war, I grant you that; but what I’ve got to contend with is crime.”

I referred to him a case of conscience in which every one concerned acted exactly as he should, and it nearly ended in murder. During a lengthy action, the working of a gun was hampered by some empty cartridge-cases which the lieutenant in charge made signs (no man could hear his neighbour speak just then) should be hove overboard. Upon which the gunner rushed forward and made other signs that they were “on charge,” and must be tallied and accounted for. He too, was trained in a strict school. Upon which the lieutenant, but that he was busy, would have slain the gunner for refusing orders in action. Afterwards he wanted him shot by court-martial. But every one was voiceless by then, and could only mouth and croak at each other, till somebody laughed, and the pedantic gunner was spared.

“Well, that’s what you might fairly call a naval crux,” said my friend among the stores. “The Lootenant was right. ’Mustn’t refuse orders in action. The Gunner was right. Empty cases are on charge. No one ought to chuck ’em away that way, but . . . Damn it, they were all of ’em right. It ought to ha’ been a marine. Then they could have killed him and preserved discipline at the same time.”


THE PROBLEM of this coast resolves itself into keeping touch with the enemy’s movements; in preparing matters to trap and hinder him when he moves, and in so entertaining him that he shall not have time to draw clear before a blow descends on him from another quarter. There are then three lines of defence: the outer, the inner, and the home waters. The traffic and fishing are always with us.

The blackboard idea of it is always to have stronger forces more immediately available everywhere than those the enemy can send. x German submarines draw a English destroyers. Then x calls x+y to deal with a, who, in turn, calls up b, a scout, and possibly a2, with a fair chance that if x+y+z (a Zeppelin) carry on they will run into a2+b2+c cruisers. At this point, the equation generally stops; if it continued, it would end mathematically in the whole of the German Fleet coming out. Then another factor which we may call the Grand Fleet would come from another place. To change the comparisons: the Grand fleet is the “strong left” ready to give the knockout blow on the point of the chin when the head is thrown up. The other fleets and other arrangements threaten the enemy’s solar plexus and stomach. Somewhere in relation to the Grand fleet lies the “blockading” cordon which examines neutral traffic. It could be drawn as tight as a Turkish bowstring, but for reasons which we may arrive at after the war, it does not seem to have been so drawn up to date.

The enemy lies behind his mines, and ours, raids our coasts when he sees a chance, and kills seagoing civilians at sight or guess, with intent to terrify. Most sailor-men are mixed up with a woman or two; a fair percentage of them have seen men drown. They can realise what it is when women go down choking in horrible tangles and heavings of draperies. To say that the enemy has cut himself from the fellowship of all who use the seas is rather understating the case. As a man observed thoughtfully: “You can’t look at any water now without seeing ‘Lusitania’ sprawlin’ all across it. And just think of those words, ‘North-German Lloyd,’ ‘Hamburg-Amerika’ and such things, in the time to come, They simply mustn’t be.”

He was an elderly trawler, respectable as they make them, who, after many years of fishing, had discovered his real vocation. “I never thought I’d like killin’ men,” he reflected. “Never seemed to be any o’ my dooty. But it is—and I do!”

A great deal of the East Coast work concerns minefields—ours and the enemy’s—both of which shift as occasion requires. We search for and root out the enemy’s mines; they do the like by us. It is a perpetual game of finding, springing, and laying traps on the least as well as the most likely runaways that ships use, such sea snaring and wiring as the world never dreamt of. We are hampered in this, because our Navy respects neutrals; and spends a great deal of its time in making their path safe for them. The enemy does not. He blows them up, because that cows and impresses them, and so adds to his prestige.


THE EASIEST way of finding a mine-field is to steam into it, on the edge of night for choice, with a steep sea running, for that brings the bows down like a chopper on the detonating-horns. Some boats have enjoyed this experience and still live. There was one destroyer (and there may have been others since) who came through twenty-four hours of highly-compressed life. She had an idea that there was a mine-field somewhere about, and left her companions behind while she explored. The weather was dead calm, and she walked delicately. She saw one Scandinavian steamer blow up a couple of miles away, rescued the skipper and some hands; saw another neutral, which she could not reach till all was over, skied in another direction; and, between her life-saving efforts and her natural curiosity, got herself as thoroughly mixed up with the field as a camel among tent-ropes. A destroyer’s bows are very fine, and her sides are very straight. This causes her to cleave the wave with the minimum of disturbance, and this boat had no desire to cleave anything else. None the less, from time to time, she heard a mine grate, or tinkle, or jar (I could not arrive at the precise note it strikes, but they say it is unpleasant) on her plates. Sometimes she would be free of them for a long while, and began to hope she was clear. At other times they were numerous, but when at last she seemed to have worried out of the danger zone, lieutenant and sub together left the bridge for a cup of tea. (“In those days we took mines very seriously, you know.”) As they were in act to drink, they heard the hateful sound again just outside the wardroom, Both put their cups down with extreme care, little fingers extended (“We felt as if they might blow up, too”), and tip-toed on deck, where they met the foc’sle also on tip-toe. They pulled themselves together, and asked severely what the foc’sle thought it was doing. “Beg pardon, sir, but there’s another of those blighters tap-tapping alongside, our end.” They all waited and listened to their common coffin being nailed by Death himself. But the things bumped away. At this point they thought it only decent to invite the rescued skipper, warm and blanketed in one of their bunks, to step up and do any further perishing in the open.

“No, thank you,” said he. “Last time I was blown up in my bunk, too. That was all right. So I think, now, too, I stay in my bunk here. It is cold upstairs.”

Somehow or other they got out of the mess after all. “Yes, we used to take mines awfully seriously in those days. One comfort is, Fritz’ll take them seriously when he comes out. Fritz don’t like mines.”

“Who does?” I wanted to know.

“If you’d been here a little while ago, you’d seen a Commander come in with a big ’un slung under his counter. He brought the beastly thing in to analyse. The rest of his squadron followed at two-knot intervals, and everything in harbour that had steam up scattered.”


PRESENTLY I had the honour to meet a Lieutenant-Commander-Admiral who had retired from the service, but, like others, had turned out again at the first flash of the guns, and now commands—he who had great ships erupting at his least signal—a squadron of trawlers for the protection of the Dogger Bank fleet. At present prices—let alone the chance of the paying submarine—men would fish in much warmer places. His flagship is a multi-millionaire’s private yacht. In her mixture of stark, carpetless, curtainless, carbolised present with voluptuously curved, broad-decked, easy-stairwayed past, she might be Queen Guinevere in the convent at Amesbury. And her Lieutenant-Commander, most careful to pay all due compliments to Admirals who were midshipmen when he was a Commander, leads a congregation of very hard men indeed. They do precisely what he tells them to, and with him go through strange experiences, because they love him and because his language is volcanic and wonderful, what you might call Popocatapocalyptic. I saw the Old Navy making ready to lead out the New under a grey sky and a falling glass—the wisdom and cunning of the old man backed up by the passion and power of the younger breed, and the discipline which had been his soul for half a century binding them all.

“What’ll he do this time?” I asked of one who might know.

“He’ll cruise between Two and Three East; but if you’ll tell me what he won’t do, it ’ud be more to the point! He’s mine-hunting, I expect, just now.”


THE GREAT basins were crammed with craft of kinds never known before on any Navy List. Some were as they were born, others had been converted, and a multitude have been designed for special cases. The Navy prepares against all contingencies by land, sea, and air. It was a relief to meet a batch of comprehensible destroyers and to drop again into the little mouse-trap wardrooms, which are as large hearted as all our oceans. The men one used to know as destroyer-lieutenants (“born stealing”) are serious Commanders and Captains to-day, but their sons, Lieutenants in command and Lieutenant-Commanders, do follow them. The sea in peace is a hard life; war only sketches an extra line or two round the young mouths. The routine of ships always ready for action is so part of the blood now that no one notices anything except the absence of formality and of the “crimes” of peace. What Warrant Officers used to say at length is cut down to a grunt. What the sailor-man did not know and expected to have told him, does not exist. He has done it all too often at sea and ashore.

I watched a little party working under a leading hand at a job which, eighteen months ago, would have required a Gunner in charge. It was comic to see his orders trying to overtake the execution of them. Ratings coming aboard carried themselves with a (to me) new swing—not swank, but consciousness of adequacy. The high, dark foc’sles which, thank goodness, are only washed twice a week, received them and their bags, and they turned-to on the instant as a man picks up his life at home. Like the submarine crew, they come to be a breed apart—double-jointed, extra-toed, with brazen bowels and no sort of nerves.

It is the same in the engine-room, when the ships come in for their regular looking-over. Those who love them, which you would never guess from the language, know exactly what they need, and get it without fuss. Everything that steams has her individual peculiarity, and the great thing is, at overhaul, to keep to it and not develop a new one. If, for example, through some trick of her screws not synchronising, a destroyer always casts to port when she goes astern, do not let any zealous soul try to make her run true, or you will have to learn her helm all over again. And it is vital that you should know exactly what your ship is going to do three seconds before she does it. Similarly with men. If any one, from Lieutenant-Commander to stoker, changes his personal trick or habit—even the manner in which he clutches his chin or caresses his nose at a crisis—the matter must be carefully considered in this world where each is trustee for his neighbour’s life and, vastly more important, the corporate honour.

“What are the destroyers doing just now?” I asked.

“Oh—running about—much the same as usual.”

The Navy hasn’t the least objection to telling one everything that it is doing. Unfortunately, it speaks its own language, which is incomprehensible to the civilian. But you will find it all in “The Channel Pilot” and “The Riddle of the Sands”

It is a foul coast, hairy with currents and rips, and mottled with shoals and rocks. Practically the same men hold on here in the same ships, with much the same crews, for months and months. A most senior officer told me that they were “good boys’—on reflection, “quite good boys,”—but neither he nor the flags on his chart explained how they managed their lightless, unmarked navigations through black night, blinding rain, and the crazy, rebounding North Sea gales. They themselves ascribe it to Joss that they have not piled up their ships a hundred times.

“I expect it must be because we’re always dodging about over the same ground. One gets to smell it. We’ve bumped pretty hard, of course, but we haven’t expended much up to date. You never know your luck on patrol, though.”


PERSONALLY, though they have been true friends to me, I loathe destroyers, and all the raw, racking, ricochetting life that goes with them—the smell of the wet “lammies” and damp wardroom cushions; the galley-chimney smoking out the bridge; the obstacle-strewn deck; and the pervading beastliness of oil, grit, and greasy iron. Even at moorings they shiver and sidle like half-backed horses. At sea they will neither rise up and fly clear like the hydroplanes, nor dive and be done with it like the submarines, but imitate the vices of both. A scientist of the lower deck describes them as: “Half switchback, half water-chute, and Hell continuous.” Their only merit, from a landsman’s point of view, is that they can crumple themselves up from stem to bridge and (I have seen it) still get home. But one does not breathe these compliments to their commanders. Other destroyers may be, they will point them out to you, poisonous bags of tricks, but their own command “never!” Is she high-bowed? That is the only type which over-rides the seas instead of smothering. Is she low? Low bows glide through the water where those collier-nosed brutes smash it open. Is she mucked up with submarine-catchers? They rather improve her trim. No other ship has them. Have they been denied to her? Thank Heaven, we go to sea without a fish-curing plant on deck. Does she roll, even for her class? She is drier than Dreadnoughts. Is she permanently and infernally wet? Stiff, sir?—stiff: the first requisite of a gun-platform.


THUS the Cæsars and their fortunes put out to sea with their subs and their sad-eyed engineers, and their long-suffering signallers. I do not even know the technical name of the sin which causes a man to be born a destroyer-signaller in this life, and the little yellow shells stuck all about where they can be easiest reached. The rest of their acts is written for the information of the proper authorities. It reads like a page of Todhunter. But the masters of merchant-ships could tell more of eyeless shapes, barely outlined on the foam of their own arrest, who shout orders through the thick gloom alongside. The strayed and anxious neutral knows them when their searchlights pin him across the deep, or their syrens answer the last yelp of his as steam goes out of his torpedoed boilers, They stand by to catch and soothe him in his pyjamas at the gangway, collect his scattered lifeboats, and see a warm drink into him before they turn to hunt the slayer. The drifters, punching and reeling up and down their ten-mile line of traps; the outer trawlers, drawing the very teeth of Death with watersodden fingers, are grateful for their low, guarded signals; and when the Zeppelin’s revealing star-shell cracks darkness open above him the answering crack of the invincible destroyers” guns comforts the busy mine-layers. Big cruisers talk to them, too; and, what is more, they talk back to the cruisers. Sometimes they draw fire—pinkish spurts of light—a long way off, where Fritz is trying to coax them over a minefield he has just laid; or they steal on Fritz in the midst of his job, and the horizon rings with barking, which the inevitable neutral who saw it all reports as “a heavy fleet action in the North Sea.” The sea after dark can be as alive as the woods of summer nights. Everything is exactly where you don’t expect it, and the shyest creatures are the farthest away from their holes. Things boom overhead like bitterns, or scutter alongside like hares, or arise dripping and hissing from below like otters. It is the destroyers” business to find out what their business may be through all the long night, and to help or hinder accordingly. Dawn sees them pitch-poling insanely between head-seas, or hanging on to bridges that sweep like scythes from one forlorn horizon to the other. A homeward-bound submarine chooses this hour to rise, very ostentatiously, and signals by hand to a lieutenant in command. (They were the same term at Dartmouth, and same first ship.)

“What’s he sayin’? Secure that gun, will you? Can’t hear oneself speak.” The gun is a bit noisy on its cone, but that isn’t the reason for the destroyer-lieutenant’s short temper.

“’Says he’s goin’ down, sir,” the signaller replies. What the submarine had spelt out, and everybody knows it, was: “Cannot approve of this extremely frightful weather. Am going to bye-bye.”

“Well!”, snaps the lieutenant to his signaller, “what are you grinning at?” The submarine has hung on to ask if the destroyer will “kiss her and whisper good-night.” A breaking sea smacks her tower in the middle of the insult. She closes like an oyster, but—just too late, Habet! There must be a quarter of a ton of water somewhere down below, on its way to her ticklish batteries.

“What a wag!’, says the signaller, dreamily. “Well, ’e can’t say ’e didn’t get ’is little kiss.”

The lieutenant in command smiles. The sea is a beast, but a just beast.


THIS is trivial enough, but what would you have? If Admirals will not strike the proper attitudes, nor lieutenants emit the appropriate sentiments, one is forced back on the truth, which is that the men at the heart of great matters in our Empire are mostly of an even simplicity. From the advertising point of view they are stupid, but the breed has always been stupid in this department. It may be due, as our enemies assert, to our racial snobbery, or, as others hold, to a certain God-given lack of imagination which saves us from being over-concerned at the effects of our appearances on others. Either way, it deceives the enemies people more than any calculated lie. When you come to think of it, though the English are the worst paper-work and viva voce liars in the world, they have been rigorously trained since their early youth to live and act lies for the comfort of the society in which they move, and so for their own comfort. The result in this war is interesting.

It is no lie that at the present moment we hold all the seas in the hollow of our hands. For that reason we shuffle over them shame-faced and apologetic, making arrangements here and flagrant compromises there, in order to give substance to the lie that we have dropped fortuitously into this high seat and are looking round the world for some one to resign it to. Nor is it any lie that, had we used the Navy’s bare fist instead of its gloved hand from the beginning, we could in all likelihood have shortened the war. That being so, we elected to dab and peck at and half-strangle the enemy, to let him go and choke him again. It is no lie that we continue on our inexplicable path animated, we will try to believe till other proof is given, by a cloudy idea of alleviating or mitigating something for somebody, not ourselves. [Here, of course, is where our racial snobbery comes in, which makes the German gibber. I cannot understand why he has not accused us to our Allies of having secret commercial understandings with him.] For that reason, we shall finish the German eagle as the merciful lady killed the chicken. It took her the whole afternoon, and then, you will remember, the carcase had to be thrown away.

Meantime, there is a large and unlovely water, inhabited by plain men in severe boats, who endure cold, exposure, wet, and monotony almost as heavy as their responsibilities. Charge them with heroism, but that needs heroism, indeed! Accuse them of patriotism, they become ribald. Examine into the records of the miraculous work they have done and are doing. They will assist you, but with perfect sincerity they will make as light of the valour and forethought shown as of the ends they have gained for mankind. The Service takes all work for granted. It knew long ago that certain things would have to be done, and it did its best to be ready for them. When it disappeared over the sky-line for manœuvres it was practising—always practising; trying its men and stuff and throwing out what could not take the strain. That is why, when war came, only a few names had to be changed, and those chiefly for the sake of the body, not of the spirit. And the Seniors who hold the key to our plans and know what will be done if things happen, and what links wear thin in the many chains, they are of one fibre and speech with the Juniors and the lower deck and all the rest who come out of the undemonstrative households ashore. “Here is the situation as it exists now,” say the Seniors. “This is what we do to meet it. Look and count and measure and judge for yourself, and then you will know.”

It is a safe offer. The civilian only sees that the sea is a vast place, divided between wisdom and chance. He only knows that the uttermost oceans have been swept clear, and the trade-routes purged, one by one, even as our armies were being convoyed along them; that there was no island nor key left unsearched on any waters that might hide an enemy’s craft between the Arctic Circle and the Horn. He only knows that less than a day’s run to the eastward of where he stands, the enemy’s fleets have been held for a year and four months, in order that civilisation may go about its business on all our waters.