The Destroyers

(notes by Mary Hamer and Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

Published in McClure’s Magazine, May 1898 and the Windsor Magazine, June 1898, where it was inset as blocks of text framed with black and white drawings by Charles T. De Lacy, illustrations which follow the text very closely. A facsimile of the MS was printed in The Critic of September 1898. It was also printed separately the same year for copyright purposes.

It was collected in The Five Nations in 1903, and later in I.V (1919), D.V (1940), the Sussex Edition vol. 33, and the Burwash Edition vol. 26. It was reprinted in Battle Souvenir, No.1 The Yachting Monthly, 1914 with illustrations by Frank Mason and Arthur Briscoe. Also reprinted in Songs of the Sea, 1924. Guests at the launch of HMS Kipling in 1939 were each given a copy of this poem.


A note in Caroline Kipling’s diary for 3 June 1897 indicates that Kipling — who had been out on sea-trials with the destroyer Foam’ — was already working on this poem. Its eventual publication, delayed until May 1898, may have been prompted by the threat from Russia, and its insistence that the British fleet withdraw from Port Arthur. Kipling’s verses would have offered support to those calling for an increase in naval resources by means of the supplementary naval estimates in June 1898.

For its original magazine publication, the poem bore a prose heading:

‘In a word, the torpedo has brought into the Navy a fresh zest, a new romance, and possibilities more brilliant than were existent before its adoption.’

Torpedos (sic) and Torpedo Vessels, Lieutenant G.E. Armstrong.

A note on tone

Kipling takes up this note with an enthusiasm that is quite disturbing, for the poem, though intensely imagined and extremely accomplished technically speaking, is surprisingly close to modern video games in its attitudes. Students of naval warfare will relish “The Destroyers” for its accuracy of detail but other readers may find its endorsement of ‘hate’ and its pleasure in destruction unwelcome. It makes an unsettling combination of the innocent and the cruel, most evidently in the phrase ‘the blindfold game of war’, and in the insouciant ‘Good luck to those who see the end/Goodbye to those that drown…’, as though human responsibility has been forsworn. ‘God’ is supposed to endorse this. Troubling too is the identification of the destroyers — is it only the ships, or is it the sailors too? — with the ‘Brides of Death’. Yet a different perspective, one that perhaps creeps in unbidden, is suggested by the brief reference to the sea as disgusted, as in ‘the sickened wave’.

This Editor [A.W.] has to admit that he has never admired the poem: to him, it seems pretentious, and the language over-blown (he would say, extremely over-blown, but as a good staff officer he was taught to eschew comparators). As indicated above, destroyers were racy craft, and to this Editor it would seem more appropriate to have used racier language, which Kipling could do so well.

So far as we know, this piece has not attracted any critical comment.

Naval Background

A destroyer, at this date, was a small warship, lightly built and lightly armed, but fast, designed to protect a battle-fleet or ports and anchorages against attacks by similarly lightly-built vessels armed with torpedoes. In fact, when the poem was written, their formal name was ‘torpedo-boat destroyer’ or T.B.D., which swiftly became abbreviated to ‘destroyer’, a name which remains in use, though a modern destroyer, displacing up to 7,000 tons, is far, far, removed from her predecessors.

Prior to the Crimean War (1854-56), the gun was, to all intents and purposes, the only weapon used at sea. The Crimean War, and ten years later, the American Civil War, saw the introduction of what today are known as ‘mines’; explosive charges moored underwater which are detonated by being struck by a ship (or, today, by magnetic, acoustic, or pressure signals generated by the target ship). Until the late 1870s, these were generally known as ‘torpedoes’. (When Admiral David Farragut, at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, said ‘Full steam ahead, and Damn the torpedoes’, he was referring to ‘mines’.)

In the mid-1860s, a retired officer of the Austro-Hungarian navy, Fregattenkapitan Giovanni de Luppis, devised a motorboat powered by a clockwork engine, to be remotely controlled from the shore by means of ropes, to be used as a fire-ship, as had been done in the days of the Spanish Armada, and at the Basque Roads in 1809, to cite but two examples. De Luppis modified this boat to carry an explosive charge in the bow, to be detonated by a contact percussion pistol.

An Englishman named Robert Whitehead was then an engineer working for the Stabilimento Technico Fiumano in the port of Fiume (now known as Rijeka, in Croatia), and he collaborated with de Luppis to make his explosive motorboat a practical weapon. Their efforts were unsuccessful (though a modern wire-guided missile is, in principle, what they were trying to produce – they were just a century too early). However, Whitehead became obsessed with the idea of devising a “locomotive torpedo” (or self-propelled mine) which would run underwater at a set depth, and on a straight course, carrying its explosive charge to hit an enemy ship where it was most vulnerable, below the new-fangled armour which all battleships now carried over their vitals. In place of clockwork, he used compressed air. He was successful, and built the first torpedo in 1866. News of his experiments came to the ears of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean fleet, Vice-Admiral Lord Clarence Paget, who visited Fiume to see for himself, and although the weapon was by no means perfected wrote a report to the Admiralty in which he said:

Another very formidable engine is in the process of development which bids fair to surpass even the ram – the torpedo The importance of the invention may be assumed from the fact that the Austrian government is said to have awarded £20,000 to Mr. Whitehead, the inventor. The French have sent an official to negotiate and I have advised the British Government to do likewise.

In 1871, after a series of practical trials (the mention by Admiral Paget of the fact that the French were sniffing around provided a powerful incentive), the British Admiralty accepted the recommendation of the committee supervising the trials: “that it was unanimously of the opinion that any maritime nation failing to provide itself with submarine (in its literal meaning of “underwater) launched torpedoes would be neglecting a great source of power both for offence and defence”. (The submarine, in the sense of submersible boat, did not make an appearance in practical form until the mid-late 1890s.)

In consequence, most British battleships and cruisers from 1876 onwards were fitted with submerged or above-water torpedo tubes to fire Mr. Whitehead’s weapon: its first use was in an engagement off the west coast of South America in 1877, when the British cruiser Shah fired one during her engagement with the Peruvian ironclad Huascar (temporarily a ‘pirate’, but South American politics being what they were in those days, it transpired that she was really one of what passed for the ‘good guys’). The torpedo was not successful, because the Huascar could, and did, outrun the torpedo.

However, the torpedo’s development was rapid, and effective, and it was taken up by all the world’s navies to a greater or lesser extent; particularly so in France. In addition to being a weapon of major warships, to rival the gun in effectiveness, if not in range, the torpedo was also carried in small torpedo-boats, displacing around 30 tons, less than 100 feet (30m) long, and having a speed of about 20 knots with reciprocating steam engines. The first British ones were built in 1876-7, the first French in 1884. For the French, the torpedo-boat was seen as a possible means of countering Britain’s superior battle-fleet.

Briefly, during the French war scare of 1859-60, the French had attempted to build a new, armoured, battle-fleet to rival Britain’s, but had soon found that Britain’s superior industrial base meant that Britain would always be able to out-build France in large armoured warships: Britain also had superior financial resources (France had had to pay an indemnity to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which meant there was little left over for expensive big battleships). But torpedo-boats offered a ‘cheap and cheerful’ (and, it was hoped, effective) means of countering Britain’s naval superiority. The Jeune École of French naval officers embraced the new weapon system wholeheartedly, and the threat was taken very seriously in Great Britain.

In addition to building our own torpedo-boats (like the fictional T.B. 267 – see “Their Lawful Occasions”), in 1886, the Royal Navy built a series of classes of what were known as torpedo gunboats, or torpedo-boat catchers. Unfortunately, they were slower than most of the torpedo-boats they were meant to catch (though they were substantially better sea-boats, and would have been effective in most weather other than the slightest of sea-states), So, in the early 1890s, the Admiralty asked British shipbuilders to produce a vessel which could outrun by a substantial margin, the considerable fleet of French torpedo craft, and in 1894, Yarrows completed the first two torpedo-boat-destroyers, H.M. Ships Havock and Hornet, capable of 26 knots. They were armed with both guns and torpedoes, but being much larger (352 tons at full load), could keep the sea much better. By May 1898, when the poem was written, Britain had 26 TBDs (as they were often known) in service. They were the ne plus ultra of small craft at that time. They were low and rakish (their immediate predecessors, the torpedo-gunboats, had a somewhat ‘sit-up-and-beg’ appearance); they were painted black, instead of the black and buff of the battle-fleet, and so looked sinister, and they attracted the younger and more dashing element among British naval officers.

So when Kipling wrote this poem, he was hymning the latest type of warship, which made use of the latest technology to produce what were exceptionally high speeds at that date, and whose construction was pushing shipbuilding techniques to the limit to produce hulls that were at once light, yet strong.
And he had had practical experience of their capabilities and what life on board might be like. The previous year (May 1897) he had been invited to attend the sea-trials of a destroyer (HMS Foam), just completed by Thornycroft’s (one of their new “thirty-knotters”), and he recorded his experience in a letter dated 1 June to his American friend Dr. James Conland (Pinney, Letters, Vol. 2, pp 298-302). His prose was positively enraptured, and his description of the engine-room is a particularly good and effective piece of journalism.

Shortly afterwards, he went to sea in the Pelorus, when he would have learned something of the work of the destroyers from his discussions in the wardroom with her officers. Next year, this poem appeared. In it, Kipling appears to be describing a night action, in which destroyers lie in wait for an enemy convoy, and dash in amongst them, sinking ships with their torpedoes and engaging them with their guns.

Background to the poem

(See also the introduction to “Cruisers”.)
Ten months prior to the publication of this piece, Kipling had spent two weeks as a guest of Captain E.H. Bayly (known, it would seem as “Chawbags” Bayly) on board HMS Pelorus, a small third-class cruiser, and during those periods had, it may be assumed seen the work of destroyers as adjuncts to a main battle-fleet. In fact, when Kipling first made the acquaintance of Captain Bayly, the latter had been going to the Cape to take up command of HMS Mohawk which had been designed as a ‘torpedo cruiser’ – an early attempt to produce a counter to the torpedo-boat catcher, but like them, too slow.

Notes on the Text

(by Alastair Wilson and Mary Hamer)

For publication in The Five Nations Kipling fine-tuned his poem, making the following substitutions: ’rending’ for original ‘signalled’, ‘At gaze’ for ‘half-guessed’, ‘girdled’ for’darkling’, ‘sweeping’ for ‘anxious’,‘upflung’ for ‘wheeling’, ‘barking’ for ‘anxious’, ‘laden’ for ‘fatted’ and ‘scornful’ for ‘lowhung’.

[Stanza 1] The strength of twice three thousand horse / That seek the single goal: This is a direct crib from Kipling’s experience on board HMS Foam, whose two engines developed a maximum of 5,700 horsepower between them.

stripped hulls: As remarked above, the early destroyers were small and low, with very little by way of upper-works (‘the stripped hulls’) and not easy to see in low visibility (‘At gaze and gone again’)

Brides of Death … Choosers of the Slain: mythological female creatures who are sent to remove those who die in battle – in Norse mythology these are the Valkyries, in Hindu mythology the seductive Apsarases. Cf. note on “Cruisers”, Stanza 9

[Stanza 2] stricken capes: headlands lashed by the rain mentioned in the second line of this stanza.

no flare-/No mark on spit or bar: fear of invasion prompts the removal of all lights that might aid the enemy in navigation.

[Stanza 3] the upflung beams that spell: refers to signalling by warships at sea before the days of wireless telegraph. By uncovering and covering a searchlight, long or short flashes were made, spelling out messages in Morse code.

Closer the barking guns that tell / Their scattered flank to close: In the days before wireless, and in low visibility or at long distance, firing a gun once or more was used as a signal to a pre-arranged code to call distant ships (as here) to close on the flagship.

Quiet, and count our laden prey, / the convoy and her guard!:  This is a statement of some interest: as is stated in the note above on Naval Background, the purpose of the destroyer, when first introduced a scant five years before, was to protect fleets, and ports and anchorages, from attack by enemy torpedo-boats. They were not conceived primarily as offensive weapons, though it very quickly became apparent that they could be so used. But their offensive use would have been mostly against an enemy’s warships – with one exception. France. Great Britain had ‘cornered’ the majority of the world’s ocean trade, and there would have been no other convoys to attack, except for those of the French. Memories going back to the 18th century of attacking French convoys were being recalled here.

[Stanza 4] anxious lights … hooded eyne: searchlights, here compared to eyes.

[Stanza 5] your van a league away: your leading vessel far ahead. The convoy is quite extended and the destroyers are in amongst the convoy.

crackling tops ablaze: this is one of the escorts, defending the convoy with its fire. Battleships and cruisers of the period still had fighting tops, circular platforms 20 or 30 feet up the mast, on which were mounted machine-guns, usually Maxims or Nordenfeldts. The ‘crackling’ refers to the crackle of machine-gun fire.

[Stanza 6] the muffled, knocking stroke: said to be an exact description of the dull sound of an underwater explosion.

[Stanza 8] lance them … our gallied whales: a metaphor taken from whaling. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes this line as an exemplar. When a harpooned whale rises to the surface exhausted, i.e. ‘gallied’, it is speared with long lances.

Shut down!: The attack is over, and the destroyers can slow down and disengage.

[Stanza 9] The envoi picks up again on the salient points of the destroyer – the power, the speed, all under the control of one man, and the power of her weapon – out of proportion to her size.

Despite the fact that he considers this an undistinguished piece of versification, this Editor [A.W.] has to say that Kipling was being very percipient. Such an action was unlikely to have been in the minds of naval tacticians of the period – accepted wisdom was that convoy was outmoded and impractical in the steam era (an attitude which came within a whisker of losing Britain the war in 1917).

There were just such confused night actions, destroyer against destroyer, in the area between Dover and Calais in 1917 and 1918. But the narrative of these nine verses could have been applied exactly to an action between Motor Torpedo Boats (both British and German) in the Narrow Seas of the English Channel in 1940-44.


©Mary Hamer and Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved