The Destroyers

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

First printed in McClure’s Magazine (New York) in May 1898. Collected in The Five Nations (1903), then in the Inclusive Edition of the Verse (1919) and the Definitive Edition. (1940).

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 which 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 learnt 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.

This Editor 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.

Notes to the Text

[Verse 1]

[Line 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. The single goal, it is assumed, is the enemy.

[Line 4] The stripped hulls, slinking through the gloom / At gaze and gone again 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’)

[Line 6] The Brides of Death that wait the groom, the Choosers of the Slain! As remarked above, this Editor finds the language pretentious: but, in so far as war is a grim business, in which people get killed, then these lines indicate that the business of destroyers is war. The battleships and cruisers had, in addition to their duties in war, a political and social policy to fulfil – ‘showing the flag’ (cf Jacques Tissot’s notable painting Ball on Shipboard painted in 1874): you would never have even a Saturday hop held on board a destroyer!

[Verse 2] A description of a seascape in a war setting.

[Line 4] Adown the stricken capes no flare -/ No mark on spit or bar All navigational marks have been removed – this is war: though why the ‘capes’ are ‘stricken’ is not entirely clear.

[Verse 3] We are closing with the enemy

[Line 1] Nearer the up-flung beams that spell the council of our foes we can see the enemy signalling one to another by means of signalling lanterns.

[Line 3] 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.

[Line 7] Quiet, and count our laden prey, / the convoy and her guard! This is a statement of some interest: as was stated in the 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.

[Verse 4] Here Kipling is describing the destroyers lying in wait, in shallow waters inshore, to attack “the convoy and her guard” as they “throw their anxious lights along” – i.e., steam along.

[Line 8] The lit cliffs give no sign most confusing – how are the cliffs lit? – in Verse 2 , we have been told that there is no flare on any of the “stricken cliffs”. One could speculate – in some parts of the ocean, phosphorescence from the sea is sufficient to reflect off cliffs of chalk or some similar material: and the moon, too, can enable one to see chalk or ice cliffs, or cliffs which have reflective quartz in the rock formation.

[Verse 5] The convoy is quite extended (line 4, your van a league away), and the destroyers are in amongst the convoy (The driven death is here).

[Line 8] Her crackling tops ablaze this is one of the escorts. 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.

[Verse 6] One of the destroyers torpedoes has found its mark.

[Line 2] the muffled, knocking stroke an exact description of the dull sound of an underwater explosion. Did Kipling ever see a live torpedo fired?

[Lines 7 & 8] Till streaked with ash and sleeked with oil, / The lukewarm whirlpools close. descriptive of a sinking ship, with the eddies caused by the hull’s slipping below the surface. Though one may ask, why ‘lukewarm’?

[Verse 7] The escort are reacting, but cannot see the low silhouettes of the destroyers, and are firing aimlessly, or at flotsam, or on their own side.

[Verse 8] Taking advantage of the confusion, the destroyers carry out another attack: Now ere their wits they find, / Lay in and lance them to the quick.

[Line 4] Our gallied whales are blind ‘Gallied’ means ‘frightened’; the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word is ‘now only dialect, and in the whale fishery’. The OED also cites this line as an exemplar. ‘Whales’ suggests that the ships convoyed are large and unwieldy

[Line 8] Shut down! The attack is over, and the destroyers can slow down and disengage.

[Verse 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 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.


©Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved