The first and last verses of this poem form the chapter heading to Part II of “Their Lawful Occasions” in Traffics and Discoveries (1904). The second verse was added when it was collected in Songs from Books (2012).
“The Eggshell” is a torpedo-boat – specifically, as her adventures are so similar, No. 267 in the accompanying story. She was not very strongly-built, hence the title. (Her steel plates are likened to ‘tea-trays”: Traffics and Discoveries p. 110, line 24). For a discussion of what her original would have been, see Alastair Wilson’s notes to ”Their Lawful Occasions.”
Notes on the text
[Verse 1] the Witch of the North: the figure of Authority, possibly Britannia. Otherwise ‘The Right Honourable Lord Gawd Almighty Admiral Frankie Frobisher’, who gave No. 267 her orders (Traffics and Discoveries p. 107 line 20):
‘conduct your own damned manoeuvres in your own damned tinker fashion! You’re a disgrace to the Service and your boat’s offal’
a little Blue Devil: The Royal Navy wear blue uniforms. On active service, Lieutenant Moorshed dressed more casually, but it is clear that this figure is the captain of the Egg-shell.
“Sink,” she said, “or swim,” she said: compare No. 267’s orders above.
[Verse 2] feeling by hand for a fleet: in thick fog, long before the days of radar. see Traffics and Discoveries p. 140 line 10: “Feel well out in front of you, Alf”. And line 24: ‘I passed one hand down Laughton’s stretched arm and felt an iron gooseneck and a foot or two of a backward-sloping torpedo-net boom.’ Also, p. 141 li: ‘I’ve got a torpedo lined up and am about to fire it.’
See Alastair Wilson’s notes on “Steam Tactics” (Traffics and Discoveries p. 177 line 22) for more details on the phrase “till the sights come on.”
the Whitehead: the first self-propelled torpedo was invented in 1866 by the English engineer Robert Whitehead (1823-1905).
[Verse 3] “There’s somebody sinking outside”: the ‘little Blue Devil’ thinks he sank a ship with his torpedo. In “Their Lawful Occasions” No. 267 “sinks” (in manoeuvres) the two cruisers Cryptic and Devolution, in strict conformity with his orders.
© Philip Holberton 2012 All rights reserved