Harwich Ladies

(notes by Alastair Wilson)


Kipling wrote a series of articles about the Royal Navy, for the Daily Telegraph in November/December 1915, later published as The Fringes of the Fleet. Each was headed by a poem.

Pinney (Cambridge 1913) records an earler publication of this poem in The Maidstone Magazine for October 1915, under the title ‘An Old Song Re-sung’

The poem

The third article is the first of two about submarines, and was the result of his days spent at Harwich. Its piece of untitled verse, which when collected in the Definitive Edition appeared among ‘Chapter Headings’, under the title ‘1914-18’, concerns submarines. The form of the verse is that of the old seafarers’ ballad, dating back to the seventeenth centuiry, “ Spanish ladies”.

Farewell and adieu, to you Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we’re under orders  to sail to old England,
And ne’er may see you fair ladies again.


Notes on the Text

Verse 1

[Line 1 Farewell and adieu to you, Greenwich ladies In the Definitive Edition of Kipling’s verse this line appears as “Farewell and adieu to you, Harwich ladies”, as Kipling originally wrote, or intended to write, but was persuaded to make the change for what seemed at the time to be sufficient security reasons. There was no connection between submarines and Greenwich (other than that most of the submarines’ officers would have done their sub lieutenants’ courses at the Royal Naval College several years earlier), but there was every connection with Harwich. It may be noted that, in the first two articles, which describe Dover, no identification as to place is given, nor is the place apparent in the final two articles.

[Line 4] we hope in short time to strafe ‘em some more ‘strafe’, meaning ‘to punish, to do damage to, to attack fiercely’ was a commonplace slang word at the time, taken from the German, via the troops in Flanders.

Verse 2

[Line 1] We’ll duck and we’ll dive like little tin turtles this makes it clear that it is submarines to which the poet is referring.

[Line 3] Until we strike something that doesn’t expect us a reference to the unexpected torpedoing of an enemy warship. (In the North Sea there was virtually no enemy merchant shipping to be attacked.)

[Line 4] Cuxhaven, at the mouth of the Elbe river, and Wilhelmshaven, on the bay of the Jade, were the main German naval bases and anchorages on the North Sea coast.

Verse 3

[Line 1] dock in a minefield if there were running repairs to be done while at sea, say to the electric motors, the easiest way was to sink gently to the bottom and sit there peacefully for an hour or two, while the artificers got on with mending the broken bit. But not, for preference, inside a minefield: it might discourage any potential hunters, but getting out afterwards would be distinctly risky – though you have already incurred substantial risk (undoubtedly inadvertently) by getting in there in the first place.

[Line 3] twelve-fathom water one fathom is six feet (1.83m), so this means 72 feet – or with some 50 feet of water above the top of the conning tower: deep enough not to be hit by any surface ship.

[Line 4] tri-nitro-toluol hogging our run tri-nitro-toluol (or toluene) is TNT, a powerful explosive.
John McGivering has pointed out that Kipling used the phrase “hogging her run” in Captains Courageous (p. 29, line 18), and explains that (in that context), it means brushing down the windows of a railway carriage. Here, we agree, it means that a mine is brushing down the side of the submarine as she lies ‘doggo’ on the seabed (the OED gives a meaning of “to hog” as “to clean a ship’s bottom by scrubbing”, and the implication is that the horns of a mine are like the bristles of a brush.”

That said, Kipling is being a bit too clever again. While the submarine is lying doggo on the seabed (“in twelve fathom water”) the mines will be well above her, by some twenty feet or so. (A mine is moored to the seabed, and its mooring wire is adjusted so that it lies eight to twenty feet below the surface of the water, so that it will be hit by anything from a destroyer to a battleship) – but with the submarine’s conning tower being some 30 feet above the sea bed, and the mine tethered so that it is somewhere between 52 and 64 feet from the sea bed, they’re not going to meet. And Kipling makes the common journalist’s mistake of implying that the mine is moving (‘HMS Audacious was hit by a mine’ – impossible: ‘HMS Audacious hit a mine’ – yes indeed, she did. The end result was the same – HMS Audacious sank: but the circumstances were different.

The expression is not one likely to have been used in the submarine service – it is an old-fashioned usage that went out with the passing of the ‘stick-and-string’ navy. And Kipling also used the expression “hogs his bristles short” in v. 12 of “In Partibus”, where the meaning of ‘hog’ seems to come from the USA (OED meaning given: “to allow hogs to forage and feed on (a crop or field), in order to remove superfluous vegetation”
Verse 4

[Line 3] but what in the – Heavens can you do with six-pounders submarines from the D class onwards were armed with a 12-pounder gun, or two. But they were meant for use against surface ships, and could not elevate sufficiently to fire at a Zeppelin overhead, or nearly overhead. Although the reference books do not say so, it is possible that some of the smaller submarines were fitted with six-pounders on an ad hoc basis, which would indeed have been useless against Zeppelins.


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