The Scholars

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the Daily Telegraph 29 January 1919, and collected in Songs of the Sea (1927), and in the Inclusive and Definitive Editions.


It concerns those young naval officers, of Sub-Lieutenant’s or junior Lieutenant’s rank, who were sent up to Cambridge University for two terms in the years 1919-22.

In 1903, a change was made to the training and education of young naval officers (the Fisher-Selborne scheme). Under the new scheme, boys were entered as Naval Cadets at the age of 12½ – 13½ by competitive examination: the first two years were spent at Osborne, at a college built around the stable block of Osborne House, in the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria’s favourite residence; the last two years were spent at the new College, designed by Sir George Aston-Webb, at Dartmouth. Under normal circumstances, the young men went to sea as Midshipmen, at the age of 16-16½.

Their education was much as they would have received at an English public school at that time, except that the classics were not taught, but navigation, rudimentary engineering, and seamanship were; while the history syllabus was firmly rooted in British naval history. Cadets were under naval discipline and wore naval uniform. The staff was a mixture of schoolmasters and naval officers.

As the European crisis came to its peak, at the end of July 1914, a previously planned practice mobilisation took place, instead of the annual manoeuvres. On completion, on 1st August 1914, three days before Britain declared war, the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, ordered that the fleet remain mobilised, instead of dispersing to its home ports to give leave.

Shortly afterwards, as a part of the bringing forward of the Reserve Fleets, the three senior terms of Dartmouth cadets were sent to sea, without completing their education or training, and during the war, the period of training at Dartmouth was cut from the usual six terms to three. These, then, were the young officers who were sent to Cambridge when the war ended. Among them were Lord Louis Mountbatten, later Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, and Captain Jacky Broome, the blameless commander of the close escort of convoy PQ17, which was badly mauled by German forces on the way to Russia in 1942. He had made good use of his time at Cambridge, becoming the Art Editor of the University paper Granta.

Kipling would have been aware of the pattern of naval training which they had foregone, both from the enquiries he had made before the war when he had hoped that his son John would enter the Navy (poor eyesight prevented this), and from his talks with young officers when he was gathering material for the series of articles later published as Sea Warfare (1916).

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1, line 1] Oh, Show me how a rose can shut and be a bud again!: This is a slight misquotation from John Keats’ (1795-1821) The Eve of St. Agnes. The last line of stanza XXVII reads “As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again”.

It is of interest that Kipling used the phrase, in a similar context, at a slightly earlier date, although he probably had the verse in draft, if not virtually completed, at the time. It appears in a letter to Sir J.R. Dunlop Smith, dated 21 December 1918 (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4, Ed. Pinney, Macmillan Press, Ltd. 1999). He is writing, in the style of an Indian babu, an application letter for a young Irish Guards officer, who had given up a place at Balliol College, Oxford, to enlist in 1914. The final phrase, in the P.S. is: “… as though Rose should shut up and resume antenuptial formation of being Bleeding Bud.”

[Verse 1, line 3] men that were careless lads at Dartmouth in `Fourteen: As indicated above, these were the young officers whose education was curtailed. Not all lived to benefit by the stay at Cambridge: several died on 1st November 1914 at the battle of Coronel in the cruiser Good Hope.

[Verse 1, line 5] all the seas from the Falklands to the Bight: The first battle of the Falkland Islands took place on 8th December 1914. At the outbreak of WW 1, the German East Asiatic Squadron had half a world between itself and the fatherland. Its commander, Vize-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee determined to try to make his way back to Europe, doing as much damage to British interests as he could, knowing that his chances of reaching home were slight (apart from anything else, his chances of being able to find coaling stations open to him were remote). He decided to make his way home via Cape Horn and the South Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the British were searching the oceans for his squadron. Off Coronel, on the west coast of Chile, Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, with an inferior squadron, met von Spee, and was defeated, losing his life in the process. The Germans continued as planned, but Lord Fisher, newly recalled to the Admiralty, sent two battle cruisers out to the Falklands, to intercept von Spee’s squadron. The plan was successful, though in timing it was a very close run thing – the Germans arrived off the Falklands less than 24 hours after Vice Admiral Sturdee had arrived with Invincible and Inflexible. The resulting chase resulted in a British victory, von Spee and two of his sons, who were serving in the squadron, losing their lives.

“The Bight” is a reference to the Heligoland Bight, in the southern North Sea. This area, particularly in the first six months of the war, was much fought over, mainly by light forces – destroyers and submarines. Being relatively shallow, it was very susceptible to mining, and the Grand Fleet did not venture that far south.

[Verse 1, line 6] to learn to read and write!: not to be taken too literally, but it is to be hoped that their tutors at Cambridge would have encouraged them to read widely, and to learn how to absorb knowledge from books; and how to construct an essay rationally, and logically.

[Verse 2, line 2] the hornèd mine: a contact mine, of the type used throughout WW 1 (and WW 2), was a buoyant spherical casing containing about 500lbs (227kilos) of high explosive, moored to the sea-bed by a sinker and a wire. Around the mine were a number of ‘horns’, so positioned that, however the mine lay in the water, a ship striking it would be bound to knock against one of the horns. In British mines, and some German mines, knocking against the horn actuated a switch, which completed an electrical circuit from a battery, and initiated the mine’s detonator. Most German mines had horns made of glass, filled with an acid. The breaking of the glass released the acid, which made, with two electrodes, a battery, and once again the mine was detonated.

[Verse 2, line 2] the hump-backed death below: a reference to the lurking submarine.

[Verse 2, line 4] Moonlight SacrificeI It has been suggested by one of the Editor’s former naval colleagues, Lieut. Commander Charles Addis, RN, that this is an echo of Psalm 141 Verse 2: ‘Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice; i.e. they negotiated the new-sown minefields ‘on a wing and a prayer’.

[Verse 2, line 6] formed their class on Helles’ beach at the bows of the “River Clyde: This is a reference to the landings at Cape Helles at the start of the land phase of the unsuccessful Dardanelles campaign on 25th April 1915. The “River Clyde” was a converted collier, turned into a landing craft.
“Formed their class” should not be taken literally, but many young officers performed their traditional duties of taking charge of boats, and three gained VCs on that day: Sub Lieutenant Arthur Tisdall RNVR (who gained his Cross ashore – he was in the Royal Naval Division, and had trained with Rupert Brooke), Midshipman Wilfred Malleson, RN, and Midshipman George Drewry, RNR.

[Verse 3, line 2] wet sea-boots: Sea-boots in those days (and in the Royal Navy, until the 1950s) were leather, knee-high boots – to be kicked off instantly if you fell overboard. On a wet wooden deck, they were slippery. Quite why the Navy didn’t go to Mr. Dunlop’s standard garden-type ‘Welly’ earlier I don’t know: probably the leather boots lasted longer.

[Verse 3, line 3] guarded the six-knot convoy’s flank on the road to Norroway: (Norway). Despite the fact that convoy had been successfully used in the Great War against France (1793-1815) (with convoys sometimes of 1000 sail), the experts deemed that it was impracticable in the days of steam, and in consequence, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that we came extremely close to losing the war. In April 1917, the penny dropped, and convoy was instituted. However, it had had limited use before 1917, in escorting the coal trade from South Wales to France, and across the North Sea from the Firth of Forth to the Skaggerak. It was on this duty that HMS Mary Rose and Strongbow were caught and sunk by one of the few excursions made by the German fleet after the battle of Jutland.

[Verse 3, line 5] from Galway to Kinsale: Galway lies in the middle of the west coast of Ireland: Kinsale is on the south coast of Ireland, about a quarter of the way from west to east. Patrols were kept up, particularly after the Easter rising of 1916, to prevent German gun-running in support of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), which was especially strong in the south and west.

[Verse 3, line 6] scored where the life-lines cut or the dripping funnel-stays: In rough weather, in small ships, destroyers, and sloops, rope lifelines are rigged along the upper deck, and anyone going from for’ard to aft or vice-versa, would take great care to hang on, to avoid being swept overboard or being flung against some hard projection. In small ships like these, there was no through passageway below decks, the engine rooms and boiler rooms occupied all the space, so taking dinner from the galley (for’ard) to the after mess-deck was a chancy business – your dinner was quite likely to finish up in the sea, or with a strong admixture of salt water. The funnel guys (cf, “The Ship that Found Herself”, from The Day’s Work) formed another possible handhold as one lurched step-by-step for’ard or aft. The funnel stays were made of wire, and more likely to open a cut on your hand as you grabbed hold for dear life.

[Verse 3, line 7] between the Skaw and the Naze: The Skaw is another name for the Skaggerak, the entrance to the Baltic Sea, between northern Denmark, and southern Norway: the Naze is on the east coast of England, just south of Harwich. In other words, all across the southern North Sea.

[Verse 3, line 8] magic words they learned at the collier’s hatch: As soon as you entered harbour, regardless of how tired you might be, you coaled ship, so that you could be ready to go to sea again instantly. Every person onboard participated, except the Captain, the Commander, or in smaller ships, First Lieutenant (Second-in-Command) – who was organising the whole affair – and the Master at Arms (the senior rating). It was hard physical labour, with the coal being shovelled into two-hundredweight sacks (100 Kilos), to be hoisted by derricks inboard. No doubt many choice words were learned at the collier’s hatch.

[Verse 3, line 10] measured the weight of a Pentland tide and the wind off Ronaldshay: The base of the Grand Fleet was in Scapa Flow, a land-locked area of water in the middle of the Orkney Islands. The channel between Scapa and the Scottish mainland is the Pentland Firth, notorious for its strong tidal streams, which can set at up to ten knots, and which, given unfavourable weather conditions, can produce really horrible seas for inshore waters. Ronaldshay (more correctly, South Ronaldsay) is the southeasternmost major island of the Orkney group.

[Verse 3, line 11] Till the target mastered the breathless tug and the hawser carried away: While waiting for the German High Seas Fleet to ‘come out’, divisions of battleships would go to sea, in turn, to do ‘battle-practice firings’ at a target towed – at a very respectful distance – by a tug. The target was a form of sled with a lattice superstructure, which could easily be repaired if a direct hit was obtained. In bad weather, they were absolute pigs to tow, so, if the tug was, say, producing insufficient steam (poor coal, perhaps), the target might easily ‘take charge’ and cause the towing hawser (wire rope) to carry away (break)

[Verse 4, line 2] a picket-boat to the gangway brought bows-on and full-ahead: As stated above, midshipmen handled a ship’s boats – it was a magnificent way of learning seamanship, ship-handling, and how to handle men. A picket-boat was a steam-boat, about 55 feet long: each battleship and cruiser carried one or two. In war-time, they could mount a 3-pdr. gun, and were used for all sorts of duties in defended anchorages. On a dark, blustery night, with no light showing, it would not be difficult to misjudge things when coming alongside, though it must be said that something would have had to be seriously wrong to approach the ship at 90º. Nonetheless, midshipmen do make mistakes (experientia docet – but that is another story).

[Verse 4, lines 4 and 5]

– as when the cutters were sent
To harvest the dreadful mile of beach
after the Vanguard went.

On 9th July 1917, HMS Vanguard was destroyed by an internal explosion while at anchor in Scapa Flow, with the loss of 804 out of a crew of 806. The boats of the fleet, the “cutters” in the lines quoted, had to crawl around the fringes of Scapa Flow, recovering the bodies for weeks after the explosion.

The official cause (and indeed the most likely cause) was the mishandling of cordite in one of the magazines. But more recently there has been not unreasonable evidence that it may have been sabotage: the loss of HMS Bulwark in 1914 in very similar circumstances had a similar pattern beforehand which has caused doubts as to the correctness of the official Board of Inquiry report.

[Verse 4, line 8]  the bridle upon their lips  See 2 Kings 19.28 (= Isaiah 37.29); [D.H.]

” I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips”.

[Verse 4, line 9] they went down to the sea in ships  See Psalm 107.23:  [D.H.]

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters”.

[Verse 5, line 10] Since the chests were slung down the College stair: A midshipman lived out of his sea-chest, bought (probably) from Mr. Gieve, Naval Outfitter (now Gieves & Hawkes, of Savile Row in the West End of London and a naval institution until very recently). The compiler of these notes has had an account with them for over 50 years: only now can he say that he doesn’t owe his tailor anything!)

The sea chest was a stoutly-built wooden chest, iron-bound, about 3 feet 6 inches wide, by 2 feet deep, by 3 feet high. The lower portion was subdivided into three: the largest portion for clothes: a lesser portion for books and instruments, and the third, and smallest, for the ‘tuck’ which your doting mama sent you to sea with – which lasted, if you were lucky, for 24 hours, since your mess, the Gunroom, worked on the same communistic principles as did No. 5 Study (see Stalky and Co.). Above this section was a removable tray containing a washbasin, soap dish, etc., and a “lockable till” for your valuables. In the lid was a mirror, a candleholder, and clips to hold your telescope, your dirk (the short sword worn on ceremonial occasions by Midshipmen) and your parallel ruler (for chart-work). When loaded, it weighed a good two-hundredweight if not more!

[Verse 6, line 2] though the cams they use: a play on words – mechanical cams and the River Cam, on which Cambridge stands.

[Verse 6, line 2] and they bump, for choice, by steam: a reference to the bumping races on the River Cam. The river is so narrow that rowing races cannot take place with the boats abreast one another, and so a series of ‘bumping races’ are held, in which crews start in a procession, with the aim of bumping – gently – the next boat ahead. In the next race, the ‘bumper’ moves up one place ahead of the ‘bumpee’. At the end of the series, the front crew is the ‘Head of the River’. The reference to steam, again, should not be taken literally!

[Verse 6, line 3] Newnham maid: Newnham College, one of the Women’s Colleges of Cambridge University, was founded in 1871.

[Verse 6, line 4] fifty-month blockade: World War 1 lasted for 51 months, to be strictly accurate, from the beginning of August 1914 (the exact day depending on your nationality) until the armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. In Britain, many War Memorials carry the dates 1914-19, since the campaigns against the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1919 are considered a continuation of the war against the Central Powers, and because the official end of the war only came with the Treaty of Versailles, signed 28th June 1919.

[Verse 6, line 5] Proctor: a senior member of the University, charged with enforcing the regulations of the University among undergraduates: such as being properly dressed in public (i.e., wearing a gown), being inside their college after the proper time, etc.. The proctor, assisted by his ‘bulldogs’ (fit young men), would patrol the university town at appropriate hours. Transgressions traditionally resulted in a fine of half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence) (12½ pence in today’s dissipated currency!)

[Verse 7, line 1] Hallowed River, most gracious Trees, Chapel beyond compare: The references are to the River Cam, the trees on the Backs, and the Chapel of King’s College.


©Alastair Wilson 2005 All rights reserved