A Sea Dog

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


First published 1934 in England and the United States in Collected Dog Stories, which contains nine prose stories and five sets of verses. Of these “A Sea Dog” was the only one which had not appeared before. It has since been collected as follows:


  • Macmillan’s Uniform and Pocket editions, Thy Servant a Dog and other Dog Stories (with illustrations by G.L. Stampa), with five prose items and two poems, 1938, 1953, etc. The pagination from this volume is used as the reference in these notes.
  • Sussex Edition Volume XXX, page 357.
  • Burwash Edition Volume XXIII.


The Carrington notes containing extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diaries record that, on 11 March 1932 while they were in the South of France, Kipling was ‘working on Leading Dog Malachi.’ And shortly afterwards, on 16 April 1932 ‘Typescript of ‘A Sea Dog’.’

The tale is a story within a story, a device which Kipling frequently employs. The framework story is told in the ocean around Bermuda, and one of the protagonists is (the fictional) Admiral Heatleigh, who appears in “A Naval Mutiny”. Indeed, and unusually, in the Uniform Edition, there is a footnote to the heading title; “See Limits and Renewals: “A Naval Mutiny”. Mr. Winter Vergil from that story also makes a minor appearance in “A Sea Dog”. Although the story is set in a small boat off Bermuda, it is really a tale of Naval derring-do in the North Sea in about 1916-17.

This Editor would suggest that, in fact, this tale is completely misplaced by being included among the ‘Dog Stories’. As a story, it has more in common with ‘Sea Constables’ than it does with, say, “Toby Dog”, or “Teem”.

The Story

Mr. Gallop is the owner of a Bermuda sloop trading around the West Indies. She has recently been repaired and a committee consisting of the owner, Mr. Randolph the boat-repairer (who also appears briefly in “A Naval Mutiny”), the Admiral, Mr Vergil, and Mr. Randolph’s fox-terrier Lil, has been trying out the old sloop’s sailing qualities. On this occasion, the committee has been augmented by the captain of HMS Bulleana who is a nephew of the Admiral. (We never learn the Commander’s name.)

The picture frame has been constructed (rather as in “Mrs. Bathurst”, where the tale is told in a brake-van in a South African railway siding), and the story proper begins.

The talk has been about animals in a Naval context, and the Commander tells a story of his own terrier, Mike, or Malachi, who served with him when he commanded an elderly destroyer in China in 1914. When the story starts, she has been brought back to England, and was serving in the North Sea on convoy and escort duties.

Malachi was rated as ‘Pup’, but on the ship’s company’s insistence is rated ‘Able Dog’. However, he has made an enemy of a ‘hostilities only’ sailor, who is also a ‘bolshie’ trouble-maker on the lower deck. One day it seems that Able Dog Malachi fouled the sacred quarterdeck, and he was disrated to ‘Pup’.

Shortly afterwards, two of the ex-China station destroyers are out on patrol in the North Sea, in ‘Jutland weather’, hazy and foggy with occasional bursts of sunlight, and they receive information from a friendly submarine (which they have just nearly sunk) that there was “something doing” on the enemy coast. So they make their way over to investigate. The fog gets thicker, and it is Malachi who makes the first positive detection of the enemy with his nose and ears. It is an enemy cruiser, literally on top of them (visibility is nil). One destroyer eases off to get sufficiently far away to fire a torpedo, while the other, Malachi’s master’s ship, ends up alongside the enemy cruiser on the opposite side. The enemy is sunk, but Malachi’s master’s ship is damaged, and amongst the damage are Malachi’s ‘toilet facilities’. But he is a good dog, and merely complains, instead of fouling somewhere else. The crew take this as confirmation that Malachi was probably ‘framed’ for his previous offence: and so it turns out. Malachi was exonerated and promoted to Warrant Dog.

There is another thread which runs through the tale, which is equally as important as the story of the dog Malachi. It concerns the handling of men, many of whom are not accustomed to the sea, nor to discipline (especially as the Navy understands it) in the surroundings of a very small ship, under war-time conditions. The story ends with the Commander insisting that despite their failings, his crew had been “the very salt of God’s earth”. His final line – the cry of Naval Officers in peace time since Pepys’s day – is “Not that it matters much now. We’ve got no Navy.” This Editor wonders what words Kipling would have put into the Commander’s mouth today.

The Setting

The Bermuda setting is irrelevant: the story is really a tale very like ‘Their Lawful Occasions’ in wartime, as opposed to being only an exercise. And we can see different aspects of the tale in the three sections of
Sea Warfare : the discomforts of patrolling in small ships in the North Sea (from “The Fringes of the Fleet”); the problems of distinguishing friend from foe in
submarine warfare (“Tales of the Trade”); and close quarters fighting in a destroyer (“Destroyers at Jutland”). So, as is always the case, Kipling has the ‘feel’ of his characters, and their surroundings, absolutely right.
Andrew Lycettt tells us that Kipling got much of the detail about the ship in the story from a retired Rear-Admiral who had served in a similar ship. It has been interesting to try to determine who that Rear-Admiral might have been, and it has proved possible to make an educated guess.

In reply to my query, Andrew Lycett said that the information came from a letter from Kipling to his surgeon, Sir John Bland-Sutton, which he had found when researching at the Royal College of Surgeons (the letter can also be found in Pinney’s ‘Letters’, Vol. 6). In this letter, dated Mar 31, 1932, at Monte Carlo, Kipling remarks that he had, that day, been to lunch with the Duke of Connaught, and had there met:

… a Rear-Admiral who had been in destroyers all his life. He said any information he could give, was at my service. I have already sent him a typed questionnaire of three pages. He happened to know and to have served in, one of the very type I am trying to describe.

It is also known that the Duke was always very hospitable to the Royal Navy, of which the Mediterranean Fleet regularly made visits to French Riviera ports. (This Editor did the same in 1958/59.) Kipling notes, in the same letter to Bland-Sutton, that the other guests were: ‘all Navy men and women except us’. [He meant officers and their wives – in those piping days of peace, senior officers’ wives would frequently “follow the fleet” – at their own expense – to help with the entertaining.] So we may assume that units of the Mediterranean Fleet were visiting the Riviera.

There were at that time, three Rear-Admirals in the Mediterranean Fleet, and the Navy List for March 1932 shows that the only one who met the criterion of being a destroyer man was Rear-Admiral Frank F. Rose (1878-1955), then flying his flag in HMS Coventry as Rear-Admiral (Destroyers), Mediterranean Fleet. And further trawling through old Navy Lists shows that Admiral Rose had served (1906-7) in HMS Ostrich which was, indeed, one of the 30-knotters as described by Kipling in this tale. (He later commanded other destroyers, but that is irrelevant here.)

So, unless there was some other Rear-Admiral on leave on the Riviera at the time who had, or had scraped, an acquaintance with the Duke resulting in an invitation to lunch, it can be said with reasonable certainty that Kipling’s source of background material for the tale was Rear-Admiral (later Vice-Admiral Sir Frank) Rose.

The Critics

This tale has received very little critical notice, with J M S Tompkins being the only one who has made any significant remarks about the tale. She has three observations to make.

In her chapter on ‘Laughter’ she says:

… one may note that no woman shares the laughter in Kipling’s farces. [But “A Sea Dog” is NOT a farce, though it does have its lighter-hearted moments.] It may be that he thought them incapable of this form of purgation, or that their presence would have introduced self-consciousness into the masculine riot.


… Another feminine limitation is alluded to in “A Sea Dog”. This is the tale of Malachi, the fastidiously clean little dog on the old destroyer, shepherding minesweepers in the North Sea, and of how a ‘Bolshie’ in the crew provided lying circumstantial evidence of a misdemeanour. In the end, Malachi’s master tells his friends the ‘name and rating’ the indignant crew bestowed on the intriguer, and they ‘laughed those gross laughs that women find incomprehensible’.


Bonamy Dobrée also commented on that particular phrase.

Later, in the chapter entitled “Change and Persistence” Tompkins writes:

… One type of character appears all through Kipling’s work. This is the resourceful young officer, military or naval, carrying heavy responsibilities with a cheerful countenance, formidable in jest or earnest.

… There are no facile repetitions in his work. Even the young officers, of whom I have just spoken, function according to their circumstances, and the circumstances differ widely between ‘Judson and the Empire’ and ‘A Sea Dog’. In the latter tale, moreover, it is not the Skipper or even his dog that is the object of Kipling’s curiosity, but rather the mixed crew and ‘Cywil’, the Crystal-Palace-trained RNVR man, with his plans for ‘mowally delousing’ them’.


In the same chapter Tompkins writes:

… The discipline of the last two collections [“Debits and Credits” and “Limits and Renewals”], especially, is very strict; the average length of the tales is shorter, and the material dense and closely-packed. In what have been called the enigmatic tales, as I have tried to show, every stroke is relevant. On the other hand, the natural hold of the born story-teller has been imperilled by – or perhaps consciously bartered for – investigating subtlety and depth of meaning. It does not seem to have been lost. “The Bull that Thought” is full of narrative force, and so are “The Church that was in Antioch” and “A Sea Dog”.


©Alastair Wilson 2009 All rights reserved