Sea Warfare


(notes by Alastair Wilson)


Sea Warfare first appeared as a single publication in 1916 (Macmillan, London). The page and line numbers in these notes refer to that volume. However, its three component parts had appeared previously, both in Great Britain and the USA – the USA publications being primarily for copyright purposes.

Sea Warfare was a compilation of a series of thirteen newspaper articles. Six were published between November 20 and December 2, 1915 in the Daily Telegraph (“The Fringes of the Fleet”): three more appeared between June 21 and June 28, 1916 in The Times (“Tales of the Trade”): and four between October 19 and October 31, 1916 in the Daily Telegraph (“Destroyers at Jutland”).

“The Fringes of the Fleet” was published in Great Britain as a small paper-covered booklet (Macmillan, December 1915): and some American copies were produced for copyright purposes. “Tales of the Trade” was similarly printed and published in a small edition for copyright purposes in the USA (but not in the UK), as was “Destroyers at Jutland”.


These pieces were written as journalism, in response to a request by the Admiralty, as the British public realised that World War I certainly was not going to be ‘over by Christmas’, and wanted to know what the Navy, the ‘silent service’, on which so much money had been spent in the decade before the war, was doing.

The end of the ‘Great War’ against Napoleonic France had left Great Britain undoubted mistress of the oceans, and the Royal Navy was the largest in the world. This situation remained unchanged until 1914, but the rising power of a unified Germany, not merely economic but in imperial ambitions, had created a perceived threat from the mid-1890s onwards. No nation, except France briefly in the 1860s, had attempted to challenge Britain’s supremacy on the seas, which British eyes saw as being essential for the security of the trade on which the Empire depended and for the physical security of that Empire. But Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, started to build a fleet to support her own growing trade and overseas colonies. There was, almost certainly, a personal element in it, too. The Kaiser was not minded to play second fiddle to his grandmother, uncle, or cousin (Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V).

Anglo-German political relations in the period 1871-1895 had on the whole been good, helped by the family connections between both Royal houses. German colonial expansion in Africa was regarded, by and large, with equanimity: the attitude in Britain was, broadly, ‘well, there’s enough room for all’. And in 1890, an Anglo-German agreement had peacefully exchanged the island of Heligoland (formerly British since its seizure in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars) for rights over Zanzibar (a spice-growing island off the coast of what was about to become German East Africa, later Tanganyika Territory, and now Tanzania). But British industry was feeling the effects of rising German competition, and the Kaiser’s public support in 1896 for the Boer republics in South Africa, in their confrontation with the British government, resulted in some serious “sabre-rattling” – the British Admiralty formed a ‘Particular Service’ squadron prepared to attack German interests wherever it might be necessary. The political crisis dissolved itself, but it had been brought home to Germany that she was powerless to protect either her colonies or her northern coastline. One result was the passing in Germany of a series of Navy Laws which provided for an increasingly powerful navy.

In fact, despite much of the propaganda (on both sides) the German Fleet never matched the British fleet in numbers: but it was of sufficient size to pose a substantial threat: and neither side (except for a prescient few) foresaw the effect that the submarine would have on sea warfare. However, the build–up of the fleets on both sides was one of the major factors which exacerbated the series of political crises which led up to the start of World War I in August 1914.

Readers of these notes may be interested to read how the situation was seen by C.R.L Fletcher, with whom Kipling had collaborated in his A History of England, published in 1911. The book is now decried as history, but it has twenty three of some of Kipling’s best-known poems to encapsulate, or illustrate, the points being made.

This great expansion of the British Empire during the last ninety-six years has not come about without a great deal of jealousy from the other European powers; and this jealousy was never more real or more dangerous than it is today…

The other nations realised that this Empire was founded on trade, that it has to be maintained by a navy, and that it has resulted in good government of the races subject to us. So, though they have envied us and given us ugly names, they have on the whole, paid us the compliment of trying to copy us, to build up their navies, to increase their manufactures, to plant colonies and to govern subject races well. … But all European nations are now keenly interested in trade rivalry; whether this will end peaceably or not, remains to be seen.


However one may now regard the language, it can be stated without much argument that these views coincided with Kipling’s. Indeed, although the text was Fletcher’s, Kipling referred to the book as “my history book” (Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters lV, letter to John Lockwood Kipling, 7-8 January 1911)

In the Royal Navy, the legacy of Trafalgar remained in the forefront of thinking. The purpose of the battle-fleet was to destroy the enemy’s battle-fleet, and to maintain supremacy at sea. In the minds of many, if not the majority, of the British public, it was expected that there would come a Trafalgar-type battle in the North Sea soon after the start of the war, which would settle the matter once and for all.

However, it did not turn out like that: the Germans maintained their ‘Fleet in Being’, remaining, for the most part, within their protected anchorages on the north German coast. They made periodic forays into the North Sea, either to cover other minor operations, such as mine-laying, or in the hope of drawing a portion of the British Grand Fleet into a trap, with the intention of at least badly mauling it, to make the odds more even in a major battle. The British, under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, refused to be drawn, except on their terms, but the southern part of the North Sea became a no-go area for the Grand Fleet: it was shallow, which substantially increased the mining threat, and German submarines (and, from 1915 onwards, Zeppelin airships) were plentiful. The risk from submarines had been demonstrated within days of the start of the war, when the U.9 sank three old British cruisers patrolling between Harwich and the Friesian coast within less than two hours. So, no big battle.

In the meantime, the Navy got on with its other tasks. By Christmas 1914, all Germany’s colonies had been taken (except for German East Africa, where a guerrilla force under General von Lettow-Vorbeck held out to virtually the end of the war, though the British controlled the remainder of the colony), and German overseas trade had been swept from the sea. One of the results of this was that Germany came to rely on goods from overseas which were shipped in neutral ships, via neutral European ports, and the control of shipping became a major task, for which the Navy was ill-prepared, in material terms. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines had been built in quantity, but not ships suitable for inshore patrolling, minesweeping, port and contraband control, and a myriad of other tasks. Thus, soon after the start of the war, the Admiralty took up many trawlers and drifters, with their crews, who formed the RNR(T) (Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler division)), and these formed “the Fringes of the Fleet”, along with smaller and older destroyers which were no longer suitable for fleet duties, and the smaller and older submarines, which had been designed with coastal defence in mind: to these were added a number of seagoing powered yachts, such as Maddingham’s Hilarity, Winchmore’s Ethel and Jarrott’s Cordelia, all fictional craft which appear in “Sea Constables” (collected in Debits and Credits, but originally published in Nash’s Magazine only two months before The Fringes of the Fleet). Fictional those three may have been, but they had their real-life counterparts.

From January 1915 onwards, all naval activity was concentrated in European waters; the North Sea, or the Dardanelles, and, to a lesser extent, the Adriatic (where the Italians and Austrians glowered at each other across the sea, in addition to fighting ‘The War in the Mountains’). In the case of the Dardanelles, after the initial phase, all the action was ashore, and from then onwards, until the German U-boat campaign of late1916-18, the North Sea was the focus of naval activity.

By mid-1915, the public mood wanted to know what was going on at sea. They had expected a big battle, but although there had been two minor skirmishes, a small one in Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914, and a bigger one on the Dogger Bank, on 24 January 1915, in neither case had the main fleets been involved, and the same stalemate remained.

The Writing of the Articles

Kipling was commissioned by the Admiralty to write a series of articles on the activities of the light craft on the east coast, and made two visits to the headquarters of the patrols at Dover, 18-19 September and to the ships and submarines of the Harwich flotillas, 22-25 September (details in a footnote to a letter dated October 9, 1915 (Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters lV, letter to Major-General J.B. Sterling). Pinney suggests that it was at this time that Kipling was the guest of Rear-Admiral G.A. Ballard, who wrote a brief account of this visit in the Kipling Journal no. 79 (October 1946).

But during the early part of the first World War I saw a good deal of him at close quarters. He was writing on various aspects of the war for one of the leading London daily papers under official sanction, and received special facilities from the Admiralty. I was Admiral in command of the East Coast patrol forces at that time and was ordered to receive him as my official guest for a specified period during which he was to be allowed to get an idea of our work without disclosing confidential matter. He arrived on board my flagship accordingly and for more than a week occupied the spare cabin and sat at my table with my personal staff and self. And of course he made the acquaintance of the other officers on board. At first a slight reserve existed on both sides.

For our part, we were somewhat impressed by finding such a celebrity among us; and he, to begin with, rather felt the novelty of his surroundings I think, as he was diffident in manner, and in fact almost deferential towards me. But all that soon wore off, and we were all on a very sociable and easy footing before he departed. In leaving he spoke to me in most appreciative terms about his stay on board with such obvious sincerity that I am convinced he enjoyed it. I know that I did. We had a laugh together over his problem of producing articles to interest the public when all the really interesting points in the work of the patrols were strictly secret. However he possessed in a remarkable degree the gift of making the most of any subject he chose to write about, and I found that reading it was almost more absorbing than the subject itself in this case, though the subject was not without its excitements. He would have liked to mix with the men forward, and I told him he might if he wished, but that I doubted if they would talk with complete freedom to anybody they knew to be a semi-official guest in the Admiral’s quarters. He quite saw that point and decided to remain aft.

If this account is meant to refer to the two visits to Dover and Harwich, then there are inconsistencies between the Admiral’s account and the dates and commentary given in Pinney, which derive from Mrs. Kipling’s diaries, and this compiler would suggest that Kipling made a total of three visits to the Navy, which would correspond to the format of the articles: the visit to Dover produced the pieces headed ‘The Auxiliaries’: the Harwich visit produced the two articles entitled ‘Submarines’, while the last two pieces, headed ‘Patrols’ were the result of his week-long visit to Rear-Admiral Ballard which probably occurred later in the year. (It may be noted that, in ‘The Long Trail’, Meryl Macdonald says (but does not cite a reference) that after his visits to Dover and Harwich “for complete contrast there followed a week with the East Coast patrol when he was the guest of the admiral aboard his flagship and sat at table with his staff.”) In any case, Admiral Ballard had not been based at Dover since October 1914 and was never at Harwich. The opening paragraphs of the last two articles, describing the base from which the ‘patrols’ operated is much more like Immingham, which was where Rear-Admiral Ballard had his headquarters, than Dover or Harwich. As further evidence that the two visits detailed in Carrie’s diaries are not the same as those that described by the Admiral, in the Dover account, he is given an Able Seaman as his guide and mentor: but Ballard specifically says that Kipling had no contact with the Lower Deck:

These visits, then, resulted in the series of six articles which were written during the period immediately following the report that his son was missing. If they seem uninspired or pedestrian, this is scarcely something to wonder at. When they appeared some eight weeks later they were also published in the U.S.A., France, Australia, Greece, Italy, Russia and French Switzerland (Pinney). By the end of the year, they had been reprinted as a small paper-covered booklet (The Fringes of the Fleet)

A week after the last article of this first series appeared, Kipling wrote to Vice-Admiral Sir E.J. Slade at the Admiralty, turning down a suggestion that he should write a further series of articles on the Grand Fleet, and the Cruiser Patrol (Pinney p. 350). In his letter he expresses himself strongly on the fact that in his view the blockade of Germany was being compromised by “arrangements and understandings and Orders in Council which entirely nullify its intention”. (See what Kipling had written at notes on pp 89 and 90 below.)

The second series of articles, which appeared in The Times some six months later, shortly after the battle of Jutland, had been written about three months earlier. Pinney (p. 363) has a letter, dated 24 April 1916, from Kipling to Captain Sir Douglas Brownrigg, who, as Chief Censor, was responsible for publicity about the Navy (Pinney gives his rank as Admiral, but he was a Captain on the Retired List at this time: he was promoted in 1919 to Retired Rear-Admiral – there was a subtle distinction between a Retired Rear-Admiral and a Rear-Admiral on the Retired List: the former had never been a Rear-Admiral on the Active List, whereas the latter had, even if only for one day – in either case, he would be addressed formally as Rear-Admiral So-and-so, or informally as Admiral So-and-so.)

With the letter, Kipling encloses the drafts of the three articles, and makes an emphatic point over the copyright. The articles were not based on any recent contacts with the Royal Navy, but were worked up from Reports of Proceedings which were supplied by the Admiralty. However, Kipling was able to draw on his earlier experiences at Harwich in writing these three pieces. These were later published in the USA in a small edition for copyright purposes, and then appeared in the UK as the middle section of Sea Warfare.

The third series of articles appeared in the latter half of October 1916. In a letter to Andrew Macphail dated Sept. 11th, 1916, Kipling remarks that he has: ‘just finished some stuff (I hope the censor will pass it) about the work of our destroyers at Jutland, on [he means ‘based on’] reports of the same destroyers. In a footnote to that letter, Pinney (p. 401), explains that: ‘It was written at the request of Sir Douglas Brownrigg, Chief Naval Censor (see his Indiscretions of the Naval Censor, 1920, pp.58-9). RK began work some time after 19 August, when Brownrigg brought to Bateman’s the ‘report of Jutland Battle for Rud to work over’. (CK diary).’ Brownrigg’s own words describe how this came about:

As soon as the dispatch was out of the way [the Jutland dispatch – the official report of the battle] I tried to get permission to have the battle described by one of the outstanding writers of the day, and I succeeded so far as to be authorised to ask Mr. Rudyard Kipling if he would undertake a series of articles on the destroyer attacks during the battle. As a matter of fact, I had already, on my own initiative, approached him and obtained his consent.

I then collected all the reports, which filled a large dispatch box, and proceeded to invade Mr. Kipling in his country house. As soon as I had shown him what I had brought him, he was enthusiastic about the job, and having explained to him what points we wanted left alone, he accepted the task, notwithstanding the numbing and withering censorship that had to be imposed on him. Let me add that in those priceless articles which he produced for us not one word was ever deleted by me or anybody else.

The Battle of Jutland (known in Germany as the ‘Battle of Skagerrak’) took place in the afternoon of 31st May 1916 and the night following. It was not the second Trafalgar that the Royal Navy and the British public had been hoping for: and the result was best summarised by an American reporter who said ‘The German fleet has assaulted its gaoler, and remains in gaol’. For the British, it was a tale of heavy losses, due to material deficiencies in the battle-cruisers, and of a missed opportunity in the night, due to lack of imagination on the part of one or two captains. The German fleet took a battering, but their losses were smaller, in ships and men, and they returned to their base the next day, scarcely the action of a victorious fleet.

The encounter between the main fleets had been preceded by an engagement between the battle-cruisers of both sides, in which the British suffered the loss of three ships, but the German High Seas Fleet was drawn into the arms of the approaching British Grand Fleet. The gunnery duel which ensued was short and intermittent, due to poor visibility. Twice the German fleet turned away, and so did the British under threat of torpedo attack; the result was that the main fleets lost contact as night fell. The British headed south intending to cut the Germans off from their bases, but the Germans managed to slip behind the British, and escape homewards down the western coast of Denmark. The fleets passed within gun range of each other in the night, but the fact wasn’t reported to Jellicoe.

There were, however, many destroyer engagements during the night; a night of confusion with neither side being sure of who was where. And it is the reports from those destroyers which Captain Brownrigg brought to Kipling for him to work up into articles.

The outcome of the battle has been described above, but the first British communiqué was a public relations disaster, giving the impression that the British Fleet had suffered a defeat – it concentrated on the British losses, without knowing what damage had been inflicted on the Germans (how much better if they had borne in mind Kipling’s verse on “Boxing” from the Almanac of Twelve Sports, published in 1898:

Read here the moral roundly writ
For him who into battle goes –
Each soul that, hitting hard or hit,
endureth gross or ghostly foes.
Prince, blown by many overthrows
Half blind with shame, half choked with dirt,
Man cannot tell, but Allah knows
How much the other side was hurt.

The fact was that the Grand Fleet, having returned, and fuelled and ammunitioned was ready for battle again on 4th June: the German fleet made no further sortie until August. And only one dreadnought in the Grand Fleet received hits: the capital ship losses were all in the Battle Cruiser Force. Two examples may be quoted. Beatty had six battle cruisers under his direct command, and three more were with the Grand Fleet: of these nine, three were lost, but on the following day, all six were battle-worthy. The Germans started the engagement with five battle cruisers: one was sunk, but three were so badly damaged that they were lucky to reach port, and only one was battle-worthy on 3rd June. These facts were concealed from the German public. And a post-war analysis of hits obtained by the respective battle-fleets came out in favour of the Grand Fleet in the proportion of 3 to 2.

Kipling had received first-hand information about the battle eight days after it occurred. In a letter dated 10 June 1916 (Pinney p. 375) he wrote:

We’ve just had a man down here fresh from the Jutland action – a destroyer commander. He was very well satisfied with what had been dealt out to the Hun and had a gay time between a couple of Dachshund cruisers at 200 yds, both of them tried to ram him.

A footnote says: ’This was Lt.-Commander Lyon (Bateman’s Visitors Book, 9 June 1916), who was probably Admiral (as he later became) Sir George Hamilton D’Oyly Lyon (1883-1947) who was at the Battle of Jutland.’ In fact, the Navy List shows that it was not he, but another Lieutenant Commander Lyon, Herbert Inglis Nigel: the former had, indeed, been at Jutland, but as the Gunnery Officer of the super-dreadnought Monarch; the latter, though, was the Commanding Officer of the destroyer Nonsuch, of the 12th Destroyer Flotilla, one of the screening units for the Grand Fleet, and therefore matches Kipling’s description in the letter. Kipling wrote more expansively in a private letter twelve days later (see below, at the start of the notes on the third part of Sea Warfare p. 149.)

Comments by biographers and critics

Charles Carrington, after describing the circumstances of John Kipling’s death says:

… his closest contacts with fighting men were made in ships of the Royal Navy. He visited the Grand fleet in Scottish waters and went more than once to Dover and Harwich. The ship’s company of HMS Maidstone, the depot ship for submarines, were his special friends and for them he wrote several songs and epigrams. [footnote: At the request of some naval friends Kipling designed crests and badges for several ships and naval units.] One day at Harwich he went down in a submarine, and hated it since he was inclined to claustrophobia. His naval songs and ballads are perhaps the most firmly realised of his studies of active service, especially the sharply etched seascapes in the poem ‘Minesweepers’ with its charming word-pattern of the ships’ names: Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock and Golden Gain.

makes scant reference to Sea Warfare, merely saying:

… he had come closest to the war visiting ships of the Dover Patrol and the Harwich Flotilla, and verses inspired by these naval occasions were his most vivid wartime achievement, particularly “Minesweepers” with its haunting refrain : ‘Send up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock and Golden Gain.’

J M S Tompkins wrote, in general terms, but with a specific reference to Sea Warfare:

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 in earnest. He met these young men in India and South Africa, at Portsmouth and Simonstown, in peace and war. The Infant, back from the Burmese War; Judson, that ‘ship’s husband’, with his banjo, quelling a revolution; Stalky, besieged in a Border fort, Moorshead, tyrannically elaborating his gaudy jests on sea or land; the officers of the destroyer in ‘A Sea Dog’ – these are the same young men, functioning according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. They are brothers of the young veterans of ‘The Trade’, of whom he wrote with strong emotion in Sea Warfare. He called them children, and they cannot have liked it, if they read him. But this spontaneous, unchastened emphasis of admiration and protest at the intimacy of youth with the business of death was not new in 1916. It can be found in the Boer War journalism in “With Number Three” and earlier in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”.

Andrew Lycett describes these weeks thus:

No sooner had he finished [articles written after visiting the French army] than he was off on another jaunt, visiting Royal Navy establishments on the Channel at Dover and off the east coast at Harwich. The idea was that the Navy was too much of a silent service and would benefit from some newspaper publicity. Harwich was the headquarters of HMS Maidstone, the base for submarines patrolling the North Sea. Rudyard struck up a good rapport with the men who sailed these ‘tin fish’, contributing some of the poems which accompanied his subsequent articles to their in-house journal, the Maidstone Magazine.

Gilmour dismisses Sea Warfare in one paragraph:

The articles on the Royal Navy are not among his best journalism. Written at the request of the Admiralty and the Ministry of Information, they were compiled almost entirely from confidential reports [the assessment may be considered fair, but the comment is not – over 40% of the text of Sea Warfare resulted from his visits to Dover, Harwich, and Immingham, and from talking to those intimately involved: Ed.] Those essential ingredients of Kipling’s newspaper work, the vividness of sights and smells, were on this occasion limited to the East Coast Patrol at Harwich [in fact, Dover and Immingham: Ed]. He wrote a series of articles about Jutland, but he had not been within 500 miles of the battle.

This last is strictly true, but the reader of this Guide is invited to read, alongside Kipling’s words, the actual words of those who were personally involved in the individual actions he describes (see the notes on “The Fighting at Jutland”), and judge whether Kipling’s non-presence resulted in any misrepresentation.


©Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved