Part 6 out of 7
shooting they were digging. The officers had only to keep reminding
them not to expose themselves in the breaches. For in the thick of it,
and the thicker the more so, they must try to keep some dirt between
all of their bodies except the head and arm which had to be up in
order to fire.
At 1.30 p.m. a cheer rose from that trench. It was in greeting of a
platoon of the King's Royal Rifles which had come as a reinforcement.
Oh, but this band of Tommies did look good to the P.P.s! And the
little prize package that the very reliable Mr. Atkins had with him
--the machine-gun! You can always count on Mr. Atkins to remain
"among those present" to the last on such occasions.
Now Niven got word by messenger to go to the nearest point where
the telephone was working and tell the brigade commander the
complete details of the situation. The brigade commander asked him
if he could stick, and he said, "Yes, sir!" which is what Colonel
"Fanny" Farquhar would have said. This trip was hardly what would
be called peaceful. The orderly whom Niven had with him both going
and coming was hit by high explosive shells. Niven is so small that it
is difficult to hit him. He is about up to Major Gault's shoulder.
He had been worrying about his supply of rifle-cartridges. There were
not enough to take care of another German infantry charge, which
was surely coming. After repelling two charges, think of failing to repel
the third for want of ammunition! Think of Corporal Christy, the bear-
hunter, with the Germans thick in front of him and no bullets for his
rifle! But appeared again Mr. Thomas Atkins, another platoon of him,
with twenty boxes of cartridges, which was rather a risky burden to
bring through shell-fire. The relief as these were distributed was that
of having something at your throat which threatens to strangle you
Making another tour of his trenches a little later in the afternoon,
Niven found that there was a gap of fifty yards between his left and
the right of the adjoining regiment. Fifty yards is the inch on the end of
a man's nose in trench-warfare on such an occasion. He was able to
place eight men in the gap. At least, they could keep a look out and
tell him what was going on.
It was not cheering news to learn that the regiments on his left had
withdrawn to trenches about three hundred yards to the rear--a long
distance in trench warfare. But the P.P.s had no time to retire. They
could have gone only in the panic of men who think of nothing in their
demoralization except to flee from the danger in front, regardless of
more danger to the rear. They were held where they were under what
cover they had by the renewed blasts of shells, putting the machine-
guns out of action.
Now the Germans were coming on again in their supreme effort. It
was as a nightmare, in which only the objective of effort is recalled
and all else is a vague struggle of every ounce of strength which one
can exert against smothering odds. No use to ask these men what
they thought. What do you think when you are climbing up a rope
whose strands are breaking over the edge of a precipice? You climb;
that is all.
The P.P.s shot at Germans. After a night without sleep, after a day
among their dead and wounded, after torrents of shell-fire, after
breathing smoke, dust and gas, these veterans were in a state of
exaltation entirely oblivious of danger, of their surroundings, mindless
of what came next, automatically shooting to kill as they were trained
to do, even as a man pulls with all his might in the crucial test of a tug
of war. Old Corporal Christy, bear-hunter of the North-West, who
could "shoot the eye off an ant," as Niven said, leaned out over the
parapet, or what was left of it, because he could take better aim lying
down and the Germans were so thick that he could not afford any
Corporal Dover had to give up firing his machine-gun at last.
Wounded, he had dug it out of the earth after an explosion and set it
up again. The explosion which destroyed the gun finally crushed his
leg and arm. He crawled out of the debris toward the support trench
which had become the fire trench, only to be killed by a bullet.
The Germans got possession of a section of the P.P.s' trench where,
it is believed, no Canadians were left. But the German effort died
there. It could get no farther. This was as near to Ypres as the
Germans were to go in this direction. When the day's work was done,
there, in sight of the field scattered with German dead, the P.P.s
counted their numbers. Of the six hundred and thirty-five men who
had begun the fight at daybreak, one hundred and fifty men and four
officers, Niven, Pappineau, Clark and Vandenberg, remained fit for
Vandenberg is a Hollander, but mostly he is Vandenberg. To him the
call of youth is the call to arms. He knows the roads of Europe and
the roads of Chihuahua. He was at home fighting with Villa at
Zacetecas and at home fighting with the P.P.s in front of Ypres.
Darkness found all the survivors among the P.P.s in the support and
communication trenches. The fire trench had become an untenable
dust-heap. They crept out only to bring in any wounded unable to
help themselves; and wounded and rescuers were more than once
hit in the process. It was too dangerous to attempt to bury the dead
who were in the fire-trench. Most of them had already been buried by
shells. For them and for the dead in the support trenches interred by
their living comrades, Niven recited such portions as he could recall
of the Church of England service for the dead--recited them with a
tight throat. Then the P.P.s, unbeaten, marched out, leaving the
position to their relief, a battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps.
Corporal Christy, the bear-hunter, had his "luck with him." He had not
even a scratch.
Such is the story of a hard fight by one battalion in the kind of warfare
waged in Europe these days, a story only partially told; a story to
make a book. All the praise that the P.P.s, millionaire or labourer,
scapegrace or respectable pillar of society, ask is that they are worthy
of fighting side by side with Mr. Thomas Atkins, regular. At best, one
poor, little, finite mind only observes through a rift in the black smoke
and yellow smoke of high explosives and the clouds of dust and
military secrecy something of what has happened many times in a
small section of that long line from Switzerland to the North Sea.
Leaning against the wall in a corner of the dining-room of the French
chateau were the P.P.s colours. Major Niven took off the wrapper in
order that I might see the flag with the initials of the battalion which
Princess Patricia embroidered with her own hands. There is room,
one repeats, for a little sentiment and a little emotion, too, between
Halifax and Vancouver.
"Of course we could not take our colours into action," said Niven.
"They would have been torn into tatters or buried in a shell-crater. But
we've always kept them up at battalion headquarters. I believe we are
the only battalion that has. We promised the Princess that we would."
In her honour, an old custom has been renewed in France: knights
are fighting in the name of a fair lady.
A single incident, an impression photographic in its swiftness, a
chance remark, may be more illuminating than a day's experiences.
One does not need to go to the front for them. Sometimes they come
to the gateway of our chateau. They are pages at random out of a
library of overwhelming information.
One of the aviation grounds is not far away. Look skyward at almost
any hour of the day and you will see a plane, its propeller a roar or a
hum according to its altitude. Sometimes it is circling in practice;
again, it is off to the front. At break of day the planes appear; in the
gloaming they return to roost.
If an aviator has leave for two or three days in summer he starts in
the late afternoon, flashing over that streak of Channel in half an
hour, and may be at home for dinner without getting any dust on his
clothes or having to bother with military red tape at steamer
gangways or customs houses.
The airmen are a type which one associates with certain marked
characteristics. No nervous man is wanted, and it is time for an
aviator to take a rest at the first sign of nerves. They seem rather shy,
men given to observation rather than to talking; accustomed to using
their eyes and hands. It is difficult to realize that some quiet, young
fellow who is pointed out has had so many hairbreadth escapes.
What tales, worthy of Arabian Nights' heroes who are borne away-on
magic carpets, they bring home, relating them as matter-of-factly as if
they had broken a shoelace.
Up in their seat, a whir of the motor, and they are off on another
adventure. They have all the spirit of corps of the oldest regiments,
and, besides, a spirit peculiar to the newest branch in the service of
war. Anonymity is absolute. Everything is done by the corps for the
corps. Possibly because it is so young, because it started with
chosen men, the British Aviation Corps is unsurpassed; but partly it is
because of the British temperament, with that combination of
coolness and innate love of risk which the British manner sometimes
belies. Something of the old spirit of knighthood characterizes air
service. It is individual work; its numbers are relatively few.
Some mornings ago I saw several young soldiers with notebooks
going about our village street. They were from the cadet school
where privates, from the trenches, take a course and return with
chocolate drops on their, sleeve-bands as commissioned officers.
This was a course in billeting. For ours is not an army in tents, but
one living in French houses and barns. The pupils were learning how
to carry out this delicate task; for delicate it is. A stranger speaking
another language becomes the guest of the host for whom he is
fighting. Mr. Atkins receives only shelter; he supplies his own meals.
His excess of marmalade one sees yellowing the cheeks of the
children in the family where he is at home. Madame objects only to
his efforts to cook in her kitchen; woman-like, she would rather handle
the pots and pans herself.
Tommy is thoroughly instructed in his duty as guest and under a
discipline that is merciless so far as conduct toward the population
goes; so the two get on better than French and English military
authorities feared that they might. Time has taught them to
understand each other and to see that difference in race does not
mean absence of human qualities in common, though differently
expressed. Many armies I have seen, but never one better behaved
than the British army in France and Flanders in its respect for
property and the rights of the population.
And while the fledgling officers are going on with their billeting, we
hear the t-r-r-t of a machine-gun at a machine-gun school about a
mile distant, where picked men also from the trenches receive
instruction in the use of an arm new to them. There are other schools
within sound of the guns teaching the art of war to an expanding army
in the midst of war, with the teachers bringing their experience from
"Their shops and their houses all have fronts of glass," wrote a Sikh
soldier home, "and even the poor are rich in this bountiful land."
Sikhs and Ghurkas and Rajputs and Pathans and Gharwalis, the
brown-skinned tribesmen in India, have been on a strange Odyssey,
bringing picturesqueness to the khaki tone of modern war.
Aeroplanes interested them less than a trotting dog in a wheel for
drawing water. They would watch that for hours.
Still fresh in mind is a scene when the air seemed a moist sponge
and all above the earth was dripping and all under foot a mire. I was
homesick for the flash on the windows of the New York skyscrapers
or the gleam on the Hudson of that bright sunlight in a drier air, that is
the secret of the American's nervous energy. It seemed to me that it
was enough to have to exist in Northern France at that season of the
year, let alone fighting Germans.
Out of the drizzly, misty rain along a muddy road and turning past us
came the Indian cavalry, which, like the British cavalry, had fought on
foot in the trenches, while their horses led the leisurely life of true
equine gentry. Erect in their saddles, their martial spirit defiant of
weather, their black eyes flashing as they looked toward the
reviewing officers, troop after troop of these sons of the East passed
by, everyone seeming as fit for review as if he had cleaned his
uniform and equipment in his home barracks instead of in French
You asked who had trained them; who had fashioned the brown clay
into resolute and loyal obedience which stood the test of a Flanders
winter? What was the force which could win them to cross the seas to
fight for England? Among the brown faces topped with turbans
appeared occasional white faces. These were the men; these the
The marvel was not that the Indians were able to fight as well as they
did in that climate, but that they fought at all. What welcome summer
brought from their gleaming black eyes! July or August could not be
too hot for them. On a plateau one afternoon I saw them in a
gymkhana. It was a treat for the King of the Belgians, who has had
few holidays, indeed, this last year, and for the French peasants who
came from the neighbourhood. Yelling, wild as they were in tribal days
before the British brought order and peace to India, the horsemen
galloped across the open space, picking up handkerchiefs from the
ground and impaling tent pegs on their lances. The French peasants
clapped their hands and the British Indian officers said, "Good!" when
the performer succeeded, or, "Too bad!" when he failed.
If you asked the officers for the secret of the Indian Empire they said:
"We try to be fair to the natives!" which means that they are just and
even-tempered. An enormous, loose-jointed machine the British
Empire, which seems sometimes to creak a bit, yet holds together for
that very reason. Imperial weight may have interfered with British
adaptability to the kind of warfare which was the one kind that the
Germans had to train for; but certainly some Englishmen must know
how to rule.
That church bell across the street from our chateau begins its clangor
at dawn, summoning the French women and children and the old
men to the fields in harvest time. But its peal carrying across the
farmlands is softened by distance and sweet to the tired workers in
the evening. In the morning it tells them that the day is long and they
have much to do before dark. After that thought I never complained
because it robbed me of my sleep. I felt ashamed not to be up and
doing myself, and worked with a better spirit.
"Will they do it?"
We asked this question as often in our mess in those August days
as, Will the Russians lose Warsaw? Would the peasants be able to
get in their crops, with all the able-bodied men away? I had inside
information from the village mayor and the blacksmith and the baker
that they would. A financial expert, the baker. Of course, he said,
France would go on fighting till the Germans were beaten, just as the
old men and the women and children said, whether the church bell
were clanging the matins or the angelus. But there was the question
of finances. It took money to fight. The Americans, he knew, had
more money than they knew what to do with--as Europeans
universally think, only, personally, I find that I was overlooked in the
distribution--and if they would lend the Allies some of their spare
billions, Germany was surely beaten.
A busy man, the blacksmith, and brawny, if he had no spreading
chestnut tree; busy not only shoeing farmhorses, but repairing
American reapers and binders, whose owners profited exceedingly
and saved the day. But not all farmers felt that they could afford the
These kept at their small patches with sickles. Gradually the carpets
of gold waving in the breeze became bundles lying on the stubble,
and great, conical harvest stacks rose, while children gathered the
stray stems left on the ground by the reapers till they had immense
bouquets of wheat-heads under their arms, enough to make two or
three loaves of the pain de menage that the baker sold. So the
peasants did it; they won; and this was some compensation for the
loss of Warsaw.
One morning we heard troops marching past, which was not unusual.
But these were French troops in the British zone, en route from
somewhere in France to somewhere else in France. There was not a
person left in any house in that village. Everybody was out, with
affection glowing in their eyes. For these were their own--their soldiers
When you see a certain big limousine flying a small British flag pass
you know that it belongs to the Commander-in-Chief; and though it
may be occupied only by one of his aides, often you will have a
glimpse of a man with a square chin and a drooping white
moustache, who is the sole one among the hundreds of thousands at
the British front who wears the wreath-circled crossed batons of a
It is erroneous to think that Sir John French or any other commander,
though that is the case in time of action, spends all his time in the
private house occupied as headquarters, designated by two wisps of
flags, studying a map and sending and receiving messages, when
the trench-line remains stationary. He goes here and there on
inspections. It is the only way that a modern leader may let his
officers and men know that he is a being of flesh and blood and not a
name signed to reports and orders. A machine-gun company I knew
had a surprise when resting in a field waiting for orders. They
suddenly recognized in a figure coming through an opening in a
hedge the supreme head of the British army in France. No need of a
call to attention. The effect was like an electric shock, which sent
every man to his place and made his backbone a steel rod. Those
crossed batons represented a dizzy altitude to that battery which had
just come out from England. Sir John walked up and down, looking
over men and guns after their nine months' drill at home, and said,
"Very good!" and was away to other inspections where he might not
necessarily say, "Very good!"
Frequently his inspections are formal. A battalion or a brigade is
drawn up in a field, or they march past. Then he usually makes a
short speech. On one occasion the officers had arranged a platform
for the speech-making. Sir John gave it a glance and that was
enough. It was the last of such platforms erected for him.
"Inspections! They are second nature to us!" said a new army man.
"We were inspected and inspected at home and we are inspected
and inspected out here. If there is anything wrong with us it is the
general's own fault if it isn't found out. When a general is not
inspecting, some man from the medical corps is disinfecting."
Battalions of the new army are frequently billeted for two or three
days in our village. The barn up the road I know is capable of housing
twenty men and one officer, for this is chalked on .the door. Before
they turn in for the night the men frequently sing, and the sound of
their voices is pleasant.
A typical inspection was one that I saw in the main street. The
battalion was drawn up in full marching equipment on the road. Of
those officers with packs on their backs one was only nineteen. This
is the limit of youth to acquire a chocolate drop on the sleeve. The
sergeant-major was an old regular, the knowing back-bone of the
battalion, who had taken the men of clay and taught them their letters
and then how to spell and to add and subtract and divide. One of
those impressive red caps arrived in a car, and the general who wore
it went slowly up and down the line, front and rear, examining rifles
and equipment, while the young officers and the old sergeant were
hoping that Jones or Smith hadn't got some dust in his rifle-barrel at
the last moment.
Brokers and carpenters, bankers and mechanics, clerks and
labourers, the new army is like the army of France, composed of all
classes. One evening I had a chat with two young fellows in a
battalion quartered in the village, who were seated beside the road.
Both came from Buckinghamshire. One was a schoolmaster and the
other an architect. They were "bunkies," pals, chums.
"When did you enlist?" I asked.
"In early September, after the Marne retreat. We thought that it was
our duty, then; but we've been a long time arriving."
"How do you like it?"
"We are not yet masters of the language, we find," said the
schoolmaster, "though I had a pretty good book knowledge of it."
"I'm learning the gestures fast, though," said the architect.
"The French are glad to see us," said the schoolmaster. "They call us
the Keetcheenaires. I fancy they thought we were a long time coming.
But now we are here, I think they will find that we can keep up our
They had the fresh complexions which come from healthy, outdoor
work. There was something engaging in their boyishness and their
views. For they had a wider range of interests than that professional
soldier, Mr. Atkins, these citizens who had taken up arms. They knew
what trench-fighting meant by work in practice trenches at home.
"Of course it will not be quite the same; theory and practice never
are," said the schoolmaster.
"We ought to be well grounded in the principles," said the architect
thoughtfully, "and they say that in a week or two of actual experience
you will have mastered the details that could not be taught in
England. Then, too, having shells burst around you will be strange at
first. But I think our battalion will give a good account of itself, sir.
All the Bucks men have!" There crept in the pride of regiment, of
locality, which is so characteristically Anglo-Saxon.
They change life at the front, these new army men. If a carpenter, a
lawyer, a sign-painter, an accountant, is wanted, you have only to
speak to a new army battalion commander and one is forthcoming--a
millionaire, too, for that matter, who gets his shilling a day for serving
his country. Their intelligence permitted the architect and the
schoolmaster to have no illusions about the character of the war they
had to face. The pity was that such a fine force as the new army,
which had not become trench stale, could not have a free space in
which to make a great turning movement, instead of having to go
against that solid battle front from Switzerland to the North Sea.
We have heard enough--quite enough for most of us?--about the
German Crown Prince. But there is also a prince with the British army
in France. No lieutenant looks younger for his years than this one in
the Grenadier Guards, and he seems of the same type as the others
when you see him marching with his regiment or off for a walk
smoking a brier-wood pipe. There are some officers who would rather
not accompany him on his walks, for he can go fast and far. He
makes regular reports of his observations, and he has opportunities
for learning which other subalterns lack, for he may have both the
staff and the army as personal instructors. Otherwise, his life is that of
any other subaltern; for there is an instrument called the British
Constitution which regulates many things. A little shy, very desirous to
learn, is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne of Great
Britain and Ireland and the Empire of India. He might be called the
This was one of the shells that hit--one of the hundred that hit. The
time was summer; the place, the La Bassee region. Probably the
fighting was all the harder here because it is so largely blind. When
you cannot see what an enemy is doing you keep on pumping shells
into the area which he occupies; you take no risks with him.
The visitor may see about as much of what is going on in the La
Bassee region as an ant can see of the surrounding landscape when
promenading in the grass. The only variation in the flatness of the
land is the overworked ditches which try to drain it. Look upward, and
rows of poplar trees along the level, and a hedge, a grove, a cottage,
or trees and shrubs around it, limit your vision. Thus, if a breeze starts
timidly in a field it is stopped before it goes far. That "hot corner" is
all the hotter for a burning July sun. The army water-carts which run
back to wells of cool water are busy filling empty canteens, while
shrapnel trims the hedges.
A stretcher was being borne into the doorway of an estaminet which
had escaped destruction by shells, and above the door was chalked
some lettering which indicated that it was a first clearing station for the
wounded. Lying on other stretchers on the floor were some wounded
men. Of the two nearest, one had a bandage around his head and
one a bandage around his arm. They had been stunned, which was
only natural when you have been as close as they had to a shell-
burst--a shell that made a hit. The concussion was bound to have this
A third man was the best illustration of shell-destructiveness. Bullets
make only holes. Shells make gouges, fractures, pulp. He, too, had a
bandaged head and had been hit in several places; but the worst
wound was in the leg, where an artery had been cut. He was weak,
with a sort of where-am-I look in his eyes. If the fragment which had
hit his leg had hit his head, or his neck, or his abdomen, he would
have been killed instantly. He was also an illustration of how hard it is
to kill a man even with several shell-fragments, unless some of them
strike in the right place. For he was going to live; the surgeon had
whispered the fact in his ear, that one important fact. He had beaten
the German shell, after all.
Returning by the same road by which we came a motor-car ran swiftly
by, the only kind of car allowed on that road. We had a glimpse of the
big, painted red cross on an ambulance side, and at the rear, where
the curtains were rolled up for ventilation, of four pairs of soldier boot-
soles at the end of four stretchers, which had been slid into place at
the estaminet by the sturdy, kindly, experienced medical corps men.
Before we reached the village where our car waited, the ambulance
passed us on the way back to the estaminet. Very soon after the
shell-burst, a telephone bell had rung down the line from the extreme
front calling for an ambulance and stating the number of men hit, so
that everybody would know what to prepare for. At the village, which
was outside the immediate danger zone, was another clearing
station. Here the stretchers were taken into a house--taken without a
jolt by men who were specialists in handling stretchers--for any re-
dressing if necessary, before another ambulance started journey,
with motor-trucks and staff motor-cars giving right of way, to a
spotless, white hospital ship which would take them home to England
the next night.
It had been an incident of life at the front, and of the organization of
war, causing less flurry than an ambulance call to an accident in a
Finding The Grand Fleet
Good fortune slipped a message across the Channel to the British
front, which became the magic carpet of transition from the life of the
burrowing army in its trenches to the life of battleships; from motors
trailing dust over French roads, to destroyers trailing foam in choppy
seas off English coasts.
But there was more than one place to go in that wonderful week;
more than ships to see if one would know something of the intricate,
busy world of the Admiralty's work, which makes coastguards a part
of its personnel. The transition is less sudden if we begin with a ride in
an open car along the coast of Scotland. Dusk had fallen on the
purple cloudlands of heather dotted with the white spots of grazing
sheep in the Scottish Highlands under changing skies, with
headlands stretching out into the misty reaches of the North Sea,
forbidding in the chill air after the warmth of France and suggestive of
the uninviting theatre where, in approaching winter, patrols and
trawlers and mine-sweepers carried on their work to within range of
the guns of Heligoland. A people who lived in such a chill land, in
sight of such a chill sea, and who spoke of their "Bonnie Scotland
forever," were worthy to be masters of that sea. The Americans who
think of Britain as a small island forget the distance from Land's End
to John o' Groat's, which represents coast line to be guarded; and we
may find a lesson, too, we who must make our real defence by sea,
in tireless vigils which may be our own if the old Armageddon beast
ever comes threatening the far-longer coast line that we have to
defend. For you may never know what war is till war comes. Not even
the Germans knew, though they had practised with a lifelike dummy
behind the curtains for forty years.
At intervals, just as in the military zone in France, sentries stopped us
and took the number of our car; but this time sentries who were
guarding a navy's rather than an army's secrets. With darkness we
passed the light of an occasional inn, while cottage lights made a
scattered sprinkling among the dim masses of the hills. A man might
have been puzzled as to where all the kilted Highland soldiers whom
he had seen at the front came from, if he had not known that the
canny Highlanders enlist Lowlanders in kilty regiments.
The Frenchmen of our party--M. Stephen Pichon, former Foreign
Minister, M. Rene Bazin, of the Academie Francaise, M. Joseph
Reinach, of the Figaro, M. Pierre Mille, of Le Temps, and M. Henri
Ponsot--who had never been in Scotland before, were on the look out
for a civilian Scots in kilts and were grievously disappointed not to find
a single one.
This night ride convinced me that however many Germans might be
moving about in England under the guise of cockney or of Lancashire
dialects in quest of information, none has any chance in Scotland. He
could never get the burr, I am sure, unless born in Scotland; and if he
were, once he had it the triumph ought to make him a Scotsman at
The officer of the Royal Navy who was in the car with me confessed
to less faith in his symbol of authority than in the generations' bred
burr of our chauffeur to carry conviction of our genuineness; so
arguments were left to him and successfully, including two or three
with Scotch cattle, which seemed to be co-operating with the sentries
to block the road.
After an hour's run inland, as the car rose over a ridge and
descended on a sharp grade, in the distance under the moonlight we
saw the floor of the sea again, melting into opaqueness, with curving
fringes of foam along the irregular shore cut by the indentations of the
firths. Now the sentries were more frequent and more particular. Our
single light gave dim form to the figures of sailors, soldiers, and boy
scouts on patrol.
"They have done remarkably well, these boys!" said the officer. "Our
fears that, boy like, they would see all kinds of things which didn't
exist were quite needless. The work has taught them a sense of
responsibility which will remain with them after the war, when their
experience will be a precious memory. They realize that it isn't play,
but a serious business, and act accordingly."
With all the houses and the countryside dark, the rays of our lamp
seemed an invading comet to the men who held up lanterns with red
twinkles of warning.
"The patrol boats have complained about your lights, sir!" said one
We looked out into the black wall in the direction of the sea and could
see no sign of a patrol boat. How had it been able to inform this lone
sentry of that flying ray which disclosed the line of a coastal road to
anyone at sea? He would not accept the best argumentative burr that
our chauffeur could produce as sufficient explanation or guarantee.
Most Scottish of Scots in physiognomy and shrewd matter-of-
factness, as revealed in the glare of the lantern, he might have been
on watch in the Highland fastnesses in Prince Charlie's time.
"Captain R------, of the Royal Navy!" explained the officer, introducing
"I'll take your name and address!" said the sentry.
"The Admiralty. I take the responsibility."
"As I'll report, sir!" said the sentry, not so convinced but he burred
something further into the chauffeur's ear.
This seems to have little to do with the navy, but it has much, indeed,
as a part of unfathomable, complicated business of guards within
guards, intelligence battling with intelligence, deceiving raiders by
land or sea, of those responsible for the safety of England and the
mastery of the seas.
It is from the navy yard that the ships go forth to battle and to the
navy yard they must return for supplies and for the grooming beat of
hammers in the dry dock. Those who work at a navy yard keep the
navy's house; welcome home all the family, from Dreadnoughts to
trawlers, give them cheer and shelter and bind up their wounds.
The quarter-deck of action for Admiral Lowry, commanding the great
base on the Forth, which was begun before the war and hastened to
completion since, was a substantial brick building. Adjoining his office,
where he worked with engineers' blue prints as well as with sea
charts, he had fitted up a small bedroom where he slept, to be at
hand if an emergency arose.
Partly we walked, as he showed us over his domain of steam-
shovels, machine shops, cement factories, of building and repairs, of
coaling and docking, and partly we rode on a car that ran over
temporary rails laid for trucks loaded with rocks and dirt. Borrowing
from Peter to pay Paul, a river bottom had been filled in back of the
quays with material that had been excavated to form a vast basin with
cement walls, where squadrons of Dreadnoughts might rest and
await their turn to be warped into the great dry docks which open off it
in chasmlike galleries.
"The largest contract in all England," said the contractor. "And here is
the man who checks up my work," he added, nodding to the lean,
Scottish naval engineer who was with us. It was clear from his looks
that only material of the best quality and work that was true would be
acceptable to this canny mentor of efficiency, "And the workers?
Have you had any strikes here?"
"No. We have employed double the usual number of men from the
start of the war," he said. "I'm afraid that the Welsh coal troubles have
been accepted as characteristic. Our men have been reasonable and
patriotic. They have shown the right spirit. If they hadn't, how could
we have accomplished that?"
We were looking down into the depths of a dry dock blasted out of the
rock, which had been begun and completed within the year. And we
had heard nothing of all this through those twelve months! No writer,
no photographer, chronicled this silent labour! Double lines of guards
surrounded the place day and night. Only tried patriots might enter
this world of a busy army in smudged workmen's clothes, bending to
their tasks with that ordered discipline of industrialism which wears no
uniforms, marches without beat of drums, and toils that the ships
shall want nothing to ensure victory.
On A Destroyer
Now we were on our way to the great thing--to our look behind the
curtain at the hidden hosts of sea-power. Of some eight hundred tons
burden our steed, doing eighteen knots, which was a dog-trot for one
of her speed.
"A destroyer is like a motor-car," said the commander. "If you rush
her all the time she wears out. We give her the limit only when
On the bridge the zest of travel on a dolphin of steel held the bridle on
eagerness to reach the journey's end. We all like to see things well
done, and here one had his first taste of how well things are done in
the British navy, which did not have to make ready for war after the
war began. With an open eye one went, and the experience of other
navies as a balance for his observation; but one lost one's heart to
the British navy and might as well confess it now. A six months' cruise
with our own battleship fleet was a proper introduction to the
After the arduous monotony of the trenches and after the traffic of
London, it was freedom and sport and ecstasy to be there, with the
rush of salt air on the face! Our commander was under thirty years of
age; and that destroyer responded to his will like a stringed
instrument. He seemed a part of her, her nerves welded to his.
"Specialized in torpedo work," he said, in answer to a question. "That
is the way of the British navy: to learn one thing well before you go on
with another. If in the course of it you learn how to command, larger
responsibilities await you. If not--there's retired pay."
Behind a shield which sheltered them from the spray on the forward
deck, significantly free of everything but that four-inch gun, its crew
was stationed. The commander had only to lean over and speak
through a tube and give a range, and the music began. For the tube
was bifurcated at the end to an ear-mask over a youngster's head; a
youngster who had real sailor's smiling blue eyes, like the
commander's own. For hours he would sit waiting in the hope that
game would be sighted. No fisherman could be more patient or more
"Before he came into the navy he was a chauffeur. He likes this," said
"In case of a submarine you do not want to lose any time; is that it?"
"Yes," he replied. "You never can tell when we might have a chance
to put a shot into Fritz's periscope or ram him--Fritz is our name for
Were all the commanders of destroyers up to his mark? How many
more had the British navy caught young and trained to such
quickness of decision and in the art of imparting it to his men?
Three hundred revolutions! The destroyer changed speed. Five
hundred! She changed speed again. Out of the mist in the distance
flashed a white ribbon knot that seemed to be tied to a destroyer's
bow and behind it another destroyer, and still others, lean, catlike, but
running as if legless, with greased bodies sliding over the sea. We
snapped out a message to them and they answered like passing
birds on the wing, before they swept out of sight behind a headland
with uncanny ease of speed. Literal swarms of destroyers England
had running to and fro in the North Sea, keen for the chase and too
quick at dodging and too fast to be in any danger of the under-water
dagger thrust of the assassins whom they sought. There cannot be
too many. They are the eyes of the navy; they gather information and
carry a sting in their torpedo tubes.
It was chilly there on the bridge, with the prospect too entrancing not
to remain even if one froze. But here stepped in naval preparedness
with thick, short coats of llama wool.
"Served out to all the men last winter, when we were in the thick of it
patrolling," the commander explained. "You'll not get cold in that!"
"And yourself?" was suggested to the commander.
"Oh, it is not cold enough for that in September! We're hardened to it.
You come from the land and feel the change of air; we are at sea all
the time," he replied, He was without a great-coat; and the ease with
which he held his footing made landlubbers feel their awkwardness.
A jumpy, uncertain tidal sea was running. Yet our destroyer slipped
over the waves, cut through them, played with them, and let them
seem to play with her, all the while laughing at them in the confident
power of her softly purring vitals.
"Look out!" which at the front in France was a signal to jump for a
"funk pit." We ducked, as a cloud of spray passed above the heavy
canvas and clattered like hail against the smokestack. "There won't
be any more!" said the commander. He was right. He knew that
passage. One wondered if he did not know every gallon of water in
the North Sea, which he had experienced in all its moods.
Sheltered by the smokestack down on the main deck, one of our
party, who loved not the sea for its own sake, but endured it as a
passageway to the sight of the Grand Fleet, had found warmth, if not
comfort. Not for him that invitation to come below given by the chief
engineer, who rose out of a round hole with a pleasant "How d'y' do!"
air to get a sniff of the fresh breeze, wizard of the mysterious power of
the turbines which sent the destroyer marching so noiselessly. He
was the one who transferred the commander's orders into that
symphony in mechanism. Turn a lever and you had a dozen more
knots; not with a leap or a jerk, but like a cat's sleek stretching of
muscles. Not by the slightest tremor did you realize the acceleration;
only by watching some stationary object as you flew past.
Now a sweep of smooth water at the entrance to a harbour, and a
turn--and there it was: the sea-power of England!
Ships That Have Fought
But was that really it--that spread of greyish blue-green dots set on a
huge greyish blue-green platter? One could not discern where ships
began and water and sky which held them suspended left off.
Invisible fleet it had been called. At first glance it seemed to be
composed of phantoms, baffling, absorbing the tone of its
background. Admiralty secrecy must be the result of a naval dislike of
Still as if they were rooted, these leviathans! How could such a shy,
peaceful-looking array send out broadsides of twelve and thirteen-five
and fifteen-inch shells? What a paradise for a German submarine!
Each ship seemed an inviting target. Only there were many gates
and doors to the paradise, closed to all things that travel on and
under the water without a proper identification. Submarines that had
tried to pick one of the locks were like the fish who found going good
into the trap. A submarine had about the same chance of reaching
that anchorage as a German in the uniform of the Death's Head
Hussars, with a bomb under his arm, of reaching the vaults of the
Bank of England.
And was this all of the greatest naval force ever gathered under a
single command, these two or three lines of ships? But as the
destroyer drew nearer the question changed. How many more? Was
there no end to greyish blue-green monsters, in order as precise as
the trees of a California orchard, that appeared out of the greyish
blue-green background? First to claim attention was the Queen
Elizabeth, with her eight fifteen-inch guns on a platform which could
travel at nearly the speed of the average railroad train.
The contrast of sea and land warfare appealed the more vividly to
one fresh from the front in France. What infinite labour for an army to
get one big gun into position! How heralded the snail-like travels of
the big German howitzer! Here was ship after ship, whose guns
seemed innumerable. One found it hard to realize the resisting power
of their armour, painted to look as liquid as the sea, and the stability
of their construction, which was able to bear the strain of firing the
great shells that travelled ten miles to their target.
Sea-power, indeed! And world-power, too, there in the hollow of a
nation's hand, to throw in whatever direction she pleased. If an
American had a lump in his throat at the thought of what it meant,
what might it not mean to an Englishman? Probably the Englishman
would say, "I think that the fleet is all right, don't you?"
Land-power, too! On the continent vast armies wrestled for some
square miles of earth. France has, say, three million soldiers;
Germany, five; Austria, four--and England had, perhaps, a hundred
thousand men, perhaps more, on board this fleet which defended the
English land and lands far overseas without firing a shot. A battalion
of infantry is more than sufficient in numbers to man a Dreadnought.
How precious, then, the skill of that crew! Man-power is as
concentrated as gun-power with a navy. Ride three hundred miles in
a motor-car along an army front, with glimpses of units of soldiers,
and you have seen little of a modern army. Here, moving down the
lanes that separated these grey fighters, one could compass the
Four gold letters, spelling the word Lion, awakened the imagination to
the actual fact of the Bluecher turning her bottom skyward before she
sank off the Dogger Bank under the fire of the guns of the Lion and
the Tiger astern of her, and the Princess Royal and the New Zealand,
of the latest fashion in battle-cruiser squadrons which are known as
the "cat" squadron. This work brought them into their own; proved
how the British, who built the first Dreadnought, have kept a little
ahead of their rivals in construction. With almost the gun-power of
Dreadnoughts, better than three to two against the best battleships,
with the speed of cruisers and capable of overpowering cruisers, or of
pursuing any battleship, or getting out of range, they can run or strike,
as they please.
Ascend that gangway, so amazingly clean, as were the decks above
and below and everything about the Lion or the Tiger, and you were
on board one of the few major ships which had been under heavy
fire. Her officers and men knew what modern naval war was like; her
guns knew the difference between the wall of cloth of a towed target
and an enemy's wall of armour.
In the battle of Tsushima Straits, Russian and Japanese ships had
fought at three and four thousand yards and closed into much shorter
range. Since then, we had had the new method of marksmanship.
Tsushima ceased to be a criterion. The Dogger Bank multiplied the
range by five. A hundred years since England, all the while the most
powerfully armed nation at sea, had been in a naval war of the first
magnitude; and to the Lion and the Tiger had come the test. The
Germans said that they had sunk the Tiger; but the Tiger afloat
purred a contented denial.
You could not fail to identify among the group of officers on the
quarter-deck Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, for his victory had
impressed his features on the public's eye. Had his portrait not
appeared in the press, one would have been inclined to say that a
first lieutenant had put on a vice-admiral's coat by mistake. He was
about the age of the first lieutenant of one of our battleships. Even as
it was, one was inclined to exclaim: "There is some mistake! You are
too young!" The Who is Who book says that he is all of forty-four
years old and it must be right, though it disagrees with his
appearance by five years.
A vice-admiral at forty-four! A man who is a rear-admiral with us at
fifty-five is very precocious. And all the men around him were young.
The British navy did not wait for war to teach again the lesson of
"youth for action!" They saved time by putting youth in charge at
Their simple uniforms, the directness, alertness, and definiteness of
these officers who had been with a fleet ready for a year to go into
battle on a minute's notice, was in keeping with their surroundings of
decks cleared for action and the absence of anything which did not
suggest that hitting a target was the business of their life.
"I had heard that you took your admirals from the schoolroom," said
one of the Frenchmen, "but I begin to believe that it is the nursery."
Night and day they must be on watch. No easy chairs; their shop is
their home. They must have the vitality that endures a strain. One
error in battle by any one of them might wreck the British Empire.
It is difficult to write about any man-of-war and not be technical; for
everything about her seems technical and mechanical except the fact
that she floats. Her officers and crew are engaged in work which is
legerdemain to the civilian.
"Was it like what you thought it would be after all your training for a
naval action?" one asked.
"Yes, quite; pretty much as we reasoned it out," was the reply.
"Indeed, this was the most remarkable thing. It was battle practice--
with the other fellow shooting at you!"
The fire-control officers, who were aloft, all agreed about one
unexpected sensation, which had not occurred to any expert
scientifically predicting what action would be like. They are the only
ones who may really "see" the battle in the full sense.
"When the shells burst against the armour," said one of these
officers, "the fragments were visible as they flew about. We had a
desire, in the midst of preoccupation with our work, to reach out and
catch them. Singular mental phenomenon, wasn't it?"
At eight or nine thousand yards one knew that the modern battleship
could tear a target to pieces. But eighteen thousand--was accuracy
possible at that distance?
"Did one in five German shells hit at that range?" I asked.
Or in ten? No! In twenty? Still no, though less decisively. You got a
conviction, then, that the day of holding your fire until you were close
in enough for a large percentage of hits was past. Accuracy was still
vital and decisive, but generic accuracy. At eighteen thousand yards
all the factors which send a thousand or fifteen hundred or two
thousand pounds of steel that long distance cannot be so gauged
that each one will strike in exactly the same line when ten issue from
the gun-muzzles in a broadside. But if one out of twenty is on at
eighteen thousand yards, it may mean a turret out of action. Again,
four or five might hit, or none. So, no risk of waiting may be taken, in
face of the danger of a chance shot at long range. It was a chance
shot which struck the Lion's feed tank and disabled her and kept the
cat squadron from doing to the other German cruisers what they had
done to the Bluecher.
"And the noise of it to you aloft, spotting the shots?" I suggested. "It
must have been a lonely place in such a tornado."
"Yes. Besides the crashing blasts from our own guns we had the
screams of the shells that went over and the cataracts of water from
those short sprinkling the ship with spray. But this was what one
expected. Everything was what one expected, except that desire to
catch the fragments. Naturally, one was too busy to think much of
anything except the enemy's ships--to learn where your shells were
"You could tell?"
"Yes--just as well and better than at target practice; for the target was
larger and solid. It was enthralling, this watching the flight of our
shells toward their target." Where were the scars from the wounds?
One looked for them on both the Lion and the Tiger. An armour patch
on the sloping top of a turret might have escaped attention if it had not
been pointed out. A shell struck there and a fair blow, too. And what
happened inside? Was the turret gear put out of order?
To one who has lived in a wardroom a score of questions were on the
tongue's end. The turret is the basket which holds the precious eggs.
A turret out of action means two guns out of action; a broken knuckle
for the pugilist.
Constructors have racked their brains over the subject of turrets in
the old contest between gun-power and protection. Too much gun-
power, too little armour! Too much armour, too little gun-power!
Finally, results depend on how good is your armour, how sound your
machinery which rotates the turret. That shell did not go through
bodily, only a fragment, which killed one man and wounded another.
The turret would still rotate; the other gun kept in action and the one
under the shell-burst was soon back in action. Very satisfactory to the
Up and down the all but perpendicular steel ladders with their narrow
steps, and through the winding passages below decks in those cities
of steel, one followed his guide, receiving so much information and so
many impressions that he was confused as to details between the
two veterans, the Lion, which was hit fifteen times, and the Tiger,
which was hit eight. Wherever you went every square inch of space
and every bit of equipment seemed to serve some purpose.
A beautiful hit, indeed, was that into a small hooded aperture where
an observer looked out from a turret. He was killed and another man
took his place. Fresh armour and no sign of where the shot had
struck. Then below, into a compartment between the side of the ship
and the armoured barbette which protects the delicate machinery for
feeding shells and powder from the magazine deep below the water
to the guns.
"H----was killed here. Impact of the shell passing through the outer
plates burst it inside; and, of course, the fragments struck harmlessly
against the barbette."
"Bang in the dug-out!" one exclaimed, from army habit.
"Precisely! No harm done next door."
Trench traverses and "funk-pit shelters" for localizing the effects of
shell-bursts are the terrestrial expression of marine construction. No
one shell happened to get many men either on the Lion or the Tiger.
But the effect of the burst was felt in the passages, for the air-
pressure is bound to be pronounced in enclosed spaces which allow
of little room for expansion of the gases.
Then up more ladders out of the electric light into the daylight,
hugging a wall of armour whose thickness was revealed in the cut
made for the small doorway which you were bidden to enter. Now you
were in one of the brain-centres of the ship, where the action is
directed. Through slits in that massive shelter of the hardest steel one
had a narrow view. Above them on the white wall were silhouetted
diagrams of the different types of German ships, which one found in
all observing stations. They were the most popular form of mural
decoration in the British navy.
Underneath the slits was a literal panoply of the brass fittings of
speaking-tubes and levers and push-buttons, which would have
puzzled even the "Hello, Central" girl. To look at them revealed
nothing more than the eye saw; nothing more than the face of a
watch reveals of the character of its works. There was no telling how
they ran in duplicate below the water line or under the protection of
armour to the guns and the engines.
"We got one in here, too. It was a good one!" said the host.
"Junk, of course," was how he expressed the result. Here, too, a man
stepped forward to take the place of the man who was killed, just as
the first lieutenant takes the place of a captain of infantry who falls.
With the whole telephone apparatus blown off the wall, as it were,
how did he communicate?
"There!" The host pointed toward an opening at his feet. If that failed
there was still another way. In the final alternative, each turret could
go on firing by itself. So the Germans must have done on the Bluecher
and on the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst in their last ghastly
moments of bloody chaos.
"If this is carried away and then that is, why, then, we have------" as
one had often heard officers say on board our own ships. But that
was hypothesis. Here was demonstration, which made a glimpse of
the Lion and the Tiger so interesting. The Lion had had a narrow
escape from going down after being hit in the feed tank; but once in
dry dock, all her damaged parts had been renewed. Particularly it
required imagination to realize that this tower had ever been struck;
visually more convincing was a plate elsewhere which had been left
unpainted, showing a spatter of dents from shell-fragments.
"We thought that we ought to have something to prove that we had
been in battle," said the host. "I think I've shown all the hits. There
were not many."
Having seen the results of German gun-fire, we were next to see the
methods of British gun-fire; something of the guns and the men who
did things to the Germans. I stooped under the overhang of the turret
armour from the barbette and climbed up through an opening which
allowed no spare room for the generously built, and out of the dim
light appeared the glint of the massive steel breech block and gun,
set in its heavy recoil mountings with roots of steel supports sunk into
the very structure of the ship. It was like other guns of the latest
improved type; but it had been in action, and you kept thinking of this
fact which gave it a sort of majestic prestige. You wished that it might
look a little different from the others, as the right of a veteran.
As the plugman swung the breech open I had in mind a giant
plugman on the U.S.S. Connecticut whom I used to watch at drills
and target practice. Shall I ever forget the flash in his eye if there
were a fraction of a second's delay in the firing after the breech had
gone home! The way in which he made that enormous block obey his
touch in oily obsequiousness suggested the apotheosis of the whole
business of naval war. I don't know whether the plugman of H.M.S.
Lion or the plugman of the U.S.S. Connecticut was the better. It would
take a superman to improve on either.
Like the block, it seemed as if the man knew only the movements of
the drill; as if he had been bred and his muscles formed for that. You
could conceive of him as playing diavolo with that breech. He
belonged to the finest part of all the machinery, the human element,
which made the parts of a steel machine play together in a beautiful
The plugman's is the most showy part; others playing equally
important parts are in the cavern below the turret; and most important
of all is that of the man who keeps the gun on the target, whose true
right eye may send twenty-five thousand tons of battleship to
perdition. No one eye of any enlisted man can be as important as the
gun-layer's. His the eye and the nerve trained as finely as the
plugman's muscles. He does nothing else, thinks of nothing else. In
common with painters and poets, gun-layers are born with a gift, and
that gift is trained and trained and trained. It seems simple to keep
right on, but it is not. Try twenty men in the most rudimentary test and
you will find that it is not; then think of the nerve it takes to keep
right on in battle, with your ship shaken by the enemy's hit.
How long had the plugman been on his job? Six years. And the gun-
layer? Seven. Twelve years is the term of enlistment in the British
navy. Not too fast but thoroughly is the British way. The idea is to
make a plugman or a gun-layer the same kind of expert as a master
artisan in any other walk of life, by long service and selection.
None of all the men serving these guns from the depths to the turret
saw anything of the battle, except the gun-layer. It was easier for
them than for him to be letter-perfect in the test, as he had to guard
against the exhilaration of having an enemy's ship instead of a cloth
target under his eye. Super-drilled he was to that eventuality; super-
drilled all the others through the years, till each one knew his part as
well as one knows how to turn the key of a drawer in his desk. Used
to the shock of the discharges of their own guns at battle practice,
many of the crew did not even know that their ship was hit, so
preoccupied was each with his own duty and the need of going on
with it until an order or a shell's havoc stopped him. Every mind was
closed except to the thing which had been so established by drill in
his nature that he did it instinctively.
A few minutes later one was looking down from the upper bridge on
the top of this turret and the black-lined planking of the deck eighty-
five feet below, with the sweep of the firm lines of the sides
converging toward the bow on the background of the water. Suddenly
the ship seemed to have grown large, impressive; her structure had a
rocklike solidity. Her beauty was in her unadorned strength. One was
absorbing the majesty of a city from a cathedral tower after having
been it its thoroughfares and seen the detail of its throbbing industry.
Beyond the Lion's bow were more ships, and port and starboard and
aft were still more ships. The compass range filled the eye with the
stately precision of the many squadrons and divisions of leviathans.
One could see all the fleet. This seemed to be the scenic climax; but
it was not, as we were to learn later when we should see the fleet go
to sea. Then we were to behold the mountains on the march.
You glanced back at the deck and around the bridge with a sort of
relief. The infinite was making you dizzy. You wanted to be in touch
with the finite again. But it is the writer, not the practical, hardened
seaman, who is affected in this way. To the seaman, here was a
battle-cruiser with her sister battle-cruisers astern, and there around
her were Dreadnoughts of different types and pre-Dreadnoughts and
cruisers and all manner of other craft which could fight each in its
way, each representing so much speed and so much metal which
could be thrown a certain distance.
"Homogeneity!" Another favourite word, I remember, from our own
wardrooms. Here it was applied in the large. No experimental ships
there, no freak variations of type, but each successive type as a unit
of action. Homogeneous, yes--remorselessly homogeneous. The
British do not simply build some ships; they build a navy. And of
course the experts are not satisfied with it; if they were, the British
navy would be in a bad way. But a layman was; he was overwhelmed.
From this bridge of the Lion on the morning of the 24th of January,
1915, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty saw appear on the horizon a
sight inexpressibly welcome to any commander who has scoured the
seas in the hope that the enemy will come out in the open and give
battle. Once that German battle-cruiser squadron had slipped across
the North Sea and, under cover of the mist which has ever been the
friend of the pirate, bombarded the women and children of
Scarborough and the Hartle-pools with shells meant to be fired at
hardened adult males sheltered behind armour; and then, thanks to
the mist, they had slipped back to Heligoland with cheering news to
the women and children of Germany. This time when they came out
they encountered a British battle-cruiser squadron of superior speed
and power, and they had to fight as they ran for home.
Now, the place of an admiral is in his conning tower after he has
made his deployments and the firing has begun. He, too, is a part of
the machine; his position defined, no less than the plugman's and the
gun-layer's. Sir David watched the ranging shots which fell short at
first, until finally they were on, and the Germans were beginning to
reply. When his staff warned him that he ought to go below, he put
them off with a preoccupied shake of his head. He could not resist the
temptation to remain where he was, instead of being shut up looking
through the slits of a visor.
But an admiral is as vulnerable to shell-fragments as a midshipman,
and the staff did its duty, which had been thought out beforehand like
everything else. The argument was on their side; the commander
really had none on his. It was then that Vice-Admiral Beatty sent Sir
David Beatty to the conning tower, much to the personal disgust of
Sir David, who envied the observing officers aloft their free sweep of
Youth in Sir David's case meant suppleness of limb as well as youth's
spirit and dash. When the Lion was disabled by the shot in her feed
tank and had to fall out of line, Sir David must transfer his flag. He
signalled for his destroyer, the Attack. When she came alongside he
did not wait for a ladder, but jumped on board her from the deck of
the Lion. An aged vice-admiral with chalky bones might have broken
some of them, or at least received a shock to his presence of mind.
Before he left the Lion Sir David had been the first to see the
periscope of a German submarine in the distance, which sighted the
wounded ship as inviting prey. Officers of the Lion dwelt more on the
cruise home than on the battle. It was a case of being towed at five
knots an hour by the Indomitable. If ever submarines had a fair
chance to show what they could do it was then against that battleship
at a snail's pace. But it is one thing to torpedo a merchant craft and
another to get a major fighting ship, bristling with torpedo defence
guns and surrounded by destroyers. The Lion reached port without
On The "Inflexible"
What Englishman, let alone an American, knows the names of even
all the British Dreadnoughts? With a few exceptions, the units of the
Grand Fleet seem anonymous. The Warspite was quite unknown to
the fame which her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth had won. For
"Lizzie" was back in the fold from the Dardanelles; and so was the
Inflexible, heroine of the battle of the Falkland Islands. Of all the ships
which Sir John Jellicoe had sent away on special missions, the
Inflexible had had the grandest Odyssey. She, too, had been at the
The Queen Elizabeth was disappointing so far as wounds went. She
had been so much in the public eye that one expected to find her
badly battered, and she had suffered little, indeed, for the amount of
sport she had had in tossing her fifteen-inch shells across the Gallipoli
peninsula into the Turkish batteries and the amount of risk she had
run from Turkish mines. Some of these monsters contained only
eleven thousand shrapnel bullets. A strange business for a fifteen-
inch naval gun to be firing shrapnel. A year ago no one could have
imagined that one day the most powerful British ship, built with the
single thought of overwhelming an enemy's Dreadnought, would ever
be trying to force the Dardanelles.
The trouble was that she could not fire an army corps ashore along
with her shells to take possession of the land after she had put
batteries out of action. She had some grand target practice; she
escaped the mines; she kept out of reach of the German shells, and
returned to report to Sir John with just enough scars to give zest to
the recollection of her extraordinary adventure. All the fleet was
relieved to see her back in her proper place. It is not the business of
super-Dreadnoughts to be steaming around mine-fields, but to be
surrounded by destroyers and light cruisers and submarines
safeguarding her giant guns, which are depressed and elevated as
easily as if they were drum-sticks. One had an abrasion, a tracery of
"That was from a Turkish shell," said an officer. "And you are standing
where a shell hit."
I looked down to see an irregular outline of fresh planking.
"An accident when we did not happen to be out of their reach. We
had the range of them," he added.
"The range of them" is a great phrase. Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee
used it in speaking of the battle of the Falkland Islands. "The range of
them" seems a sure prescription for victory. Nothing in all the history
of the war appeals to me as quite so smooth a bit of tactics as the
Falkland affair. It was so smooth that it was velvety; and it is worth
telling again, as I understand it. Sir Frederick is another young
admiral. Otherwise, how could the British navy have entrusted him
with so important a task? He is a different type from Beatty, who in an
army one judges might have been in the cavalry. Along with the
peculiar charm and alertness which we associate with sailors--they
imbibe it from the salt air and from meeting all kinds of weather and
all kinds of men, I think--he has the quality of the scholar, with a
suspicion of merriness in his eye.
He was Chief of the War Staff at the Admiralty in the early stages of
the war, which means, I take it, that he assisted in planning the
moves on the chessboard. It fell to him to act; to apply the strategy
and tactics which he planned for others at sea while he sat at a desk.
It was his wit against von Spee's, who was not deficient in this
respect. If he had been he might not have steamed into the trap. The
trouble was that von Spee had some wit, but not enough. It would
have been better for him if he had been as guileless as a parson.
Sir Frederick is so gentle-mannered that one would never suspect
him of a "double bluff," which was what he played on von Spee. After
von Spee's victory over Cradock, Sturdee slipped across to the South
Atlantic, without anyone knowing that he had gone, with a squadron
strong enough to do unto von Spee what von Spee had done unto
But before you wing your bird you must flush him. The thing was to
find von Spee and force him to give battle; for the South Atlantic is
broad and von Spee, it is supposed, was in an Emden mood and
bent on reaching harbour in German South-West Africa, whence he
could sally out to destroy British shipping on the Cape route. When
he intercepted a British wireless message--Sturdee had left off the
sender's name and location--telling the plodding old Canopus seeking
home or assistance before von Spee overtook her, that she would be
perfectly safe in the harbour at Port William, as guns had been
erected for her protection, von Spee guessed that this was a bluff,
and rightly. But it was only Bluff Number One. He steamed to the
Falklands with a view to finishing off the old Canopus on the way
across to Africa. There he fell foul of Bluff Number Two. Sturdee did
not have to seek him; he came to Sturdee.
There was no convenient Dogger Bank fog in that latitude to cover
his flight. Sturdee had the speed of von Spee and he had to fight. It
was the one bit of strategy of the war which is like that of the story
books and worked out as strategy always does in proper story books.
Practically the twelve-inch guns of the Inflexible and the Invincible
had only to keep their distance and hang on to the Scharnhorst and
the Gneisenau in order to do the trick. Light-weights or middle-
weights have no business trafficking with heavy-weights in naval
"Von Spee made a brave fight," said Sir Frederick, "but we kept him
at a distance that suited us, without letting him get out of range."
He had had the fortune to prove an established principle in action. It
was all in the course of duty, which is the way that all the officers and
all the men look at their work. Only a few ships have had a chance to
fight, and these are emblazoned on the public memory. But they did
no better and no worse, probably, than the others would have done. If
the public singles out ships, the navy does not. Whatever is done and
whoever does it, why, it is to the credit of the family, according to the
spirit of service that promotes uniformity of efficiency. Leaders and
ships which have won renown are resolved into the whole in that
harbour where the fleet is the thing; and the good opinion they most
desire is that of their fellows. If they have that they will earn the
public's when the test comes.
Belonging to the class of the first of battle-cruisers is the Inflexible,
which received a few taps in the Falklands and a blow that was nearly
the death of her in the Dardanelles. Tribute enough for its courage--
the tribute of a chivalrous enemy--von Spee's squadron receives
from the officers and men of the Inflexible, who saw them go down
into the sea tinged with sunset red with their colours still flying. Then
in the sunset red the British saved as many of those afloat as they
Those dripping German officers who had seen one of their battered
turrets carried away bodily into the sea by a British twelve-inch shell,
who had endured a fury of concussions and destruction, with steel
missiles cracking steel structures into fragments, came on board the
Inflexible looking for signs of some blows delivered in return for the
crushing blows that had beaten their ships into the sea and saw none
until they were invited into the wardroom, which was in chaos--and
then they smiled.
At least, they had sent one shell home. The sight was sweet to them,
so sweet that, in respect to the feeling of the vanquished, the victors
held silence with a knightly consideration. But where had the shell
entered? There was no sign of any hole. Then they learned that the
fire of the guns of the starboard turret midships over the wardroom,
which was on the port side, had deposited a great many things on the
floor which did not belong there; and their expression changed. Even
this comfort was taken from them.
"We had the range of you!" the British explained. The chaplain of the
Inflexible was bound to have an anecdote. I don't know why, except
that a chaplain's is not a fighting part and he may look on. His place
was down behind the armour with the doctor, waiting for wounded. He
stood in his particular steel cave listening to the tremendous blasts of
her guns which shook the Inflexible's frame, and still no wounded
arrived. Then he ran up a ladder to the deck and had a look around
and saw the little points of the German ships with the shells sweeping
toward them and the smoke of explosions which burst on board them.
It was not the British who needed his prayers that day, but the
Germans. Personally, I think the Germans are more in need of
prayers at all times because of the damnable way they act.
Perhaps the spirit of the Inflexible's story was best given by a
midshipman with the down still on his cheek. Considering how young
the British take their officer-beginners to sea, the admirals are not
young, at least, in point of sea service. He got more out of the action
than his elders; his impressions of the long cruises and the actions
had the vividness of boyhood. Down in one of the caves, doing his
part as the shells were sent up to feed the thundering guns above,
the whispered news of the progress of battle was passed on at
intervals till, finally, the guns were silent. Then he hurried on deck in
the elation of victory, succeeded by the desire to save those whom
they had fought. It had all been so simple; so like drill. You had only to
go on shooting--that was all.
Yes, he had been lucky. From the Falklands to the Dardanelles,
which was a more picturesque business than the battle. Any minute
off the Straits you did not know but a submarine would have a try at
you or you might bump into a mine. And the Inflexible did bump into
one. She had two thousand tons of water on board. It was fast work
to keep the remainder of the sea from coming in, too, and the same
kind of dramatic experience as the Lion's in reaching port. Yes, he
had been very lucky. It was all a lark to that boy.
"It never occurs to midshipmen to be afraid of anything," said one of
the officers. "The more danger, the better they like it."
In the wardroom was a piece of the mine or the torpedo, whichever it
was, that struck the Inflexible; a strange, twisted, annealed bit of
metal. Every ship which had been in action had some souvenir which
the enemy had sent on board in anger and which was preserved with
a collector's enthusiasm.
The Inflexible seemed as good as ever she was. Such is the way of
naval warfare. Either it is to the bottom of the sea or to dry docks and
repairs. There is nothing half-way. So it is well to take care that you
have "the range of them."
On The Fleet Flagship
Thus far we have skirted around the heart of things, which in a fleet is
always the Commander-in-Chief's flagship. Our handy, agile
destroyer ran alongside a battleship with as much nonchalance as
she would go alongside a pier. I should not have been surprised to
see her pirouette over the hills or take to flying.
There was a time when those majestic and pampered ladies, the
battleships--particularly if there were a sea running as in this harbour
at the time--having in mind the pride of paint, begged all destroyers to
keep off with the superciliousness of grandes dames holding their
skirts aloof from contact with nimble, audacious street gamins, who
dodged in and out of the traffic of muddy streets. But destroyers have
learned better manners, perhaps, and battleships have been
democratized. It is the day of Russian dancers and when aeroplanes
loop the loop, and we have grown used to all kinds of marvels.
But the sea has refused to be trained. It is the same old sea that it
was in Columbus' time, without any loss of trickiness in bumping
small craft against towering sides. The way that this destroyer slid up
to the flagship without any fuss and the way her bluejackets held her
off from the paint, as she rose on the crests and slipped back into the
trough, did not tell the whole story. A part of it was how, at the right
interval, they assisted the landlubber to step from gunwale to
gangway, making him feel perfectly safe when he would have been
perfectly helpless but for them.
I had often watched our own bluejackets at the same thing. They did
not grin--not when you were looking at them. Nor did the British.
Bluejackets are noted for their official politeness. I should like to have
heard their remarks--they have a gift for remarks--about those
invaders of their uniformed world in Scottish caps and other kinds of
caps and the different kinds of clothes which tailors make for civilians.
Without any intention of eavesdropping, I did overhear one asking
another whence came these strange birds.
You knew the flagship by the admirals' barges astern, as you know
the location of an army headquarters by its motor-cars. It seemed in
the centre of the fleet at anchor, if that is a nautical expression.
Where its place would be in action is one of those secrets as
important to the enemy as the location of a general's shell-proof
shelter in Flanders. Perhaps Sir John Jellicoe may be on some other
ship in battle. If there is any one foolish question which you should not
ask it is this.
As you mounted the gangway of this mighty super-Dreadnought you
were bound to think--at least, an American was--of another flagship in
Portsmouth harbour, Nelson's Victory. Probably an Englishman would
not indulge in such a commonplace. I would like to know how many
Englishmen had ever seen the old Victory. But then, how many
Americans have been to Mount Vernon and Gettysburg?
It was a hundred years, one repeats, since the British had fought a
first-class naval war. Nelson did his part so well that he did not leave
any fighting to be done by his successors. Maintaining herself as
mistress of the seas by the threat of superior strength--except in the
late 'fifties, when the French innovation of iron ships gave France a
temporary lead on paper--ship after ship, through all the grades of
progress in naval construction, has gone to the scrap heap without
firing a shot in anger. The Victory was one landmark, or seamark, if
you please, and this flagship was another. Between the two were
generations of officers and men, working through the change from
stagecoach to motors and aeroplanes and seaplanes, who had kept
up to a standard of efficiency in view of a test that never came. A year
of war and still the test had not come, for the old reason that England
had superior strength. Her outnumbering guns which had kept the
peace of the seas still kept it. All second nature to the Englishman
this, as the defence of the immense distances of the steppes to the
Russian or the Rocky Mountain wall and the Mississippi's flow to the
man in Kansas. But the American kept thinking about it; and he
wanted the Kansans to think about it, too. When he was about to
meet Sir John Jellicoe he envisaged the tall column in Trafalgar
Square, surmounted by the one-armed figure turned toward the
wireless skein on top of the Admiralty building.
I first heard of Jellicoe fifteen years ago when he was Chief of Staff to
Sir Edward Seymour, then Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic
Squadron. Indeed, you were always hearing about Jellicoe in those
days on the China coast. He was the kind of man whom people talk
about after they have met him, which means personality. It was in
China seas, you may remember, that when a few British seamen
were hard pressed in a fight that was not ours the phrase, "Blood is
thicker than water," sprang from the lips of an American commander,
who waited not on international etiquette but went to the assistance of
Nor will anyone who was present in the summer of '98 forget how Sir
Edward Chichester stood loyally by Admiral George Dewey, when the
German squadron was empire-fishing in the waters of Manila Bay,
until our Atlantic fleet had won the battle of Santiago and Admiral
Dewey had received reinforcements and, east and west, we were
able to look after the Germans. The British bluejackets said that the
rations of frozen mutton from Australia which we sent alongside were
excellent; but the Germans were in no position to judge, doubtless
through an oversight in the detail of hospitality by one of Admiral
Dewey's staff. Let us be officially correct and say there was no mutton
to spare after the British had been supplied.
In the gallant effort of the Allied force of sailors to relieve the
legations against some hundreds of thousands of Boxers, Captain
Bowman McCalla and his Americans worked with Admiral Seymour
and his Britons in the most trying and picturesque adventure of its
kind in modern history. McCalla, too, was always talking of Jellicoe,
who was wounded on the expedition; and Sir John's face lighted at
mention of McCalla's name. He recalled how McCalla had painted
on the superstructure of the little Newark that saying of Farragut's,
"The best protection against an enemy's fire is a well-directed fire
of your own"; which has been said in other ways and cannot be
said too often.
"We called McCalla Mr. Lead," said Sir John; "he had been wounded
so many times and yet was able to hobble along and keep on
fighting. We corresponded regularly until his death."
Beatty, too, was on that expedition; and he, too, was another
personality one kept hearing about. It seemed odd that two men who
had played a part in work which was a soldier's far from home should
have become so conspicuous in the Great War. If on that day when,
with ammunition exhausted, all members of the expedition had given
up hope of ever returning alive, they had not accidentally come upon
the Shi-kou arsenal, one would not be commanding the Grand Fleet
and the other its battle-cruiser squadron.
Before the war, I am told, when Admiralty Lords and others who had
the decision to make were discussing who should command in case
of war, opinion ran something like this: "Jellicoe! He has the brains."
"Jellicoe! He has the health to endure the strain, with years enough
and not too many." "Jellicoe! He has the confidence of the service."
The choice literally made itself. When anyone is undertaking the
gravest responsibility which has been an Englishman's for a hundred
years, this kind of a recommendation helps. He had the guns; he had
supreme command; he must deliver victory--such was England's
message to him.
When I mentioned in a dispatch that all that differentiated him from
the officers around him was the broader band of gold lace on his arm,
an English naval critic wanted to know if I expected to find him in cloth
of gold. No; nor in full dress with all his medals on, as I saw him
appear on the screen at a theatre in London.
Any general of high command must be surrounded by more pomp
than an admiral in time of action. A headquarters cannot have the
simplicity of the quarter-deck. The force which the general commands
is not in sight; the admiral's is. You saw the commander and you saw
what it was that he commanded. Within the sweep of vision from the
quarter-deck was the terrific power which the man with the broad gold
band on his arm directed. At a signal from him it would move or it
would stand still. That command of Joshua's if given by Sir John one
thought might have been obeyed.
One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred twelve-inch
guns and larger, which could carry two hundred tons of metal in a
single broadside for a distance of eighteen thousand yards! But do
not forget the little guns, bristling under the big guns like needles from
a cushion, which would keep off the torpedo assassins; or the light
cruisers, or the colliers, or the destroyers, or the 2,300 trawlers and
mine-layers, and what not, all under his direction. He had
submarines, too, double the number of the German. But with all the
German men-of-war in harbour, they had no targets. Where were
they? You did not ask questions which would not be answered. The
whole British fleet was waiting for the Germans to show their heads,
while cruisers were abroad scouting in the North Sea.
At the outset of the war the German fleet might have had one chance
in ten of getting a turn of fortune in its favour by an unexpected stroke
of strategy. This was the danger against which Jellicoe had to guard.
For in one sense, the Germans had the tactical offensive by sea as
well as by land; theirs the outward thrust from the centre. They could
choose when to come out of their harbour; when to strike. The British
had to keep watch all the time and be ready whenever the enemy
Thus, the British Grand Fleet was at sea in the early part of the war,
cruising here and there, begging for battle. Then it was that it learned
how to avoid submarines and mine-fields. Submarines had played a
greater part than expected, because Germany had chosen a guerrilla
naval warfare: to harass, to wound, to wear down. Doubtless she
hoped to reduce the number of British fighting units by attrition.
Weak England might be in plants for making arms for an army, but
not in ship-building. Here was her true genius. She was a maritime
power; Germany a land power. Her part as an ally of France and
Russia being to command the sea, all demands of the Admiralty for
material must take precedence over demands of the War Office. At
the end of the first year she had increased her fighting power by sea
to a still higher ratio of preponderance over the Germans; in another
year she would increase it further.
Admiral von Tirpitz wanted nothing so much as to draw the British
fleet under the guns of Heligoland or into a mine-field and submarine
trap. But Sir John Jellicoe refused the bait. When he had completed
his precautions and his organization to meet new conditions, his fleet
need not go into the open. His Dreadnoughts could rest at anchor at
a base, while his scouts kept in touch with all that was passing, and
his auxiliaries and destroyers fought the submarines. Without a British
Dreadnought having fired a shot at a German Dreadnought, nowhere
on the face of the seas might a single vessel show the German flag
except by thrusting it above the water for a few minutes.
If von Tirpitz sent his fleet out he, too, might find himself in a trap of
mines and submarines. He was losing submarines and England was
building more. His naval force rather than Sir John's was suffering
from attrition. The blockade was complete from Iceland to the North
Sea. While the world knew of the work of the armies, the care that
this task required, the hardships endured, the enormous expenditure
of energy, were all hidden behind that veil of secrecy which obviously
must be more closely drawn over naval than over army operations.
From the flagship the campaign was directed. One would think that
many offices and many clerks would be required. But the offices and
the clerks were at the Admiralty. Here was the execution. In a room
perhaps four feet by six was the wireless focus which received all
reports and sent all orders, with trim bluejackets at the keys. "Go!"
and "Come!" the messages were saying; they wasted no words.
Officers of the staff did their work in narrow space, yet seemed to
have plenty of room. Red tape is inflammable. There is no more place
for it on board a flagship prepared for action than for unnecessary
At every turn compression and concentration of power were like the
guns and the decks, cleared for action, significant in directness of
purpose. The system was planetary in its impressive simplicity, the
more striking as nothing that man has ever made is more
complicated or includes more kinds of machinery than a battleship.
One battleship was one unit, one chessman on the naval board.
Not all famous leaders are likeable, as every world traveller knows.
They all have the magnetism of force, which is quite another thing
from the magnetism of charm. What the public demands is that they
shall win victories, whether personally likeable or not. But if they are
likeable and simple and human and a sailor besides--well, we know
what that means.
Perhaps Sir John Jellicoe is not a great man. It is not for a civilian
even to presume to judge. We have the word of those who ought to
know, however, that he is. I hope that he is, because I like to think
that great commanders need not necessarily appear formidable.
Nelson refused to be cast for the heavy part, and so did Farragut. It
may be a sailor characteristic. I predict that after this war is over,
whatever honours or titles they may bestow upon him, the English are
going to like Sir John Jellicoe not alone for his service to the nation,
but for himself.
Admiral Jellicoe is one with Captain Jellicoe, whose cheeriness even
when wounded kept up the spirits of the others on the relief
expedition of Boxer days. "He could do it, too!" one thought, having in
mind Sir David Beatty's leap to the deck of a destroyer. Spare, of
medium height, ruddy, and fifty-seven--so much for the health
qualification which the Admiralty Lords dwelt upon as important. After
he had been at sea for a year he seemed a human machine, much of
the type of the destroyer as a steel machine--a thirty-knot human
machine, capable of three hundred or five hundred revolutions,
engines running smoothly, with no waste energy, slipping over the
waves and cutting through them; a quick man, quick of movement,
quick of comprehension and observation, of speech and of thought,
with a delightful self-possession--for there are many kinds--which is
instantly responsive with decision.
A telescope under his arm, too, as he received his guests. You liked
that. He keeps watch over the fleet himself when he is on the quarter-
deck. You had a feeling that nothing could happen in all his range of
vision, stretching down the "avenues of Dreadnoughts" to the light-
cruiser squadron, and escape his attention. It hardly seems possible
that he was ever bored. Everything around interests him. Energy he
has, electric energy in this electric age, this man chosen to command
the greatest war product of modern energy.
Fastened to the superstructure near the ladder to his quarters was a
new broom which South Africa had sent him. He was highly pleased
with the present; only the broom was Tromp's emblem, while Blake's
had been the whip. Possibly the South African Dutchmen, now
fighting on England's side, knew that he already had the whip and
they wanted him to have the Dutch broom, too.
He had been using both, and many other devices in his campaign
against von Tirpitz's "unter See" boats, as was illustrated by one of
the maps hung in his cabin. Quite different this from maps in a
general's headquarters, with the front trenches and support and
reserve trenches and the gun-positions marked in vari-coloured
pencillings. Instantly a submarine was sighted anywhere, Sir John
had word of it, and a dot went down on the spot where it had been
seen. In places the sea looked like a pepper-box cover. Dots were
plentiful outside the harbour where we were; but well outside, like flies
around sugar which they could not reach.
Seeing Sir John among his admirals and guests one had a glimpse of
the life of a sort of mysterious, busy brotherhood. I was still searching
for an admiral with white hair. If there were none among these
seniors, then all must be on shore. Spirit, I think, that is the word; the
spirit of youth, of corps, of service, of the sea, of a ready, buoyant
definiteness--yes, spirit was the word to characterize these leaders.
Sir John moved from one to another in his quick way, asking a
question, listening, giving a direction, his face smiling and expressive
with a sort of infectious confidence.
"He is the man!" said an admiral. I mean, several admirals and
captains said so. They seemed to like to say it. Whenever he
approached one noted an eagerness, a tightening of nerves. Natural
leadership expresses itself in many ways; Sir John gave it a sailor's
attractiveness. But I learned that there was steel under his happy
smile; and they liked him for that, too. Watch out when he is not
smiling, and sometimes when he is smiling, they say.
For failure is never excused in the fleet, as more than one
commander knows. It is a luxury of consideration which the British
nation cannot afford by sea in time of war. The scene which one
witnessed in the cabin of the Dreadnought flagship could not have
been unlike that of Nelson and his young captains on the Victory, in
the animation of youth governed with one thought under the one rule
that you must make good.
Splendid as the sight of the power which Sir John directed from his
quarter-deck while the ships lay still in their plotted moorings, it paled
beside that when the anchor chains began to rumble and, column by
column, they took on life slowly and, majestically gaining speed, one
after another turned toward the harbour's entrance.
Simply Hard Work
Besides the simple word spirit, there is the simple word work. Take
the two together, mixing with them the proper quantity of intelligence,
and you have something finer than Dreadnoughts; for it builds
Dreadnoughts, or tunnels mountains, or wins victories.
In no organization would it be so easy as in the navy to become
slack. If the public sees a naval review it knows that its ships can
steam and keep their formations; if it goes on board it knows that the
ships are clean--at least, the limited part of them which it sees; and it
knows that there are turrets and guns.
But how does it know that the armour of the turrets is good, or that
the guns will fire accurately? Indeed, all that it sees is the shell. The
rest must be taken on trust. A navy may look all right and be quite
bad. The nation gives a certain amount of money to build ships which
are taken in charge by officers and men who, shut off from public
observation, may do about as they please. The result rests with their
industry and responsibility. If they are true to the character of the
nation by and large that is all the nation may expect; if they are better,
then the nation has reason to be grateful. Englishmen take more
interest in their navy than Americans in theirs. They give it the best
that is in them and they expect the best from it in return. Every
youngster who hopes to be an officer knows that the navy is no place
for idling; every man who enlists knows that he is in for no junket on a
pleasure yacht. The British navy, I judged, had a relatively large
percentage of the brains and application of England.
"It is not so different from what it was for ten years preceding the
war," said one of the officers. "We did all the work we could stand
then; and whether cruising or lying in harbour, life is almost normal for
The British fleet was always on a war footing. It must be. Lack
of naval preparedness is more dangerous than lack of land
preparedness. It is fatal. I know of officers who had had only a week's
leave in a year in time of peace; their pay is less than our officers'.
Patriotism kept them up to the mark.
And another thing: once a sailor, always a sailor, is an old saying; but
it has a new application in modern navies. They become fascinated
with the very drudgery of ship existence. They like their world, which
is their house and their shop. It has the attraction of a world of
priestcraft, with them alone understanding the ritual. Their drill at the
guns becomes the preparation for the great sport of target practice,
which beats any big-game shooting when guns compete with guns,
with battle practice greater sport than target practice. Bringing a ship
into harbour well, holding her to her place in the formation, roaming
over the seas in a destroyer--all means eternal effort at the mastery
of material, with the results positively demonstrated.
On one of the Dreadnoughts I saw a gun's crew drilling with a dummy
six-inch; weight, one hundred pounds.
"Isn't that boy pretty young to handle that big shell?" an admiral asked
a junior officer.
"He doesn't think so," the officer replied. "We haven't anyone who
could handle it better. It would break his heart if we changed his
Not one of fifty German prisoners whom I had seen filing by over in
France was as sturdy as this youngster. In the ranks of an infantry
company of any army he would have been above the average of
physique; but among the rest of the gun's crew he did appear slight.
Need more be said about the physical standard of the crews of the
fighting ships of the Grand Fleet?
You had an eye to more than guns and machinery and to more than
the character of the officers. You wanted to get better acquainted with
the personnel of the men behind the guns. They formed patches of
blue on the decks, as one looked around the fleet, against the
background of the dull, painted bulwarks of steel--the human element
whose skill gave the ships life--deep-chested, vigorous men in their
prime, who had the air of men grounded in their work by long
experience. I noted when an order was given that it was obeyed
quickly by one who knew what he had to do because he had done it
thousands of times.
There are all kinds of bluejackets, as there are all kinds of other men.
Before the war some took more than was good for them when on
shore; some took nothing stronger than tea; some enjoyed the
sailor's privilege of growling; some had to be kept up to the mark
sharply; an occasional one might get rebellious against the merciless
repetition of drills.
The war imparted eagerness to all, the officers said. Infractions of
discipline ceased. Days pass without anyone of the crew of a
Dreadnought having to be called up as a defaulter, I am told. And
their health? At first thought, one would say that life in the steel caves
of a Dreadnought would mean pasty complexions and flabby
muscles. For a year the crews had been prisoners of that readiness
which must not lose a minute in putting to sea if von Tirpitz should
ever try the desperate gamble of battle.
After a turn in the trenches the soldiers can at least stretch their legs
in billets. A certain number of a ship's company now and then get a
tramp on shore; not real leave, but a personally conducted outing not
far from the boats which will hurry them back to their stations on
signal. However, all that one needs to keep well is fresh air and
exercise. The blowers carry fresh air to every part of the ship; the
breezes which sweep the deck from the North Sea are fresh enough
in summer and a little too fresh in winter. There is exercise in the
regular drills, supplemented by setting-up exercises. The food is good
and no man drinks or eats what he ought not to, as he may on shore.
So there is the fact and the reason for the fact: the health of the men,
as well as their conduct, had never been so good.
"Perhaps we are not quite so clean as we were before the war," said
an officer. "We wash decks only twice a week instead of every day.
This means that quarters are not so moist, and the men have more
freedom of movement. We want them to have as much freedom as
Waiting, waiting, in such confinement for thirteen months; waiting for
battle! Think of the strain of it! The British temperament is well
fitted to undergo such a test, and particularly well fitted are these
sturdy seamen of mature years. An enemy may imagine them
wearing down their efficiency on the leash. They want a fight; naturally,
they want nothing quite so much. But they have the seaman's
philosophy. Old von Tirpitz may come out and he may not. It is for
him to do the worrying. They sit tight. The men's ardour is not imposed
upon. Care is taken that they should not be worked stale; for the
marksman who puts a dozen shots through the bull's-eye had better
not keep on firing, lest he begin rimming it and get into bad habits.
Where an army officer has a change when he leaves the trench for
his billet, there is none for the naval officer, who, unlike the army
officer, is Spartan-bred to confinement. The army pays its daily toll of
casualties; it lies cramped in dug-outs, not knowing what minute
extinction may come. The Grand Fleet has its usual comforts; it is
safe from submarines in a quiet harbour. Many naval officers spoke
of this contrast with deep feeling, as if fate were playing favourites,
though I have never heard an army officer mention it.
The army can give each day fresh proof of its courage in face of the
enemy. Courage! It takes on a new meaning with the Grand Fleet.
The individual element of gallantry merges into gallantry of the whole.
You have the very communism of courage. The thought is to keep a
cool head and do your part as a cog in the vast machine. Courage is
as much taken for granted as the breath of life. Thus, Cradock's men
fought till they went down. It was according to the programme laid out
for each turret and each gun in a turret.
Smith, of the army, leads a bomb-throwing party from traverse to
traverse; Smith, of the navy, turns one lever at the right second. Army
gunners are improving their practice day by day against the enemy;
all the improving by navy gunners must be done before the battle. No
sieges in trenches; no attacks and counter-attacks: a decision within
a few hours--perhaps within an hour.
This partially explains the love of the navy for its work; its cheerful
repetition of the drills which seem such a wearisome business to the
civilian. The men know the reason of their drudgery. It is an all-
convincing bull's-eye reason. Ping-ping! One heard the familiar sound
of sub-calibre practice, which seems as out of proportion in a fifteen-
inch gun as a mouse-squeak from an elephant whom you expect to
trumpet. As the result appears in sub-calibre practice, so it is
practically bound to appear in target practice; as it appears in target
practice, so it is bound to appear in battle practice. It was on the
flagship that I saw a device which Sir John referred to as the next
best thing to having the Germans come out. He took as much delight
in it as the gun-layers, who were firing at German Dreadnoughts of
the first line, as large as your thumb, which were in front of a sort of
hooded arrangement with the guns of a British Dreadnought inside--
the rest I censor myself before the regular censor sees it.
When we heard a report like that of a small target rifle inside the
arrangement a small red or a small white splash rose from the
metallic platter of a sea. Thus the whole German navy has been
pounded to pieces again and again. It is a great game. The gun-
layers never tire of it and they think they know the reason as well as
anybody why von Tirpitz keeps his Dreadnoughts at home.
But elsewhere I saw some real firing; for ships must have their regular
target practice, war or no war. If those cruisers steaming across the
range had been sending six or eight-inch shrapnel, we should have
preferred not to be so near that towed square of canvas. Flashes
from turrets indistinguishable at a distance from the neutral-toned
bodies of the vessels and the shells struck, making great splashes
just beyond the target, which was where they ought to go.
A familiar scene, but with a new meaning when the time is one of war.
So far as my observation is worth anything, it was very good
shooting, indeed. One broadside would have put a destroyer out of
business as easily as a "Jack Johnson" does for a dug-out; and it
would have made a cruiser of the same class as the one firing pretty
groggy--this not from any experience of being on a light cruiser or any
desire to be on one when it receives such a salute. But it seems to be
waiting for the Germans any time that they want it.
Oh, that towed square of canvas! It is the symbol of the object of all
building of guns, armour, and ships, all the nursing in dry dock, all the
admiral's plans, all the parliamentary appropriations, all the striving on
board ship in man's competition with man, crew with crew, gun with
gun, and ship with ship. One had in mind some vast factory plant
where every unit was efficiently organized; but that comparison would
not do. None will. The Grand Fleet is the Grand Fleet. Ability gets its
reward, as in the competition of civil life. There is no linear promotion
indulgent to mediocrity and inferiority which are satisfied to keep step
and harassing to those whom nature and application meant to lead.
Armchairs and retirement for those whose inclinations run that way;
the captain's bridge for those who are fit to command. Officers'
records are the criterion when superiors come to making promotions.
But does not outside influence play a part? you ask. If professional
conscience is not enough to prevent this, another thing appears to
be: that the British nation lives or dies with its navy. Besides, the
British public has said to all and sundry outsiders: "Hands off the
navy!" All honour to the British public, much criticized and often most
displeased with its servants and itself, for keeping its eye on that
canvas square of cloth! The language on board was the same as on
our ships; the technical phraseology practically the same; we had
inherited British traditions. But a man from Kansas and a man from
Dorset live far apart. If they have a good deal in common they rarely
meet to learn that they have. Our seamen do meet British seamen
and share a fraternity which is more than that of the sea. Close one's
eyes to the difference in uniform, discount the difference in accent,
and one imagined that he might be with our North Atlantic fleet.
The same sort of shop talk and banter in the wardroom, which trims
and polishes human edges; the same fellowship of a world apart.
Securely ready the British fleet waits. Enough drill and not too much;
occasional visits between ships; books and newspapers and a
lighthearted relaxation of scattered conversation in the mess. One
wardroom had a thirty-five-second record for getting past all the
pitfalls in the popular "Silver Bullet" game, if I remember correctly.
Hunting The Submarine
Seaplanes cut practice circles over the fleet and then flew away on
their errands, to be lost in the sky beyond the harbour entrance. With
their floats, they were like ducks when they came to rest on the water,
sturdy and a little clumsy looking compared to those hawks the army
planes, soaring to higher altitudes.
The hawk had a broad, level field for its roost; the duck, bobbing with
the waves after it came down, had its wings folded as became a bird
at rest, after its engines stopped, and, a dead thing, was lifted on
board its floating home with a crane, as cargo is swung into the hold.
On shipboard there must be shipshapeness; and that capacious,
one-time popular Atlantic liner had undergone changes to prepare it
for its mothering part, with platforms in place of the promenades
where people had lounged during the voyage and bombs in place of
deck-quoits and dining-saloons turned into workshops. Of course,
one was shown the different sizes and types of bombs. Aviators
exhibit them with the pride of a collector showing his porcelains.
Every time they seem to me to have grown larger and more
diabolical. Where will aerial progress end? Will the next war be fought
by forces that dive and fly like fishes and birds?