"Getting on the Scale" and "Chasing"
SHORTLY after my promotion to acting sub-lieutenant the ship proceeded to England to pay off, and after a few weeks' leave I found myself at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, for the Christmas term, 1902.
My first impression of the Naval College was, as usual in my case, a smell, this time of musty stonework ; after that it was of a number of Grecian temples joined together by interminable tunnels. I dare say these impressions are not unknown to many who are familiar with the College.
In those days - and I believe it is so still - every grade of naval officer, from admiral to sub-lieutenant, was represented in the various classes. Admirals, captains and commanders were undergoing war courses and senior naval officers' courses ; "Dagger" gunnery and torpedo lieutenants were going through their special courses, budding naval instructors were qualifying, newly-joined marines were doing a short course before joining their barracks, and the sub was taking his "Greenwich" and pilotage course.
At five minutes to nine on any week-day morning representatives of all these ranks could be seen, all in uniform, hurrying across the quadrangle to their various lecture-rooms, each holding his books under his arm, for all the world like so many schoolboys.
In those days the sub-lieutenant had to go through four courses and pass a final examination in each. These with the seamanship examination made five in all. On the result of these examinations his seniority depended. Thus, if he got five firsts he would only do six months' total time as a sublieutenant, including his acting time, and as his courses usually took longer than this he would go to sea as a full-fledged lieutenant, dating his seniority back to six months after he had passed his seamanship examination.
This was called "Getting on the scale." It was necessary to get at least three "Ones," a "Two" and a "Three" in order to get on the scale. This lowest amount gave, I think, six months' seniority. A sub-lieutenant not on the scale would do two and a half years from the date of passing his seamanship examination before getting his promotion to lieutenant. Thus the "Five-oner" would find
himself two years senior to his term mate who had not got on the scale - obviously a very great advantage.
I think that this system was not only unfair, but also in some ways stupid. In the first place, games were encouraged, and it was looked upon as a tremendous honour to play for the College. Boys of nineteen could hardly be expected to work overtime - an absolute necessity in most cases in order to get a "One," when they might be playing football or cricket, and the system gave an unfair advantage to the "swots" who never played a game in their lives. In the second place, if a sub happened to get a "Three" in his first two courses it mattered not at all what he got in the three remaining courses - he was "off the scale," and bound to do his full two and a half years anyhow. As these last courses included gunnery and torpedo - perhaps the two most important - the system did not tend to encourage the majority of sub-lieutenants to take much interest in these two subjects.
We had a very good time at Greenwich. The hours of study were not long, and the sub could do pretty well what he liked in his own time. He had to be in by a certain time at night, but he could
usually get leave, if he asked for it, and had a reasonable excuse, to stay out later, or even for week-ends. With London so near there was always a reasonable excuse, and perhaps some of the subs got rather in the way of becoming night birds. I do not remember that Greenwich itself, whatever its attractions in the past may have been, offered any special inducement to make its acquaintance, though perhaps a "swot" would find his way to the park to meditate, or even to improve his mind by inspecting the Observatory.
The last course but one was gunnery. Here we were supposed to live at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth (now the Navigation School), and go over to Whale Island daily in a steamboat. But there happened to be a particularly large batch of subs going through in my time, and the accommodation in the College not being sufficient, the more recently joined had to be berthed in the old Duke of Wellington, which was used as the Naval Depot, the Royal Naval Barracks not then being built.
The Duke of Wellington was a three-decker line-of-battleship, launched in 1852. Designed to carry 131 guns, the heaviest a 68-pounder, she was laid
down at Pembroke Dock in 1849 as a sailing vessel, but while still on the stocks she was converted to a screw ship. She was 240 ft. 7 in. long, 6o ft. 2 in. broad and of 3,771 tons. She carried 1,100 men. I venture to give these details for the benefit of any reader who is interested in naval architecture.
The Duke of Wellington was the filthiest ship I have ever been in. The officers and men were mostly birds of passage and took no interest in her, and the ship herself had no associations to appeal to sentiment or the imagination. So far as I was concerned, however, I got a pretty good insight into the lives of naval officers of old, and was able to realise something of the conditions under which they were forced to exist ; though this was nothing like the reality, for we were at any rate in harbour, with many comforts unknown to our predecessors, and, of course, we were spared the horrors of the actual sea lives that they led.
But the conditions were bad enough. We had our sea-chests on the orlop-deck. This was below the water-level, and the only light was provided by candles in lanterns. To wash, shave and dress under these conditions was a feat indeed. In the beginning these primitive resources had a certain charm, but
like a country cottage with its oil-lamps and well water and other drawbacks the charm easily becomes a "fade - away." I cannot recall any honest expression of regret at bidding farewell to the obscene old hulk.
I thought that so far in my naval career I had seen at least a bit of that peculiarly British custom known as "licking into shape." Like many others, I had been harried and worried, from a benign regard for my health and general development, and I thought that with the coming of the frock-coat I had been translated to another and a better sphere. But with Whale Island came the revelation that what I had already gone through was merely a sort of "prep.," and that frocks were unimportant things, unless worn by the right sex.
From the moment we landed on the sacred (to gunnery) island to the moment we left its shores - a daily occurrence for three months - we were systematically chased. To the gunnery instructors, gunners (G) and gunnery lieutenants we were fair bait, to be chased until we dropped, and kicked on to our feet and chased again. And, believe me, it did us a lot of good. I don't think there can be any other institution in the world where the fear
of the Lord is so thoroughly instilled into the young officer.
There was still a battery of very old 4-inch guns in those days - the powers that were moved slowly - and the drill for "action" went something like this: "Number One takes a step to the rear, pulls up the plug, and falls in." The plug was a stop to secure the gun when not in use.
When drilling (it may still be so, for all I know) if things were not going to the satisfaction of the instructor or the officer in charge he would shout the order "Still!" This meant that the units of the class or squad or gun's crew were to remain absolutely motionless, whatever position they were in, until the order "Carry on" was given. Nothing exasperated a gunnery lieutenant more than to observe the slightest movement after the order "Still!"
We, the afflicted subs, very soon learned that inattention to such details meant an hour's extra drill after the rest had packed up - an hour which it was only necessary to experience once, for having once known it the sub was perfectly satisfied that he would rather die than repeat it. As a result we were all painfully anxious to please the gunnery
officers in any way within our power, particularly the act of standing perfectly still when the order "Still!" was given. If you want to realise how difficult this apparently simple performance can be, try it yourself for even a short spell - and know that you must not move, even if a wasp is buzzing round, staking out a claim on you, under certainty of an even worse punishment than the sting of that baneful insect.
Now, there was one gunnery lieutenant at Whale Island at that time whom we dreaded even more than the rest. He had a demoralising habit of stalking round when we were doing cutlass drill or gun drill under a gunnery instructor and taking the class over and drilling us himself. And to add to the horror of the situation, it was almost impossible to please him - we never seemed to remain still enough when he gave the order "Still!" Indeed, I think his ideal in this respect was unattainable outside a churchyard. To make things worse, he addled our wits, for his order sounded like "Stillwhat'r'yermovin'for " all in one breath - and a very loud one ; consequently the dreaded hour's extra drill was "whacked out" pretty freely for inattention in this matter.
I think I can fairly claim that my mind has always acted pretty rapidly, and having once experienced a dose of the drill, I was very much on the top line not to be caught out again. And I think I scored, which, in the circumstances, was a somewhat marvellous achievement.
It so happened that one forenoon we were doing small-arms drill, and that I was afflicted with a very bad cold. This was bad enough, but it was made infinitely worse by the fact that the awe-inspiring gunnery lieutenant was prowling round, like the hosts of Midian, ready for a swoop. It happened also that, being about to sneeze, I pulled out my handkerchief, wishful to do the polite thing, with my spare hand and waited for relief.
I am not making any suggestion of foul play against the gunnery lieutenant, but at this crucial moment I heard the paralysing roar of "Still!" I use the adjective deliberately, for the order had the same effect upon my sneeze as rubbing one's nose has on occasions when it is not convenient to sneeze. I fought against the temptation - knowing the dire judgment - and I triumphed. Perhaps some semblance of human compassion overcame the gunnery lieutenant, for after what seemed an eternity
he gave the joyful order "Carry on." So I completed the sneeze and returned my handkerchief to its pocket.
But my victory was not yet won. In that I had taken my handkerchief from my pocket - a sub-conscious act - during the time I was supposed to be at the "Shoulder" I had disobeyed the drill book, and therefore I most anxiously awaited the verdict of the gunnery lieutenant on my conduct. But to my surprise he swung round on his heel and walked off without saying a word. That afternoon, however, just before we were due to pack up for the day, a message came from the tyrant that he wished to see me at once.
Now I was "for it," if you like ! There could be only one possible reason for a mere sub being sent for by a gunnery lieutenant - an hour's extra drill would be child's play to what I was about to receive.
With trembling knees I entered the presence and stood before the arbiter of my fate.
"Hartford," said the gunnery lieutenant, "on one other occasion only have I happened to give the order 'Still!' when a man was half-way through a sneeze. That man failed. I have no hesitation
in saying that if you also had failed I should have punished you as an example to the class. As it is, I consider you a credit to your class and to the gunnery system. You may go."
And I went, without standing on the order of my going.
That officer is now an admiral.
I wonder whether he remembers the incident.
My first appointment after completing the various courses was, to my complete surprise, the flagship on the old station, this time the Ariadne. She had relieved us in the Crescent the year before, when we sailed for England to pay off. But I was destined to remain in her only for six months, after which period I was sent to a small cruiser, the Tribune, on the same station. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as shortly afterwards we were sent home to pay off under the reduction scheme of Admiral Fisher, who had been recently appointed First Sea Lord. And, under the same scheme, I found myself in command of H.M. torpedo-boat Number 74, a type of vessel which in the past had been commissioned for manoeuvres only. My sub-lieutenant's time was now drawing to a close.
I shipped my second stripe on the last day of
1904, but not before I had had the honour of commanding one of His Majesty's ships in full commission, for one day, as a sub-lieutenant. Let me hasten to add that this is no uncommon experience in the life of a naval officer, but it does not occur to all, and I am glad that I was amongst the lucky ones.
To command a ship when still only twenty-one is a thrilling experience, and as every dog has his day, I certainly had mine when I received my appointment and saw my new command for the first time. She was lying alongside Chatham Dockyard at the time, a heap of stores, ammunition, torpedo gear, etc., lumbering her deck. A disconsolate torpedo coxswain was standing on the jetty, gazing at the tangle and wondering how he was going to unravel it. His eye lit up when he saw me, for besides being captain I was the only officer in the ship. Between us we got the ship's company under way, and managed more or less to put things in order.
That noble vessel H.M. torpedo-boat Number 74 had two funnels and a shovel nose. The shape of her bow was designed to round off her bow torpedo-tube ; as a fact, the shape was such that
the slightest wave was scooped up and sprayed all over the ship. But this failing was small compared with some of her other vices. For instance, her turning circle was larger than that of any battleship afloat, and the engines, when put astern, would give her stern a kick to port and bring her head round nearly at right angles to her former course.
These are just examples of her weaker points, but they did not worry me in the least. She was mine, and I thought her the finest ship afloat. She had a displacement of 75 tons, and her crew consisted of twelve men, made up as follows : A torpedo coxswain (1st class petty officer) and a petty officer, a chief engine-room artificer and an engine-room artificer, a signalman (who also acted as my servant), three able seamen, one stoker petty officer, and three stokers. The manoeuvres I have mentioned, for which alone these torpedo-boats in the past had been commissioned, covered a period of two weeks or so, and that in the heart of summer, so it could not be said that they were designed to give either warmth or comfort on such a freezingly cold day as that of the last day of 1904, when I found myself on board.
No provision whatever had been made for my
sleeping arrangements except the duffle suits served to all ranks and ratings in torpedo craft. This was all very fine for manoeuvres, but I had to live in the ship. That night even the duffle suit could not keep the cold out, and I had to take down the curtains and wrap up in them. I learned afterwards that all the other C.O.'s had done the same. Needless to say, we were soon provided with blankets, pillows and a stove.
This state of things provided me with a story which I will now tell, though I do not expect that anybody will believe it, for those to whom I tell it, while refraining from calling me a liar, think I am one, and change the subject. Nevertheless, I am telling the truth, and I am going to put it into print.
On the following day, memorable as New Year's Day and my first day as a lieutenant, the flotilla, consisting of three other boats of the same class as T.B. 74, proceeded down the Medway and anchored off the west shore, Sheerness. Incidentally, this remained our harbour billet for the space of a year.
An application had gone in for stoves to be supplied to us, and the necessary fittings put in for the funnels, etc. A week or so passed before the
applications could be got through and the dockyard authorities get busy with the work. Meanwhile the weather was exceptionally cold, and I should certainly have been frozen to death unless some form of heating was introduced to my cabin, which was also the wardroom. So I landed and bought an oil-stove, one of those double-wicked things with a flat top, on which, on the advice of the shopman, I put a brick.
This was before lunch. I lit the stove, shut the hatch and scuttles, and looked forward to getting the wardroom warm for the first time. Getting out a book, I began to read, and then dozed off to sleep.
At about four o'clock I awoke, started to read again, and after a little time, the light beginning to fail, I struck a match. It went out. I struck another, and that also went out. The matches on examination seemed to be perfectly good, so I struck another, and that also went out. Slightly irritated, I opened the hatchway and shouted for the quartermaster to get me some more matches, and as I waited for his return I struck another match. This lit perfectly. I was astonished and puzzled, and it was not until I struck another match and found that it burned perfectly well that I realised how
narrowly I had escaped following the duds' example, and going out also, for in my efforts to get warm I had created an atmosphere so dense that a match would not light in it.
Is it possible to have such an experience and live? All my friends - the unbelievers - say "No," and I have had to give up telling the story. This is positively its last appearance, and as Mr. Barton, whom I shall introduce in a later chapter, would say: "You can believe me or not, as you please."
I commanded this queer little ship for just under two years, and on the whole had a great deal of fun out of her. The whole thing was a complete novelty to me, and the manifold discomforts were passed over as part of the game. What we enjoyed most was the annual exercising of the defences of the east coast ports. This was in summer, when the Regulars were in camp and the Territorials were undergoing their annual training by taking their places.
These attacks, all at night, of course, lent themselves to all sorts of crafty plots and schemes, which we would work out the day before, the result being that the torpedo-boats wore astonishing disguises-deceptions the value of which was to be fully proved
ten years later, when the War itself was with us. It was nothing to rig the little craft up as schooners, tramps or tugs, though when you consider what the average tramp is and what a tug can be the impostors could hardly escape detection; indeed, we were usually bowled out by the searchlights, much to the delight of the "Defences," largely expressed by a brave discharge of blank from their land guns.
The first little problem in ruling the lives of my ship's company arose very soon after commissioning. Hearing a noise on the upper deck, one afternoon when I was in the wardroom, I hurried on deck and found that two men were fighting. When they saw me they stopped, and I duly admonished them, adding that if they had a quarrel to settle they could do so ashore.
The next day, to my astonishment, I was sent for by the commander-in-chief, who wanted an explanation from me as to my responsibility in the matter of a disturbance of the peace in Sheerness on the previous night.
Then, to my further bewilderment, I learned that a ring had been formed by members of my ship's company, zealously assisted by any other bluejackets who happened to be near, in the middle of the
High Street, and that two of my sailors had thereupon begun a fierce battle. So great was the crowd that all traffic was held up, and the police were about ten minutes in forcing their way through to the combatants. By the time the constables had struggled to the middle of the ring the fight was over ; but the two men swore on oath that their commanding officer had given them permission to settle their dispute ashore. I could not, of course, deny this ; but the outcome of what at first looked like a serious business ended amicably on all sides through the fortunate fact that the commander-in-chief had a sense of humour.
Another episode in the career of T.B. Number 74 which I think is worth recording comes into my mind. I was once steaming up the Medway in a thick fog, when suddenly the look-out reported some seaweed floating on the surface ahead. He said it seemed to be stationary.
I went forward, and sure enough there was a patch of stuff dead ahead which seemed to be going along at the same speed as the ship. Then I looked over the bows. There was no bow wave ! Then I stopped the engines. Then the fog lifted and the mystery was solved.
We had run into a shelving mudbank, and had been steaming slowly ahead into it for ten minutes or so. Need I say that it was many years before I heard the last of that little incident from my delighted contemporaries, who, of course, never did such unseamanlike things.
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