Over the Side
IT was a sad day when I had to leave my little command.
The normal period was one year only. My appointment to the battleship Formidable arrived when I had been in Number 74 for some twenty months, and so it did not come as a surprise. But it was a big wrench, and the contrast between a mere junior watch-keeper in a battleship and a captain of one's own vessel was very great indeed. From being my own master I became a non-entity in a wardroom comprising some twenty-five commissioned officers. The change was hard, but it had its compensations, because amongst other things I had the companionship of my brother officers, and, a real satisfaction, I got my games. Both of these advantages had been largely denied me in my life in a torpedo-boat.
Commissioning at Portsmouth in October, 1906 we sailed almost at once for Malta to join up with the Mediterranean Fleet, under Lord Charles
Beresford, known to every sailor on the lower deck as "Charley B." After a week or two at Malta we were sent to Corfu to shake down, a necessity for all newly-commissioned ships, and at the same time convey the commander-in-chief's humble duty (I hope that I have got this right) to the Kaiser, who had gone there in his yacht to stay at his palace on the island.
The Kaiser, being an honorary Admiral of the Fleet, expressed his intention of hoisting his flag on board the next day, and inspecting our ship, a course he was perfectly entitled to take. And I am bound to say that he appeared to know as much about the ship as any of us. I always imagined the Kaiser as short and stumpy, but he did not give me that impression at all. He looked fit and well, and his handshake was a grip that made one jump.
It will doubtless be of interest to record here that when I was with the Grand Fleet during the War the opinion was very prevalent amongst the officers that when the end was near, or actually in sight, the Kaiser would hoist his flag as Admiral of the Fleet, and lead his ships to death or glory in the North Sea.
Perhaps it was the mutiny of the crews in the go
German Fleet which prevented this - or it may have been the flight into Holland.
During this visit to Corfu half a dozen of us got together and organised a shooting party to Albania, across the way. We commissioned the sailing launch, and prepared to sail across and enjoy the excellent snipe shooting which is to be obtained there. But before a foreigner can shoot in Albania he must obtain a permit from the nearest Albanian consul ; we therefore visited this official in Corfu and had our permits made out. They were, of course, written in Albanian - whatever language that is: it looked like Arabic to me - and contained, we were told later, a detailed description of our appearances, amongst other things. I noticed that the official looked very closely at us when he filled up a certain part of the form.
On landing in Albania we were required to show our permits, and accordingly we produced them. When the police official read mine he looked at me closely and then burst into a roar of laughter. He then handed my permit to another official, as if for confirmation, and this second opinion promptly went into hysterics.
By this time I was feeling somewhat annoyed,
but as no explanation of the hilarity was offered we were compelled to move on without being able to share in the joke.
The shooting trip occupied four days, during which we were often stopped by officials for examination of our permits. And at every stop exactly the same thing occurred, and always over my permit. In fact, after a time we expected it, and my companions, at any rate, would have felt aggrieved if the joke, whatever it was, had not been continued. But it was a bit galling for me, the odd man out.
To watch these officials gravely examine the other permits, gravely nod their heads, and then hand them back, then to have to hand them mine and helplessly watch their faces light, and stand impotent while they went through convulsions of loud and satisfying laughter - all this was unbearable.
When we returned to Corfu I wanted to go alone to the British consul and demand an explanation ; but the others positively declined to allow me to pay such a visit unaccompanied. They claimed that they had endured a good deal for my sake and deserved a share in the final scene, when all was to be made clear. It is useless to argue with people
with minds like that, so we all went in a body to the British consulate.
The consul received us courteously, and having asked us to sit down, took my permit and began to read it through. Suddenly his face also took on that sinister light, and he looked at me. Then he began to laugh, and he laughed so long and so loud that I could contain myself no longer, and I exclaimed : " Damn it ! Tell me, before I explode, what those blasted mongrels have written on my permit."
This outburst brought the consul to his senses, and having wiped his eyes, he said: "You mustn't mind. These people lead a dull life and have little to amuse them. So I feel sure that you will forgive a joke, even if it is against you. Opposite the description of your appearance in your permit they have written ‘Black-faced bastard.' "
So that the joke may be understood I must explain that in those days I was very dark; but I still do not know why of all the members of the shooting party I should have been the chosen victim.
I need not dwell on the rapture of the party
that had gone with me to the consulate, especially as I should have rejoiced as much as the best of them if the officials had applied such a description to another man amongst them, and spared me.
As everybody knows, there are many official customs in the Navy which are rigidly observed; there are also many of unofficial origin that are no less strictly kept, and perhaps some of these may be included under the heading of "taking a rise" out of an individual or a body of fellow-creatures. And the larger the field of operations the greater the delight of the successful operator. Let me give a case in point.
When I was in the Formidable with the Mediterranean Fleet it was customary for the ships' bands to play selected tunes when leaving harbour, and much ingenuity, not to say cunning, was displayed in the choice and execution of the music. The first essential, of course, was a tune that would get "right there," and one of the ships scored quite a little triumph in this respect.
At that time The Belle of New York was all the rage, and one of the songs that everybody sang or played - or at least attempted - was that of the
grotesque leader of the Social Purity Brigade, the burden being :-
" Of course you can never be like us,
But be as like us as you 're able to be ! "
In this particular ship the bandmaster was incited to work up these two bars, and he did so most effectively, for the next time the ship left harbour she steamed solemnly down the lines, with the band playing, over and over again-
" Of course you can never be like us,
But be as like us as you 're able to be ! "
The feelings of the fleet were none the less poignant because they could not be conveyed to the boastful and triumphant unit.
The Formidable completed her commission and paid off in Portsmouth Dockyard, and after a little leave I took over my first destroyer command. But before I deal with that phase of my life I will give a few details of the Formidable, in view of the fate which befell her. She was head of a class of eight, including the Bulwark, ill-fated also, each displacing 15,000 tons and with a speed of about eighteen and a half knots. Each ship carried 780
officers and men and cost more than £1,000,000 to build and equip.
There was an enormous difference between this famous battleship - big for her day, but small from present standpoints - and the insect-like Number 74, though the War was to prove the truth of that impressive verse about small torpedo craft :
" Only a number, not even a name
How shall posterity hear of thy fame ?
Perhaps she may still live, after the grave,
In the name of a battleship, under the wave."
The Formidable was torpedoed and sunk in the Channel on New Year's Day, 1915, no fewer than 600 of her complement of 800 perishing. A bitter gale was blowing and a heavy sea was running, but one of the battleship's cutters was got away, with seventy-one survivors. These were picked up about fifteen miles off Berry Head by a fishing smack named the Provident, which was running to Brixham for shelter. There was a three hours' fight with wind and sea before the swamped cutter's people could be got on board and carried into Brixham, suffering greatly through exposure, for some were only partly dressed, so quickly had the Formidable foundered, and there had not been any time to get food or
drink. What might easily have been their fate if the Provident had not saved them was shown by the experience of other boats which got away from the sinking ship, amongst them being the pinnace, with fifty-seven men. The pinnace was full of water at the start, and from half-past two in the morning until eleven at night the men in her were exposed to the intensely cold wind and water. Half a dozen of them died through privation and three of the survivors died after getting ashore.
The smack carried four hands, whose gallantry was recognised by the Admiralty with money rewards, the skipper receiving £250, two men £100 each, and the boy £50. They got other rewards, but their greatest came from the King, who received the crew at Buckingham Palace and said: "I congratulate you heartily upon your gallant and heroic conduct. It is a great feat to have saved seventy-one lives. I realise how difficult your task must have been, because I know myself how arduous it is to gybe a vessel in a heavy gale."
My first destroyer command was the Vigilant, Portsmouth flotilla, under Captain Tyrwhitt. The Vigilant was a considerable advance on Number 74,
being a vessel of thirty knots and with a complement of about sixty officers and men.
It was now August, 1908, and I had reached a seniority of some three and a half years as lieutenant, so that when I stepped over the side of the Vigilant for the first time I could truthfully be said to be stepping out of my period of "Juniority" and leaving it behind for ever.
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