I HAVE tried to make clear that I have no really settled plan in writing this book, otherwise I could hardly change over from a great and serious problem like China to give such a mixed chapter as I now propose to add. It is a collection of odds and ends and anecdotes that I find little difficulty in compiling once my mind sets to work in the right direction, which is still that of looking towards the cheerful side of things.
"Every captain is mad and every commander is going mad," was a very prevalent saying in the Navy when I first joined up.
Perhaps this is not so true of the Navy of to-day, but in the old days, when the captain lived entirely alone, and the ship spent months continuously at sea I can well imagine that this alarming state of things existed.
Captains still live alone, of course, but modern conditions and all the duties and interests of a modern warship make it impossible for a captain
to isolate himself, even if he felt such a desire, as he so often did in the past.
I was told on good authority that many years ago the captain of an old ironclad got fits of imagining that the Host was about to pay him a visit, though in all others matters he was perfectly sane.
On such occasions he would lock himself into his after-cabin, send for the commander, and, speaking through the locked door, order him to march the ship's company aft, muster them in his fore-cabin, and report when they were present. He would then deliver a message to them from the Host.
This was in the old days when a ship was often for months on detached service, sometimes for years, during which time she would not even see another ship, so that a captain who was mad on one subject only was in a very strong position. If an officer refused to obey an order, he would promptly be put under arrest; similarly, if the surgeon considered the captain to be unfit for duty he would be immediately placed under arrest for impertinence.
The ironclad was on detached service, and was likely to remain so for some time. When, therefore, the commander received the order to march the ship's company aft, he had no option but obedience.
He was, however, a man of courage and resource, and he had the not uncommon wish to save himself and others from being made to look ridiculous. There was also his conviction that the captain's mind was not what it ought to be. Still, there was the awkward matter of the order, and in appearance, at any rate, the commander was bound to put it into execution.
The commander hastily collected some of his brother officers, and after a very informal sort of council of war it was arranged that they should tramp into the fore-cabin in line ahead, making as much noise as possible, and then tramp round and round the table to resemble a large body of men marching into the cabin.
It may easily be imagined how gladly the brother officers entered into the plot, thankful to get a chance of relieving the tedium of sea life. They put all their souls and bodies into the effort, and after ten minutes' life-like imitation of the tramp of hundreds of men the commander was able to knock at the locked door and report "Ship's company aft, sir ! "
Fortunately the captain was crazy enough to believe it, so the deception succeeded perfectly.
This astonishing performance was repeated many
times, the captain being completely hoodwinked, but finally the state of things became intolerable and the receiver of mysterious messages ended his days in an asylum.
Mighty man though a captain was, there was one far mightier than he, and that was the august being who, in the old days, considered himself beyond all laws, human and divine, except his own. Almost incredible tales are told of the pomposity of some of these individuals.
Long before the days of wireless - an invention which has revolutionised many things in the Navy as well as in numberless other directions - the commander-in-chief on a certain foreign station was renowned for what is now commonly known as "swelled head" or, more politely, wind in the head, and to such an extent did the disorder affect him that he invariably referred to himself in the third person and to other less exalted beings in the neutral.
It is told - and believed - that on the first day of the commission there was a memorable conversation between the admiral and his flag-lieutenant, whom he had never previously met.
" Good morning, sir," said the flag-lieutenant.
Now this was a safe, charitable and friendly
opening, and, coming from a flag-lieutenant, it was entitled to at least respectful acknowledgment.
" Ump ! " replied the commander-in-chief.
Flag-lieutenants are not easily crushed, and this member of the band had no thought of letting even a commander-in-chief score an easy victory. " Looks like a fine day, sir," he hazarded, none the less boldly because other members of the staff were standing by - or rather sitting - anxiously awaiting conversational developments.
" Looks like rain to me! " came the uncompromising answer.
" The Nonsuch is looking very smart with her new coat of paint," said the undaunted flag-lieutenant.
" Dirtiest ship in the squadron! " growled the unapproachable one.
The flag-lieutenant now led a forlorn hope. "Don't you like being spoken to in the morning ? " he asked.
" Not by a damn fool ! " replied the admiral.
And after this not even the flag-lieutenant could carry on.
This commander-in-chief was inspecting a ship on one occasion. The officers were lined up in the customary manner, and when he came to a certain midshipman he said: "Captain, what is this?"
"Midshipman Jones, sir," the captain enlightened him.
"Its dirk is very dirty. It is to provide itself with a new dirk at once," announced the admiral in a detached manner.
"I beg your pardon, sir," blurted the outraged midshipman. "I have just passed for acting-sub-lieutenant and am expecting my new uniform at any time now."
"It should not answer the commander-in-chief," observed the being sublimely.
Continuing down the line, he came to a very stout boatswain.
"Captain, what is this?" demanded the commander-in-chief.
"Mr. Smith, boatswain, sir."
"The King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions state that the sword-belt is to be worn round the waist. It has not got a waist. I will inspect it again in six weeks' time, when it is to have a waist."
And with this command to Nature herself the admiral continued his triumphal way.
Now great as this remarkable admiral was, there was one man on the station who was even
greater than he, and that was the governor. A mere civilian, the admiral treated him with profound contempt, but he could not get away from the obnoxious fact of the governor's official superiority.
On taking up the command of the station the commander-in-chief had given the strictest orders that he was never to be disturbed at dinner. He invariably dined alone, and this order was to be carried out to the letter.
It happened that the governor was taking passage in a certain steamer, a passage which took him past the harbour where the flagship was anchored. And Fate, aided by a gale of wind, planted the steamer on the rocks just outside the harbour at a time when the admiral was in the middle of his dinner.
The ship was in a very precarious position and likely to become a total wreck, and the flag-lieutenant, taking the law into his own hands, burst into the admiral's cabin and said : "The ship carrying the governor is ashore on the rocks outside this harbour, sir!"
Fortune, surely, had delivered the enemy into the power of the admiral. He had his chance, and he took it. He calmly laid down his knife and fork and said, very deliberately : " Is that any reason
why the commander-in-chief should be disturbed at dinner ? "
All naval officers will have heard at one time or another the yarn of the two able seamen who were brought up before the commander for fighting and making a disturbance on the mess-deck the night before.
When asked what they had to say, the first replied : "I comes off to the ship in the eleven o'clock leaf-boat and searches the nettin's for me 'ammick. Not being able to find it, I goes down to the mess-deck, and after a long search, I finds this man asleep in it. Shaking 'im gently to wake 'im, I says: `Bill, you're in my 'ammick. Would you kindly mind turning out, because I 'm very tired and I wants to turn in.’"
" No 'e never, sir ! " declared Bill. " 'E says
` Out, yer beggar, out, or I 'Il knock yer bloody eye out ! ' "
Once in my destroyer during the War I had to reprimand an able seaman for putting the engineroom telegraph the wrong way on some order of mine. Of course, a mistake like this might easily lead to a collision, and my language was probably pretty violent.
Later on I overheard this man complaining of the incident to another seaman. He said: "The captain called me a bloody fool, 'e did! "
"Well, you were a bloody fool, weren't yer ? " said the seaman.
"Yes, but 'e ain't got no right to use language like that ! " answered the aggrieved one.
In this destroyer we had just returned to Liverpool after six or seven days at sea on convoying duties. The weather had been pretty bad, and I had not had a chance of a decent wash, let alone a shave, during the entire voyage ; so you can imagine that I was what is called a "pretty sight."
We went alongside a wharf and made fast, and I started walking aft to my cabin, when I was confronted by a nun who had managed to evade the quartermaster and come on board.
The nun was obviously a lady, and I naturally felt somewhat awkward in her presence, unwashed and unshaved as I was. So when she said, "Would you give something for the convent ? We rely entirely on voluntary gifts," I hurriedly handed her a two-shilling piece, which happened to be in my pocket, and in answer to her fervent "God bless
you! " said, as I hurried on, " Oh, not at all-not at all!"
When still a very junior officer I served in a ship with a commander who was religiously inclined, a keen bridge-player and a bad loser withal. Playing bridge one evening, his opponents in one rubber were the first lieutenant and the surgeon. The first lieutenant's luck was prodigious ; every hand he held was a beautiful no-trumper, and the rubber was soon over.
When the remaining cards of the winning game had been thrown on to the table to a grand slam, the mortified commander slowly rose from his seat and said: " God gave you your luck and a damned ugly face too ! "
With this I will leave the anecdote stage for the present.
Ships stationed in the West Indies collect a large variety of parrots and monkeys. These do very well on the station, but very few survive the change to England, the climate of which is too much for them.
When I was serving in a cruiser on that station we carried an officer who bought a young parrot and spent much of his spare time in trying to teach
it to talk. The bird had a beautiful plumage, and the owner was very proud of it.
In the warmth of the middle of the day this parrot used to perch on a wire which was hooked up overhead out of the way when not in use. It was a large wire, the topping-lift of the main derrick, and our smoking circle was near it. Being of a convenient size, this wire was a popular resting-place for monkeys, of which there were several in the ship.
One day, as we were talking and smoking in the dinner-hour, and the parrot was preening himself in the sun, his owner being below at the time, a monkey was seen approaching in a very gingerly manner. When it got near enough the bird, parrotlike, put down its head to be scratched, and the monkey, monkey-like, accepted the invitation, and began a search for insects.
It is common knowledge that when a parrot has had enough scratching it does not say, " Thanks very much - that will do," but brings up its head with a jerk and makes a snatch at the scratcher, who, if not quick enough, will get nipped. Unaware of this unfriendly habit, the monkey, absorbed in its occupation, did not realise that the parrot had
had enough, and being completely off its guard was very severely nipped.
The monkey gave one terrific leap in the air and landed on the wire about six feet off, and there it nursed its damaged finger and jibbered away whilst eyeing the parrot with resentful wrath. Meanwhile the parrot had forgotten the incident and was busy scratching its nose with its foot.
I felt sure that something was going to happen, and I was not mistaken. The monkey took five minutes to make up its mind, and then seemed quite decided as to its further proceedings. Creeping very cautiously, inch by inch, towards the parrot, it got within striking distance without in any way alarming the bird. Then, with a single bound the monkey seized the parrot round the neck, close up under its beak, and at the same time flung itself on to the deck, dragging poor Polly with it. Arrived on deck, the monkey continued to grip the bird round the neck with one hand and with the other, with diabolical deliberation, pulled out the feathers, one by one, and cast them to the winds of heaven.
Then arose a noise such as only an infuriated parrot can make, a noise which in that tropical
stillness must have been distinctly heard all over the fleet, though I fear that on board our own ship it was almost drowned by our roars of laughter.
The deafening din swiftly brought the fond owner to the deck, and, seeing what had happened, he rushed heroically to the rescue and saved his bird and what was left of the feathers ; but the after end of the parrot for many a week resembled a cuckoo's egg in a tit's nest.
In a ship in which I once served - I do not want to be more detailed than this - the gunnery lieutenant was for ever breaking the unwritten law that officers shall not talk "shop" at meals. Like most gunnery lieutenants he had a particularly loud voice, and meal after meal we were forced to listen to the rival merits of electric and percussion firing and to details of the results of some gunnery test or other.
Things came to a head at last, and we all forgathered to decide upon the best steps to be taken to end the nuisance.
The next meal was a memorable one. The gunnery lieutenant carried on as usual, and only felt the least bit irritated when an unusually loud voiced torpedo lieutenant held forth on the merits
of Mark 7 and Mark 7* ; he was somewhat more incensed, however, when in loud tones the paymaster began an argument with his junior as to the most approved method of killing an ox. But when the surgeon-commander thought fit, also in strident tones, to give a minute description to the surgeon-lieutenant of the methods he had recently adopted in operating on the internal economy of a seaman the gunnery lieutenant capitulated. He never again talked shop at mess.
Doctors have considerable power in a ship. They decide whether or not a man is fit for work, and can keep him on the sick list as long as they think necessary ; therefore, the men try and keep on the right side of the doctor. It is obvious that if for any reason the men do not like the doctor they are well advised to keep their feelings to themselves. Let me give an illustration.
I was serving in a ship where the surgeon, a very good chap, had a very peculiar way of humming when reading or otherwise taking his ease. The sentry on the aft deck passed his cabin during his beat and naturally heard this humming in progress.
One of the sentries, for some reason best known to himself, disliked the surgeon, and hearing him
hum in his cabin, imitated him in an obviously sarcastic way. The doctor was intended to hear the noise, and he did.
" Sentry ! " called out the surgeon.
" Sir ! " replied the sentry.
" That 's a nasty cough you've got ! "
" Oh, no, sir ! It's quite all right," the astonished sentry answered.
" But I ought to know," persisted the surgeon. "I say you've got a nasty cough, and I don't like the sound of it. Go and tell the sergeant-major that you are to be relieved at once, and then attend at the sick-bay."
"But, sir ….."
"Do as I tell you, at once ! " ordered the surgeon.
Thoroughly frightened, the unhappy sentry reached the sick-bay.
The surgeon thoroughly examined his throat and said gravely : "Yes, it is as I feared. I have had a prescription made up, and you are to attend the sick-bay every four hours, when the sick-berth attendant will see that you take a dose of it. You needn't come between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Meanwhile you can tell the sergeant-major that you are to carry on duty as before. I have hopes that your
throat will be quite all right again in a week or so."
I do not exactly know what the concoction was, but I imagine that a doctor with a dispensary at command can make up a pretty filthy mixture which is also perfectly harmless. At any rate, the sentry never mocked the surgeon again.
And now, as a curtain to this section, I am going to tell a rather improper story, so that those with corresponding minds should skip it.
I was dining one night at Shanghai at a semi-official party. It was given by the manager of a big firm there to the head of the firm, who had just arrived from England on a tour of inspection. Unhappily the gathering proved to be one of those hopelessly dull affairs where it becomes a real effort to carry on any conversation at all. The pauses were distressingly long, and they lengthened as the time went on.
At length salvation came, by way of a dour old Scot, who had not opened his mouth during the whole proceedings. Sitting up in his chair, the Caledonian, with what seemed to be an heroic effort to cheer the party, said
"When I was travelling in a tram-car the other
day a lady and her little boy got in. The boy, who was about eight years old, was dressed in a sailor suit, with long knickers.
"When the conductor came round the mother offered full fare for herself and half-fare for the little boy.
"You must pay full fare, lady, for the boy, said the conductor, because he's got long knickers on. That's the rule of this company.
"'Very well,' said the mother, `then here's full fare for the boy and half-fare for myself!'
"While the conductor was thinking this problem out an alert female at the other end of the car held up her hand and hailed him with: `Hi! I want my money back!'"
<-Chapter 9 -Contents- Chapter 11->
^ back to top ^