PERHAPS after that peep into the daily life of an officer commanding a destroyer in war-time it will be well to get on to a more attractive subject, and I will therefore link up the threads of the previous chapter of anecdotes, for I think that, amongst other reasons, this is a pleasant way of showing some of the side-lights of the Navy, without going into any sort of technicality.
Some time before the War a certain admiral was in command of all torpedo-craft in home waters. As was the custom in those days, he had assembled the vessels at a certain port, in the summer, for the annual regatta, an event which always arouses great interest and enthusiasm, so that people are occasionally apt to lose their heads and say and do odd things.
The destroyers were anchored in two long lines to form the "course" for the pulling races, the start being between the two end boats inshore and
the finish between the flagship and depot-ship which completed the two lines.
On the afternoon of the day before the regatta the admiral suggested that his navigating commander should man the dinghy and row him up the line, so that he could see for himself that everything was in order for the morrow. Both were in plain clothes.
The commander shaped course up the line towards the start, and when they had arrived off one of the inshore destroyers, the admiral, wishing to know the depth of water, said to an engineer-lieutenant, who was leaning over the side of his ship : "What water are you in?"
The engineer-lieutenant, not recognising his admiral, and thinking his leg was being pulled, answered: "Salt, you fool!"
"Row back to the ship," snapped the admiral.
At that moment the captain of the destroyer rushed on deck, having overheard the conversation, and said to the engineer in horror: "Do you know who that was ? "
"No," answered the other.
"Well, that was the commander-in-chief," said the captain.
"Good God!" exclaimed the engineer, aghast. "What shall I do?"
"The best thing you can do," replied the captain, "is to get the whaler manned and row hell-for-leather for the flagship. If you can manage to get there before the admiral you can meet him at the gangway and apologise. It 's your only chance!"
The whaler was manned, and was so violently pulled that the engineer-lieutenant got to the flagship just before the admiral.
Meeting him at the gangway he said: "I beg your pardon, sir. I 'm afraid I didn't quite recognise you just now."
"All right!" snapped the admiral. "Get out of my ship!"
Naval officers and bluejackets are, on the whole, honest and generous. But there are black sheep in every fold, and when a clever swindler rises up amongst them they are liable to be easily and thoroughly fleeced. A case in point occurred in a cruiser belonging to a fleet to which my destroyer was attached.
A leading seaman in this ship put in a request to see the captain on private affairs. This is a right all men on the lower deck have - it gives them a
chance to ventilate a grievance or ask for advice. In this case the leading seaman produced a letter which he asked the captain to read.
The letter had a printed heading giving the address and standing of a firm of solicitors in Australia. It was addressed to the leading seaman, and stated that an uncle of his had recently died and had left him a large fortune, that the uncle's affairs needed settling up and that the leading seaman should proceed to Australia without delay. This important announcement was followed by the statement that if the leading seaman required any money an I.O.U. on the firm's name would be met by return of post.
After the captain had read the letter through he asked the leading seaman what he proposed to do about it.
"Well, sir," was the reply, "I thought that perhaps you would be kind enough to advise me in the matter, and I feel that I can't do better than act on that advice."
Now when anybody who has come into a fortune asks for your advice you are not, as a rule, unwilling to give it, and in this case the captain was quite ready to help the lucky heir to live up to his new and
greatly improved station, for which reason he said
"Certainly, my good man. I would buy myself out of the service and take the next steamer to Australia. The letter states that your presence is required as soon as possible, and delay on your part might make all the difference in the settling up of your affairs."
"Very good, sir," replied the leading seaman gratefully, "I'll do as you suggest. You can, of course, give me permission to buy myself out, but I shall have to raise enough money to pay for that and for my passage out."
"I shall be very glad to advance you a sum of money towards your expenses," said the captain, "but I'm afraid it won't be enough to cover everything. However, perhaps your friends on board will be able to raise the balance amongst them."
The news quickly spread that the leading seaman had been left a fortune and that the captain was assisting him to buy himself out and pay for his ticket to Australia. And when it became known that he was prepared to pay a big interest, to his friends only, for any loan they might offer him towards his expenses, a small stampede occurred, and it was positively amazing to find how many
friends he had in the ship. For every pound lent him he promised to return thirty shillings as soon as he had arrived in Australia.
The leading seaman explained that he would have more money than he would know what to do with, and that it was a small matter for him, and one that would give him much pleasure, to return rather more than he received! Could anything be more delightful than such a way of making a little extra money?
Everything seemed to be in perfect order ; the amount necessary to buy the leading seaman out was promptly paid, his ticket was purchased, and a very substantial sum of money remained in his pocket for "expenses" and he was never heard of again.
The real truth leaked out many years afterwards. What had happened was this: A ship's writer, a friend of his, had left the service some months before the event and had gone to Australia to look for a job. He found one with a well-known firm of solicitors, and the idea of the swindle occurred to him one day when he was writing a letter on the firm's notepaper. The rest was easy. It was simple to forge his chief's signature, and the whole fraud was fixed up by letter between the two conspirators.
When the leading seaman reached Australia they divided the swag and got clean away. Unfortunately, they were never caught, which was perhaps an uncommon bit of luck for them.
Naval officers are, at times, called upon to discharge duties which in ordinary circumstances fall to the parson, and these extras are borne in many cases with becoming dignity and a due sense of the solemnity of the clerical responsibility which rests upon one; but there are exceptions, and circumstances and naval discipline occasionally cause a forcible reminder to be given of a departure from custom.
When no chaplain is borne in a ship, or should the chaplain of a ship be sick or on leave, it is customary for the commander to take the church service on Sunday forenoon. In a certain battleship on a very hot and trying morning in the tropics the commander was conducting this service.
The ship's company was half asleep to a man, and by the time they had arrived at the second hymn the singing had deteriorated to scarcely a whisper.
This laxity was too much for the commander, who took it as a personal matter, and, stopping the
service, he said : "Now look here, if you can't sing louder than that, I'll go through the whole damned service again!"
Upon this the ship's company was galvanised into song, and so escaped the carrying out of the commander's alarming threat.
"Every captain is mad and every commander is going mad." Well, perhaps that is rather an exaggeration ; perhaps - but it will be better to get on with the next story.
The naval officer who has served abroad in odd parts of the world very often has experiences which, if published, might cause a rift in international relations. The following experiences may have befallen me and they may not, but they happened in comparatively recent times, say within the last twenty-four years.
The events will be easily recognised by those who were present, and for the rest they may cause amusement.
A small republic, under the complete control of a very autocratic president, had refused to carry out obligations which concerned Great Britain. Having begged, expostulated and finally threatened to no effect, it was decided that more practical
pressure must be brought to bear, therefore a cruiser was sent to the seaport town of the capital to blockade it, and, if possible, capture its navy.
Anxious to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, the home authorities had given strict instructions to the captain of the cruiser that he was not to fire on the fort unless he was fired on first. This order seemed a little one-sided to the captain, for, having taken up his position off the town, he found four 8-inch guns pointing straight at him.
As the captain was only a matter of a couple of miles off, he knew perfectly well that if those guns let loose together he and his ship would be having an aerial view of the capital, which was a matter of two thousand feet higher up, in far less time than it takes to write this. However, orders must be obeyed, and so there was nothing to be done but keep the guns cleared for action, guns' crews closed up and ready to "commence" at a moment's notice and earnestly to hope that the enemy were imperfect shots.
In the meantime efforts were made to capture the navy. This turned out to be a very simple matter in the end, as the navy consisted of a cruiser, really nothing more than a gunboat, and a gunboat
which was nothing more than a tug mounting a three-pounder in the bows.
The enemy cruiser steamed out of harbour, and, without making a show of fighting, surrendered. I think the captain was glad to have the opportunity of doing so before the autocratic president ordered him to proceed and engage the British cruiser.
But the gunboat was another matter. She lay inside the breakwater, and it would have been utter madness to attempt to seize her under the very eyes of the fort. Happily the problem solved itself. One morning the gunboat was seen to be emerging from the harbour and trying to sneak away along the coast. It was still dusk, and there being a fog, she would have succeeded but for the vigilance of the British cruiser's picket-boat, which was patrolling in the vicinity.
She showed no signs of fight, and the picket-boat proceeded alongside to take her over and escort her back to the cruiser. But the lieutenant in command of the picket-boat never expected to find the sight which greeted his eyes in the dim dawn of the morning. For the gunboat's crew seemed to consist of a full general in full uniform, a filthy seaman working the boat-hook forward, and a stoker working
the engines. The general was obviously in command of the ship, for he was at the helm and had been steering her himself.
Further, the astonished British officer's ears were greeted with loud knockings, which appeared to come from the after-cabin. This was found to be locked, and the general was requested to produce the key. With some reluctance he did so, insisting at the same time that he was a prisoner of war, and that he threw himself on the merciful protection of his captors.
The cabin door having been opened, an admiral, also in full dress, his face livid with rage, and the sweat standing out on his brow, was with difficulty prevented by British bluejackets from throwing himself on the general and destroying him entirely, on sight.
The lieutenant, feeling that the affair was too complicated to be settled on the spot, made the general prisoner one end of the picket-boat and the admiral the other end, and, having taken the gunboat in tow, returned to his ship.
On inquiry, the explanation of this peculiar episode appeared to be this. At the beginning of hostilities the general, who commanded the army, was sent for by the president and instructed to give
his plans for destroying the British fleet, i.e. 1st class cruisers, one in number.
The general requested time to draw up his plans, and having got clear of the palace, took to his heels and went down the railway to the seaport. Here he found that the greater part of the navy having surrendered, there remained only the admiral and the crew of the gunboat.
Now the general knew perfectly well that he had no plans for destroying the British fleet; and, therefore, he was equally certain that the president would order his execution as soon as he discovered this. His one hope was to get on board one of his own ships and surrender himself to the enemy, in the form of the neighbouring British fleet.
But when this matter was put to the admiral he gained little sympathy for his scheme. Were not the admiral and his crew safe in their gunboat ? Even the president would not dare to order a gunboat to attack a 1st class British cruiser ! And if things got too hot, he could always sneak away down the coast in the fog during the early hours of the morning. Oh no ! The general's affairs were his own. The admiral was quite comfortable - thanks very much all the same.
Now the general's life was in danger, and he was not disposed to lose it without an effort. So that night he secretly visited the crew and drew terrifying pictures of what would happen to them when the president found that their cruiser had surrendered. They would most certainly be sent to fight the British warship, and where would they be then ? No ! Their only chance of salvation was to make their admiral prisoner, and, under the general's orders, escape in the fog in the early hours of the morning! Thus they would save their lives and all responsibility would be his in any proceedings which might arise out of their action later on. The scared crew threw in their lot with the general, and so the whole of this remarkable ship's company was saved.
The enemy cruiser was temporarily commissioned by a British lieutenant in command and a British crew. When taken over she was in a perfectly filthy state. Running with rust, she could not have been painted for years ; while her living quarters were verminous and others parts of her baffled description. But in a week she was as smart as any ship in the British Navy, and when she was eventually returned to the republic she must have been an eye-opener to the officers and men who took her over.
But, doubtless, in another week she was as filthy as ever.
The gunboat was found to be in good order, with the exception of the breech-block of the threepounder, which had apparently been pawned by the admiral, who had probably run short of cash. This, however, did not affect her steaming abilities, and she was very useful as an additional ship's boat until the terrible war was over.
When this joyous moment arrived, and it came none too soon, for the crew had very nearly run out of cigarettes, the captain and some of the officers thought they would go to the fort and see what sort of death-dealing implements the guns it mounted were. They found the guns were there all right-good modern breech-loading 8-inch guns ; but where were the mountings ? After such a war things no longer surprised them. But they were interested to notice that the mountings had disappeared - they had been sold, presumably - and that the guns themselves had been propped up on cement mountings in such a way that they pointed directly over the harbour beneath them.
And so for weeks the British cruiser had been lying under those guns fearing every moment that
they might go off and blow the ship and her crew to smithereens, yet all the time they might have known that far more damage would have been done to the fort than to the ship if anyone had been so foolhardy as to fire one of them off.
Besides, the same gentleman who had sold the mountings had presumably sold all the ammunition.
And now I come to some happenings in a republic where the inhabitants spoke with a strong American accent. Fortunately, there are several republics which might come under this description, and if I give the latitude as somewhere in the tropics I think I shall be within the bounds of prudence in hiding the identity of the state.
It having been decided that the anniversary of the creation of the republic should be suitably celebrated, a small British cruiser was ordered to proceed to the port of the capital and, having exchanged the customary salutes, make the usual official calls.
When the cruiser anchored at about 7 a.m. it was pouring with rain as it can pour only in the tropics.
Presently a coloured gentleman came alongside in a dug-out which he was propelling himself. He
wore no clothes except a loin-cloth about his middle. Having made his craft fast, he climbed up the gangway and demanded to see the captain.
"But you can't do that," said the officer of the watch. " If you want anything, you had better ask me."
" Say, do you know who I am," he said haughtily.
" No. I don't, and don't particularly want to," retorted the officer of the watch with suitable contempt.
"Well, I'm the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for War, and I guess I want to see the captain ! " the visitor added.
This was a knock-out for the officer of the watch, who realising that you cannot always tell a man's position from his clothes, tactfully sent for the captain.
The captain also was tactful and very polite. " I regret," he said, addressing the Adamesque figure, "that you were not received properly; but may I ask why you did not come off in uniform ? "
" Wal," replied the First Lord, " I guess I 've only got one uniform, and I can't afford to have it spoiled in this rain."
" I see," observed the captain. " Now, what can I do for you ? "
" Wal," was the answer, " I 've come off to ask you not to fire the national salute at eight o'clock this morning."
"But I can't do that," said the captain in astonishment, " I 've got my orders to obey. And in any case, what is the reason for such a request ? "
"Wal, you see, cap.," the visitor replied, "we've not used our saluting guns for so long that the breech-blocks have been mislaid, and it will be very difficult for us to return your salute with only blasting powder in the way of ammunition, and one thing and another, and - wal, I 've come to ask you not to fire that salute this morning."
" I'm very sorry," the captain told him, " but I 'm afraid I can't accede to your request. The steps you take to return the salute are entirely the concern of your government."
The First Lord took his departure, and at eight o'clock the salute was fired. There was a considerable pause after this, followed by a loud explosion in what appeared to be the middle of the town. Another pause, and then another explosion near it, followed by complete silence.
Ten minutes after this, he came off again, this time in a cocked hat and uniform coat, the weather having improved. This time, also, he was correctly received by the captain and a guard. He said : " Cap., I 've come to ask you to excuse us firing the rest of the salute, as we find it too expensive."
"Certainly," said the captain affably, "the matter rests entirely with you. But may I ask what has happened ? "
" Wal, cap., you see," replied the visitor, " having no saluting guns and only blasting-powder available, we thought we had better bury some blasting-powder in various places and reply to your salute that way – and - I guess the fellow didn't know his job and buried the powder too deep, or used too much, or something, and, wal, anyway, there was too much damage to property around, and so I've come to ask you to excuse us firing the rest of that salute."
And there was nothing for it but to grant his request. It turned out that the people of this republic were very poor, due principally to the extreme corruption of every branch of government, and an American dollar was to them what a ten-pound note would be to us.
This wretched state of affairs accounted for what happened to a young lieutenant who landed that afternoon. He was deputed to return calls for the wardroom, having "cut out" and lost previously, and, in the course of this duty, came upon the Postmaster-General.
While conversing with this official, he happened to say that he was about to go to the post office to buy some stamps.
"Wal, I guess it would be a darn silly thing to do that," said the Postmaster-General.
" Why ? " asked the lieutenant.
"Because," was the answer, " if you get them from me, I get the money and you get them cheaper; but if you get them from the post office the Pres-i-dent gets the money! "
Later the lieutenant met the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who inquired whether he required any orders.
"Orders," he said, "why, I should be highly honoured if your President invested me with even one order."
"Yes, but you've got to pay for them, you know," he replied.
" Oh, I see," said the lieutenant. "Now what
exactly have you got ?" Whereupon the Chancellor of the Exchequer retailed a list of orders and their prices, which ranged from what would be the equivalent of the O.B.E. at twenty cents to the equivalent of the K.C.B. at a dollar. He then came to the most expensive order, which might correspond with our O.M., but when he was about to mention the price he hesitated." I guess that one will cost you a deal of money," he said.
" Well, how much ? " asked the lieutenant.
" Wal, I guess that one will cost you ten dollars ! " replied the Chancellor.
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