|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
FROM SAIL TO STEAM
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU
THE reader will perhaps remember that when I said farewell, or rather au revoir, with the promise to go on if I received encouragement, I had gone on shore from H.M.S. Asia, had tried to break my neck in the huntingfield, got concussion of the spine and spent a year on the flat of my back, suffering a good deal, though slowly recovering; and, indeed, I had good reason to be thankful that I was not paralyzed for life, as I was threatened with this for several months.
At the end of a year the doctors told me I might go to sea again, so I applied to the Admiralty for an appointment; and as my old friend Lord Clanwilliam was at that time a Lord of the Admiralty, he got me appointed to the command of the Rapid in the Mediterranean, the commander of that ship (C. Drummond) having been promoted.
The Rapid was my first independent command, and a very delightful command she was. She was the slowest ship on the station - too slow to keep up with the fleet and too slow to carry mails or despatches; so that I was always on detached service and very much my own master. I was fourteen months on the station before I ever met the Admiral (Sir Geoffrey Hornby),
2 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
though, of course, I was in frequent communication with him - but that was a very different thing from being always under his eye, for when the cat's away the mice can play.
It must be admitted that we were not quite so strenuous in the Navy thirty-five years ago as we are to-day. We took matters easier. Our naval supremacy had not been seriously threatened since Trafalgar, and we were resting on our laurels, or rather on the laurels of our forefathers - a condition of affairs which is apt to make people sleepy and indifferent and over-confident. Competition and opposition are good for all of us; they are the very salt of life, without which we should soon get rotten. So that it is perhaps a blessing in disguise that we should now find ourselves boldly challenged to make good our claim to rule the waves, though it is perhaps not altogether a good sign that we should see a successor of Lord St. Vincent go whining, hat in hand, to the challenger, begging him to desist, and thus save us from the expense of insuring our wealth and our national independence. But at the time of which I am writing no ambitious potentate had stretched forth his hand to seize Neptune's trident and wrest it from our grasp. So we just jogged along comfortably, taking things easy, not paying much attention to gunnery or fighting efficiency of any sort, though we still kept up the good old tradition of making our men sailors by giving them plenty of exercise at sail drill and making our passages under sail whenever it was possible to do so; for " saving coal " was still the order of the day and the order of the Admiralty too, and this last was a matter of great importance to a commander expecting and hoping for his promotion. The Rapid was a slightly enlarged Cordelia, of which ship I gave a description
H.M.S. "RAPID" AT CORFU 3
in my former volume; but instead of being now a baby corvette, fully rigged and carrying eleven guns, she had lately been transformed into a sort of glorified gunboat: her rig altered to that of a barque and her guns reduced from eleven to three, one of these being a 7½ ton muzzle-loader and the other two 40-pounder Armstrong breech-loaders - what the sailors used to call " two-muzzled guns, what shoots inboard." And this they not uncommonly did, killing or wounding some of their crew. In fact, I have very little doubt that if a true record could be obtained of the execution done by the so-called Armstrong gun, with its lively breech-block, it would be found to be on the wrong side of the balance-sheet - killed more friends than foes, like the modern revolver.
Be that as it may, and with all respect to the great Elswick firm, it cannot be denied that the Armstrong gun of the period was a dangerous and inefficient weapon, and far behind the French breech-loading gun of the same date.
This fact was fully recognized by our naval ordnance people; yet, instead of developing an efficient breech-loading weapon, they clung to muzzle-loaders for many years after other nations had discarded them; so that as late as well on into the last decade of the century we had in commission that interesting naval curiosity the Inflexible, with her four 80 ton muzzle-loading guns, her 24 inches of armour over a small patch amidships, and two-thirds of her sides and waterline open to be riddled by the smallest guns afloat.
But to return to the Rapid. Her one more or less efficient gun was a 7½ ton muzzle-loader, mounted amidships and supposed to fire on either broadside; but the spare topmast was stowed right across the port on
4 FROM SAIL TO STEAM ,
the port side, so that the gun could only be fired on the starboard side. This I altered directly I joined, as I thought an enemy might possibly come up on the port side, and that in this case a gun would be more useful than a spare topmast.
The above would appear to be somewhat in the nature of an unkind reflection cast upon the memory of my numerous predecessors who had commanded the Rapid. It is not so intended, but is merely quoted with the object of showing that at this period we were not quite so strenuous in seeking fighting efficiency in the Navy as our successors are to-day. We had, it must be confessed, relapsed into a sort of dolce far niente condition; due no doubt to the absence of that serious rivalry and competition which are, as I have before remarked, the very salt of life.
I joined the Rapid at Corfu in January, 1878. This was only a few years after Mr. Gladstone had made Corfu a present to the Greeks, withdrawn the British troops, and blown up the fortifications which had cost Great Britain more than two millions of money. It was very generous of Mr. Gladstone, who, it was said, had been reading Homer.
It was at the request of Austria that the fortifications of Corfu were demolished. The Austrians no doubt had visions of some future Agamemnon and Achilles making Corfu their base of operations for the siege of Trieste. At any rate, it is in accordance with the custom of civilized Powers (International Law, as it is vaguely termed) to demolish your fortifications when you abandon a position to other people who may be less friendly to the neighbours than you have been. So up went two millions of British gold, in a fit of altruistic generosity.
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU 5
Liberal Governments have a way of being very liberal with other people's gear.
When I arrived at Corfu in January, 1878, the Corfiotes were feeling acutely the economic depression caused by the withdrawal of the British troops and the transference to the Greek government of their beautiful island. The good roads made by the British had already fallen into a state of disrepair. Business in the towns was very slack; in fact, the grass had begun to grow in some of the streets. The country people complained that there was no market for their produce, and Wolfe the saddler remarked to me that there were not quite so many English sovereigns knocking about as there used to be. But they had Home Rule, and some of them pretended to like it.
In the days of the British protectorate of the Ionian Islands, Corfu had been known as " the soldiers' paradise." The regiments and the gunners that got a couple of years there were the envy of all their comrades; and it certainly was a very delightful station, especially during the winter months, when the climate is neither too hot nor too cold, and the best woodcock-shooting in the world is only five miles off - just across the bay.
Truly the glory of Corfu had departed. There had been a Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, who lived in a palace overlooking the anchorage. But that office, once held by Mr. Gladstone, had been abolished and the palace was empty, swept and garnished.
The first time our Consul visited the ship he received a salute of seven guns. He looked sad and crestfallen, and told me that when he was Commissioner of one of the other islands - I think Santa Maura - he had been
6 FROM SAIL TO STEAM,
accustomed to receive a salute of fifteen guns, and that it was a great come down. I agreed with him, but assured him that the regulations were very strict, and that I could not possibly give him more than seven. He sighed and said he knew it, and went on shore again.
It has occasionally struck me that Consuls, though nearly always civilians, are very fond of guns.
I had not been many days at Corfu before I took a trip to the happy hunting-grounds of Albania, on the opposite side of the bay - the first of many trips, which were attended with varying success, amongst the woodcock, the snipe, and the pigs.
On the Albanian coast opposite to Corfu Island there are several beautifully snug little harbours - not exactly ship harbours, but perfect for small vessels and yachts; and in the days of the British occupation there were about a dozen small yachts for hire, exactly suited for these little harbours, where they could lie sheltered from all winds while the lucky British soldiers of the Corfu garrison landed to shoot woodcock, and returned on board at sunset to dine and sleep.
The woodcock-shooting in Albania is perhaps the best in the world. The snipe-shooting in the marshes is also very good; and these two sports can be varied with " pigging," or wild-boar-shooting, which under some circumstances is rather exciting, though, on the other hand, it becomes monotonous when the pigs won't bolt, or bolt the wrong way. The country is far too rough and hilly to ride after them and stick them as they do in India, so the only way to get them is to shoot them as they do in Germany.
There is always a chance of a wounded boar charging, which adds something to the excitement of the sport.
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU 7
I was never charged myself, though on one occasion one of my boat's crew, who were beating for me, was charged and badly ripped in the thigh by a boar which had not only not been wounded, but had not even been fired at, or even previously seen by either the beaters or the shooters; but this happened in Northern Syria and not in Albania.
I always used my double-barrelled shot-gun, with spherical bullets, for pigging. Some people used rifles, but they rarely hit a pig. Most of the shots one got were under fifty yards. It was not stalking, as you very seldom saw the pig until he bolted from the cover at full speed, sometimes within four or five yards of you; so that you had a much better chance of hitting him with your number twelve bore fowling-piece you were accustomed to shoot with, than with a rifle which you were not accustomed to - at least, I found it so.
It was something like rabbit-shooting on a big scale, with a chance of the rabbit charging.
The pigs were excellent eating, like venison, and not a bit like tame pork.
The first time I went pigging in Albania I got a shot at a running boar, at about fifty yards, and hit him, but too far back, breaking his near hind-leg. He did not charge, but made off, and my coxswain and I gave chase. At first we gained a little on him, and I fired several end-on shots, but he was dodging amongst bushes, and I never hit him again. The trail, however, showed so much blood that we thought he would soon weaken and get slower or stop, and that we should come up to him and finish him but the ground was very rough, and it soon became obvious that the pig was better on three legs than we were on two, and was rapidly leaving us; so with a parting shot at about
8 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
one hundred yards, we sat down, thoroughly blown, and watched him. He had now got into fairly open country, and we could see him going as straight as a line for a hill about a mile off, upon which we observed another pigging party with their beaters, apparently having lunch. We shouted for all we were worth, to warn them that the wounded pig was going straight for them, and they evidently heard our yell, though probably not the purport of it.
We could still see the pig at intervals amongst the scrub, and he kept a perfectly straight course, as if he had been steering by compass, until he got right in amongst the luncheon-party, and then there was great commotion and a rapid succession of shots.
My coxswain and I were very tired and hungry, and our luncheon was a long way off in the other direction, so we did not cross the valley to see what had happened; but two days afterwards, on my return to Corfu, I found out that the party we were watching, and who had finished my wounded pig, consisted of an English lunatic and his doctor, who were staying at an hotel in Corfu, and had gone over to Albania on a pigging expedition the same day that I had gone.
I called on the lunatic and his doctor, and suggested that I was entitled to a portion of the pig, as they certainly would never have got him if I had not wounded him first and then warned them that he was coming in amongst them. The doctor agreed with me in principle, but said they had already eaten the pig; and the lunatic offered me the skin, which I declined.
The lunatic was only a monomaniac, and quite sane upon all subjects save one. It was a very strange form of monomania, and one I have never heard of before or since.
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU 9
If anyone looked straight at him and at the same time happened to cough, he conceived that he was being accused of a horrible and unnatural crime, and went for the accuser with great fury and without more ado, no matter where or when. So that the doctor had rather a ticklish business in hand, as he had not only to warn strangers, but also to look out to try and stop the assault, should anyone be so unfortunate as to give the unintentional offence.
I dined at the hotel one night, where there were a good many guests, as I was rather curious to see a demonstration of this peculiar form of monomania; but the guests had probably all been warned by the doctor, and nothing happened. I did not feel disposed to try the experiment myself, as there were a lot of knives on the table, and the doctor was on the offside.
I had not been long in command of the Rapid at Corfu before my friend the Consul informed me that he had received reliable information that two Christian villages on the Albanian coast, opposite to the northern part of Corfu Islands, were expecting a visit from a battalion of Turkish irregular troops, to punish the inhabitants for something they had done to offend the Turkish Government.
" It is quite possible," said the Consul, " that these villages may have been rebellious and insubordinate; but when irregular Mahomedan troops are sent to punish Christian villages, it generally comes rather hard upon the women and children."
The Consul added that he had received urgent requests from the head-men and the priests of both the villages (Tre Scogli and Santa Quaranta) imploring him to get the women and children taken across the water to their co-religionists in Corfu before the Turkish
10 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
troops arrived, else there would probably be a wholesale massacre of the women, or worse; and he asked me if I would go over in the Rapid and fetch them, as there was no time to lose and no merchant vessels he could hire or charter for the job.
I felt rather puzzled at the request, and not at all sure whether I should be justified in offering sanctuary in one of Her Majesty's ships to anyone save bona-fide British subjects; but as there was no time to ask my Admiral (at Malta) for instructions, and the matter was urgent, I thought of a motto taught me by one of my old Captains: " When in doubt, act first, and ask leave afterwards." So over I went in the Rapid into Turkish territory, and brought over to Corfu about one hundred and eighty women and children and a few very old and infirm men from the two threatened villages. We had to make two trips to do it, as the poor wretches naturally wanted to save and bring with them whatever they could hastily pack and get our men to bring off for them.
It was indeed a pitiful sight to see these poor people torn suddenly from their homes, struggling to save some of their very modest possessions - bedding, clothes, pots and pans, cheap and gaudy sacred pictures, even children's toys; but they knew too well what was in store for them if they did not escape before the punitive expedition from Scutari came down upon them.
A few days after I had landed the refugees at Corfu the avenging Turk came down and burnt both villages; and more than a year afterwards the homeless Epiriotes were still leading a wretched life in the town of Corfu, almost entirely dependent on charity.
There were very eulogistic articles in the Corfu newspapers about " the historic Rapid, her noble crew and
H.M.S. " RAPID '' AT CORFU 11
gallant commander," etc., who rescued these unfortunate people from almost certain death, and I felt rather proud of myself; but pride goeth before a fall, and I still felt a little bit anxious as to what my Admiral would say about my proceedings.
I had not long to wait, for by return of post from Malta I received the following memorandum from Admiral Hornby, who was at that time Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean:
" I have received your letter No. 5, of the 4th inst., reporting your proceedings and acquainting me that you had embarked and conveyed to Corfu certain men, women, and children from the ports of Tre Scogli and Santa Quaranta on the Albanian coast. In reply I have to point out to you that I do not consider your instructions in any way authorize you to receive on board such persons, not being British subjects . . . . On the ground of humanity the removal of women and children from the actual scene of fighting would be permissible, but even in that case they should not be landed in a country not their own . . . . In the instances you report it appears to me that granting the people you did a passage was a misuse of one of Her Majesty's ships, and tended to encourage hostilities, by the removal from danger of the wives and families of men at a time when their continued presence would probably have deterred such men from committing excesses and from resisting lawful authority by force of arms.
" I shall forward a copy of this memorandum to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, with your report of proceedings."
This was rather a damper to the ambitions of a commander expecting his promotion, and caused me to take a gloomy view of my future prospects, until, about a month afterwards, I received another memorandum from my Admiral, to the effect that
12 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
"The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have informed me that, as you embarked fugitives on board the Rapid by the advice of Her Majesty's Consul at Corfu, and your proceedings have been approved by Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, their Lordships are not prepared to withhold their approval of your proceedings - although not enjoined by your instructions - as it appears what you did was justifiable as a measure of humanity."
It did not strike me that "not prepared to withhold their approval" was a very gracious way of expressing their approval on the part of the Admiralty; but that, of course, is a mere matter of taste, and it was enough for me to know that I had not done anything which would be likely to block my promotion.
In 1878 there were still a good many English living in the town of Corfu; they were mostly business people who had established themselves there during the palmy days of the British occupation of the Ionian Islands, and having made their homes there, they did not leave when the islands were handed over to the Greek Government. The British community was, however, a rapidly dwindling one, as there was the natural wastage, and no fresh supply coming in to fill up the gaps. An English episcopal church still flourished, more or less, with a parson paid by either the Foreign or Colonial Offices - I am not sure which. The said parson, a fiery Welshman, was in the habit of preaching inordinately long sermons, which bored and irritated his congregation. They had frequently remonstrated with him and begged him to spare .them, but entirely without any result, and they had always been worsted in their encounters and forced to retreat, baffled and discomforted; for their pastor told them (perhaps truly)
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU 13
that he knew much better what was good for them than they did themselves.
These peaceful and innocent-looking people entered into a conspiracy and formed a plot, in which they assigned to me the role of Archibald Bell-the-Cat; for, as a matter of fact, they were all very much afraid of the fiery Welshman, and were particularly anxious that I should tackle him on the subject of his long sermons.
And this was how it was managed: As the Rapid did not carry a chaplain, I was in the habit of sending those of the crew who belonged to the Church of England to the English church, and of going myself; but the poor, tired sailors found it impossible to keep awake during the sermon no matter how loudly the impassioned orator threatened and thundered; and I had seen whole benches of them fast asleep long before the oration was finished.
Here, then, was a handle for a remonstrance against the long sermons - at least, so we thought, and I, nothing loth, joined the conspiracy. Some of my friends came on board the Rapid to consult, and to their great joy, I wrote an extremely polite letter to the parson, pointing out how very glad I was to avail myself of the privilege of sending my men to his church; but that, unfortunately, I had noticed that most of them went to sleep during the sermon, which was not seemly on their part nor creditable to the intelligence of British seamen; and I further added that after many years' experience of sailors I found that they never could keep awake during any sermon which lasted more than ten minutes. If, therefore, he could manage to curtail his sermons to about that length, I should be glad to continue to avail myself of the privilege of sending my men to his church; but that, if not, I was afraid I should have to discontinue doing so.
14 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
I thought it was a very polite and inoffensive letter. But not so the fiery Welshman, who came on board next day in a towering rage, and sought an interview with me. He did not swear - parsons don't swear - but he cussed majestically. I am not sure that he did not threaten to excommunicate me, or at any rate to get the Pope or somebody else to do so. He would report me to Lord Salisbury (the Foreign Secretary) for interfering with his clerical duties and dictating to him as to what length his sermons ought to be. I had insulted him by implying that he was unable to keep British seamen awake. To which I replied that I found it difficult to do so myself when I only read the prayers on Sunday morning, without any sermon at all. I told him that our men had been taught to regard Sunday as a day of rest, and that they always followed that rule, adding, sotto voce, "When we let 'em." I told him, further, that the days had long gone by when the sailor's eleventh commandment was in vogue - "Six days thou shalt labour and do all that thou art able, and on the seventh thou shalt holystone the deck and scrub the cable."
But so far from this pacifying him, it only made him worse. He said I was chaffing him, and he finally went on shore and had interviews with some of the leading members of his congregation.
What specially riled him was that he knew it was a put-up job, and that I was merely the stalking-horse, selected to bell the cat - and a very fierce cat he was. The total result, however, was quite satisfactory, and the sermons were very much curtailed.
I had already remarked that the woodcock-shooting in Albania is about the best in the world, and I made the most of it during the winter of 1877-78. Our
H.M.S. "RAPID" AT CORFU 15
cruising ground extended from Corfu to Antivari, and included Avlona, Durazzo, San Giovanni di Medua; and several other happy hunting-grounds, which have lately become famous for other shooting than woodcock-shooting; and I fear that the woodcock, the snipe, and even the gallant wild boar, must have been very much scared by recent events at and around the above-named places.* But in 1878 there was nothing to disturb this quiet coast, beyond occasional raids on Christian villages by Turkish regulars or irregulars, and there was good woodcock-shooting all along the coast, wherever there were suitable covers. San Giovanni di Medua was a particularly delightful place. There you could shoot a woodcock directly you landed from your boat, as the covers came right down to the water's edge.
While I am talking of sport, and particularly of shooting, it occurs to me that the reader may perhaps think we have nothing else to do in the Navy save to amuse ourselves. Several books of naval reminiscences have appeared lately which might naturally give rise to this idea, notably those by Admiral Sir William Kennedy and Sir Robert Harris, which are very largely devoted to descriptions of sport in various parts of the world; but it would be a great mistake to suppose that we have nothing else to do, or even that shooting occupied any large proportion of our time. The explanation is that we naturally dwell upon the pleasant incidents in our naval careers, and skip over and try to forget the unpleasant ones.
It would not interest the reader to hear of the monotony of being becalmed at sea (none of this in the present day), nor of the weary months we sometimes had to spend at some God-forsaken place where some
* written at the time of the second Balkan War,
16 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
shadowy British interests were supposed to require the presence of a man-of-war. Were we to dwell upon these things and write lugubrious lamentations of the misery we endured, it would sound like grumbling, and it is well known that sailors never grumble-or hardly ever.
I shot my first pig at Avlona, a very fine animal, whose tusks now adorn the wall of my study.
Albania is a wild and rough country, vast tracts of the extensive foot-hills being covered with scrub, mainly that of the dwarf oak, which shrub supplies the commercial article known as "valonia," largely imported into England for tanning, dyeing, and making ink. It takes its name from Avlona, and the article, as exported, consists of the cups of the acorns of the dwarf oak; the acorns themselves are left for the wild boar out of the woods, who thrives well upon them.
Interspersed amongst the oak scrub there are tracts of coarse grass, upon which the wild-looking, petticoated Albanian shepherds feed their flocks, closely guarded by those splendid and courageous animals the Molossian dogs, which fiercely resent the intrusion of all strangers and occasionally become extremely troublesome, attacking at close quarters until their masters call them off.
We always found these Albanians very friendly, and we could generally manage to engage half a dozen of them to act as beaters for either pigs or woodcock, and they did not expect a large remuneration; a plug of ship's tobacco was more acceptable than money. For scaring the pigs and driving them from cover they used a curious implement which made a weird and unearthly noise; it was composed of the dried shell of a gourd and a piece of waxed string, which they pulled through their fingers, making a strange noise, the like of which
H.M.S. " RAPID " AT CORFU 17
I never heard before. But the best of all the beaters for pigs was the marine bugler. I found that he was getting fat, from want of exercise, and that he also wanted practice; so he joined the beaters, and when he sounded the light-infantry calls on his bugle amongst the wild valleys of the Albanian foot-hills, the pigs put back their ears and bolted like rabbits from the other end of the cover, where the guns had been previously placed. Thus we got some very pretty running shots; not by any means easy, for a wild pig can go at a great pace, and there is always a chance that he may charge, especially if wounded.
Considering the great part which the Island of Corfu (Corcyra) played in ancient history, it does not contain so many remains of antiquity as one would have expected, though it appears that the Kaiser has lately been digging with some success. The soil is fertile, but the Corfiot peasantry are reputed to be the idlest of all the Ionians. Oil, wine, and garlic are the principal products. The olive-tree requires but little attention or cultivation. A dead donkey, buried at the roots, is said to be the best manure, and failing this, rags from the Jewish quarter, which, no doubt, give a fine flavour to the oil. Some attention and some labour have to be expended on the vineyards, but this is so carelessly done that the wine produced has no reputation, and does not leave the island; and as to the garlic, to judge by the smell of the people, it is of first-rate quality and very strong.
Those who have travelled in the East need not be reminded of the smell of " eaten " garlic; but if they have not walked through the streets of Corfu city on the evening of one of the numerous feast-days, they have not known it at the summit of its power.
^ back to top ^