|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
156 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
ON SHORE - NAVAL DEFENCE ACT, 1889
WHEN I came on shore from the Bellerophon in the autumn of 1886, I had been almost continuously on full-pay since my promotion to the rank of Captain in 1880 - a very unusual piece of good luck, as Captains' appointments were going at that time; but as I could not reasonably look forward to a continuance of this luck, I made up my mind to be prepared for at least a couple of years of half-pay, as it was only fair that other Captains should have a chance, and that my remarkable good luck should be balanced by a spell amongst the unemployed, which I got. But being of a restless disposition and failing to appreciate the charms of idleness, I looked around for some object which might be at least innocent and perhaps worthy of my attention, lest Satan should " find some mischief still for idle hands to do;" and it was not long before I joined a gang of conspirators known as the " panic-mongers and chronic alarmists," who were trying to awaken their countrymen to the fact that for some years past our Navy had been allowed to fall into a state of weakness (comparative, of course) and unpreparedness for war, which threatened the very existence of Great Britain as an independent Power - to say nothing of her scattered Empire. And when I found amongst the conspirators such men as Admiral of the Fleet Sir Thomas Symonds, Sir Geoffrey Hornby, Captain Lord Charles Beresford, R.N., M.P.,
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and a few other distinguished seamen who had read and studied the naval history of their country, I joined the gang and set to work, feeling, at any rate, that Satan would be checkmated for the present.
When I look back at the extraordinary mixture of apathy and ignorance which allowed our Navy to lapse into the state of weakness which it exhibited to the whole world for ten or fifteen years prior to the Naval Defence Act of 1889, I cannot help feeling the deepest gratitude to the Ruler of the Universe that war did not catch us and punish us, as we richly deserved, during those years of criminal folly. Nor can I feel the least regret for the part that I took in the agitation which led to that famous Act; notwithstanding that the Admiralty of the day thought proper to punish me for daring to criticize their supineness and to point out the lameness of their excuses for failing to ask for money enough to put the Navy on a proper footing and provide for national safety.
It is no idle fancy of mine when I say that I was punished for the part I took in the agitation which led to the Naval Defence Act; for I have it before me now, while I write, in black and white, in the handwriting of the First Lord of the Admiralty of the day, admitting that I was kept unemployed on half-pay longer than I should have been if I had not taken part in the agitation.
I may not have been cautious or discreet in what I said, or wrote to the Press on the subject. I never was cautious, and perhaps not always discreet; yet I am absolutely unrepentant, and would act in the same way again under similar circumstances. Nay more, I am not only unrepentant, but glad and proud that I was able to take ever so humble a part in awakening the country
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to a sense of the pressing danger it was running by allowing the Navy to fall far below the margin of safety.
The old story about one man looking over a gate and another stealing a horse was well illustrated in the case of this agitation. For Lord Charles Beresford took a very active part in it, was far more critical of the Admiralty, and used much stronger language than ever I did, both on the platform and in the Press; but he was not punished. He had considerable political influence, and the Admiralty were afraid of him. I had no political influence, and they were not afraid of me; so I became a useful scapegoat.
The reader will perhaps remember that the Naval Defence Act of 1889 provided for the building of seventy ships at a cost of £21,000,000. Nine of these were to be battleships, of a power, speed, and general equipment hitherto unattempted by this or any other country. The type was copied by most of the great maritime Powers, including Japan, and remained, with slight modifications, the accepted type of the ideal battleship, down to the advent of the Dreadnought era, at the beginning of the present century, when the all-big-gun type took its place. And this latter type, as all the world knows, was also copied by all the Great Powers, without exception.
The designs for the whole of the seventy ships, including battleships, first and second class cruisers, and small craft, were the product of the genius of that bold and skilful naval architect the late Sir William White, whom I had the honour of counting amongst my personal friends. And although I had taken the liberty of criticizing adversely some of his earlier designs, I feel bound to submit my opinion as a sailor, that all the seventy ships of the Naval Defence Act were, in
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their various classes, a magnificent success - a success, not only from a seaman's point of view, but from a national point of view. For when the Boer War broke out ten years later, it was these very ships which alone stood between us and the hostile interference of some of our jealous rivals, with consequences which can only be guessed at. The Naval Defence Act had borne its fruit, and it was a case of " Hands off, Wilhelm !"
The " chronic alarmists " and " panic-mongers " who worked hard to awaken the country in 1887-88-89 will not be likely to forget the extraordinary opposition they encountered, not only from the perennial idiots who go about the world wagging their heads, telling people that there is never going to be any more war upon. earth, as it does not pay commercially, and that therefore all money spent on armaments is wasted. Not only did we have these childish dreamers arrayed against us - as of course we expected - but we also had plenty of people who were old enough to know better - men calling themselves statesmen, and even the Board of Admiralty itself, which fought against any large increase in the Navy, to the last ditch, and only gave in when forced to do so by an awakened public opinion.
I propose to give a few choice specimens of the wit and wisdom that was arrayed against us by various people who opposed any increase in the strength of the Navy, and I think the reader will find some of the arguments rather amusing.
The Peace Society was, of course, early in the field - very angry, very violent, militant, insulting, and abusive, as becomes lovers of peace
" It is a very simple, though a somewhat painful proceeding, for gullible John Bull to empty his purse
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in obedience to panic-mongering Admirals, an impressible Cabinet, and an interested journalism, with the idea of obtaining more ships for adequate naval defence. But it is one of the least likely things in the world that the desired ships and security will result .... Hence we have already more Admirals than line-of-battle ships. And still the cry from the Admirals, and their interested friends, is for more officers and more ships."
The comparison between the number of Admirals and line-of-battle ships is truly delightful, and shows a profound knowledge of the subject of national defence.
The gentle dove of peace then proceeds to coo some amiable charges of malversation against the Government:
" The taxes have been diverted wholesale into all manner of waste, extravagance, and incompetence. The only certainty has been that more profitable contracts would be secured by favoured parties, etc . . . . What have you done with the scores and hundreds of millions sterling already voted within the last ten or twelve years ? . . . In short, incalculable sums voted for ships and defence have been spent in almost everything but ships and defence. And of the ships built with the remnant of the money, how many have proved failures, or have had to be broken up, or resold at ruinous sacrifices . . And, further, the introduction, of dynamite as an element in naval warfare is likely to render the destruction of the largest warships a very easy matter . . . . It is a matter of notoriety in many localities that amounts put down by certain tradesmen in the bills of unsuspecting heads of families, as for ` groceries ' or for ` goods,' have really been for wine and spirits surreptitiously supplied to tippling wives or servants in the household. So in national administration
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it is one of the easiest of courses first to raise a panic, then to obtain further millions from the frightened taxpayer for ‘ships' and ‘national defences,' and lastly to actually appropriate these grants in those winding ways and dark abysses where the millions before have disappeared."
Blessed are the peacemakers! They are always so courteous, so gentle, so well-informed, so thoroughly patriotic, and so worthy of the great Empire in which they have inherited a share.
A copy of the above manifesto - from which I have only culled a few of the flowers of rhetoric - was sent to Mr. Gladstone by the secretary of the Peace Society, who received the following reply
" DEAR SIR,
" In the objects and tone of the memorial you have sent me I find much which commands my sympathy.
" My age and my present engagements greatly narrow my power of attention to many of the public questions which so well deserve attention. But it is certainly not from me, nor is it, I believe, from the leading men of the Liberal party, that you will have t« apprehend any leaning to excess in connection with the military or even the naval establishments of the country.
" I remain your very faithful servant,
" W. E. GLADSTONE."
It is remarkable that even Mr. Gladstone should be in sympathy with the "tone" of the memorial. Yet it is a typical Gladstonian letter, worthy of the man who deserted Gordon, induced his leader to make a present of Corfu to the Greeks, and finally betrayed his country for the price of eighty Irish votes.
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Great Britain is very tough; she has already survived a Charles James Fox, a Gladstone, a Campbell-Bannerman, a Lord John Russell, a William Harcourt, and sundry other eloquent Radicals, who have appeared in the political firmament from time to time as shining lights of progress. Cosmopolitan patriots - if the two words are not contradictory - loving every other country better than their own; ever ready to oppose all wise preparations for national defence either by land or sea; with an eye to appropriating as much as possible of the national revenue for bribing the most ignorant class of voters with various sops, in order to keep the " party of progress " in power; until it blindly runs up against a great catastrophe. And then - " Who'd 'a thought it ?"
Well, one man at any rate thought it - and thought it and said it for several years, in plenty of time to prepare for it; but political lawyers, masquerading as statesmen, convinced themselves (and unfortunately the country too) that they knew far better how to prepare for war than a great soldier, whose wise and timely warnings they treated with a contempt born of ignorant vanity, thus offering a temptation to a great military Power which was not to be neglected.
But I am getting far ahead of my story, and must hark back again to the late eighties, where we find the same malign influences at work as were opposed to Lord Roberts at a later date.
I have already remarked that there were others as well as the Peace Society - men who were old enough to know better - who opposed the Naval Defence Bill both in and out of Parliament.
Thus, Sir William Harcourt, in a public speech at Bromley, told his audience that the Bill was
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" the result of a panic - what he would venture to call a manufactured scare. (Laughter.) He confessed it was a scare which had never alarmed him at all. The Government themselves did not believe in it. He had seen in his time a good many of these panics. It was a disorder with which he was perfectly well acquainted. He knew the symptoms of its coming on (laughter); he knew exactly how long it would last; he knew exactly the state in which people were when they were suffering under it (renewed laughter); he knew they would recover and that they would be very well for a good long time and then they would have another fit. (Laughter.) . .
England was a rich country, and fortunately could afford it, and he should not so much mind it if he thought that the panic-mongers would be satisfied when they had got what they asked for. But then they never were satisfied. Panic-mongers were in that respect
very much like ladies of fashion. They were never satisfied with the outfit they had got; and when they had procured a large number of very expensive dresses, they always said they had got nothing to wear (great laughter)."
And so on, and so on, for half an hour or more, to the same effect. Very witty no doubt. But the cream of the wit lay in the fact that Sir William Harcourt had, only four years earlier, been himself the victim of one of the worst naval panics with which the country has ever been visited. He had been a leading member of Mr. Gladstone's Government in 1884, when the so-called Penjdeh incident so thoroughly alarmed them all, that they sent their emissaries scuttling about the country to buy up inappropriate and decrepit ships of all sorts and sizes, at any price; because there seemed to be a
probability of war with a third-class naval Power! (Loud laughter - by Father Neptune this time.)
I must give another specimen of the sort of argument which was used against the Naval Defence Bill during
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the debate in the House of Commons. And though not by a very important person, it is typical of certain views on national defence which are from time to time set forth by some of those representatives of the people who are sent to Westminster to make laws for the prosperity and safety of the British Empire.
" Mr. Picton, M.P., asked: What Power wished to attack our interests ? Were Englishmen living among a world of Pirates, and was Europe nothing but a den of thieves ? . . . He had more confidence in human nature . . . . If, however, we believed in the moral supremacy of this country, we ought rather to set an example of moderate disarmament; and no doubt our example would be followed."
No doubt - no doubt whatever, as we found by experience some years later, when the party of progress started upon a policy of "dropping Dreadnoughts" as it was called - with the view of inducing Germany to do the same; and the amiable and trustful party were quite shocked and greatly surprised to find that it had exactly the opposite effect.
We hear from time to time that our police magistrates express surprise at the frequent recurrence of the well-known confidence trick. No matter how often it is exposed, there is an inexhaustible supply of soft-headed dupes waiting to be caught, ready to drop their money; or, if they are politicians, to drop Dreadnoughts, in the hope of picking up votes.
The years 1888 and 1889 were momentous years in the history - the peace history - of the British Navy. They furnish a striking example of the crude, haphazard, unbusinesslike method in which the service responsible for the very life and independence of the nation is either kept up or allowed to fall below the
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margin of safety, according as to how the political weathercock blows around its well-oiled spindle.
Lord George Hamilton was First Lord of the Admiralty during these momentous years. He was a clever, active, hardworking and thoroughly conscientious politician, as ignorant of naval matters as all other civilian First Lords; but most anxious to do his duty by the Navy, at the same time that he worked in harmony with his political colleagues. And in this connection it is only fair to remember that the First Lord of the Admiralty is always between the devil and the deep sea, the devil being represented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (generally a land-shark by profession) and the Sea Lords, who have a constitutional antipathy to all sharks, and no great regard for politicians - as such. So it is not surprising if the Sea Lords - who know something about naval matters - and the civilian First Lord and Chancellor of the Exchequer, who don't, should sometimes be in disagreement.
That the Naval Defence Act of 1889 was mainly - if not entirely - due to the agitation got up and pressed home by the panic-mongering Admirals is, to my mind, unquestionable, and capable of demonstration.
Returning thanks for the Navy at the Royal Academy banquet on May 7th, 1888, Lord George Hamilton said
" It has been suggested that an immediate and wholesale outlay might be advantageous to Her Majesty's Navy; but this proposition is put forward on the theory that the expenditure of one day means the efficiency of the next day. (Hear, hear.)"
Of course, no such silly theory had ever been put forth, not even by the panic-mongering Admirals.
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On the contrary, the theory was put forward that if you did not begin building a ship, you could never expect to finish her; and, further, that even if you began to build her at once, you could not expect to make any use of her in less than two years.
Lord George then went on:
" Now if there is one single fact which has been brought home to the mind of every individual who has been in any way associated with the administration of Her Majesty's Navy during the past three years, it is this, that the resuscitation of a Navy under present conditions must be a slow, a gradual, and a laborious process. The mere expenditure of money can no more attain that object than a sick man can be restored to health by wholesale draughts of alcohol. (Laughter.)"
The panic-mongering Admirals were quite unable to see either the wit, the wisdom, or the relevance of the last remark. Nor could they see any reason why the process of resuscitating the Navy should be slow, seeing that not even the most skilful politician could fix the date at which the ships would be urgently wanted. So we went on with our agitation, unabashed by the First Lord's alcohol and unconvinced by his logic.
The most remarkable feature of the agitation which led to the Naval Defence Act was the fact that it was opposed by a sailor; and no less important a sailor than the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty.
I have seen a good many agitations during my lifetime, for the purpose of calling the attention of the country to the state into which the politicians, for party reasons, had allowed the Navy to lapse. It is our peculiar method of providing for the sufficiency of that service upon which the life and independence
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of the nation mainly depends. Not a very logical or businesslike method perhaps; but as it has always been effective, when properly worked, we may banish logic to Jupiter and Saturn.
So far as my memory serves me, I cannot call to mind any other occasion upon which a sailor of any standing or position opposed a proposal for strengthening the Navy. There have been resignations of Sea Lords, and threats of resignation, if the Navy was not, strengthened; but I never remember a Sea Lord - let alone the First Sea Lord - placing himself on the side of the so-called economists. This distinction was reserved for Sir Arthur Hood, who, it must be remembered, was Lord George Hamilton's principal naval adviser. Sir Arthur stated publicly in 1888 that he was satisfied with the strength of the Navy, so far as battleships were concerned; he did not think it necessary to build any more in the immediate future, but he would like to see six more cruisers, though he would not go so far as to say they were necessary.
Six months after making this statement Sir Arthur put his name to the Naval Defence Bill, which, as I have before mentioned, provided for the immediate building of seventy ships, at a cost of £21,000,000, nine of the said ships being battleships !
Nothing particular in our foreign relations had happened in the meantime. Nothing at all, except that the agitation of the panic-mongers had been vigorously prosecuted, and the popularity cat had jumped from the bag, and showed the direction she intended to take.
The course adopted by Sir Arthur Hood was so very extraordinary, so totally different from anything that had ever happened before, in the case of a naval Lord
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of the Admiralty, that the Conservative Government of the day rewarded him with a peerage.
Not very long afterwards, when Lord Hood had taken his seat in the House of Lords, Lord Sudeley twitted him with having opposed the Naval Defence Bill, when he indignantly interposed with, " Why, I drew up and signed the Bill myself!" Which was quite true, though he was counting somewhat too confidently on the shortness of memory of the noble Lords and of the country.
The Naval Defence Bill was passed by the House of Commons with a majority of 141. The Lords, of course, passed it; and it became an Act of Parliament, the ripened fruit of which saved the British Empire, ten years later, in as great a crisis of its career as any through which it had passed for nearly a century.
In the above brief sketch of the agitation which led directly to the immediate strengthening of the Navy by seventy ships, I have not disclosed half, nor a quarter of the dodges and manoeuvres of the politicians who sought to frustrate the efforts of those who thought more of national safety than of party politics. Nor have I said anything of the remarkable volte-face of the said politicians, nor of the dexterous manner in which they tried to save face, when they found it would be more popular and win more votes to succumb to the agitation than to oppose it. They performed some quite smart acrobatic feats, and then chortled over their own cleverness; but we got the ships, and that was all we cared about.
And now, after this little flutter on shore, I must ask the reader to go to sea with me once more.
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