|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
THE CHINA STATION - WEI-HAI-WEI 223
THE CHINA STATION - WEI–HAI-WEI
IN October, 1897, I was informed that the Admiralty were pleased to appoint me as Rear-Admiral second in command of the China Station. That the Grafton first-class cruiser was to be my flagship; that she was already on the station, and that I might take passage out in the Edgar, a sister ship, which was sailing shortly to strengthen the China Squadron. Their Lordships also " requested " that I would not solicit the privilege of selecting my own Flag-Captain or Flag-Lieutenant, but take on those of my predecessor, already in the Grafton.
The " request " of the Admiralty to a naval officer differs not widely from an order; and although Admirals are nearly always allowed to nominate their own Flag-Captains, and invariably their own Flag-Lieutenants, I did not think it would be judicious to quarrel with my bread-and-butter; so I pocketed my pride and complied with their Lordships' " request." They were graciously pleased to allow me to select my own secretary; and as matters turned out, I do not think, if I had searched the whole Navy List, I could have improved upon Captain Jones and Lieutenant Smith (their real names), for they proved to be well up in their business, loyal and true, and excellent messmates. So my secretary (Clutton Baker) and I joined the Edgar at Plymouth in November, and sailed for China via the Suez Canal.
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The voyage was uneventful, save that we had a curious experience of the difficulty of sinking an oil-ship in the Red Sea.
One morning, on our passage from Suez to Aden we overtook a British steamer laden with oil, from Batoum for Bombay. She signalled that she was on fire, and asked for assistance. We stopped and sent a party on board, to help to put the fire out; but as it soon turned out that her coal bunkers were badly on fire and apparently no chance of saving the ship, the Captain decided to abandon her. We took the crew and their belongings on board the Edgar; and as the ship was right in the track of the busy trade-route, up and down the Red Sea, I decided that she must be sunk, as otherwise she would be a great danger to navigation.
The burning oil-ship appeared to offer an excellent and realistic target for exercising the crew of a newly commissioned ship at a little practical gunnery. So the Captain of the Edgar beat to quarters and blazed away at the burning ship. There was a slight roll of a sea on, and at first the gunners could not hit her, until we closed in a bit, and then the hits were fast and frequent; but nothing seemed to happen, very much to our surprise, as we thought that about ten minutes of such treatment would send her to the bottom. Then 6-inch and 9.2 shell were fired into her; but still nothing happened, beyond great clouds of black smoke. Then the Edgar closed in still nearer and riddled her waterline on the near side, until at last she listed slowly over and turned turtle; but instead of sinking, as any respectable ship would have done, she remained afloat, bottom up, with the whole length of her about two or three feet above water, and the waves breaking over her, like a half-tide rock or the back of a dead whale.
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This was tantalizing, after all our trouble, for the fire was now extinguished, the ship's bottom was intact, and she was a far greater danger to navigation than if she had been the other way up.
The final act was to get close alongside and riddle her bottom with the little six-pounders, until it was like the top of a pepper-caster, so that the air, which was keeping her afloat, could escape; and then she sank.
It seemed strange that any ship, except a timber ship, should take such a lot of sinking, until one remembered that, in the first place, oil is lighter than water. Secondly, that the oil was not in bulk, but enclosed in tins, holding three or four gallons each, and that in all probability, not one of the tins was absolutely full - i.e., contained a little air: and finally that the tins were packed in wooden cases, of a convenient size for handling. We live and learn.
Having disposed of the burning oil-ship, we went on to Aden, where we landed her crew, and then on to Colombo and Singapore, where I found the Grafton waiting for me; and I turned over to her, taking on my predecessor's Flag-Captain, his Flag-Lieutenant, and all his staff of servants.
I was not given much time to shake down or to renew my former acquaintance with Singapore; for the very next day after joining the Grafton I got a telegram from my Commander-in-Chief (Admiral Buller) to go on to Hongkong, and then to go on to the north and meet him at Port Hamilton.
Admiral Buller's command of the China Station was just coming to an end, for which I was very sorry, as he was an old and sincere friend; but my regret was mitigated by the knowledge that he was to be relieved by another old friend, Sir Edward Seymour, who later
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commanded that gallant, though unsuccessful, international expedition which set out from Tien-tsin to try and relieve the European legations at Pekin, when they were threatened by the Boxer rebellion.
Port Hamilton is a snug little harbour in a group of small islets off the south coast of Corea, to the northeast of the large island of Quelpaert. The group was taken possession of by the British, as a sort of look-out post, to watch the advance of the Russians towards the Corean Peninsula. It was, however, found to be quite indefensible, in view of modern armaments, and we abandoned it shortly afterwards, when the Japanese handed over Wei-hai-wei to our keeping.
At the time of my visit to Port Hamilton it was " garrisoned " by a small detachment of Marines. The ubiquitous Marine! The true pioneer of British Empire, who gets most of the kicks and very few of the ha'pence. The finest and most loyal corps in the service of the Crown, and I care not who is given second place. " England's sheet-anchor," as the great Lord St. Vincent called them.
Port Hamilton was a very " backward " place, even for the long-suffering Marine to be banished to. There were a few wretched, poverty-stricken inhabitants of Corean stock, very little flat ground, very little cultivation, rocky soil, and the greater part of the islands covered with a coarse scrub. The time hung heavy on the hands of the Royal Marines in these inhospitable islets: but they were ready - as ever - to make the best of it. So they wrote to some friends at Shanghai to send them some live pheasants, wherewith to stock the islands. The consignment in due time arrived, consisting of six cocks and one hen.
It is now a matter of history how the Japanese on
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two occasions captured the fortress of Port Arthur, first from the Chinese and then from the Russians. My two years on the China Station came in between these two captures, at a time when the Japanese were feeling very sore at being confronted with an ultimatum from three great European Powers, Russia, France, and Germany, ordering them to quit Port Arthur and return it to the Chinese, on the ground that their occupation of it would disturb the balance of power in North China!
Russia, of course, wanted it for herself, and shortly afterwards took it (" leased " it, as she called it) from China, and strongly fortified it. France naturally supported her Ally; but Germany's interference was absolutely gratuitous and uncalled for, as she had at that time no possession in North China, which the upset of the balance of power could in any way affect. Her two useful missionaries had not yet been murdered; and although she no doubt already had her eye on Kaou Cheou, she had no shadow of even a " diplomatic " excuse for helping the other two Powers to bully Japan out of her hard-won conquest. The Japanese felt this very deeply, and although they felt bitter against Russia and France, they felt doubly so against Germany, for her gratuitous interference and insult. The two former were her open enemies in this matter, but Germany was her false friend, who stabbed her in the back; and she never forgave it; so that it must have afforded her intense satisfaction to turn out of their possession the invaders of Kaou Cheou, who had been ordered by their War Lord to give no quarter, though it is not on record that the heathen Japs received similar orders to give no quarter to the Christian Germans when they expelled them.
It was in consequence of the Russian occupation of
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Port Arthur in 1898 that Japan offered Wei-hai-wei to the British, as she felt that her position there would be strategically a false one, in view of the certainty that Russia intended to remain permanently at Port Arthur, and make of it a formidable fortress, only ninety miles by sea from Wei-hai-wei. So the Japs undoubtedly did a very wise thing in planting their only friend in an exposed position vis-a-vis with their prospective enemy, whom they were not yet in a position to challenge for the hegemony of the Yellow Sea; but they clearly foresaw what was coming: they foresaw that there could not be two kings of Brentford, that there was not " room enough for both " - according to the silly parrot-cry of our own peace-at-any-price party. So they lay low for the present, with bitterness in their hearts and a grim determination to prepare to fight for their lives. For it was veritably a case of the life and independence of the Japanese nation versus the aggrandizement of the Russian nation. Both sides knew that there was not room enough for both, and that there could be no compromise; but the Russians made the unforgivable mistake of underestimating - if not despising - their prospective enemies, and they paid the usual penalty.
I saw a good deal of Japan during the years 1898-99, and I watched, with the greatest interest and admiration, the steady, silent, strenuous preparations, both naval and military, which the nation was making for what they all seemed instinctively to know would be a fight for their lives.
I don't remember exactly what I thought of it - I mean what I thought of their prospect of success against Russia, or, indeed, whether I formed any distinct opinion on the subject at all; but I do remember that
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almost every European or American that I talked to on the subject laughed at the idea of little Japan, with her insignificant army and navy, pitting herself against the mighty Russian Empire. " Jack the Giant Killer " might be a very pretty story to amuse children; but we all know that that kind of thing does not often happen in real life. But it did this time.
When the Japs captured Wei-hai-wei from the Chinese, it was very strongly fortified. These fortifications had been completed a few years before by the German Colonel of Engineers von Haneken. There were several very powerful batteries, armed with the latest model of Krupp's 9.4 inch guns, and these commanded the only deep-water entrance to the town and harbour; so that the place was considered, practically speaking, impregnable from any attack from seaward. But it does not appear to have occurred to either the Chinese or their German adviser that there was any possibility of the place being attacked from the land side. For was there not behind it the great Chinese Empire, with four hundred million inhabitants ? So the formidable Chinese batteries, with their Krupp guns, were batteries, and not forts. That is to say, their guns only pointed seaward, and they had no backs to them. Therefore the Japs, having defeated the Chinese Navy at the battle of Yalu and gained command of the sea, transported an army to the south side of the Shantung promontory, marched across an easy bit of country, completely surprising the Chinese, took all von Haneken's fortifications in rear, destroying first the batteries on the mainland and then those on the island, capturing the place and sinking the only remaining Chinese ironclad, which had escaped, though damaged, from the battle of Yalu.
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It was reported that the Chinese complained bitterly at the mean tactics of the Japanese, attacking them in rear, instead of coming up boldly from the front, in the direction in which their guns were pointed. No doubt they scolded von Hanejken, if they could get at him. I never heard what became of that gentleman. He had probably gone home before the attack, with the Chinamen's dollars in his pocket.
As soon as the Japanese captured Wei-hai-wei they destroyed all von Haneken's fortifications. They blew up the batteries and smashed the Krupp guns and their mountings. The business was very completely done, and when we took over the place the whole of the fortifications were a mass of ruins. Then arose the question of whether we were to fortify the place or not. The controversy lasted a long time. Opinions were divided. Both Sir Edward Seymour and I were strongly in favour of fortifying the island at least. We pointed out that in the event of war with Russia - the most probable war at that time - the place would be a dangerous trap for our ships if it was left unfortified, in view of the fact that Port Arthur, only ninety miles across the gulf, was being strongly fortified by the Russians. The extreme " blue-water school " at home in their arm-chairs were against any fortification. They argued that fortifications were no good, because whatever Power eventually held command of the sea would eventually be able to take Wei-hai-wei. Which was probably quite true, though the word " eventually " somewhat vitiated the wisdom of the argument.
After a lengthy correspondence on the subject, it was decided to mount a few 9.2 guns on the island, with a light anti-torpedo-boat armament, to command
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the entrance. Quite inadequate to resist a serious attack, but just enough to allow a powerful enemy the honour and glory of saying that he had captured a British fortified port. That silly idea about " moderate armaments " was already becoming fashionable. It would make a show, without costing much money. Security on the cheap. But it showed unmistakably that the amiable gentlemen into whose hands had fallen the government of the British Empire were not blessed with any very clear conception of the meaning of the word " war."
Colonel Lewis, R.E., and a small staff of Royal Engineers and sappers were sent out from England to select sites and prepare for the moderate fortification of Wei-hai-wei Island. Emplacements were constructed, and a good many thousands of pounds were spent in preparations, when a sudden change of policy took place, and it was decided to abandon the works and give up all ideas of fortifications - even moderate ones.
Having said so much about Wei-hai-wei, I am now prepared to admit frankly that I think it was very lucky we did not fortify the place. For this reason: As matters now stand, the only people who could take it from us are the Japanese. So long as they remain our friends and allies, the place is safe; and if they were to become our enemies, they could take it whenever they wanted it, in spite of the moderate - or, indeed, of any - fortification we could have provided for its defence. The anti-fortification people have therefore proved to be right, though I doubt if even the boldest of them would have the audacity to claim that he foresaw in 1898 the result of the Russo-Japanese War, which took place seven years later.
Before we occupied Wei-hai-wei, our squadron in
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North China was rather in the air - so to speak. We, of course, had the use of the Japanese ports, as also had the Russians; and Nagasaki was at times rather crowded with British and Russian warships. There were two Russian Admirals, Doubassoff and Reunoff, and I was very good friends with both of them; though, of course, we were well aware of the strained relations between our two countries, and that we might any day be trying to sink each other's ships, by the latest, the most scientific, and most approved methods. But in the meantime we observed all the courtesies of friendly nations; and I had more than once the pleasure of entertaining Madame Doubassoff and her children on board the Grafton during my visits to Nagasaki.
In March, 1898, matters appeared to be getting critical between England and Russia. The Russians had seized Port Arthur, and were fortifying it with all haste. Warlike speeches were made in the British Parliament. We were not going to allow Russia to be predominant in China and to cut us out of our trade interests. We wanted the open door, and we were not going to allow anyone to slam the door in our faces, and so on. Quite an angry growl from the British lion. So that it looked as if we might be at war any day, as it certainly did not look as if Russia was going to draw back. I was at Chefoo at the time, in the Grafton, with a squadron of cruisers, including that under-armed monstrosity the Powerful, two belted cruisers (with all their armour under water), and a few smaller vessels. The Russians had a greatly superior squadron at Port Arthur, within ninety miles of us, and our best ships were down south with Sir Edward Seymour. Our telegraphic communications from Chefoo through China were not to be trusted, and if there was
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to be war, it was tolerably certain that Admiral Doubassoff would get news of it before I should; so I cleared my ships for action and kept them so for several days, until matters quieted down a bit. We heard afterwards that the Russian squadron at Port Arthur did the same, fearing that we should get first news and attack them. I knew quite well that my friend Doubassoff would not respect the neutrality of Chefoo; nor should I if I had been in his place, as Chinamen don't count in such cases.
A few days later I received a reinforcement, in the shape of the battleship Barfleur and the cruiser Edgar; and then the Commander-in-Chief himself arrived with two more battleships, Centurion and Victorious. Nothing happened; it all went off in smoke. The British lion went to sleep again, and left it to the sturdy little men who fight under the banner of the Rising Sun to turn the Russians out of Port Arthur and then the Germans out of Kaou Cheou.
I served for fifty-one years in the Navy, all over the world, and I have never had a chance !
Not counting Japanese and Chinese Admirals, there were six European Admirals flying their flags in North China in 1898 - two British, two Russian, and two German - besides an American commodore, Dewey, who distinguished himself at Cavete in the Philippine Islands. Admiral Deitrich was the German Commander-in-Chief, and Prince Henry of Prussia was the Rear-Admiral - my " opposite number," as we express it in the Navy. Prince Henry was very friendly, and when we met in port we used to dine with each other, and sometimes land in the afternoon and go for a walk in the country. One day he and I and Captain Lambton of the Powerful walked up a steep hill behind Chefoo.
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It was a hot day, and we sat down to rest on a tombstone in a deserted Chinese graveyard, and lit our cigarettes. A stream of ants was running by, and Prince Henry immediately set to work killing them as fast as he could, with the end of his walking-stick. I thought it was a senseless employment of the power he possessed to take life in that wholesale manner, ants not being classed as vermin; but I held my tongue and did not interfere with his " sport." Not so Captain Lambton, who got quite annoyed about it, and suggested that as the ants were doing no harm to anyone, Prince Henry might stop killing them. Prince Henry did not stop killing the ants, and as the argument on the subject was getting rather warm and seemed to threaten a breach of international diplomatic relations, I got up and proposed that we should go on with our walk.
It was a small matter, but a straw will show how the wind blows as well as a gilded weathercock.
Not long after the Russian scare, there was another scare in North China. Sir Claude MacDonald, our Minister at Pekin, telegraphed to me that that extraordinary old woman the Dowager Empress was kicking up a bobbery and cutting off heads; that it was reported the Emperor had been poisoned, and there would probably be a revolution, and the European Embassies might want assistance. But this scare also went off in smoke. There was a revolution, but not for another two years, when I had left the station.
Fifty-one years in the Navy, and always either too early or too late.
At Chefoo I made the acquaintance of Bishop Scott, the Anglican Bishop of North China. He gave me an amusing account of the manner in which he made his episcopal visitations, in a wheelbarrow. The Chinese
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wheelbarrow is a peculiar contrivance. It is a bona-fade one-wheeled conveyance, with the shafts behind. The wheel is about three feet in diameter, and is generally a solid disc of wood, but instead of the central box arrangement, there are seats at each side, on one of which sat the Bishop, facing sideways, and on the other was placed his portmanteau to balance him. One man in the shafts behind and another with a rope over his shoulder dragging in front completed the Bishop's state-coach. The great beauty of the wheelbarrow (as the Bishop explained to me) was, that it could traverse the narrow paths which separate the paddy fields, these being often little more than a foot wide, as I can testify to my own knowledge, when shooting snipe and slipping in occasionally. About fifty years ago Bishops used to make their visitations in four-in-hand drags; but that was in Ireland, not China. Moreover, no drag that I ever heard of made the sweet music of a solid-wheeled Chinese wheelbarrow, to relieve the monotony of a tedious journey.
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