|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
256 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
AN AUSTRALIAN NAVY
As I only undertook to write memories of the sea, and as I did not go to sea again after my third visit to China and Japan, I ought-strictly speaking - to stop now. But perhaps the reader will bear with me a little longer, as I was not absolutely idle, though hauled up ashore.
It was a great disappointment to me that I was not employed as a Vice-Admiral; but as I fell foul of the Admiralty about their stupid and ill-considered scheme for the entry and training of naval officers, and as " My Lords " were very angry and had no means of taking reprisals, except by keeping me unemployed, they adopted that course. They had the power to do so, without giving their reasons, so perhaps it was only human nature - of a sort - to use that power. But I shall come to this subject a little later on.
One of the first things I did, on coming ashore, was to take part in a controversy which was attracting a good deal of attention - with regard to whether there should be an Australian Navy, manned and paid for by Australia, or whether it would not be sounder nautical strategy for the Australians to pay a fixed subsidy to the British Admiralty, on the understanding that it should undertake to keep a squadron of a certain size in Australian waters, to defend the shores of that great continent. Personally I never entertained the smallest doubt as to which was the proper, and
AN AUSTRALIAN NAVY 257
indeed the only possible, policy. I felt certain that the Australians would not consent for long to go on paying a subsidy to the British Treasury for the use of British warships to defend their coasts and their inter-colonial trade routes. It might be all very well as a temporary measure, until they could start a navy of their own; but it was absolutely opposed to the oft-expressed ideals and ultimate prosperity of a great self-governing community of pure British stock: for, in the first place, it violated the principle of no taxation without representation, and, secondly, it denied the young men of Australia the opportunity of giving personal service to the land of their birth, except as swamped items in the ocean of the great British Navy. The few nominations for cadetships in our Navy offered by the Admiralty to the young gentlemen of Australia failed entirely to fulfil the aspirations of a community wherein the opinions of the so-called working classes held such dominating political influence.
So I took up my pen and wrote many letters to the Press, and also some magazine articles, strongly advocating the abolition of the subsidy, and the formation, without delay, of an infant navy which the Australian could call their own.
There was considerable opposition amongst some of our naval strategists to the formation of an Australian Navy, and I was much surprised to find that my old friend, Sir John Colomb, M.P., was one of them. For Sir John had been a Marine, and was generally quite sound and far-seeing upon naval subjects; but in this case he founded his faith upon some of the shibboleths of the extreme blue-water school, who said that, as the sea was all one, the Navy must be all one; and, further, that if the Australians were to be encouraged
258 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
to have a navy of their own, it would lead to complete separation from the mother-country. In short, that it was a cut-the-painter policy much to be deprecated; though it was not explained why the Australian Commonwealth with a Navy of its own, which for many years must necessarily remain comparatively feeble, should desire to cut the painter and deprive itself of the support of the most powerful Navy in the world, seeing that the island-continent could only be invaded by sea.
The argument that an Australian Navy could not for many years become a source of material strength to the Empire did not appear to me to be a sound one. That it would for some years be a mere baby Navy, as compared with the Navies of possible enemies, was obvious; but it seemed to ignore the fact that we were all babies once, and that it took some years of growth before we became men and women. Moreover, we had before us the extraordinarily rapid growth of the. Japanese and German Navies, when once those two countries made up their minds to possess powerful Navies; and it was certain that the baby must be born before it could grow. But the strongest of all the arguments for starting an Australian Navy was the fact that the leading men of Australia - with some few exceptions - wanted it. Nothing less would satisfy their ambitions, and they declined to go on paying the mother-country to defend their shores.
Those who were opposed to offering assistance to the Commonwealth to start a Navy of its own failed to take account of one of the most powerful and universal sentiments in human nature-the charm of possession.
A poor thing, but mine own."
Sir John Colomb called this a silly sentiment. It was a sentiment, certainly; but, as I failed to see anything
AN AUSTRALIAN NAVY 259
silly about it, I hammered away for all I was worth, and have had the satisfaction of seeing the Australians make a start with a Navy of their own. And a very good start, too, just in time to prove its mettle and win laurels in the great war.
The baby Navy, the sea-urchin of the South Pacific, has already shown quite remarkable fighting power for such a newly born infant, and has established a record which will be an inspiration to Australian seamen for all time.
Undoubtedly the palm should be given to Captain Creswell; for it was mainly due to his clear common sense and indefatigable exertions that all opposition was overcome, and the Australian Navy given a fair start. He was, of course, in the British Navy, and went to Australia (I think) as a Lieutenant, and devoted his talents to the encouragement of a naval spirit in the land of his adoption - a spirit which was decidedly lukewarm at the time of my only visit to Australia, in 1881.
1 was in frequent correspondence with Captain Creswell during the controversy about the starting of an Australian Navy. We pulled together; and I trust the reader will forgive me if I quote, in winding up this subject, the following paragraph from the British Australian of April 12th, 1906:
" Never has the case for an Australian Navy been put better than in an article contributed to the current number of the National Review by Admiral Fitzgerald. One by one he disposes of the old arguments, that consist mainly of ridicule, and shows that the colonial feeling in favour of a locally owned and locally controlled naval contingent is based on the broadest Imperial spirit."
260 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
Looking back now upon this controversy, which took place only a few years ago, it seems passing strange that not only some of our own public men - naval strategists and others - should have set their faces against the genesis of an Australian Navy; but that several leading men amongst native-born Australians, including an ex-member of the Commonwealth Parliament, should have opposed the scheme. The only alternative to which was the continued payment of a small money subsidy to the British Treasury, a mere drop in the ocean; which the Australians were being frequently told was very niggardly and not nearly large enough, or at all in proportion to the protection afforded them by their fond mother.
The British people have managed to produce some queer faddists, " freak statesmen " we might perhaps call them without offence. Not so very long ago we had some of these freak statesmen (quite a large and influential party of them, too) who actually wanted to cut the painter with all the colonies, and who said that the sooner we were quit of them, the better it would be for both us and them!
Then a little later in the development of the British Empire, an agitation was set on foot for the abandonment of the Mediterranean by the British Fleet. This particular fad did not have a very long life, though it went quite strong for a short time, and might be properly described as a policy of funk. It was, of course, supported by the " peace-at-any-price " party, though, to the best of my recollection, it was not taken up by either of the two officially recognized political parties. No, not even for temporary electioneering purposes, to catch the votes of a few funkers. It was a little too thin even for unscrupulous political lawyers, who
AN AUSTRALIAN NAVY 261
do not usually stick at trifles. But I well remember that the Nineteenth Century published two articles advocating the abandonment of the Mediterranean. One of these was by a Mr. Laird-Clowes, a gentleman who wrote voluminously on naval subjects, and who, though not himself a seaman, was generally recognized as an amateur naval strategist. But, stranger still, the other article was by Colonel Elsdale, R.E., who would no doubt claim to be a professional military strategist.
These two strategists had probably read a few pages of naval history, and made the discovery that the Mediterranean was abandoned by the British Fleet towards the close of the eighteenth century. Therefore why should it not be abandoned again? Had they read a few pages farther, they would have discovered that a British Fleet sailed up the Mediterranean again, shortly after the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, and that Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile in August, 1798.
But the second abandonment of the Mediterranean was to be complete and final. Gibraltar was to be given to Spain, Egypt to France, and Malta to the Pope.
^ back to top ^