|Links in my life on land and sea |
I GO TO SEA
H.M.S. Retribution - Baltic Flying Squadron - Confused impressions - Bilge-water tea - Weevils and cockroaches - Boatswain and skipper - Cobbings - French mids and their ways - Hamburg - Sail drill and sailormen - The sea person of to-day.
MY father accompanied me to Portsmouth, where I was to join the Retribution a paddle-wheel frigate and probably the second best fighting ship afloat in her day. With a preliminary visit to my outfitter to take possession of my chest, which we took with us, we embarked in a wherry on the Hard and were soon at Spithead and alongside my ship, with Rear-Admiral Baynes's blue flag at the mizzen and the Flying Squadron moored in line of column.
Neither the Admiral - whom I had seen at home - nor the Captain were on board, so that my father failed to see either of them, as he had wished to do ; but the Flag-Lieutenant, Lambert, nephew of the Admiral, who had presented himself when we came over the side, was very attentive, and introduced me to Swinton, our senior mate - as sub-lieutenants were called in the pre-Germanising days. A kind good friend and an excellent mess-mate was Swinton all the days we were together. My father did not remain long on board, and
BILGE-WATER AND COCKROACHES
it was with more emotion than I had ever seen him betray - for he veiled a warm heart under an armour of reserve - that he stuffed a five-pound note into my hand, and an envelope containing a prayer which he had carefully prepared for my use in this new life. Being a man of the world, however, he said nothing of the preachifying order ; but merely hoped I would always remember I was a gentleman and try to lead a clean life. He also said, somewhat sententiously, "As you will never borrow, so you need never lend," in which he was dead wrong, for I frequently did both.
The first clear impression I have retained of that inaugural moment of my being alone in the world is that of two small boys in the same uniform as myself - the one a wizened little person like a marmoset monkey, the other a lean, long-legged lad with light hair and the face of an ostrich standing - laughing at me on the other side of the deck, as I turned from the gangway over which my father had just disappeared. I suppose the eye-glass in my eye gave me a conceited air, and certainly it was not a usual appendage for a child of thirteen ; but as I had worn it for the last four years I was quite unconscious that it struck any one as comical.
I can distinctly call to mind how dazed and confused I felt as I looked about me, for I had never seen a ship of war before, and had not the least conception of what it would be like. I look back on it now, and a picture rises up of confused sights and sounds; broad white decks and rows of guns : masts and rigging : big funnels belching out smoke : men tramping about : bugle calls : officers in a medley of stripes and different uniforms : marines, of whose very existence I was up to that time ignorant : movement everywhere, people rushing up and down ladders apparently bent on nothing
I GO TO SEA
in particular. I see myself a half-blind mite of a boy suddenly swept into the grip of this extraordinary machine, a mere speck, as it were, amongst these hundreds of men, listening to a jargon - consisting chiefly of oaths - of a sort I had never heard.
Then the two lads cross over from the other side of the deck and are kind and friendly enough. I look on them as quite old salts, for one has been on board a whole month, and the other a week and both seem to me perfectly at home with everything.
"Come along down with us into the berth," says one of them ; "the midshipman's berth," he explains.
"I say," says the other, "I don't think I'd keep that glass in my eye if I were you. It looks so rummy."
I explain I cannot see where to put my feet without it, which they think "rummier " still, and lead the way below.
With unaccustomed steps I get down to the main deck ; rows of great guns before me, lanterns of horn slung from the beams overhead in which gutter tallow candles giving a feeble yellow light ; down still lower, to a dark hole, stinking of pitch, bilge water, cockroaches, mouldy biscuits, damp clothes, and tarpaulins, where long lines of white-washed sea-chests stand in front of rows of muskets and cutlasses; into a pokey kind of den, measuring twelve feet long by five feet wide, the entire centre occupied by a table on which is spread a cloth, which may once have been white. I see going on what I suppose to be some kind of meal, for there are cups and saucers of great thickness, bread, and bowls of slithery yellow butter, whilst, sitting on the lockers, jammed close together round the table, are my future messmates, some fourteen or fifteen in number, of all shapes and sizes, including the Assistant Surgeon, ranging from children of my own age to men of five
MY FIRST DAY AFLOAT
and twenty. From the centre of a massive beam over-head swings an oil lamp, smelling horrible, whilst two tallow dips, stuck into bottles, help the illumination as best they can. A queer, pot-bellied little man in his shirt sleeves stands at the door at one end of the den pouring out a black fluid which smells of boiled clothes, but is in reality "ship's tea," and rightly so called, for on no place on God's shore could such a decoction be found. All hands are eating and drinking in the utmost haste : the stale bread and the cart grease which does duty for butter rapidly vanishing, washed down by the aforesaid tea, to which an addition has been made of sky blue milk, poured out of a beer bottle, and of the coarsest of brown sugar. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, how my heart sank at the whole scene as I realised that this was the life I was to lead henceforth for Heaven knew how long ! And yet, in a week's time, I was perfectly happy amidst it all ; thinking it as natural as breathing to fish up dead cockroaches from the bottom of my cup, or to knock weevils out of my biscuit.
But to return to my first day on board. My messmates seemed jolly enough, and took very little notice of me beyond asking my name, whilst after tea some of them showed me where my chest stood, and produced a marine, who, I was informed, would be my servant, and would look after me. I went on deck again ; the shades of night were deepening over the waters of Spithead, and, as I peered out over the side, I saw the lights of Portsmouth on one side, and those of the Isle of Wight on the other, seeming to suggest that henceforth my home was to be on the sea. All manner of thoughts arose in my boyish mind. How far off seemed Ashley Lodge ! I wondered if any living being in the whole world had ever been so lonely ! I wondered if any one at home was thinking of me and understanding the sort of
I GO TO SEA
life into which I had been suddenly launched. Then I looked aloft. The vast size of the masts and yards - accustomed as I was hitherto only to the colliers, in Boulogne harbour, or French fishing boats - seemed to stagger me. A stiff breeze was whistling through the rigging, the ship lying broadside on to the wind in the strong current, and I was conscious of a distinct rolling of the vessel, for there was a heavy sea - for Spithead - and the white crests of short steep waves glittered in the light from the main deck ports.
A dazed memory of my first night in a hammock may be accounted for by the fact that I had not been long in it - having got there with much difficulty - when I found myself with my head under one of the arm-racks, and my heels on the lid of a chest, some amusing person having treated me to the ordinary joke played on newcomers, of cutting down my hammock. I felt very foolish : with a lump on the back of my head, and a marine sentry quietly chuckling as I lay on the deck, so that I thought the whole thing anything but pleasant. However, with the aid of the sentry, my hammock was soon in its place, and I myself once more in it, where sleep, which rarely deserts the young, soon caused me to forget all my troubles.
I awoke very early next morning, with an impression that thunder was going on apparently only a few inches above my nose, and, much puzzled, I turned out and looked up the hatchway. In the gloom I discerned rows of blue-jackets on their knees, rubbing the sanded decks with a soft white stone in each hand, whilst Swinton - who was mate of the main deck - with bare feet and trousers tucked up, stood superintending the operation. I dressed and went on to the upper deck, where the same thing was going on, and wandering about amongst buckets, swabs, and squeegees, finally found myself on the forecastle,
AN OLD SEA-DOG
where a queer old man with bow legs and a bad limp, a red face and ginger whiskers, seemed to me as if he ought to command a fleet from the deference paid him by the crew. However, autocrat as he was, he smiled at me so kindly that I thought whoever he might be, I would have a yarn with him, so, ranging up alongside, I began a conversation about things in general and the prospects of the campaign before us in the Baltic in particular. I was struck with the freedom with which he gave his opinion to a boy of my years and humble rank, especially when he said that "old Napier " - the Commander-in-Chief in the Baltic in 1854, the year before - " was an old humbug and could never do nothing but jaw ! "
We got on swimmingly together, and I saw in him the ideal old sea-dog of Marryatt, being particularly impressed by the horniness of his hands and the toughness of his toes, for he kicked heavy buckets about as easily as I could a woolly ball.
As daylight crept on I had time to study his face and saw what a singular way he had of squinting over the bridge of his nose, looking out for squalls I thought, as if they might come from anywhere, even up the hatchway. I also observed that one side of his face was bulged out by a permanent gumboil, which however seemed to occasion him no discomfort beyond causing him, from time to time, to eject into any handy bucket a brown fluid from between his teeth, with an accuracy of aim that was amazing. I mentioned my admiration of his skill in discharging this liquid, when he laughed uproariously and requested some one, undefined, to "Damn his toplights," and then lugging out of his mouth a juicy-looking brown ball, explained to me the mystery of a quid.
By this time the holystoning was over and "washing down " began, so I left my friend and went below to wash and dress ; with a candle burning in a bracket in
I GO TO SEA
the lid of my chest. This operation performed I went on deck again where everything in the meantime had been put in order, with officers of all ranks walking up and down on the port side - that which a landsman would call the left if he was facing forward - but, in solitary state, on the starboard side, my friend of the morning, his legs looking still more bandy, indeed one leg appearing to be broken at the knee, making him roll along like a cart with a broken axle. I noticed that he was now much better dressed than he had been earlier, with more gold lace on his cuffs, a broad gold band round his cap, and that he had no quid in his cheek. He seemed to stare at me rather oddly as I came on deck, my glass in my eye, but again I imagined that he smiled, so I thought that I, at least, would not be such a snob as to cut him, as all the officers seemed to be doing by not even walking his side of the deck, seeing he had been so friendly to me only a few hours before. So screwing my glass tighter into my eye I ranged up to him and said encouragingly, "Hulloa, where's your quid? "
To my surprise he stopped dead short, stared at me for a moment with a freezing aspect, and then beckoned to an officer - who sprang forward and saluted him without saying a word - and said severely, "Here, Mr. Knott, take this youngster away and teach him manners ! "
Then I was seized and hustled off, and learnt that I had muddled up that almighty potentate, the Captain of the ship, with the boatswain, the latter being the person with whom I had talked in the morning. But what made matters worse for me was the fact that the two men were so exceedingly alike, both redhaired, both with one leg broken, that this same mistake had been made before by landsmen and other persons not versed in the mysteries of naval uniform, so that, unintentionally, I had repeated a particularly riling kind of blunder. However, my next
ANOTHER MARITIME CANINE
interview with Captain Thomas Fisher showed me that he bore me no malice, indeed he was too much of a gentleman to be capable of bearing ill will to any one.
Soon after breakfast - to me a revelation of discomfort - I received a message to go to the Admiral's cabin, where the tall, thin old man, who I had seen at home in mufti, but now wearing an extraordinary glazed top hat, like a coachman's, with a stripe of gold lace up the side of it, and a tight buttoned-up frock coat, proved to be Admiral Baynes. He received me most kindly, whilst Captain Fisher, who was also present, said many kind things, and seemed totally to have forgotten the incident of the morning. Lambert, the Flag-Lieutenant, was also there and undertook to explain to me my duties, and to teach me how to keep my log - the dullest, most meaningless compilation known to mankind, still existing to this day in all its crass and boundless absurdity ; one which the wit of man has never been able to connect with anything that could be of the remotest use to any one.
It is not my intention to write a history of the Naval War of 1854-55, for the present generation have long ceased to take an interest in the matter. Moreover, the less said about what the Navy then did, or rather failed to do, the better.
My messmates and my relationship with them were naturally my first preoccupation, and amongst the things that dawned on me was that the less I ventilated Latin and Greek at sea the better. For this fact was forcibly borne in on me at an early stage, our second master - who had joined the Navy straight out of a merchant ship - inconsequently boxing my ears because I was reading a Greek Testament, which my father had given me requesting that I would read it occasionally, with the double-barrelled object of keeping up my classics, and my interest in Holy Writ.
I GO TO SEA
"We don't want none of this here kind of hogwash at sea," said my friend. I also quickly discovered that to know anything about music - beyond being able to sing a comic song or play a hornpipe on a tin whistle - was likewise an offence ; whilst the crowning infamy was to be able to talk French, or any foreign tongue.
All these disqualifications I unfortunately possessed, which led to early efforts on my part at being a humbug, when, to save the application of a sea-boot to my back, I would adopt, with much difficulty, sea pronunciation of some classic name for ship or star; as, for instance, " Imperoose " (Impérieuse) ; " Sanspareel " (Sanspareil) ; Alpha Pegasi (Sp), and so on, through a long list of shuddering false quantities.
My knowledge of French, however, I could not hide under a bushel, for the Admiral knew I spoke it well, and took me about with him wherever it was necessary. In those days to speak any foreign language was thought phenomenal in the Navy - not to say discreditable - like long hair and keeping tame rabbits.
My messmates were, of course, a very mixed lot - social poles apart - sons of the first families in the land, and others of the very humblest origin. Not that there was much snobbery amongst us; for, though officially the line of demarcation between executives and civilians was rigidly observed, still in a mess a lad took his standing through his own qualities. Airs of superiority or caddishness were very soon kicked out of any boy betraying them.
In those days there was a time-honoured institution in the midshipman's mess called "Cobbing." It was the punishment meted out to youngsters for any kind of offence, and consisted in being laid across a desk, on the top of a table, and being whacked with a bayonet scabbard. But only our own "cloth" could cob us,
THE DAWN OF THE SPREE
so there was no indignity attached to the operation. It was merely meant to hurt, and this it did effectually. A fair amount of attention was paid to the morals of the youngsters, though by a singular law, which no one disputed, at a certain period the line between that which was permitted and that which was not, was abruptly broken down. Up to a certain age you went ashore in charge of some oldster, who looked after you all day, put you into the boat returning to the ship at five or six in the evening, and then himself, perhaps only two or three years your senior, went on the spree until the small hours of the morning. I do not think there was any privilege youngsters longed for more than that of being their own master ashore, and it was rebellion against restraint in this that earned me my first cobbing.
The Fleet was at Kiel - the French Squadron lying near us - and I had leave to go ashore, but accompanied by a mate called Toup Nicolas. We met some French midshipmen, and I chummed up with them, and, giving Nicolas the slip, went off with these boys. Together we visited all sorts of places which their native instincts easily enabled them to discover. But though our outing was perfectly harmless, I received four dozen with the bayonet scabbard that evening. However, next day we had leave given us to visit Hamburg, and I went with another "oldster," but whether it was that through the distance being greater from the ship or that he thought the punishment I had had the day before entitled me to a little freedom, I do not know, but we had a really good time, and wound up with a grand dinner in a café.
Coming away from the café, we had trouble with some men who had followed us about for two or three hours - with what object I never understood - and it was the first real "row" I was ever in, and I certainly thought it
I GO TO SEA
excellent fun ; my messmates knocking over the flabby Germans like ninepins, so that in a few minutes our assailants fled, and we found our way back to our hotel, all the damage our party had sustained being one blackeye, one head cut open with a stick, and myself with a big lump on my shin from a kick.
Fleets, in those days, were continually exercised in making and shortening sail, shifting spars, and all similar manoeuvres aloft, and as the greatest rivalry existed amongst the crews as to which ship should carry out some evolution first, accidents were frequent; in fact, hardly a drill-day passed without two or three men being seriously injured. And naturally the foreign fleets endeavoured to compete with the British, in a friendly way ; though, without prejudice, I can honestly say with no success, and certainly with more accidents below and aloft. Once, drilling in Kiel harbour, being aloft, I saw an unfortunate French midshipman go head first from the mizzen cross-trees of the French flag-ship - the Villeneuve - and flatten out into a mere heap on the ship's poop. There is no sound more sickening than the thud of a man as he strikes the deck when falling from aloft.
But that numbers of accidents should arise in sail-drill is not astonishing when one thinks that masts and spars, measuring perhaps seventy or eighty feet long, and weighing two to three tons, are whisked about with bewildering speed with nothing but men's hands and brains to guide them ; hundreds of men crammed into a space of a few hundred feet, where nothing but the most marvellous organisation and discipline can avert death, on deck or aloft. To the landsman who understands nothing of the difficulty involved in rapidly shifting these great masts and yards, or in reefing and furling thousands of square yards of stiff canvas - perhaps wet or half-frozen - the
MARVELS OF DISCIPLINE
rapidity with which it is done is, perhaps, the chief wonder in his mind, but to us, who know, it is admiration for the discipline and nerve which it all means. For ropes, running like lightning through blocks that are instantly too hot to touch from friction, have to be checked to within a few inches, requiring the utmost coolness and presence of mind, whilst the officer in command has to superintend what to the uninitiated looks like a tangled maze of cordage, which, however, is in reality no more in confusion than threads flying through a loom. In an instant this officer may see something going wrong ; to delay a single second means a terrible catastrophe ; for every one - aloft and on deck - is relying absolutely on his judgment.
" Belay!" "Ease away!"
Some order comes in an instant; the boatswains' mates repeat the order in a particular call which this life-and-death necessity soon teaches every one to understand, their shrill whistles rising above the din of tramping feet and running ropes, or the thundering crash of the great sails in the wind. Death has been averted, or perhaps not; if the latter, you look up and see some unfortunate man turning head over heels in the air. Your heart stands still. Will he catch hold of something, even if only to break the fall, or will he be smashed to pieces on the deck or across a gun ? It is a mere toss-up. If he is killed outright it generally stops the drill for the day. If he is only very seriously injured it will go on ; for this, too, is part of the lesson to be learnt, that in peace, as in war, you must take your chance.
People ask what it is that makes the character of a naval man. I believe it is this kind of thing, danger of some kind constantly faced, until it becomes second nature ; this tremendous discipline which knows no relaxation ; this invincible belief in doing their best, and
I GO TO SEA
over and above all, the tradition of the noblest service the world has ever known. In the modern Navy, of course, all this drill aloft no longer exists, and substitutes for exercising the men have to be adopted to keep them healthy ; but exercise as they like, the extraordinary springiness of the old man-of-war's man is no longer to be seen, for nowadays all look alike, whether stoker or seaman. Nor has the disappearance of "masts and yards" merely affected the appearance of the men. Indirectly it has altered the entire service from top to bottom ; for now a boy may be turned into an engineer or an executive, or a paymaster, at any time and apparently be equally fit for all jobs on board except those of surgeon and parson, and these, too, he may soon accomplish if we have many more changes at the Admiralty. The modern naval officer need not in the least be a seaman ; he is a man who goes to sea : an item in a great fighting machine, which neither the winds nor the waves greatly affect. He would be quite as good a sailor if his ship could get about ashore, and, for lack of waves, run up and down Primrose Hill, to teach him not to be sea-sick. But in spite of all this, I believe the modern naval officer to be better instructed all round than we were in the fifties, with the solitary exception of "sailorising."
Perhaps nothing separates the old Navy from the new so much as the speed of the vessels. There is no doubt that increased speed in any machine which man constructs for himself - whether it is a modern "Atlantic greyhound," a torpedo boat, a destroyer, or whether it is the old lumbering two miles an hour "'bus" of early Victorian days or the last effort of the motor-maniac - tends greatly to develop mental activity in the human race generally. When I look back on the slow and cumbrous manoeuvres of the Channel Fleet with which
THE MODERN NAVAL OFFICER
I myself became familiar many years after, and compare them with those of modern days, I am amazed at the high degree of excellence that is now required of our young lieutenants. No living soul in the Baltic Fleet of 1855 - and I say it without fear of contradiction - could have been found to drive his vessel at the rate of thirty knots on a dark night and in little known waters, as is expected nowadays of every youngster who has passed for lieutenant, if he is put in charge of one of those wonderful Destroyers. And further, not only has this modern youngster to know navigation and pilotage - of which nearly every executive officer in my day was practically ignorant, for the Master did all this work - but he has to seize, in a moment, the meaning of all manner of complicated signalling, not only with flags, or perchance a few lanterns as in the old days, but numbers of other complicated inventions - semaphores, heliographs, &c. - to say nothing of such scientific marvels as the Marconi system. Nothing occurs more frequently in my log than the Admiral firing guns to enforce signals ; on one occasion he fires off no less than five ! In the modern Navy it is practically an unheard-of necessity.
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