Life on Board The “Dreadnought”
Frank T. Bullen
in London Magazine
QUITE recently it was my great and pleasant privilege to spend nearly a fortnight on board the “Dreadnought,” not only Britain’s greatest battleship, but a vessel which has surprised and considerably disconcerted all the naval powers in the world. The ship was under service conditions, being the flagship of the just mobilized immense Home Fleet, and, whether in harbor or at sea, by night or by day, was a scene of the most strenuous activity.
Due, possibly, to the fact that I am fairly well known in the fleet, but more, I think, to the innate kindliness and courtesy of the naval man of whatever grade, I was not only made welcome, but with every branch of the working of this unique ship I was made most intimate. Here comes cause for tears. On many points— and those, as always happens, the most intensely interesting—my lips are sealed, as they would be about the private affairs of a friend whose guest I happened to be. Again, I am precluded from mentioning any names
or characteristics of the various officers who have been so kind, because service rules forbid, selection is invidious, and comprehensive description is impossible from lack of space.
But what I can say, and do gratefully assert, is this : that in the latest British battleship the grand old traditions of the service are fully maintained; that one and all rise to the height of their opportunities, and handle this vast, complicated box of tricks with as perfect an assurance as if they had been on board of her all their lives. If there is any higher praise than that, I am not acquainted therewith.
Few people outside of the inner circle of high scientific authorities and the men in charge of this ship can possibly form any idea of the immense and almost miraculous success she is. How long she was in designing I know not ; but most people know that in addition to being the most revolutionary example of battleship construction and armament, she also constituted an astounding record in the
time occupied from the laying of her keel until she was commissioned for sea, exactly twelve months—from October 2nd, 1905, to October 3rd, 1906. Hundreds of contractors were concerned in her equipment, all liable to error, some unscrupulous; but all their efforts had to be concentrated in this ship, which, under a supreme driving force, was got to sea at the appointed time.
I know and admire with all my heart the men who watched her grow, who amidst entirely new conditions scrutinized every bit of work that was put into her with the most jealous care, their eyes ever on the clock as the time flew by. These men, unnamed, unnoted under service rules, took the wonderful ship to sea, and in the face of all difficulties, such as engineers only can appreciate, made her do what she was laid down to do.
Between seven and eight hundred men, all young and all British, all under the same discipline, and in their various positions carrying out the same great ideal, living within a space a little under five hundred feet long, about eighty feet beam at the extreme width, and about forty deep. Their duties are almost as multifarious as their characters, but in a very special way they are interdependent. Here, if anywhere, is the scriptural axiom exemplified that no man liveth to himself. Coming into this microcosm from without, the landsman or merchant seaman is at first almost stupefied by what he ignorantly imagines to be the many masters giving orders, the many duties being performed in apparently utter indifference to anything else that may be going on at the time. In short, he is inclined to regard life on board a battleship as a sort of happy-go-lucky chaos out of which emerges in some mysterious manner the perfect order and fitness for the prime duty of the ship, which is apparent at the buglecall “Prepare for action.”
Now, I do not wish to take any cutand-dried routine of an ordinary day and present it to you, for it has often been done before. A typed copy of the ship’s routine is framed and hung
in a conspicuous place, often opposite the commander’s cabin-door, and, in the absence of that special work which may at any moment by the will of the captain or, if in a fleet, at the admiral’s orders, be intruded, will be adhered to. For it is in the essence of naval training that every man shall be possessed by the knowledge that emergencies are to be expected at any moment, placid routine exceptional.
It can never be too vigorously emphasized that we have in each individual captain of a ship in the navy, when alone, and in the senior officer when in company with other vessels, a perfect autocrat in the highest sense. He is restrained from acts contrary to the articles of war by his allegiance to the Crown, apart from his own sense of what is due to his position ; but in the carrying out of his general orders to make and keep his crew as efficient as can possibly be he is absolute monarch.
But, as should be the case in a truly well governed kingdom, the captain of a battleship has no need to concern himself with niggling details. His Prime Minister or chief executive officer stands between him and the thousand and one incidents that go to make up a day in a battleship; and I have little fear of any contradiction when I say that this officer, the commander, is the hardest-worked man in the ship. Certainly, it is an axiom that the commander makes the ship. He messes in the wardroom with the officers, is on the most familiar terms with all of them there, with the slight difference that in speaking to him a “sir” is occasionally slipped in, but he is the chief of them all. The whole of this article might be taken up in describing the work of a commander, but it would be very incomplete then.
In considering the “Dreadnought,” however, especially as she was during my stay on board of her, we must take note of several exceptional circumstances. I11 the first place, she was the flag-ship of the Commander-inChief of the Home Fleet, Sir Francis Bridgman, K.C.V.O., a potentate who had under his orders five other admirals and a commodore. This con-
dition of things imposed upon Captain Reginald Bacon, who has commanded the ship since she was first commissioned, the additional and extremely onerous duties of chief of the staff, while lightening none of his other labors as being in command of the greatest series of new departures in battleship construction and equipment the world has ever seen.
There was of necessity also carried quite a large staff of special officers, mostly of the rank of commander, who, however, were hardly connected with the work of the ship herself, except in very special cases, such as gunnery trials. It was only in this way that the complement of the giant battleship was brought up to about 750, for really her crew, under ordinary conditions, number less than 700—692 I believe is the exact number, or about sixty less than the complement of a battleship of the “Majestic” class, with all their vast inferiority to the “Dreadnought.”
One other essential factor in the life of the “Dreadnought,” as compared with that of any other battleship in the navy, is the tremendous innovation as to the quarters of men and officers. The difference would appear to be trivial to a landsman, but it is really revolutionary. I allude to the fact of the rank and file being berthed aft and the officers forward, while the admiral’s quarters, with those of his chief subordinates, are almost immediately beneath the fore bridge, or “Monkey Island” as those irreverent seamen term it, so that access to his position of direct oversight of his fleet is at once easy and swift.
No one who is not a seaman can understand the complications in terms, the strange subversive feelings among all classes of the ship’s company, to which this revolutionary alteration has given rise, The older men in other ships look sourly upon the “Dreadnought,” with the once sacred quarter-deck infested by skylarking sailors. No stately admirals walk round the stern ; and, an unsightly square opening at the water-line right aft, through which the debris from
messrooms and galleys escapes into the sea. But when once the change has been lived down, all hands are agreed that the new is by far the better way.
Life in the wardroom, or the senior officers’ mess, is usually very happy. Though there be great variety of occupations as well of seniority among its inmates, within its doors all are equal, meeting as gentlemen meet in their club ; and nowhere would a snob, if such a creature be possible in a wardroom, find his proper position with greater rapidity and certainty. In fact, I should define the wardroom as the officers’ club, towards the upkeep of which every officer contributes liberally out of his pay, the balance being made up by the Admiralty. But —note well—extravagance of any kind is severely frowned upon, since in the navy it is not money but brains that makes the officer; and it is unthinkable that a good officer should find himself looked down upon because his purse happens to be shallow.
The gunroom is the adytum of the wardroom in a very special sense. It is the dining-room, living-room— home, in fact—of the junior officers, such as sub-lieutenants, assistant engineers, assistant paymasters, midshipmen, and cadets. One special manner in which it differs from the wardroom is that the members of the latter have each a commodious and comfortable cabin wherein to retire for study or privacy, while the juniors of the gunroom, outside of its doors, have only the hooks whereon their hammocks are slung, and the big chests which contain all their possessions. In fact, for them privacy only comes with promotion, as it does to the great majority of a battleship’s company. Most of the men who man a battleship never know during the whole of their sea career what it is to be in private except during their leave ashore ; many of them never have a corner which they can call their own, except that portion of the bag-rack where their kit is bestowed, and access to which is only available at stated times.
But we must not leave wardroom
and gunroom just yet. The three meals of the day—breakfast, luncheon and dinner, at eight, noon, and seven —are always most happy functions, attended by much lively chat, mostly on “shop” subjects—for your naval officer is far too sensible a man to be ashamed of being interested in his profession—and an enormous amount of chaff and “leg-pulling.” Nothing is harder for the guest of a wardroom for a few days to learn—I doubt if he ever appreciates it—than this mania of the naval officer for giving a fellow some information, with a perfectly straight face, which is pure joke. Nothing, apparently, gives him more delight than to sell somebody in this way; and the greater the victim’s annoyance, if he be unwise enough to show it, the greater the joy of the perpetrator.
Sport, of course, is discussed, but never, in all my experience, given undue prominence to. In fact, rememering the enormous amount of highly specialized knowledge that a naval officer must possess if he wishes to remain in the service, and the very arduous nature of his active duties, most especially in a ship like this, I fail to see how sport can be, as it is with so many landsmen, the be-all and end-all of life, and work only a disagreeable incident. ,
In the gunroom, fun is on a wilder and more boyish scale when it is indulged in. The junior naval aspirant lets himself go with a will when he does break loose ; and the piano suffers assault and battery of the severest kind, often illegitimately. But, owing to the increasing pressure upon the youngsters in the matter of learning, I fancy there are fewer corroborées than there used to be—there really isn’t time.
Apart, however, from its man-making facilities, there are in the life itself the advantages of seeing so much of the world, and mixing with the best cosmopolitan society, privileges which officers of all ranks share equally, and of the highest value in the formation of character.
Passing on to the next class on board a battleship which claims at-
tention, as well as highest respect, we come to the warrant officers—men who, I venture to say, are, as a class, without their peers in the world. Several new ratings have been added lately, so I am not quite sure of all of them ; but there are such old-established ones as boatswain, carpenter, gunner, captain of the quarter-deck, and, now, torpedo-gunner, engineer artificer, chief stoker, signal boatswain, &c.
All these non-commissioned officers dress in uniform similar to the commissioned officers, but without stripes on the cuffs ; all wear frock-coats and swords on special occasions, and all are—must be—addressed as “sir” by their subordinates and “Mr.” by their superiors.
But what I find so admirable in these men is that, although all in the very prime of life, they have literally fought their way to the front from the ranks in the face of the most strenuous competition and against countless pitfalls of temptation, one slip or error of judgment even, under the iron discipline of the navy, meaning often the loss of years of strenuous striving.
Therefore, when you meet a warrant officer, remember he is a man to take off your hat to. No amount of luck, or favoritism—if such a thing could be where crews so often change —or anything else save the highest qualities of skill, patience, intelligence, and pluck, can bring a man to this position.
These gentlemen—and very rough diamonds in speech some of them are —have each a cabin to themselves. They have also a messroom to themselves, on the same lines as the officer of the wardroom, but, of course, on a lower scale economically. Most of them are married, and looking forward to a peaceful retirement in their old age on a sufficient pension to keep them in comfort—a pension well earned if ever money was. As might be expected, they are usually very staid, quiet men, whose conversation is mostly on service matters ; indeed, were it otherwise, they would not be what they are.
And now we come to the bluejacket in all his varieties—the handyman par excellence—who, whether he be second-class petty officer or second-class boy, wears the familiar and sensible costume we all know and love.
I am sadly in want of a new term for him, since it is now utterly ridiculous, especially in a ship like this, to call him a sailor. True, you shall yet find among the petty officers men who, while they have absorbed the new learning, are skilled mechanics—specialists in various highly difficult mechanical directions—have not forgotten their early learning of knots, splicing, sailmaking, and fancy-work. Evidence of this is found in most unexpected places. Wandering one day among the byways of this amazing ship, I came across, a massive and complicated contrivance in brass jutting out from a bulkhead. What its use was—whether it was electrical or steam, or hydraulic or compressed air —I do not know ; but a curious thrill went through me as I noted how some neat and skilful seamen of the old school had worked “turks’ heads” with fishing-line around the principal pipes, to make the dividing line between paint and polished brass. The “turk’s head,” which doubtless the Phoenicians worked on the footropes to their lateen sails—I have seen it copied in ivory on a bishop’s pastoral staff of the ninth century— brought into useful play amid the mighty masses of metal in the latest of battleships !.
But what shall I call this wonderful man, whom I know and love so well? Bluejacket? No; for he never wears a jacket when in uniform, and his most frequently worn rig is white, not blue. On the whole, I think, setting aside his own nicknames of matlow (matelot), flatfoot, &c., I shall vote for seaman, with the prefix naval, to differentiate him from his brother in the merchant service.
But before taking him in detail, I must not omit mention of the warrant officer in chrysalis, as it were—the first-class petty officer, such as a chief boatswain’s mate or leading stoker. He has attained to the dignity of a
jacket and peaked cap, and he has usually a great voice and a strenuous driving method, which, added to an almost uncanny knowledge of what every unit of the scattered crowd under his immediate charge is doing at any given moment, gives you the clue to his position. These qualities have brought him thus far on his way up ; and their momentum will eventually land him at the goal of his ambition, bar accidents.
But what can I say of the secondclass petty officers, leading seamen, &c., with all their varying duties, responsibilities, and distinguishing marks? To the casual eye, all look alike as far as uniform is concerned, all wearing the loose blouse, tight, loose trousers, and round cap of the seaman; but on their arms they carry mystic signs, such as crossed flags, torpedoes, crossed cannon, single cannon, &c., which spell to the initiated the various duties they perform.
I have the highest desire to be irm partial, but I confess that, if pressed closely, I should say that this large and most important class are my favorites of all a battleship’s personnel. They are so amazingly able, so full of vitality, so obsessed with the importance and dignity of their profession, and yet, alas ! so many of them have fluctuated between leading seamen and warrant officers for years, having the cup of their ardent desire hurled from their lips time and time
again because-Well, because of a
variety of reasons, but all too often becaure of the allurements of another cup, and the natural geniality that all of them seem to possess.
To know them is to love them; to wach them at their work as drill-instructors, gun-layers, in charge of telephone exchanges, switchboardrooms, torpedo-flats, is to be filled even to overflowing with admiration of their amazing knowledge, allied to executive ability.
I have several times lately had a severe qualm when wondering wdiere such men are to come from under the new short-service system, remembering that many of these fine fellows have been upwards of twenty years
in the navy, and are only now in the prime of life. I should say that it was worth any sacrifice in reason to keep on breeding such men, for they are the string upon which the jewels of the navy are strung.
A great many of these men are married (nay, most of them, I think), and look forward (or used to look forward) hopefully to a cottage in some seaside village, where the pleasant duties of the coastguard and their substantial pension would combine most satisfactorily. But I fear that the coastguard is to be abolished ; and, without setting my feeble private judgment against the mature wisdom of the authorities, I feel sad to think of the possibility of such a thing. That, however, is a side issue.
One peculiar feature about these men emerges upon close study of them, which is the way in which the principles and practice of economy lay hold of them. In their young days, doubtless, they were—as most seamen are—fairly reckless with their pay, which, scanty though it was, looked a lot when accumulated upon a commission. But now they will be found taking care of the pence in all sorts of curious ways, chief among which comes the use of the sewing-machine.
A great deal of money is earned by the skilled use of this little engine, by boot making and repairing, by haircutting, &c., nothing being done without an equivalent return in cash, for the navy’s self-respecting motto is “Nothing for nothing, and a tot for a needle.” Which is as it should be, though Jack is a most generous soul.
What he will not stand for a moment, however, is a bummer—a selfish brute who will spend all he has on himself, and then cadge for what he has been too mean to buy. That type is hardly ever found in the navy ; the atmosphere is too highly charged for them to blossom in.
The rank and file of the ship’s company—seamen and stokers—lead a life which, take it all round, is, I think, harder than that of any class of
the community. But it is an uplifting life, a life with very many avenues leading out of it to higher levels and better conditions, and many beckoning, as well as helping, hands always held out.
It is a strange life, which has no counterpart elsewhere, for nowhere else do large bodies of men of good character live under such communal conditions, nor yet where individuality is more strongly cultivated. Thus, while it is true of all ranks—with two prominent exceptions—in the Navy that the careful observer can tell the naval man by the cut of his jib, as we say, pointing to a pronounced type, it is emphatically true that nowhere is individuality more marked or more greatly encouraged than here. A man of exceptional ability but no ambition —and there are many such—is immediately spotted, and very drastic methods are often used to arouse that ambition, since the man is wanted badly in the Service.
Again I am forced to specialise. Being familiar with the intricacies of the ship, watching the quiet seaman caressing his glittering web of complications in submerged torpedo-flat, lower conning-tower, switch-board room, telephone exchange, and magazines ; observing him manipulating the terrific forces of electricity, compressed air, and hydraulic engines ; watching the artificer engineer handling his gigantic charges at ever-varying speeds, and the modern stoker tickling the latest water-tube boilers, and noting how fiendishly complicated is everything connected with them, my thoughts fly ever back to the bridge, where the signal boatswain and his crew are charged, as here in a flagship with the duty of keeping the admiral in constant communication with every member of the whole fleet of ships.
I do really believe that, beside the lightning quickness and amazing sight of the signal staff, all other occupations appear trivially easy. Watch that young seaman standing with an Admiralty pattern telescope at his eye—none of the best, by the way— and hear the message trickling from his lips which yonder cruiser is send-
ing by the waving arms of a semaphore on the bridge.
You couldn’t see the semaphore, much less read from it. At the same time, three or four strings of flags are ascending and descending, in addition to speed-signals. The mental exercise practised by every one of these seamen, to say nothing of the man in charge of them—the signal boatswain—would shame any Senior Wrangler. But look at the environment also.
Flags are devilish things to handle in bad weather, and, besides, mist and rain do not aid sight; but constant communication must be kept up—is kept up—and failure is not contemplated. It is the most fascinating sight on board a battleship, this work of the signalman.
At night the work is simplified, because all communications are made by means of flashing lamps; but even then, when you have a fleet of, say, twenty vessels, the winking eyes at each masthead seem as if they would induce madness. In this fleet we have well over a hundred vessels, all of whom must be kept in touch with the Commander-in-Chief from our bridge. But the steady work goes on; messages pour in and out with unhalting rapidity and flawless accuracy, and an utter absence of any idea on the part of the workers that they are doing anything extraordinary.
I approach with fear and trembling the motive power of the battleship, and the huge staff of unseen workers who are responsible for it. At the head of them comes the chief engineer,. who is here a commander in rank, and has under him several engineer officers, who are inmates of wardroom and gunroom, according to their rank. They are highly trained in practice and theory, but the note of their service is responsibility.
Immediately beneath them comes the artificer—“tiffy,” in naval parlance—who not only drives the engines, but, being a skilled mechanic, must needs repair them in an emergency. There are many thorny questions concerning him, the discussion
of which would be entirely out of place in this article, which are matters of hot debate and vexed controversy wherever working engineers do congregate.
One thing I can say whole-heartedly, and in this every officer will agree with me, which is that the “tiffy” is the linchpin of the ship, and that, remembering his onerous duties, he is all too poorly remunerated, while his prospects are in no wise commensurate with the wonderful work he does. I may not entewupon any controversial questions U e, but I yield to no one in my appreciation of the work of the A.E. ; and in all his legitimate efforts to obtain adequate recognition and pay he has my very best wishes.
Now for the lighter side, in one sense only. Such a community of stalwarts needs feeding, well and promptly. Hence a great array of cooks and domestics, who pursue their calling in cheerful indifference to whatever else is going on. Blast of bugle or shrill of bo’s’un’s mates’ pipe trouble them not; only the gravest emergency, such as fire or sinking, can turn them from their arduous duties of supplying the power of the best engine of all—the men. They form a little community of their own, the peculiar feature of which is, to my mind, that they may, and do, occupy their little, niche on board this huge and complicated machine afloat for many months, and yet know nothing about her, outside of their own immediate sphere of action.
To this civilian category also belong the wardroom attendants, but they are nearly all marines, with drill and other duties to perform as well the sick-bay attendants, fine, intelligent men ; and the paymaster’s staff, whose duties are simply clerical.
All of these folks have their own aims in life, which are purely civil. They are on the sea, yet not of it ; and, although they do mix with the seamen at times, it is only as oil and water mingle, for in every essential detail they are wide as the Poles asunder. But in time of battle all these non-combatants have their places assigned to them, and they must perform essential
duties in aid of the fighting-men. At certain times they are drilled in those duties, much to their disgust and the dislocation of their work, for the drill is of a very stringent and onerous character, all the more so because of its infrequent occurrence.
I have left myself with little space in which to deal with the military element, the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Royal Marine Artillery, bodies of which are to be found on board of every battleship.
The first-named are soldiers pure and simple, and, however long they may be at sea, never lose their essentially military character. They fraternize far more freely than they used to do with the seamen; and I believe the idea of the authorities tacitly fostering antagonism between the two ranks has entirely passed away with the apparent need for it. But the Royal Marine Artillery, who handle the big guns, although they, too, are soldiers, seem to be an intermediate class between the seaman and the marine.
They are certainly held in the highest respect and admiration by the seamen, for their great ability and smartness in doing the same kind of work; they are highly esteemed for their prowess in all forms of sport that may be indulged in on board ship, and also for their skill and endurance at the oar.
I remember once, when with the Channel Fleet on one of their autumn cruises, how a boat’s crew of R.M.A. successfully contested the supremacy of the whole fleet of over twenty ships for rowing, and held it all the cruise.
I do not for one moment pretend that this is anything like an exhaustive account of the life of the personnel of the “Dreadnought,” or of any battleship, for space does not permit of it, and I should much like at least double the room in which to deal with the manifold interests and employment of the stokers, the paymaster’s folk, the carpenter crew, tradesmen of all kinds who go to make up this floating microcosm. But I must not fail to seize a
few lines wherein to mention that most necessary but obviously far from popular body of men who wear on their sleeves the ominous letters N.P. (naval police).
The crew of a battleship is an essentially law-abiding community. To whatever branch a man may belong, he has continually drilled into him not only the absolute necessity . of discipline, but its essentially bénéficient character, not only for himself, but for all concerned. Yet where several hundreds of men are pent up together, even if the supposition were possible that they were all angels in point of disposition, there are bound to be offences against perfect discipline, breaches of law and order, omissions to perform certain duties in the proper way and at the proper time, which must be marked and punished. No such minute discipline is or could be possible elsewhere; here it is essential.
And consequently the N.P., with his notebook, is constantly on the prowl. He pervades the whole ship; and at the petty sessions each morning, when offenders—defaulters in naval parlance—are haled before the commander, he is on hand in force, armed with big books, wherein every infraction of discipline by the present offender during his stay in the ship is recorded and held up for reference at the word of command.
This informal court is quite a solemn function, but both offences and punishments would in the majority of cases seem to a landsman most trivial, the latter being often literally based on the good principles of the Mikado, whose object all sublime is so familiar to most of us. In conclusion, and leaving a fascinating subject most reluctantly, I can earnestly say that except for the introduction of the shortservice system, about which I have the very gravest doubts, life on board a battleship tends ever not only to become the most perfect form of training in manliness, but to the eager, healthy, and willing, one of the joiliest and fullest forms of existence imaginable.