Changes in the Royal Navy

The Advent of the Engineer-Sailor

CHARLES GLEIG November 1 1909

Changes in the Royal Navy

The Advent of the Engineer-Sailor

CHARLES GLEIG November 1 1909

Changes in the Royal Navy


The Advent of the Engineer-Sailor


In view of the legislation likely to be introduced at the approaching session of the Dominion Parliament looking towards the establishment of a Canadian Navy, the following article is particularly tifnely. It demonstrates how the character of the British Navy is rapidly changing, how science is taking a strong hold on its administration and how the men who man the ships are becoming more highly trained.

NOT long since the present writer encountered in the High Street of Kensington an old shipmate who had recently retired upon a moderate pension. I had known him well twenty years previously, as a jovial young surgeon of a gunboat on the China station; but now he was middle-aged, his once

handsome face was not a little lined and battered, and he bore upon his visiting card the sonorous title: “Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets.”

Aware that he had quitted the Service, I asked him presently whether he regretted his retirement. He stopped short, and gazing across the



street with a far-away look in his eyes, replied thoughtfully, “Often, as 1 lie upon my comfortable spring mattress. I dream that I’m waiting for a boat at the end of a cold, wet pier.” I was answered. It was very plain that my friend the “D.I.G.” had had his fill of seafaring and wet piers.

Now and again, it is true, you may chance upon a pensioned veteran in whose blood the call of the sea still echoes, who longs for employment, finds no enduring joy in spring mattresses, chafes at his moorings, and grumbles about the monotony of retirement. One has met such sturdy spirits, but they are rare : for the truth is, that the song of the sirens grows dim in the ears of middleaged men, while the appeal of the club arm-chair is persistent and satisfying.

Stout Robert Blake was fifty years old when he began his unique career at sea, Columbus, but five years younger when he sailed upon his great voyage of discovery, and Lord Howe was hard upon seventy on the “Glorious First of June.” None the less, the appeal of the sea life is to the young, and. on the lower deck especially, you will ever find the grey beard out of tune with his unwelcome environment, and growling for the solid comforts of dry land.

But, while the glamour of the naval life has always appealed to restless youth, one inclines to doubt whether the sirens sing as enticingly to-day as they did even thirty years ago. Thirty years is but a span in the long history of our navy, but great have been the changes in the mode of life afloat since the writer touched his cap to the quarter deck of a primitive ironclad launched in 1862. That good ship, a flagship in the Channel, was protected against the muzzle-loading guns of the dav by four inches of soft iron. Her simple engines lent her a speed of ten knots, and these were quaintly

supplemented (though no man held it quaint then) by three towering masts, upon which could be spread a cloud of spotless canvas. The main-yard measured a hundred and five feet from yard-arm to yard-arm ; but our highest speed under all plain sail was something under five knots !

Even then certain engineer officers held it childish to clap sail upon steam-driven ironclads, but nobody heeded their cautious sneers. The Admiralty clung to sail for some years after I went afloat in 1878, abandoning them at last with a strange reluctance, and amid the head-shaking and lamentations of all the retired admirals and captains sheltered by the Service clubs. It was all too clear to those veterans that a mastless navy was going to the dogs.

I recall vividly my first glimpse of that Channel flagship. She lay in Portland Roads with five other masted anachronisms of the day, as I aproached here in a waterman’s boat laden with my sea-chest. The hour was 7.30 a.m., and at that moment five thousand men and officers stood motionless upon the upper decks of the battleships, awaiting the signal that should announce the morning “evolution.” Seventy years had passed since Trafalgar, but the grandsons of the Nelsonian era were still playing at the old seamanship with an extraordinary enthusiasm I crept aft unnoticed, and watched from beneath the poop the whole swift and amazing process of making full sail upon a fleet of steam-ironclads. The act was accomplished in about three minutes—three minutes of organized stampede and apparent confusion, and amid silence only broken by the clarion bellowings of the commanders. Once, T remember, a bugle sounded. Something had gone wrong, and every man stood like a statue, while the little commander on the poop rebuked a small section of the crew. Two harsh

notes from the bugle completed the brief homily, and instantly the wild stampede was resumed. When all was over, the towering mast, clad with canvas, the crew, panting and sweating, fell in double rank on both sides of the long unbroken deck, and a great silence fell upon the whole fleet. Day by day, and sometime during three hours at a stretch, the crews of that period competed against each other in the performance of mast and sail drills, which had for thirty years ceased to possess practical utility. We clung, you see. to the old seamanship that had made England glorious from the days of Drake ; did our best to forget the engines and boilers, and treated the engineers like pariah dogs.

I dwell upon this fetish of oldworld seamanship because it so greatly influenced the mode of life afloat for thirty years after the Crimean War. We resisted beyond belief the inevitable change from sail to steam, trying desperately to preserve all manner of decayed institutions, manners and customs, handed down from the era of wood and canvas. On a fair average we killed a man per week over those ancient exercises ; but the mode of death was not inglorious, and the victims were buried with considerable ceremony.

I well remember a fore-royal yardman of our ship, who risked his life twice daily for the honor of the foretopmen, performing feats of agility that might have shaken the nerve of a baboon. In the end he perished, falling upon the foc’sle from a height of 150 feet. But the admiral attended the funeral, and we subscribed nearly fifty pounds for his mother, besides sending her a photograph of his tombstone.

The cult of old fashioned seamanship hardened the muscles and nerves. and kept science at bay. The middies of that day were required by the regulations to study mathe-

matics behind a canvas screen between the hours of 9.30 and 11.30 a.m., but we seldom averaged more than five hours’ schooling per week, owing to the higher demands of the general evolution. Then, too, if your boat was called away you shut your books with a light heart and eagerly assumed command of her. We lived a great deal in the boats when the ship lay in harbor, and few of the senior officers took our mathematics seriously. A few gunnery and torpedo lieutenants who have since risen high in the service were conspicuous even in those days by their studious habits, or their grip upon science ; but not a few captains distrusted them and privately condemned them as “x chasing muffs,” hardly to be entrusted in foul weather with the reefing of a topsail.

There are flag officers and captains now serving, who went through this mill of “fool” seamanship without discovering its futility; but it must be difficult for the present day commanders and lieutenants to realise that the British Navy was shifting topsails and running the whole gamut of Nelsonian seamanship less than thirty years ago. High credit is all the more due to admirals and captains who have adapted themselves, chameleon-wise, to the sweeping changes of the past three decades. It is fair to add that foreign navies also clung almost as long to a somewhat inferior brand of “fool” seamanship. If the Royal Navy was grotesquely behind the times with its masted steamships and ancient drills, so, too, were all foreign navies. Only a year or two before the writer went afloat H.M.S. Captain, a masted and heavily rigged steam turret-ship, capsized under sail in the Bay of Biscay ; and in 1879 I saw the grisly wreck of the Eurydice raised from the bottom of the Solent. We continued to play with sails for some years afterwards,

and to drill at repelling boarders with pikes and tomahawks !

But those were, after all is said, jolly days. We took our worn-out seamanship seriously, but the strenuous, nerve-straining years of scientific training for war were postponed. We maintained two fleets, the Channel and the Mediterranean, in both of which the spirit of competition involved hard work ; but the navy was widely scattered in every sea, and it was this system of distribution that colored the life and differentiated it, in the main, from the strenuous fleet cruising life of to-day. Detached service was the general rule, fleet cruising the rare exception, on all foreign stations from China to Peru. Under an easygoing skipper this meant that officers—and in lesser degree the men— normally enjoyed good times—real good times, seldom possible now. We sailed from port to port (within the wide limits of the station) lingering pleasantly in hospitable harbors, smiled upon by the fair, royally entertained by the Colonists. There were balls and junketings, cricket and shooting, long easy spells in port, and “hatpegs” at our disposal in many hospitable houses, enlivened by gracious women. A flagship often swung lazily at her moorings for six months at a stretch ; the admiral comfortably settled ashore in “Admiralty House,” while leave in plenty was granted to the officers, and especially to those who cultivated sport or society. It was considered meritorious to go in for shooting, fishing, dancing, or cricket ; indeed, many an officer won promotion in these pleasant by-ways of the naval life. Those who neglected sport and society were, indeed, often penalised ; for they were expected to stay on board and look after the routine.

To-day, if I am rightly informed, little of all this junketing survives. The life grows uniformly strenuous,

even a trifle grey, under our system of fleet work and with the decay of detached service. The fleets abroad have all been cut down, so that officers and men spend the bulk of their time in Home waters, and no small part of it in barracks. To the younger men this is no boon ; it is even monotonous, and it is assuredly more expensive. Before German competition obliged us to concentrate in Home waters, navel men used to sigh for home billets ; now, with the usual “cussedness” of human nature, they have too much of “Home, sweet Home,” and long for the sight of a cocoa-nut tree — the smell of a foreign port. In the merry days of foreign service, when one saw the flagship once or twice in a year at most, Jack and a few of his officers usually contrived to bank a tidy sum of money against the glad day of paying off at home. True, there was no prize-money, and there were often “duns” to be pacified at Portsmouth and Plymouth ; but there was usually enough over to set the pretty sweethearts and wives “A trip, trip, tripping on the Quay” and to ensure the wanderers a tender welcome home.

In the course of a long commission an A.B. of my acquaintance stored £120 in the Admirality Savings Bank, the secret being that he owned a sewing machine and turned out caps that were the admiration of the ship’s company. One may admit that the average officer did not return with any balance worth mentioning, but he did at least contrive to reduce the long bill of the patient outfitter of the Common Hard or Devonport. Three months in old England was quite long enough to tax the nerve of one’s banker—then off again to China or the Pacific, before credit was wholly exhausted. And, after all, old England can be quite dull when the balance runs dry and kindly uncles have been completely tapped. Married men

grumbled at the too short spells of Home Service—one has to admit that—but the active list is in the main, a youthful force; and the sailor who marries under thirty hardly deserves to be considered. To-day. I am told, there is too much Home Service, even to please the "bundle-men." One wonders what the wives think about it. But they are hardly likely to be quite candid. There is a certain dreary anchorage, termed* I believe. “Cats’ Hole,” where reserve battleships and cruisers of the Home Fleet swing monotonously at their morrings during many months of the year. “Cats’ Hole" (if I have the name correctlv), is situated near the rich mudflats of the Medway, and about three miles from everything else. It is not, I am told, a popular anchorage, so that strenuous fleet-cruising comes as an exciting relief to those “nucleus” crews who normally pace the decks, watching the golden haze of afternoon lighting up the purple mud. True, you may also watch the barges tacking with the tide, and exchange marine compliments with the gifted bargee. But even that diversion has been known to pall. “Give me the West Coast and a little shooting over a nice malarious swamp!” growled a “nucleus” crew lieutenant whom I lately met on Sheerness pier. Life is much pleasanter, no doubt, at most of the Home ports and barracks, but there is no detached service, and the fleets are constantly cruising or drilling. Rightly so, of course, for our navy is strenuously making ready and takes its work very seriously. My point is, that the life is necessarily less jolly and varied than formerly, but one respects the increased energy and zeal everywhere manifest in the British Navy of to-day.

Take, for instance, gunnery. Everybody knows, or should know, what gunnery means now in our navy: how the example of one dis-

tinguished expert, whose name has become a household word throughout the Empire, fanned into a steady blaze the slumbering enthusiasm of the whole service. This awakening of our navy to the value of straight and rapid shooting constitutes by far the most striking change that has occurred for half a century. 'Pile new skill involves a great deal of hard work and intelligence, both of which were formerly expended upon “fool” seamanship and the polishing of brass. As one looks back it appears amazing that bad shooting was accepted as a matter of course only a few years ago, d'lie guns were good of their kind, but the quarterly practice enforced by regulations was universally regarded as a nuisance. We fired at a small red flag, attached to a pole embedded in a rum cask. Steaming round this almost invisible target, the range varying between 1,000 and 1.400 yards, it was only now and again that the gun captains obtained a clear glimpse of the little red flag rising and falling with the ocean swell. They had to watch for it through a narrow gun-port, across which drifted the smoke from other guns on the broadside. Actual hits were not encouraged, for the shattering of the rum-cask involved delay and the dropping of a fresh target. Rapidity of fire was the main objective, because everybody, except the gunnery lieutenant regarded the practice as a noisy nuisance. When a gunner pitched his shot conspicuously short of the bobbing mark, he was mildly reproved, but ^fiots that passed 200 feet over the target provoked no comment. The presentwriter never saw powder and shot thrown overboard to expedite the practice, but some of his contemporaries are known to have witnessed that amazing abuse of Government stores.

Last summer, when the fleets were manoeuvring off the Scottish

coast. I visited a new battleship anchored below the Forth Bridge. The manoeuvres were ended, the work of the day completed; but from the captain downwards, every man I saw looked jaded or worried, and a dismal silence enveloped the vessel. A solemn-faced, pallid, scientific midshipman politely acted as my guide. He seemed to be on his guard, apprehensive that he might reveal some official secret. I could not help contracting that solemn youth with the jolly middy of thirty years ago, who took such keen delight in gulling civilian visitors.

Later. I was received by the captain in a wretched cabin full of ventilating shafts. He was civil,' but much pre-occupied, and had the air of a man harassed by responsibilities —as. no doubt, he was.

Twenty years ago the captain of a warship had no worries, and responsibility sat lightly upon his broad shoulders. At sea he enjoyed ample leisure ; in port, he landed daily and dined well at the club or with his brother captains, leaving the commander to run the ship.

One does not suggest that the old leisured days can or should be restored to officers of the navy; but the public scarcely appreciates how strenuous and exacting life in our fleet has grown. So greatly, indeed, has the navy life changed within thirty years, that we may soon look

to find the fleet manned and officered by a new race of engineering mariners. Already one may note the beginnings of the transformation of the personnel, although we are liable to be deluded by the sight of some isolated roystering Tar, still maintaining the old traditions of the cloth. Regret it as we may, the roystering Tar is passing, and his officers are equally adapting themselves to the imperious demands of an age of science. But, of course, we ought not to regret evolution ; and all that the modern navy can hope to preserve is a few traditions of the grand old Serveice. The sailor-engineer is not only “knocking at the door,” but has already thrust his experimental foot into the gun-room and the mess-deck.

Sailors, middies, admirals, are all changing under our eyes in obedience to the law of progress that rules alike the fate of fleets and of peoples. In the coming days there may be even less roystering and junketing; ever increasing stress and effort. One can hardly foresee, as yet, the types destined to man and command our future fleets ; but we are entitled to believe that something of the old roystering spirit may survive, though it may be less in evidence.

The call of the sea is already pitched in a new key; the sirens chant a new song to engineer-sailors of the Dreadnought era.

I have lived nominally fifty years, but deduct from them the hours I have lived for other people, and you will find me still a young fel 1 o w—La mb.