Great Britain at War/The Battle Cruisers

VI
THE BATTLE CRUISERS

BENEATH the shadow of a mighty bridge I stepped into a very smart launch manned by sailors in overalls somewhat grimy, and, rising and falling to the surge of the broad river, we held away for a destroyer that lay grey and phantom-like, low, rakish, and with speed in every line of her. As we drew near, her narrow deck looked to my untutored eye a confused litter of guns, torpedo tubes, guy ropes, cables and windlasses. Howbeit, I clambered aboard, and ducking under a guy rope and avoiding sundry other obstructions, shook hands with her commander, young, clear-eyed and cheery of mien, who presently led me past a stumpy smokestack and up a perpendicular ladder to the bridge where, beneath a somewhat flimsy-looking structure, was the wheel, brass-bound and highly be-polished like all else about this crowded craft as, notably, the binnacle and certain brass-bound dials, on the faces whereof one might read such words as: Ahead, Astern, Fast, Slow, etc. Forward of this was a platform, none too roomy, where was a gun most carefully wrapped and swaddled in divers cloths, tarpaulins, etc. — wrapped up with as much tender care as if it had been a baby, and delicate at that. But, as the commander casually informed me, they had been out patrolling all night and "it had blown a little" — wherefore I surmised the cloths and tarpaulins aforesaid.

"I should think," I ventured, observing her sharp lines and slender build, "I should think she would roll rather frightfully when it does blow a little?"

"Well, she does a bit," he admitted, "but not so much — Starboard!" said he, over his shoulder, to the bearded mariner at the wheel. "Take us round by the Tiger."

"Aye, aye, sir!" retorted the bearded one as we began to slide through the water.

"Yes, she's apt to roll a bit, perhaps, but she's not so bad," he continued; "besides, you get used to it."

Here he fell to scanning the haze ahead through a pair of binoculars, a haze through which, as we gathered speed, ghostly shapes began to loom, portentous shapes that grew and grew upon the sight, turret, superstructure and embattled mast; here a mighty battle cruiser, yonder a super-destroyer, one after another, quiet-seeming on this autumn morning, and yet whose grim hulks held latent potentialities of destruction and death, as many of them have proved but lately.

As we passed those silent, monstrous shapes, the Commander named them in turn, names which had been flashed round the earth not so long ago, names which shall yet figure in the histories to come with Grenville's Revenge, Drake's Golden Hind, Blake's Triumph, Anson's Centurion, Nelson's Victory and a score of other deathless names — glorious names that make one proud to be of the race that manned and fought them.

Peacefully they rode at their moorings, the water lapping gently at their steel sides, but, as we steamed past, on more than one of them, and especially the grim Tiger, I saw the marks of the Jutland battle in dinted plate, scarred funnel and super-structure, taken when for hours on end the dauntless six withstood the might of the German fleet.

So, as we advanced past these battle-scarred ships, I felt a sense of awe, that indefinable uplift of soul one is conscious of when treading with soft and reverent foot the dim aisles of some cathedral hallowed by time and the dust of our noble dead.

"This afternoon," said the Commander, offering me his cigarette case, "they're going to show you over the Warspite — the German Navy have sunk her so repeatedly, you know. There," he continued, nodding towards a fleet of squat-looking vessels with stumpy masts, "those are the auxiliaries — coal and oil and that sort of thing — ugly beggars, but useful. How about a whisky and soda?"

Following him down the perpendicular ladder, he brought me aft to a hole in the deck, a small hole, a round hole into which he proceeded to insert himself, first his long legs, then his broad shoulders, evidently by an artifice learned of much practice. Finally his jauntily be-capped head vanished, and thereafter from the deeps below his cheery voice reached me.

"I have whisky, sherry and rum — mind your head and take your choice!"

I descended into a narrow chamber divided by a longish table and flanked by berths with a chest of drawers beneath each. At the further end of this somewhat small and dim apartment and northeasterly of the table was a small be-polished stove wherein a fire burned; in a rack against a bulkhead were some half-dozen rifles, above our head was a rack for cutlasses, and upon the table was a decanter of whisky he had unearthed from some mysterious recess, and he was very full of apologies because the soda had run out.

So we sat awhile and quaffed and talked, during which he showed me a favourite rifle, small of bore but of high power and exquisite balance, at sight of which I straightway broke the tenth commandment. He also showed me a portrait of his wife (which I likewise admired), a picture taken by himself and by him developed in some dark nook aboard.

After this, our whisky being duly despatched, we crawled into the air again, to find we were approaching a certain jetty. And now, in the delicate manœuvre of bringing to and making fast, my companions, myself and all else were utterly forgotten, as with voice and hand he issued order on order until, gently as a nesting bird, the destroyer came to her berth and was made fast. Hereupon, having shaken hands all round, he handed us over to other naval men as cheery as he, who in due season brought us to the depôt ship, where luncheon awaited us.

I have dined in many places and have eaten with many different folk, but never have I enjoyed a meal more than this, perhaps because of the padre who presided at my end of the table. A manly cleric this, bright-eyed, resolute of jaw but humorous of mouth, whose white choker did but seem to offset the virility of him. A man, I judged, who preached little and did much — a sailor's padre in very truth.

He told me how, but for an accident, he would have sailed with Admiral Cradock on his last, ill-fated cruise, where so many died that Right and Justice might endure.

Poor chaps!" said I.

'Yes," said he, gently, "and yet it is surely a noble thing to — die greatly!"

And surely, surely for all those who in cause so just have met Death unflinching and unafraid, who have taken hold upon that which we call Life and carried it through and beyond the portals of Death into a sphere of nobler and greater living — surely to such as these strong souls the Empire they served so nobly and loved so truly will one day enshrine them, their memory and deeds, on the brightest, most glorious page of her history, which shall be a monument more enduring than brass or stone, a monument that shall never pass away.

So we talked of ships and the sea and of men until, aware that the company had risen, we rose also, and donning hats and coats, set forth, talking still. Together we paced beside docks and along piers that stretched away by the mile, massive structures of granite and concrete, which had only come into being, so he told me, since the war.

Side by side we ascended the broad gangway, and side by side we set foot upon that battle-scarred deck whose timbers, here and there, showed the whiter patches of newer wood. Here he turned to give me his hand, after first writing down name and address, and, with mutual wishes of meeting again, went to his duties and left me to the wonders of this great ship.

Crossing the broad deck, more spacious it seemed than an ocean liner, I came where my travelling companions were grouped about a grim memorial of the Jutland battle, a huge projectile that had struck one of the after turrets, in the doing of which it had transformed itself into a great, convoluted disc, and was now mounted as a memento of that tremendous day.

And here it was I became acquainted with my Midshipmite, who looked like an angel of sixteen, bore himself like a veteran, and spoke (when his shyness had worn off a little) like a British fighting man.

To him I preferred the request that he would pilot me over this great vessel, which he (blushing a little) very readily agreed to do. Thereafter, in his wake, I ascended stairways, climbed ladders, wriggled through narrow spaces, writhed round awkward corners, up and ever up.

"It's rather awkward, I'm afraid, sir," said he in his gentle voice, hanging from an iron ladder with one hand and a foot, the better to address me. "You see, we never bring visitors this way as a rule — "

"Good!" said I, crushing my hat on firmer. "The unbeaten track for me — lead on!"

Onward and upward he led until all at once we reached a narrow platform, railed round and hung about with plaited rope screens which he called splinter-mats, over which I had a view of land and water, of ships and basins, of miles of causeways and piers, none of which had been in existence before the war. And immediately below me, far, far down, was the broad white sweep of deck, with the forward turrets where were housed the great guns whose grim muzzles stared patiently upwards, nuzzling the air almost as though scenting another battle.

And standing in this coign of vantage, in my mind's eye I saw this mighty vessel as she had been, the heave of the fathomless sea below, the whirling battle-smoke about her, the air full of the crashing thunder of her guns as she quivered 'neath their dis charge. I heard the humming drone of shells coming from afar, a hum that grew to a wail — a shriek — and the sickening crash as they smote her or threw up great waterspouts high as her lofty fighting-tops; I seemed to hear through it all the ring of electric bells from the various fire-controls, and voices calm and all unshaken by the hellish din uttering commands down the many speaking-tubes.

"And you," said I, turning to the youthful figure beside me, "you were in the battle?"

He blushingly admitted that he was.

"And how did you feel?"

He wrinkled his smooth brow and laughed a little shyly.

"Really I — I hardly know, sir."

I asked him if at such times one was not inclined to feel a trifle shaken, a little nervous, or, might one say, afraid?

"Yes, sir," he agreed politely, "I suppose so — only, you see, we were all too jolly busy to think about it!"

"Oh!" said I, taking out a cigarette, "too busy! Of course! I see! And where is the Captain during action, as a rule?"

As a matter of fact he stood — just where you are, sir. Stood there the whole six hours it was hottest."

"Here!" I exclaimed. "But it is quite exposed."

My Midshipmite, being a hardy veteran in world-shaking naval battles, permitted himself to smile.

"But, you see, sir," he gently explained, "it's really far safer out here than being shut up in a gun-turret or — or down below, on account of er — er — you understand, sir?"

"Oh, quite!" said I, and thereafter thought awhile, and, receiving his ready permission, lighted my cigarette. "I think," said I, as we prepared to descend from our lofty perch, "I'm sure it's just — er — that kind of thing that brought one Francis Drake out of so very many tight corners. By the way — do you smoke?"

My Midshipmite blushingly confessed he did, and helped himself from my case with self-conscious fingers.

Reaching the main deck in due season, I found I had contrived to miss the Chief Gunner's lecture on the great guns, whereupon who so agitated and bitterly apologetic as my Midshipmite, who there and then ushered me hastily down more awkward stairs and through narrow openings into a place of glistening, gleaming polish and furbishment where, beside the shining breech of a monster gun, muscular arm negligently leaning thereon, stood a round-headed, broad-shouldered man, he the presiding genius of this (as I afterwards found) most sacred place.

His lecture was ended and he was addressing a few well-chosen closing remarks in slightly bored fashion (he had showed off his ponderous playthings to divers kings, potentates and bigwigs at home and abroad, I learned) when I, though properly awed by the gun but more especially by the gunner, ventured to suggest that a gun that had been through three engagements and had been fired so frequently must necessarily show some signs of wear. The gunner glanced at me, and I shall never forget that look. With his eyes on mine, he touched a lever in negligent fashion, whereon silently the great breech slipped away with a hiss and whistle of air, and with his gaze always fixed he suggested I might glance down the bore.

Obediently I stooped, whereon he spake on this wise:

"If you cast your heyes to the right abaft the breech you'll observe slight darkening of riflin's. Now glancin' t'left of piece you'll per-ceive slight darkening of riflin's. Now casting your heyes right forrard you'll re-mark slight roughening of riflin's towards muzzle of piece and — there y'are, sir. One hundred and twenty-seven times she's been fired by my 'and and good for as many more — both of us. Arternoon, gentlemen, and — thank ye!"

Saying which he touched a lever in the same negligent fashion, the mighty breech block slid back into place, and I walked forth humbly into the outer air.

Here I took leave of my Midshipmite, who stood among a crowd of his fellows to watch me down the gangplank, and I followed whither I was led very full of thought, as well I might be, until rousing, I found myself on the deck of that famous Warspite, which our foes are so comfortably certain lies a shattered wreck off Jutland. Here I presently fell into discourse with a tall lieutenant, with whom I went alow and aloft; he showed me cockpit, infirmary and engine-room; he showed me the wonder of her steering apparatus, and pointed to the small hand-wheel in the bowels of this huge ship whereby she had been steered limping into port. He directed my gaze also to divers vast shell holes and rents in her steel sides, now very neatly mended by steel plates held in place by many large bolts. Wherever we went were sailors, by the hundred it seemed, and yet I was struck by the size and airy spaciousness between decks.

"The strange thing about the Hun," said my companion, as we mounted upward again, "is that he is so amazingly accurate with his big guns. Anyway, as we steamed into range he registered direct hits time after time, and his misses were so close the spray was flying all over us. Yes, Fritz is wonderfully accurate, but" — here my companion paused to flick some dust from his braided cuff — "but when we began to knock him about a bit it was funny how it rattled him — quite funny, you know. His shots got wider and wider, until they were falling pretty well a mile wide — very funny!" and the lieutenant smiled dreamily. "Fritz will shoot magnificently if you only won't shoot back. But really I don't blame him for thinking he'd sunk us; you see, there were six of 'em potting away at us at one time — couldn't see us for spray — "

"And how did you feel just then?" I enquired.

"Oh, rotten! You see I'd jammed my finger in some tackle for one thing, and just then the light failed us. We'd have bagged the lot if the light had held a little longer. But next time — who knows? Care for a cup of tea?"

"Thanks!" I answered. "But where are the others?"

"Oh, by Jove! I fancy your party's gone — I'll see!"

This proving indeed the case, I perforce took my leave, and with a midshipman to guide me, presently stepped aboard a boat which bore us back beneath the shadow of that mighty bridge stark against the evening sky.

Riding citywards through the deepening twilight I bethought me of the Midshipmite who, amid the roar and tumult of grim battle, had been "too busy" to be afraid; of the round-headed gunner who, like his gun, was ready and eager for more, and of the tall lieutenant who, with death in many awful shapes shrieking and crashing about him, felt "rotten" by reason of a bruised finger and failing light.

And hereupon I felt proud that I, too, was a Briton, of the same breed as these mighty ships and the splendid fellows who man them — these Keepers of the Seas, who in battle as in tempest do their duty unseen, unheard, because it is their duty.

Therefore, all who are so blest as to live within these isles take comfort and courage from this — that despite raging tempest and desperate battle, we, trusting in the justice of our cause, in these iron men and mighty ships, may rest secure, since truly worthy are these, both ships and men, of the glorious traditions of the world's most glorious navy.

But, as they do their duty by Britain and the Empire, let it be our inestimable privilege as fellow Britons to do our duty as nobly both to the Empire and — to them.