Some twenty of Her Majesty's men-of-war were involved in this matter; say a dozen battleships of the most recent, and seventeen or eighteen cruisers; but my concern was limited to one of a new type commanded by an old friend. I had some dim knowledge of the interior of a warship but none of the new world into which I stepped from a Portsmouth wherry [lighter] one wonderful summer evening in '97.
An instant hostage, I went aboard this unnamed 20-knot, third-class light cruiser (likely of the Pelorus class) with my unique guide. Where else in the vast literature of the sea was there an instructor who would become a Nobel laureate in literature (1907)? It was to be a superb postgraduate education in naval history offering masterful lessons in the marvels of Shakespeare's mother tongue. 1
"We were strung out in a six-mile line, 30 ships all heading westward. As soon as we found room the flagships began to signal, and there followed a most fascinating game of general post." The results impressed this old India hand:
The admiral wreathed himself with flags, strings of them; the signalman on our high, little, narrow bridge, telescope jammed to his eye, read out the letters of that order; the quartermaster spun the infantine wheel; the officer of the bridge rumbled requests down the speaking tube to the engine room, and away we fled, to take up station at such and such a distance from our neighbors, ahead and astern, at such and such an angle on the admiral, his bow or beam. The end of it was a miracle to lay eyes. The long line became four parallel lines of strength and beauty, a mile and a quarter from flank to flank, and thus we abode till evening.
It all seemed so beautiful and so effortless to Kipling from the cruiser's bridge. He soon would understand the many hazards to achieving such impressive results—especially for the critically important, and often maligned, signalmen.
"One thing more than all the rest impresses the passenger on a Queen's ship," Kipling noted. "She is seldom for a single hour at the same speed. The liner, clear of her dock, strikes her pace and holds it to her journey's end; but the man-of-war must always have two or three knots up her sleeve in case the Admiral demands a spurt; she must also be ready to drop three or four knots at the wave of a flag, and on occasion she must lie still and meditate."
At night he beheld another spectacle, with the fleet spread out and blazing "like a lot of chemists' shops [pharmacies] adrift," with the six lights on each ship "astonishing the tramps." Then Kipling came off the bridge and wandered about among the crew, mixing with seamen, artificers, cooks, ship's boys, signalmen, marines (there were 20 and a sergeant), "and the general democracy." He found their speech soft, their gestures few, their steps noiseless ("coming and going about their business like shadows"). 2
When daylight returned, "both fleets were exercised at steam tactics, which is a noble game," but Kipling found life aboard his cruiser, "unfolding hour by hour," to be more interesting. "The battleships danced stately quadrilles by themselves in another part of the deep. We of the light horse did barn dances about the windy floors, and precisely as partners in the ballroom fling a word over their shoulders so we and our friends, whirling past to take up fresh stations, snapped out an unofficial sentence or two by means of our bridge-semaphores." He reasonably concluded, "Cruisers are wondrous human."
Off Land's End, the fleet was split in two and went in search of places with beautiful Gaelic names, half to go "outside Ireland . . . to Blacksod Bay," while Kipling's half transited the Irish Channel to Lough Swilly, there to "coal and wait for simulated war." The Lough Swilly ships were "to catch the Blacksod fleet . . . before it could return to the shelter of the bay."
Irritated that these ships had to be powered by such dirty stuff as coal, Kipling noted that when they reached Lough Swilly, it was "in full possession of a sou'west gale and an assortment of dingy colliers lying where they could most annoy the anchoring fleet." One of these "dingy colliers" approached Kipling's cruiser and the inevitable dirty work began in earnest: "A collier came alongside with donkey engines [small auxiliary engines] that would not lift more than half their proper load; she had no bags, no shovels and her crazy derrick boom could not be topped up enough to let the load clear over the bulwarks." So this abused light cruiser supplied her own "bags and shovels, rearranged the boom, put two of our own men on the rickety donkey engines, and fell to work in that howling wind and wet."
"As a preparation for war next day it seemed a little hard on the crew, who worked like sailors—there is no stronger term," Kipling opined. "From time to time a red-eyed, black demon with flashing teeth shot into the wardroom for a bite and a drink, cried out the number of tons aboard, added a few pious words on the collier's appliances and our bunkers . . . and tore back to where the donkey engines had wheezed, the bags crashed, the shovels rasped and scraped, the boom whined and creaked, and the First Lieutenant [seemed] carved in pure jet. . . ."
With the coaling mess cleaned up, "the First Lieutenant's face relaxed a little, and someone called for the instruments of music. Out came two violins, a mandolin and bagpipes—and the wardroom disported itself among tunes of three nations, till war should be declared." Unfortunately, their recreation was brief: "In the middle of a scientific experiment as to how the ship's kitten might be affected by bagpipes—that hour struck, and, even more swiftly than pussy fled under the sofa, the trim mess-jackets melted away, the chaff ceased, the hull shivered to the power of the steam capstan, the slapping of the water on our sides grew clearer and we glided through the moored fleet to the mouth of Lough Swilly." Unfortunately theirs was to be a failed scouting mission through the "vile" weather of a "cold and lumpy" North Atlantic.
"All that penitential day the little cruiser was disgustingly lively; but all we took aboard was spray, whereas the low-bowed battleships slugged their bluff noses into the surge and rose dripping like half-tide rocks." Even though their admiral "might have maneuvered like half a dozen Nelsons all that penitential day," a prostrate Kipling cared little for such maritime displays as he "lay immediately above the twin screws and thought of the quartermaster on the reeling bridge, who was not allowed to lie down." Yet this master reporter did not allow even the horrors of seasickness to blunt his skills. 3 Through a cabin door he "could see the decks dim with spray, hear the bugles calling to quarters, and catch glimpses of the uninterrupted life of the ship—a dripping face under a sou-wester; a pair of sea-legs cloaked with oilskins; a hurrying signalman with a rolling and an anxious eye—a warrant officer concerned for the proper housing of his quick-firers as they disappeared in squirts of spray; or a Lieutenant serenely reporting men and things 'present' or 'correct.'" Far more painful to his section of the fleet than the vile weather was their having missed the "enemy," because, as the "foc'sle experts" assured Kipling, an "unhappy signalman . . . [had] misplaced a flag of a signal." Not even improved weather could counter the nautical thunder "when the Admiral announced that he was not at all pleased with the signaling throughout the fleet," which "was no more than everyone expected."
This imminent search for a scapegoat signalman roused Kipling's sympathy:
Now, the Admiral had some 50 or 60 signalmen, and a bridge as broad as a houseboat and as clear as a ballroom. Our bridge was perhaps four feet broad; the rear of a stoke-hold ventilating fan, placed apparently for that purpose, carefully sucked up two-thirds of every shouted order; and between the bridge and the poop the luckless signalman, for want of an overhead passage, had to run an obstacle race along the crowded decks. We had six signalmen. After watching them for a week I was prepared to swear that each had six arms and eight cinder-proof eyes; but the Admiral thought otherwise.
Together with "three second-class friends," Kipling's third-class cruiser was ordered out to patrol a six-mile area. Kipling's light cruiser "jogged southward behind the Powerful" (which "dwarfed" the second and third-class cruisers "to mean little tramps"), seeking the battleships at Bantry Bay; but they had gone off to target practice, and soon the cruisers "dispersed among the headlands for the same business." "No description will make you realize the almost infernal mobility of a fleet at sea," Kipling maintained. Nevertheless, he tried:
I had seen ours called to all appearance out of the deep; split in twain at a word, and, at a word, sent skimming beyond the horizon; strung out as vultures string out patiently in the hot sky above a dying beast; flung like a lasso; gathered anew as a riata is coiled at the saddle-bow; dealt out cash-fashion over 50 miles of green table; picked up, shuffled and re-dealt as the game changed. I had seen cruisers flown like hawks, ridden like horses at a close finish, and maneuvered like bicycles, but the wonder of their appearance and disappearance never failed.
Although modestly declaring that "we were merely a third-class cruiser, capable, perhaps, of slaying destroyers in a heavy sea, but meant for the most part to scout and run away," Kipling carefully listed her diverse armament: "eight four-inch quick-fire guns, the newest type . . . alternating with as many three-pounder Hotchkiss quick-firers," plus three Maxims with their water-jackets to be "filled up from an innocent tin pot before the game began" ("like slacking the thirst of devils"). Then he gave a masterful description of target practice by Her Majesty's cruisers:
We found an eligible rock, the tip of a grayish headland peopled by a few gulls . . . and a specified portion of this we made our target that we might see the effect of the shots and practice the men at firing on a water-line. Up came the beautiful solid brass cordite cartridges, and the four-inch shells that weigh 25 pounds apiece. . . . The filled belts of the Maxims were adjusted, and all these man-slaying deviltries waked to life and peered over the side at the unsuspecting gulls. It was "still" throughout the ship—still as it will be when the Real Thing arrives. From the upper bridge I could hear the click of the Lieutenant's scabbard (why should men who need every freedom in action be hampered by an utterly useless sword?); the faint click of a four-inch breech swung open; the crisper snick of the little Hotchkiss' falling-block, and an impatient sewing-machine noise from a Maxim making sure of its lock-action. On his platform, over my head, the navigating officer was giving the ranges to the rock.
"The smack of cordite is keener and catches one more about the heart than the slow-burning old powder," Kipling noted when a three-pounder tried a "sighting shot." "There was a shrillish, gasping wail—almost exactly like the preliminary whoop of an hysterical woman—as the little shell hurried to the target, and a puff of dirty smoke on the rock-face sent the gulls flying." The "song" of the four-inch quick-firer was "not a shriek . . . but a most utterly mournful wail" which made the ship shiver "as though someone had pinched her."
"'Two thousand three hundred,' cried the reader of that day's lesson, and we fell seriously to work; high shriek and low wail following in an infernal tune through which, with no regard for decency, the Maxims quacked and jabbered insanely." The toll on the inoffensive rock was serious: it was "splintered and ripped and gashed in every direction, and great pieces of it bounded into the sea."
"And so we went on," Kipling concluded, "till the big guns had fired their quota and the Maxims ran out in one last fiends' flurry, and target practice for the month was over." The visitor, at least, was impressed and satisfied: "Almost every shot would have found its mark in a 150-foot gunboat."
"Then the horror of the thing began to soak into me," he confessed. "What I had seen was a slow peddling-out of Admiralty allowance for the month, and it seemed to me more like squirting death through a hose than any ordinary gun practice." His final observation was a stark question: "What will it be when the real thing is upon us, and we flee for the dear life with news that may mean life or death?" From the crews' "smiling, careless faces" came the answer "with one merry accord: 'Hell! Every kind of hell!'"
By the time his 1897 cruise with Her Imperial Majesty's Channel Fleet ended, Rudyard Kipling had been moved to the depths of his great poetic soul as he realized that what he had experienced in this vast new world was a marvelous heritage that was all his birthright. His exultant words look like o ordinary prose; but they could readily have been transformed into moving poetic form:
And the whole thing was my very own. . . . Mine were the speed and power of the hulls, not here only but the world over; the hearts and brains and lives of the trained men; such strength and such power as we and the world hardly guess at. And holding this power in the hollow of my hand; able at the word to exploit the earth to my own advantage. . . . Thus I stood, astounded at my own moderation, and counted up my possessions with most sinful pride. 4
When his fortnight aboard this light cruiser was nearing an end, Kipling was graciously bidden good-bye by many, from seamen to officers, but in a strangely apologetic manner. "'Hope you've enjoyed your trip, sir,'" a petty officer said. "'You see (I knew what was coming) we haven't quite shaken down yet. In another three months we shall be something like.'" "The entire wardroom explained carefully that their commodious coffee-grinder must not be taken as a sample of the navy at its best," but their gracious unanimous invitation belied their words: "Come and see us next year when we've shaken down a bit and you'll like it better."
Kipling himself, however, termed it "that blissful fortnight when I was privileged to watch their labors." "Fire and collision drill, general quarters and the like take on new meanings when they are translated for you once by the head who orders them, and again by the tail who carry them out," he explained. "When you have been shown lovingly over a torpedo by an artificer skilled in the working of the tricky bowels, torpedoes have a meaning and a reality for you to the end of your days." And the First Lieutenant provided enlightenment "on his duties as an upper housemaid, and the juniors have guided you through the giddy whirl of gunnery, small-arm drill, getting up an anchor, and taking kinks out of a cable."
Thus Rudyard Kipling's outlook on the world had been critically changed: "So it comes that next time you see, even far off, one of Her Majesty's cruisers, all your heart goes out to her. Men live there."
Dr. Hoyt is an emeritus professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, where he has taught history since 1956. He was a Fulbright Scholar to the Philippines and is a U.S. Naval Reserve veteran of World War II.
1. These articles were published by The Pittsburg Dispatch for six consecutive Sundays in 1898: 13, 20, 27 November and 4, 11, 18 December. They have been collated with Kipling's complete works, which were published after his death. Obvious errors by the Dispatch have been corrected and ships' names have been italicized. See volume 20, "The War. A Fleet in Being. Notes of Two Trips with the Channel Squadron. 1897 and 1898," pp. 339-408. The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1941). The distinguished British historian G. M. Young has judged "A Fleet in Being" to be "the masterpiece of his craft as journalist and special correspondent." "Kipling," The Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-1940 (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), pp. 512-16. back to article
2. Even the casual reader will note that, with the British Army in India Kipling was fascinated by the ordinary soldiers (his beloved "Tommies"), whereas in his writing on the Royal Navy none of the ratings or petty officers is developed as real persons. This is explainable at least partly by his being an honored guest aboard ships of high-ranking officers and by the rigid caste and class conditions and strict segregation in the Royal Navy. The enlisted types naturally would have been extremely reluctant to socialize at any level with such a distinguished guest coming down from "officers' country" to observe them. In support of this intuitive reaction of a former U.S. Navy enlisted man, see also Marghanita Laski, From Palm to Pine, Rudyard Kipling Abroad and at Home (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987), p. 149, and Angus Wilson, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977), pp. 208-10. back to article
3. Unfortunately, "if the sea was at all rough, he was usually seasick," so he was seasick often. Laski, From Palm to Pine , pp. 115, 142. See also C. E. Carrington, The Life of Rudyard Kipling (New York: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 33, 94. back to article
4. This paragraph unfortunately did not appear in the Dispatch ; it was printed in "A Fleet in Being," p. 365. back to article