Commander, R.N., by Commander G. B. Hartford, D.S.O.


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Commander, R.N.

Chapter II.


ALTHOUGH officially he becomes a senior officer on promotion to lieutenant, a naval officer is really in a state of "juniority" through the ranks of midshipman and sub-lieutenant to that of a lieutenant of three or four years' seniority.

By the time the cadet has become a " Niner " in the Britannia he has developed an exalted opinion of himself, and when he is about to join his first sea-going ship it is liable to be very lofty indeed, especially if he happens to have been a cadet captain or, worse still, a chief cadet captain. But he is quickly disabused of such ideas, and, in fact, finds himself even smaller fry than he was on joining the Britannia. Here, it seems to him, he is systematically hunted by every officer in the ship, from the senior midshipman upward ; there appears to be no kind and sympathetic officer of the term to appeal to ; the food is not of the best - anything really tasty has to be paid for out of his own pocket - and there is no ship's bun to help out the afternoon. Not


even the most haughty late chief cadet captain had a soul above longing for that sustaining compound, while his feelings were perilously near overpowering him if he dwelt on the vanished pen'north of Devonshire cream and jam or the delights of the lost "chohone."

But there were cheering compensations in the changed conditions. Though very small fry as regarded the other officers of the ship, the new-comer found that he was quite an important person in relation to the men of the lower deck, with whom he came in contact for the first time. Certainly in the Britannia there was a chief petty officer of the term and sergeants of marines to instruct the cadets ashore ; but he was in these men's charge. Now, on the contrary, the men of the lower deck were under his orders, and, when sent for, saluted and called him "Sir." That was indeed a gratifying novelty and a substantial compensation for the feeling of extreme inferiority which I have mentioned. But it was only a novelty, for the - to a midshipman immense responsibility that was immediately put upon him, and the obvious necessity of discipline very soon made him expect the same respect and obedience from his juniors as his senior officers expected from him.


Let me take a very general instance. A midshipman joins his first sea-going ship. He is only sixteen years of age - boys of his age at home have not been long in their Public School ; and he is immediately given charge of a cutter, with a crew of a coxswain and twelve men. The coxswain is a 1st class petty officer, but the boat is entirely under the midshipman's orders and the lives of the men are in his hands. The little craft is frequently under sail, often in bad weather, and a single wrong order on the midshipman's part or an incorrect interpretation of an order by the crew might easily mean calamity to the whole crew. He is repeatedly employed in taking large bodies of men, such as liberty men, ashore and bringing them off again, and in these cases his responsibility is more than doubled. It follows that in accepting such responsibility he expects his crew to obey his orders implicitly and without question. There is no question whatever of the officer "lording" it over the men. The general safety demands prompt obedience ; and I know that boats' crews were quick to realise this and glad to obey. Early training in the acceptance of responsibility is essential in the Navy, and it would be difficult to imagine a


better system than this. Incidentally, I cannot think of any better cure for Bolshevism.

I was only sixteen when I took charge of my first cutter; but then I was only twenty-one when I was given my first sea-going command. It was in June, 1899, that I joined my first sea-going ship. This was the Crescent, 1st class cruiser, about to proceed abroad as flagship of the North America and West Indies Squadron.

I was still a naval cadet, but was due to be promoted to midshipman in a month's time. Twelve cadets from my term were sent to join this ship, including both chief cadet captains, and we found three senior midshipmen (midshipmen over eighteen years of age) on board to knock us into shape.

The North America and West Indies Station was much sought after in the Navy in those days, and we had some well-known officers on board, including Vice-Admiral Bedford, the Commander-in-Chief; Captain Colville, the Flag-Captain; and Commander Henry Campbell.

Looking back on those days, I realise how fortunate we were in our commander, for the character of a naval officer is made or marred during the period in which he is a junior midshipman. In this direction


the commander has a very grave responsibility. Actually the junior midshipman is under the care of the senior midshipmen and the sub-lieutenants, but it is the commander, all-seeing and all-powerful, who has the last word in nearly every detail of his life ; and it is he who, through inattention to detail, slackness, and want of forethought and sympathy, can ruin the character of the young officer.

Reflect for a moment. It is the commander who decides whether the midshipman can go ashore or not, and to a great extent where he can go when he is ashore, a matter so important that it practically governs the midshipman's life ashore. A thoughtful and far-seeing commander can thus encourage a young officer to play games ; he can to a great extent select the society he moves in; and he can withhold his permission to land, except under the terms he chooses to lay down. So much for what the commander has the power to do on shore. On board the junior midshipman's life is entirely controlled by him. It is he who decides when the young officer is to go to bed and to get up, how much school and ship work he must do during the day, what boat he is to take charge of, and when ; and what his hours of leisure are to be. The junior


midshipman is for ever under the commander's eye, and he is ceaselessly being hauled over the coals for lack of attention or smartness and a hundred and one other things. I recall the abuse and scorn which were his portion, and the praise which was so rare as to be sweet music in his almost unbelieving ears. I can count on my fingers the number of times my commander "whacked out" praise to me during the three years I was in the Crescent. The last of these was when I was leaving the ship, and it more than compensated for the countless occasions on which he had "downed my house."

A junior midshipman was allowed to run up a wine bill during a month which did not exceed ten shillings. Not a large sum, but in those days, unfortunately, it was quite easy for a midshipman to get drunk every night of his life afloat and yet not exceed his allowance. We knew quite well that in some ships this actually occurred, made possible by the fact that wine was duty free in ships at sea and that it was so cheap. Spirits were on the same basis. For instance, gin cost a penny a glass ; so that, if he wished, a midshipman could drink four glasses of gin every night - quite enough to make a boy of sixteen or seventeen blind drunk.


The sub-lieutenant was in charge of the wine accounts of the gun-room and was supposed to see to these matters; but a slack commander and a sub-lieutenant given to the bottle could very soon turn a weak-minded midshipman into a drunkard. I am thankful to say that we in the Crescent were kept far too busy at work on board and at games ashore to have time even to think of such indulgence, and a midshipman's wine bill seldom exceeded a shilling or two, the cost of entertaining an occasional guest. I do not think there is a naval officer of my own years - to say nothing of my seniors - who cannot call to mind sad cases of ruined careers due to the ease with which drink could be got in the Navy, even a quarter of a century ago ; and one need not be a Prohibitionist to feel glad that in this vitally important direction there has been an almost incredible improvement.

The gun-room in the Crescent was victualled on the contract system. A messman, with the rating and pay of a 1st class petty officer, contracted to provide us with three square meals a day, and a cup of tea in the afternoon, in return for one shilling a day from each of us and our "savings." Every officer in the Navy is entitled to the same allowance


of victuals as a man on the lower deck, but he can take up the cash value instead. In those days this cash value was about ninepence. So this messman undertook to feed a number of ravenous growing boys for one-and-ninepence a day. I have often wondered how he performed the miracle ; but I dare not wonder what would happen if he tried to do it to-day on the same allowance. Surely, to eke it out, the messman himself would almost go the way of "the bo'sun tight and a midshipmite" who went towards the sustenance of the gruesome survivor of the crew of the Nancy brig. It is true that he was allowed to sell us such commodities as jam and tinned fruits at an agreed price which left him a fair margin of profit ; but we were all fairly poor, and could not indulge much in these luxuries. I think the system was bad, but we did not suffer from ill-health at all seriously during the whole commission, so that our messman can be said to have played the game.

The North America and West Indies Station is a particularly agreeable one. Based on Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the summer, we cruised at intervals round Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and occasionally


visited an American port such as Bar Harbour. In the winter we dodged the cold by basing ourselves on Bermuda, the most beautiful island I have ever seen. From there we cruised in the West Indies and visited many of the islands in that part of the world.

In the north every facility was given for games. There was a Soccer league and a Rugby league at Halifax, and intense excitement arose out of the games in both. The Rugby league consisted of a United Service team, a local sports club called the Wanderers, and a team from the Dalhousie College, also a local affair.

I have seldom seen such excitement raised over football. The matches were played on the Wanderers' ground, where there was seating accommodation for some five thousand persons. The ground was invariably packed, and the various supporters wore their favourites' colours. Though playing to English rules, these Canadians had certain American ideas, one of which was the college cry. I had never heard this before, and was much impressed by that of Dalhousie. The supporters of that team would buy up a large part of one of the stands, and every now and then, when they thought their team required


moral support, a gentleman with a large stick rushed out, and standing in front of the team would conduct this truly uplifting chant

" Who're, who're, who're we ?

We're, we're Dal-hou-sie Are we in it ?

I should smile !

We've been in it all the while!"

Compared with this our own replies of "Wan-der-ers!" and "Ser-vices!" seemed tame indeed, though we put all possible steam into them.

Of the midshipmen of the Crescent at that time two eventually got their English caps (Lyon and Lapage), and one (Cowan) played for his county at cricket and was in the batting averages for that year.

The visit to Bar Harbour was in 1899, and it gave me my first insight into the life of the well-to-do American who intends to be comfortable, while showing that generous and kind hospitality which is the common experience of Britishers who sojourn on United States territory.

It was a model town, and some first-class hotels and many detached houses run by the hotels management accommodated the visitors. There was a yacht club and an excellent golf links, and in other ways


the town was most desirable. When it became known that the British flagship was about to visit the port every effort that a body of human beings can make to ensure that their guests shall be comfortable was made. Nothing that was good was left undone, and the visit remains amongst my most grateful memories.

We found on arrival that matters had been so arranged that we were not allowed to pay for anything. Each officer received free passes to all the hotels and clubs; we could have meals or even live at these places - it was only necessary to show the pass, and any offer of payment was instantly and firmly declined. Another great kindness was the gift to each officer of a book of tickets which enabled us to take a cab whenever we liked and for as long as we liked. This was a privilege we all very much appreciated. These, of course, were the days before the motor-car.

I had often heard of American hospitality, but this was certainly a revelation ; and everything was done so nicely and in such a friendly spirit, as if they felt honoured by our acceptance of their kindness.

An American cruiser squadron was at Bar


Harbour, of about the same size as ours, and on leaving the two fleets formed up in two lines and steamed out abreast of one another. This was a fitting end to a delightful break in our sea life, and one that made a special appeal, I think, to friends on both sides.

I recall an amusing and rather rousing incident during our stay at this port. An assistant paymaster named Byrne and I were walking ashore one day when we passed a big tent from which a lot of noise was coming. The commotion whetted our curiosity - it did not need much to do that with us when we were on land - and we promptly made inquiries, seeking light at the entrance to the tent, where an individual was at the receipt of custom, in the form of a dollar a head for admission. We were told that a boxing match was going on and that we could enter on payment of the fee.

Now my friend Byrne was a first-class heavyweight and was always as fit as a fiddle, so, being curious, we paid our dollars and went in. The tent was packed with American sailors, and two men on a platform were going through the motions of boxing - literally no more than that. It was quite obvious that the whole thing was a farce, as far as boxing


went, and that it was the sailors' dollars the management were after.

This deception accounted for the noise, howls and jeers which we had heard coming from the spectators. After a time the "match" ended, and the referee declared it a draw. He followed this announcement by apologising for not having been able at such short notice to arrange more bouts, but he said he hoped that some members of the audience would come forward and give an exhibition.

The invitation was accepted by a big and slightly intoxicated American sailor, who leaped on to the platform and promptly challenged all and sundry to fight him there and then. There was no response, and fired by the silence and the drink the man became abusive. What he said was in its way a masterpiece, the whole crowd being condemned as a pack of cowards ; indeed, his outburst came to me as quite an education in such matters.

There was still no response, and it seemed as if the boaster was going to have it all his own way. Then Byrne said to me : "This can't go on. I suppose I shall have to deal with him."

There was breathless excitement when my friend made his way to the stage and got on to it. What


the sailor thought I don't pretend to know ; but reflection and everything else was knocked out of him in a matter of seconds, for Byrne had not been on the stage more than a minute before his blustering opponent was a helpless heap on the floor.

After this nothing more was to be said. We all left the tent quietly, every man feeling, I am sure, that he had had his dollar's worth. Byrne was very anxious that his identity should not leak out, as he feared he would get into serious trouble, and so the affair remained a profound secret between us for some time afterwards. Poor fellow ! He was killed in a flying accident not long before the war.

This yarn reminds me of another fighting story which was told to me by an officer who was a sub-lieutenant in a destroyer in the Mediterranean at the time of the event.

The Kaiser, as he then was, had lately bought the Palace of Achilles at Corfu, and whenever he visited it he took with him his staff and what I suppose would be called his bodyguard. Some of these officers frequented a certain cafe in the town, and it became to them a sort of club which the public, for various reasons, were glad to leave for their exclusive use. Now it may seem strange that


a place should be given over like this for the sole use of a particular body, but the custom is common and extends even to the Royal Navy.

Let me deviate for a moment or two to tell of a happening when I was a sub at Portsmouth. There was a certain bar in a certain hotel which for ages had been looked upon as the exclusive property of the sub-lieutenant. The lady in charge was known as Samson, and she looked the part. It would have gone hard with any outsider who tried to use that bar, no matter what his rank or standing was. A warm request from Samson to "'Op it ! " if not instantly obeyed would have been followed up with "direct action" by the devoted young officers present.

This cafe in Corfu, then, was looked upon as the property of these German officers. The destroyer in which my friend was serving was visiting Corfu at a time when the Kaiser was there. One evening the sub and a friend returned from a shooting trip, begrimed and tired, and they dropped into the first cafe they saw for a drink. They were somewhat surprised on entering to see some very smart German officers in what appeared to be full uniform seated at one of the tables ; but they thought no more


about the matter, and having seated themselves at an adjoining table, they ordered beer.

It was very soon obvious that the new-comers were not welcome, and that their presence was strongly resented. The Germans promptly exercised the art in which they excel. They looked scornfully at the unsuspecting visitors, and insolently scrutinised them from head to foot ; and so that there should be no possible misunderstanding of their attitude, they made loud and offensive remarks in excellent English.

My friend had - and has - a very hasty temper, a weakness which makes one liable to do on the spur of the moment a thing which is often speedily regretted. But the provocation was great, insupportable indeed, and probably an even less hasty man would have done as my friend did.

Unable to bear the flagrant insolence, the sub-lieutenant rose from the table and poured his glass of beer over the most gorgeously apparelled of the whole group of Germans.

For a moment there was a deadly silence. Then the victim nodded to another officer at the table and calmly wiped his uniform with his handkerchief. This officer nodded back and rose and walked over to my friend.


"I presume your friend will act as your second ? " said the German.

"Certainly," the sub replied unhesitatingly.

"Very well, then. If he will come aside with me we can settle matters at once."

The sub's companion, now thoroughly alarmed, stepped aside with the German, and had it explained to him that the sub would have to fight the beer-drenched victim. The situation was bad, especially in view of our rigid rules concerning duelling; but there was one redeeming feature in it, and that was the right of the sub, as the challenged party, to choose the fighting weapons.

This option was put to the sub, who, determined to see the unpleasant business through, promptly replied, "Bare fists!" and so caused as much consternation as his cascade of beer.

The choice of weapons, so novel to the Germans, caused some discussion amongst them ; but after an interval the challenger's second came forward and said that, unusual though the selection was, his friend had decided to accept the conditions and would meet his opponent at any agreed spot at dawn on the following day. After some further discussion a suitable place was chosen,


and the company separated and went their several ways.

In one way it was wise to choose this method of settling the trouble, for quite possibly the sub might have been killed if fire-arms or rapiers had been decided on ; but it was a case of out of the frying-pan into the fire, for while the sub was somewhat lightly built the German warrior was a very big and powerful man.

I wish I could say something cheering about the "fight" itself ; but I must draw the veil. All there was of the sub was game. He did his best, and honour was satisfied ; but while the German officer was not even scratched, the unlucky sub returned to his ship and appeared at breakfast with features that had been battered out of recognition.

It was a sorry business, and the destroyer's people would gladly have had it otherwise and better ; yet the Germans, after the way of their mentality, made amends by heartily inviting the sub and his friends to consider themselves honorary members of the "Club." The invitation was accepted, and the rest of the visit was spent in close friendship and mutual hospitality with the


German officers. There is good reason to believe that during this stage, at any rate, beer did not deviate from the course set for it by the brewer.

After this interlude I must return to my midshipman days in the Crescent. That brings me to a story originating in the ship which will, I think, bear repetition, and perhaps embellish the repertory of those raconteurs who delight to traffic in these amusing trifles.

It was when we were on passage to Bermuda from Portsmouth, where we had recently commissioned. The admiral was on board, with his family and a governess. The weather being fine, the commander took the opportunity to have the side of the ship cleaned in the early morning.

An able seaman who was working on the side aft suddenly and unexpectedly found himself looking through the port-hole of the governess's cabin - at least, this is the story he told his friends. But the governess looked at the matter from another angle, and complained to the commander.

In due course the able seaman found himself hauled up before the commander, and the investigation


proceeded somewhat as follows, the circumstances of the case having been stated :-

Commander: "What have you to say for yourself in excuse for such conduct ? "

Able seaman: "Nothing, sir."

Commander: "Well, I shall punish you with fourteen days Ten A."

Able seaman : " And worth it, sir ! "

Shortly after this time the short service was introduced, enabling a man to join the Navy for a period of five years. His age on joining was about twenty-one years, so that he was still susceptible to the pernicious teachings of that insufferable nuisance of the lower deck, the sea lawyer. This individual, fortunately somewhat rare, thinks he knows more about the law than even authorised practitioners, and he is for ever giving that advice to others which is as nasty as it is free. As a rule, disaster attends any putting into operation of this gratis counsel. Here is a case in point.

We had a sea lawyer - an able seaman - who got hold of a newly-joined short service man who was painfully green.

"Now look 'ere," said the sea lawyer," presently the master-at-arms will send for you an' ask what


your religion is. Well, you say you ain't got no religion, an' then you won't 'ave to fall in with the church parties on Sundays."

Fortified by this instruction, the greenhorn hopefully awaited the following Sunday, when he was sent for by the master-at-arms.

"Is your name Thompson ? " asked the master-at-arms.

" Yes, sir."

"What's your religion?" was demanded.

"I ain't got no religion," the man replied.

"What!" exclaimed the master-at-arms.

"I ain't got no religion," repeated the greenhorn, strong in the faith as laid down for him by the sea lawyer.

"Oh, you ain't got no religion, ain't you?"

"No, sir."

"Well, then, look 'ere," announced the master-at-arms clinchingly, "you're Church of England, you are-an' I don't want none o' your lip! You fall in with the church parties ! "

And thus spiritually equipped the greenhorn attended worship.

The word "Quebec" recalls my pleasantest memories of that three years' commission on the


North America and West Indies Station. The Governor-General of Canada at that time was Lord Minto, and we saw a good deal of his family at the Citadel, Quebec, his headquarters.

Lady Minto was kindness itself to the Crescent’s midshipmen, and her two elder daughters, Lady Eileen and Lady Ruby, being of much our own age, would frequent parties where we could dance and generally enjoy ourselves without interference from grown-ups.

These parties were heartily replied to in the form of "tea-fights" in the flagship, where, having had a somewhat substantial meal, we would all scour the ship from head to stern for the amusement of our guests. The engine-room provided the greatest interest and wonder, and the fact that we took away a fairly liberal supply of oil on our clothes was treated with scorn.

After Quebec I think I liked Bermuda best. The first sight of that enchanting island remains firmly impressed on my memory. The soil of the island is composed almost entirely of coral, so that, apart from the foliage, nearly everything is white. Everything looks so clean and spotless and the beautiful evergreen foliage stands out in contrast


to the white background. The water is a lovely blue, and the most gorgeously coloured fishes can be seen swimming about in the bays and coves. Added to all this blue birds and red birds flash amongst the palm trees. I am speaking of the days before the coming of the motor-car. A good deal of this may now be changed.

The admiral's house at Bermuda must be one of the most delightful residences on earth - my pen would fail me if I tried to describe it - and for me it has some unforgettable memories. Admiral Bedford was particularly kind to midshipmen, especially on Christmas Day. He would invite half a dozen of us to stay for a day or two, and on Christmas night, forgetting that he was an admiral and that we were miserable "snotties," he would change his coat with one of ours and disport himself as a rather naughty midshipman. We, on the other hand, were expected to play the part of an admiral, and as we did our best to rise to that dazzling eminence and the admiral for the time was reincarnated as a midshipman, the game caused boundless amusement to everybody who had the great good fortune to be present.

But not every senior officer at the admiral’s


house at these joyous seasons unbent and joined in the fun, and thereby hangs a tale which I hope will give the reader at least a part of the delight which the episode itself has afforded me. That is all I can hope for, since the full pleasure of the happening can be known only to those who witnessed it.

One Christmastide, after dinner, we arranged to play charades. Three rather crusty old captains had been invited to dinner, but they were not entering into the spirit of the evening at all. They could not understand an admiral becoming a midshipman at a stroke, and obviously resented the freedom which had been temporarily conferred upon us. I noticed the admiral eyeing the gloomy trio once or twice, and when it was proposed that we should play charades he instantly selected them for his side and left the rest of us to form the other side.

Now, lest the reader should have any false ideas on the subject, let me impress upon him the importance of a full-blown captain in His Majesty's Navy. He ranks with a colonel in the Army. He is usually in command of a warship carrying anything up to a thousand souls. His word is LAW. At


sea he has the power of life and death, and even the laws of nature have been made subservient to his will. I have known a captain, on noon being reported to him by the officer of the watch, say

" Wait five minutes, and then make it so." Could grandeur further go ?

There was this Christmastide not one but three of these awesome beings, and as they were all fully aware of their own importance and carried themselves accordingly their downfall, when it came, was all the more humiliating.

The admiral, having lost the toss, led his side out of the room to prepare for the dramatic interpretation of a word. We, sitting in our comfortable chairs, found that the preparations were taking some time. There seemed to be a good deal of altercation going on outside the door, and when the door at last opened we understood-fully, not merely in part.

Never shall I forget the amazing sight that met our spellbound gaze.

Heading a procession of four senior officers of His Majesty's Navy, all on all-fours, was the admiral. He held an inverted soda-water syphon in his hand, the spout pointing over his shoulder. Every


now and then he pressed the lever, and the spout, as if entering into the infamy of the performance, well and truly squirted the fizzing liquid on to the captains who were masquerading as quadrupeds, under compulsion. They dare not complain - their commander-in-chief was leading them. "It was their duty, and they did"; but I can well imagine how they cursed under their breath with suppressed rage.

I forget the word that led to this capricious episode, but its first syllable was " Whale."

The whole of my time as midshipman was spent in the Crescent. At the end of those three years I sat for my seamanship examination, and having passed successfully, I duly blossomed into the glory of acting sub-lieutenant.

This was one of the great days of my life. We were short of watch - keepers, and willing hands, always ready to help to take a rise out of a fellow-creature, having provided me with an old frockcoat, I found myself a full-blown officer of the watch.

When the commander sent for me I went prepared to receive a man-to-man talk on my future responsibilities ; but all he said was : " Hartford,


you're no longer a ‘wart ' ; you're a sub-lieutenant. Don't forget it."

And so, humbled but enlightened, I took upon my shoulders the duties and responsibilities of a sub-lieutenant in His Majesty's Fleet.

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