Life of a Sailor by Admiral of the Fleet Sir William May
My father, Job William Seaburne May, was born in Holland in 1805, and was the son of Admiral May of the Dutch Navy, who was also a Captain in the British Navy. My Grandfather was a distinguished man, he assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland. He was a clever engineer and his plans were adopted for improving the canal system in Holland.
My Father’s forebears, as recorded on the pedigree table, show that John May, a Naval Architect, went to Holland in the seventeenth century, and the family remained there until my Father returned and settled in England. Although the family were in Holland for so many generations, all my ancestors married British wives.
My Father settled in Liverpool, and married Ann Jane Freckleton, in 1840. I was the fifth of ten children and was born on July 31st, 1849, at Liscard, Cheshire. One of my godfathers was Prince Henry of the Netherlands, brother of the then reigning King; he was present at my christening, at St. Philip’s Church, Liverpool. My Father retained a good deal of influence at the Dutch Court, both on account of his Father’s and Brother’s services; the latter was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy and personal A.D.C. to Prince Henry.
From the first I was destined for the Navy, and my earliest recollections are of being made to read extracts from Captain Marryat’s novels: Peter Simple, Midshipman Easy, and others. Every night, at dessert, I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up, and my invariable reply was: “A sailor.” At that early age I had no idea what this meant, but my Father was so intent on a sea life for me, and impressed me so much with the thought of it, that I felt I was destined for the Navy. I never had the choice of any other career, and a boy of 11 to 13 years of age rarely knows what he would like to be.
My Father was not well off, and great economy was necessary. When I was 10 years old, my elder brother Seaburne and I went, as day scholars, to the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, where the Headmaster was Dr. Turner. My recollections of this establishment are those of fear. Dr. Turner was a very big, ponderous man, but was, I believe, very learned, and a good linguist. His method of teaching, however, did not impress me; he constantly used the cane and this certainly was not an incentive to make me work. The second master, the Rev. Glynn, was quite a different sort of man, and under him I learnt the principles of mathematics, mensuration, and Euclid, which were always useful in after years.
In 1863, the age for entering the Navy was between 12 and 14 years; the nomination had to be obtained by family interest, and my Father appears to have had some difficulty in obtaining one for me. It was not till April, 1863, when I was nearly 14 years old, that the nomination arrived, When Dr. Turner was informed, he told my Father I would never pass the entrance examination, which was a limited competition, so I was sent, for six weeks, to a crammer, namely, Eastman’s Academy at Southsea, the Headmaster being Dr. Speckernell. This school was very much more to my liking. We had to work hard, but the masters took a great deal of trouble, and I passed the examination at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, in June, 1863, being twenty-second on the list of about fifty entrants.
I joined the Britannia at Portland in June, 1863, and was naturally bewildered with the strangeness of the life. The ship was an old three-decker, fitted up with studies, and special accommodation for sleeping and dressing. It was a rough life, but I felt quite important on joining as a naval cadet in uniform, and having a marine servant to look after my chest and clothes. My pride was soon taken out of me as the new-term cadets were called “Cheeky News,” and the senior terms took every advantage of bullying the new boys and disposing of sundry of their articles, such as soap, etc. The course was five terms and lasted fifteen months. I was placed in a class with the second half of my term. My naval instructor was Mr. Knapp, an excellent instructor, but a very nervous man, who could not bear any noise, not even the jingling of keys. I found my mathematical work, including plane and spherical trigonometry and navigation, quite easy, and I was generally well to the top of the class, but I was not equally good in French, Latin, and drawing. I was very fond of seamanship, and easily acquired the rudiments, which I have never forgotten.
About September, 1863, the Britannia was shifted from Portland to Dartmouth, which, from the cadets’ point of view, was a very much pleasanter place. In those days there was only a small breakwater at Portland, consequently we very often had bad weather and rough seas, which frequently prevented us from landing. As I was one of the few cadets who, owing to the distance of their homes, were left behind for the Easter holidays, I went round to Dartmouth in the Britannia. It was on the way there that I kept my first portion of a night watch.
In the last term I was made a cadet captain, one of the twelve who were supposed to keep order amongst the other cadets; always a difficult and tiring job. I remember one instance: I was away in a boat’s crew, and we splashed another boat’s crew in the harbour; the Commander saw us, and as I was the only cadet captain present, I was disrated. I suppose the authorities saw the absurdity of the punishment, as I was rated again a few days later. I remember the Lords of the Admiralty coming down to inspect the Britannia; I was one of the cadets selected to go with them up the Dart in a steamer. The Duke of Somerset was the First Lord, and they were all in plain clothes. It struck me that tall hats seemed very much out of place on board the Dart steamer.
In September, 1864, my term had to pass out of the Britannia. I was placed fourth on the list, thus gaining a great many places in comparison with the position I took passing in. In those days, we had to serve at sea for five and a half years as a naval cadet and midshipman before passing foil lieutenant. This time was reduced by one year for those cadets who took a first-class certificate, and by six months for a second-class certificate. I obtained a first-class, so only had to serve four and a half years; my date for passing for sub-1ieutentant was March, 1869. This was of great benefit to me, as I was a few months older than many of the other cadets not having entered till I was nearly 14. An intermediate examination had to be passed on completion of three and half years at sea.
After a few weeks’ leave, the cadets joined the receiving ship at Portsmouth: at that time the old Victory. There were a very large number of sub-lieutenants and midshipmen in the mess, and I was much impressed by the general disposition of the seniors; the prevailing idea seemed to be, to go ashore and have a row with someone or somebody. Almost as soon as I joined, the sub-lieutenants (or “mates”, as they were called in those days), with a certain number of the lieutenants, were recruiting all the big fellows to have a row at the Blue Bell, a music-hall in Portsmouth. I was too small for this class of work, but they evidently had a fine row, and the senior lieutenant was knocked down the main staircase, and still had a black eye when he joined my next ship, the Victoria, as first lieutenant, a few days later. I was appointed in October, 1864, with a good many of my Britannia lot, to the Victoria, the new flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Smart; a three-decker, with auxiliary steam-power, commanded by Captain James Graham Goodenough. The Victoria was the last three-decker to be commissioned as a sea-going ship. I was stationed off to my different duties, and one of these was to be aloft on the mainmast, during all exercises with sails and spars, for the three years I was in the ship.
We left in October for Gibraltar and Malta and encountered a very heavy gale in the Bay of Biscay: my first experience of a storm and not a pleasant one. The gunroom was on the lower deck and, of course, all the ports had to be closed; about 300 men were messing on this deck outside the gunroom, so that the state of the atmosphere can be imagined. The ship was lurching and rolling very heavily up to a maximum of 400 roll each way, and nearly all the youngsters were seasick. I was lying down on the gunroom lockers feeling more dead than alive, when the order came for everyone to go on deck and reef topsails. I was not at all inclined to move, but the senior sub-lieutenant, whose duty it was to see that we went up to our stations, took a hunting-crop and used it on us till we got up. I made a rush and went to my station in the maintop, where curiously enough I got over my seasickness, as I had so much to do, what with holding on, and looking after the men, that I had no time to think of being sick. There was a great deal of bullying in the gunroom, though I do not think it was ever done with real bad feeling. The youngsters were generally marked with a broad arrow on their noses to show that they were Government property.
Captain Goodenough had very advanced ideas on the question of naval education; the midshipmen not on duty, had to do school both forenoon and afternoon. I was very sorry when he left; although very strict, he was just. Eventually he went out as Commodore in Australia, and on landing at one of the islands, was shot by a native with a poisoned arrow, and never recovered.
After I had been in the ship three months, and was only 15 years old, the Commander, Codrington, selected me to command the first cutter, a boat which is pulled by twelve men, with a coxswain. This billet is supposed to be for a senior midshipman, so I felt very proud of myself and learnt a great deal of boatwork. I fear my studies suffered, as I was so often away when school was going on; however, one cannot do everything, and I hope I learnt to be a good practical boatman.
After eighteen months in commission, the Admiral, Sir Robert Smart, was relieved by Lord Clarence Paget. His Flag-Captain, Alan Gardner, was quite a different class of officer to his predecessor, being small with a nervous manner and a stutter. He had a very difficult position to fill in replacing Captain Goodenough.
I remember, one day when he was inspecting the gunroom, he wished to try one of the new chairs which had recently been bought for the officers. The senior sub-lieutenant, Parker, thinking that he wished to look under the table to see if there were any crumbs, drew back the chair, and consequently the little man sat down on the deck. He was so surprised, stuttered so much, that he could not speak. Imagine the feelings of Parker and all the officials who were attending the inspection! I made many friends amongst the midshipmen. One of the first was Daubeney – he died of Malta fever, which was very prevalent at that time. I should think, quite half of the gunroom went to hospital, with some complaint or another, and there contracted fever; it was the same with the men. Many years afterwards it was found that the germ was in goat’s milk. In hospital the men were given plenty of this milk, which must have been the cause of all the trouble.
In the Mediterranean, at that time, there were different types of ships, three-deckers, two-deckers, and frigates of the old style; there were also three or four old three-deckers, which had been cut down and covered with armoured plates, and one ship, made of iron, which had been specially constructed for armoured plates. There was a great deal of rivalry between these wooden ships and the ironclads (or tin-pots, as we called them); so much so, that at times, the men in the wooden ships were not allowed ashore at the same time as the men of the armoured ships, as they used to fight. It is curious that this bad feeling really should exist in the same fleet, but it all came through rivalry, chiefly in sail-drill and boat-pulling.
The three years I passed in the Victoria were not very eventful, there was no excitement of war or rumours of war, and, except for a summer cruise each year, we remained at Malta. The summer cruises were very interesting; we visited the principal ports in the Mediterranean, and I have retained many pleasant recollections of these places. Our amusements were many: hand-fives, boatwork, rowing races, football, and riding. Some of the people were very kind to us at Malta, and I saw many places of interest and had a very happy commission. My health was good, which was lucky, as so many officers were laid up, especially with Malta fever. Before I left England some of my relations said I was too delicate for a sea life, but when I returned home and was nearly 18 years old, I weighed 12 st. 10 lb. and was about 6 ft. in height.
At the end of three years, orders came suddenly for us to return to England. The Admiral and his staff turned over to the Caledonia, a converted three-decker with armour plates, and the Commander, Codrington, brought us home. We then took part in a grand review at Spithead for the Shah of Persia. There were two long lines, one of battleships and frigates, and the other of armour-plated ships. Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, inspected us, and was to have come on board but the weather was too rough. After the review, we paid off in September and then had six weeks’ leave.
I was appointed to the Liffey, a frigate, for which I had applied, as I wished to go on perfecting my seamanship. A friend of mine, Reggie Prothero, was also appointed to the same ship, and we had to join her at Castleton, Berehaven. We had a very tiresome journey; there was no railway beyond Cork, so we had to drive with our chests on an Irish outside car for about 30 miles. The Liffey was commanded by Captain John Ormsby Johnson, a first-rate sailor, but very lugubrious and pessimistic, and no doubt his pessimism affected the ship. The Commander, Carter, was a small, round little man, lazy, good-tempered and the reverse of smart. The first lieutenant was very short-sighted and deeply pock-marked; he may have been a good officer, but he used to drink very hard, starting early in the morning when the barber was shaving him. The remainder of the lieutenants were keen officers and smart, but their keenness was damped by the Captain. The Chaplain and Naval Instructor was a noted character, Croker by name.
The gunroom was the same as in most frigates; the table took up all the room, so that one had to squeeze between it and the locker seats, or climb across the table, to get to the farther side. The gunroom was only lighted by two scuttles, which were generally closed at sea. We were always full up with officers and our mess was the worst imaginable. When I joined, there were only two sub-lieutenants and one senior midshipman, who was a regular character; he had been turned out of the service for some boyish freak at Bermuda and reinstated at the age of 20, and was still a midshipman and junior to me; his name was Marcus McCauseland. He had long “Dundreary” black whiskers, and really looked thirty. On the whole, one was reminded of the gunroom days of Marryat’s novels, and I still wonder the Captain and Commander did not take more interest in the welfare of the gunroom officers.
In those days every officer in the gunroom was allowed his tot (half a gill) of rum, but those midshipmen who were under 18 were, not allowed to have their share, and the few seniors in the mess were permitted to take up the youngsters’ rum; consequently I could buy three bottles of rum a week for 10d. a bottle. Luckily for me, I did not care about it and used to give mine away, but several of the gunroom officers were ruined by drink.
I think my experience in the Victoria was appreciated by the Commander, and he was always putting me on special jobs. I was again stationed in a boat, and also aloft for general exercises. The Liffey was employed on special service for the first twenty months after commissioning, and during the earlier months we were told off to prevent arms being landed in Ireland for the use of the Fenians. On this duty we were generally at sea, beating about under sail off Cape Clear and the Fastnets, and had to board all suspicious craft, and search for arms. I am afraid our efforts were quite unsuccessful and really futile, as it was impossible, without a minute search, to ascertain whether a ship carried fire-arms or not. We used to remain off Cape Clear, sometimes for three weeks in the dead of winter, and often had bad weather. Occasionally we went into Queenstown to coal, and then we had some enjoyment at Cork. When at Berehaven I was sent ashore every day with my boat to have her repaired and painted. I made friends with a priest, and used to have my lunch with him. After the boat was finished, I had the sails scrubbed and left them to dry; on returning I found all the brass cringles had been cut off the sails, and when I went on board on a Saturday and reported this to the Commander, he turned round, snarled at me, and stopped my leave. The next morning the priest came on board with some lads to see the Commander, and told him that these boys had confessed to having cut out the cringles, and that he had brought them back. Consequently my leave was restored. I remember remarking: “At least there is some good in confession!”
The crew had the idea that the Fenians might board and attack the ship, and an incident, which promised to be exciting, happened in Queenstown harbour, where there was always a very strong tide running; the Flagship broke away from her moorings and drifted across our bows. It was at night and there was a cry: “Here are the Fenians!” The men turned out, rushed for their rifles and went on deck, only to find it was a false alarm.
Our next interesting service was to visit Russia, in order to exchange gunpowders with them. We went to Kronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg. Our Ambassador there, Sir Andrew Buchanan, knew my Father, and was very kind to all the midshipmen, sending one of the Attachés to show us round the city. My friends, Prothero, McCauseland, and I mustered all the money we could and went to St. Petersburg for five days; we very much enjoyed our visit and returned to the ship with reluctance, having only one kopec (about a halfpenny) left between us.
Another service was to take supernumeraries for the Pacific Station; we landed them at Colon and then crossed by rail to Panama. The ship was crammed full, and we were thirty-two in the gunroom, designed to hold twelve; consequently every one was made more uncomfortable than usual. Luckily the weather was very warm and we could sleep on deck a great deal. It was the wet season at Colon and Panama, and I never felt anything like the heat of the moisture-laden air; fevers of all sorts were very prevalent, but fortunately we all escaped. It was interesting to see the railway from Colon to Panama, the construction of which had been a great undertaking. West Indian niggers were employed to make it, and they say that one life was lost for every sleeper laid down. Panama was also interesting; but I was glad to get away from Colon, which was a poisonous place, where every other shop sold liquor. We went to Port Royal, Jamaica, and found it hot, but nothing in comparison to Panama; after that we went to Bermuda and then home. We did various short trips; once to Lisbon, when it took us three weeks to beat home against half a gale of wind.
My time to pass for sub-lieutenant was up when we were at sea, consequently I had to pass provisionally in seamanship, gunnery, and navigation. To my astonishment I was given a first-class certificate in each subject. The Captain, after examining me in seamanship for three hours in the morning, made me Officer of the Watch, and I had to put the ship about, and do other practical manoeuvres. On arriving at Plymouth I had to pass again in seamanship.
Under the regulations then in force, the examination was held periodically on board the Flagship in the Home Ports. The Flag-Captain, Preedy, who was on my examination board, had never been known to give a first-class certificate. The first question he asked me was: “Do you object to the other midshipmen hearing you examined?” I knew this was coming, and so said: “No, Sir,” although I hated it. The result surprised me very much, as the board gave me a first-class and Captain Preedy said he would be glad to have me in any ship he might command; naturally I was delighted. Later on I went to the Excellent at Portsmouth for the gunnery examination. I had only five weeks to do both gunnery and navigation, and knowing that a first-class in school subjects was not at all likely, I decided to make sure of a first-class in gunnery, and remained a month in the gunnery school; this left me only eight days at the Portsmouth College, but every evening I worked up the subjects for the study examination with a “Clever Man,” as we used to call him, who lived just outside the dockyard, and I went to him in all my spare time. I managed my first-class in gunnery, and was the only one who got it out of a class of fifteen. We had a most unfair and unjust examination: at least four others in the class should have got firsts. I then joined the college and at the end of a week I was examined. I missed my first by a few marks, but did better than I expected. No doubt my failure to obtain a first was due to my being always employed on boatwork, and rarely being present with the Naval Instructor during school hours. I was given my passing certificates on a Saturday at noon, and by the same evening I had rejoined the Liffey at Plymouth. In those days we were only lent from our ships to the Excellent to go through the courses and to be examined.
Meanwhile the Liffey had been ordered to form one of six ships, four frigates and two corvettes, as a flying squadron under Rear-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby. The departure of this squadron was delayed owing to one of the ships, the Cadmus, having gone ashore, and so my prompt arrival on Saturday evening to join the Liffey at Plymouth, enabled me to be in time to start the next day (Sunday) for an eighteen months’ voyage round the world. I have always been glad I was in time, as in addition to seeing many places of great interest, it was also a very good experience from a sailor’s point of view. The squadron consisted of the Liverpool flagship, Liffey, Endymion, Phoebe, and two corvettes, Scylla and Barossa, the latter two being changed for other corvettes on the China and Pacific Stations. The cruise was as follows: Madeira, Bahia, Buenos Aires, Monte Video, Cape of Good Hope, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Christchurch, Littleton, Japan, Vancouver, Honolulu, Valparaiso, round the Horn, Bahia, and home.
We did practically the whole voyage under sail, and therefore took a long time going from one place to another; the longest time we were at sea was fifty-six days, and that was going from New Zealand, through the Islands, up to Japan. Fresh provisions and water were both scarce, and amongst ourselves we were known as the “Hungry Six.”
On the way to Madeira, the Admiral inspected us at sea, and evidently found us wanting, and no wonder, as we were not in good order. The first lieutenant was sent for by the Admiral because the midshipmen were so backward in seamanship, therefore he sent for the midshipmen and said, in his usual staccato voice, “Mark my words, you will all be sent home from Bahia,” which was the next port but one we were to call at. As a matter of feet, he was the only one who went home from Bahia, for, on leaving Madeira, the Captain found him, as Officer of the Watch, the worse for liquor, and he was dismissed the ship. The wonderful thing was that the Captain had never found him out before; he was a curious character, used to drink a tremendous lot, but he had a wonderful memory for figures, and could tell you the numbers engaged, killed and wounded in all the leading battles. On account of his eyesight, he had been to Germany several times, and in 1869 used to tell us that in case of war the Germans would walk over the French, and he would quote the details and numbers of the German Army and the names of their generals.
At this time the midshipmen were examined every year by papers sent from the Admiralty, and Sir Geoffrey Hornby had this carried out at sea. Our Naval Instructor, Croker, allowed the midshipmen to do any amount of cribbing, and consequently the Liffey’s midshipmen came out extremely well. However, at the next examination, the Admiral “hove to” at sea and ordered the ships to change Naval Instructors. Croker, our Naval Instructor, was frightened out of his life at the idea of going away in a boat at sea, and so persuaded the doctor to put him on the sick list. This was duly reported to the Admiral whose reply was: “If it is a cot case, hoist him out and send him to the flagship.” Eventually, Croker, after much hesitation, got up and went on board the Liverpool to conduct the examination. Needless to relate, at this examination the midshipmen of the Liffey failed to retain their usual high standard! Admiral inspected the ship again before arriving at Monte Video, and I am afraid the result did not show much improvement on the first time. Anyway, it was too much for the Commander, and when we arrived at Monte Video, he asked to be relieved and went home. Before leaving the ship, we dined him in the gunroom with two other lieutenants, and they all became very merry and confidential. At the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Johnson was invalided and, on the whole, we were not sorry to lose him; still, he was an excellent seaman and insisted on having all drills done properly. In ordinary drills we were not good in competition with other ships; but when it came to doing any work such as reefing topsails, etc., if it was blowing hard, we were nearly always first, thereby gaining the only praise we ever had from the Admiral.
Sir Geoffrey Hornby was very strict, and I think rather down on our Captain, who was an older man. One instance I thought hard: we were leaving Monte Video early in the morning, 6.0 a.m., for the Cape – a twenty days’ cruise at least; unfortunately the Captain’s steward had not arrived on board, but he was seen coming off in a boat; the Captain asked permission to pick him up, but the request was refused, and the Captain had to go to sea without his steward and provisions.
Captain Robert Gibson relieved Captain Johnson. He came from the Barossa. Bosanquet was then made Acting Commander and remained so until Commander Cleveland was sent out from England. The squadron always cruised and kept station under sail; consequently, after a few months, these sails were worn very thin; and if they shook, they often split – in feet, even our mainsails (such as the topsails) split when it was blowing hard. I remember at one time we had three topsails under repair and seventy men working on them; and on several occasions we had only one out of four topsails fit for use. In those days every officer and seaman could do ordinary seam work. On arriving at the Cape, Simon’s Bay, we found the Rattlesnake; Commodore Dowell’s pennant was hoisted in her. On leaving we had a sailing race with her, and she proved to be fester than any of our ships. From the Cape we went to Australia. To obtain the prevailing westerly winds we had to go a good deal to the south to the “roaring forties,” where we found a fresh gale of wind from the west. There was a magnificent following sea, and at times it would seem that one of the huge waves must break over the ship; but, as a matter of fact, this never happens unless a ship is going very slow. It was interesting to see all the bird life, the albatross, etc. We also amused ourselves by catching sharks, many of which followed the ships.
At Melbourne we were very kindly received by the people, and they feted us in many ways. I had an uncle there who had been out on an Australian sheep-farm for a long time. I stayed with him several days and he showed me the country. We also had the chance of visiting a gold-mine.
The next place we visited was Sydney, whose harbour is renowned for its surroundings, which are magnificent; here we enjoyed a great deal of hospitality, balls, picnics, etc. We then visited three ports in New Zealand – Littleton, Christchurch and Auckland; here again the people did all they could to make our visit pleasant. On leaving New Zealand we proceeded through the group of Islands to Yokohama, Japan, arriving there April 6th, 1870. In those days the Japanese had an intense dislike for all foreigners, and even in Yokohama one had to be careful not to offend any of the Japanese. When we visited Tokyo, the capital (then called Yeddo), we had to have an escort of cavalry, as the natives were unreliable.
Two Japanese naval cadets were appointed to two ships in the squadron; and with these two junior officers, began, in 1870, the Japanese modern Navy. After three months, one of them committed harikari, as he was so depressed; and the other, Itski by name, had just learned enough English to say “Damn fool.” Itski was with me afterwards in the Hercules, and I shall therefore have something to say of him again.
From Japan we went to British Columbia, and then on to Honolulu and Valparaiso, and at each of these places a great deal of civility was shown to us. At Honolulu they gave a dance and, as we were all strangers, the inhabitants as well as ourselves had our names written on our backs. From Valparaiso we went round the Horn in a real gale of wind; it was blowing very hard with a tremendous sea running, Unfortunately, we had to bury one of our men at sea off the Horn: a bandsman, and one of the best clarinet players I have ever heard, but his fault was drink. After rounding the Horn, we went to Bahia and then home to Plymouth, but before arriving there we heard, by signal from a merchant vessel, that war had been started between France and Germany. On the whole, the cruise was very successful. Sir Geoffrey Hornby was very keen to save coal, consequently we almost always sailed, which was really very good practice for every one. With the same object he allowed us only two gallons of water a day for everything (drinking, cooking, and washing). Our Captain was very strict about this order and had all the taps of the men’s drinking tanks locked; naturally we were very short of water and often could not have a drink when we wanted it. I considered then, and do still, that in order to save the small amount of coal used by distilling, it was a very unnecessary hardship, especially in hot weather.
The messing in the gunroom as a rule was none too good, and I think that ours was exceptionally bad. We were generally on ship’s food, namely, salt beef, bacon, and biscuits, with perhaps a fresh joint twice a week. When this joint was put on the table there was a regular scramble for it, and after the first helping, we used to bag it in turn to try and get a second helping. I remember one midshipman thought it was his turn to have the mutton-bone as second helping, but another officer thought it was his. The midshipman got hold of it and let this officer have it over the head; the result was a general fight, and eventually the whole thing came before the Captain. We were always so hungry that after the mutton-bone had been scraped clean, we broke it in two to get the marrow out. We reached Plymouth in December, 1870, and I was glad to finish up a commission where the life in the Liffey gunroom was somewhat like that of Marryat days.
After a few weeks’ leave, I was appointed to the Hercules as a sub-lieutenant. She was the latest ironclad commanded by Lord Gilford (afterwards the Earl of Clanwilliam), and the Commander was Lord Walter Kerr. Whilst on leave I was riding on the Portsdown Hills, my horse fell on me and broke my leg. I was laid up for some time and saw many of the gunroom officers who belonged to the Hercules. They evidently did not like the ship and advised me to get out of the appointment. After my experiences of serving with two Captains who, though strict, were very just, I concluded that the two qualities were generally found together; so I went, on crutches, to see Lord Gilford, and asked him to keep my appointment open, which he very kindly did. When I joined there were several sub-lieutenants and senior midshipmen who became great friends of mine – in fact, they were some of the best friends in my life: Jack Pipon, Sally Sawle, Smut Henderson, and, later in the commission, Hugh Gough. Jack Pipon died as a Captain, Smut Henderson was promoted to Admiral, but never served as such, and died young. Hugh Gough retired early and lived to nearly eighty. Sawle (the present Sir Charles Graves-Sawle, Bart.) was promoted to Admiral, but not employed.
On joining, I was most agreeably surprised at the splendid tone of the ship; the Captain and officers were all that one could wish for. The gunroom was on the main deck, with two big ports, plenty of room and most comfortable. The mess was good, and I used to chaff the other gunroom officers and tell them that they were living like gentlemen in comparison with the life I had in the Liffey.
An amusing incident happened one afternoon. The ship lay alongside the breakwater at Gibraltar. I was told off to keep the afternoon watch, as a lieutenant had gone sick. When Lord Clanwilliam came on deck, he looked me up and down and said to the Commander, “What is this officer doing here?” Being told, he replied, “See that he is not left in charge of the middle watch.” Inwardly, I said, “Thank God!” as, considering the number of watches I had already kept, I was not keen to keep any more. Lord Clanwilliam befriended me in many ways and lived long enough for me to be able to tell him this episode; we always laughed over it together. The Hercules belonged to the Channel Squadron; at that time there were only five ironclads and one despatch vessel in the squadron, with two Admirals –which shows how much the Navy had been reduced.
I was very happy in this ship, but nothing very startling happened. After I had been there only a few months I was appointed to the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, commanded by Prince Leiningen. This was a great stroke of luck, and my Father was told I owed it to my good examination on passing for lieutenant. H.S.H. Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar brought my name before Her Majesty. The sub-lieutenants at that time were generally running four or five years before being promoted; I was promoted at two and half years and passed over more than two hundred sub-lieutenants senior to me.
The work on board the Victoria and Albert was pleasant enough. We generally lay at Cowes while Queen Victoria was at Osborne. We had one interesting trip, being sent to Antwerp to bring over the Crown Prince and Princess of Germany, with their family. It was then I made the acquaintance of the ex-Kaiser, he was a boy of about twelve years and full of life.
Whilst we were at Antwerp waiting for the German Royal Family, I went with a fellow-officer, named Lillingston, to Spa for four days. He was very well off and gave two picnics, driving the guests to their destination in a coach-and-four. We played roulette a good deal and were fortunate enough to win sufficient to pay the hotel bill and return with £20 more apiece than we started with.
Whilst we were at Spa, we bought some explosive cigars, and, knowing that our Staff Commander was fond of cigars and fancied he knew all about them, I offered him one, which he took. It went off, at a most inopportune moment, just as he was saying to one of the German entourage that we were always having a little playful badinage. It was a very foolish thing to do and there was a deuce of a row, but the Commander Hugh Campbell, smoothed it down, took the Staff Commander, Tim Sullivan, for a walk and the incident was over. Luckily for me, I think Prince Leiningen rather enjoyed the episode, though he did not tell me so.
I was promoted to lieutenant in August, 1871. At that time lieutenants just promoted were generally three or four years on half pay before getting a ship, and the half pay was 4s. a day at the average age of 22. Luckily, Lord Clanwilliam, who was just about to turn over the command of the Hercules to Captain William Dowell, recommended me to fill a vacancy there was for lieutenant, and I was duly appointed after having been only four months on half pay. The Commander was Harry Rawson. Nothing very interesting happened from a service point of view. The Fleet cruised; about a good deal round the coast of Great Britain, Gibraltar, Lisbon, Vigo, Arosa Bay, Madeira, etc. When at anchor at the latter place, the Northumberland anchored ahead, drifted down on top of us on Christmas morning at about 3.30 a.m. Our ram made a large hole under the water-line, and the squadron had to go to Gibraltar immediately to dock the Northumberland. The officer of the middle watch, after relieving the deck at midnight, nearly always went below again to sleep; he did so on this occasion, but waking up about 3.30 a.m., came on deck just as the forecastle sentry, hailed that a ship was drifting down on top of us. He immediately ordered the cooks of the messes, who were on deck preparing their Christmas dinners, to veer-cable, and the Captain commended him for his prompt action.
Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby was in command of the squadron called the Channel Fleet: this consisted of only five, and often four, battleships with one despatch vessel. The Admiral was rather a martinet; he had a row with me about station keeping which was very disagreeable, but my Captain backed me up, so the Admiral gave way, and was always very good to me afterwards.
Sir Geoffrey Hornby took the Channel Fleet to Trondhjem, in order to be present and show the Flag on the great occasion of the King of Sweden’s Coronation as King of Norway when the Kingdoms were amalgamated. It was a magnificent ceremony and took place in the old Cathedral. I was not present, for I and two of my pals went off on a fishing expedition. As the country folk were all in the town to see the ceremony, we could fish where we liked and had very good sport. The Admiral heard of it and went off the next day, and was warned off for poaching!
We frequently went to Lisbon and used to have some quite good snipe-shooting, going up the river and remaining away for a couple of days.
The opera at Lisbon was always very good and cheap. We used to play roulette – on the quiet, as the Admiral had put the roulette rooms out of bounds. One night it was blowing so hard that we couldn’t go off to the ship, so we went back to the roulette rooms, and as the croupiers had to close at 1 a.m., three of us took on the bank and won £5 from the croupiers. They gave us supper, and at 3 a.m. we went to sleep on the roulette table.
We had a good lot in the Hercules, both officers and men, and every one was very proud of the ship. We used to do a great deal of boat-pulling, and had a first-class officer’s crew, so much so that no other ship would enter against us, and we won three or four prizes in the regattas round the coast.
When the Fleet was at Plymouth, my friend Gough and I went to the Plymouth Races and there met Sally Sawle, who had won some money; he asked us to dine with him at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and go on to the theatre. When in the theatre there was a row. The Plymouth police were always very officious, and they tried to throw out two lieutenants, who resisted; this created a disturbance, and all those in the pit joined in against the naval officers. The performance was stopped and the police took up eight lieutenants, amongst them Gough and myself; it was a big affair, and even the London papers had leading articles on the fracas. We expected to be tried by court martial, but, luckily for us, the renowned Sir Harry Keppel was the Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth and his Flag-Lieutenant was Charlie Beresford, so when our Captain went to see the Commander-in-Chief to ask him whether we were to be tried by court martial or not, the Admiral said: “Certainly not; I am only too glad to think there is a naval officer left who will hit a bobby!” Shortly before this, the Commander-in-Chief and Charlie Beresford, returning from a dinner in the country, had lifted the turnpike gate off its hinges and taken it into the dockyard.
We had a curious old Scotch doctor, Lowry John Monteith; and a paymaster called Scafe, who was really quite a sensible, man, but he and the doctor hated each other. Eventually, Scafe reported the doctor to the Commander for glaring at him across the dinner-table; they insisted on having this trifling affair brought before the Captain. He saw them on the quarterdeck and, after hearing them, said: “Well gentlemen, if you cannot agree when you sit on opposite sides of the table, you had better sit on the same side, and then you will not see each other.” Truly the judgment of Solomon.
The Japanese officer, Itski, referred to before, was in the gunroom mess and they ragged him a good deal. One day, at tea, he threw a cup of tea at the midshipman who was annoying him, so Itski was put into the wardroom mess. We found him very amusing and agreeable. On another occasion he said he had something wrong inside, so we administered a seidlitz powder in separate parts, and when they began to fizz inside him he thought his last day had come.
I had decided to specialize as gunnery lieutenant. The candidates selected had to pass a stiff entrance examination, consisting of mathematics, science, etc.; the course was at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, which had only just started for the general education of all naval officers (junior and senior). I used to work up the subjects of the examination both in night watches and in the daytime, and our excellent Naval Instructor, my sterling friend Clarke, was most kind in helping me. Owing to this I came out top of the qualifying gunnery officers. The Hercules paid off in 1874, and I was then waiting to go to the College. In the meantime, I was offered two ships, one the Royal Yacht, Osborne, and the other a gunboat of which I would have been first lieutenant; I refused them both, as I wanted to specialize in gunnery.
I joined the Royal Naval College in September and found everything very well run. Sir Astley Cooper-Key was the Admiral in charge, and he was afterwards a staunch friend to me on every occasion. The Captain was Hugh Campbell, also a charming man who had been Commander, of the Yacht, when I was there.
The studies were admirably carried out and were very interesting. I found my previous work very helpful, and I generally kept my place in the front rank. We had also time for games, and beat practically all the football clubs against whom we played. I always played forward and was asked to play for England, but I declined for various reasons. At that time the Rugby game was a very rough one. I had practically; been selected to go to the Arctic, so did not wish to lose my chance of going, by being injured. In the last match I played, against St. Thomas’s Hospital, one of the medical students was killed. When the gunnery course was more than half over, the Government decided to send an expedition to the Arctic, its main object being to discover the North Pole. My friend Markham had previously asked me if I would join such an expedition were I selected. As at that time there was practically nothing going on in the Navy, I had accepted. Volunteers were asked for; the result was that two hundred lieutenants applied for eight vacancies. The Admiral in charge of the College advised me not to go, as he thought I should do much better if I continued my examinations and qualified as a gunnery lieutenant. I was very sorry to give up the gunnery, as I had worked hard and up to that date was well in the running for the £100 prize given to the first officer in the final examination. However, I felt that the Expedition to the Arctic was an experience not to be missed.
The Government expedition consisted of two ships, the Alert and the Discovery. We commissioned in May, 1875. Sir George Nares was selected as Captain and Markham as the Commander of the Alert. Captain Stevenson commanded the Discovery and he took Beaumont as first lieutenant. The Discovery was to go as link and reserve ship while the Alert pressed on to the North Pole.
Sir George Nares asked me to do navigating officer of the Alert, and also to take up the astronomical observations in addition to my other work. For the astronomy we had different instruments, such as altazimuths, transits, etc. Each officer had to take up one of the sciences. Captain Feilden was selected as the naturalist of the expedition. The only other special men we had were three ice quartermasters who had had experience in the whalers, they came from the north of Scotland. We had a great send off from Portsmouth, thousands of people assembling to see these two ships start for the Arctic, provisioned with the probability of having to stay there three years. We had a very boisterous passage across the Atlantic, but reached Disco, the Danish Settlement in Greenland, on July 6th, 1875. There we met the Valorous, which had been sent out to fill us up with fresh provisions and coal before going farther north. We took on board two Eskimos, and sixty Eskimo dogs to draw the dog-sleighs. No sooner were the dogs on board than they began to fight, a fight which lasted about two days. These dogs were collected from different places, and it is their nature to fight until one is acknowledged by the pack to be King. Once proclaimed King, no other dog will fight him; in fact, when the King approaches another dog, it rolls over on its back and howls, and the King puts his paw over him as much as to say, “Move, if you dare!” The same thing happens when the dogs are selected for dog teams. There are generally eight in each team, and they fight for a King and then keep quiet. When driving the dogs, if you hit the King he will jump over each dog in turn and bite him. As they were driven abreast, the traces became much entangled, and on a cold day it was difficult to clear them.
Originally, it was not intended to take any chaplains, but Parliament made a fuss about it, so one was appointed to each ship, and, for reasons which I don’t know, instead of sending naval chaplains they selected two civilian clergymen. In the Alert, we had a man called Pullen, who had been Minor Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and had written a pamphlet called “Dame Europa’s School,” a skit on Germany; it went through thousands of editions and was very popular. He was the last person that ought to have been sent with us; he had never been at sea in his life; the first things he missed were the Times and his fresh egg, and he always thought that the ship was going to turn over.
The route we took was by Smith Sound, as the last American explorer, Kane, had reported land up to 84° north latitude. He thought the land was trending northwards and at that time, until ships were strengthened tremendously to stand the ice, it was impossible to go away from land for fear of getting crushed. On our way north we had various struggles to get through the ice, and once or twice we only just escaped being crushed.
We left the Discovery at Discovery Bay, latitude 81° 43’ N. and proceeded north, with half a gale of wind blowing behind us, in very thick weather. When we reached 82° 27’ 30” north latitude, and thought we were going on to higher latitudes, the weather cleared up, the wind dropped. The Captain reported from the crow’s nest that the land was extending to the north-west, and that we were up against heavy, old floe-ice which had been blown off the shore by the gale of wind. As the wind fell, the ice-field closed up, and, for fear of being crushed, we had to run for protection. This we found behind some floe bergs, which had been forced up on the shore, after being broken off from the heavy ice-floes, some of which were 200 ft. thick. We got behind the bergs only just in time, as a tremendous pack of ice, extending north as far as you could see, came in and scrunched up against our protecting bergs. Luckily for us, the bergs withstood the pressure.
Captain Nares tried several times to get the ship out of the position we were in, and go farther south to a safer one, as he thought our situation very dangerous, but we failed in every attempt, as there was no wind to blow the pack-ice to the north and it kept sweeping round with the tides, grinding up against the bergs which protected us. Having realized that we could not get out, we set to work to secure the ship in her present position, which was 82° 27’ 20” north latitude, at that time the highest latitude that any one had ever reached. We took down all the top hamper, masts, sails, etc., spread double awnings and took all necessary precautions to prevent the cold air entering the ship. The ice quartermasters were very depressed at our position, and they used to say, “Mark my words, ye’ll ne’er get out of this place again!”
After surveying the coast for two or three days, it was evident that, even in the summer, we could not take the ship any farther north or north-west; as the coast-line trended away to the north-west and due north, there was nothing but this huge sea of ice. It therefore followed that our only chance of reaching the North Pole was to take to sledging; consequently, the first thing to do was to send out sledging parties and place depots of provisions on the highest point of land to the north-west. Three sledges started out in the autumn for this purpose, commanded by Markham, Lieutenant Parr, and myself. We had to sledge over the snow on the land and cross any of the deep bays on ice which had been newly formed, with snow on top of them. The sledging was very hard work; the weights, consisting of the tents and provisions, had to be kept down as low as possible; even then, the officer and each of the seven men in every sledge crew, was dragging about 200 lb. per man on starting, and this weight increased owing to the tents becoming saturated with slush. Life, when sledging, was a bit rough; the tent was put up at night on the snow, and the eight men slept inside it in sleeping-bags, head and tail, like sardines in a box. The officer always slept at the head, and the cook of the day at the door end. The outside billets were the cold ones, and those occupying them had frequently to turn round during the night in order to warm themselves. The officer, who always slept on the outside, had the worst of it. First thing in the morning the cook lighted the cooker, which was heated by stearine, and then he had to brush down the condensation, consisting of icicles and frozen snow, from the inside of the tent. To do this he had to stand on the other occupants, as there was no room to put a foot between us. He then woke us up and we proceeded to put on our foot flannel-wrappers and canvas boots. This was not altogether an agreeable process, as our wrappers and boots were always wet through the evening before, and we had to put them into our sleeping-bags to keep them from freezing during the night. We then sat up in our bags and had for breakfast, a pint of cocoa and some biscuits, a smoke, then turned out, packed the sledge, and off we went. We did about four hours before halting for lunch, which consisted of four ounces of frozen bacon and a pint of tea. We had to thaw the bacon in the tea before we could get our teeth into it, and drink our tea pretty smartly, otherwise our lips stuck to the tin cup. The halt for lunch generally lasted about two hours, because it took so long to bring melted snow to the boil, and all the time we were waiting we had to keep on the move, as the temperature was frequently minus 10° Fahrenheit. After luncheon we did another four hours and then halted, selected a place for camping, and put up our tents. When they were up we got into our sleeping-bags, took off our boots and wrappers and had our evening meal, consisting of pemmican and a tot of rum. After that we had a smoke, a sing-song, and told yarns.
Our sufferings from thirst, while sledging, were almost beyond belief. Before starting in the morning, the waterbottles were filled with water, and the men, as a rule, had finished theirs before the end of an hour; then they would take up the snow and let it thaw in their mouths; this was very bad indeed, as it gave them cramp in the stomach. It was very difficult to prevent them eating snow, in fact I was never able to do so. Having read about the thirst, I determined to resist it, and found that after two days I didn’t feel at all thirsty, and used to give out my bottle of water amongst the crew.
Sledging in the autumn was most trying. The light was going, and on this occasion we had continuous snow which detained us so much that we had to go on half rations. The snow was so deep we could hardly drag our legs through it. The temperature also fell very low, at one time to -22° Fahrenheit! and a good many of us were badly frost-bitten, nearly all in the toes. We were three weeks away, and when we returned from sledging the first thing we did was to have a good meal and then a sleep, even before washing. The doctor reported in the morning after our return that several men had been badly frost-bitten. I knew that I had been touched, but I was not going to show it to the doctor. However, he insisted, and the result was he told me that I was to remain in my bunk in my cabin, as both my big toes were frost-bitten – one of them badly. After a few days the left toe had to be amputated below the first joint. I don’t know why, the doctors would not give me an anaesthetic; so I suffered a great deal, as it is a most painful operation. The doctors had to have two nips at it and I cursed them pretty freely. There were three other men who lost their toes. Want of fresh food and vegetables caused the wounds to be very slow in healing, and I was laid up for nearly five months, and lived in candle and lamp light all that time. The senior doctor we had was a regular old woman; he used to come to my cabin every night with some tinned milk mixed with egg-powder, and then proceed to relate to me the different diseases I might get, amongst them being tetanus; not very cheerful for me, but luckily I was young and did not take him at all seriously. I had plenty to do during these five months, what with the navigation work, Polar charts to be made, and working out the astronomical observations; the transits and moon culminating stars are very long calculations. Lieutenant Parr used to take the observations and I worked them out. Although there were 142 days during which time the sun never rose above the horizon, we passed the winter quite cheerily and most of us had plenty to do taking observations in different scientific subjects, and recording them. At Christmas, on birthdays and other festivals, we used to have a dinner-party; the menus were made out by the mess caterer. This is a sample:
A la Julienne soup is the potage we favour,
And soles fried au naturel serve us for fish.
We have cutlets and green peas of elegant flavour –
Beef garnished with mushrooms – a true English dish.
Then a mountain of beef from our cold Greenland valleys,
Overshadowing proudly boiled mutton hard by;
Till our appetite, waning, just playfully dallies
With a small slice of ham – then gives in with a sigh.
For lo! a real British plum-pudding doth greet us,
And a crest of bright holly adorns its bold brow;
While the choicest mince-pies are yet waiting to meet us;
Alas! are we equal to meeting them now?
So we drink to our Queen; and we drink to the Maiden.
The Wife, or the Mother, that holds us most dear;
And may we and our Consort sail home richly laden
With the spoils of success, ’ere December next year.
I am afraid they read a good deal better than they were. We also had lectures and musical entertainments. Pullen was very helpful with our amusements. He wrote a play which we acted. As well as writing, he preached very good sermons, but was much disappointed that there was little prospect of our reaching the North Pole, and his depressed condition at times caused a good deal of anxiety. In fact, he ought never to have been sent on such an expedition, he was too sensitive and childlike. For example, he once said he never knew he was bald until a girl told him; as he was completely so, we could not quite believe him, and naturally he was much chaffed.
Our senior doctor, too, was quite unsuitable for his post. He said, several times, “I see one or two of you will go off your heads.” Unfortunately, the effects of the scurvy and the inquiry when we arrived home were too much for him: he took to drink and did not live long after our return.
Our second doctor, Moss, was a very clever man and a good sportsman. He was very good with the microscope and also at drawing and painting. He published a book called Shores of the Polar Seas; it contained many coloured views of interest, with a very short account of the expedition. He was in constant terror of being drowned, and when there was any chance of the ship being crushed, he was always the first to be ready to get out on the floe. After our return, he was appointed to the Atalanta, a training ship for boys, which went to the North American Station and was never heard of again. It was curious that she and the Euridyce were the last two sailing ships of the British Navy to go to sea, and that they were both lost.
Nearly all former Arctic expeditions had found seals and Polar bears which provided them with fresh food. The former especially, though not pleasant to eat, were very valuable in sustaining the strength of men and assisting to keep off scurvy. Unfortunately, we did not find either seals or bears, the reason being that the ice round about us was so thick that seals could not get through it to come up for fresh air and rest; the Polar bears who feed on the seals naturally did not come where they musk ox and hares; we also saw some geese, ducks, and owls that came up to the north to breed. We killed a certain number of them and were exceedingly glad to have the fresh food. I brought home specimens of the musk ox and snowy owl.
It was astonishing what the musk ox and the hares found to live on, as the ground seemed quite bare, though in the late spring and summer, on looking very closely, one could detect a certain amount of dwarf willow and saxifrage.
In the autumn we tried to communicate with the Discovery, but the snow was so thick it was impossible to make any headway with a sledge, so they did not know where we were until late in the spring. In the early spring, a dog-sledge was sent with Lieutenants Rawson, Egerton, and the Eskimo to try and communicate with the Discovery; they hadn’t gone very far when they ran into a gale of wind. The Eskimo gave in from the cold, which was minus 20° or 52° of frost, and they had to build a snow-house and were detained there for thirty-six hours. The Eskimo was so badly frost-bitten that they determined to return to the ship. They made the Eskimo walk a certain distance, but eventually he had to be carried on the sledge, and they had to do what they could to keep him warm by wrapping him in flannel wrappers which were first warmed by putting them on their own bodies. We always carried these flannel wrappers and often found them very useful. When they reached the ship he was frost-bitten on every part of the body, and eventually had to have both feet amputated and died shortly afterwards.
Sir George Nares determined that we must make an attempt in the spring to reach the North Pole by sledging directly north across the ice, although he knew that it was not possible to get very far. Commander Markham and Lieutenant Parr were selected to command the two sledge parties, and they started off with the sledges loaded with two boats which were needed to get across the gaps in the lanes of water round the floe; they had a very hard time, and eventually, after working ten hours a day and being absent two months, the highest latitude reached was 83° 20’ 26”, 399 miles from the North Pole. Soon after leaving the Alert, the men began to complain of having pains in the ankles and legs, and it was not realized by Markham that this was really scurvy. They had a book of medical instructions from the doctor, but not a word about scurvy. At last, Markham decided to return, and they had a very strenuous time. When within twenty miles of the ship, Lieutenant Parr came in to say that they could not get any farther as all the men, with two exceptions, were down with scurvy and could not pull. By that time I had recovered from my frost-bite, and Doctor Moss and I were immediately despatched to their assistance with a dog-sledge, carrying medical comforts and lime-juice. By working hard for sixteen hours, we arrived and found Markham and four men pulling at one sledge, all the others simply tottering along as best they could. The evening before they had buried one of the crew on the floe; who died from scurvy. This man, named Porter, a marine artilleryman, was one of the finest men we had in the crew. After a good deal of trouble Markham and his party .arrived back. The men were all laid up with scurvy and frostbites for many weeks. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldrich, who had been sent with a sledge to survey the land as far as he could get to the north-west, had not arrived back to his date, and I was sent again with a dog-sledge to try and find him. After a day and a half, I picked him up, and never was any one more delighted to see me, as his expedition was running out of provisions, most of his men were down with scurvy, and the snow being terribly heavy, they were making little or no progress. I brought some of them back on the dog-sledge; it was very hard work, because the snow was so very deep and had thawed away close to the ice, so that we sank into the snow, and had great difficulty in getting our legs out again. In the end we had to crawl on our hands and knees, so we did not get along very fast.
It was evident that we could not ever reach the North Pole under the existing conditions, and Sir George Nares decided to return home. After several attempts, and by means of blowing up some of the ice, we got out of winter quarters, when there was a strong wind blowing from the south, and away we went. When halfway down Smith Sound, we were pushed on shore by one of these floe bergs, which also got aground, so we had to set to work and dig away from the floe berg until it floated again and we were able to get the ship off. While the ship was there, some of us made an excursion inland and found a lake where there were any numbers of geese, but we could not approach them because they went swimming round the lake and through the passages in the ice. The next day we took our Eskimo with his kayak and lay in ambush, while he chased the geese to us. After firing the first volley into them they did not fly away, and we found they were moulting. We killed three hundred geese, which were very welcome, as we had not had any fresh food for a long time.
Eventually we made our way down to Littleton Island, at the entrance to Smith Sound, where we received our mail and then went on south, putting into Upernivik in Greenland; there we found that a relief ship, the Pandora, commanded by Captain Young, had been sent to find out what we were doing. He touched at Littleton Island, waited there a long time until he thought that there was no chance of our coming south that season, and then went to Upernivik, told the Danes there that there was no chance of our getting out, and went home. We made our way through the ice, and were more than halfway across the Atlantic when we sighted a sail, and curiously enough, it turned out to be the Pandora. We put in at Valencia, where the people were very kind and there was a good deal of chaff. Markham, who had a very small hand, said he would marry any of the girls who could get on a wedding-ring which had been made from a sovereign by our armourer, they all tried, but none of them succeeded. Several of these rings were made out of sovereigns in latitude 82° 27’ 30” N.
On arriving at Plymouth we were so short of coal that we were cutting up our spare rudder and passing it down to the stokehold in order to keep up steam. After taking in coal we went on to Portsmouth and the ships were paid off. Captain Nares was made a K.C.B., Captain Stephenson, of the Discovery, was given a C.B. Commander Markham was promoted to Captain. The first lieutenants Aldrich and Beaumont were promoted to Commanders, and so was Lieutenant Parr as a special case.
The nation generally gave us a great welcome on our return home. The Lord Mayor invited us to a banquet, as did Trinity House and others, and we were feted for about three weeks. An inquiry was held into the cause of the scurvy. In my opinion, it was want of fresh food. Vegetables alone will not keep off scurvy, and, of course, we had not even vegetables. Personally, I always took my daily allowance of lime-juice, but even so had incipient scurvy, of which the symptoms – swelling and discoloration round the ankles – did not disappear until I had fresh food in the shape of musk ox. Although the expedition failed in its main objective, that of reaching the North Pole, we succeeded in getting to 83° 20’ 25” N, which was then the highest northern latitude ever reached. We also made many interesting and valuable surveys, meteorological and astronomical observations.
Towards the end of 1876, I was asked by the Commander of the Vernon (Torpedo School), Commander A. K. Wilson (afterwards Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson), if I cared to join the School with a view to taking charge of the instruction in the Whitehead Torpedo, and later to have command of the Vesuvius, a vessel that had been specially built to discharge Whitehead Torpedoes from a submerged tube right ahead. I accepted this offer after consulting the second Sea Lord, Sir Geoffrey Hornby.
The Torpedo School had only recently started and there were, at that time, no special torpedo lieutenants. After joining I was given two hours’ instruction in the Whitehead Torpedo, and was then told I had to take a class in forty-eight hours. The class consisted of Lord Charles Beresford, Lieutenant Payne-Gallwey, and two engineer officers. We had only just adopted the Whitehead Torpedo as a weapon of warfare, and it was then in its simplest form and consisted of 16-in. torpedoes with a single propeller. The first improvement was the adoption of twin screws, and this not only increased the speed from nine to twelve knots, but also gave the torpedo a larger range of action, namely, 1,200 instead of 800 yards. It was not long before all sorts of improvements came in, bringing, naturally, more complications, and at the present time, 1929, I think the inventor would hardly recognize his own child, except, of course, that the principle is the same. I wrote the original Manual on Whitehead Torpedoes, and for this purpose I had two draughtsmen who did all the necessary drawings under my directions.
The invention of the Whitehead Torpedo was brought about through an Austrian Lieutenant, Count Lupus, taking a model to John Whitehead, who was then a small shipbuilder and engineer at Fiume. This model was most crude; it had no means of propulsion and there was no mechanism to keep it at an even depth. Mr. Whitehead was really the inventor of the torpedo, Count Lupus had only the idea of a torpedo, being propelled below the water, carrying a charge which would explode on striking a ship. Mr. Whitehead thought this practical, and was much assisted in arriving at the depth-keeping gear by the clearness of the water at Fiume, where nearly everything on the bottom of the sea can be seen distinctly ten fathoms down. The invention had to be offered first to the Austrians and then to the British for a certain sum of money, on condition that it should be kept absolutely secret. As far as I can remember, we paid £12,000 for it with the right of manufacturing and the condition of secrecy. When I took up the instruction, nobody but myself was allowed to see or work on the balance chamber, where the depth mechanism was fitted so I had to take it to pieces, clean, adjust, and put it together vie again. After being some time in the School I had virtually turned myself into an engineer. The Commander would not allow me to have any proper mechanicians and I had only the old armourers. The Commander’s idea was that the more breakdowns we had the more we should learn. In my opinion this was not a good principle to work on with machinery of such delicate nature.
At the end of a few months, I was given command of the Vesuvius, replacing a post captain, and before many, months had passed the Admiralty brought out regulations that lieutenants who specialized in torpedoes should receive extra pay; consequently, four lieutenants who were then instructors in the School, including myself, were all given first-class certificates. I remained in the Torpedo School for nearly three years and instructed hundreds of officers of all ranks, executive and engineer officers, in addition to which I had to carry out numerous experiments and trials with new models of the Whitehead Torpedo.
I served under two Captains, Arthur and Gordon, and found them always very pleasant to work with. Towards the end of my service there, the submerged torpedo on the broadside was coming to the front; it had originally started in the Acheron, later on I will give further information on this subject. In 1878, whilst I was at the Torpedo School, I married Kinbarra Swene Marrow. Towards the end of my time, I was surprised to receive a letter from Admiral Lord Clanwilliam, asking me if I would go as first torpedo lieutenant of his Flagship, the Inconstant, one of the ships to form a new Flying Squadron. I went at once to my Captain and told him. He said: “Oh, I do not think it is worth while your going, as the First Sea Lord told me you were to be promoted at the end of the year.” That meant in about two months’ time – but I thought that it would be better for me to go to sea. He saw the First Sea Lord about it, and the decision was that I should go. It was curious that another of my mess-mates was trying hard for this appointment, and told me that he thought he was going to get it – in fact, when he last spoke to me, he was still certain about it. I had to tell him that I had just received a letter offering me the appointment.
The Inconstant commissioned at Portsmouth on August 24th, 1880. The Captain was Penrose Fitzgerald, generally known as “Ruff,” and had been first lieutenant with me when I was in the Hercules. Parr was the Commander. We had started together in the Britannia as naval cadets, served in the Victoria for three years, then the Alert, and now again the Inconstant; when I was promoted to Commander he was four years senior to me, but I was promoted to Captain before him – such are the chances of naval promotion. Prince Louis of Battenberg and the renowned Percy Scott were two of the lieutenants. We had a very young crew, consisting chiefly of ordinary seamen and boys, the idea being to instruct them in the art of seamanship. At that time many of the senior officers considered that the best way to train the sailor was to teach him seamanship. My early service was in ships with sails, therefore I knew more about the art of seamanship than anything else, but in my opinion the time had come when seamanship was not really necessary for the men who manned our modern ships.
The squadron consisted of the Inconstant, Bacchante, Cleopatra, Tourmaline, and Garnet. Lord Charles Scott commanded the Bacchante and he had T.R.H. Prince Edward and Prince George (George V) as midshipmen on board. The cruise was Lisbon, St. Vincent, Monte Video, Falklands, and through the Straits of Magellan to Australia.
We had the usual ceremony of crossing the line. Neptune came aboard and all those who had not crossed before were shaved; amongst others were the two Princes and Prince Louis of Battenberg. I was acting as one of the bears – it was amusing to note the way in which the different individuals took the shaving and ducking.
We had quite a pleasant cruise to the Falkland Islands, touching at Lisbon, St. Vincent, and Monte Video. We were almost always under sail, and arrived at the Falkland Islands, January, 1881. After we had been there twenty-four hours the Admiral received a telegram ordering us to the Cape of Good Hope, so instead of going through the Magellan Straits to the Pacific, we went east; the reason being that British troops had just had a severe reverse at Majuba Hill, and we were ordered there in case of necessity. The Boers had stormed the Hill with great bravery and had driven off the British Force with very severe loss. Amongst those who fell, were General Colley and Commander Romilly of the Flagship, who was in command of the Naval Brigade.
On the way across to the Cape, anticipating that we might have to land, we organized landing parties, and all our attention was taken up with drilling and getting our younger men accustomed to firing off rifles. In case of landing I was to have been in command of the field guns. We duly arrived at Simon’s Bay and remained there for some time, while negotiations were proceeding between our Government and Kruger, President of the Boers. In March, 1881, whilst at Simon’s Bay, I was promoted to Commander, having been only nine and a half years lieutenant, which was very lucky, as lieutenants were running twelve to fourteen years. Being promoted I had to leave the ship and go home; I was very sorry to leave, as I liked the Admiral, Captain, and all the officers, and we pulled well together. The wardroom officers manned the boat that took me on shore, and I really felt sad. I went home in the Pretoria, one of the Union Line, and had a very pleasant passage.
My wife met me at Plymouth and I went on to London, reported myself at the Admiralty, and the First Sea Lord (Admiral Sir Astley Cooper-Key) said he thought I would have gone as second in command of the Cape Flagship, in place of Commander Romilly who had been killed. However, Admiral Richards, Commander-in-Chief, Cape Station, selected another Commander, and Sir Astley Cooper-Key said that I must now go as second in command of a battleship. This was just what I wanted, and he told me the Monarch was to be commissioned by Captain Fairfax in three months, and not to accept an offer I had had from another Captain. Apparently he forgot all about it, because in the end he appointed Commander Hammil to the Monarch, and that was the first and only time, I think, that I lost my temper with the First Sea Lord. I met Admiral Lyons in the Admiralty, who was just going off to the Pacific Station, and I asked him if he would take me, he said that he would have been very glad to have done so, but that he had already selected his Commander.
The First Sea Lord told me he was appointing me to the Polyphemus. She was a ship of 2,400 tons displacement, and should have been commanded by a post-captain, but Sir Astley Cooper-Key said he thought I was the only officer with sufficient knowledge of the Whitehead Torpedo and submerged tubes to command the ship. The Polyphemus was designed from an idea of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis, which was to have vessels specially built to ram with high speed, and low visibility; the submerged torpedo tubes, two on each broadside and one ahead; also many other experimental fittings’ were added.
In order to obtain the invisibility, the Polyphemus had to be very low in the water and thus had only 500 tons of buoyancy, but in case of any of the compartments being filled, twelve weights of 20 tons each were fitted inside a hollow keel; these weights could be dropped, if necessary, either mechanically or by hydraulic pressure. We had a bow and a stern rudder, and experimental boilers of the locomotive type. When at sea, the ship had to be completely closed down and the system of ventilation was experimental, both in supplying air and exhausting it; in fact she was a bunch of tricks from beginning to end, and although it was very interesting, she caused me a great deal of trouble and anxiety.
First of all the locomotive boilers went wrong and then the submerged tubes. The boilers had eventually to be replaced, and the trials of the submerged tubes went on for a very long time. A committee was formed to carry out the experiments. The first experimental broadside submerged tube was fitted in the Acheron, an old wooden ship. In order to keep the torpedo straight in line with the tube, until the tail of the torpedo was clear of the outer end of the tube, a half shield, about 8 ft. long, was fitted outside in line with the tube, and a “T” bracket secured on to the torpedo, which ran in a guide on the inside of the shield; the bracket cleared the outer end of the shield when the tail of the torpedo was clear of the tube. The shield was a half circle, and perforated with a lot of holes to allow the water to have free access to the torpedo when the ship was moving. When the submerged tubes of the Polyphemus were designed, it was thought that the shield was not necessary, and a plain bar was fitted with the groove for carrying the bracket of the torpedo, which slipped out of the bar as soon as the tail was clear of the ship.
The bar having to be put out before firing, the torpedo set up vibrations, and the movement of the bar at the end (about 8 ft. from the ship’s side), at a high speed, was as much as 1 inch; the torpedo on being forced out by compressed air, also set up vibrations of the torpedo and the bar did not synchronize, consequently, the bracket of the torpedo was broken before the tail got clear of the ship’s side, and the torpedo was much damaged.
Two other designs were tried. One of these, proposed by a Mr. Philip Watts (who was afterwards Director of Naval Construction), was fitted in H.M.S. Mersey for trial; an embrasure port was built, the outer part of the tube being 3 or 4 ft. inside from the ship’s side, and the theory was that the water in this embrasure would be quite still, but such was not the case. We discharged two torpedoes from it, with the ship going about twelve knots, and one torpedo broke up into two pieces and the other into three.
Then another design was tried, which was mine, the idea was to push the bar and the torpedo out together and then release the torpedo and cushion the bar. We had quite good results with it, but the experiments with the original design, as altered, were going so well that the committee decided to adhere to it; and that is practically what we use in our ships at the present time. The experiments gave me a great deal of anxious work we were constantly under way and at sea. There was also a good deal of designing to be done, and almost all the arrangements at present in use throughout the Navy for opening, closing, and locking the tubes are of my design.
After commanding the Polyphemus for two years and a half I was appointed Commander of the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, which was commanded by Captain Thomson, and afterwards by Captain Fullerton. At the time of my appointment, the Victoria and Albert was undergoing a very extensive repair, and as the Commander of the Royal Yacht Osborne had just been promoted, I was lent to the Osborne, in command for the time, and had to take the Duchess of Edinburgh and her brother, the Grand Duke Paul, to Kronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg, for the wedding of their brother, the Grand Duke Sergius, to Princess Elizabeth of Hesse.
The Duchess of Edinburgh was very kind. I lunched with her every day, and in the evenings dined and played whist; she arranged that I should be shown over the Forts of Kronstadt. It is practically unknown for any nation to show its forts to a foreigner, but on this occasion the guns of the forts were all manned, and the colonels of artillery and engineers were told off to attend and to show me anything that I wanted to see. I was much surprised, especially as the forts were not at all strong or well-equipped. I had the chance of visiting these forts a second time when I was a naval attaché; I will refer to this later on.
On arrival at Kronstadt, several of the Royal Family came on board in their splendid uniforms, to meet their brother and sister, and after greeting them they embraced an old manservant, who was with us, and kissed him on both cheeks. My officers and I were asked to all the festivities at the Russian Court, namely, the marriage ceremony, the dinner party, consisting of 800 persons (50 of whom were Royalties and dined at a separate table), and also to the ball in the evening, at which only 400 people were present. A marriage in Russia is a very interesting ceremony, especially when it is a Royal one. The Grand Dukes have to hold a crown over the heads of the bride and bridegroom at arms length; as they soon get tired they have to be relieved by others. The whole ceremonial in the Greek Church was very grand, and a great contrast to the Lutheran marriage, which took place afterwards in one of the rooms at the palace. The ball was a magnificent sight, and after midnight – when in Russia, at that time of the year, it is almost quite light – the bride and bridegroom left, accompanied by a regiment of cavalry, mounted on grey horses. At the ball, a good many people came up and spoke to me and amongst them was the Car. Unfortunately, he could not speak English, so addressed me in French, and I am afraid at that time I was not a French scholar; I soon found, however, that knowledge of French was absolutely essential, so when I returned to England I set to work to learn the language, and afterwards passed a preliminary examination for interpreter. Prince and Princess Louis of Battenberg were staying at the Winter Palace, and before dinner we went there to have an aperitif. Prince Louis said, “I shall see you afterwards, but I am afraid I shall not be sitting near you,” thinking that he was going to dine at the Royal table. Apparently (I believe by the influence of the ex-Kaiser), he was not allowed to dine at that table and was allotted a seat as an officer of the Osborne.
On my return from Russia I resumed my duties as Commander of the Victoria and Albert. In the summer this yacht was in attendance at Cowes when the Queen was at Osborne, but in the winter the Alberta was there and the Victoria and Albert was laid up, the officers living on board the old sailing-yacht, Royal George.
H.M. the Queen asked me to dine each year. It was rather a formal entertainment; we were invited at 8 p.m., but the Queen did not appear until 8.45 p.m. The Crown Prince and Princess of Germany, with their three daughters, paid a visit to the Queen at Osborne. The daughters were constantly on board the Victoria and Albert, and I undertook to teach them to row. Most people think the Queen was very Low Church, and kept Sunday very strictly, but she used to ask me and some of the officers to play lawn tennis on Sundays. The Cowes week was always interesting and I saw a good deal of the yacht-racing. During my time in the Yacht, the Queen had her first Jubilee, and the officers presented her with a picture of the Victoria and Albert, which she graciously accepted.
At the end of three years, in 1887, I was promoted to Captain. As a matter of fact, if I had not gone to the Yacht, I should have been promoted before, and I think, on the whole, it was certainly a mistake to have gone there. Although my duties were not very onerous, I had a fair amount to do, as I was retained on the Whitehead Submerged Tube Committee; I was also completing my design for discharging torpedoes, and I worked hard at French; this I never regretted, as I found it very useful, especially as Naval Attaché for Europe, also when I took the Atlantic Fleet to Brest, and when I was on the staff, of President Fallières on his visit to King Edward VII.
A few months after I was promoted, Vice-Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon, V.C., who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, asked me to go with him as Flag-Captain in the Impérieuse. She was the latest type of cruiser, commissioned on March 1st, 1888, and we left Plymouth on March 31st, 1888. The Admiral went out by mail steamer and I took the Impérieuse round the Cape, as she could not go through the Canal on account of her deep draught. The Suez Canal, at that time, could not take a vessel of more than 27-ft. draught, and the Impérieuse drew 30 ft. She was originally designed and fitted with sails, and was then only supposed to carry 400 tons of coal; she was sent to sea to find out whether the sails were any good to her, and the officer in command reported that they were not. So they were taken out, and another 800 tons of coal put in, making 1,200 tons altogether, but this put her down in the water to such an extent that the top of her armour belt, when fully laden, was almost level with the water, even after taking out two of her 6-in. guns to give her more buoyancy.
On the way to China we touched at Madeira and St. Vincent, and went to the Cape of Good Hope, where we arrived on April 30th. At Simon’s Bay, we found the Raleigh, Flagship of Sir Walter Hunt-Grubbe. From the Cape we went to Mauritius and encountered very heavy seas and high winds, the ship rolling a great deal.
At Mauritius the people were exceedingly kind. One of my lieutenants—whose family lived at Mauritius – had arranged several entertainments for us and two or three days’ shooting. The lieutenant and his brother invited me and two of my officers to shoot, and we went out to their house in the country, which they reopened for the time, the family being at their town house. When we sat down to dinner I thought they both had had too much to drink. In the course of conversation I make some remark, and the lieutenant replied, “You old fool, what do you know about it?” This placed me in a very awkward position, as I could not leave the house, there being no conveyance. The next morning they were full of apologies,-and I passed it over, thinking it was a special occasion, but I found out this was not the case. I gave up all further engagements at Mauritius. This officer gave me a great deal of trouble, and eventually I had to have him tried by court martial and he was dismissed from the ship. He was a very good officer when sober, and a pleasant companion.
We then went to Singapore. En route I had secret orders to take possession of Christmas Island; this is an island situated in latitude 10° 31’ S. and longitude 1050 35’ E., and is not far from the Sunda Straits. I took possession in the name of H.M. Queen Victoria. I landed a guard of honour, hoisted the Union Jack, fired a royal salute and left a record, in a tin case, marking the spot with a cairn. The record reads as follows:
“This Island, known as Christmas Island, was taken possession of, in the name of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Ireland, and Empress of India, by Captain William Henry May, commanding Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Impérieuse, on the 6th day of June, 1888.”
The record was left inside the cairn. The island is covered with guano and phosphate deposits and is now being worked by a company, so I suppose it is of some value.
The voyage between Mauritius and Christmas Island gave me a great deal of anxiety, as we had a very heavy steam against a strong south-easterly wind, and I feared we should not have sufficient coal to reach Christmas Island and Singapore. At one time I nearly turned back. We passed the Sunda Straits, after leaving Christmas Island, and arrived at Singapore on June 10th, 1888, with hardly any coal. Theoretically, we should have had plenty, but the very strong winds and the leaky state of the condensers, with the consequent deduction of power obtainable from the boilers, were the chief causes of my great anxiety, especially as there was no means of communicating with any one, being off the track of ordinary vessels.
We remained at Singapore for a few days, coaling and reprovisioning, and I stayed with the Governor, Sir Clementi Smith who was exceedingly kind and insisted on my remaining there the whole time. The quietude of the house and the comparative coolness of it was very enjoyable.
From Singapore we went on to Hongkong, arriving on June 20th, and there we had to have a thorough refit, the worst feature being that the whole of the condensers had to be refitted. In fact, they were in such a condition that if we could have got new condenser tubes at Hongkong, we should have had them fitted there and then. As it was, the Admiral telegraphed to England for the tubes and they were sent out. During the three years I was in that ship we shifted our condenser tubes three times, and even then they were not right.
When we arrived at Hongkong, cholera was rife in the island and there were a great many cases. I am sorry to say there were two cases in the ship, and both men died. We could not trace the cause, except that the men had been ashore. The Commodore, at my request, ordered us away to the north, and we left Hongkong on June 25th. The ship was painted red, as she had got very rusty on the way out, and we had to scrape the side and use red-lead before painting her white again. Forty-eight hours would have put us clear of any more cases, and the time was almost up when the doctor came to me and reported another case; it was a severe one, and the man was buried the next morning at sea. After that we were perfectly free of cholera.
We arrived at Nagasaki on July 25th and were not put in quarantine. We then went through the Shimonoseki Straits into the Inland Sea. We were the deepest draught ship that had ever been through the Straits; luckily I had plenty of steam ready, as the currents are very strong, and at times we had difficulty in steaming against them. The Inland Sea was perfectly calm when we went through. All the thousands of fishing boats, with their sails up, looked most picturesque, and the scenery was magnificent. We went on to Yokohama, where we found the Admiral and he then joined his Flagship. The Fleet was also there, and we left for a cruise round the Northern Islands, making our headquarters Hakodate.
Hakodate Harbour reminds one somewhat of Gibraltar, only it is more sheltered and ships can lie there with greater safety. The scenery and the weather were quite beautiful, and the natives very civil and courteous; they would help us in any way, allowing us to have paper-chases and gallop about over their fields whenever we liked.
The Admiral went each year for a cruise with his Fleet, which consisted of the Impérieuse, three of the C class corvettes, and eight small ships, and we always went round the Northern Islands of Japan, the coast of Siberia, and other places. He was very keen on manoeuvring the Fleet; as the ships were of so many different classes and some so small, it was rather difficult. However, I think it gave all the officers good experience.
We visited Possiette Bay on the Siberian Coast. The Admiral and I went out shooting; it was a hot, oppressive day, heavy walking, and little to shoot. In the evening we had to cross a swamp, and the mosquitoes were something terrible. I really thought that a tired man walking through two or three miles of this marsh would have thrown in his hand and given up. Our bodies were covered with mosquitoes, and my coxswain, wearing the low dress of a seaman, suffered badly; however, the consequences were not very serious. My hands swelled up and I could not appear at dinner that night, for which I was sorry, as some of the Russian military officers came to dine and I should have liked to have met them.
My wife came out for six months, travelling by the Canadian Pacific railway to Vancouver, and on to Yokohama in the steamship Fairy, in May, 1889. She had a stormy crossing and the cargo shifted. They really had a nasty and trying time, were several days late, and I was very glad to see her arrive safely. The Admiral, as was his usual custom after the cruise, went away in the Alacrity, the yacht attached to the Flagship, visiting Pekin and other places on the Station. In fact, he was never in the Flagship for more than about four or five months in the year. The Admiral allowed me to arrange a cruise, so I visited several of the Ports in Japan. My wife used to meet me there, and I was always able to get a few days’ leave and go inland to see some of the interesting places.
In going in to Nagasaki, without the Admiral on board, in 1890, I met the Russian Fleet. The Flagship was called the Admiral Nakimoff, the Admiral’s name was Smith, and the Captain, De Livron. The Admiral Nakimoff had been designed on the same lines as the Impérieuse, and they say that the drawings of the Impérieuse had been stolen by the Russians. I cannot say whether it is true or not, but the Russians sent the Nakimoff out to China as soon as they knew the Impérieuse was going there, and for the first two years the ships were not in harbour together. I went to pay my official call on the Admiral and he was exceedingly pleasant; the Captain asked if he and his officers could come and have a look at the Impérieuse, so I said, “Yes, certainly,” and he duly came and we showed them round. Then I said to Captain De Livron, “I should very much like to see your ship,” and he said, “Yes, I should be delighted,” adding, “bring your officers.” We went, and he outdid me in showing, not only his ship, but also the drawings of the ship; and when I was leaving he said, “You are going to coal to-morrow. I wish you would send all your midshipmen and let them see the ship.” I sent him a photograph of the Impérieuse, and he sent me one of his own ship and the negative as well. In feet, we made great friends, and, when Naval Attaché, I met him again at St. Petersburg. The Nakimoff was better armed and better designed than the Impérieuse, and I immediately reported this to the Admiralty and asked permission to ship the 6-in. guns which had been taken out owing to the deep draught. I never had a quicker reply from the Admiralty than when they telegraphed out: “Ship them.”
A curious incident occurred afterwards. The latest design of Russian cruisers came in to Hongkong, Admiral Korniloff, commanded by Captain Alexieff (afterwards the Admiral who was in command at Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War). I went to pay my usual call, as did our other Captains, Grenfell, Watson, and the others. I asked Captain Alexieff in a casual way if I might see his ship, and he replied, “We have had a very hard steam out and we shall be a fortnight before we are ready to receive anybody.” Captains Grenfell, Watson, and Henderson were very keen to go over the cruiser, but Captain Alexieff would not invite them on board. I never thought anything more of the matter until one day I received a very polite invitation to go to lunch, which of course I accepted; and there Captain Alexieff gave me a very recherché meal, had all his senior officers to meet me, and then took me round the ship and showed me everything as if I was an inspecting Admiral, finishing up by showing me all the drawings of the ship. It all points to the fact that the Russians, in my opinion, are always very suspicious of you until you show your hand (as I did when I showed them the Impérieuse), and then they try to meet you more than half way; this certainly has been my experience on two or three occasions.
On our way north from Hongkong in April, 1890, I put in at Amoy. When we anchored, a Chinaman began to fire at us, but I sent to the Consul and they soon stopped that. The pilot came off and said, “I think that you have anchored quite close to an unknown rock.” I said, “In that case I will shift billet.” So we weighed anchor and shifted to what he thought was a safer anchorage. In the afternoon I went ashore for a walk, and when I came off, the Commander met me at the gangway and said, “We are leaning up against a rock, I have kept everything perfectly quiet, so that when the tide rises, I hope the ship will go over it.” The rock was examined and found to have a sharp ledge about 4 ft. long, the depth of water over it at low-water spring tides being only 21 ft. The position of the rock was fixed and named after the ship. Luckily, we sustained no damage; but if the ship had been exactly over this rock as the tide fell, it would have come 9 ft. through the ship’s bottom.
Our three years being nearly up in December, 1890, we were waiting our relief crew from Hongkong, when the Admiralty ordered me, by telegram, to go home immediately to take up the appointment of Naval Attaché for the whole of Europe. I went home in the Messageries Maritimes Steamer Melbourne, the officers were very kind on board, and I took the opportunity to work up my French. My faithful coxswain, O’Brien, came with me, and we landed at Marseilles and then home overland.
I relieved Captain Domville as Naval Attaché; the Ambassador in Paris at that time was Lord Lytton, he was succeeded by Lord Dufferin; Colonel Reginald Talbot was the Military Attaché. I was attached to all the Maritime Ports of Europe, and used to travel about with a red passport, which was supposed to clear you through all the Customs – and this it did, except when you landed at Dover!
France, at that time, was the country that required most attention. I passed at least four months each year visiting all the Naval ports, Toulon, Brest, Cherbourg, Rochfort, and L’Orient, also all the gun and torpedo factories and private shipbuilding yards. It was all most interesting, and I managed to pick up a good deal of information with regard to the ships that the French were building, the designs of the boilers and guns. I was also able to learn a great deal about the first submarine they were building at Toulon; it was completely enclosed and, of course, no foreigner was allowed to go near her. The forts were more difficult, but I was able to report on most of them, especially those guarding the Goulet at Brest and the Fort des Signaux at Toulon.
In going round the Forts, the French naval officers, with the exception of the prefets maritimes, were not very hospitable. I remember staying at the hotel at Toulon for three weeks, where a great number of the French naval officers lived, and none of them showed me the least hospitality, but the prefets were all most kind and in some cases even cordial; especially the prefet maritime at Brest, and Admiral le Conte de La Jaille, whom I had met before when he was in command of the French China Squadron; he always asked me to lunch and had a large party to meet me, and used to chaff a good deal about my knowledge of the French ports. I asked him if I might see some of the forts – which is never allowed. “Ah!” he said across the luncheon table, “you must ask the military for that,” winking his eye at me, well knowing that I had been right down the Goulet in a fishing boat, taking notes of all the work that they were doing with regard to the forts. I did that three times, and on the last occasion, when I was in a fishing boat with our Military Attaché and Consul, an English steamer, coming in, was on the point of cutting us down: I don’t know how she missed us, but I think it was just her bow wave that pushed the boat away.
The Ambassadors were always kind and I dined with them on several occasions. Lord Dufferin was more than polite, and made you think that you were just the very man that he wished to see. In Paris, I stayed at a little French hotel in the Rue de Lille. I did this chiefly because there I met only French people, and was consequently able to practise my French; it was, at times, very interesting, as I met some of the senators and deputies who discussed political and foreign affairs.
I visited Holland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Russia, and went down through Russia to the Crimea. The Germans would not show me anything—not even destroyers which had been built in England; it really was quite amusing. One thing that all the naval officers were trying to find out was the design of our submerged tube for firing the Whitehead Torpedo, and, when I was at Kiel, a German ship had a submerged tube fitted for trial, designed by Mr. Whitehead, which had been before my Committee and which we put on one side, because there was no means of ejecting the torpedo out of the tube. When I saw the Captain of the ship, the Grieff, I said, “I hear your tube has failed.” He was very angry with me and wanted to know how I had found out. As a matter of fact, they had been trying it in Italy, and they told me there it had foiled.
I visited Berlin, Kiel, and other places in Germany, but could not gather much information as the Germans kept everything very secret. When at Hamburg I received an invitation to dine, by wire from Admiral von der Goltz, to have the honour of meeting the Kaiser, so had to return to Berlin. The Kaiser, the Minister of Marine, and about twenty other German Admirals were present at the dinner. We sat down at half-past six and finished an excellent dinner about eight, then we all adjourned to an ante-room, where we talked and talked until twelve o’clock. The Kaiser tried to draw me out with regard to what manoeuvres we should adopt. I had the honour of sitting next to him at dinner, and he really was quite humorous. One reply he made was very good: he said, “I suppose they are showing you everything that you want to see.” I replied, “Oh no, Your Majesty, they won’t even show me the submerged tube”; and his answer was: “Well, May, they won’t even show it to me.” So of course, I had nothing more to say.
I visited Italy twice and went round all the shipbuilding yards, etc. I found the Italians were much in advance of us with regard to burning oil fuel in their boilers, and I learnt a good deal about their arrangements which was useful to me afterwards. An Italian officer told me that they had been shown the arrangement for discharging torpedoes, fitted in our Mediterranean Flagship. I immediately wrote home urging the Admiralty to make it secret, which was done at once. Before this happened, the French Naval Attaché and an Engineer officer were allowed to go over the Vulcan in dry dock at Portsmouth, and see all the arrangements. By chance I saw the confidential report of the above officers, and to my astonishment they had not discovered the secret.
When in St. Petersburg, my friend De Livron (now an Admiral and Chief Staff Officer) was at the Admiralty, and he arranged that I should be shown anything I wanted to see. I again went round the forts and obtained permission for the Military Attaché to come with me. The guns were again manned, and every facility was given us for seeing the details of the fortifications; they were not at all strong – in fact, the reverse. Between the Military Attaché and myself, we made a very fair plan of the forts which was sent on to the Admiralty. I was allowed to go into their shipbuilding drawing office and take notes of any of the designs of the ships that were then being built, and was given permission to visit their Whitehead Torpedo Factory. When I went there with my permit the officer would not let me in, he said no foreign officer had ever been over this factory before. I said, “Here is the order; from the Commander-in-Chief,” but he would not let me in. On returning to the Commander-in-Chief, he again gave a peremptory order, and I was allowed to go through; but really there was nothing very much to see – nothing, at all events, that we did not know about in the British Navy.
During my visit to St. Petersburg, the death occurred of Grand Duke Paul’s wife, daughter of the King of Greece. I attended the funeral, which took place at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The ceremony lasted two days. The service, which was entirely vocal, was most beautifully rendered by the choirs of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Post Office. At the end of the religious service it was very touching to see the Head of the Russian Church, followed in turn by the Czar, her Father the King of Greece, all the many Grand Dukes, and last of all her husband, take their last farewell before the coffin was closed. The work of a Naval Attaché is very hard, because you have to keep yourself au fait with everything that is going on, such as guns, torpedoes, all classes of ships, boilers, etc. There is not a single question that you have not to know something about and to report on.
Before my time up as Naval Attaché, the Admiralty offered me the position of Director of Torpedoes. Before I finished my time in this appointment, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Station, Sir Michael Culme Seymour’s Flag-Captain, Bridgeman, was invalided; Sir Frederick Richards, the First Sea Lord, proposed that I should fill the vacancy as Flag-Captain and Chief of the Staff, a post which I gladly accepted.
Sir Michael’s Flagship was the Ramillies, supposed to be our finest battleship; the Commander of the ship was Jellicoe, and the lieutenants are now, 1930, all Admirals, and many have been Commanders-in-Chief, such as Arthur Leveson, Alexander Sinclair, Osmond de V. Brock, now Admiral of the Fleet, and Heath, who was the Torpedo Lieutenant. All these officers did very well in the Great War. Admiral Seymour was a delightful man to serve with, sometimes rather brusque and off-hand, but he never meant any thing by it. I went to Malta by mail steamer and reported myself to him at Admiralty House; his first words were, “I thought you were much fatter than you are,” and then turned with more interest to tandem driving; he did not say anything about my duties.
Sir Michael was very good at manoeuvring a fleet by the right-angle movements; he was quite one of the old school and no believer in the modern system of tactics. I continually pressed him to tell me what formation he would probably adopt in an action, and his answer always was, “I shall know what to do when I see the enemy.” I never could get him to discuss the question of battle action; no doubt he would have done well, as he was both quick and practical.
During Sir Michael’s time the first destroyers were sent out to the Mediterranean (six of them under the command of Lieutenant Munday), and the opportunity was taken of exercising them with the fleet. Firing the small guns at targets towed by other ships was started; this was a great innovation and many of the captains did not like it. One captain, in his report, remarked that there would be an accident some day; not a wise remark, as when dealing with war material it is most difficult to avoid accidents. We had several good cruises in the Mediterranean and were often at Lemnos and Salonica. One winter we were at the latter place, as our relations with Turkey were strained, and it was possible that we might have to force the Dardanelles and take the forts. This was all organized and practically ready, but I do not think we should have been successful with the small landing force we had at our disposal.
The Admiral and I took long walks and often went shooting, especially at Salonica. He was keen on all sports for officers and men. When at Malta he challenged me to run 100 yards. I felt sure he would win; and so instead, I challenged him to run 100 yards while I ran 50 yards carrying Captain Robinson, who weighed fourteen stone. I won, and he was quite annoyed; he did not know the result was almost a certainty for me at 50 yards. Riding and golf at Malta were my chief amusements. I started golf, at the age of 45, at Lemnos; and also played in the ditches surrounding the fortifications at Malta.
After paying off at Malta, I was appointed Flag-Captain and Captain of the Depot at Portsmouth, the Commander-in-Chief being Sir Nowell Salmon. The depot at that time consisted of several old wooden ships, and my wife and children lived on board the old three-decker Duke of Wellington. There were several thousand men at the depot, but the discipline was good and they gave no trouble.
At Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee I was appointed to command the naval contingent that lined part of the procession route in London, and also the naval guns that took part in the procession. Previously I gave the men, gun-crews, and bandsmen, a great deal of exercise, marching them constantly long distances to the Portsdown Hills and back; it was lucky this was done, as the gun-crews found it very hard work dragging the guns over the sanded streets (the sand being put down to prevent the horses slipping), but no one fell out. The bluejackets lined the streets opposite the National Gallery. For this service I was awarded the M.V.O.
At the Review of the Fleet to celebrate the Jubilee, I was appointed Chief of the Staff to Sir Nowell Salmon, and had to organize the fleet that assembled at Spithead. It was a very large fleet of all types of ships, destroyers, etc. For this service I was awarded a second M.V.O. I thought this was a mistake, and returned the Order; afterwards I regretted that I had done so.
In August, 1897, I was appointed to command the Gunnery School, H.M.S. Excellent. The work was interesting, and during my tenure of office telescopic sights were introduced. There was a good deal of opposition to them at first, even from the gunnery officers, but eventually this was overcome.
B.L. charges of the Vickers’ design for the 6-inch quick-firing guns were tried and adopted, but in spite of all the trials carried out, there was some trouble through the pads not being properly made. As there was jealousy amongst the other gun designers, the matter was brought before Parliament and I was called upon for an explanation. Luckily I had fired off 240 rounds from the experimental gun without having any “blow-throughs,” and that was considered good enough. The design was adopted and arrangements made to improve the manufacture of the pads. Commanders Christian and Adair were the Commanders, Leveson, First Lieutenant, George Hope, Dampier and Hall (Blinker), Lieutenants on the Staff.
In 1899 I was appointed A.D.C. to Queen Victoria. The Kaiser paid a visit to Her Majesty in that year and I was selected as the naval officer to serve on his staff during his stay in England. At first we were at Windsor, and afterwards at Sandringham, where the Kaiser paid a visit to the Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII). There were two days’ shooting, pheasants and partridges. The Kaiser had four guns and three men to load, he can use only one arm for shooting. Considering this, he shot very well at low birds, but could not manage high birds or driven partridges. The Kaiser remained in England for a fortnight and had to attend numerous functions and entertainments. He said to me, “The one thing I would like, would be to have a victory at sea.” He conferred on me the Order of the Red Eagle, 2nd Class, which Her Majesty allowed me to receive. The German Chamberlain, in presenting the Order to me, said that I must wear it, and cutting the ribbon, tucked the ends into my collar band, but he did it so badly that the Order fell into my soup.
When Her Majesty died at Osborne, in 1901, I was commanded, with two other A.D.Cs., to go to Osborne to be in attendance on the body lying in State. We accompanied the body from Osborne to Portsmouth on board the Royal Yacht Alberta, which vessel was secured to the jetty for the night. I had to keep the middle watch, and during that time King Edward and the Kaiser came to show their respect to her late Majesty. I went up to London and on to Windsor in the royal train, and marched in the procession from Victoria to Paddington, being present at the burial service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. The coffin was to have been conveyed from the railway station at Windsor by the Horse Artillery, but the horses, having had a long wait in the cold, jibbed and would not pull. After some time, the guard of honour, composed of bluejackets, piled their arms, manned the drag-ropes and pulled the gun-carriage, on which the coffin lay, to the Chapel. The gun-carriage was afterwards presented to Whale Island, H.M.S. Excellent. After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, I was appointed A.D.C. to King Edward VII, and remained so until my promotion to Rear-Admiral.
In January, 1901, after having commanded the Gunnery School for about two and a half years, I was nominated for the command of the Training Squadron, which I should have liked very much, but the Director of Naval Ordnance, Captain Jeffries, was suddenly relieved and, much to my disappointment, I had to go to the Admiralty as Director of Naval Ordnance (D.N.O.). A few months later I was offered, and accepted, the Controllership, relieving Sir Arthur Wilson. The Lords of the Admiralty at that time were Lord Selborne, First Lord; Lord Walter Kerr, First Sea Lord; Sir Archibald Douglas, Second Sea Lord; myself Third Sea Lord; and Admiral Durnford, Fourth Sea Lord. The Controller in those days had a very responsible position; the Departments under his control were Director of Naval Construction, the Engineer-in-Chief, the Director of Dockyards, and the Director of Stores.
When I relieved Sir Arthur Wilson there were many important subjects that had to be settled. In the first place, there were three Committees: one was inquiring into the defects of the boilers, due to the introduction of the type known as the “Belleville”; the second Committee was on the design of destroyers, some of which had been giving a great deal of trouble; and the third was on the question of the stability of the new Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert.
The Boiler Committee was composed of both civil and naval engineer officers, with Admiral Domville as Chairman; the predominant man on the Committee was Professor Kennedy. At that time the “Belleville” boiler had been adopted, without adequate trials, by Admiral Fisher when Controller, and the Engineer-in-Chief, Durston; when I took over as Controller the state of the ships fitted with these boilers was very bad. If we had gone to war at that time the results would have been disastrous. Many of the ships after three months’ service had to have their boilers completely overhauled. The cost was great, but this was nothing in comparison to the; fart that the ships for several months were quite useless. The “Belleville” boiler had been adopted by the French with, some success, but before they adopted it they had the necessary special machinery for making the tubes and boilers, and we had neither the machinery nor the experience.
The Boiler Committee sat for a long time and finally recommended the “Babcock and Wilcox” and the “Yarrow” boilers. The Engineer-in-Chief did not approve of the latter; eventually I had to order the “Yarrow” to be put into certain ships. The Boiler Committee also recommended some of the ships being fitted half with Scotch boilers and half with “Babcock and Wilcox” boilers. The Sea Lords were all against this fitting, but the First Sea Lord, Lord Selborne, preferred to take the advice of the Committee, which afterwards proved wrong; luckily only two or three ships were fitted in this way.
The repair work necessary for these “Belleville” boilers could not in all cases be undertaken by the dockyards, and I had to persuade the Board to have the work done by private yards on a percentage system. Altogether, we spent something like half a million of money repairing these boilers, and they were never entirely satisfactory.
The destroyers had a reputed speed of 30 knots, but this speed could only be obtained on a light draught: that is to say, only sufficient coal was put into the bunkers to take them over the measured mile; consequently, when these destroyers were filled up with coal, provisions, and ammunition, their speed was reduced some five or six knots. The design of the boats and the machinery was very light, and they were constantly breaking down. The Committee was almost entirely composed of practical naval officers who had commanded destroyers, and they were unanimous that the hulls and the engines should be very much strengthened, even if we had to give up a certain amount of speed, so a design called the “River Class” was adopted, of a stronger build, to carry a full load on their trials; this reduced the full speed to 26 knots. When these vessels went to the Mediterranean the Commander-in-Chief there sent reports condemning them, saying that they were not as good as the old ones; this was taken up by the agitators and questions were asked in Parliament. Luckily the Manoeuvres had just begun, and the old and new destroyers were ordered to proceed with all .despatch from Plymouth to Queenstown. It was blowing a fresh breeze, the old destroyers had to turn back; they could not stand up against the sea, whereas the new ones (the “River Class”) arrived at Queenstown without any defects, and were thus shown to be good sea boats.
Originally Queen Victoria wished to have the new Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, designed and built by a private firm, but the Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, who was known rightly as one of the cleverest designers of ships, pointed out that he could design yachts as well as ships, and eventually was allowed to do so. She was built at Pembroke, but unfortunately the constructors at that dockyard built everything, and all the upper works, much stronger than was necessary, thus putting a great deal of weight on the top side; there was also some mistake in the calculations for stability; so that when completed and the water let into the dock, she would have turned over if she had not been prevented by want of space. The question was whether she could ever be made safe for a Royal Yacht, and it was decided that this could be done by shortening the masts, removing a good deal of the top hamper and putting in a certain amount of ballast. The instability of the yacht was a great blow to Sir William White. He was a man of much ability, intelligence and experience, worked very hard, and was always lecturing after he had completed his work at the Admiralty; but the mishap to the Royal Yacht told on him so much that it affected his health and he had to resign; for this I was very sorry. His place was taken by Mr. Philip Watts, the then Chief Constructor at Armstrongs.
Submarines at that time (1901) were just coming to the front. We had purchased four of the Holland class from America with a view to trying them. We also started one that was built by Vickers from the Admiralty and Vickers designs; Admiral Bacon was attached to my Department, specially to look after submarines. He carried out his work in a most efficient manner, and before my time was up, submarines were a practical proposition.
The question of ships burning oil fuel was also much discussed, and my advice, which was accepted, was to set up a special experimenting station at Haslar, with a view to carrying out experiments for discovering the most efficient manner of burning oil sprayed on coal. The Engineer-in-Chief, Sir John Durston, was against it, as he used to tell me it was “a dodge for lazy stokers,” and that was the reason the Italians had adopted it. I had read up a certain amount, and knew, that it had been a success in the Italian Navy; it had also been used in the Black Sea for many years, and I was keen to go on with it. The chief difficulty, which we eventually practically solved, was to burn it without making too much smoke. The Engineer officer who assisted me, and who carried out the experiments with great ability and efficiency, was Chief Inspector of Machinery Melrose. Before leaving the Controllership in 1905, I was able to report to the Board that I was prepared to recommend oil fuel being used as an auxiliary in all ships, but I said the one thing we had to be quite sure about was maintaining the supply of oil. The Board of Admiralty then set up a strong committee of experts with Mr. Pretyman (who was one of the Civil Lords) as Chairman, and they issued their Report and recommended that steps should be taken to open up privately both the Persian and Trinidad oil fields, and this was done. In 1905, my Flagship, King Edward VII, was the first ship to burn oil sprayed on the coal, and the other ships of that class were also fitted to do so. All this work was quite forgotten when Admiral Fisher came in, about three years later. He started using oil fuel as if it had never been done before, making out that he was the originator of the idea.
During my first visit to the dockyards, I found four of the Exmouth class, which had been launched more than three years before, still waiting for their armaments at Chatham. Previous to this, when Sir John Fisher was Controller, the Majestic had been completed in about eighteen months, and everybody said, “What a wonderful achievement!” But apparently Sir John did not care about the rapidity of the construction of the other ships being built, and it made me think a little. I asked the Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, and the Engineer-in-Chief, Sir John Durston, why we could not have these ships completed by the private firms who built them; they said it was quite impossible and that if I tried to have this done it would be a failure. Naturally, I respected their opinion, and especially that of Sir William White, who had more experience than I had in this work. Apparently, the naval constructors considered that the private firms who built the ships had not enough experience to put the armament on board without their supervision, also in some cases the draught of water at some of the building ports was not sufficient. When Sir William White resigned, I decided, after consulting the private firms, to have all ships completed where they were built. This entailed a good deal of extra work, and I had Captain (now Lord) Jellicoe appointed to assist me; and in two years’ time the private firms were able to complete the ships in every detail in the contract time. It was, and is now, generally acknowledged that private firms can do the work as well as, if not better than, the dockyards.
A suggestion to standardize the machinery in the different classes of ships was made to me by one of the Civil Lords, Arnold Forster, who was always very keen on machinery. I asked the Engineer-in-Chief, Sir John Durston, who said it was impracticable. However, I decided to try it; and as we had two cruisers at that time whose contracts had been accepted by two private firms, I arranged to have a committee meeting, with the Engineer-in-Chief, the next man on his staff, Oram, one of the younger Engineer officers, and the two managers of the private firms who were just starting to build these cruisers. The managers of the private firms thought it would be very difficult to do in the first place, they said it would be more expensive and take more time. (I may say here, as a note, that the contractors were always trying to get more time for their contracts.) I asked them how much money and how much time, and then agreed that they should have extra money and time. After that we discussed in detail different parts of the machinery and decided on certain changes. We had two meetings; and at the third meeting, when I said, “We will meet again in another month,” they replied, “Sir, we need not have any more meetings; we can arrange the rest amongst ourselves.” When the standardization of these cruisers was completed it was found to be a very great advantage, because if one part of the machinery broke down, we could always send straight away and get a spare part, all the jigs and gauges being so accurate that one part from one engine would fit into another. After it was done, Sir John Durston came to me and said, “We did a splendid thing in standardizing machinery.” I said, “Yes, Sir John; but I don’t know that you helped me very much”; and I added, “Why do you say that?” He replied, “Because the piston-rods are now absolutely round.” This astonished me, and I said, “You mean to say the piston-rods were not round before?” “No,” said he, “not really absolutely round, as we had not got the necessary jigs and gauges.”
There was also a committee on bread-making, and they reported that they did not consider it a good thing to make bread on board ships, as the men would get out of the way of eating biscuits. This Report came to me first, before going to the other Lords, and I at once sent for the Director of Stores and said, “I wish you would go into the City and find out which is the most efficient electrical bread-making plant that we have in England.” He reported accordingly, so I ordered half a dozen of them and arranged to have them put into the King Edward VII class, which were then under construction, and I sent a memo to the Fourth Sea Lord asking him to provide bakers. I was much amused afterwards by the First Sea Lord and the Fourth Sea Lord coming in to my room apparently in disapproval of my action. They said the Report had never been before the Board. I said, “No, it has not; but surely we must start making bread on board our ships when practically every foreigner does it.” However, they were quite agreeable to it going on, provided every ship carried a certain amount of biscuit. Then the First Lord saw a great many machines for making bread in the Annual Store List, and he asked me about it; and again he said that the Report had not been before the Board and asked why I had not consulted the Board. I gave him my reasons, and he replied, “I think you are quite right.”
Another important thing that was done was improving the dockyards; in this I was very greatly assisted by the Director of Dockyards, Sir James Williamson. He had been trained as a Royal Naval Constructor in the dockyards, but had left and had been employed by private firms, eventually becoming director of a private shipbuilding yard. He was broadminded and did a great deal of good work. Amongst other improvements were electrifying the machinery, fitting electric lighting to the yards, and adopting more modern plant. He used, with my consent, to send two engineers over to the United States nearly every year to find out which were the most up-to-date machines; and on their report many of the new machines were bought for use in the dockyards.
I found Mr. Philip Watts (afterwards Sir Philip Watts), the Director of Naval Construction, who relieved Sir William White, a most charming man, but very casual; he would always say he would do anything I wanted, then go away and apparently never think any more about it. If the First Sea Lord had sent for him and told him he wanted the moon, I believe he would have said “Yes,” gone away, and not thought about it again.
Amongst other things I wanted done was to get a ship built that would reduce the damage done by the explosion of a Whitehead torpedo or a mine, and I asked Mr. Watts to get out a section of a ship with a view to experimenting with the different charges and gaining experience by degrees. I sent also for two of his younger constructors, telling them the one thing we wanted was a ship that could not be sunk by a White-head torpedo or mines. After about a month, I asked Mr. Watts when I was going to have this design. “Oh,” he said, “I quite forgot all about it.” The same thing happened next month; and at last I got out a design in a very rough way and told him to get it perfected; he made no suggestions. Eventually we experimented with two designs; they were not quite a success. Mr. Watts took so little interest in the matter, and having a great deal of other work on my hands I could not pay the necessary attention to the experiments, and much to my regret, I had to defer the work for the time.
Mr. Watts was preparing the design of a battleship and wanted to adopt two rudders, which I think was a big experiment in such an expensive type as a modern battleship. The principle was right, and after consulting the other Sea Lords it was decided that the two rudders should be fitted. The beam of the new ship was limited to 80 feet, as a ship with more beam would not go into any of the existing docks. After a great deal of trouble the sheer drawings of the design were finished, and they were signed and approved by the Board before I went on leave. I had not been away a fortnight before a letter came from Mr. Watts, saying, “I think that I should like to have a third rudder, and I want to have two feet more beam.” That was very startling; and the end of it was that the new design had to be postponed, and the design of the King Edward VII class was again selected for the three battleships to be built.
Sir John Fisher joined the Admiralty as First Sea Lord just as I was leaving; he was keen on building Dreadnoughts. The two first ships of the design, the Dreadnought and the Invincible, were built in an advertised time, something like eighteen months; but to do this, the turrets, guns, etc., destined for two battleships nearing completion, the Lord Nelson and Agamemnon, were put on board the Dreadnought and Invincible, and the despoiled battleships were not completed for three years. A great deal of credit was given to Sir John and the Director of Naval Construction for the rapidity with which the Dreadnoughts were built, but very few people knew they took the guns, etc., from these other two battleships, thus delaying their completion.
During the time I was Controller, the work was hard and strenuous and was made more difficult by the opposition of the Director of Naval Construction and the Engineer-in-Chief, who objected to new ideas.
Early in 1905, having completed my four years as Controller, I was appointed to take command of the Atlantic Fleet and was made an Acting Vice-Admiral. The Admiralty had decided to make a new disposition of the Fleets and had formed the Atlantic Fleet, consisting of eight battleships and a cruiser squadron, to be stationed in the Atlantic with its base at Gibraltar, so that it would not be far from home in case of necessity. At that time the German Fleet was gradually being increased and had become a real menace to ours, so that the Atlantic Fleet had to be close at hand to join up, if necessary, with the Channel Fleet for service in the North Sea.
My Flagship was the King Edward VII, the latest battleship built, and the first fitted to burn oil sprayed on coal. I asked the King and Queen, through their Secretary, if they would give their portraits to the ship named after His Majesty, and this request was graciously complied with. When my time in the King Edward was finished, the King said he would be very pleased if I would keep the portraits; they are now in my house. The King also conferred on me the Order of the Knight Commander of the Victorian Order – K.C.V.O.
The Atlantic Fleet, when I took over command, consisted of the King Edward VII, the Victorious, flying the flag of the Rear-Admiral, Bridgeman, the Illustrious – Captain Symonds, the Magnificent – Captain Farquhar, the Majestic – Captain Kingsmill, the Mars – Captain Marx, the Prince George – Captain Stokes, and the Commonwealth (King Edward VII class) – Captain Startin. The older ships were afterwards superseded by three other ships of the King Edward class, namely New Zealand, Hindustan, and Dominion. The First Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Rear-Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, was attached to the Atlantic Fleet.
I left England in the King Edward VII early in 1905 and relieved Lord Charles Beresford at Gibraltar. I found the Fleet in very good order and we went for a short cruise, returning to Gibraltar in March, 1905. Her Majesty Queen Alexandra, with Princess Victoria and Princess Charles of Denmark, arrived at Gibraltar in the Victoria and Albert, shortly after. The Queen came on board the King Edward VII and had a thorough look round the ship, being most interested in the bread-making plant (which was the first to be fitted in any of our ships), and in the wireless; and sent the following telegram to King Edward:
“To the King. London.
“Here I am on board Edward VII; she is a beautiful ship – send my love from here.
I organized a Regatta for Her Majesty and she was delighted with the competitions and took numerous photographs. I think that but for news we had of the Kaiser coming to Gibraltar, the Queen would have stayed there a little longer; but on hearing that, Her Majesty left. I had kind letters from her Secretary sending me a small token of her esteem.
The Kaiser arrived in the Hamburg at Gibraltar on or about April 8th, 1905, and his accompanying cruiser, the Frederick Carl, in coming alongside the breakwater collided with the battleship Prince George, which had to be docked immediately.
We were dining that night with the Governor to meet the Kaiser, but owing to my having to arrange about docking the Prince George, my wife and I landed after the Kaiser and only just arrived before him. Directly after the Kaiser arrived, he went up to Lady May and said: “That was very well done.” Apparently he had seen the whole incident and was much amused at it. My wife sat next to him at dinner; he was very pleasant and talked a great deal.
Next morning I went on board the Hamburg with the intention of speaking to the Kaiser about the collision; I saw him, and told him that it was a small affair, that the mistake made might be made by any Captain and that I hoped he would not take any further notice of it, but he would not give in. I understand, however, that afterwards the Kaiser did pardon the Commander of the Frederick Carl, so my request was granted.
The Kaiser came on board and had a look round the King Edward. He said, “I don’t want to know any of your ‘official secrets.’ “I replied, “Well, your Majesty, we have no secrets, except the submerged tube, and I am afraid I cannot show you that.”
He was very much interested in the attempt to use oil fuel for the boilers without making too much smoke; I told him that we had practically succeeded in this. Unfortunately, when I took the Fleet out of Gibraltar some of the ships made a good deal of smoke, and the Kaiser sent me the following card:
“H.M. compliments to Admiral May.
“H.M. was very touched by the Flagships burning German coal this morning, obscuring the view of the harbour and shrouding the ships in smoke. H.M. thanks the Admiral for the kind little attention.
“Please send promised signalman.”
I then took the Atlantic Fleet into the Mediterranean to join up with the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Domville. We carried out various set problems, one portion of the Fleet acting against the other under different Admirals, which was interesting.
On leaving the Mediterranean, the Fleet visited Madeira and Tenerife before returning home. The Admiralty then ordered me to take the Fleet to Brest to assist in the entente cordiale between the French and ourselves. We arrived at Brest on July 10th, 1905, and had a great reception. The Admiral in command of the Brest Fleet was Admiral Caillard, and the Prefet Maritime was Admiral Péphau. We had numerous dinners, receptions, balls, etc., and a hundred officers and myself were invited to Paris; we were put up (of course, free of expense) at the Hôtel Continental.
I had palatial quarters for myself, my wife and daughter. The Chief of the Admiralty at that time was Admiral de Maigret, and we were photographed together in the Quadrangle of the Hôtel Continental. We lunched with the President, and there was a grand Military Review at Longchamps. Our Ambassador, Sir Francis Bertie, would not take any part in the official receptions. We were also entertained by the civil authorities at the Hôtel de ville.
The President conferred on me the Order of Grand Officer Légion d’Honneur; the Rear-Admiral and the Captains received lesser degrees of the same order.
Extract from “Times” July 15th, 1905.
Brest, July 13th.
“This has been the most interesting, and perhaps the most important, day of the Anglo-French naval celebrations at Brest. The Admirals, the staff, and officers of the British Fleet have entertained their comrades of the French Fleet at déjeuner on board the Flagship, a brilliant garden party has been given by Admiral Pephau at the Naval Prefecture, and to-night there is the gala performance at the opera, for which well-known artists from Paris have been engaged; while Admiral May, with 108 other officers, will leave for Paris at midnight, to be entertained in the French capital. Meanwhile the town is en fête and there are abundant entertainments for visitors, while the sun has graced the auspicious day.
“At the déjeuner on board the King Edward VII, Sir William May had on either hand Sir Francis Bertie, the British Ambassador, and Admiral Caillard, commanding the French Northern Squadron, and all the French and British Admirals and Captains were present, besides the civil officers of Finisterre. Through the kindness of Admiral May, I was privileged to be present at what was a singularly interesting event. Personal friendship has now grown up between the officers and they met fraternellement, each French officer being seated between two British officers. In addition to the French Commander-in-Chief, there were present Admirals Leygué, Puech, Thomas, and other Flag officers, and Captains Saint Paul de Sincay, Lefèvre, Schilling, Lamson, Le Clerc, Jacquet, Lephay, Rabouin, and many more. The first toast was proposed by Admiral May, and was that of the President of the Republic, of whom he said, speaking in French, that it was not necessary to speak at length since M. Loubet has ‘tout à la fois la sympathie et l’admiration du peuple Anglais.’ The toast was received with prolonged cheers, and the band played the ‘Marseillaise.’
“Admiral Caillard next proposed the health of the King and the Royal Family, ‘God save the King’ being played.
“Admiral May then resumed. It was unnecessary, he said, to express the gratification it gave the British officers to receive their French comrades on board the King Edward VII. He was delighted to see the British vessels ‘amarrés fraternellement parmi les beaux vaisseaux de la flotte Franchise.’ After a few words with reference to the great pleasure it afforded himself and his officers to visit Brest, where they had received so warm a welcome, and to see the poetic country which gives France so many fine seamen, the Admiral concluded: ‘Aujourd’hui l’entente entre la France et la Grande Bretagne est la plus cordiale et j’espère que la rencontre des deux flottes, et on peut dire la rencontre des deux nations, rendra encore plus forte cette amietié. Je lève mon verre à la longue durée de cette entente et à la gloire et la prospérité de la France.
“Loud cheers followed this speech, and Admiral Caillard replied as follows: ‘Je réponds toujours avec plaisir à l’Amiral Sir William May qui sait trouver dans notre langue, Messieurs, des accents si touchants pour traduire des sentiments que nous partageons tous. Je me réjouis de voir nos nations sympathiser, nos équipages se rencontrer à terre dans un même sentiment de solidarité maritime. En attendant les réunions qui rendront les liens plus étroits, et qui auront lieu dès demain sur les bâtiments de sa Majesté Britannique, la franche cordialité qui accompagne maintenant la courtoisie de la première heure peut donner à penser aux regrets que nous éprouverons à nous séparer. Jouissons donc de l’heure présente, qui laisse dans nos coeurs le souvenir ineffaçable des sympathies légitimes qui unissent nos deux nations.’
“Admiral May then read a telegram he had received from the Equerry-in-Waiting to the King: ‘I have had the honour of submitting your telegram to the King. I am commanded in reply to inform you of the pleasure which the King entertains at the kind and excellent reception which has been accorded to His Majesty’s Fleet on its visit to Brest.’ ”
I was again at Gibraltar for the winter months; and, unfortunately, two of the ships, with the Assistance (the new repair ship), were at Tetuan Bay carrying out firing exercises when the swell set in, and the Assistance went on shore. This, I think, was entirely due to the Senior Captain having neglected to take the three ships to sea as he ought to have done, after having been warned in the instructions about the swell during the winter months.
I enjoyed hunting with the “Calpe.” Pablio Larios, the Master, used to hunt the hounds and did it exceedingly well; we often had very good sport. In March, 1906, when at Gibraltar, the Algeciras Conference assembled. There were present representatives of all the nations who were concerned in the question of Tangiers. They put up at the Algeciras Hotel, where my wife was staying, and we had very interesting conversations with them.
In April, 1906, the Prince and Princess of Wales (the present King and Queen), arrived at Gibraltar, from the East, on board the Renown. I gave a picnic in the Cork Woods, and we all rode out, with the exception of the Princess and my wife, who drove in a carriage. We had a pleasant picnic, the Prince and Princess were most gracious, and afterwards went to the Larios for tea.
The next cruise was to Madeira and the Canaries. The Portuguese authorities were informed that we were going there, and the King (Carlos) sent instructions that we were to be entertained, which meant that the Government would have to pay. When we reached Madeira, I called on the Governor and he, of course, returned my call and asked us to dine; we had a very pleasant dinner and he was most hospitable, and gave me a dozen bottles of Madeira, eighty years old.
From there we went on to San Miguel in the Canaries and paid the usual official visits; my return visit to the General-in-Command was rather amusing. I landed, with my Staff, on a sweltering hot day and had to wear epaulettes and a cocked hat. We were received with fireworks and crackers and then drove up to his office, where there was a brass band playing “God Save the King” as loud as it could. After the usual formalities, I waited, as I thought, a sufficiently long time, then rose to go, but the General said, “Oh non, Monsieur, attendez un moment.” He rang the bell and in came a waiter with champagne all poured out. The General then drank the King’s health, and I had to reply to that. After a minute or two, I tried a second time to leave, and again he said, “Attendez un moment, Monsieur,” rang the bell, and in came more champagne. The General rose once more, this time proposing my health and that of the British Fleet, and again I had to reply. A third time I said I must go, again he rang the bell for the waiter, who now appeared with a big bouquet of flowers on a tray. I thought that this was the last; but no, the performance was repeated for the fourth time, the waiter’s tray on this occasion bearing a photograph of the General, which he presented to me. Even after that he wouldn’t let us go until he had taken us round the Barracks.
We had another expedition to some hot springs at San Miguel, where the Government and officials gave us a great luncheon. We went by one of the despatch vessels and then by carriage. As we were driving through the town, fair ladies pelted us with hydrangeas which are very common there. We had to wait an hour for luncheon while the Governor and his entourage put on their Uniform. The table was all laid out, and really I think you could hardly have put a fly on it. We had quite a good luncheon, any amount of wine and several speeches. I was glad when it was over.
We returned to England in June, 1906, and the Fleet was mobilized for manoeuvres. I was given command of the Blue Fleet, consisting of sixty-eight vessels; Sir Arthur Wilson was in command of the Red Fleet, and Lord Charles Beresford had the Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar. The general idea for the manoeuvres was that my Fleet, supposed to be much inferior to the Red Fleet, should try and entice it away and eventually prey on shipping and create a scare in Great Britain. I left Berehaven, where we had assembled, and steamed right away west, and then went south. We had not gone very far when we were seen by some of the Red cruisers. However, I went on down south to carry out my plan of destroying merchant shipping. We were down off the Portuguese coast when Admiral Wilson’s main Fleet was sighted. I had then five battleships of the King Edward class, and three of the older vessels, the Majestic class.
These latter I knew would be no good, on account of their slow speed so in the night I despatched them to return to the entrance of the Channel and act as cruisers destroying merchant shipping. About noon next day, I found the Red Fleet only about five miles off, so I thought that I was done; but I turned homewards and ordered them to start the oil fuel, and, to my surprise, my five battleships outdistanced the battleships of the Red Fleet, although theoretically the latter were a knot and a half faster than the King Edward. I arrived in the Channel something like sixteen hours ahead of the leading Red Battle Fleet, and wired to the King, c/o the Admiralty, that I was in command of the Channel. In order to make the scare complete, we went on to Scarborough, captured, and took the town. The Admiralty then negatived the Manoeuvres. The telegram to the King disturbed him in his night’s rest, and I was called upon to give my reasons for sending it. I replied that my orders were to create a scare in the country, and I much regretted that, in my keenness to carry out my orders, I had disturbed His Majesty. I received the following telegram and letter:
Copy of Telegram
“Please let Sir W. May be informed that I was not annoyed, but surprised by his telegram.
“The explanation is quite satisfactory, and I like to see an officer as keen as Sir W. May.
“(Signed) E. R.”
Copy of Letter
July 9th, 1906.
“My Dear Sir William,
“Thank you for your letter and am very pleased to say that the King is quite happy about the telegram; he was only a bit startled at first, but afterwards was amused at the situation.
“I congratulate you very much on your splendid steaming performance, it must have been a great sight to see your big battleships dashing through the water. Your experience of the value of oil fuel in maintaining speed will be very useful for future developments.”
“(Signed) Lord Tweedmouth.”
In June, 1906, I was made Knight Commander of the Bath, K.C.B. In July, 1906, we went to Lagos Bay for Manoeuvres, with Admiral Wilson and Lord Charles Beresford, and there carried out set pieces; this was quite interesting, and gave everybody experience. After the Manoeuvres we went to Bangor in Ireland, where we remained till September, 1906, when we returned to Gibraltar.
In February, 1907, my time in command of the Atlantic Fleet was up, and Lord Tweedmouth, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, asked me to go as Second Sea Lord, and I accepted. Lord Tweedmouth was not First Lord for long, as he broke down in health and was relieved by Mr. McKenna. Sir John Fisher was then the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Jackson the Controller, and Admiral Winsloe the Fourth Sea Lord. As Second Sea Lord, I had complete charge of the personnel, which was up to 130,000 men. We were by this time very much concerned about the strength of the German Fleet and were gradually increasing our Fleet and personnel. The Home Fleet was divided when Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson left; Lord Charles Beresford was in command of the Channel Fleet, but the main part of the Fleet and the latest ships were stationed in reserve, half crews at Sheerness, under the command of Vice-Admiral Bridgeman. This led to controversy between Lord Charles Beresford and the Admiralty, especially with the First Sea Lord, who would not bring Lord Charles’ Fleet up to the strength that he wanted, or to what it had been in his predecessor’s time. Beresford was constantly writing to the Admiralty telling them that his Fleet was not in a position to meet the Germans, and that he ought to have more ships. In the end there was an Inquiry, the Premier (Mr. Asquith) and two other Cabinet Ministers were on it, and if Beresford had been more au fait with the details of his case when giving his evidence, Sir John Fisher would have come out of it very badly.
When I was appointed to command the Home Fleet in 1909, Sir John Fisher combined the ships that had been under Beresford and Bridgeman, thus returning to the organization in force when Sir Arthur Wilson commanded. The Home Fleet under my command was composed of all ships in commission and reserve in Home Waters. This, in my opinion, should have been done when Beresford was there, and I often used to argue with Sir John Fisher on the subject; he did occasionally give in to a certain extent, but he would never give Beresford more than a few ships at a time.
When I was Second Sea Lord we were working up the personnel of the fleet, and I had only the one civilian Secretary, until the last six months of my time, when a captain was appointed to assist me. What a contrast to the staff the Second Sea Lord has now, 1930, with about six people to help him! Before I had finished my time, the First Lord offered me the command of the Mediterranean Fleet, but I said that I should prefer to have the Home Fleet, provided that I was left in command in case of war, and he said that he would be glad to let me have it; so in February, 1909, I was given command of the Home Fleet, Beresford being superseded at the end of two instead of three years. The Home Fleet was then brought back to its proper strength – in fact, in my opinion it was too big. The Fleets under Lord Charles Beresford, and Admiral Bridgeman at Sheerness, and all the reserve ships in the Home Ports were put under my command – that is to say that I had over 400 ships, together with destroyers and submarines. I pointed out to the Admiralty once or twice that the protection of the East Coast ought to be taken out of my hands and put in charge of another Admiral, who would be able to organize his destroyers and submarines and have telephonic communication between the principal stations. When I was given command of this large Fleet, it was organized in four divisions: two divisions were up to full strength and the other divisions were, with reduced crews, at various Home Ports. There had been a great deal of jealousy between Beresford’s Fleet and Bridgeman’s Fleet, and when they came together under my command, this jealousy persisted, chiefly with the Senior officers in Beresford’s old Fleet, so I had to exercise very great tact to keep the peace. In fact the senior officers of the two Fleets never amalgamated well until after I had taken Captain (now Admiral of the Fleet) Sir Arthur Gough-Calthorpe, who commanded one of the ships in Beresford’s Fleet, as Captain of the Fleet; he thus became Chief Staff Officer for both Fleets and had much influence with his old Captains. Previous to taking command, I was promoted to Admiral in 1908.
I took the Fleet to Scapa Flow in April, 1909; this was the first time that such a large Fleet had ever been there. In June, 1909, we had a Review at Spithead for the Colonial Premiers, who had all come to England that year. On the invitation of the Lord Mayor, Sir G. Wyatt Truscott, and the City of London, I had to take the whole Fleet to Southend in June, 1909, and some of the submarines went up the Thames and anchored off Westminster. The Lord Mayor, the Sheriffs and entourage visited the Fleet at Southend, and we showed them submarines diving, torpedoes being fired at the nets, etc. The Lord Mayor gave us a Grand Banquet at the Mansion House and proposed the health of the British Navy, to which I had to reply. He also gave a dinner to 1,200 Bluejackets and Marines; they marched through the streets of London to the Guildhall and were received with great acclamation. I put Captain Beatty (now Earl Beatty) in command and he arranged everything very well. After Southend, we went to Cowes, in August, 1909, for a Review of the Fleet by the Emperor of Russia. King Edward and the Czar of Russia inspected the Fleet and came on board my Flagship, the Dreadnought. The Czar conferred on me the Order 1st Class of the Alexandra Nevsky.
On May 21st, 1910, I was present at the Memorial Service in Dublin on the death of King Edward the Seventh. In July, 1910, the whole Fleet was mobilized and placed under my command – over 400 ships with fourteen Flag officers – and I took this Armada into Mountsbay, where King George the Fifth was to inspect the Fleet for the first time in his reign. We had very bad weather there, it was blowing hard and heavy seas were running. Eventually I reported that I thought the Fleet would be better at Torquay, where we should have more shelter. The Admiralty agreed, and so, much to the regret of myself and those people at Mountsbay who had been organizing entertainments for us, I had to leave and we anchored at Torquay. The King and Queen came on board the Dreadnought to watch the Fleet at manoeuvres, and on that occasion the King and Queen honoured me by their presence at luncheon, as did the present Prince of Wales, who was quite a young boy. We had very bad weather, with fog, which was very disagreeable. The King sent a letter marking his appreciation of the condition of the Fleet; it ran as follows:
“It has given His Majesty great pleasure to have seen the combined Fleets, and he wishes to express his high appreciation of the excellent state of efficiency in which he has found them, and of the keen spirit displayed by both officers and men.
“His Majesty congratulates you on your magnificent Command.”
On this occasion His Majesty presented me with a portrait of himself in a handsome silver frame. I had a picture painted of the Fleet steaming into Torquay, the artist being Mr. Wyllie, R.A. After the inspection by His Majesty, the ships dispersed to different ports in the United Kingdom to carry out gunnery and torpedo practices. Some went to Invergordon; the officers attended the Northern meeting and were kindly entertained by the county people.
In 1910 the American Fleet visited Portland (Admiral Seaton Schroder in command), remaining more than ten days. This consisted of their latest battleships; the officers were not keen to show the working of the turrets in their ships until I gave an afternoon party on board my Flagship, when I had the turrets and everything else working – with the result that they immediately returned the compliment and showed us all their latest improvements, especially the working of their turrets by electrical power. The ships were in quite good order, but the men seemed to me not to have the stamina of ours. In fact, they were quite a different class, and it was amusing to see the ordinary American Bluejacket landing with his suitcase and going off to London for a few days.
In March, 1911, I hauled down my Flag. During my command I had organized and carried out a series of tactical manoeuvres and had all the results recorded; these, together with my general notes on the conduct, formation, and fighting of a Fleet, were published by the Admiralty and issued to the Fleet. Shortly afterwards I had the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath conferred on me, and in 1909 I received the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. During my command, the First Lord, Mr. McKenna, was always charming and complimentary, and on two occasions he volunteered the information that I was to be First Sea Lord. I always replied that I would wait until the appointment was offered to me; but I was surprised at what occurred after I had hauled down my Flag. Mr. McKenna had been to Venice with Sir John Fisher, and on his return, when I saw him again, he said: “I think, on the whole, you are rather too old to be the First Sea Lord, and that a younger man would be preferable.” I replied that he had the right of selection. Mr. McKenna, however, left the Admiralty and was relieved by Mr. Churchill before the appointment became due. Sir Francis Bridgeman became First Sea Lord, and he was actually a few months my senior in age, but he did not hold the appointment for long.
My wife and I were present at the Coronation of King George the Fifth, which took place in June, 1911. A few days after I had finished with the Home Fleet, I was appointed Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, and there we had a quiet and pleasant time. Hardly anything took place which is worth recording. On March 20th, 1913, when I had been there two years, I was promoted to be Admiral of the Fleet, and consequently had to give up my command a year before the usual time.
Thus ended my naval career after fifty years’ continuous service. In my early days in the Navy, there were always a great number of officers on half pay, but I only had seven months out of all these fifty years, and they were when I was a young lieutenant and commander.
It was my misfortune never to have been in action, either afloat or ashore, during my career. Somehow, wherever I went, there was no war, and then my time was up in the Home Fleet three and a half years before the Great War started; such is the luck of service. I was always ready to go wherever I was ordered, my wife never in any way interfered in my appointments.
In 1912 the Admiralty asked me to be Chief Umpire for the Manoeuvres which were to take place that year. Of course, I gladly consented. In 1913, after I had left Plymouth, I was again asked to be Chief Umpire, and hoisted my Flag on board the Euryalus, with the staff necessary for an Admiral of the Fleet. On both occasions my great object was to have the Reports written and sent out to the Fleet before the officers who had taken part in the operations had forgotten them. Hitherto, the Reports had generally taken quite a year to be issued, whereas I had them sent to the Fleet in about a month. I think that was a very great advantage and was much appreciated.
In June, 1913, I went to live in Scotland. When the War broke out there was nothing for me, my rank was too high, and the younger men were naturally put in command, although I have always felt that, with my experience, I might have been able to do some good.
In 1916, after the failure of the Dardanelles operations, a Royal Commission was set up to inquire and report on the origin, inception, and operations. I was invited to serve on this Commission as the Naval Member – the other members were:
Lord Cromer – Chairman.
Sir Andrew Fisher – representing Australia.
Sir Thomas MacKenzie – representing New Zealand.
Mr. Fred Cawley, M.P.
I. A. Clyde – Lord Advocate, Scotland, M.P.
Stephen L. Gwynne, M.P.
A. Pickford – Lord Justice.
A. Roche, M.P.
Lord Nicholson – War Office representative.
We sat in the House of Lords. The witnesses had to be examined on oath. All the details and evidence, especially that of the Cabinet Ministers and Heads of Departments, is very interesting, and can be read in the Commissioners’ Report, but as so few people ever read these reports, the following very brief account may be of interest:
The origin of the attempt to force the Dardanelles was started by a telegram from Grand Duke Nicholas (then in command of the Russian Army in the Caucasus) to Lord Kitchener, Minister of War, asking him to arrange for Great Britain to make a diversion in the East to assist his Army, which was in a difficult position. Lord Kitchener replied, through the Foreign Office, that he would do so, although he did not previously consult the Prime Minister or the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Lord Kitchener approached Mr. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who took up the question of an attack on the Dardanelles by the Navy alone, and he over-persuaded his co-Naval Advisers to consent, although they all previously considered that an attack by the Navy alone would not be successful.
In 1906, when our relations with Turkey were strained, the Military Staff wrote an appreciation on the prospects of success of a joint naval and military attack, and their opinion was, that a joint attack would not be successful; they also said that the naval gunfire would not be of much assistance, as it was too direct and could not search out the nullahs, owing to the topography of the ground, only high-angle fire would be useful. The Admiralty, whilst concurring in the Report, thought the War Staff had rather minimized the effect of the naval gun-fire. Apparently, this report was put on one side, as it was considered the situation had changed; it had certainly altered to our disadvantage, as for some years the Turks had two German Generals as advisers, and one was in charge of the submarine defences of the Straits, and therefore it was quite certain the defences of the Dardanelles had been strengthened and better organized. This War Staff report should have been given a great deal more consideration than it received. Mr. Churchill explained at the War Cabinet Council Meeting the outline of the proposed attack – Lord Fisher, who was present, said nothing, and the Prime Minister never asked his opinion. When Lord Fisher was examined on oath he stated that he was convinced from the first that it would be a failure, and when he was asked why he did not say so at the War Council, he replied he was not there to speak, but only to answer questions. As a matter of fact, I believe he did concur at first, and when he saw the losses in ships and men he wished to back out of it, and would have done so if Lord Kitchener had not pressed him to go on.
The first attack by the Navy having failed, it was then a question whether the operations should cease, or a military expedition be sent out to combine with the Navy. There was a great deal of controversy between the military officers; some advocating that all troops that could be spared should be sent to reinforce the Army on the West front, others thinking they would be better employed in the East, since on the West front both Armies had entrenched themselves and for the time it was practically stalemate there.
Eventually it was decided to send a military force to the Dardanelles. The organization of the force was apparently taken over by Lord Kitchener; both the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Director of Operations told the Commission that they had not been consulted, and the latter thought we had drifted into the military expedition. The landing of the troops, a magnificent feat of courage and endurance, was carried out in a wonderful manner, but although prodigious efforts were made to advance, the Army could not gain any more ground. Later on an attack was made at Suvla; it was kept quite secret, and I think would have been a success if it had been vigorously pushed, but, alas! none of the generals had the requisite energy or foresight. The troops were all unseasoned, and required energetic and capable officers to lead them, but such were not there, and after a great loss of life and severe privations they evacuated the position.
Eventually it was decided to withdraw altogether from the Dardanelles. The evacuation was carried out in a most skilful manner, and there were scarcely any casualties. It really looked as if the Turks wanted us to clear out and were giving us every facility to do so. The wounded officers and men suffered a great deal; we never gained sufficient ground to set up the Field Hospitals, consequently, the wounded had to be placed in transports, where there was sufficiency neither of staff, accommodation, surgical nor medical appliances. On this expedition we sent out about 400,000 troops, and in my opinion, if an expedition to the East had been properly organized and a landing effected, say at Xeros Bay, we should have taken Constantinople – and from the evidence we heard, the Greeks would have come in on our left flank, and in all likelihood the Bulgarians would also have joined us. The War would thus probably have been terminated very much sooner.
The moral of this is that in war-time you should have a responsible War Council, of which the principal Cabinet Ministers and technical officers should be members and not advisers only.
Before the War ended, I served on a Committee for the Reconstruction of the Navy. We had fifty-six Sub-committees dealing with different subjects, and I was appointed Chairman of the one which dealt with Fisheries. Some of it was very interesting. I have been told since that the work done was very useful.
These memoirs finished here abruptly. Sir William May intended to add further details and descriptions, but in October, 1930, he caught a cold which developed into pneumonia, and, after a week’s illness, died at his home, Bughtrigg, near Coldstream, on October 7th, 1930.
Any one who has read these reminiscences must have realized, at least, something of the great nobility and charm of Sir William May’s character, and been struck by the directness and simplicity, the total absence of any self-consciousness or self-glorification in these chronicles.
The fine qualities that made his services to his country so valuable ashore and afloat have been touched on in the beautiful tributes paid to his memory by the Earl of Home, and the Admiral of the Fleet, with which this memoir closes; but before passing on to these it has been thought that a brief sketch of Sir William as he appeared to those who knew him in his home life, might be of interest to his descendants in after days.
Sir William was over eighty-one when he died, and yet no one, except himself, was ever heard to allude of him as an old man. The expression would have seemed incongruous, not so much because of his physical energy, remarkable though this was for any one of his years; but more because of his active mind and unfailing interest in any new ideas or discoveries, whether in the realms of science, machinery, sport, poultry-farming, golf or bridge.
As may be gathered from the memoirs, he had a keen sense of humour, his comments on things and people were extremely shrewd and entertaining. He was an adept in the art of genial chaff or leg-pulling, generally getting the last word in any encounter of wits by some unexpected but apt final thrust.
As is not always the case, Sir William’s personal appearance seemed to be the outward and visible expression of his inward and mental qualities. It is impossible to imagine any one looking more distinguished. With his tall, slim, active figure, aquiline features, fresh complexion, and keen, piercing glance from eyes as blue and clear as the sea, he seemed the beau-ideal of what an Admiral of the world’s greatest Navy should be.
He had not been brought up, nor had ever lived, in the country, till after he retired, when he went to live at Bughtrigg, one of the estates left to him by his brother-in-law, Colonel Archibald Dickson of Chatto, to which he succeeded on the death of his sister in 1908. The complete success with which he threw himself into all country business and pursuits, at an age when most people are apt to be set in their habit of mind, showed his versatile and adaptable character.
There was something very remarkable in the way the news of his death affected his many friends. Instead of the sad resignation people usually feel at the passing of some beloved friend or relative, of over eighty years of age, there was all the shock of amazed grief, and sense of irreparable loss that usually greets the news of someone snatched away in the prime of usefulness and vigour.
At his funeral a crowd of mourners and masses of lovely flowers testified to the respect and affection in which he was held by all. Many of his old naval comrades were present, and the King (who was represented by the principal naval A.D.C., Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) sent the following message to Lady May:
“It is with regret that I learned of the death of my very old friend Sir William May, and I greatly recognize his valuable services both in the Royal Navy and in civil life. I offer you and your sons my heartfelt sympathy in your bereavement.”
At a meeting of the County Council held shortly after Sir William May’s death, the following words spoken by Lord Home, the Chairman, show with what esteem he was regarded in the county:
“‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ are the words on our lips to-day as we remember the noble presence, unfailing help and genial friendship of our own Admiral of the Fleet.
“After long years of arduous duty and great responsibility, with the highest honour of his profession as his just reward, Sir William May came to live amongst us and willingly and heartily shouldered the burden, the new burden of public life in our county, and the ever-increasing responsibility of those who guide and conduct the machinery of Local Government.
“When the original ambition of life has been achieved and the late afternoon has been reached, it must be a great temptation to enjoy a well-earned rest. If the Admiral was ever so tempted, it was of no avail against one who regarded duty as a second responsibility and honour; and to help others, a joy.
“It may be, that by the deep interest he took in all our work, and in a very special degree in that connected with our roads, his strength may have been over-taxed, for he never spared himself, but considered and studied, together with our surveyors, to whom he was greatly attached, every detail of our schemes. These we entrusted to him with the utmost confidence for fulfilment.
“We may, however, comfort ourselves with the certain knowledge that no remonstrance or persuasion from us would have persuaded him to abate by a fraction the time and attention he always gave to the interest of our county.
“His was a splendid life, a noble stewardship, a wonderful example. To-day we say, with hearts full of happy memories and deepest gratitude, ‘Good-bye for a time,’ to a very distinguished, helpful, kind old friend.”
Sir William was above all a sailor; and the following words, written in a letter to Lady May by an old naval friend, himself an Admiral of the Fleet, seem to sum up the great achievements he accomplished for the Navy and country he loved:
“His is a very great loss also to those who served under him, and knew and loved him.
“I have been looking sadly through some of the letters he wrote me, and naturally they have brought back a flood of recollections of bygone days. For instance, in one of his last letters to me, he says: ‘I often think of you and our work together in the Fleet. I am an old man now, and I wonder sometimes if I ever commanded a Fleet.’
“I sympathise with and understand the feeling – that it is all so long ago, and that when retirement comes the active career is over and utterly finished and the Torch must be passed on for others to keep alight. In a whimsical mood he wonders whether he ever did command a Fleet. Why, he commanded Fleets which were the forerunners of the famous Grand Fleets. This last Fleet with endless toil and patience (but he loved it) reached a very high degree of efficiency under his command, and he left this great instrument of war for others, like Jellicoe and Beatty, to use when the long-expected ‘Great War’ came at last.
“I often think Sir William’s role was something like that of the great Lord St. Vincent who made his Fleet which was used afterwards by Nelson and others in the Napoleonic wars. No Admiral at sea set a better example to his Captains of how to handle a large Fleet, than did Sir William. Now he has gone, leaving behind him a great tradition, and we say of him, in the words of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’:
“‘So he passed over – and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’”