Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 1 – HMS Vogue
Ephraim had to wait for the Commissioning of his new ship Vogue at Portsmouth. He sat at the breakfast table perusing the Portsmouth Herald drinking his morning coffee and found himself in no great hurry to know where he would be going next. Life was comfortable here with Eliza in the kitchen preparing suet crust chicken pie for lunch and the prospect of a round of golf with Polwhele. He had arranged the new school for young Ephraim and was surprised when the lad had asked him,
‘Pa, what will they call me when I go to school?’
‘Well, Ephraim of course!’
‘Can’t I have another name? I don’t like Ephraim. I don’t want to be horrible, I know it’s yours, but I don’t like it. I don’t think the other boys will like it.’
‘What name do you want?’
‘Gideon. It means a mighty warrior.’
Ephraim looked at the young lad,
‘I tell you what – I don’t like it very much either but we have to keep it. We can call you Gideon Ephraim, then you will have two good Jewish names. Your grandmother would have liked that. We will do it with something called a deed of poll. You will be going to the Training Ship soon and then you will be Cadet Gideon Browne and the Navy will train you to be a fine sailor and an officer and a gentleman. Remember the Bible says that Ephraim had a lot of ‘mighty men’ and when the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘the Lord is with you, mighty warrior’. Now you have everything you need.’
The Admiralty envelope came through the door before he had finished his coffee. Eliza brought it. He tore open the thin blue paper, its weight was slight but its information was substantial. Vogue was to undertake a month of Commissioning trials under her new Captain, preparatory to stationing at Malta in the Mediterranean Fleet.
‘It seems they want you at once, my dear. A shame if you do not have time to take Giddy to London. He is looking forward to it so much.’
‘Perhaps you will have to take him, Eliza. Someone could go with you. I would like him to see the Tower of London and he could see Admiralty House and the painted hall at Greenwich. He might like that considering his artistic abilities.’
‘My dear you see his abilities everywhere,’ Eliza laughed, as she looked at the drawings which Ephraim had put up on the dining room wall.
There was time for Ephraim to conclude his arrangement for entrance to the Navy for young Gideon before he left. There would be no difficulty with the Earl of Harden and Admiral Gladwell as patrons.
‘I’ll take you over to see the Training Ship if I have time,’ he told Gideon, ‘They are building a new shore-based college over there now.’ He was surprised to see how far they had got with it when they arrived. It was called the Royal Naval College and would replace the Training Ship. It would be one of the most impressive public schools in the country when it was finished. Gideon was thrilled with its motto, ‘There is Nothing the Navy Cannot do’. Cadets were due to go to Osborne to be trained in the stables of Queen Victoria’s palace in the Isle of Wight until it was ready to open.
HMS Vogue was ready by the end of the month and then it was time for Ephraim to say his farewells to wife and son. As he was piped up the gangway and entered his spacious Captain’s cabin, all thought of Eliza and Gideon had fled. He was excited but somewhat nervous as he considered his future. It was the last decade of the nineteenth century sailing Navy and the first of the expansionist, centralised steam-turbine battle fleet of destroyers and armoured cruisers, which was the mark of the New Navy. Conquest in battle was its raison d’etre. Ephraim had little experience of fleet sailing. He had spent his life in the dispersed fleets of the old Navy. To acclimatise himself to centralised fleets following equal speed war exercises, after his quasi-autonomous life in small gunboats patrolling the far-flung coasts of Empire at his own speed, was quite new to him. To be in the sphere of powerful Admirals like Phisher and Berryford was also a new experience. He looked forward to a time of successful and honourable service in their company and the community to which he was now committed.
Nevertheless, it was not without difficulty that Captain Ephraim Browne settled into his new appointment in the new cruiser. It was a good appointment but there were setbacks. He had got on well with his lieutenants on the gun boats, they had liked him, and he liked them but when an inspecting officer judged Vogue to be ‘only fairly satisfactory’ and the cruiser was involved in a subsequent collision with a sailing vessel, Ephraim realised that he had been too undemanding as a Captain. He had over estimated Mackie, who had been First Lieutenant on Freytus and was now his Commander on Vogue, and thought Harper, his current First Lieutenant, as an older man probably resented being passed over. He had left them too much to their own devices. Brennan, a recently appointed Lieutenant was too impetuous to be given much leeway. Vernon seemed innocuous enough as Navigating officer and the last Lieutenant, Sweetman, seemed to live up to his name as Chaplain and instructor. But they were not proving impressive officers and doing nothing to add to the status of Vogue or his own career. There must be more evolutionary practice and better gunnery supervision. He must do what Captain Turner had advised and put on a quartermaster’s face when needed. He wrote to Polwhele,
‘It is easy to have a band of brothers on a small gunboat, a bit different on one of these battle cruisers.’
‘You always had a tendency to softness, call it justicia‘, Polwhele had answered, ‘but first requirement is what they say, run a tight ship then you know when you can loosen the sails’. Ephraim was waiting to hear any day of Polwhele’s promotion to Captain.
Admiral Phisher was C in C in Malta when Ephraim arrived in Vogue. The popular Admiral Berryford was second in command. Rivals though they were, they appreciated each other’s virtues, at least at the beginning. It was a busy time with much interest for Ephraim over the first few months. The fleet visited Corfu where a Russian Admiral dined and visited the ward room, the Greek royal family dined at Piraeus and Berryford gave a dance at Fiume. By Christmas Day, back in Malta, Berryford was walking around decorated mess decks with Princess Amelia of Schleswig Holstein and the Earl and Countess of Annesley. Then it was back to fleet sports and ship work as the fleet prepared for the first joint exercises with the Channel fleet in Lagos.
Ephraim took considerable pleasure in seeing the rivalry of the two main Admirals in these exercises. Phisher was the powerful plebeian genius all set to run the Navy and Berryford was the aristocratic populist and member of Parliament. They vied with each other in equal speed exercises. Lagos set the pattern of the future, mock battles between fleets,and official manoeuvres became a central and popular activity for the Royal Navy. Ephraim passed notes on to his wife.
‘Phisher said that when Berryford’s ship was captured on the last exercise, he had to pull for his life at one in the morning to scramble on board the Guinean in the dark at the last minute to stop being left behind. He said it was all overly exciting and as near war as it could be. It has made Berryford, becoming known for his Parliamentary and naval heroics, more popular than ever.’
The Mediterranean Fleet included ten, 12-inch gunned battleships, ten cruisers and sixteen destroyers Now that Gladstone’s reign of peaceful policy had ended Phisher and Berryford were voluble in their demand for an increase in the numbers of ships. Phisher wanted to combine his eleven battleships of the Mediterranean fleet with the eight of the Channel Fleet which would give him thirty-six cruisers and sixty two destroyers to work with in a great new Home Fleet. Berryford disagreed, he feared it meant losing a fleet of his own. There were arguments on both sides, but the funding of the Navy was increasing and a further new battleship, HMS Intervention, was added to the Med fleet. It sailed into Malta’s harbour one morning and Ephraim saw the twin funnels appear out of a morning mist as he took an early breakfast in the wardroom.
‘Mackie, find out who the Captain is?’ he said. Mackie left his toast and went to find out; before Ephraim finished his coffee, he was back,
‘I’ve been having a word with the paymaster. It’s Captain Charles Sebold. Don’t know anything about him myself but the paymaster does. Seems he has been at Admiralty for the past few years and Fosse thinks there was ‘a bit of a to do’ with Their Lordships and they have had a sort out. Don’t know the rights and wrongs of it but it seems Sebold has not had a great deal of sea going experience.’
‘No, but he has seagoing ‘interest’, it seems.’
Ephraim was delighted to see his old friend again. Fosse was right, Charles had little experience in these big battleships but then neither had he till recently. Phisher had been making much of training for signals lately and was encouraging signals to be practised at all levels He would not object to a Captain welcoming another Captain. Would he not be impressed that a new Captain was obeying the new advice?
Ephraim called his signalling officer, ‘Have a signal made Jenkins, ‘Captain Browne welcomes Captain Sebold into harbour’.’
Jenkins was efficient, the correct, colourful flags flew quickly. Sebold would appreciate it. Ephraim was pleased. Within minutes, across the harbour Ephraim saw new flags flying,
‘Captains will not welcome other Captains into harbour. Captain Browne will repair to the flagship at once.’
Ephraim’s heart fell. So, this was to be his first passage at arms with Admiral and Commander in Chief, John Phisher. Well, he would defend himself. He donned frock coat and sword as appropriate and prepared to engage. He thought of his first interview with Captain Turner when he was preparing to sacrifice his naval career earlier. Now his career was again likely to finish but Admiral Phisher was not calm and judicious like Captain Turner. He was pacing up and down his palatial cabin like an angry tiger, the very rugs shook beneath his feet. He wasted no niceties,
‘Who do you think you are, man, to make such a signal across harbour? To abrogate my authority! What do you think you are? You are a pipsqueak of a Captain with the temerity to flag signal welcomes to ships entering my harbour?’
‘He is my friend, Sir.’
‘So should he be, all Captains should be your friends – love your enemies in a band of brothers – but only friends if I say so! I could ruin you for this attempt to upstage yourself with signals! A disgusting spectacle!’
‘Forgive me, but you told us all that you were appalled at the want of good signalling in the fleet, and you wanted signals to be thoroughly learned by everyone. I thought you would be pleased with such a demonstration, as well as my friend.’
‘Stop talking about your friend! You will have no friends left when I have finished with you. You will send another signal at once! ‘My apologies to the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, for my presumption and failure to respect his seniority’.’
‘I respect your seniority sir. I am just sorry that it fails to allow for personal kindness.’
‘Personal kindness!’ The Admiral nearly exploded, ‘Personal kindness! There is no place for that in the Navy, and certainly not among its Captains! The sooner you learn that the better. The Navy is for war, conquest not kindness. I have ruined better men than you!’
‘That hardly seems fair, sir.’
‘Get out! Get out and make my signal! Before I show you what unfairness is!’ He banged his fist on the table, ‘My every wish is your command!’
Ephraim could not resist, ‘Might does not make it right, Sir.’
When they saw the new signal flying over the harbour, it produced some smiles amongst the Captains. It had an unspecified introduction and epilogue:
‘With reference to the unwelcome signal, I offer my apologies to the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, ‘for my presumption and failure to respect his seniority’ in the matter of removing the welcome to Captain Sebold according to his wishes.’
Admiral Phisher remained furious but there was much else to be done and he decided to leave the matter there. Charles Sebold was annoyed by the incident. He felt it had attracted unwelcome attention.
Ephraim liked to wake up early and give himself an hour to plan the day ahead. He liked the responsibility of being a Captain and the challenge. He thought some of the Senior Officers of today did not take their responsibilities seriously enough; they wanted the glamour of a place like Malta, strutting around in gold braid and medals and socialising with the elite but most of them thought they had arrived and all they had to do was relax, enjoy the pleasures of the life, and leave the work of running a ship to their Commanders and crew. They were like the indulged and powerful senior prefects of the school; he had never been to public school, but he knew certain Captains who regarded their ships as schools and their positions as Pontifex Maximus; they need do no more – seniority would bring them all to the rank of Rear Admiral, barring fault and disgrace, and that, often in retirement, carried further accolades. They knew that not everyone could achieve the rank of active Admiral in the fleet so why worry about getting promotion at this stage. He certainly would not. He admired Captains like Phisher and Berryford who worked their way up putting the Navy first and working hard for action and reform to improve its performance in every way.
Ephraim had been anxious about the big fleet sailing that awaited him in the new Navy but as time went on, he began to like the precision and efficient discipline of the New Navy regime, with its emphasis on smartness (some of the Captains even paid for their own, admired new paintwork. Not him) and perfection of uniformed display of men and ships. Phisher was determined to see a powerful British Navy, supreme in all action and reformed into a new professional, efficient vehicle of war. Stress was laid upon the importance of battle fleet exercises. The exercises were not merely exercises derived by Admirals to examine the gunnery skill of the ships and the best management of tactics by its Captains, they were regarded by the Navy and the public as mock attacks in the face of war, rehearsals for the main event. They were exercises watched by a fascinated populace as well as Admiralty. What citizen could not be interested? Eliza certainly was.
Ephraim wrote to her,
‘You would have been amazed at the mock attack on the coastal town, we landed impressively, quite without warning, two divisions of 3000 men and twelve guns either side of a grouse mountain on a hard, rocky shore. We lead out in single line ahead and steered to the East till the last ship was cleared of the entrance, but then there was a mix up with an instruction between Phisher and Berryford. Some think Phisher was at fault, and we lost half an hour off course, getting back. We were late in arriving and people were waiting for us on the quay.’ He knew Eliza would be impressed.
‘Do you read the papers, Eliza? Our latest exercise has been too realistic, the King was woken up at night by a telegram. Admiralty were appalled but the King expressed his satisfaction at knowing the country was being taken care of!’
Newspapers became a daily event. Captains had to host reporters like Arnold Trite of the Daily Trail and politicians like Andrew Forster, Secretary of State, and industrialists like Thomas Crassey, who oversaw their every action and inaction and reported it to avid readers. Ephraim had Arnold Trite aboard during one of his exercises and spent the hours fearful of what could happen. Fortunately, it was uneventful and Mackie, who was now showing himself much improved as Commander oversaw some successful gunnery which had left the Telford leaving the field. Ephraim had not enjoyed the company of Arnold Trite who was very voluble on the matter of The Modern Jew, a book he had recently written. Ephraim found the subject unsettling. He had been reading of ill treatment of Jews in London in the twelfth century and remembered the old man on the beach. It was ridiculous but it made him feel vulnerable.