Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 4 – The Build Up
Life moved swiftly on after Phisher became First Sea Lord. The British ships were amalgamated into the big Home fleet, the Mediterranean Fleet, and the smaller Channel Fleet. They were impressive when they gathered as the Grand Fleet for exercises. One correspondent reported:
‘Seventy two battle ships and cruisers with nearly 40,000 men. When they run into anchor in eight lines, a straight edge placed in front of them would not have shown a ship a foot out of place.’
Popular support for this supremely powerful Navy increased. They were waiting to try strengths with Hipper’s High Seas German Fleet, ‘strike and strike hard’, Phisher’s voice could be heard everywhere. That is, until age forced his retirement.
‘Thank goodness!’ said Ephraim.
When his successor, Admiral Battenberg, was deemed unsuitable and Phisher was recalled as First Sea Lord, Sebold declared it,
‘A magnificent feat!’
There was a new luminary in the shape of Richard Breatty, an upcoming young Admiral who had been given a squadron of new Battle Cruisers. Gideon was delighted to be a Midshipman in one of his battle cruisers, the Queen Charlotte. He told his father, ‘I dined on Wednesday with the Rear Admiral, with all the other Gunnery and Torpedo Officers of the Squadron.…The Rear Admiral himself is still very young. He became Admiral at 37, after very early promotion from Lieut, to Cmdr and Cmdr to Captain. Now I suppose he is 41 or 42 and is almost bound to fill all the important posts in turn: having also the advantage of a rich American wife.’
‘He also has the advantage of Phisher’s support,’ Ephraim replied. ‘It takes an Admiral to make an Admiral – and to undo him! Look out for another Admiral quietly climbing the slippery ladder, John Bellicoe, he has the support of the civilian First Lord, Burchill. He is quiet compared with Breatty but they are all working for the same ends, the supremacy of the British Navy, global conquest. Sometimes I wish we could think less about conquest and more about compassion. The news coming out about the Boer war has been very disturbing. I think we should not involve our naval brigades in these military land wars.’
Ephraim reflected on how lucky he was to have Gideon and some of the Notables in the Grand Fleet together at a time when communications were easier with cables, and there were more mutual opportunities of meeting. He found that life in an armoured cruiser in the new Channel Fleet was actually quite easy; with a good crew it was like living in a small, comfortably run hotel, apart from the juddering of that hotel with every gunnery practice. CPO Piercy ran a good galley with a cook who had lived in France, for once Ephraim could enjoy meals. Mackie improved the lieutenants and the POs kept the splendid bluejackets well up to the mark. Lieutenant Hopkins, in his capacity as Chaplain, was always able to entertain Ephraim in theological conversation. All round, it was nothing like the hard living in the new destroyers. He was even enjoying the equal speed exercises and the mock attacks. If you planned them well with a good crew and didn’t get too ambitious about them it was an intriguing and useful experience. There was even a tendency for him to find life getting a bit boring, just keeping look out and running exercises and trips backwards and forwards between the fleet base in Rosythe and Spithead. The cafe in Rosythe became as familiar as the inn in Portsmouth. He even thought wistfully of the excitement of blackbirding – and the good intentions of it.
A diversion occurred, and a fuss erupted when news spread through the fleet, that Intervention had nearly collided with Admiral Breatty in Bryon, coming out of Spithead. The Admiral was reported furious,
‘How had it happened?’
‘Was it that new Captain from Admiralty?’
‘Was there going to be a Court Martial?’
‘Would he resign?’
In the event everybody knew that at least, Captain Sebold had been severely reprimanded. Ephraim was uncertain whether to say anything or not about it to his friend. Sebold had already confided his lack of confidence. This would do nothing to help it. He decided a sympathetic approach was best,
‘Sorry to hear about that trouble you had, old man, but that entrance can be tricky.’
‘It was all Harker’s fault,’ said Charles, ‘I was detained in my cabin and the wrong directions were given. Commander Grieve was in charge and the two of them messed it up. Feel like trying to get rid of them.’
‘Very unfortunate,’ said Ephraim, ‘Tell your officers, they may think it odd, but you are always about in the quad,’ he laughed.
‘Sometimes I think I should have stayed at Admiralty,’ Sebold sighed.
Mason wrote a letter of encouragement. He was also having his own problems in Forder with Trott’s torpedo cruisers,
‘Running torpedoes…done before breakfast….my party up getting the torpedoes. By 7.30 out of three torpedoes all had sunk and only one had the grace to see the surface again. Then it occurred to me what a silly miscalculation of weights I had made; and I had the pleasure of knowing it might cause a couple of thousand pounds to be added to the country’s bill. Luckily the sea was glassy, and the spot where one torpedo departed was accurately known and so before I started breakfast, a diver was sitting on that one and very shortly returned it to its anxious parents. My other child was in a more serious case, as he hadn’t been seen after leaving home. However, they have a nasty habit of exuding oil; and there is usually a leakage of air from them too. So after some search we had the great luck to come on those air bubbles rising from the surface. The divers again went down, in very deep water this time, 120 feet, and in about two hours found that torpedo; so that I had much more luck than deserved, or expected; there is no unpleasant Court of Inquiry into it. There would have been some excuse because we were carrying out special trials at full speed and under abnormal conditions; but I could hardly claim that I had taken all reasonable precautions.’
As the months went by most of Ephraim’s pleasure came from his son’s accounts of life with Breatty’s Battle Cruiser Squadron.
They were to act as Ambassadors and show the flag in various parts of the world.
‘…tremendously busy; crew completed to its full number yesterday and we are lying in the harbour at one of the jettys with about 12 lighters alongside – 13.5 projectiles, cordite, torpedoes and warheads for them, flour and other provisions, rum and oil fuel – O, and I forgot one which contains the torpedo net defence for our port side….on Monday we start to take in 3200 tons of coal, a record amount for any ship.’
They visited Brest, Cherbourg, Vigo among other interesting ports.
Russia proved particularly interesting in the visit to Krondstat:
‘the house of grand duke Basil, grand duchess Victoria, wife of Cyril, I made an effort to kiss her hand gracefully without much success, as she didn’t appear to want it….Empress, Emperor and their four daughters. The Emperor is not nearly as like King George as their photographs suggest…The Empress is tall, and though no doubt in the right dress she could look regal, she appears rather more the nice, comfortable sort of woman who would be very pleasant to everyone….Of the four daughters, the second, Tatiana, is dark and rather pale ; the other three are rather like their Mother, brunettes; they are all very pretty girls, the two oldest with their hair up….. Introduced to Tationa and Anastasia… the whole family talk English perfectly…we all put our names in the visitors book and coming generations will find mine on the page opposite the Emperors. A large party visited the Duma……the Times correspondent has been on board…The Tsar made a detailed inspection of the Bryon….then a big dance and supper aboard…. Russians everywhere, can’t be kept out by a curtain or a sliding door.’
‘Plans…spend a week eating, drinking, dancing and illuminating at Vigo and Arosa Bay – back in March….’
Shortly after Gideon’s visit to Vigo, Ephraim received another letter,
I meant to tell you. After we went to Kronstadt we went to Vigo and I was wandering about the streets and went into small shop selling pictures. I swear they had that one you said was by Reubens, you know when we were sorting things into the attic for the new house? And you said the other day that you had given it to Sebold to sell and it got burned before the auction. Is it possible? There must only be one of them and you said it was valuable. Is there any way of making sure because I am sure I could trace it. Vigo is a lovely place, I could go there for a holiday. We don’t want anyone else making money out of it.’
At first Ephraim was inclined to ignore it – must be a mistake – but Gideon was not one to make mistakes. Anyway, he could identify it. He had put a small E.B. on the back bottom left hand corner. Nobody else would have noticed it. He was astonished and felt guilty at the reservations he had always had about Sebold but surely he wouldn’t do anything underhand. He had been strapped for money moving house and Seb had told him the small, dark picture was valuable and he knew where to sell it. But of course, he had not had the chance to sell it as the auction place went up in flames. He might just mention it to Sebold – or, perhaps not, – there were other things to think about in these war torn days. He would rather spend his time talking to that young Midshipman – Vernon, who reminded him so much of Gideon. Typical of the brave youngsters the war was throwing up – brave and skilled and competent. He smiled as he thought of the temerity of what Vernon had said in relation to his work,
‘Many of the officers are very antiquated specimens, called up after years of retirement, and consequently a large amount of responsibility rests with us midshipmen, who are well up, of course, in all the modern methods of gunfire control.’
He would write to Eliza about Vernon, she would be interested. The Admiralty mails were turning out to work very well; battle ships frequently in harbour could communicate almost within minutes and send mails home often, and although cruisers were continually at sea, mails for home left on average once a week and ‘we can communicate between each other very easily’, said Ephraim.
Somebody else who managed to communicate with Ephraim was Cecil Stollman.
Dear Captain Browne,
I feel I should tell you that Captain Bowen has died from a self administered dose of Cyanide.
I know he was a friend of yours. I will miss him, he was a good fellow. Gifford was with him at the end.
Ephraim was appalled! He found it hard to take in. Where was Fraser? Did he know? Should he tell Mason and Polwhele? Seb? What a terrible thing. He felt guilty. Perhaps he should have done more when Fraser mentioned the situation. But it all seemed so unlikely. His mind went all around it, checking on the implications. But war was coming and what other dreadful situations and events might it bring.
Presumably none of the others knew of this. Why worry them? Let sleeping Bowens lie. How could such a sentiment come into his mind! He must do something, but what? Fraser would have taken it so badly. What could any of them do now? There was always the one thing, he could pray. He would never see Bowen again but he might see Fraser. He felt sick. His stomach lurched. He would tell Eliza, no breakfast.
Bad news seemed to be increasing.
It was obvious that war was likely if not imminent. The Kaiser was flexing his muscles with his ambitious German Navy; there had been a crisis with France over Agadir in Morocco, Italy had caused a problem with Fashoda on the Nile, Russia and Japan held an uneasy peace after war in Manchuria and there was trouble in the Baltic.
When news came that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been murdered in Serbia, Ephraim hardly thought that within a few days, Austria would have declared war on Serbia, Germany and Russia would declare war on each other, Germany would invade Belgium and declare war on France and Britain, and Britain would have declared war on Germany in support of Belgium and France and The First World War would have broken out.