Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 5 – War
The build-up of the war was proving a frustrating time for the officers of The Grand Fleet. Phisher had been recalled, they had the men, they had the ships and they were raring to go. The Admirals kept up the tactical training and strategic planning, the men were ready and practiced behind their guns and torpedoes, but the German High Seas fleet would not come out to play. The Admirals and Captains were frustrated. The strategy was to patrol the North Sea and blockade the High Seas Fleet in its bases until the Germans came out for the main battle which they were looking forward to – ‘war is what I have come for!’ Vernon told Captain Browne.
The change at Admiralty in the recall of now Lord Phisher, was generally well received. The Thunderer reported that he ‘was now entering the close of his 74th year but he was never younger or more vigorous’.
Commander Mackie told Ephraim,
‘I’m not sure there is anyone to equal him. If only he and Burchill agree, we are sure to have a strong policy, I think his appointment was the best that could be made in the circumstances and the men are happy with ‘the old man’.’
Polwhele, who was approaching the Grand Fleet to take up his place as an acting Chaplain on the battleship Relyon, had the whole awe-inspiring sight of it in front of him. He wrote to Lily,
My darling, you cannot imagine the sight: a phalanx of twenty or more mighty battleships in five or six columns, zigzagging from port to starboard with military precision, at a speed of eighteen knots, each column screened against submarine attack by destroyers. Thirty miles ahead a scouting screen of light cruisers covers a front of 120 miles. The Battle Cruisers are between the cruisers and the battle ships. The cruisers are the scouts – they have to try and locate the enemy and the battle cruisers obliterate the enemy. For us, and the Germans, our battle cruisers are the hard core of our attacking power.
Dearest, as you can imagine, it makes me wish I could contribute to the fighting in the old Trelawney style but the good Lord has given me a different job and now with our child coming, it is best to be part of the peaceful world he will grow up in, to encourage heroes but not to make them. Compassion with Conquest.
It is not long now is it? Take great care of your lovely self, make sure your mother sends to the ship as soon as the baby arrives and give Lord Vane my respects. How strange it would be to be father of a girl?
With tenderest love, Richard
These were indeed strange times thought Polwhele. He was aware that his strength was failing. He could hardly grip anything now and soon his legs would cease to obey him in any way. He had had a very depressing talk with the MO who had said he would be unlikely to walk soon and sketched out some other possibilities of physical failure. Perhaps the Lord had found him now before it was too late for a reason, but he could not see what it was? He knew it was not punishment. He had confessed his sorrow for past ways of dealing with the women he had known. No, it seemed a matter of love and putting things right while he could. He felt prompted to write a note to Ephraim,
Dear old friend,
I hope all is working well for you on Vogue and your men are behaving themselves. I’m sure they will do no other under such a good Captain. Such a sad loss of Chris Bradock and the three reserve cruisers off the Dutch coast – makes us realise how vulnerable we all are. In fact, ’tis the notion that we may all of us go at any time and meet our Maker that makes me just want to write a last line to put matters right with all my friends where I may have offended.
Do you remember that day we quarrelled in Brisbane and I walked out on you. I was wrong – I knew you were genuinely concerned for me and if God had not been so good as to put me right and give me Lily, I should have died of syphilis like many another poor devil.
Belated apologies and thank you for the integrity and may I say it, love, you have shown me over the years. We are indeed and have always been good friends. Up the Notables!
Have you heard? Lily is expecting – any day now – would you believe it? And would you believe? The Reverend?
Ephraim was surprised and a little disconcerted by Polwhele’s letter but he appreciated the sentiment and returned it in a more reserved way. Perhaps these thoughts were fitting in the face of possible untimely death.
‘Well, that’s a highlight’, he said, putting his breakfast newspaper down in the wardroom.
‘Funny word to use,’ said Mackie.
‘I only meant that it was a good start. At least you know there is a war on. It seems we have vindicated ourselves well at Heligoland. In fact, I am writing to Captain Mason at this very moment about the Battle of Heligoland Bight as they are calling it. I asked him what had happened with Breatty’s cruisers, because our 1st squadron was not required. Remember, he captains Forder, one of Breatty’s fast, big 3rd squadron cruisers.’
They would not have managed without us! When we came up at the end of the battle, they thought the cavalry had arrived! Were they thankful!
I too praised God that we had arrived in time because without us it would not have been a victory and we would have lost a lot more than the 35 men killed, poor chaps. But it was good to have this outcome after the loss of Craddock and the three cruisers so early in the war.
Of course, Old Sebold wouldn’t agree it was God – called it ‘good fortune’.
‘Yes,’ said Mackie, ‘Sometimes I wonder what’s the difference? What is this entity people call fortune or luck and some call God?’
Sweetman folded his napkin,
‘Well, when our time comes, and God knows it can be any day now, nicer to think we are summoned home by the Lord than extinguished by bad luck or ill fortune!’ He picked up his Bible,
‘I’m off to have a word with Commander Polwhele, he is training with us this morning.’
‘Oh, that’s good,’ tell him to come up when he can.’ Ephraim finished off his letter,
Thankful to see you got through bravely and safely. We might be together for the next battle and should certainly be there for the final victory – when we can persuade Hipper to come out! How are you finding Breatty? Keep in touch.
Your Notable friend, Ephraim
A few days later, Ephraim and Sebold were meeting in the Rosyth cafe. Most of the time the ships seemed either to be going into Rosyth harbour or coming out of it.
‘I have some news I should tell you,’ said Sebold,
‘Not to beat about the bush. I am going back to Admiralty – well, I hope so, I have been making approaches. They need a brain up there and they are hoping to make a decent Intelligence Staff. After my experience assisting the Second Lord with Ordnance, he has expressed his wish to have me back. Burchill apparently agrees, so the sooner the better. I have done my bit for the Grand Fleet now.’
‘Well, each to his own, I suppose. It won’t be so easy to get up to White Hall to see you.’
‘No, and that is why I need to tell you something else and give you something. You remember that valuable picture you gave me, and I said it had got burnt, I am ashamed to say it did not. I sold it to someone. I have felt badly about it ever since and more so since if I am going to see my maker which I doubt, then frankly I need to hedge my bets. I do not ask you to forgive me Eff, but please, do accept this,’ and Sebold unwrapped thirty guineas and put it on the table.
Ephraim said nothing about what Gideon had told him, and his reservations. Never the less, he was surprised and pleased at the outcome.
‘Don’t be daft Charles, you are my friend, of course, I forgive you.’ He picked up the money, ‘Come and let us spend some of this at a decent lunch.’
A week later, there was some more surprising news.
Captain Charles Sebold had been promoted to Admiral. His place as Captain of Relyon was to be taken by Captain Wren, recently serving in China. Captain Fitzmaurice had been promoted to Admiral and would continue to serve at Admiralty.
On reflection, Charles was less surprised.
Life did not greatly change for the Notable Captains. The German U-boat submarines were the only real threat while the High Seas Fleet was holed up in harbour at Wilhelmshaven in the North Sea. They were made more anxious by the stories from the populace. Food rationing was becoming a feature but the story was not of the Navy but the army. The Expeditionary force had fallen into trouble and the new feature of trench warfare caused concern and what had seemed an impossible feature before the war, the less than chivalric notion of submarine warfare, looked like becoming the central cause of naval death. Captain Browne thought much of death but the young Gideon thought little of it,
‘I feel very little or no anxiety about it…, we’re in a very well protected ship with every hope of always getting the best of things.’
The British people thought little of death. They assumed their wonderful superior navy with its Admirable Admirals would always be victorious, ‘wider still and wider would its bounds increase’. Ships continued to exercise and move backwards and forwards between bases of Rosyth and Scapa Flow.
Ephraim was taking his cruiser Vogue out of Spithead one day, when he saw the Telford approaching on its way out to some important event. Its yards were manned and men stood at attention on the deck. Ephraim stood watching and admiring on the bridge. As the bluejackets on the deck passed him he thought he recognised one of them. Surely not! Impossible! But yes, the head turned, and the eyes of Fraser were fixed upon him. He was imagining things! The head turned away, and then amidst the unmoving line of fixed blue jackets, an arm was lifted, and a hand raised. It was indeed Fraser.
Ephraim was moved. Fraser had found a way back into service. He gave thanks for answered prayer and the Telford moved on.
After the initial excitement over the idea of war everything settled down. Gideon was getting restless. He was an acting Sub Lieutenant Torpedo officer now looking for promotion and a more interesting ship. He had heard the stories of his father’s time in the ‘bug traps’ and the gun boats. He explained to his father ‘The war is rather boring…our standard of excitement goes up, and there are not enough events to keep things interesting. Every afternoon we sleep after lunch till teatime, and there isn’t much to do in the morning or after tea. Coaling times, especially night coaling, upsets one’s idea of the week, and its awfully difficult to remember what day it is…Electric wires, lighting and motors is what we talk about all day now. I have been talking to Admiral Bertram about a change…It is hard to get news of what is happening and to hear of war action in which Queen Charlotte has no place is frustrating’.
Elizabeth had expressed anxiety about Gideon’s coaling, she did not think Officers should get covered in steam and soot going ‘down the coal hole’. Ephraim understood that confined mostly to the ship he missed his Edwardian social and cultural life, staying at the aristocratic country house weekends, the theatre and sporting outings with fellow officers, ‘no luck comes our way now’.
Ephraim had a pleasant Christmas in his comfortable cruiser with a congenial company, but Gideon became rather more depressed. ‘The mess deck was decorated as usual and all the officers went round, headed by the band, but it was a rather dismal performance, as the Captain had no idea of talking to the men and the whole affair only took ten minutes instead of an hour. The decorations are chiefly coloured paper and paper flags…however, I think the men amused themselves alright, with plenty of noise and some music’.
Ephraim suspected there would be more than amusement to come, after Christmas.