Part 2 – Midshipmen
Chapter 6 – Senior Midshipmen
The Notables who were at liberty before their new commissions, got in touch with each other to meet in Portsmouth to have the pleasure of keeping up with their friends. They had chosen a day out rather than stay drinking in a Portsmouth hostelry and were gathered together lounging on the beach at Gosport, idly chucking stones into the water. They had found a patch of sand amidst the pebbles and lay back in the early sunshine. There had been the usual last minute change in postings. Sebold, Browne and Polwhele were going to the ironclad warship, Aspire, Bowen and Fraser were to be in the frigate Fortitude. Both ships were destined for the Mediterranean fleet. They would almost certainly see action of some sort. ‘Why do they always get the best postings, Mason?’ grumbled Gail who was off with Mason to a sloop on the China Station, ‘Just because they did well in the Training Ship, and it has influence at Admiralty.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Mason, ‘Fitzmaurice messed up in passing out exams, but he got the Chester.’
‘Well, that’s Fitz,’ answered Sebold, ‘He’ll end up a Gala Lieutenant, but look at Polwhele, he did equally badly and had also got the Aspire with me and Browne.’
‘What’s a Gala lieutenant?’
‘An aristocrat – gets what he wants every time.’
‘Oh well, no justice, I suppose. Anyway, it didn’t work out for us, we got slung on to the undistinguished Thebe.’ Sebold always regretted his loss of the Chester but at least Aspire was an ironclad.
Polwhele roused himself, ‘It’ll be good to have some battle at last, see how all those drills and evolutions work out in practice.’
‘Great for our promotion,’ said Sebold, ‘War is a brilliant advantage, don’t reckon we will have to wait long for promotion the way things are going. All the retiring yellow Admirals are leaving now and with political developments and all the shenanigans in Africa showing the need for a growing Navy, we could soon be made Lieutenants.’
The thoughts of actual warfare took on a more daunting aspect as they discussed the matter,
‘My father says all he remembers of Sebastopol was noise and smoke, you could hardly see a thing,’ said Sebold as they weighed up the chances of battle and shared mutual advice on tactics.
‘My uncle was badly wounded by a 14lb shot in the American War in 1812, and the shot is still in possession of the family,’ declared Bowen.
‘Good gracious,’ said Polwhele, ‘My grandfather had three horses shot under him at Waterloo!’
‘Nelson said an officer could do no wrong if he put his ship alongside the enemy ship,’ said Ephraim reflectively.
‘Be a bit of a while before we can make that decision, one way or another. Can’t wait for it,’ said Polwhele. He had no qualms. Conquest, victory, and supremacy was what he had come for; to see Royal Navy guns obliterate any other Navy that took to the seas. It was his patriotic duty as well as his pleasure, and had not God stood by his prophets and his people while they wiped out the Amelekites and all the other tribes warring against the chosen people?
‘You and Sebold never did read the Bible properly,’ Ephraim sighed, ‘Remember we are here to keep God’s peace, not to stoke the war.’
‘What do we do if we are given an order we think we should not obey?’ Mason thought it not unlikely.
‘You obey it or face a Court Martial!’
‘One thing worries me,’ said Fraser, ‘I didn’t want to upset you fellows, but I believe Staines has got Fortitude.’
‘Lord, I don’t want to see him again.’ Bowen screwed up his face.
‘Can’t believe he and Stollman got away with that rum business,’ said Fraser.
‘That was because of Melrose. They all kept stum. Shouldn’t worry, Staines won’t want to throw his weight around in a man of war, he was strictly a big fish in a little pond.’
‘If it’s not Staines, Mason, it’ll be some one else. There is always one.’ Polwhele had subsided into a prone position and gave a heavy sigh.
Ephraim looked at him. Pol was not his usual bright, optimistic self. He had hardly said anything this afternoon.
They were disturbed by a small commotion up the beach. The beach was deserted but a couple of fellows were larking about and throwing a ball at an older man sitting on the pebbles. ‘Funny way of enjoying yourself,’ remarked Ephraim.
‘Don’t think the old chap is,’ said Mason. The ball hit the old man in the face. The fellows laughed,
‘Oh, terribly sorry, old chap. Didn’t mean it,’ and they saw the smaller of the two do it again. The old man staggered to his feet. He was distressed. He tried to move away but his feet shambled on the sand, he made an inarticulate sound and gestured to them to leave him alone.
‘I think he’s touched,’ said Fraser.
‘I don’t care what he is. We’re not standing for this. Stop that!’ Sebold shouted to the tormentors and started running towards them.
‘Oh, lookee here, what’s this…? Don’t you like our game? Terribly sorry,’ and the older tormentor threw the ball hard at Sebold, but Mason intercepted it and threw it hard back.
‘Oh, come on, leave them alone Flint,’ said the younger fellow, ‘They’re not worth bothering with.’
‘Oh, don’t you think so!’ said Ephraim and landed a right-hook on Flint’s nose. Polwhele twisted the younger fellow’s arms in convolutions round his back and brought him down. Fraser and Ephraim, knowing they could leave it to the others, tended to the old man. His face was grimacing and there were tears in his eyes, he was muttering incoherently and obviously terrified by the unexpected encounter; a mental defective, thought Ephraim, but justice was being done. Mason was sitting astride the younger lout lying on the ground, and Flint was trying to staunch the blood from his own nose.
‘Alright, you win,’ came from the ground, ‘But there are more of you.’
Polwhele released his victim and the tormentors ran off.
‘Good bye old man, watch where you sit in future,’ shouted Flint.
Ephraim took the blubbering old man up to the embankment wall that edged the beach and found a seat for him to sit on. The man was unable to put words together and was desperately trying to hold a shawl round his shoulders, but Ephraim recognized the gratitude in his grimace and noticed the skull cap and the ringlets: Jew baiting, he thought, in disgust.
‘Just like boys tormenting a cat,’ he said to Sebold, ‘Remember that cadet in the Training Ship that got run out for tormenting a cat. What is it about us humans?’
For a moment, he thought uncomfortably of his own situation. A Jewish mother, although converted to Christianity before he was born, made him still Jewish, Jewish by blood. Would they have tormented him? He would think about that later. Now getting cold, the tide was coming in and it was time to leave the beach.
The Midshipmen made their way back to their respective ships.
The first sight of Aspire was an advance on Thebe as befitted senior Midshipmen, thought Sebold as they cast their eyes over the ironclad. Sebold read out the specifics,
‘Listen fellows. It says here, she is a wooden line of battle ship converted to a broadside iron clad. She carries 10 – 7in breech loading rifled guns, 8 -100 pdr smooth bore guns, and 12- 68 pdr smooth bore guns. She is full- rigged broadside, with a single steam driven screw propeller and a maximum speed of thirteen knots. Lord Clarence Paget testifies to her fighting powers and her ease of manoeuvring.’
‘Not bad,’ said Fitzmaurice, on his way to Chester.
Things started well in Aspire. In contrast to Thebe, they found the gun room messing looked to be good – there was more room for eating, the food was a delight after ‘the hungry six’ of the Flying Squadron and there was space for working and relaxing. At the commissioning inspection Admiral Yelberton, on examining the Midshipmen’s logs and their watch bills, complemented Ephraim on his. They settled in and Sebold was looking forward to his first watch and meeting the Sub Lieutenant of his division. He didn’t know him and went up cheerfully to the main deck for the morning mustering. The Sub had already arrived. He was standing with his back to Sebold, arguing with a Petty Officer. He heard Sebold behind him and turned round,
‘Great Heavens! It’s you!’
‘And you!’ Sebold was shocked. How did this affront to the service get here! It was the elder of the two beach tormentors!
The Sub Lieutenant’s face reddened, his voice got louder, ‘Get to your station – at the double! At the double, I said!’
Sebold held himself together but he did not move, ‘Might I be permitted to know your name, Sub Lieutenant.’
‘Sub Lieutenant Flint and you’d better not forget it!’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t forget knowing you, Sub Lieutenant, and I don’t suppose the old man on Gosport beach will, either.’
‘Double off Sebold,’ Flint shouted, ‘Or I’ll have you for insolence on your first duty.’
‘Then I might remind the Commander of how you view your duty as a naval officer in public places.’
‘Are you threatening me?’
‘Yes. If telling the truth is regarded as threatening.’
‘Then you’d better just watch your back, young Sebold, or I’ll have you,’ and Flint started to stations without waiting to watch Sebold ostentatiously and leisurely walk away.
Sebold could not wait to meet Polwhele and Browne, and decide what to do about the obnoxious beach tormentors. They opened a private discussion in the gun room. ‘Of course, the other Mids won’t know anything about it. How do we tell them?’
The discussion was interrupted by the appearance of the beach tormentors. They came through the door with two other Sub Lieutenants. Flint called for silence,
‘It is my sad duty to have to tell you that three of our Midshipman insulted two of our Sub Lieuts on Gosport beach. So, what is the punishment for disrespect, in the gunroom? Ten? Or more? You take the dark one, Parker, and I’ll take the other. Four Subs leapt on Sebold and Ephraim and lay about them with dirk and scabbard before the Mids had a chance to collect themselves. They tried to put up a fight, but the Subs were familiar with punishment holds that held young men down while other handy members of the gun room enjoyed the fun and chance to ingratiate themselves with the men of power. ‘Nine… ten ….twenty?’ The junior Mids looked on with interest to see how things were done and wondered what had happened on the beach.
‘Alright, duty done!’ said Flint ‘You two, get out, and we’ll deal with the others when we see them.’ Dirks were restored to their rightful place and Ephraim and Sebold went out to inspect the damage. Ephraim had sustained a nasty cut above his eye. Surely the First Lieutenant at least would remark on that! Bruises would show on Sebold’s body tomorrow, but nobody would remark on that.
‘My God,’ said Sebold, ‘Why do they have to spoil everything?’
‘Don’t swear, Sebold. Better pray than swear.’
‘Go on then, you pray!’ said Sebold, ‘Because I don’t know what to do. We can’t inform on them, who would believe our word against theirs? We would be made to look silly. I hate feeling so powerless and at the mercy of such devils.’
‘We need Polwhele, where the devil has he got to?’
‘No idea where Pol is,’ said Sebold, ‘Can’t understand it. Haven’t seen him since we arrived.’
‘Tomorrow I’m going to find out.’
It was not easy. There were few people concerned enough to wonder where a new Midshipman had got to and Polwhele was out of circulation in the sick bay. He had brought something back with him from leave and the pain was worsening. He had hardly been able to crawl to the sick bay.
‘A fine dose of clap,’ the doctor had said, and put him on the sick list for two weeks.
Polwhele was embarrassed, he was under no illusion as to the cause of his illness, but he blamed himself for his folly; conscience and anxiety made him take to his diary, ‘For some time I have been seeing the fruits of having anything to do with that damned b-t-l….I sometimes wonder what will come of it, I have so many things pass through my mind. Please God I may never get this again’.
Next day Captain Conran put his head around the door and told him to ‘use the classroom instead’.
A couple of days later, to Polwhele’s delight, Sebold appeared.
‘You look grim. Had trouble finding you – Ephraim wouldn’t come – he doesn’t approve. How are you, old chap?’
‘Have been better. At least there is more air in here – but the smell of drugs is awful and I hate seeing the men so much worse than I am. Worse thing is I am missing the beginning of things. Any action in the offing?’
‘Only action we have is here. Remember that incident on the beach,’ and he proceeded to tell Polwhele of the persecution from Flint and company. ‘Get out of this place and you can help us.’
The Flint cohort continued to torment Sebold and Ephraim where and when they could: generally, in the gun room where they held sway over lesser lives. They told lies to the First Lieutenant, who passed them on to the Commander.
‘What is this I hear of you two behaving badly in the gun room, throwing food around and being disrespectful to Sub Lieutenants when they remonstrate.’
‘Not true, Commander! Sub Lieutenant Flint sees things differently from other people and often sees what other people don’t see at all!’ Sebold said.
‘He has an unusual attitude about treatment appropriate to senior Midshipmen in the gun room,’ said Ephraim carefully.
‘Sub Lieut. Flint has friends who think like him,’ added Sebold.
Lieutenant Evans looked at them, ‘Hmm, I see… Next run ashore stopped. Don’t let me see you two again.’
The two friends were dejected. The ship was cruising along the coast of Italy and her officers enjoyed the chance to go ashore and see all the local sights. Sebold and Ephraim could only stand and see Stromboli from the ship’s deck,
‘Smoking away like blazes but not a sensible mountain, smoke comes out of the side not the top.’ It was a quiet, peaceful night, the moon shone softly, the sails swung gently in the breeze and the waves lapped against the hull but the senior Mids were not pacified,
‘We can go and see Polwhele and get some entertainment in the sick bay,’ said Sebold looking for some diversion at least.
‘It isn’t that I don’t want to see him, Seb, of course I do. I like him but I don’t want him to think that I approve of what he does. Some of us take notice of the Bible, and Paul says we must not associate with sinners after they have been shown the error of their ways and do not repent. How else will they improve? Pol knows it’s not right, he says so, but he doesn’t stop.’
‘Ephraim, you are a naval officer not a preacher, for heavens sake!’
‘Well, at least I would rather you swear by the heavens and not by God! And don’t expect me to come and see you in the sick bay!’
Ephraim stormed off. He hated the idea of falling out with his friend. And Jesus did say forgive seventy times seven. Was Sebold his friend? Cicero said friends had to be like-minded – he and Seb were not always like minded. He would have another word with Sebold. The words helped. After some discussion they decided to go together to see the invalid. Perhaps the three of them could work something out.
‘I have an idea,’ said Sebold.
‘Oh, not another of your ideas, Seb! We don’t want another trick. We’re not schoolboys now.’
‘You don’t think tricks are better than than shooting a Sub Lieutenant?’
‘Go on then, tell me …’
‘Well, I’ve been watching Flint, he is very superstitious. He wears that fetish round his neck and always touches it before he does something. I can work on that.’
In the event, it did not need working on.
A Flag reception was to be held for the people of Gibraltar to acknowledge the importance of the Fleet’s arrival. The members of a Jewish Charitable home for the elderly were invited amongst others for the celebration tea and included the old Jewish man who had been so sorely treated at the beach. When he saw two Sub Lieutenants coming to carry out their social duty of welcome, he cried out in horror at the sight of them and went into some sort of demented fit. The other recipients of the tea looked on in amazement. The First Lieutenant was called, who informed the Commander, who came to escort the old man to see the Captain. With difficulty the Captain learned what all the trouble was about, and explained it to an irate Admiral,
‘Apparently the old man is Jewish and losing his mind. He was apparently ill treated by Sub Lieutenants Parker and Flint. The very sight of them has demented him this afternoon. I will have words with them.’
‘Words will not be necessary since I will have them out of my Fleet at once!’ said Admiral Burton whose wife was from Israel, ‘This anti-Semitism must be stamped out wherever it is found. In these days of Disraeli, I thought it had virtually disappeared in view of the fact that we now have Jewish members of Parliament. It is a credit to the Navy that being Jewish has never been a bar to entry at any rank. Captain Conran was as desirous as the Admiral of losing Flint and Parker.
The small incidents of the commission continued. There was an incident when Sub Lieutenant Burt accused Polwhele of cheating in cards. It fortunately closed with an apology from Burt before Polwhele struck him. In June, Aspire had to go to the aid of the Flagship which went on shore coming out of dock. In July the Flagship returned the compliment when Aspire struck a rock off Santorini. The Flagship couldn’t pull her off, and it was a considerable job to blow out a boiler and shift cables as she made a move and then grounded again. It took all hands jumping on the ship to get her to come off. The Commander sent a note of congratulation to the Midshipmen for their part in the affair. Polwhele was not congratulated when he left his watch unattended to take a sailing boat out and it nearly capsized.
Aspire was sailing in the Mediterranean and it seemed less likely she would be involved in any outbreak of war with Admiral Yelverton at pains to keep the peace in the area. The main drama came from accidents. Sebold was horrified when a gunner firing a royal salute had both his arms blown off by the backfiring of the cartridge. He saw an arm pass close to him. He reported that the man was doing pretty well when they left. He was pleased that he had reacted coolly. A boy was killed when he was thrown over the middle, starboard wheel as he was leaning over it when the engines suddenly stopped, and Ephraim lost sleep over the issue. Sebold was pleased that he seemed to be getting on well with the Lieutenants. He had found a liking for chess games with Lieutenant Wise who liked a pupil.
Christmas approached, and the time-honoured custom of celebration with the blue jackets arrived. The tars decorated their quarters, and the officers were carried around the lower deck, something Ephraim dreaded. He told his father,
‘I was carried around the lower deck rather against my will but I think it showed I was not much hated as I got round without a missile being slung at me’.
Soon there was no time for anything but revision of work already learned, practice to help produce the perfect evolutions for their ship, ingratiation of senior officers where possible, and heads down in text books. There were to be examinations in Navigation, Gunnery and Seamanship. They all believed it was Seamanship that carried the weight. There had been ongoing exams in Arithmetic, Algebra, Euclid and mechanics, Navigation and Trigonometry, but the practical training at sea culminated, so long as the Midshipman had reached the age of nineteen, with the dreaded ‘viva voce’ seamanship examination to be taken before a board of three Captains. For this examination no numerical grading was given, but a class of certificate based on valuations and opinions of the aforesaid Captains was given. Presiding Captains had the Midshipman’s papers and log books before them, and were to,
‘strictly inquire into the …professional knowledge in all the details of an Officer’s and Seaman’s duty, …against each of which we have stated our opinions of his proficiency.’
This resulted in the Passing Certificate for Seamanship for the Rank of Lieutenant.
The opinions given were valuations from ‘fair’ to ‘very good’. At the end of the proceedings a final class of seamanship certificate was awarded, from 1 to 3. This method of final examination made the decision appear very arbitrary and dependent on the good will or otherwise of the Captains concerned. Personal animosity, favouritism, a bad digestion, could all come into play. It was the way in which the Seamanship examination was conducted that exasperated Midshipmen.
After five years training, ‘The labour of years is sifted in a few hours,’ declared Ephraim, ‘That hardly seems justice.’
Each Mid would have the captain from his own ship plus two others.
‘If I have Dunnock, I am done for – he hates me,’ moaned Polwhele.
‘I can’t bear Freeman – he trips you up for the slightest thing, puts even me in a funk,’ said Sebold.
‘I have always found Captain Stone helpful. I would opt for him,’ said Ephraim.
‘Captain Conran is reasonable. I think if anything he might err on our side.’ The Mids on Aspire agreed.
Polwhele did have to endure Captain Dunnock, who he believed, ‘Did his best to make him miss stays.’ He had been so nervous under ‘the old beast’, that he felt lucky even to get a third class. Sebold got a 1 and Ephraim got a 2.
With the final seamanship exams successfully completed the senior Midshipmen now became Acting Sub Lieutenants and were ready for training in gunnery at Whale Island and navigation at the new Greenwich College in London, which would lead them on to the desirable promotional lodestone of Lieutenant.