A Life Cut Short – The Edited Letters of Lieutenant Commander Ralph Lyall Clayton, 1885 – 1916
We meet Ralph Clayton next in June of 1901. He was a young Midshipman on HMS Hannibal, one of the Majestic class of first class pre-dreadnought battleships. She was launched at Pembroke in April of 1896. In 1901 she was part of the Channel Squadron, carrying a complement of about 672 men. Gerald W. Russell was probably her Captain.
After a difficult train journey when he got into the wrong train at Barnstaple and had to go back for the train to Portsmouth, Ralph arrived on board ‘not too late’, had supper and unpacked the ‘numerous parcels from Gieves’. It was not an exciting start. He spent the greater part of next day on watch, ‘walking up and down the deck doing nothing…’ In the afternoon the Midshipmen were shown over the ship, ‘into the magazines, etc’. On the following day after half an hour drill before breakfast, he went with the field guns on to Southsea Common. But again there was nothing to do there except ‘keep out of the way’. In the afternoon, he went to visit his friends, the Hordens. After having bought a 3d bus ticket when he only needed a 2d – ‘such a waste’ – he was mollified by the charms of four girls and a tennis tournament to watch, before it was time to return to ship and prepare for coaling on the morrow, ‘we have to take in 1600 tons from lighters alongside..’
In the event coaling did not take place until three days later. It was Ralph’s first experience of coaling;,
‘we had to take in 1750 tons of coal.The coal boat came alongside on Saturday. We started at six o’clock on Monday. The officers didn’t have to work [ballast?] after all.The midshipmen had to wave flags to direct the men in charge, when to haul up, etc. We didn’t finish on Monday and went on most of Tuesday. It was rather unpleasant most of Tuesday as it was raining all the morning hard. At the end we were all very black and it took a lot of washing off.’
One wonders what all that coal dust inhalation did to their lungs?
On July 7th Hannibal arrived at Portland to be with three other ships of the Channel squadron preparing for the forthcoming manoevres. One of the Midshipman’s responsibilities on a Sunday was conducting men to church services. Ralph had the Presbyterian party and then had to wait for other parties. The service was stopped while they were all publicly ‘admonished for being late’. There was only a quarter of an hour left of the service. The next excitement was getting his pay – ‘I have just got my pay – £6.13.7
The ships left for Spithead and there was some preliminary work.
We played about when we got to sea and separated so that we should use our masthead semaphores and wireless telegraphy. The ‘Wireless did not get on very well as another station was signalling at the same time and we got a mixture of that and the message from the Majestic. Although we were to have gone on signalling up to two o’clock, the Admiral gave it up before twelve and we closed again and went on for Portland.
They were to go on to Torquay to meet the other divisions. Not before the Mayor gave a garden party in honour of the Fleet. ‘I couldn’t go as I had duty. I am not altogether sorry.’ In August Ralph wrote to his mother giving her a disappointing account of an early preparation for manouevres.
Last Sunday we weighed soon after eleven and proceeded to sea to cut off the other fleet. We sighted them 12.0 on Monday, opened fire at 1.20 and ceased firing an hour afterwards. We then went to the Scillies for the night. Next morning we were off by seven o’clock for Torbay which we reached just before seven. On turning out we received the pleasant news that we had to coal that day…started at eleven …600 tons to take in..at it till six o’clock’.
Then it was off to Berehaven. Fellow Midshipmen were beginning to hear about their next postings and Ralph was becoming impatient to know his. He hoped at least to join the Med fleet for a short cruise and was anxious that Gieve should send his white tunics in time. Meanwhile, ‘it is pretty dull down here…I have been ashore several times but there is nothing to do except have tea’.., He had family friends he wanted to visit, the Commander gave leave for visit but not the Captain. There was a slight diversion when they;
..tested our torpedoes and practised firing. I had one of the boats which had to bring them back so saw it all while nearly all the others were in school. We only had to rescue them as soon as they appeared on the surface and then we were towed back by a steam boat…
To his delight Hannibal did go to join the Med Fleet in its cruise. The ships met at Lagos, ‘very hot – went into whites – any amount of grapes and green figs which hardly cost anything’. Cost was an issue for most of the young Midshipmen.
Would you mind asking Father to send me 10 [shillings] from my Savings Bank Money, for you see when our Mess Bills and Servant are paid for there is precious little left over for the month. Anyhow, I can get on alright with that.’
There were various competitive evolutions to be practised at Lagos;
On Monday we went out and began. On Tuesday, at out nets we were about in the middle, but in getting our nets in and furling them we took about half an hour while the Renown only took two min. Getting our nets out we took four min, the Canopus only took 30 secs. The next evolution of getting our stern anchors out and in again we should have done better if we had had the requisite gear to work both at once. …The third evolution was getting our sheet anchor into a boat. The Ramillies took five min, we brought up the rear with the noble time of 37 min. It is really wonderful how smart the other fleet. I suppose we don’t have half enough of these evolutions…. on Wednesday we started ” Battle exercises” which consisted of the men going to General Quarters, the two fleets wheeling about in all directions and [?] we were attacked by Destroyers; altogether it was about as dull as it could possibly have been and I don’t think there was very much in it that was confidential. On Wednesday and Thursday, we I think were the only ships which went to General Quarters; the greater part went on with the work as usual. As it was, I was in the fore top on all three mornings and in the afternoons of the first two days doing nothing. On Friday we engaged, firing blank which they kept up for three hours; most exciting, wasn’t it….
Ralph decided it was ‘not taken seriously by other ships.’
The Channel Squadron then left the Med. Fleet and set sail for Berehaven, via Gibraltar and full speed trials. After a leisurely weekend seeing the local sights, the trials started;
We were behind except for the cruisers all the other ships having a start of us. We overhauled all but two of the battleships …and later on the Magnificent also, leaving only the Jupiter ahead of us…Mars astern…Repulse is probably miles astern.
When they arrived at Bere haven, Jupiter was first, Majestic close behind, then Mars and Magnificent. Repulse came in later and Prince George last …’I don’t know why as she is not a bad steamer’.
The next three weeks were miserable for the young Midshipman as he had painful toothache which the dentist took a long time to deal with. It proved to be an abcess and his teeth needed to be ‘stopped’. In the event he told his worried mother, ‘I am having all my teeth done. So far two holes in four teeth have been finished and there are two more….’ The Dentist charged 7 Guineas, ‘I don’t know if that is cheap but he certainly did a good deal and did it very well’. During what must have been a very difficult three weeks, Ralph, as befitted a young Middy,never complained beyond telling his mother, ‘I have been very ill’.
When he was fit, it was back to Hannibal where the Channel Squadron was ‘getting ready numbers of electric lights to illuminate the ship for the Duke ‘ [of York] The ship was to go to Spithead;,
We went in past the Needles and anchored off Cowes. ‘I don’t know why we went in that way. It must have been the D.of York’s idea. I am sure Adm.Wilson would not have done it. I hear that it is the first time the Channel fleet has gone through that way. We didn’t illuminate last night as intended because it had been so windy during the day…we moved up to Spithead…. and dressed ship. About 9.30 we manned ship and saluted the King as he passed through the fleet in the Royal Yacht. The band played God Save the King and there were three rather feeble cheers from each ship.’
After the royal visit there were rumours that Midshipmen were to get three week’s leave before Christmas. ‘But the captain asked the Admiral if we could which was quite fatal’…(Not for nothing was Admiral Wilson known as old ‘Ard Heart ‘ ) Instead it was a case of prize firing in fog and the interminable coaling. Ralph lifted his spirits by thinking of the prospect of the Christmas parties they would have at home when he did get his leave, and the new stamp album he wanted for his Christmas present, ‘ Stanley Gibbons is the best’. He was delighted to receive some stamps, chosen at random from his mother;
For one pair I think I could get £3 from any good dealer. While there are over half a dozen others worth from 2/- to 5/-. They are almost all New South Wales with 2 ‘States of the Church’: the two valuable ones are known as Sydney views on account of their having a view of Sydney in the background and in front ‘Liberty’, I think it is, greeting some convicts which have just landed and freeing them to cultivate the land. Some of thease stamps have been printed from worn plates and the design is very indistinct. If there are any more of them I think we might send them up and have them valued.
His main concern, however, was his posting to his first commission. He wanted the Grafton,
I am rather sorry that I didn’t tell Father before that I should like the Grafton – then he could have asked when he went the first time. It would have saved a few days. I know she is very much in request. She is the only ship on the station which carries midshipmen, all the other ships being rather small.
I thought that I may not be appointed to the Grafton at all…she ought to be commissioned soon…
I was awfully glad to hear that you had been able to get the Grafton. I was afraid Admiral Douglas would say he wanted all the vacancies for the term passing out of Britannia this time. They have been having mumps on board again.
There was time to enjoy Christmas at home, enlivened by a visit to the theatre with the girls from Cornwall Gardens and the exciting prospect of the Grafton, before returning to Hannibal for the last frustrating few weeks. He was glad of the steam trials at Sheerness, ‘I have been running the steam pinnace ever since we arrived….kept me well occupied.’
With great excitement and anticipation he joined HMS Grafton, bound for the Pacific Station, at Sheerness on January 23rd 1902.
(Mary Jones asserts copyright)