WHAT mystery is there like the mystery of the other man’s job—or what world so cut off as that which he enters when he goes to it? The eminent surgeon is altogether such an one as ourselves, even till his hand falls on the knob of the theatre door. After that, in the silence, among the ether fumes, no man except his acolytes, and they won’t tell, has ever seen his face. So with the unconsidered curate. Yet, before the war, he had more experience of the business and detail of death than any of the people who contemned him. His face also, as he stands his bedside-watches—that countenance with which he shall justify himself to his Maker—none have ever looked upon. Even the ditcher is a priest of mysteries at the high moment when he lays out in his mind his levels and the fall of the water that he alone can draw off clearly. But catch any of these men five minutes after they have left their altars, and you will find the doors are shut.
Chance sent me almost immediately after the Jutland fight a Lieutenant of one of the destroyers engaged. Among other matters, I asked him if there was any particular noise.
“Well, I haven’t been in the trenches, of course,” he replied, “but I don’t think there could have been much more noise than there was.”
This bears out a report of a destroyer who could not be certain whether an enemy battleship had blown up or not, saying that, in that particular corner, it would have been impossible to identify anything thing less than the explosion of a whole magazine.
“It wasn’t exactly noise,” he reflected. “Noise is what you take in from outside. This was inside you. It seems to lift you right out of everything.”
“An how did the light affect one?” I asked, trying to work out a theory that noise and light produced beyond known endurance form an unknown anaesthetic and stimulant, comparable to, but infinitely more potent than, the soothing effect of the smoke-pall of ancient battles.
“The lights were rather curious,” was the answer. “I don’t know that one noticed searchlights particularly, unless they meant business; but when a lot of big guns loosed off together, the whole sea was lit up and you could see our destroyers running about like cockroaches on a tin soup-plate.”
“Then is black the best colour for our destroyers? Some commanders seem to think we ought to use grey.”
“Blessed if I know,” said young Dante. “Everything shows black in that light. Then it all goes out again with a bang. Trying for the eyes if you are spotting.”
“And how did the dogs take it?” pursued. There are several destroyers more or less owned by pet dogs, who start life as the chance-found property of a stoker, an end in supreme command of the bridge.
“Most of ’em didn’t like it a bit. They went below one time, and wanted to be loved. They knew it wasn’t ordinary practice.”
“What did Arabella do?” I had heard a good deal of Arabella.
“Oh, Arabella’s quite different. Her job has always been to look after her master’s pyjamas—folded up at the head of the bunk, you know. She found out pretty soon the bridge was no place for a lady, so she hopped downstairs and got in. You know how she makes three little jumps to it—first, on to the chair; then on the flap-table, and then up on the pillow. When the show was over, there she was as usual.”
“Was she glad to see her master?”
“Ra-ather. Arabella was the bold, gay 1ady-dog then!”
Now Arabella is between nine and eleven and a half inches long.
“ Does the Hun run to pets at all?”
“I shouldn’t say so. He’s an unsympathetic felon—the Hun. But he might cherish a dachshund or so. We never picked up any ships’ pets off him, and I’m sure we should if there had been.”
That I believed as implicitly as the tale of a destroyer attack some months ago, the object of which was to flush Zeppelins. It succeeded, for the flotilla was attacked by several. Right in the middle of the flurry, a destroyer asked permission to stop and lower dinghy to pick up ship’s dog which had fallen overboard. Permission was granted, and the dog was duly rescued. “Lord. knows what the Hun made of it,” said my informant. “He was rumbling round, dropping bombs; and the dinghy was digging out for all she was worth, and the Dog-Fiend was swimming for Dunkirk. It must have looked rather mad from above. But they saved, the Dog-Fiend, and then everybody swore he was a German spy in disguise.”
“And—about this Jutland fight?” I hinted, not for the first time.
“Oh, that was just a fight. There was more of it than any other fight, I suppose, but I expect all modern naval actions must be pretty much the same.”
“But what does one do—how does one feel?” I insisted, though I knew it was hopeless.
“One does one’s job. Things are happening all the time. A man may be right under your nose one minute—serving a gun or something—and the next minute he isn’t there.”
“And one notices that ’at the time?”
“Yes. But there’s no time to keep on noticing it. You’ve got to carry on somehow or other, or your show stops. I tell you what one does notice, though. If one goes below for anything, or has to pass through a flat somewhere, and one sees the old wardroom clock ticking, or a photograph pinned up, or anything of that sort, one notices that. Oh yes, and there was another thing—the way a ship seemed to blow up if you were far off her. You’d see a glare, then a blaze, and then the smoke—miles high, lifting quite slowly. Then you’d get the row and the jar of it—just like bumping over submarines. Then, a long while after p’raps, you run through a regular rain of bits of burnt paper coming down on the decks—like showers of volcanic ash, you know.” The door of the operating-room seemed just about to open, but it shut again.
“And the Huns’ gunnery?”
“That was various. Sometimes they began quite well, and went to pieces after they’d been strafed a little; but sometimes they picked up again. There was one Hunboat that got no end of a hammering, and it seemed to do her gunnery good. She improved tremendously till we sank her. I expect we’d knocked out some scientific Hun in the controls, an he’d been succeeded by a man who knew how.”
It used to be “Fritz” last year when they spoke of the enemy. Now it is Hun or, as I have heard, “Yahun,” being a superlative of Yahoo. In the Napoleonic wars we called the Frenchmen too many names for any one of them to endure but this is the age of standardisation.
“And what about our Lower Deck?” I continued.
“They? Oh, they carried on as usual. It takes a lot to impress the Lower Deck when they’re busy.” And he mentioned several little things that confirmed this. They had a great deal to do, and they did it serenely because they had been trained to carry on under all conditions without panicking. What they did in the way of running repairs was even more wonderful, if that be possible, than their normal routine.
The Lower Deck nowadays is full of strange fish with unlooked-for accomplishments, as in the recorded case of two simple seamen of a destroyer who, when need was sorest, came to the front as trained experts in first-aid.
“And now—what about the actual Hun losses at Jutland?” I ventured.
“You’ve seen the list, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but it occurred to me—that they might have been a shade under-estimated, and I thought perhaps——”
A perfectly plain asbestos fire-curtain descended in front of the already locked door. It was none of his business to dispute the drive. If there were any discrepancies between estimate and results, one might be sure that the enemy knew about them, which was the chief thing that mattered.
It was, said he, Joss that the light was so bad at the hour of the last round-up when our main fleet had come down from the north and shovelled the Hun round on his tracks. Per contra, had it been any other kind of weather, the odds were the Hun would not have ventured so far. As it was, the Hun’s fleet had come out and gone back again, none the better for air and exercise, We must be thankful for what we had managed to pick up. But talking of picking up, there was an instance of almost unparalleled Joss which had stuck in his memory. A soldier-man, related to one of the officers in one of our ships that was put down, had got five days’ leave from the trenches which he spent with his relative aboard, and thus dropped in for the whole performance. He had been employed in helping to spot, and had lived up a mast till the ship sank, when he stepped off into the water and swam about till he was fished out and put ashore. By that time, the tale goes, his engine-room-dried khaki had shrunk half-way up his legs and arms, in which costume he reported himself to the War Office, and pleaded for one little day’s extension of leave to make himself decent. “Not a bit of it,” said the War office. “If you choose to’ spend your leave playing with sailor-men and getting wet all over, that’s your concern. You will return to duty by to-night’s boat.” (This may be a libel on the W.O., but it sounds very like them.) “And he had to,” said the boy, “but I expect he spent the next week at Headquarters telling fat generals all about the fight”
“And, of course, the Admiralty gave you all lots of leave?”
“Us? Yes, heaps. We had nothing to do except clean down and oil up, and be ready to go to sea again in a few hours.”
That little fact was brought out at the end of almost every destroyer’s report. “Having returned to base at such and such a time, I took in oil, etc., and reported ready for sea at — o’clock.” When you think of the amount of work a ship needs even after peace manœuvres, you can realise what has to be done on the heels of an action. And, as there is nothing like housework for the troubled soul of a woman, so a general clean-up is good for sailors. I had this from a petty officer who had also passed through deep waters. “If you’ve seen your best friend go from alongside you, and your own officer, and your own boat’s crew with him, and things of that kind, a man’s best comfort is small variegated jobs which he is damned for continuous.”
Presently my friend of the destroyer went back to his stark, desolate life, where feelings do not count, and the fact of his being cold, wet, sea-sick, sleepless, or dog-tired had no bearing whatever on his business, which was to turn out at any hour in any weather and do or endure, decently, according to ritual, what that hour and that weather demanded. It is hard to reach the kernel of Navy minds. The unbribable seas and mechanisms the work on and through have given them the simplicity of elements and machines. The habit of dealing with swift accident, a life of closest and strictest association with their own caste as well as contact with all kinds of men all earth over, have added an immense cunning to those qualities; and that they are from early youth cut out of all feelings that may come between them and their ends, makes them more incomprehensible than Jesuits, even to their own people. What, then, must they be to the enemy?
Here is a Service which prowls forth and achieves, at the lowest, something of a victory. How far-reaching a one only the war’s end will reveal. It returns in gloomy silence, broken by the occasional hoot of the long-shore loafer, after issuing a bulletin which though it may enlighten the professional mind does not exhilarate the layman. Meantime the enemy triumphs, wirelessly, far and wide. A few frigid and perfunctory-seeming contradictions are put forwary against his resounding claims; a Naval expert or two is heard talking “off”; the rest is silence. Anon, the enemy, after a prodigious amount of explanation which not even the neutrals seem to take any interest in, revises his claims, and, very modestly, enlarges his losses. Still no sign. After weeks there appears a document giving our version of the affair, which is as colourless, detached, and scrupulously impartial as the findings of a prize-court. It opines that the list of enemy losses which it submits “give the minimum in regard to numbers though it is possibly not entirely accurate in regard to the particular class of vessel, especially those that were sunk during the night attacks.” Here the matter rests and remains—just like our blockade. There is an insolence about it all that makes one gasp.
Yet that insolence springs naturally and unconsciously as an oath, out of the same spirit that caused the destroyer to pick up the dog. The reports themselves, and tenfold more the stories not in the reports, are charged with it, but no words by any outsider can reproduce just that professional tone and touch. A man writing home after the fight, points out that the great consolation for not having cleaned up the enemy altogether was that “anyhow those East Coast devils”—a fellow-squadron, if you please, which up till Jutland had had most of the fighting—“were not there. They missed that show. We were as cock-ahoop as a girl who had been to a dance that her sister has missed.”
This was one of the figures in that dance:
“A little British destroyer, her midships rent by a great shell meant for a battle-cruiser; exuding steam from every pore; able to go ahead but not to steer; unable to get out of anybody’s way, likely to be rammed by any one of a dozen ships; her syren whimpering ‘Let me through! Make way!’; her crew fallen in aft dressed in life-belts ready for her final plunge, and cheering wildly as it might have been an enthusiastic crowd when the King passes.”
Let us close on that note. We have been compassed about so long and so blindingly by wonders and miracles so overwhelmed by revelations of the spirit of men in the basest and most high; that we have neither time to keep tally of these furious days, nor mind to discern upon which hour of them our world’s fate hung.