The Fringes of the Fleet

A Common Sweeper

Rudyard Kipling

MY SPONSOR and chaperon in this Elizabethan world of eighteenth-century seamen was an AB. who had gone down in the Landrail , assisted at the Heligoland fight, seen the Blücher sink and the bombs dropped on our boats when we tried to save the drowning (“Whereby” as he said, “those Germans died gottstrafin’ their own country because we didn’t wait to be strafed”, and has now found more peaceful days in an Office ashore. He led me across many decks from craft to craft to study the various appliances that they specialise in. Almost our last was what a North Country trawler called a “common sweeper,” that is to say, a mine-sweeper. She was at tea in her shirt-sleeves, and she protested loudly that there was “nothing in sweeping.” “See that wire rope?” she said. “Well, it leads through that lead to the ship which you’re sweepin’ with. She makes her end fast and you make yours. Then you sweep together at whichever depth you’ve agreed upon between you, by means of that arrangement there which regulates the depth. They give you a glass sort o” thing for keepin’ your distance from the other ship, but that’s not wanted if you know each other. Well, then you sweep, as the sayin’ is. There’s nothin’ in it. You sweep till this wire rope fouls the bloomin’mines. Then you go on till they appear on the surface, so to say, and then you explode them by means of shootin’ at ’em with that rifle in the gallery there. There’s nothin’ in sweepin’ more than that.”

“And if you hit a mine?” I asked.

“You go up—but you hadn’t ought to hit ’em, if you’re careful. The thing is to get hold of the first mine all right, and then you go on to the next, and so on, in a way o” speakin’.”

“And you can fish, too, ’tween times,” said a voice from the next boat. A man leaned over and returned a borrowed mug. They talked about fishing—notably that once they caught some red mullet, which the “common sweeper” and his neighbbur both agreed was “not natural in those waters’. As for mere sweeping, it bored them profoundly to talk about it. I only learned later as part of the natural history of mines, that if you rake the tri-nitro-toluol by hand out of a German mine you develop eruptions and skin-poisoning. But on the authority of two experts, there is nothing in sweeping. Nothing whatever!

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