BE WELL assured that on our side|
Our challenged oceans fight,
Though headlong wind and leaping tide
Make us their sport to-night
Through force of weather, not of war,
In jeopardy we steer.
Then welcome Fate’s discourtesy
Whereby it shall appear
How in all time of our distress
As in our triumph too,
The game is more than the player of the game,
And the ship is more than the crew!
Be well assured, though wave and wind
Be well assured that on our side
ON THE edge of the North Sea sits an Admiral in charge of a stretch of coast without lights or marks, along which the traffic moves much as usual. In front of him there is nothing but the east wind, the enemy and some few our ships. Behind him there are towns, with M.P.’s attached, who a little while ago didn’t see the reason for certain lighting orders. When a Zeppelin or two came they saw. Left and right of him are enormous docks, with vast crowded sheds, miles of stone-faced quay-edges, loaded with all manner of supplies and crowded with mixed shipping.
In this exalted world one met Staff-Captains, Staff-Commanders, Staff-Lieutenants, and Secretaries, with Paymasters so senior that they almost ranked with Admirals. There were Warrant Officers, too, who long ago gave up splashing about decks barefoot, and now check and issue stores to the ravenous, untruthful fleets. Said one of these, guarding a collection of desirable things, to a cross between a sick-bay attendant and a junior writer (but he was really an expert burglar), “No! And you can tell Mr. So-and-so, with my compliments, that the storekeeper’s gone away—right away—with the key of these stores in his pocket. Understand me? In his trousers pocket.”
He snorted at my next question.
“Do I know any destroyer-lootenants?” said he. “This coast’s rank with em! Destroyer-lootenants are born stealing. It’s a mercy they’s too busy to practice forgery, or I’d be in gaol. Engineer-Commanders? Engineer-Lootenants? They’re worse! . . . Look here! If my own mother was to come to me beggin’ brass screws for her own coffin, I’d—I’d think twice before I’d oblige the old lady. War’s war, I grant you that; but what I’ve got to contend with is crime.”
I referred to him a case of conscience in which every one concerned acted exactly as he should, and it nearly ended in murder. During a lengthy action, the working of a gun was hampered by some empty cartridge-cases which the lieutenant in charge made signs (no man could hear his neighbour speak just then) should be hove overboard. Upon which the gunner rushed forward and made other signs that they were “on charge,” and must be tallied and accounted for. He too, was trained in a strict school. Upon which the lieutenant, but that he was busy, would have slain the gunner for refusing orders in action. Afterwards he wanted him shot by court-martial. But every one was voiceless by then, and could only mouth and croak at each other, till somebody laughed, and the pedantic gunner was spared.
“Well, that’s what you might fairly call a naval crux,” said my friend among the stores. “The Lootenant was right. ’Mustn’t refuse orders in action. The Gunner was right. Empty cases are on charge. No one ought to chuck ’em away that way, but . . . Damn it, they were all of ’em right. It ought to ha’ been a marine. Then they could have killed him and preserved discipline at the same time.”