September and October, 1899
Admiralty Orders were received early in September that the ship would probably leave England about the middle of the month for the China Station, to proceed there by the Suez Canal route. The distribution of the British Fleet is, of course, mainly governed by considerations of foreign policy, therefore the Admiralty, in disposing of ships, act mainly on this principle.
It was just at this period that the political situation in South Africa was becoming acute in consequence of the apparently hostile attitude of the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics towards Great Britain. To mention briefly here that the tone of the recently published despatches from both republics was producing an uneasy feeling in the country, and that war, even now at this juncture, appeared almost inevitable as the solution of the questions at issue, will suffice to explain the chain of events.
Definite instructions were received on the 10th to complete with coal and stores, and embark relief crews for the destroyers Handy and Hart, besides disposable supernumeraries for the China Station.
On September 14th the ship proceeded to Spithead to prepare for the voyage and undergo a short official trial to test the work just completed ; and this proving satisfactory, the captain was able to report the Terrible "as ready in all respects for sea." On the 18th telegraphic instructions were received that the ship was to proceed to China via the Cape, to augment the squadron in South African waters, should circumstances render this course necessary on our arrival there. The Powerful, whose commission was expiring, was also ordered to return home from China by the same route for a similar purpose. Political considerations had altered the compass course of both ships. Precautionary military measures had also been taken by the despatch of strong reinforcements from England and India, the defensive strength of the British forces then in South Africa being wholly inadequate to cope with any aggressive action the republics might contemplate against the Colonies.
Numerous changes had taken place in the ship's complement during our inactive condition in dockyard hands among both officers and men. Lieutenant Hughes Onslow had relieved Commander Gillett as Navigating Officer; Lieutenant Drummond was now the Gunnery Officer, vice Lieutenant Molteno; Fleet-Engineer Chase had already relieved Fleet-Engineer Rees prior to the last voyage to Malta, and several officers of junior rank and a large number of men had also been exchanged for various service reasons. The selection of Captain Robinson for the important command of the Torpedo School (H.M.S. Vernon) was the change, however, that mostly concerned the entire crew. His departure was the occasion of much genuine regret, as is always the case when a popular captain vacates his command before the ship's term of service has expired. During his eighteen months' reign in the Terrible the crew had enjoyed exceptional privileges and pleasurable service. In Captain Percy Scott, his successor, who had recently paid off the Scylla, we had an officer with a wide service reputation as an expert in gunnery and signalling, and a vigorous gunnery policy was the expected result of his appointment. Nor was the forecast a wrong one, as subsequent events will tend to prove. It is now matter of history how his name became associated with the 4'7 gun in the Anglo-Boer War, and again with heavy gun prize-firing records in China; but of these subjects more anon.
The signal, " Permission to proceed in execution of previous orders," being affirmed by the Admiral, the ship left for Plymouth the afternoon of September 19th, arriving there early next morning. The embarkation of more supers brought the total number on board to 1133 officers and men ; the sailing arrangements thus completed, the ship left at sunset for her destination. "Off at last!" was the ejaculation that escaped from many lips as the land was cleared, in token of relief apparently from some momentous suspense. It was in truth a happy relief to find that at last there was a definite objective to carry out instead of a monotonous return to spasmodic and inglorious trooping voyages. Besides, the nature of the mission now before us, and the possibilities in view, came as an agreeable sequel to the first act in the drama of our commission.
Our authorized speed of thirteen knots brought the ship to Las Palmas on the 25th, where the ship was coaled, the crew working continuously at this operation until 2000 tons had been shipped. Coaling a man-of-war is always performed as an evolution by the crew, rapidity in filling the bunkers being obviously only second in importance to fighting efficiency. Routine is of course suspended, which fact probably accounted for two youthful midshipmen, who will be termed Mr. S- and Mr. B-, finding time to fight a mock duel with the historic dirk ; the blade of Mr. B-'s dirk being neatly passed through his opponent's arm, inflicting a nasty flesh wound, as the result of this sham affaire d'honnetir. "Honour" was satisfied, but not the captain, who issued a prohibitory edict against the sport of mock duels.
By noon, the 26th, the Grand Canaries, one of the few remaining links with the past colonial greatness of Spain, had been left well astern, and so had apparently the temperate climate; for real tropical weather had penetrated to a latitude far beyond the usual tropical limits, causing a general desire to camp out on deck both night and day. The heat below was so intense that the full benefit of a Turkish bath might be obtained in the auxiliary engine-room where the temperature then registered over 130 degrees, the stoker on watch finding even his bathing drawers a superfluous garment. One stoker humorously described the stokehold as being a training home, for a certain position, at a certain place, in another world. That may be. Various ranks and ratings are often described as the backbone of the Royal Navy—a much abused and undesirable phrase. Yet few who are cognizant of the conditions under which the engineering staff perform their duty would deny that title (if it must be used) to them—engineers, artificers, and stokers alike, who, whether at sea or in harbour, in torrid or temperate climes, in peace time or war, have always risky and arduous duties to perform.
A diversion from routine and an occasional day devoted to sport tends to create good fellowship, and promote the popularity of a life on the ocean wave—a life vividly and romantically described by Marryat, whose famous stories have drawn many a British youth to a sea career.
" Crossing the Line " is an ancient nautical ceremony that alway produces the maximum of fun if properly performed. The captain's permission having been obtained, preparations for carrying out this tropical carnival were immediately put in hand.
By the time the ship arrived near the equatorial line everything was ready for our nautical spectacular entertainment—the convivial spirits who were taking the characters displaying an almost fiendish delight in their endeavours to make the performance a success. The royal regalia of Neptune and Amphitrite were genuine works of art, resplendent with jewels obtained from the theatrical costume box, the robe worn by the latter being made from real Japanese silk. In fact, the costumes for each character, both in style and effect, were quite " Alhambrian." Every additional touch that was made served further to deepen the mystery which surrounded these mystic rites, and sharpened the curiosity of those who had never been in Father Neptune's mythological dominions before. Improbable yarns were spun, and strange rumours set afloat concerning the ceremony, which in the old sailing days was invariably accompanied by plenty of horse-play, and was also an occasion for slyly paying off old scores against disliked individuals—though nothing of this nature was expected, or did occur, in this instance. During the evening of the 2nd October, the prelude to the " official ceremony " that was to take place next day was performed, the ship actually crossing the Line about 7 P.M., according to reckoning.
The proceedings commenced by Chief Boatswain's-mate Bate hailing the bridge, and reporting to the officer of the watch, " Line right ahead," followed by the order for " Hands to clear away Line " ; which was, by arrangement, piped in loud tones round the decks, and signalized the commencement of the fun, bringing every one below on deck with a rush. Father Neptune—represented by the biggest man on board —(Ship's Corporal Churchman), dressed in full regalia and using a megaphone, now hailed the bridge, asking the usual questions as follows :—" What ship is that ? " " Where from ? " " Where bound ? " and " What is your captain's name ?" each question is turn being correctly replied to by the officer of the watch. Neptune being apparently satisfied hailed the ship to stop, which demand was formally complied with, and a few minutes afterwards "His Majesty," accompanied by an impish-looking attendant, appeared on the starboard gangway—hitherto dark—and was introduced by a flood of electric light that made his appearance and regalia look very impressive. He was received by the guard and band, the former using broom-handles for arms, the latter playing a few bars of a comic air as a salute when the guard came to the "present." Neptune gravely returned the salute, and then greeted the captain, who was present to receive him. After the usual courteous questions had been put and answered, " His Majesty " requested permission to visit the ship again next day, accompanied by his Court in accordance with ancient custom. A favourable answer having been given, Neptune retired over the gangway, and was accorded the same honours as on entering, the sudden extinguishing of the electric light and burning of phosphorous fire, signalling his departure to his submarine kingdom. The scene, which was highly appreciated by the nautical audience, might be termed both pretty and picturesque, yet the next day's ceremony was still enveloped with secrecy and mystery, which made it the more keenly looked forward to. Punctually at 10 A.M. next day, the grand procession moved off, the band playing a slow march during the parade, which started from forward, the space on the clear upper deck allowing the pageant to be seen to advantage. Father Neptune with the Amphitrite (Lieutenant Bogle, R.N.) in full royal robes and other regal insignia, attended by a page of honour and nymphs, were seated on a state car, drawn by the Bears, preceded by the Master of Ceremonies, and escorted by a body-guard of boys dressed in quaint costumes, and carrying tomahawks. They were followed by the Court in their order of precedence, each wearing a costume denoting the official position he held. On arriving on the quaterdeck, their " Majesties" were received by the captain and officers with mock official dignity ; the M.C. introducing them as follows:—
" Your Excellency—
" His Majesty, ' Father Neptune,' who came on board last night, Is now accompanied by his consort, the lady Amphitrite ; And they now wish in chosen words their pleasure to express, And by royal command the Secretary will now read their Address.''
The Secretary then came forward and read an amusing address, specially written in verse for the occasion by Neptune's "Poet (Composed by the author) Laureate," touching events which concerned the ship's history and other incidents, as follows :—
" Your Excellency—
1. " Right glad are we to visit your quadruple-funnelled ship,
And enable our amphibious court to greet you on your trip.
It is not often nowadays that we come up from below ;
But we are pleased to visit you with pomp and regal show.
2. " Your noble ship we hear has been a source of great comment,
And given cause for lots of talk in your House of Parliament ;
But now it is quite safe to say this soon will be forgot
When her reputation is retrieved—under Captain Scott.
3. " Who has not heard of the Scylla's 1 fame—a feat that's worth repeating —
But what should now prevent your ship that brilliant record beating ?
For even now we hear that you are endeavouring to impart
Scientific handling of her guns—a most important start.
4. " For it is the ' man behind the gun,' and the accuracy of his fire,
That will vanquish England's enemies, when they threaten her Empire.
For that ' real thing' of which Kipling wrote—an oft-repeated phrase—
Britannia's sons will fight her guns, as they did in Nelson's days.
5. " But history repeats itself, and great deeds soon decay,
Though down below our ' Court' oft speaks of those in Bantry Bay.
Dossiers and Bordereaus will fade, and Kruger's power must go ;
But what will outlive every deed is the donkey named ' What Ho ! ' 2
6. " And now, Commander Limpus, we've something for your ear,
For it does not seem—at least to us—that your Notice 3 was quite clear.
Did you not state in '98—I think you will remember—
To the China Seas the ship would go, in the middle of September ?
7. " Now, when that Notice was put up, you couldn't have been sincere,
Or else had not consulted first, the ship's Fleet-Engineer ;
But never mind, you are forgiven, and meant not to deceive,
For you spent the summer of '99, in the dockyard—giving leave !
8. " But now we hope your ship's quite trim, and fit to take her place
Among the squadrons of the Fleet, ready for battle or the ' Chase.'4
For ' England's 5 power is always felt upon the ocean ' Wilde,'6
On land or sea, protection's free, to each imperial child.
9. " Although our time is limited, and our greetings nearly done,
We cannot to our dominions go, and forget your ' Number One.'7
On New Year's Day, we're bound to say, that we have got a notion
'Their Lordships '—as a season's gift—will send him his promotion.
10. " We have often noticed sailors, when down below they come,
Belong not to I.O.G.T.,8 and leave behind their rum,
Though we must confess it's tasty, when in battle or in breeze,
And makes one feel more frisky, than docs vaccinated cheese.
11. " Now, don't think that we're frivolous, or given to consoling,
But hope you'll have some stirring times—we don't mean always coaling—
For this is work that must be done, which hides the sailors' blushes
When they see the Jonty2 prowling round (doing nothing) with the Crushers.9
12. " ' Britannia rules the waves,' it's said, but her ruling seems so funny,
For mal-de-mer is well served out, so different from prize-money ;10
But our advice to all on board, who suffer from such ills,
Is to listen to your ' squee-gee 11 band,' or take some Beecham's Pills.
13. " Now let all your gallant officers, and men of each degree,
Remember that ' Father Neptune ' is the guardian of the sea ;
And 'tis well known from experience, that many unpleasant things
Must be done—if promotion's won—when you've dropped the apron strings.
14. "If your men should land to fight, for England, home, and beauty,
Their Captain, I am sure, expects, that they will do their duty,
And emulate past naval deeds, and not return until—
Like Briton's sons, they've fought their guns, and avenged Majuba Hill. 12
15. " Now, your Excellency, we have finished
With our diatribe, And with your kind permission
We'll your decks now circumscribe ; That we may view our subjects,
Before we open Court, To receive that homage which is due :
May we hope for your support ? Our royal visit to a ship
Is not a new invention But an ancient custom oft retailed
By old sea-dogs when on pension."
1 Made 80 per cent, of hits with 4'7 guns at prize firing—a phenomenal record, which was closely emulated by the Terrible's 6-inch guns two successive years on the China. Station.
2 An absentee in plain clothes disclosed his identity to a naval picquet, when passing them mounted on a donkey, by hailing, " What Ho ! " whereupon he was chased and captured.
3 A notice was posted up in July, 1898, stating that the Terrible would probably leave for China in September, on conclusion of the experiments ; but this proved a wrong forecast of events.
4 5 6 Fleet-Engineer Chase ; Lieutenant England, R.N.; Lieutenant Wilde, R.N. ; officers of the ship.
7 "Number One" is the naval expression which designates the first-lieutenant of a man-of-war.
8 The " Independent Order of Good Templars."
9 Lower-deck terms for the master-at-arms and naval police respectively.
10 Prize-money is paid by shares according to service rank—sea-sickness is no respecter of persons.
11 Term applied to a ship's drum-and-fife band ; generally an unmelodious orchestra.
12 The Terrible's guns were especially mentioned in despatches by General Buller for the part they took at Pieter's Hill on Majuba day.
Note.—The -whole of these verses were recited on the "Crossing the Line" occasion, some, particularly 3, 4, 14, being true forecasts.
Presents of a smokable description were now handed to the members of the Court, after which the procession again formed up and completed the tour round the decks, finishing forward on the forecastle at the Font—a huge canvas tank four feet deep filled with sea water into which a hose was kept running.
The Secretary now called out the names of novices, who were brought forward by Neptune's own police, and introduced to their " Majesties " and Court, who occupied a raised platform overlooking the Font. Each in turn was examined by the Court Physician, who thoughtfully pronounced them all fit to be made subjects, passing them on to the barber's assistant, who lathered each with his mystic mixture of soft soap and oatmeal. The barber completed the toilet, the shaving instrument used being fashioned from a piece of hoop-iron shaped as a razor. Thus prepared, they were plunged into the Font, where the Bears finished off" the ceremony of initiation, much to the relief of the candidate, who now became one of Neptune's subjects. The fun was continued till noon, causing endless amusement, with an entire absence of ill-humour throughout, although each degree was made very impressive—especially to the candidate seeking (?) admission. Every officer, according to his seniority, who had not previously been south of the equator was made a victim ; a selected number from each rating being taken from the rest of the crew owing to the large number borne. Several surprise initiations were made on unsuspecting onlookers by recently made subjects, which increased the fun. One of these was the sudden pounce made by the midshipmen on the First-lieutenant, who had been directing operations from the fore bridge. He gracefully surrendered to his captors, and was gently (?) passed through each stage—the middies afterwards going in search of further prey. Another occasion was the sweeping of the whole Court, including Neptune himself, into the Font towards the finish, which carefully planned scheme practically concluded the programme, the success of which fully justified the somewhat tentative permission given for its performance. The characters were taken by both officers and men, representing "Neptune," " Amphitrite," "Nymphs," "Doctor," "Barber" and "Assistant," "Policemen," "Bears," "Court Jesters," " Secretary," and " M.C.," a total of nearly fifty taking part. In the evening a smoking concert was held on the poop, which thus terminated a day entirely devoted to frivolity—a day out at sea.
Next day the ship encountered strong S.E. trade winds, which were in striking contrast to the glorious equatorial calm of yesterday. " 'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good." In this instance the refreshing breeze cooled the ship and made life comfortable 'tween decks, but it also compelled the captain to alter course and head for St. Helena to replenish with coal, in case of meeting with worse weather. Arriving there on October 7th, coaling ship immediately began, the evolution early indicating that a record for slowness was to be established, owing to the primitive method in vogue at this port.
St. Helena is both picturesque and historic, its claim to the latter title being permanently established in the view of the whole world by its connection with the great Napoleon's last days. The emperor's tomb is situated in a beautiful spot a few miles inland at Longwood, and as it is the show-place of the island, many officers and others made a pilgrimage to the shrine, and also to the residence in which he spent his exile. By permission of the British Government, his remains were exhumed in 1840, taken to France, and amidst much pomp and ceremony due to his former imperial rank and greatness, placed in the " Invalides " at Paris, the national burying-place for distinguished Frenchmen. The island was discovered by Juan de Nova Castella, a Portuguese navigator, in 1501. It was colonized by the Dutch about 1645, who held it till 1651, when it was seized by the British East India Company, but was retaken by the Dutch in 1672. The following year saw the island again in possession of the British, who have retained it ever since, it being governed by the aforesaid company until 1834, when it became a Crown Colony. Though only some IOOO miles from the Equator, the island, owing to its mountainous formation, possesses a most salubrious climate, and is the health resort of the West Coast Squadron. It was formerly an important place of call for shipping going to India and the Far East, but its prosperity was seriously diminished by the opening of the Suez Canal, which diverted the eastern trade route. Jamestown, the capital, is a prettily situated seaport, having a good anchorage, where vessels are able to lie close in shore. The island is about ten miles long, by six miles broad, with a mixed coloured population of about 4000. Agriculture and fishing form the principal occupation of the somewhat unprogressive inhabitants, apart from what the shipping provides. Its unique position in the Atlantic makes the island of strategical value to the Fleet. Considerable numbers of Boer prisoners, including General Cronje, were exiled there during the continuance of the war.
The few hundred tons of coal required having been bunkered, the ship sailed for the Cape next day. Anticipation had at last reached the stage of realization. Supereminent skill in gunnery was the order. To obtain this result scientific lessons in aiming and firing at cunningly devised targets placed outside the ship had become the diurnal routine six days out of the seven. To attain proficiency with the rifle and pistol, one side of our lengthy upper deck was transformed into a miniature Bisley range, having variety butts complete, whereat instruction in shooting was imparted in " service hours," while keen private competitions were taking place every evening—a useful form of amusement. The officers were also frequently exercising the hand and eye at revolver practice, some good shooting being made, as was evidenced one evening by a small hole being drilled through Lieutenant Lawrie's leg, which by some mischance had got in the line of fire, but the wound being only a flesh one, quickly healed.
On October 13th, the track chart showed that only 215 miles separated the ship from her destination, and speculation became rife as to what news the morrow would bring forth. Not since leaving England had any South African news been obtained to alter the situation as it then appeared ; the news gleaned at St. Helena being of a very meagre description. Nevertheless, campaigning gear and field accoutrements had been put in order, the latter having been served out to each individual, so that any apparent defect might be timely remedied.
Next day, October 14th, the Terrible steamed into Simon's Bay. The Powerful, having arrived the previous day from China, was now at Cape Town, discharging an infantry battalion, which had been brought from Mauritius with great promptitude.
The precipitate invasion of British territory and committal of hostile acts by the armed forces of the two republics had occurred on the 12th inst. The astounding manner in which war had displaced diplomacy had occasioned considerable surprise; not because such a result was wholly unexpected, but as having upset every preconceived idea formed on the situation. The Boers themselves had forced the crisis by offering a definite ultimatum of an uncompromising character, seemingly determined to end negotiations with war. This result one may safely opine was the inevitable and contemplated climax intended by them to secure the fruits of years of political aspirations—or conspiracies.
The ship's commission being largely associated with the Cape, the next Crowe: Chapter is assigned to a short account of South Africa, which may be found interesting perusal to those readers who are unfamiliar with the subjects dealt with therein. Considering the fact that the "Great Anglo-Boer War " ranks among the most important events in the history of the British Empire, this brief diversion from the story proper can scarcely be termed superfluous or out of place.