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William Charles Henry Wood.

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The following years were fuller than ever of the coming war. In 1910
the Kaiser went to Vienna and let the world know that he was ready to
stand by Austria in "shining armour." Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, and
Greece were all to be used for the grand German railway from Berlin to
Bagdad that was to cut Russia off from the rest of Europe, get all the
trade of the Near East into German hands, and, by pushing down to the
Persian Gulf, threaten the British oversea line between England and
Asia.

During the next three years the Italian conquest of Tripoli (next door
to Egypt) and the two wars in the Balkans hurt Germany's friends, the
Turks and Bulgarians, a great deal, and thus threatened the German
Berlin-to-Bagdad "line of penetration" through the Near East and into
the Asiatic sea flank of the hated British. With 1914 came the
completion of the enlarged Kiel Canal (exactly as foretold by Fisher
years before); and this, together with the state of the world for and
against the Germans, made the war an absolute certainty at once. The
murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was only an
excuse to goad the gallant Serbians into war. Any other would have
done as well if it had only served the German turn.


HYMN BEFORE ACTION

The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions -
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!

* * * *

E'en now their vanguard gathers,
E'en now we face the fray -
As Thou didst help our fathers,
Help Thou our host to-day!
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
In life, in death made clear -
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, hear!
- _Rudyard Kipling_.




CHAPTER XXIV

WAR

(1914-1915)

No one who has had a look behind the scenes will ever forget the three
War Wednesdays of 1914, the 22nd and 29th of July and the 5th of
August; for during that dire fortnight the fate of the whole world hung
trembling in the scales of life and death.

On the first the King reviewed the Grand Fleet, when twenty-two miles
of fighting ships steamed by, all ready for instant battle with the
High Sea Fleet of Germany: ready not only for battles _on_ the water
but _under_ the water and _over_ the water as well. No king, even of
sea-girt Britain, was ever so good a judge of what a fleet should be as
was King George on that momentous day; for, till the death of his elder
brother made him Heir to the Throne, he had spent the whole of his keen
young life as a naval officer who did his work so well that he must
have risen to a place among the best of British Admirals. Just as it
was a great thing to have had King Edward the Wise to make (as he alone
could make) the _Entente Cordiale_ with France, so it was a great thing
to have had King George the Sailor standing by the helm of the ship of
state when the fated war had come. British to the backbone, knowing
the Empire overseas as no other king had known it, George V was born to
distrust the Germans, being the son of the Danish Princess Alexandra,
who had seen all the country round the Kiel Canal torn from the Crown
of Denmark within a year of her marriage to King Edward. The Kaiser's
lying letter to Lord Tweedmouth in 1908 was the last straw that broke
King George's little patience with the German plotters headed by Grand
Admiral von Tirpitz. "What," he exclaimed, "would the Kaiser say, if
the King wrote a letter like that to Tirpitz?"

The chief kinds of fighting craft in the Grand Fleet can be told off on
the fingers of one hand. First, the Battleships and Battle Cruisers.
These are to our own fleets what ships-of-the-line-of-battle were to
Nelson's, that is, they are the biggest and strongest, with the biggest
and strongest guns and the thickest armour. The battle cruiser is
faster than the battleship, and therefore not so strong; because to be
faster you must thin your heavy armour to let you put in bigger
engines. All the ships of this first kind were either Dreadnoughts or
super-Dreadnoughts; that is, they were classed according to whether
they had been built during the five years after the _Dreadnought_
(1905-10), or during the five years just before the war (1910-14).
Each year there had been great improvements, till ships like the _Queen
Elizabeth_ had eight gigantic guns throwing shells that weighed nearly
a ton each and that could be dropped on an enemy twenty miles away.

[Illustration: BATTLESHIP.]

The second kind is Cruisers, made up of Armoured Cruisers and Light
Cruisers, the Armoured being the bigger and stronger, the Light being
the smaller and faster, and both being too small for the line of
battle. Cruisers are used in at least a dozen different ways. They
scout. They attack and defend oversea trade. They "mother" flotillas
("little fleets") of destroyers, which are much smaller than
themselves. They attack and defend the front, flank, and rear of the
great lines of battle, clearing off the enemy's cruisers and destroyers
and trying to get their own torpedoes home against his larger vessels.
They are the eyes and ears, the scouts and skirmishers, the outposts
and the watchdogs of the Fleet - swift, keen, sinewy, vigilant, and able
to hit pretty hard.

Thirdly come Destroyers. This was the way in which they got their
name. Navies had small gunboats before torpedoes were used. Then they
had torpedo-boats. Then they built torpedo-gunboats. Finally, they
built boats big enough to destroy gunboats, torpedo-boats, and
torpedo-gunboats, without, however, losing the handy use of guns and
torpedoes in vessels much smaller than cruisers. As battleships and
cruisers are arranged in "squadrons" under admirals so destroyers are
arranged in "flotillas" under commodores, who rank between admirals and
captains.

A new kind of light craft - a sort of dwarf destroyer - grew up with the
war. It is so light that it forms a class of its own - the
featherweight class. Its proper name is the Coastal Motor Boat, or the
C.M.B. for short. But the handy man knows it simply as the Scooter.
The first scooters were only forty feet long, the next were fifty-five,
the last were seventy. Everything about them is made as light as
possible; so that they can skim along in about two feet of water at an
outside speed of nearly fifty (land) miles an hour. They are really
the thinnest of racing shells fitted with the strongest of lightweight
engines. They are all armed with depth charges, which are bombs that
go off under water at whatever depth you set them for when attacking
submarines. The biggest scooters also carry torpedoes. The scooters
did well in the war. Whenever the hovering aircraft had spotted a
submarine they would call up the scooters, which raced in with their
deadly depth charges. Even destroyers were attacked and torpedoed.
One day a German destroyer off Dunkirk suddenly found itself surrounded
by scooters which came in so close that a British officer had his cap
blown off by the blast from a German gun. He and his scooter, however,
both escaped and his torpedo sank the Hun.

Fourthly, come the submarines, those sneaky vipers of the sea that seem
made on purpose for the underhand tricks of ruthless Germans. Deadly
against unarmed merchantmen, and very dangerous in some other ways, the
submarine is slow under water, no match for even a destroyer on the
surface, and "tender" to attack by gunfire, to bombs dropped from
aircraft, to "sea-quaking" depth charges, and, of course, to ramming.
We shall presently hear more about these inventions of the devil.

[Illustration: Seaplane Returning after flight.]

Fifthly, come the seaplanes, that is, aircraft which can light on the
water as well as fly. We began the war with a fair number of
comparatively small planes and ended it with a great number of large
ones, a few of which could drop a ton-weight bomb fit to sink most
battleships if the shot went home. But these monsters of the air were
something more than ordinary seaplanes. For out of the seaplane there
gradually grew a regular flying boat which began to make it hot for
German submarines in 1917. Commander Porte, of the Royal Navy, went on
inventing and trying new kinds of flying boats for nearly three years
before he made one good enough for its very hard and dangerous work.
He had to overcome all the troubles of aircraft and seacraft, put
together, before he succeeded in doing what no one had ever done
before - making a completely new kind of craft that would be not only
seaworthy but airworthy too. Porte's base was at Felixstowe, near the
great destroyer and submarine base at Harwich on the east coast of
England. Strangely enough, Felixstowe was a favourite summer resort of
the Kaiser whenever he came to the British Isles. Felixstowe is within
a hundred miles of the Belgian coast, where the Germans had submarines
at Ostend and Zeebrugge. It is only fifty from the Dutch lightship on
the North Hinder Bank, where German submarines used to come up so as to
make sure of their course on their way between the English Channel and
their own ports. The neighbourhood of this lightship naturally became
a very favourite hunting ground of the new flying boats, which used to
bomb the Huns whenever one of their submarines was sighted either on or
below the surface. Forty flying boats were launched in 1917, and
forty-four submarines were bombed. The "Porte Baby," as the flying
boat of '17 was called, measured a hundred feet across the wings and
carried a small aeroplane, complete with its own airman, on top. The
"Porte Super-Baby" of 1918 could lift no less than fifteen tons and was
easily the strongest aircraft in the world. The "Baby's" crew was
four - pilot, navigator, wirelesser, and engineer. The "Super-Baby"
carried more. Two gigantic Zeppelins and several submarines were
destroyed by the "Babies." The "Super-Babies" had no proper chance of
showing what they could do, as the Armistice came (11 November 1918)
before they were really at work. Porte had many Canadians in his
crews; and Canadians brought down the first Zeppelin and sank the first
submarine.

But the five chief kinds of fighting craft are only half the battle.
There are five more to be told off on the fingers of the other hand.
First, the Auxiliary Cruisers, which are swift merchant liners quickly
armed and manned by trained Reservists, who are mostly merchant seamen
and fishermen in time of peace. These cruisers do scouting and escort
duty, and sometimes have a hard fight with the enemy; though they are
not strong enough for regular battles between great men-of-war.
Secondly, the Supply Vessels of every size and every kind, which keep
the Fleet supplied with food and fuel, munitions and repairs, and
everything else a great fleet needs. So vast is British sea-power of
every kind, compared with the sea-power of any other people, that
foreign fleets and joint expeditions generally have to get British
shipping to help them through their troubles when the British are
either neutral or allied. The Russian fleet could not have gone to the
Far East in 1904-05 without the supply ships of the British. The
American fleet that went round the world in 1908-09 had to depend on
British colliers. And over three-fifths of all the American soldiers
that went to France to fight the Germans went in British transports.
Transports are any ships that can be used to carry troops, horses,
motors, stores, munitions, guns, and all the other things an army
needs. They come third on this list. Fourthly, come those Merchantmen
which are not used by the Army or Navy because they carry on the
regular oversea trade as best they can. Fifthly, comes the Fishing
Fleet, many of whose best men and vessels have to be used to fish for
mines and submarines, but much of which must still be left to help out
the food supply. The merchantmen and fishing craft which carried on
their peace-time trade throughout the Great War had many an adventure
quite as thrilling and many a hero quite as glorious as any in the
fighting fleets. So there was no kind of British sea-power which did
not feel the awful stress of war; and none, we may be proud to add,
that failed to do its duty.

On the second War Wednesday (July 29th) the British Foreign Minister
warned the German Ambassador that the British could not be so base as
not to stand by their friends if Germany attacked them without good
reason. All through that night the staff of the Foreign Office were
wonderfully cheered up in their own work by looking across the famous
Horse Guards Parade at the Admiralty, which was ablaze with lights from
roof to cellar. The usual way, after the Royal Review that ended the
big fleet manoeuvres for the year, was to "demobilize" ships that had
been specially "mobilized" (made ready for the front) by adding Reserve
men to their nucleus crews. But this year things were different. War
was in the very air. So the whole fleet was kept mobilized; and the
wireless on top of the Admiralty roof was kept in constant touch with
every ship and squadron all round the Seven Seas. By Friday night, the
31st, the whole Grand Fleet had steamed through the Straits of Dover
into the grim North Sea and on to Scapa Flow, where it was already
waiting when, four days later, it got the midnight call to arms.

By the third War Wednesday (August 5th) the Germans had invaded Belgium
and France; that great soldier and creator of new armies, Lord
Kitchener, had replaced the civilian, Lord Haldane, at the head of the
War Office; Lord French's immortal first army had just got the word
_GO!_ and a German mine-layer was already at the work which cost her
own life but sank the cruiser _Amphion_.

Years before the first shot was fired the French and British Navies had
prepared their plans for blockading the Austrians in the Adriatic and
the Germans in the North Sea. The French were more than a match for
the Austrians, the British more still for the Germans. But the
Austrians had their whole navy together, while the Germans also had at
least nine-tenths of their own. So the French and British, in their
efforts to keep the seaways open for friends and closed to enemies, had
to reckon with the chances of battle as well as with those of blockade.
The Austrians never gave much trouble, except, like the Germans, with
their submarines; and after the Italians had joined us (May 1915) the
Austrian Navy was hopelessly outclassed.

But the Germans were different. By immense hard work they had passed
every navy in the world except the British; and they were getting
dangerously close even to that. Their Navy did not want war so soon;
and no Germans wanted the sort of war they got. Their Navy wanted to
build and build for another ten or twenty years, hoping that our
Pacifist traitors (who were ready for peace at any price, honour and
liberty of course included) would play the German game by letting the
German Navy outbuild the British. Then _Der Tag_ (the day) would come
in the way the Germans hoped when they drank to it with shouts of _Hoch
der Kaiser!_ (which really meant, _The Kaiser on top, the British
underneath!_ though that is not the translation). To get this kind of
_Tag_ the Germans needed to strike down their victims one by one in
three quite separate wars: first, France and Belgium, Russia and the
Southern Slavs; a thing they could have done with Austria, Bulgaria,
and Turkey on their side and the rest of Europe neutral. Then, having
made sure of their immensely strengthened new position in the world,
_Der Tag_ would come against the British Empire. Last of all, they
would work their will in South America, being by that time far too
strong for the United States. A nightmare plan, indeed! But, with
good luck and good management, and taking us one by one, and always
having our vile Pacifists to help them, this truly devilish plot might
well have been worked out in three successive generations during the
course of the twentieth century.

As it was, we had trouble enough to beat them; for they fought well by
sea and land and air, though more like devils than like men. The
charge of cowardice against our enemies, especially the Turks and
Germans, is nonsense. Besides, it takes away our own men's glory if
they had nothing more than cowards to put down. Of course the enemy
had cowards, as other peoples have; but they had plenty of brave men
too; and what, that unsurpassable hero of the air, McCudden, said of
one brave German will do for many more. "I shall never forget my
admiration for that German pilot who, single-handed, fought seven of us
for ten minutes, and also put some bullets through all our machines.
His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent."

The Germans had not only the advantage of being able to mass nearly all
their navy together but of training it all together on the same North
Sea practice ground, and of building battle squadrons on purpose for
one kind of fight close at home: a single tiger-spring and that was
all. The British, on the other hand, had to build a good many ships
"fit to go foreign" thousands of miles away, and so had to give up much
space to the men's quarters and to fuel; while the Germans could save
half this space for increased power in armour, engines, guns, and other
things suited to one short cruise and tiger-spring near home. Not the
least of the many British triumphs was winning against an enemy who was
so brave, so skilful, so strong in many ways, and so very devilish in
all.

Now that we know what we are about, let us clear the decks for action
and go full steam ahead right through the fight at sea.

The British Navy had to help the British Army into France and take care
that the Army's ever-growing forces there, as well as on a dozen
different fronts elsewhere, always had the sea-roads kept open to many
different bases over half the world. The Seven Seas are ten times
bigger than the whole of North and South America. Yet the Navy watched
or kept in touch with every part of all of them. So much for space.
Now for time. Time was needed to get Kitchener's vast new armies
ready. Millions sprang to arms. But it would have been sheer murder
to send them to the front without many months of very hard training.
So the enemy had to be kept at arm's length for a very long time - for
the whole war, indeed, because reinforcements and supplies were always
needed in vast and ever vaster quantities, both from the Mother Country
and from the Empire, Allies, and Neutrals overseas. In addition to
this the British oversea trade routes had to be kept open and the
German ones closed; fisheries protected on one side, attacked on the
other; and an immense sea service carried on for our Allies as well.

Some staggering facts and figures will be given in the chapter called
"Well done!" Here we shall only note that the Navy, with all its
Reserves and Auxiliaries, grew from two and a half million tons of
shipping to eight millions before the war was over. This means that
the Navy, in spite of all its losses, became bigger than any other
country's navy, mercantile marine, fishing fleet, river steamers, and
all other kinds of shipping, put together, since the world began. When
we add the British mercantile marine, British shipbuilding, the British
fishing fleets, and all the shipping interests of the Empire overseas,
we shall find that British sea-power of all kinds equalled all the
sea-power of all the rest of the world together. Destroy that
sea-power and we die.

Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands off the north of Scotland was a
perfect base for the Grand Fleet, because it was well placed to watch
the way out of the North Sea through the two-hundred-mile gap between
Norway and the Shetlands, and also because the tremendous tidal
currents sweeping through it prevented submarines from sneaking about
too close. Six hundred miles south-east was the German Fleet, near the
North Sea end of the Kiel Canal. Between lay a hundred and twenty-five
thousand square miles of water on which, taking one day with another
the whole year round, you could not see clearly more than five miles.
This "low average visibility" accounts for all the hide-and-seek that
suited German tricks so well.

Within three hours of the British Declaration of War two British
submarines were off for Heligoland, where they spied out the enemy's
fleet. From that time on every German move was watched from under the
water, on the water, or over the water, and instantly reported by
wireless to the Admiralty in London and to the Grand Fleet based on
Scapa Flow.

Then, when the first British army began to cross into France, the Fleet
covered its flank against the Germans, and went on covering it for
fifty-one months without a break, through cold and wet, through
ceaseless watching, and through many fights.

The first fight was off Heligoland, when British light cruisers and
destroyers went into the Bight on a scouting cruise planned by the
Admiralty, not the Grand Fleet. The German destroyers fell back to
lure the British within range of the enormous guns on Heligoland. That
failed. But suddenly, out of the morning mist, came a bunch of German
shells throwing up water-spouts that almost splashed aboard. Instantly
the British destroyers strung out, farther apart, and put on full
racing speed as the next two bunches crept closer in. _Whirrh!_ went
the fourth, just overhead, as the flotilla flagship _Arethusa_
signalled to fire torpedoes. At once the destroyers turned, all
together, lashing the sea into foam as their sterns whisked round, and
charged, faster than any cavalry, straight for the enemy. When the
Germans found the range and once more began bunching their shells too
close in, the British destroyers snaked right and left, threw out the
range-finding, and then raced ahead again. In less than ten minutes
they had made more than five miles, fired their torpedoes, and were on
their way back. Then up came the British cruisers and converged on the
_Mainz_, which went down fighting. "The _Mainz_," wrote one of the
British officers who saw her, "was immensely gallant. With her whole
midships a fuming inferno she kept one gun forward and another aft
still spitting forth fury and defiance like a wild cat mad with
wounds." In the mean time Jellicoe, rightly anxious about leaving
British light craft unsupported by heavier vessels so close to the
German Fleet, urged the Admiralty to change their plan by sending on
the battle cruisers. Then up came Beatty's four lordly giants - _Lion,
Queen Mary, Invincible, New Zealand_ - and the outclassed Germans
retired.

[Illustration: DESTROYER.]

The destroyer _Defender_, having sunk a German, had lowered a whaleboat
to pick up survivors, when she was chased by a big German cruiser. So
there, all alone, was her whaler, a mere open boat, on the enemy's part
of the battlefield. But, through a swirl alongside, up came Submarine
E4, opened her conning tower, took the whole boat's crew aboard, dived
down again before the Germans could catch her, and landed safe home.

E9 crept in six miles south of Heligoland a fortnight later and sank
the German cruiser _Hela_. But within a week the German von Weddigen
had become the most famous of submarine commanders, for sinking no less
than three British armoured cruisers with the loss of fifteen hundred
men. The _Aboukir_, having been hit first, was closed by the _Hogue_
and _Cressy_ in order to save her crew. But they were themselves
torpedoed before they could either see their enemy or save their
friends.

Meanwhile the only German squadron overseas had been doing some
daringly clever work under its first-class admiral, Graf von Spee.
Leaving his worst vessels at Tsing-tao (the German port in China which
was taken by the Japanese and British later on) he sailed into the vast
Pacific with his seven best. On his way south he sent the _Königsberg_
to raid the east coast of Africa and the _Emden_ to raid the Indian
Ocean. The _Königsberg_ did a good deal of damage to merchantmen and
sank the much weaker British light cruiser _Pegasus_, which was caught
refitting at Zanzibar and was pounded into scrap iron with the loss of
half her crew. But when the _Königsberg_ made off, probably fearing
the arrival of some avenging British, the _Pegasus_ still had her
colours flying, not from the mast, for that was shot away, but in the
steadfast hands of two undauntable Marines.


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Online LibraryWilliam Charles Henry WoodFlag and Fleet → online text (page 14 of 19)