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The Mother Ship

Sixteen years ago, when the ships of the Royal Navy still disported
themselves in black hulls, with red water-lines, white upper works, and
yellow masts and funnels, she was a smart cruiser attached to one of
the large fleets. She was as spick and span as elbow grease and
ingenuity could make her, and the show ship of her squadron and the
pampered darling of the admiral, went by the name of "the yacht."

She was easily one of the cleanest ships afloat. Her blue-black side,
anointed daily with some mysterious compound rubbed on with serge, a
compound the exact ingredients of which were known only to her
commander and the painter who mixed it, was as smooth and as shiny as a
mahogany table. Her decks were as clean as scrubbers, holystones,
sand, and perspiring blue-jackets could make them, and woe betide the
careless sailor who defiled their sacred whiteness with a spot of
paint, or the stoker who left the imprint of a large and greasy foot on
emerging into the fresh air from his labours in the engine-room or

Her guns, steel, and brass-work winked and shimmered in the sun. Her
funnels were brushed over at frequent intervals with a wash the colour
and consistency of cream, and before she went to sea her yellow masts
and yards used to be swathed in canvas lest they should be defiled by
funnel smoke. Her boats, with their white enamel inside and out, their
black gunwales with the narrow golden ribbon running round inside, the
well-scrubbed masts, oars, thwarts, bottom-boards, and gratings, the
brass lettered backboards, and cushioned sternsheets, were the pride of
her midshipmen and the envy of nearly all the other young gentlemen in
the squadron.

But then, of course, this all happened in the "good old days," the
palmy days when men-of-war spent no great portion of their time at sea
and when, in some ships, Messrs. Spit and Polish were still the
presiding deities. No doubt, as we were sometimes asked to believe
before the war, the Service has gone to the dogs since 1900, for noisy
and blatant Mr. Gunnery has usurped the place of the above-mentioned
pair and life generally has become more strenuous. The ability to hit
a hostile ship at a distance of twenty miles or so cannot be inculcated
in the fastnesses of a harbour. The job simply must be taken seriously.

* * * * *

If you turn up her name in the "Navy List" of to-day--wild horses will
not make me disclose it and the Censor would not pass it if I did--you
will see that she still figures as a cruiser, though the fact remains
that she never goes to sea for any war-like purpose. They have even
added insult to injury by removing some of her guns.

This may be a matter for deep regret on the part of her officers and
men, who, since they belong to the Royal Navy or the Royal Naval
Reserve, naturally long to assist in an active manner at the
discomfiture of some floating Hun. Their thoughts may not exactly be
pleasant when they read and hear of the warlike doings of their
seagoing sisters, but they may console themselves by recollecting that
the ship of 1916 is probably infinitely more valuable to the country
than that of 1900, and that at the present time the Navy could not do
without her.

She is still clean but is no longer a "yacht," for her purpose is
strictly utilitarian. She performs the multifarious duties of a depot
ship, and as such attends to the ailments, aches and pains of, caters
for the needs of, and generally acts as a well-conducted mother to a
large number of destroyers. You have only to ask these latter what
they think of their parent, and there is not one of them who would not
tell you that they could not get on without her. Of course they
cannot! For destroyers, like delicate children prone to catch mumps,
whooping-cough, and measles, cannot thrive without careful nursing,
particularly in war time.

And so, if the depot ship receives a plaintive wail by signal to say
that one of her children has been punctured through the bows by a
projectile from a belligerent Hun, or that another, in a slight
altercation at sea with one of her sisters, has developed a "slight
dent" in herself to the accompaniment of leaky rivets and seams, she
merely says, "Come alongside!"

The destroyer does so, and, lo! an army of workmen step on board with
their tools, and with much hammering and drilling, the outward
application of a steel plate, some oakum, and some white lead, her
hurts are plastered and she is rendered seaworthy once more.

Sometimes the defects may be even more serious, as, for instance, when
one of her charges, having been badly cut into in a thick fog or having
unwisely sat down upon a mine, limps back into harbour with several
compartments full of water and serious internal injuries as well. But
the depot ship is quite equal to the emergency. She sends her
shipwrights, carpenters, and other experts on board the afflicted one
and, with a large wooden patch, more oakum, and buckets of red and
white lead, the destroyer is made sufficiently seaworthy to proceed to
the nearest dockyard.

Again, there may be engine-room defects, such things as over-heated
thrust-blocks, stripped turbines, and leaky valves. There are boiler
troubles and the periodical cleaning of the boiler tubes. There can be
defects in the guns, torpedo-tubes, searchlights, or electrical
fittings; defects anywhere and everywhere, even in the galley-stove
funnel or the wardroom pantry. Mother has a large family and their
ailments are very varied and diverse. But she competes with them all
and, save in cases of very severe damage, rarely confesses the job to
be beyond her powers and has to send her troublesome child to a

* * * * *

But this is not all she does. If Spud Murphy, able seaman of a
destroyer, carves the top off his finger or complains of "'orrible
pains in th' stummick," he is sent to mother to be nursed back to
health by her doctors. If Peter Jones imagines he has not received the
pay to which he is entitled, if he wishes to remit a monthly sum to his
wife, or if he desires to become the possessor of a pair of boots, a
tooth-brush, and a pair of new trousers, mother will oblige him.
Moreover, the fond parent distributes the mails and supplies the beef,
vegetables, bread, rum, haricot beans, tinned salmon, raisins, sugar,
tea, flour, coffee, and a hundred and one other comestibles necessary
for the nourishment of those on board her protegees. She will also
supply many other unconsidered trifles in the way of ammunition,
torpedoes, rope, canvas, paint, emery paper, bath-brick, oil, bolts,
nuts, pens, red ink, black ink, hectograph ink, foolscap, pencils,
paper fasteners, postage stamps ... I will leave it at that.

Heaven alone knows what else she can disgorge. She seems to resemble a
glorified Army and Navy Stores, with engineering, ship fitting, ship
chandlery, outfitting, haberdashery, carpentry, chemists, dry
provisions, butchers, bakers, stationery, postal, and fancy goods
departments. We have forgotten the certificate office or research
department, where they will tell you the colour of the eyes of any man
in the flotilla, the number of moles on the back of his neck, and the
interesting fact that Stoker "Ginger" Smith has a gory heart transfixed
by an arrow, together with the words "True Love," indelibly tattooed on
his left forearm.

The Criminal Investigation Department, which seems to be aware of the
past history of everybody, will deal with offenders, while, to go to
the opposite extreme, the depot ship's padre will be only too happy to
publish the banns of marriage for any member of his flock.

In addition to all this the officers of the flotilla are honorary
members of mother's wardroom, where, despite the fact that she
sometimes has great difficulty in collecting the sums due at the end of
the month, she allows them to obtain meals, drinks, and tobacco.
Lastly, she gets up periodical kinematograph or variety shows to which
all are invited, free, gratis, and for nothing.... What more could her
children want? She is a very good mother to them. Her greatness has
not departed.

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