We were steaming to the westward, towards the spot where the sun,
glowing like a disc of molten copper, was slowly nearing the horizon.
It had been one of those hot, breathless sort of days with no breeze;
and now, near sunset, nothing but an occasional cat's-paw stole gently
across the sea to ruffle its glassy surface in irregular-shaped
patches. Elsewhere, the water, shining like a mirror, reflected the
blazing glory of the sky.
Some distance off lay the coast, its familiar outline dim, purple, and
mysterious in the evening mist. But it was neither the sunset,
glorious as it was, nor the scenery which held our imagination. It was
All manner of craft there were. First came the _Spurt_, of Tromso, a
Norwegian tramp of dissolute and chastened appearance, whose
deliberate, plodding gait and general air of senility belied her name,
or at any rate the English meaning of it. Her rusty black hull was
decorated with three large squares painted in her national colours,
red, with a vertical white-edged stripe of blue in the centre. Next a
bulbous, prosperous-looking Dutchman, who seemed to waddle in her, or
his, stride. She was slightly faster than the ancient _Spurt_, but was
no flyer, and boasted a canary-yellow hull bearing her name in
fifteen-foot letters, and enormous painted tricolours striped
horizontally in red, white, and blue.
Then two Swedes with unpronounceable names who, by their
embellishments, informed the world that they hailed respectively from
Goteborg and Helsingborg. They also sported large rectangles, painted
in vertical stripes of yellow and blue, while close behind them, a
Dane, with an absurdly attenuated funnel and long ventilators sticking
at all angles out of her hull like pins from a pincushion, ambled
stolidly along like a weary cart-horse. She, scorning other
decoration, merely showed the scarlet white-crossed emblem of her
country. Some of the neutrals carried signs bearing their names which
could be illuminated at night, and all seemed equally determined not to
afford any prowling Hun submarine a legitimate excuse for torpedoing
them on sight.
* * * * *
But the craft which outnumbered the others by more than four to one
were the British. They bore no distinctive marks or colouring on their
sides, and their travel-stained and weather-beaten appearance, their
rusty hulls, discoloured funnels, and the generally dingy and
unpretentious look about them showed that they were kept far too busy
to trouble about external appearances. The only token of their
nationality was the wisp of tattered red bunting fluttering at the
stern of each; the gallant old Red Ensign which, war or no war, still
dances triumphantly on practically every sea, except the Baltic.
Many of the passing vessels looked out of date and old-fashioned. Some
veterans of the 'eighties or 'nineties, fit only to sail under a
foreign flag according to pre-war standards, may have been dug out of
their obscurity to play their part in the war. And a very important
part it is. Ships must run, and, at a time when the Admiralty have
levied a heavy toll for war purposes upon all classes of ships
belonging to the Mercantile Marine, every vessel which will float and
can steam can be utilised many times over for the equally important
work of carrying cargo. It is not peaceful work, either, in these days
of promiscuous mine-laying and enemy submarines armed with guns and
torpedoes ready to sink without warning.
The important work of the yachts, pleasure steamers, trawlers, and
drifters used for mine-sweeping, patrol work, and other naval purposes
need not be entered into here; but the Mercantile Marine proper, what,
for want of a better term, we may call "the deep sea service," has
supplied the Royal Navy with many thousands of splendid officers and
men who are now serving their country in fighting ships as members of
the Royal Naval Reserve. Moreover, numbers of its ships of all classes
are employed for war purposes as armed merchant cruisers, transports,
oil fuel vessels, colliers, ammunition ships, storeships, and the like.
But the function of those ships which are left for their legitimate
purpose of cargo carrying is of equal importance to the country, of
inestimable value, in fact, since we could not exist without them.
Their duty is fraught with constant peril. Submarines may be lurking
and mines may have been laid upon the routes they have to traverse, but
never have there been the least signs of unreadiness or unwillingness
to proceed to sea when ordered to do so.
Most of the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine are not trained
to war like their comrades of the Royal Navy. They are not paid, and
their ships are not built, to fight; but yet, time and time again,
their natural pluck and intrepidity has shown itself in the face of an
entirely new danger.
* * * * *
Instances are so numerous that it is impossible to mention them all.
Remember the gallant fight of the Clan MacTavish, with her single gun,
against the heavily-armed German raider Moewe. Take the case of the
"Blue Funneller" _Laertes_, Captain Probert, which was ordered to stop
by an enemy submarine, but, disregarding the summons, proceeded at full
speed, steering a zigzag course, and so escaped, Remember the little
_Thordis_, Captain Bell, which, after having a torpedo fired at her,
actually rammed and sank the submarine which fired it.
Again, there was the transport _Mercian_, Captain Walker, which was
attacked by gunfire from a hostile submarine in the Mediterranean.
Some of the troops on board were killed, others were wounded, and
nobody could have blamed the captain if he had surrendered. But what
did he do? He endured a bombardment lasting for an hour and a half,
and, thanks to the bravery and skill of all on board, the ship escaped.
There was also Captain Palmer, of the _Blue Jacket_, who, though his
ship had actually been torpedoed, stood by her in his boats, reboarded
her, and, in spite of her damage, steamed her to a place of safety.
Recollect Captain Clopert, whose vessel, the _Southport_, was captured
by a German man-of-war, was taken to the island of Kusaie, and was
there disabled by the removal of certain important parts of her
machinery. She was evidently to be utilised as a collier, but no
sooner had the enemy left than the master, officers, and men set to
work to effect repairs. How they did it with the meagre appliances at
their disposal only they themselves can say, but the fact remains that
the ship escaped.
These cases are only typical. Whole volumes might be written round the
warlike deeds of our "peaceful" merchantmen, and from the many
instances of gallantry we read of and the still greater number which do
not achieve publicity it is evident that on every occasion of
encountering the enemy the master of the ship, backed up most nobly by
his officers and crew, has not only done everything possible to save
his ship from capture in the first instance, but has never hesitated to
defend his vessel in accordance with the generally accepted tenets of
International Law, which state that a merchant ship can defend herself
Courage in the face of the enemy when one can return shot for shot is
one thing, but heroism of the same kind in an unarmed ship is on rather
a different plane.
The work of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine is largely
interdependent. The two great sea services of the country must ever
work hand in hand and side by side, and let us never forget what we owe
to the latter.