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The Really Invincible Armada

The northern coast of Scotland is about as far north as the southern
point of Greenland and nearly all of Norway lies still nearer the pole.
Across the stretch of ocean between Scotland and Norway, a distance of
about three hundred miles, for over four years the English navy kept
guard, summer and winter. After the United States entered the war, the
entire distance was protected also by mines.

The hardships suffered by the crews of these blockading ships during
the terrible winters in that northern latitude can never be fully
appreciated by any one who did not have to endure them and overcome
them. This called for courage of the highest order, and the British
sailors proved again, as they have so many times in the past, that they
possessed it.

For thirty to forty days, each blockading ship kept the seas and then
returned to port for a short period of rest. When on blockade, the men
were frequently on duty on deck for twenty hours at a time wet through
to the skin; they then went below to their berths for a few hours'
sleep, to be followed by twenty hours more of duty on deck. Blow
high, blow low, rain, hail, or snow, mines or submarines, said one of
them, we have to go through it.

A suspicious vessel is sighted, headed for Norway, Denmark, or Holland.
She must be hailed, stopped, and boarded to make sure she is not
carrying cotton or rubber, or other contraband of war intended for
Germany. No matter how rough the sea or what the temperature, this
duty must be done. We have just crawled into port again, wrote an
officer; what fearful weather it has been, nothing but gales, rain and
snow, with rough seas. Two nights out of the last four were terrible
and for the last fortnight it seems to have been one incessant gale,
sometimes from the east, and then, for a change, from the west, with
rain all the time. The strictest lookout must be kept at all times, as
with the rough seas that are going now, a submarine's periscope takes a
bit of spotting, likewise a floating mine, the lookout hanging on to
the rigging in blinding rain, with seas drenching over them for hours
at a time, peering into the darkness.

W. Macneile Dixon gives the following vivid account of the work of the
British navy. So it goes, and none save these who know the sea can
form a picture or imagine at all the unrelaxing toil and strain aboard
these ocean outposts that link northern with southern climes and draw
their invisible barrier across the waters. The sea, if you would
traffic with her, demands a vigilance such as no landsman dreams of,
but here you have men who to the vigilance of the mariner have added
that of the scout, who to the sailor's task have added the sentry's,
and on an element whose moods are in ceaseless change, today bright as
the heavens, tomorrow murky as the pit.

To this rough duty in northern seas what greater contrast than that
other in southern, the naval bombardment of the Dardanelles? How broad
and various the support given by the British fleet to the Allies can
thus be judged. Separated each from the other by some thousands of
miles, the one fleet spread over leagues of ocean, kept every ship its
lonely watch, while the bombarding vessels, concentrated in imposing
strength, attempted to force a passage through a channel, the most
powerfully protected in the world. Unsuccessfully, it is true, but in
the grand manner of the old and vanished days when war had still
something of romance, and was less the hideous thing it has become.

We have here at least a standard by which to measure the doings of
Britain on the sea. For remember the attempt upon the Dardanelles,
with all the strength and energy displayed in it, must be thought of as
no more than a minor episode in the work of the navy, not in any way
vital to the great issue. It was not the first nor even the second
among the tasks allotted to it. For while, first of all, the great
vessels under the commander-in-chief paralyzed the activities of the
whole German navy, while second in importance, the cruising patrols
held all the doors of entrance and exit to the German ports, still
another fleet of great battleships remained free to conduct so daring
an adventure as the attempt upon the Dardanelles. Nor was this all,
for, when the unsupported fleet could do no more, another heroic
undertaking was planned upon which fortune beguilingly smiled--the
landing on the historic beaches of Gallipoli.

Take, first, the attempt of the ships upon the Straits. In the light
of failure no doubt it must be written down a military folly. Ships
against forts had long been held a futile and unequal contest. But it
was not the forts that saved Constantinople. In the narrow gulf
leading to the Sea of Marmora no less than eight mine fields zigzagged
their venomous coils across the channel. The strong, unchanging
current of the Dardanelles, flowing steadily south, carried with it all
floating mines dropped in the upper reaches. Torpedo tubes ranged on
the shore discharged their missiles halfway across the Straits. Before
warships could enter these waters a lane had to be swept and kept.
Daily, therefore, the minesweepers steamed ahead of the fleet to clear
the necessary channel. But when thus engaged they became the target of
innumerable and hidden guns, secluded among the rocks, in gullies and
ruins and behind the shoulders of the hills, in every fold of the
landscape. To 'spot' these shy, retiring batteries was of course
imperative, but when spotted they vanished to some other coign of
vantage, equally inconspicuous, and continued to rain fire upon the
minesweepers. The warships poured cataracts of shell along the shores
and among the slopes, the sea trembled, and the earth quaked. Amid the
devastating uproar the trawlers swept and grappled and destroyed the
discovered mines, but almost as fast as they removed them others were
floated down to fill their places. Ships that ventured too far in
support of the sweepers, like the Bouvet and the Triumph, perished;
the waterways were alleys of death. Progress indeed was made, but
progress at a cost too heavy, and wisdom decreed the abandonment of the
original plan.

There remained another way. An army landed on the peninsula might
cross the narrow neck of land, demolish the batteries, and free the
minesweepers from their destructive fire. Could that be done, it was
thought the ships might yet force a passage into the broader waters and
approach within easy range of the Turkish capital. After long and
fatal delay the attempt was made. What might have been easily
accomplished a month or two earlier had increased hour by hour in
difficulty. Warned in good time of the coming danger, the Turks
converted Gallipoli, a natural fortress, into a position of
immeasurable strength. With consuming energy, in armies of thousands,
they worked with pick and shovel till every yard of ground commanding a
landing place was trench or rifle pit or gun emplacement. An
impenetrable thicket of barbed wire ran up and down and across the
gullies, stretched to the shore and netted the shallow waters of the
beach itself. Then when all that man could do was done, they awaited
the British attack in full confidence that no army, regiment, or man
could land on that peninsula and live.

No more extraordinary venture than this British landing on a naked
beach within point-blank range of the most modern firearms can be read
in history or fable. It was a landing of troops upon a foreign shore
thousands of miles from home, hundreds from any naval base. Without
absolute command of the sea, it could not have been so much as thought
of. Men, guns, food, ammunition, even water had to be conveyed in
ships and disembarked under the eyes of a hostile army, warned, armed,
alert, and behind almost impregnable defenses.

To conceive the preposterous thing was itself a kind of sublime folly;
to accomplish it, simply and plainly stated, a feat divine. Though a
thousand pens in the future essay the task no justice in words can ever
be done to the courage and determination of the men who made good that
landing. Put aside for a moment the indisputable fact that the whole
gigantic undertaking achieved in a sense nothing whatever. View it
only as an exploit, a martial achievement, and it takes rank as the
most amazing feat of arms that the world has ever seen or is likely to
see. That at least remains, and as that, and no less than that, with
the full price of human life and treasure expended, it goes upon the
record, immortal as the soul of man. And nothing could be more fitting
than that an accomplishment which dims the glory of all previous
martial deeds, which marks the highest point of courage and resolution
reached by Britain in all her wars, should have been carried through by
British, Irish, and Colonial troops, representatives of the whole
empire under the guidance and protecting guard, of the British fleet.

At Lemnos, for the more than Homeric endeavor on Homer's sea, lay an
assemblage of shipping such as no harbor had ever held. Within sight
of Troy they came and went, and in the classic waters ringed round by
classic hills waited for the day, a great armada, line upon line of
black transports, crowded with the finest flower of modern youth, and
beyond them, nearer the harbor mouth, the long, projecting guns and
towering hulls of the warships. On April 24th they sailed, while, amid
tempests of cheering, as the anchors were got and the long procession
moved away, the bands of the French vessels played them to the Great
Endeavor. There is no need to tell again the story of the arrival, the
stupendous uproar of the bombardments, so that men dizzy with it
staggered as they walked, the slaughter in the boats and on the
bullet-torn shingle, the making good of the landings and all the
subsequent battles on that inhuman coast. They will be told and retold
while the world lasts. And now that all is over, the chapter closed,
the blue water rippling undisturbed which once was white with a tempest
of shrapnel, now that all is over, the armies and the ships withdrawn,
and one reflects upon the waste of human life, the gallant hearts that
beat no longer, the prodigal expenditure of thought and energy and
treasure, there should perhaps mingle with our poignant regret and
disappointment no sense of exultation. Yet it surges upward and
overcomes all else. For our nature is so molded that it can never
cease to admire such doings, the more perhaps if victory be denied the
doers. And here at least on the shell-swept beaches, among the rocks
and flowery hillsides of Gallipoli, men of the British race wrote,
never to be surpassed, one of the world's deathless tales. . . .

There are navies and navies. The old and fighting British navy, whose
representatives keep the seas today against the king's enemies, has
been heard of once or twice during the present war, but for the most
part preserves a certain aristocratic and dignified aloofness from the
public gaze. There is, however, another and an older navy which comes
and goes under the eyes of all, as it has done any time these three or
four centuries. On its six or eight thousand ships, to prove that
England is Old England still, the Elizabethan mariner has come to life
again, who took war very much as he took peace, unconcernedly, in his
day's work. Needless to say no other nation on earth could have
produced, either in numbers or quality, for no other nation possessed
these men, bred to the sea and the risks of the sea, born where the air
is salt, who, undeterred by the hazards of war, which was none of their
employ, answered their country's call as in the old Armada days. From
the Chinese and Indian seas they came, from the Pacific and Atlantic
trade routes, from whaling, it might be, or the Newfoundland fishing
grounds or the Dogger Bank--three thousand officers and some two
hundred thousand men--to supply the Grand Fleet, to patrol the
waterways, to drag for the German mines, to carry the armies of the
Alliance, and incidentally, to show the world, what it has perhaps
forgotten, that it is not by virtue of their fighting navy that the
British are a maritime people, but by virtue of an instinct amounting
to genius, rooted in a very ancient and unmatched experience of
shipping and the sea. The Grand Fleet is only the child of this
service which was already old before the word 'Admiralty' was first
employed, which made its own voyages and fought its own battles since
Columbus discovered America, and before even that considerable event.
These travel-worn ships formed the solid bridge across which flowed in
unbroken files the men and supplies to the British and the Allied

Picture a great railroad which has for its main line a track four or
five thousand miles in length, curving from Archangel in Russia to
Alexandria in Egypt, a track which touches on its way the coasts of
Norway, of the British Isles, of France, of Portugal, of Spain, of
Italy, of Greece. Picture from this immense arc of communication
branch lines longer still, diverging to America, to Africa, to India,
knitting the ports of the world together in one vast railway system.
That railroad system, with its engines and rolling stock, its stations
and junctions, its fuel stores and offices, over which run daily and
nightly the wagon loads, of food, munitions, stores for a dozen
countries at war with the Central Powers, is a railroad of British
ships. To dislocate, to paralyze it, Germany would willingly give a
thousand millions, for the scales would then descend in her favor and
victory indubitably be hers. For consider the consequences of
interruption in that stream of traffic. Britain herself on the brink
of starvation, her troops in France, in Egypt, in Salonica, cut off
without food, without ammunition, unable to return to their homes. But
for this fleet that bridges the seas, Britain could not send or use a
single soldier anywhere save in defense of her own shores. India,
Australia, Canada, all her dependencies would be cut off from the
Mother Country, the bonds of empire immediately dissolved. Some little
importance then may be attached to this matter of bridging the
waterways, and some admiration extended towards the men who do it and
the manner of the doing.

If you ask what have the Allies gained, take this evidence of a French
writer in Le Temps: 'If at the beginning of the war we were enabled
to complete the equipment of our army with a rapidity which has not
been one of the least surprises of the German staff, we owe it to the
fleet which has given us the mastery of the seas. We were short of
horses. They were brought from Argentina and Canada. We were short of
wool and of raw materials for our metal industries. We applied to the
stockbreeders of Australia. Lancashire sent us her cottons and cloth,
the Black Country its steel. And now that the consumption of meat
threatens to imperil our supplies of live stock, we are enabled to
avoid danger by the importation of frozen cargoes. For the present
situation the mastery of the sea is not only an advantage but a
necessity. In view of the fact that the greater part of our coal area
is invaded by the enemy the loss of the command of the sea by England
would involve more than her own capitulation. She indeed would be
forced to capitulate through starvation. But France also and her new
ally, Italy, being deprived of coal and, therefore, of the means of
supplying their factories and military transport, would soon be at the
mercy of their adversaries.'

On this command of the sea rested, then, the whole military structure
of the Alliance. It opposed to Germany and her friends not the
strength of a group of nations, each fighting its own battle, separate
and apart, but the strength of a federation so intimately knit together
as to form a single united power which has behind it the inexhaustible
resources of the world. Thus the British navy riveted the Great
Alliance by operations on a scale hardly imaginable, operations whose
breadth and scope beggar all description, since they span the globe
itself. As for the men and the spirit in which they work, let him sail
on a battleship, a tramp, a liner, or a trawler, the British sailor is
always the same, much as he has been since the world first took his
measure in Elizabeth's days.

'Like the old sailors of the Queen and the Queen's old sailors.'

A great simplicity is his quality, with something of the child's
unearthly wisdom added, and a Ulysses-like cunning in the hour of
necessity, an ascetic simplicity almost like the saints', looking
things in the face, so that to that fine carelessness everything, all
enterprises, hazards, fortunes, shipwreck, if it come, or battle, are
but the incidents of a chequered day, and his part merely to 'carry on'
in the path of routine and duty and the honorable tradition of his
calling. Manifestly his present business is epic and the making of
epic, if he knew it; yet not knowing it he grasps things, as the epic
paladins always grasp them, by the matter-of-fact, not the heroic,
handle. What better stories have the poets to tell than that of
Captain Parslow, a Briton if ever there was one, who, refusing to
surrender, saved his ship in a submarine attack at the cost of his own
life? Mortally wounded as he stood on the ship, the wheel was taken
from the dying father's hand by his son, the second mate. Knocked down
by the concussion of a shell that gallant son of a gallant father still
held to his post and steered the vessel clear. Or have they anything
better to relate than the tale of the Ortega and Captain Douglas
Kinneir, who, when pursued by a German cruiser of vastly greater speed,
called upon his engineers and stokers for a British effort and drove
his vessel under full steam, and a trifle more, into the uncharted
waters of Nelson's Straits, 'a veritable nightmare for navigators,' the
narrowest and ugliest of channels, walled by gloomy cliffs, bristling
with reefs, rocks, overfalls, and currents, through which, by the mercy
of God and his own daring, he piloted his ship in safety and gave an
example to the world of what stout hearts can do. It is such men
Germany supposed she could intimidate!

These are but episodes in the long roll of honor. You will find
others in the quite peaceful occupation of minesweeping, or the search
for mines--'fishing' the navy calls it--that the impartial German
scatters to trip an enemy, perhaps a friend, an equal chance and it
matters not which, an occupation for humanitarians and seekers after a
quiet life. On this little business alone a thousand ships and
fourteen thousand fishermen have been constantly engaged. Take the
case of Lieutenant Parsons, who was blown up in his trawler, escaped
with his life, and undisturbed continued to command his group of
sweepers. On that day near Christmas time they blew up eight and
dragged up six other mines, while, as incidents within the passage of
ten crowded minutes, his own ship and another were damaged by
explosions and a third destroyed! Read that short chapter of North Sea
history and add this, for a better knowledge of these paths of peace,
from the letter of an officer: 'Things began to move rapidly now.
There was a constant stream of reports coming from aloft. Mine ahead,
Sir, Mine on the port bow, Sir; There is one, Sir, right
alongside, and on looking over the bridge I saw a mine about two feet
below the surface and so close that we could have touched it with a
boat hook. . . . After an hour at last sighted the minesweepers, which
had already started work.'

One may judge of these North Sea activities from the record of a
single lieutenant of the Naval Reserve who, besides attending to other
matters, destroyed forty or fifty mines, twice drove off an inquisitive
German Taube, attacked an equally inquisitive Zeppelin, twice rescued a
British seaplane and towed it into safety; rescued in June the crew of
a torpedoed trawler, sixteen men, also the crew of a sunk fishing
vessel; in July assisted two steamers that had been mined, saving
twenty-four of the sailors; in September assisted another steamer,
rescued three men from a mined trawler, towed a disabled Dutch steamer
and assisted in rescuing the passengers; in November assisted a
Norwegian steamer, rescued twenty-four men, and also a Greek steamer
which had been torpedoed and rescued forty.

Some day it will all be chronicled, and not the least fascinating
record will be that of men who, perhaps, never fired a shot but
enlarged their vision of the recesses of the enemy mind in other ways
and met his craft by deeper craft, or navigated African rivers, fringed
by desolate mangrove swamps, in gunboats, or hammered down the
Mediterranean in East Coast trawlers, boys on their first command, or
saw with their own eyes things they had believed to be fables.

'We travel about 1000 miles a week, most of it in practically unknown
seas, full of uncharted coral reefs, rocks, islands, whose existence
even is unknown. And by way of making things still more difficult we
keep meeting floating islands.

'I always thought these things were merely yarns out of boys'
adventure books. However, I have seen five, the largest about the size
of a football field. They are covered with trees and palms, some of
them with ripe bananas on them. They get torn away from the swampy
parts of the mainland by the typhoons, which are very frequent at this
time of year.'

The story of these things cannot be written here; it will fill many
volumes. Here an attempt has been made to sketch merely in its
broadest outlines some of the activities of British sailors during the
greatest of wars. Whatever the future historian will say of the part
they bore he will not minimize it, for on this pivot the whole matter
turned, on this axis the great circle of the war revolved. He will
affirm that, though in respect of numbers almost negligible compared
with the soldiers who fought in the long series of land battles, the
sailors held the central avenues, the citadel of power.

If it be possible in a single paragraph, let us set before our eyes
the work of the British navy and its auxiliaries during these loud and
angry years. Let us first recall the fact, that, besides the
protection of Britain and her dependencies from invasion, together with
the preservation of her overseas trade, to the navy was intrusted a
duty it has fulfilled with equal success, the protection of the coasts
of France from naval bombardment or attack--no slight service to
Britain's gallant ally. Behind this barrier of the British fleet, she
continued to arm and munition her armies undisturbed. Recall, too, the
French colonial armies as well as our own overseas troops, escorted to
the various seats of war--more than seven million men--the vital
communications of the Allies, north and south, secured; the supplies
and munitions--seven million tons--carried overseas; 1,250,000 horses
and mules embarked, carried and disembarked; the left wing of the
Belgian force supported in Flanders by bombardment; the Serbian army
transferred to a new zone of war; and last, if we may call last what is
really first and the mastering cause of all the rest, Germany's immense
navy fettered in her ports. Bring also to mind that fifty or sixty of
her finest war vessels have been destroyed, besides many Austrian and
Turkish; five or six million tons of the enemy's mercantile marine
captured or driven to rust in harbor; her trade ruined, a strict
blockade of her ports established which impoverishes day by day her
industrial and fighting strength; hundreds of thousands of Germans
overseas prevented from joining her armies; her wireless and coaling
stations over all the world and her colonial empire, that ambitious and
costly fabric of her dreams, cut off from the Fatherland and brought
helplessly to the ground.

When all this has been passed in review dwell for a moment on the
matter reversed--but for the British fleet Germany's will would now be
absolute, her emperor the master of the world.

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