The Really Invincible Armada

: Winning A Cause World War Stories

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 hardsh
ps 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.