THE NAVY

“With a tow-row-row-row-row-row for the British Grenadiers!” Which,
of course, means the English Grenadiers, inasmuch as there never were
any Scottish Grenadiers. To-day, however, the English do not sing this
song. Their grandfathers delighted in it, and the tune still survives
as a soldier-man’s march. But when the modern English wish to celebrate
the English soldier vocally, they do it in their own decadent, bathotic
way. They have an idiot-song called _Tommy Atkins_. The chorus of it
goes somewhat in this wise:

Oh! Tommy, Tommy Atkins,
You’re a good ‘un, heart and hand;
You’re a credit to your nation
And to your native land.

May your hand be ever ready!
May your heart be ever true!
God bless you, Tommy Atkins!
Here’s your country’s love to you!

And since the outbreak of the late war, at any rate, the English do not
speak of soldiers, but of Tommies; and the principal English poet has
gone farther, and dubbed them Absent-Minded Beggars. Since the outbreak
of the war, too, it has been necessary to issue from time to time words
of caution to the great English public. Lord Roberts–“Little Bobs,”
I suppose, I should call him, in the choice English fashion–has on
two or three occasions deemed it advisable to let it be known that
his desire was that the great English public should discontinue the
practice of treating Cape-bound or returned Tommies to alcoholic
stimulants, and substitute therefor mineral waters or cocoa. This was
very wise on Little Bobs’s part, and it has no doubt saved at least
two Cape-bound or returned Tommies from the degradation of an almighty
drunk. I mention this because it illustrates in an exceedingly quaint
way the attitude of the English towards the soldier. When there is
war toward, the soldier is absolutely the most popular kind of man in
England. In peace-time an English soldier is commonly credited with
being socially vile and unpresentable. There is a popular conundrum
which runs, “What is the difference between a soldier and a meerschaum
pipe?” and the answer, I regret to say, is, “One is the scum of the
earth, and the other the scum of the sea.” Tommy’s place in the piping
times of peace is just at the bottom of the social ladder; there he
must stay, and drink four ale, and smoke cheap shag, and sit at the
back of the gallery in places of amusement. Then war comes along, and
the English bosom expands to the sound of the distant drum, and to
the rumour of still more distant carnage. Who is it that’s a-working
this ‘ere blooming war? Blest if it ain’t our old friend Tommy Atkins!
Fetch him out of the four-ale bar at once. The nation’s heroes have
no business in four-ale bars. The saloon bar is the place for them,
and the barmaid shall smile upon them, and they shall have free drinks
and free cigars till all’s blue; for they are the nation’s heroes, and
they deserve well of their country. Furthermore, if they wish to visit
those great and glorious centres of enlightened entertainment commonly
called the Halls, they shall no longer be stuffed obscurely away in the
rear portion of the gallery, but they shall come out into the light of
things; they shall come blushingly and amid acclaim into the pit or the
stalls, or, for that matter, into any part of the ‘ouse.

Throughout the war this has been so. It was so till yesterday. But
the ancient English smugness has begun to assert itself once more;
and Tommy–dear Tommy, God-bless-you Tommy, in fact–finds staring
him in the face, as of yore, “Soldiers in uniform not served in this
compartment”; “Soldiers in uniform cannot be admitted to any part of
this theatre except the gallery.” The English Kipling hit the whole
matter off in his vulgar way when he wrote _Tommy_:

I went into a theatre as sober as could be;
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to a gallery, or round the music-‘alls;
But when it comes to fightin’–Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!

For it’s Tommy this and Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide–
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys–the troopship’s on the tide
Oh! it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

We were told that this war, if it were doing England no other good,
was at least bringing her to a right understanding of the soldier-man.
It was teaching her to take him by the hand, to recognise in him a
creditable son and an essential factor in the State. It has ended in
the way in which pretty well every English revival does end–namely, in
smoke. Though England has as much need of the soldier and is as much
dependent upon him for peace and security as any other nation, she has
never been able–excepting, as I have said, in time of war–to bring
her greedy mind to the pass of doing him the smallest honour or of
rendering to him that measure of social credit which is obviously his
by right.

That the English Tommy is not altogether a delectable person, however,
goes, I think, without saying. According to General Buller and other
more or less competent authorities, the men in South Africa were
splendid. I do not doubt it in the least. On the other hand, the
“returns” from that country have not struck one as reaching a high
standard of savouriness or manliness; and, however splendid he may
have been as a campaigner, as an ex-campaigner the English Tommy has
scarcely shone; so that in a sense the changed attitude of the English
public mind towards him is not to be wondered at.

Elsewhere in this essay I have pointed out that the late war has not
reflected any too much credit upon that chiefest of snobs–the English
military officer. To go into the army has long been considered good
form among the English Barbarians, and to be an officer in a swagger
regiment may be reckoned one of the best passports to English society.
It gives a man a tone, and puts him on a footing with the highest,
because an officer is a gentleman in a very special sense. But it
is well known that, during the past half-century or so, the English
Barbarians have been too prone to put their sons into the army for
social considerations only, and without regard to their qualification
or call for the profession of arms. And in the long result it has come
to pass that the English army is officered by men who know as little
as possible and care a great deal less about their profession, and are
compelled to leave the instruction, and as often as not the leadership,
of their men to non-commissioned officers. Over and over again in the
South African campaign it was the commissioned officer who blundered
and brought about disaster, and the non-commissioned officers and the
horse sense of the rank and file that saved whatever of the situation
there might be left to save. Probably the true history of the British
reverses, major and minor, in South Africa will never be made public.
But I believe it can be shown that in almost every instance it was
the incapacity or remissness of the English commissioned officer
which lay at the root of the trouble. The fact is, that the monocled
mountebank who is in the army, don’t you know, seldom or never
understands his job. He is too busy messing, and dancing, and flirting,
and philandering, and racing, and gambling, and speeding the time
merrily, ever to learn it. That the honour of Britain, and the lives
of Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen, should be in his listless, damp
hand for even as long as five minutes is an intolerable scandal. That
he should haw and haw, and yaw and yaw, on the barrack-square, and
take a salary out of the public purse for doing it, shows exactly how
persistently stupid the English can be. Of course, the common reply
to any attack upon these shallow-pated incompetents is that you must
have gentlemen for the King’s commissions, and that the pay the King’s
commissions carry is so inadequate that no gentleman unpossessed of
private means can afford to take one. This is a very pretty argument
and exceedingly English. The money will not run to capable men;
therefore let us fling it away on fools. Army reform, sweeping changes
at the War Office, new army regulations, an army on a business footing,
and so on and so forth, are always being clamoured for by the English
people, and always being promised by the English Government. But
until the day when the granting of commissions and promotion are as
little dependent upon social influence and the influence of money as
advancement in the law or advancement in the arts, the English army
will remain just where it is and just as rotten as it is.

For downright childishness the modern English soldier, whether he be
officer or file-man, has perhaps no compeer. When the South African War
broke out, Tommy and his officers were men of scarlet and pipe-clay and
gold lace and magnificent head-dresses. Also all drill was in close
order; you were to shove in your infantry first, supported by your
artillery, and deliver your last brilliant stroke with your cavalry.
The men should go into the fray with bands playing, flags flying, and
dressed as for parade. You commenced operations with move No. 1; the
enemy would assuredly reply with move No. 2; you would then rush in
with move No. 3; there would be a famous victory, and the streets of
London would be illuminated at great expense. In South Africa matters
did not quite pan out that way; the enemy declined absolutely to play
the stereotyped war-game, for the very simple reason that they did
not know it, and that South Africa is not quite of the contour of a
chess-board. And so the English had to change their cherished system,
and to learn to ride, and to throw their pretty uniforms into the
old-clothes baskets, and to get out of their old drill into a drill
which was no drill at all, and to give up resting their last hope on
the British square, and to get accustomed to deadly conflict with an
enemy whom they never saw and who never took the trouble to inform
them whether they had beaten him or not. It was all very trying and all
very bewildering, and it is to the credit of the English army that in
the course of a year or two it did actually manage to understand the
precise nature of the work cut out for it and made some show of dealing
with it in a workman-like way.

Here was a lesson for us, and we learned it. An Englishman, you know,
can learn anything when he makes up his mind to it. And he has learned
this South African lesson thoroughly well; so well, indeed, that it
looks like being the only lesson he will be able to repeat any time
in the next half-century. For what has he done? Well, to judge by
appearances, we must reason this way: “I was not prepared for this
South African business. It was a new thing to me. It gave me a new
notion of the whole art and practice of war. The old authorities were
clean out of it. Therefore I solemnly abjure the old authorities. For
the future I wear slouch-hats and khaki and puttees and a jacket full
of pockets, and I drill for the express notion that I may some day
meet a Boer farmer. The entire sartorial and general aspect of my army
shall be remodelled on lines which might induce one to think that the
sole enemy of mankind was Mr. Kruger, and the great military centre of
the world was Pretoria.” It does not seem to occur to the poor body
that his next great trial is not in the least likely to overtake him
in South Africa. He has had to fight on the Continent of Europe before
to-day, and I shall not be surprised if he has to do it again before
many years have passed over his head. Yet, wherever his next large
fighting has to be done, you will find that he will sail into it in his
good old infantile, stupid English way, armed cap-a-pie for the special
destruction of Boers. It is just gross want of sense, and that is all
that can be said for it.

Since Trafalgar, the English navy has been the apple of the
Englishman’s eye. He holds that the English power is a sea-power;
that these leviathans afloat, the King’s ships, are his first line of
defence; and that so long as he keeps the English navy up to the mark
he can defy the world. His method of keeping it up to the mark is most
singular. It consists of tinkering with old ships generation after
generation, laying down new ones which seemingly never get finished,
and of being chronically short of men. The naval critics of England
may be divided sharply into two camps. In the one we have a number
of gentlemen who are naval critics simply because they happen to be
connected with newspapers. These young persons are naturally anxious
to do the best that can be done for their papers and for themselves.
They recognise that if they are to be in a position to obtain immediate
and first-hand information–not to say exclusive information–as
to naval doings, they must stand well with the Admiralty and the
authorities. The Admiralty and the authorities are not in need of
adverse critics. What they like and what they will have are smily, wily
reporters, who will swear with the official word, see with the official
eye, and take the rest for granted. In the other camp of naval critics
you have a bright collection of book-compilers, naval architects,
and patent-mongers, all of whom have some sort of fad to exploit or
some private axe to grind. Hence the amiable English taxpayer knows
just as much at the present moment about his navy as he knew three
years ago about his army. In spite of the perfervid assurances of Mr.
Kipling, and of the ill-written, anti-scare manifestoes of the morning
papers, the English taxpayer knows in his heart that all is not so
well as it might be with the English navy. What is wrong the English
taxpayer cannot tell you; but there it is, and he has a sort of feeling
that, when the big sea-tussle comes, the English navy, being tried,
will be found wanting. Herein I think he shows great prescience. The
superstition to the effect that the English rule the waves has of late
begun to be known for what it is. There are nowadays other Richmonds
in the field, all bent on doing a little wave-ruling on their own
account. And after the first start of surprise and astonishment, the
sleepy, slack, undiscerning Englishman has just let things go on as
they were, and has just dilly-dallied what time the new wave-rulers
were building and equipping the finest battle-ships that modern science
can put afloat, and making arrangements for the acquisition of as much
naval supremacy as they can lay their hands on. And whether the English
navy be or be not as efficient as the Admiralty and the admirals would
have us believe, it is quite certain that, in consequence of budding
wave-rulers, the English navy is not, on the whole, so formidable a
weapon or so impregnable a defence as it ought to be. The fact is,
that in the matter of naval strength, offensive and defensive, the
English are just a quarter of a century behind. They slept whilst their
good friends the French, the Russians, and the Germans were climbing
upward in the dark; and when they woke it was to perceive that another
navy had sprung into existence by the side of the English navy, and
that the task of catching up, of putting the old navy into a position
of absolute supremacy over the new, was well-nigh an impossible one.
You cannot build line-of-battle ships in an hour. Furthermore, the
yards of England, though capable of extraordinary achievements, are
not capable of a greater output than the yards of France, Russia, and
Germany conjoined. Half a century ago the English had a distinct and
preponderating start. When the other powers began to show increased
activity in the matter of shipbuilding, the English said, “It is of
no consequence; let ’em build.” They threw their start clean away. The
probabilities are that they will never be able to regain it.

Quite apart from the large general question, however, and granting
that on paper England’s sea-power is equal to that of any three powers
combined, it cannot have escaped the attention of the interested that
the foreign naval experts view our whole flotilla with a singular calm,
and appear to be quite amused when we talk of naval efficiency and
advancement. It is pretty certain that this calm and this amusement are
not based entirely in either ignorance or arrogance. Ships built and
fitted in Continental yards may lack the advantage of being English
built, but they are fighting-ships nevertheless, and they have not much
to lose by comparison with the best English fighting-ships, even when
the comparison is made by English experts. Indeed, it is very much
open to question whether some of the Continental ships are not a long
way ahead of some of the best English ships in destructive power and
possibilities for fight. Of course the common reply to this is, that
it is no good having a fine machine unless you have the right man to
handle it. And Jack, of course,–the honest English Jack,–is the only
man in the world that really knows how to handle fighting-ships. Well,
it may be so, or it may not be so. The Englishman will undoubtedly keep
his engines going and stick to his guns till chaos engulfs him. It
seems possible, too, that he has made himself thoroughly familiar with
every detail of the machine he has got to work, and that he knows his
business in a way which leaves precious little room for more intimate
knowledge. In spite of all this, however, it cannot be denied that the
Continental navy-man is slowly but surely creeping up to the English
standard. That as a rule he is a man of better family than the English
navy-man, that his conditions of service are more favourable, and
that his food and accommodation are better, are all in his favour.
He may lack the steadiness and the grit of the old original English
hearts of oak. Still, he is coming on and making progress; whereas the
old original English hearts of oak do not appear to be getting much
“forrader.” Besides, it is well known that the English do not possess
anything like enough of them, and those whom they do possess have such
a love for the service that they take particularly good care to warn
would-be recruits off it.

From time immemorial the English have made a point of treating the
saviours of their country meanly and shabbily. In the Crimea the
English troops were half-starved and went about in rags, while a lot
of broad-shouldered, genial Englishmen made fortunes out of army
contracts. It was the same in the Transvaal, and it will be the same
whenever England is at war. In peace-time she does manage to keep her
soldiers and sailors decently dressed, but it is notorious that she
nips them in the paunch, and that the roast beef and plum-pudding and
flagons of October which are supposed to be the meat and drink of John
Bull are not considered good for his brave defenders. A beef-fed army
and a beef-fed navy are what Englishmen believe they get for their
money. The rank and file of the army and navy are better informed. With
a navy that is undersized, undermanned, underfed, and underpaid, the
English chances of triumph, when her real strength is put to the test,
are problematical. Meanwhile, we may comfort ourselves with Mr. Kipling
and the _Daily Telegraph_.