Chapter 7: In the British Navy

AUGUST 1914 saw me enrolled in the British Navy as an able seaman, ready to do battle with the Huns. My first assignment was on a naval collier coaling the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow.

The sheltered anchorage in the Orkney Islands made a majestic picture. It was literally packed with every variety of man-o’-war and naval auxiliary. Naturally I longed for the moment when our cargo of coal should be transferred into the hungry maws of the big grey fighters, for then I should be transferred to one of the naval barracks, “Pompey” or Chatham.

Empty, we returned to Swansea, and from there I was sent to Chatham Naval Barracks to await further disposition. I was extremely worried that the War would be over before I could get a taste of action. I didn’t really care which side I was on, British or German; all I wanted was the thrill of a naval battle. I did, however, have a slight grudge against the Germans; I considered their declaration of war unethical. As an Irishman, I considered England our own private grievance and political diversion. The Kaiser had no right to poach on our preserves. At least he should have entered into some kind of agreement with our Irish leaders. In that way the War would have finished much quicker and his Imperial Highness would have gone to Holland at least year earlier.

A few weeks later, in Chatham Barracks, I was snoozing in my hammock when the shrill pipe of a bos’n’ whistle penetrated my slumbers. A stentorian voice was bellowing, “Four seamen for the Sirius. Who wants a Ship? … Four seamen for the Sirius …”

In a moment I was wide awake, and jumping quickly out on deck hailed the P. O. “Put me down, chief.”

“Righto, son- Gimme your name and number.”

Two other chaps also came along, but that was all from “our deck,” as the floors are called in the barracks.

I was surprised that crews should be picked from volunteers, but that was the system, and it seemed to me rather fair. I had expected to be put aboard whatever ship the Powers selected.

We were ordered to report on the square in the morning with full kit, for inspection and an immediate sailing.

The following night I was on board the cruiser Sirius, steaming out of Sheerness bound for an unknown destination. Portholes and deadlights were screwed up tight and not a light was visible from the outside. I was detailed as member of the gun’s crew of the port six-inch gun forward, and a part of my first night in the Navy was spent on gun watch as we sped towards the Belgian coast. In the morning we were lying a couple of miles off Middlekerke, guns all cleared for action, and waiting for the order to start bombarding. Ahead and astern, as far as the eye could reach, right out to the horizon, men-of-war of small tonnage were zigzagging in and out. Many were firing regularly at the hidden German batteries on land, and the boom of the guns down the wind was an exciting, heroic sound.

We were rolling frightfully in the long ground-swell, and I wondered how on earth our gun-layer could hit anything with a gun whose muzzle seemed to be in the last stages of intoxication. The gunnery lieutenant now ordered the port battery guns loaded. When this was done, and each gun-layer had reported ready, he shouted through a megaphone aiming directions and distance. The point of aim was a row of houses running at right angles to the beach. “Ready! Fire!” Two six-inch and two twelve-pounders roared as one. The Sirius heeled over with the recoil as if a monster from the deep had lain heavy hand on her.

During the lull which followed the “broadside ” I took a look at the row of houses. We had registered two direct hits; there was a hole clean through the gables, as if a mighty auger had done the work. Daylight streamed through the gap. A German battery was entrenched behind the houses, and soon they were dropping shells all around us. We steamed off out of range, then returned, zigzagging as before. It was unpleasant work with the deafening roar of the guns at close quarters and the smell of burning cordite from the cartridge cases. Then the incessant rolling of the ship made it difficult for us to maintain our footing. A rack of six-inch projectiles broke loose, and these heavy, slippery cylinders were rolling from side to side, threatening to break our legs or explode and blow us all to pieces. Until they were restored to their places we had little peace of mind; and it was with relief I saw the last of the unruly cordite shells safely jammed back in its rack.

At night we had visitations from aircraft, planes and dirigibles. They tried to blow us out of the water by dropping aerial bombs from low altitudes. We retaliated with our anti-aircraft gun, but on the pitching vessel it was a waste of time. Luckily we presented a small target, even when the powerful shore searchlights picked us out of the coal-black night. Submarines, too, we knew to be in the offing, so, taking it all round, we were sampling all methods of warfare, excepting the discomforts of the trenches.

Our base was Dunkirk. As this was in October-November, 1914, we saw the awful results of the fighting after the Mons retreat. The dead, living, and dying were being brought back to the base like cattle, in goods wagons. Often the blood was oozing from under the doorway as the mortally wounded lay there with no hope of succor. It was my first war, and such scenes nearly damped my enthusiasm.

A providential escape in November restored my buoyancy. We had taken on ammunition, coal, and stores in Dunkirk and were only awaiting water to proceed to sea to continue our regular bombarding spree on the Belgian coast. Our orders were to leave at twelve noon, to be followed an hour later by the light cruiser Hermes. There was a hitch in getting alongside the dock for water, which made it impossible for us to sail at noon. The admiral reversed the order. “Hermes to sail first, Sirius to follow.”

The Hermes was torpedoed outside Dunkirk a couple of hours later, with heavy loss of life!

We continued bombarding the coast towns of Middlekerke, Zeebrugge, Nieuport, and Ostend as part of Admiral Bacon’s Dover Patrol. This Dover Patrol had an enviable record in the War. It guaranteed the safe passage of the entire British armies back and forth across the Channel without the loss of a single soldier.

In December, 1914, we were lying in the River Tyne astern of the Lion, Admiral Beatty’s flagship in the Jutland battle. I went on board to look at a huge German projectile lying on the hatch cover of the after magazine. If this shell had exploded the Lion would have been blown into smithereens. I guess it was Beatty’s Irish luck!

In Sheerness we received at this late stage a full kit of winter clothing. This augured a continuation of service in northern waters, but actually we were sent for patrol and blockade duty to the West Coast of Africa, where we cruised up and down the torrid coast-line of the German Cameroons.

As a member of the field-gun’s crew for landing purposes, I had the experience of taking part in the land portion of the campaign, but never got close enough to the Germans to fire a shot. It was tough work in the steaming jungle. We had to carry our gun and ammunition piecemeal through the tangled undergrowth, where it was only possible to traverse single file. Three months ashore, and we were mighty glad to be recalled back on board the old Sirius, content to leave the soldiering end of the campaign to the Army proper.

The Cameroon campaign requires some explanation. The method of warfare employed is not easily understandable to those who heard nothing but news of major engagements on the west and eastern fronts.

The German Cameroons are as large as England and Germany combined, and have a population of nearly three million natives, and two thousand whites. The country is still rich in big game, and many unexplored areas are the haunts of the pygmy elephant and gorilla. The country is rich in ivory, ebony, mahogany and all tropical products. One of Carl Hagenbeck’s hunters told me that he had seen the ancient spotted lion; but this item of information did not interest me.

Duala, the principal town and seaport, is reached by the winding Duala River. At the river mouth is the impressive Cameroon mountain, a snow-capped cone in the equatorial belt.

The British in the Cameroons were commanded by General Dobell, and he overranked the French leader. Naturally the French were loath to take orders from Dobell, but their commander was under instructions from home to coordinate his efforts with the English general. An ironic result of this arrangement was revealed at Versailles, when the French got the choicest morsels on the dish, taking most of the country, the British being satisfied merely to add the strip adjoining Nigeria to their Colonial Empire.

The Allied troops numbered 18,600 composed of 10,000 French, 8,000 British, and 600 Belgians. There were also some 40,000 carriers. Poor devils! Half of them died in a fight which meant nothing in their lives. The Germans, numbering 1,000, more or less, resorted to guerrilla warfare. They were an elusive and bothersome enemy and exacted a large toll of the Allied troops, whose casualty list numbered more than 4,000. The German Governor, Ebermayer, and General Zimmerman escaped into Spanish Guinea after creating considerable havoc.

At the best it was a dull campaign. The heat was stifling and the food terrible. Then to me, growing increasingly restive, came news from Ireland. It was the spring of 1916, and the postponement of the Home Rule measure for Ireland suddenly recoiled on the British. Carson had frightened the British officials, but the breach of good faith was the spark to fuse the sullen hearts of young Ireland. The loud bull of Ulster roared his defiance to the Crown, but the sons of the Fianna, Padraic Pearse, Liam Mellowes, Thomas MacDonagh, were men of action.

The executions of Easter Week made me berserk, and I openly spoke my indignation to the officers of the ship. They were too hot, however, and too miserable to be concerned with a mad Irishman, and I raved on unhindered. Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett were poets, all of them, with the fire of a pure ideal to inspire the youth of Erin. They were the new knights of Fianna, skilled in song as well as arms. Whatever may have followed to dim the bright spirit of the Revolution, nothing can tarnish the memories of the lads of Easter Week who fired the shot that spiked the British gun four years later.

I determined to leave the ship. I had heard about De Wet’s thrust against the British in South Africa and decided to join him. I left the Sirius at Simonstown, and hurried to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. There, to my disgust, I learned that De Wet was interned on his own farm, and the Boer uprising was a fiasco.

There was no choice now but to move on, and I went farther north to Johannesburg, where I camped in the Wanderers’ football field.

All South Africa was fed on war propaganda, and every able-bodied man in mufti was taunted with the white feather. I received enough in “Jo’burg” to make a head-dress for a Sioux chief. The finest feather of all came from the cashier of the gold mine, where I made a few dollars rigging during my brief residence in South Africa. The paternal Pharisee solemnly advised me that the trumpets of war were sounding a call to higher duty, and I should join the colors on behalf of humanity. I took the cashier’s advice, but not for the salvation of Britain.

I joined the South African Engineers for service in German East Africa. In the half light of a cold, grey dawn I tumbled out on the platform of the small station in Potchefstroom. I was one of about fifty recruits shuffling awkwardly round waiting for a guiding hand to put them right. It soon came. A portly little sergeant-major with a bucolic face set apologetically behind a dense thicket of bristling walrus moustaches strutted majestically forward. With a flourish of his cane he bellowed: “Fall in.” After a competition to be in the rear rank, we fell into two straggling lines.

“From the right, number! ” This was an easy one; we had only to count up to twenty-three, and reached this total after four attempts. By this time I was willing to let the Germans win the damned war. Sergeant-Major O’Shea was the real enemy, I thought. No ally could speak like that. After the mathematical struggle, the red-faced Napoleon screamed: “Form fours!” A couple of Dutchmen took fright and ran after the train. The braver element got hopelessly tangled up trying to execute this difficult evolution. O’Shea danced a few complicated steps of an Irish jig, as he yelled: “Oi said, form fours, you” not “lumps.” On being straightened out we set sail for the camp, and in the sharp, invigorating air of the veldt I forgot O’Shea’s rudeness in conjuring breakfasts out of the ether.

I enlisted under the name of Hennessey, which is the southern Irish form of the Gaelic name MacAongusa. McGuinness, O’Shaughnessy all come from this clan name. I went through the usual routine of the army recruit. It was now my third experience in uniform, so I avoided the inevitable discomforts of a rookie.

There were many amusing episodes, however, in Potchefstroom. It was a huge camp capable of putting an army under cover. Sixty per cent of the enlisted men were Dutch or Boers; the remaining forty per cent were Colonials and home born.

There was little camaraderie between the Britishers and the Dutchmen. The superiority complex of the Englishman seemed natural, though annoying, and it caused a distinct cleavage. Some of the Boer Backveldters were in a semi-primitive state. They had an antipathy for water, and compulsory baths were the order of the day. One old patriarch escaped the hygienic vigilantes for quite a spell, but Nemesis was on his track. His beard was under suspicion. The accumulated food droppings of decades had turned it into a slab of cement. This was one day verified when we observed old Jan pull out his pipe and tobacco-pouch preparatory to a soothing smoke. Thrusting out his chin with a movement denoting years of practice he knocked out the dottle of the old dudeen on his rigid beard!

We rushed like one man. Holding our breaths the while, we grabbed him, and old Jan was carried bodily away and deposited in a watering-trough. He cried like a child at the horrid feeling of so much water, and eventually his grief so moved us that the guard with fixed bayonets withdrew, and he was allowed to emerge, wet but by no means clean.

Fights in the canteen and a triumphant march through Johannesburg were the high lights of the training in Potchefstroom. Most of Company A South African Engineers were veterans of the Boer War. Their pride in their old regiments was remarkable. The Irish predominated and were granted the high honor of being classified as the toughest element in camp. As in all congregations of the human family there was much clannishness. The Irish drank and fought among themselves. The cousin Jacks played cards and went to the camp mission. The Scotch drank furtively and took long walks. The English did nothing in particular. The Dutchmen held Kaffee Klatches and studied their paybooks. The Jews bought up old clothing, ran gambling schools, loaned money, and in general put, the army on a firm financial footing-for themselves!

There was much speculation and brave talk about the forthcoming campaign. A few got cold feet and deserted. Life in the camp was becoming tiresome. I was glad when the order for embarkation was posted up outside the adjutant’s office.

Recruited to full strength, Companies A and B of the South African Engineers took train for Durban en route for the War in German East Africa.

There were the usual touching scenes at the departure of the troop-train. Wives, sweethearts, children, and creditors all showed their grief. A bartender gave me a flask of Cape brandy, with instructions to kill all the ——- Huns in Africa. He evidently put little value on their lives judging by the size of the bribe. I promised to keep count of my victims up to fifty; after that the number would be approximate.

In Durban I disobeyed orders and broke camp to lay in a stock of good cheer for the trip north to Kilindini, the harbor for Mombasa, in British East Africa.

While the others were cheering, I located a hammock which I slung in the troop deck. I was joined by a young Boer named Otto Van Blerk, who had attached himself to me from the first day we bunked together in Potchefstroom camp. That night I retrieved a bottle of Cape “Dop,” one of many I had smuggled aboard, incidentally having to break bounds to get it. We finished the liquor and turned in for a heavy snooze.

I was suddenly roused by a loud voice. A tall Yorkshireman named Bradshaw stood over me. Already he had bowled over half a dozen men in the alleyway. He was drunk and mad with fury, but I had slept off most of my inebriety and awoke sober as a Methodist.

Get out of that hammock, Hennessey, you Irish ” he bawled.

I paid no attention. The next second I pitched out of the hammock, hitting the deck with my side and shoulder. He had cut the head-rope, but the tunic pillow and boots saved me from a scalp wound. As I jumped to my feet Bradshaw punched at me with a round-house swing.

The ship was rolling in the Indian Ocean swell, and the deck not conducive to scientific combat. He aimed again and missed, but my fist caught him solidly on the point of the chin and he stumbled, gaining impetus with a heavy lurch of the ship. His skull was split! The guard was called, and I was taken to the ship’s guardroom, a prisoner. Bradshaw was carried aft to the sick bay on a stretcher.

In the morning I awoke puzzled … then the encounter on the troop deck flashed back to me.

I was worried. The guard came to the grille in the door of my cell with a grin on his face. My hopes rose and fell in a second.

“How are you, Hennessey? Want some coffee? ”

“Sure,” said I, too scared to inquire about Bradshaw.

“How long are they going to keep me in this damned coop?” I added after a moment.

The guard shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t tell you. You killed that fellow, you know.”

“What? You’re joking!” I said, with a sudden pain in my stomach.

“He died last night, Hennessey!”

The horizon was dark ahead, and I put in a few miserable hours visioning a firing squad.

At ten o’clock prompt I was summoned before the ship’s commandant, a veteran British officer. About him were gathered several officers and six other ratings, including our sergeant-major. It was a rather informal affair. One of the officers had a black eye and his head was bandaged. He gave me a sideways glance. I didn’t remember exchanging compliments with him, though the Cape “Dop” is as potent as Venetian grappa, and a good combat beverage.

The colonel read the charge, in which I was accused of causing the death of a comrade, one Private Bradshaw. I made my statement, as best I remembered, regretting the death of Bradshaw, to whom I bore no antipathy. Other witnesses were called, and they supported my version of the fight. The poker-faced colonel listened, but said nothing. Frankly I was worried, because there was not the faintest ray of sympathy in his eyes.

Then the damaged officer testified. It was his story that resulted in my acquittal. Bradshaw had charged into the officers’ bar demanding liquor. He was refused and ordered out by the witness. Bradshaw replied with his right and had scored a hit on the lieutenant’s eye.

“Hennessey,” said the colonel, quite abruptly, ” you’re not guilty of murder.”

“Thank you, sir,” said I, saluting.

“But you are guilty of bad temper, and I place you on probation for the duration of your service.”

My punishment was calculated to degrade me in the eyes of my comrades. I was assigned as a chambermaid to my company. But having served apprenticeship to a boatload of mules, I accepted my lot with good grace; my quarters in the brig were superior to the soldiers’ bunks and my guard supplied me with officer’s linen.

The accident resulting in Bradshaw’s death had a curious reaction on my comrades. They respected my fistic talents beyond any measure of fact. There was considerable gossip about the affair, and when the troops held a social and concert, a boxing contest was suggested. On the troopship was a tough-headed young Cape boy attached to a cavalry regiment. He had whipped several lads in brawls, and he let it be known that he could lick three generations of Hennesseys. So we were matched to go four rounds in the third bout of the evening.

My ebony opponent, only a generation out of the bush, was an exhibitionist. If he had kept his eye on me instead of on the colonel he might have won. He was as tough as mule-meat, a hard puncher, but without much ring skill. He kept plunging into me, but his swings curved around my neck without registering. In the third round he leaped at me-wide open as an Irish public-house-and my right hand met his chin at full velocity, helped quite a bit by a timely lurch of the ship. The Cape Boy went into a long siesta. The fight was mine. I was cheered to the echo as the guard marched me, in all my newly acquired dignity, back to prison …

Leave a Reply