Stationary they seemed now as the quay itself; but let a signal speak, an alarm come, and they would soon be as alive as leaping porpoises. The sport is to those who scout and hunt. But do not forget those who watch, those who keep the blockade, from the Channel to Iceland, and the trawlers that plod over plotted sea-squares with the regularity of mowing-machines cutting a harvest, on their way back and forth sweeping up mines. They were fishermen before the war and are fishermen still. Night and day they keep at it. They come into the harbours stiff with cold, thaw out, and return to hardships which would make many a man prefer the trenches. Tributes to their patient courage, which came from the heart, were heard on board the battleships.
“It is when we think of them,” said an officer, “that we are most eager to have the German fleet come out, so that we can do our part.”
There is another test besides that of gun-drills and target practice which reflects the efficiency of individual ships, and the larger the number of ships the more important it is. For the business of a fleet is to go to sea. At anchor, it is in garrison rather than on campaign, an assembly of floating forts. Navies one has seen which seemed excellent when in harbour, but when they started to get under way the result was hardly reassuring. Some erring sister fouled her anchor chain; another had engine-room trouble; another lagged for some other reason; there was fidgeting on the bridges. Then one asked, What if a summons to battle had come? Our own officers were authority enough that the British had no superiors in any of the tests. But strange reports dodged in and out of the alleys of pessimism in the company of German insistence that the Tiger and other ships which one saw afloat had been sunk. Was the fleet really held prisoner by fear of submarines? If it could go and come freely when it chose, the harbour was the place for it while it waited. If not, then, indeed, the submarine had revolutionized naval warfare. Admiral Jellicoe might lose some of his battleships before he could get into action against the Germans.
“Oh, to hear the hoarse rattle of the anchor chains!” I kept thinking while I was with the fleet. “Oh, to see all these monsters on the move!”
A vain wish it seemed, but it came true. A message from the Admiralty arrived while we were on the flagship. Admiral Jellicoe called his Flag Lieutenant and spoke a word to him, which was passed in a twinkling from flagship to squadron and division and ship. He made it as simple as ordering his barge alongside, this sending of the Grand Fleet to sea.
From the bridge of a destroyer beyond the harbour entrance we saw it go. I shall not attempt to describe the spectacle, which convinced me that language is the vehicle for making small things seem great and great things seem small. If you wish words invite splendid and magnificent and overwhelming and all the reliable old friends to come forth in glad apparel from the dictionary. Personally, I was inarticulate at sight of that sea-march of dull-toned, unadorned power.