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The New York Times, 28 May 1893
All on the Blake Said to Have Felt the Rod.
Birches for Midshipmen
Genial Admiral Hopkins Declared to Have Received His Share During His Middy Life, as Have Many Good Officers -- The Practice, However, Confined to the First Two Years Aboard the Britannia -- Much Authority Given to Midshipmen -- All Sons of Officers of Distinction.
Few New Yorkers who were shown over the big flagship Blake during her stay in this port by the swell little midshipmen of that vessel are aware that the embryo Admirals who so politely guided them about are subjected to an application of the birch rod whenever their Captain deems it necessary.
On board the Blake are no less than twenty-four midshipmen, every one of whom represents some old and renowned family. Yet, in accordance with British naval traditions, not one of the youngsters is deemed too good to escape the birch rod should a punishment be ordered.
To a NEW-YORK TIMES reporter a British officer the other day said laughingly:
"Oh, yes; we order an application of ten or twenty strokes of the birch rod on one of the little chaps whenever there is cause, but, as a matter of fact, the birching is confined almost entirely to the first two years of the course, when the youngsters are known as naval cadets.
"This initial two-year period is served aboard the Britannia at Portsmouth. After the lads leave the Britannia they are known as midshipmen. When a birching is ordered the Ship's Corporal officiates."
"How is the punishment administered?" was asked.
"Well, ahem!" was the laughing reply, "the good old schoolboy fashion we think good enough, and before the Ship's Corporal has finished with his birching it forces more than one grimace to the face of the little chap. But there is usually good blood in the young offender, and few, if any, of them will bawl, no matter how sharp the rod stings.
"Of course, though, the youngster has the satisfaction of seeing the Ships Corporal stand at 'Attention!' and with his hand at his cap in salute after the birching is ended, for the Corporal has to bear strictly in mind that he was birching a young officer and not an enlisted man."
Few officers of the British Navy, it is said, have passed through the course aboard the Britannia and escaped altogether a sound birching, and even jolly Admiral Hopkins of the Blake is declared to have received his share of the rod during his middy life, as have many other good officers.
Of all navies tradition is perhaps the strongest in the British Navy. Nearly all the principal powers educate their naval officers at a naval college, but the British Admiralty refuses to make any change in its present system, deeming it the best in the world.
At present a lad must not be under thirteen and a half years or more than fourteen and a half years of age to be eligible for a nomination, which is made by one of the Under Secretaries of the Board of Admiralty. Any lad of good parentage can receive a nomination, which enables him to appear in the competitive examination held in London and in Portsmouth every six months. There are usually sixty vacancies at an examination, and the number of applicants is seldom less than 200. The lads are examined in Latin, French, geography, English history, Biblical history, arithmetic, and some algebra. If an aspirant's father has served with distinction in either the army or the navy, very few marks are necessary to secure for him a position. It is the unknown lad who must reach a high mark in order to be accepted.
The boys are rigidly examined in Biblical history, and a failure in it without marked success in other studies is regarded as sufficient for rejection.
Aboard the Britannia the boys are taught navigation, seamanship, and gunnery, and they see considerable service in the training brigs attached to the Britannia. The examination at the end of the two years' course is of the same standard as is required of first mates in the British merchant service.
After leaving the Britannia the term of service aboard a sea-going ship is dependent on the excellence of standing on the Britannia. The usual period is three years, but it is possible for a cadet to shorten this midshipman service by as much as seven months.
"As the midshipman period of the middies aboard the Blake expires," said an officer of that vessel, "the lads will be examined before a board of Captains of the fleet in seamanship and navigation. On passing this examination the midshipman whose time is up is sent to the Royal College, at Greenwich, where he takes a three months' course in ship construction. He then goes to the gunnery ship Excellent, at Portsmouth, where he is given a three months' course each in gunnery, torpedo work, and piloting. He is then gazetted a Sub-Lieutenant. Under this system it is possible for a midshipman to become a Sub-Lieutenant when but little more than nineteen years old."
Among the midshipman on the Blake are representatives or some of the best fighting blood of England. Midshipman Hotham is a son of Admiral Hotham, who at present flies the flag from the Warspite. Midshipman White is a son of W.H. White, Chief Constructor of the British Navy. Midshipman G. Ducat is the son of a British Army officer who served with marked distinction in the great Indian mutiny and has given two other sons also to the service of the Queen.
Midshipman Broke of the Blake is a great-grandson of Capt. Broke of the Shannon, who captured the United States war ship Chesapeake during the war of 1812. Midshipmen Dawsen, Wells, and Townsend are sons of officers of distinction. With hardly an exception the same statement applies to all the other midshipmen of the Blake.
The ages of the midshipmen of the British flagship range from fifteen and a half to sixteen and a half years. The majority of the youngsters of that ship will serve on board of her until the Summer of 1895, when they will be sent to England.
It is the practice in the British Navy to vest large authority in the midshipmen, thereby making them, it is argued, keen and observing at an early age. Aboard the Blake the heavy six-inch guns on the main deck, which are separated by closed barbettes [protective circular armour], are in charge of midshipmen. One midshipman is assigned to a barbette, with about twenty men under him. A brace of barbettes is given in charge of a Lieutenant, who superintends the working of both. But the detail charge of each barbette is in the hands of one midshipman. Communication between the barbette and the fighting tower, where the Captain is stationed, is had by speaking tubes.
All the magazine passageways are in the hands of midshipmen and one of these lads in a fight may have as many as fifty men under his immediate command. It is because of the responsibility vested in a midshipman that the British exercise such great care in the selection of lads. Not a fractional part of the scientific course given to American naval cadets is exacted of the British midshipmen. The naval authorities of England aim more at obtaining practical men than scientists, and they exercise extraordinary care to secure youngsters who have in them the blood of fighting men. The theory that blood will tell obtains largely in the British Navy.
When the British fleet landed 750 bluejackets for the recent shore parade it was observed that one British officer was in sole command of 100 men. This officer, though, had with him four midshipmen. The same number of men in the American naval brigade had not less than three commissioned officers, and in some instances six.
"We find," said a British officer, " that the placing of our midshipmen in responsible positions knocks out of the youngsters all 'cocky' ideas and makes them sober, thinking chaps. They early realize what responsibility means, and we think that the early experience at command work makes better commanders and captains of them."
During the stay of the Blake the majority of her midshipmen obtained two days leave of absence on shore, though none of them was permitted to sleep on shore over night.
One party of middies was treated to an unpleasant surprise while ashore. After they had enjoyed an excellent repast, their host led them to the smoking room in which they speedily made the atmosphere thick and hazy with the smoke of fragrant but prohibited cigarettes. Suddenly through the fog of the apartment loomed up the familiar form or Capt. Hamilton of the Blake!
Some of the midshipmen cannot to this day tell whether they swallowed their cigarettes or dropped them and trod upon them. However, no birching followed this infraction of rules. Possibly the captain could not see through the smoke.
Wherever the youngsters went while ashore, they made a most favorable impression. They caused not a little surprise by their oldish ways. As one United States officer put it: "Why, those youngsters on the Blake know as much about ordnance and the handling of a ship as do many of our old Lieutenants, and I doubt if any of our naval cadets can teach them anything about the practical duties aboard a war ship."
British officers say that a midshipman in the British Navy is supposed to be fully competent to command a ship, and to a NEW-YORK TIMES reporter many instances were cited where, even in recent years, midshipmen have been suddenly placed in sole command.
"During the great storm which swept over England some three years ago the British Channel squadron was lying in an open roadstead on the west coast," said an officer. "Nearly all the principal officers were on shore at a ball. With the exception of a few Sub Lieutenants and a lot of midshipmen, the Channel squadron -- England's most powerful fighting fleet -- was stripped of officers. The storm came suddenly. All communication with the shore was cut off. The waves and wind were coming straight in from the sea and threatening to drive every vessel of the fleet on to the rocky coast. Without the slightest hesitation, a Sub-Lieutenant on the flagship signaled the vessels of the fleet to 'up anchor and go to sea,' and for the following thirty-six hours, until the storm subsided, many of the leviathan war ships of England's Channel squadron were steaming head on to the great seas, with no one of higher rank in command on the bridges than a midshipman. But the Channel squadron was saved, and officers who served with the great fleet during that period say that for the next two years and until every midshipman who had been on duty during the storm had been gazetted the birch rod was suspended in every vessel of the Channel command."
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