Come dawn the sea’s a Sargasso
Of hammocks, decking, lifebelts
8,600 souls lost, 175,000 tons sunk
And the hutch gone, splintered
Creating the Centena
If I ever saw my grandfather in full naval fig, I don’t recall it. He had retired by the time I was old enough to know him and his admiral’s uniform would have been feeding the moths in some attic cupboard.
I remember him in tweed suits, a monocle tucked into his waistcoat pocket, square jowled with thinning silver hair, a booming voice and the kind of smile that promised at any moment a limerick or a comic song or an amusing grimace. He loved gardens and dogs, pink gin, that quintessentially naval tipple, and Turkish cigarettes. He wrote witty poems, could recite The Hunting of the Snark, and played the fiddle, not very well.
As a small boy I knew he had been a sailor because a ship’s bell hung in the porch of the family house overlooking the Clyde, alongside the pair of small, verdigris-coated bronze cannons that adorned the front steps.
Later I came to learn that he had been sent to the Royal Naval College Osborne in 1905 when he was just 12 years old. In 1911, as a midshipman, he served on one of the armoured cruisers escorting the ship that took King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay for the Imperial Durbar. At the start of 1914, he was appointed to the Royal Yacht as a sub-lieutenant, but when war broke out he and many of his shipmates were transferred to the battleship Agincourt in which, two years later, he served at the Battle of Jutland.
Agincourt was one of the new class of dreadnoughts, built to order on the Tyne for the Brazilians who wished to make a statement about their burgeoning prosperity. But when the rubber bubble burst and they failed to complete payment, the most heavily armed battleship ever built was sold to the Turks who, in turn, were on the point of taking possession when war broke out and Churchill promptly requisitioned it, thus guaranteeing an infuriated Turkey’s entry into the war.
Happily for me, my grandfather published a memoir, Random Naval Recollections, shortly before he died. In it he recorded his experiences of Jutland, the largest naval battle of all time, the only full naval engagement of the First World War and one of the deciding factors in its eventual outcome, despite also being the most disastrous battle in British naval history.
In his memoir he recounts that on an upper deck he and a young fellow officer kept five white ferrets in a hutch which was demolished during the battle by a splinter from a German shell. There were also a number of dogs on board, all apparently veteran seafarers. His was a Cairn Terrier called Hoots.
Later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, my grandfather found himself captain of HM Signal School and deputy commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth. Portsmouth today is home to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, with whom I have shared this story.
LIVES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
You can find out more about about Lieutenant Angus Edward Malise Cunninghame-Graham here.
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