Five ferrets

If I ever saw my grandfather in full naval fig, I don’t remember it. He had retired by the time I was old enough to know him and his admiral’s uniform, dripping in what he referred to as scrambled egg, 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 a suddenly pulled face. He loved gardens and dogs, that quintessentially naval tipple, pink gin, and Turkish cigarettes. He wrote witty poems, played the fiddle, not very well, and he may have loved children. He certainly knew how to entertain them.

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. He was known by everyone simply as The Admiral.

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 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 a few months later he and many of his shipmates were transferred to the battleship Agincourt.

This was one of the new class of dreadnoughts, built to order on the Tyne for the Brazilians who wished to make a grand statement about their burgeoning prosperity. But when the 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.

(I struggle to write ‘it’ for a ship, having had it drummed into me from an early age that ships were always ‘she’. However, in 2002 Lloyds List decreed that the tradition was now dead in the water, so to speak; while my other habitual reference, the Guardian style guide, declares that ‘ships are not feminine.’ So be it. Times change.)

In any event, it was in command of one of Agincourt’s seven monstrous 12-inch-gun turrets that my grandfather, by then a 23-year-old lieutenant, took part in the Battle of Jutland, the largest battle in naval history, the only full naval engagement of World War I, and one of the deciding factors in its eventual outcome.

102 years later, in this final year of the centenary commemorations, I find myself revisiting his memory as part of the 26 Armistice project. Under the auspices of the First World War Centenary Partnership, the writers’ organisation 26 has joined forces with the Imperial War Museum to invite 100 writers each to write a 100-word poem (a centena) about someone, combatant or civilian, who was alive at the time. These will then be published, one a day, in the 100 days leading up to Armistice Day, 11 November.

Happily for me, my grandfather published a memoir shortly before he died. In it he recorded his experiences of the Battle of Jutland, recounting 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. The ferrets escaped into the bowels of the ship where they feasted on rats until they were eventually re-captured, one of them by now jet black, having been living for several weeks in a coal bunker.

There were also a number of dogs on board, one of them his, and all apparently veteran seafarers. When battle orders were given they were dispatched to their ‘action stations’, below the water line, in a six-inch ammunition passage. Since Agincourt came through the battle unscathed, one can only imagine that they did too.

And what of him, that young man, my grandfather? Did he emerge unscathed from what was not merely the biggest but also, despite its outcome, the most disastrous battle in British naval history?

How did he endure the terror of twelve hours in a cramped and deafening metal box, priming and firing the largest guns ever made, surrounded by live ammunition and sacks of highly explosive cordite, as German shells roared overhead? How did he feel the following day as they steamed slowly through the floating debris of the 14 British ships that had gone down with a loss of 6,000 lives, some of them his friends?

His memoir, as one would expect, reveals almost nothing of his emotions. But there may still be clues. I will keep reading.

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