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Lord Charles Beresford (1846-1919) was a British Admiral and Member of Parliament, he was a hero in battle and a champion of the Navy in Parliament. This is the eighth installment in our series of his memoirs – taken from ‘The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford’ written by himself and published in 1914.
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Memoirs of Lord Charles Beresford – 1861 – The Marlborough
The Nature of Discipline
Among the ship’s company were several negroes. At that time, it was often the case that the captain of the hold and the cooper were coloured men.
An instance of the rapidity and efficiency of the organisation of the Marlborough occurred upon the night before she sailed for the Mediterranean. She was newly commissioned, and she carried a large number of supernumeraries on passage. We took out 1500 all told, A fire broke out on the orlop deck; the drum beat to quarters; every man instantly went to his station, to which he had previously been told of; and the fire was speedily extinguished. The event was my first experience of discipline in a big ship.
The nature of the discipline which was then in force, I learned on the way out to the Mediterranean. In the modern sense of the word, discipline was exemplified by the Royal Marines alone. I cannot better convey an idea of the old system than by means of an illustration. Supposing that a Marine and a bluejacket had each committed an offence. The Marine was brought up on the quarter-deck before the commander, and the charge was read to him. The commander asked him what he had to say. The prisoner, standing rigidly to attention, embarked upon a long rambling explanation. If his defence were invalid, the commander cut him short, and the sergeant gave his order. “Right turn. Quick march.” The Marine, although continuing to protest, obeyed automatically, and away he went. He continued to talk until he was out of hearing, but he went. Not so the bluejacket. He did not stand to attention, not he. He shifted from one foot to the other, he hitched his breeches, fiddled with his cap, scratched his head.
“Well, sir,” said he , “it was like this here, sir,” … and he began to spin an interminable yarn. “That’ll do, my man,” quoth the commander. But, not at all. “No, sir, look here, sir, what I wants to say is this” – and so on, until the commander had to order a file of Marines to march him below.
But both Marine and bluejacket had this in common: each would ask the commander to settle the matter rather than let it go before the captain; and the captain, to sentence him rather than hold a court-martial.
The explanation of the difference between the old system of discipline and the new is that in the sailing days it was of the first importance that the seaman should be capable of instant independent action. The soldier’s uniformity and military precision were wholly unsuited to the sailor, who, at any moment, might have to tackle an emergency on his own initiative. If a seaman of the old days noticed anything wrong aloft, up he would run to put it right, without waiting for orders. Life and death often hung upon his promptitude of resource.
In the old days, we would often overhear such a conversation as the following:-
Officer: “Why the blank dash didn’t you blank well do so-and-so when I told you?”
Man: “Why didn’t I? Because if I had I should have been blank well killed and so would you.”
Officer: “Damn you, sir, don’t you answer me! I shall put you in the report”
Man: “Put me in the ruddy report, then.”
And the next day the commander, having heard both sides, would say to the officer,
“Why, the man was quite right” And to the man,”You had no right to argue with the officer. Don’t do it again. Now get away with you to hell.”
And everyone would part the best of friends.
The change came with the improvement and progress in gunnery, which involved, first, the better drilling of the smallarm companies.
Excerpt from The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford written by himself and published in 1914.
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