Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Kipling - Naval ballads.

When you look at poems that Rudyard Kipling wrote, you realise poetry is continually evolving and reflects the social beliefs of it’s time.  Kipling definitely captured the Queen Victoria age of Empire, solid Christianity and the English ‘gentleman’ made up of courage, dignity and sacrifice.  But now his work is such a thing of the past.  Who would try to write in his style and content (who could write like him, not having experienced the Victorian age)?  I must admit I’ve used Kipling as an influence for some of my attempts.  One Kipling poem from which I borrow the first line and rhythm is, The Ballad of the Clampherdown.  This is a great naval poem that you can recite.  It tells of a passing era and tradition – sailors learning to fight with cutlasses and putting ships alongside to board in hand to hand combat.  I believe the Clampherdown was the last British ship in which the crew boarded with cutlasses.  It’s a long poem but here it is complete:
The Ballad of the ‘Clampherdown’
(Rudyard Kipling 1865 - 1936)
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
Would sweep the Channel clean,
Wherefore she kept her hatches close
When the merry Channel chops arose,
     To save the bleached marine.
She had one bow-gun of a hundred ton,
     And a great stern-gun beside ;
They dipped their noses deep in the sea,
They racked their stays and stanchions free
     In the wash of the wind-whipped tide.
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
     Fell in with a cruiser light
That carried the dainty Hotchkiss gun
And a pair o’ heels wherewith to run
     From the grip of a close-fought fight.
She opened fire at seven miles -
As ye shoot at a bobbing cork -
And once she fired and twice she fired,
Till the bow-gun drooped like a lily tired
     That lolls upon the stalk.
‘Captain, the bow-gun melts apace,
     ‘the deck-beams break below,
‘Twere well to rest for an hour or twain,
And botch the shattered plates again.’
     And he answered, ‘Make it so.’
She opened fire within the mile –
     As ye shoot at the flying duck –
And the great stern-gun shot fair and true,
With the heave of the ship, to the stainless
And the great stern-turret stuck.
‘Captain, the turret fills with steam,
     ‘The feed –pipes burst below –
‘You can hear the hiss of the helpless ram,
‘You can hear the twisted runners jam.’
     And he answered, ‘Turn and go!’
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’,
      And grimly did she roll;
Swung round to take the cruiser’s fire
As the White Whale faces the Thresher’s ire
      When they war by the frozen pole.
‘Captain, the shells are falling fast,
      ‘And faster still fall we;
‘And it is not meet for English stock
To bide in the heart of an eight-day clock
      The death they cannot see’.
‘Lie down, lie down, my bold A.B.,
      ‘We drift upon her beam;
‘We dare not ram, for she can run;
‘And dare ye fire another gun,
      ‘And die in the peeling steam?’
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
      That carried an armour-belt;
But fifty feet at stern and bow
Lay bare as the paunch of the purser’s sow,
      To the hail of the Nordenfeldt.
‘Captain, they hack us through and through;
      ‘The chilled steel bolts are swift!
‘We have emptied the bunkers in open sea,
‘Their shrapnel bursts where our coal should be,’
      And he answered, ‘Let her drift.’
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown,’
      Swung round upon the tide,
Her two dumb guns glared south and north,
And the blood and the bubbling steam ran forth,
      And she ground the cruiser’s side.
‘Captain, they cry, the fight is done,
      ‘They bid you send your sword.’
And he answered, ‘Grapple her stern and bow,
‘They have asked for the steel.  They shall have it
‘Out cutlasses and board!’
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown,’
      Spewed up four hundred men;
And the scalded stokers yelped delight,
As they rolled in the waist and heard the fight
      Stamp o’er their steel-walled pen.
They cleared the cruiser end to end,
      From conning-tower to hold.
They fought as they fought in Nelson’s fleet;
They were stripped to the waist, they were bare
      to the feet,
As it was in the days of old.
It was the sinking ‘Clampherdown’
      Heaved up her battered side –
And carried a million pounds in steel,
To the cod and the corpse-fed conger-eel,
      And the scour of the Channel tide.
It was the crew of the ‘Clampherdown’
      Stood out to sweep the sea,
On a cruiser won from an ancient foe
As it was in the days of long ago,
      And as it still shall be.
I’m thankful to Kipling for showing me the way to a rather lengthy naval ballad I wrote, Fate of the Konigsberg.  This is another experience where finding the first line was a breakthrough for me – the rest flowed and I could complete the poem in a matter of days.  I was fascinated by this story when I did some research on the ships my wife’s grandfather (Fred) served in during his time in the Royal Navy (he served in both World Wars).  I’ve got a copy of his service record and a few old photographs of matelots out in Africa, socialising with white ladies and eating watermelon from the back of a flat-bed truck – then war broke out.  Fred was on HMS Astraea – that led me to the story of the German cruiser SMS Konigsberg and how she was blockaded and scuttled herself up the Rufiji River.  We hear a lot about the German pocket battleship Graf Spee and the battle of the River Plate (1939), but little do we know that a similar event occurred twenty odd years earlier in WW1.  Thankyou Rudyard Kipling:
2007.  Linda’s grandfather, Fred Johnson served on HMS Astraea which was an aging cruiser on the East Africa station at the start of WW1.  SMS Konigsberg was a more modern cruiser based at Dar es Salaam capital of German East Africa.  Konigsberg’s fate was due mainly to lack of good maintenance facilities available to the Germans.  It is an historic event that shows the role maintenance can play in tipping the balance of win or lose; succeed or fail.
                                             Fate of the Konigsberg
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg put on a turn of speed,
When she saw the City of Winchester steaming into the First World War,
Gave chase for the coal which she soon retrieved,
Ere The City was sent to the Gulf of Aden floor.
But the coal burns quick in the Konigsberg and soon she must take more,
From the crew of the collier Somali somewhere on the open sea,
Where Astraea waits and the Pegasus hunts to even up a score,
Between a willing foe and aging ships of the British Admiralty.
Not only coal but a home free port was the German cruisers need,
But panic reigns in Dar es Salaam where Astraea’s shells now fall,
And decisions made give the ship no heed,
Sink a barge to block the port entry becomes the harbour master’s call.
Loss of home is a bitter blow for the Konigsberg to share,
As Captain Looff along with his crew search the African coast for shelter,
Which they find in the form of a jungle lair,
Five miles up where the waters shelve in the Rufiji River delta.
The Konigsberg hides but her killer urge in days must be relieved,
So she slips one night from her fetid lair to run with the moon and stars,
And is drawn by bow to an ambush scene the killer can’t believe,
Pegasus tied to her berthing lines in the Port of Zanzibar.
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg stood off ten thousand yards,
Brought the barrels of her four inch guns on the British ship to bear,
And Pegasus sitting calmly still completely caught off guard,
Is never a match for a killer rogue hunting from a jungle lair.
With duty done bold Captain Looff plans escape for his ship and crew,
So the course he sets is around the Cape and on to Germany,
Then death rattled up from the engine room and the Konigsberg captain knew,
The plan is doomed we are condemned escape will now not be.
Away to the north race three fine ships best of the British kind,
The Weymouth, Chatham and Dartmouth too led by Drury-Lowe,
With orders fresh to shape due south the Konigsberg to find,
And when she is found to act with haste and crush the dreaded foe.
It is cunning keeps the Konigsberg out of her searcher’s reach,
Safe in the delta draped in vines acting out repairs,
Until Lowe brings Cutler in his flying boat hired from a Durbin beach,
To fly the Rufiji River mouth, find the German from the air.
Though Cutler is a daring man and the Curtiss a top machine,
Neither was ready for the deadly reach of the guns of the German raider,
Or the Konigsberg crew who took fine aim from off the starboard beam,
Shot out of the sky, the plane is destroyed and the pilot taken prisoner.
Days become months for the Konigsberg as sailors count them by,
Trapped in a land where biting flies and fever death abounds,
Each man waits in the stifling heat the moment he must die,
For their ship in the river so far up is almost run aground.
A fate is planned for the Konigsberg across the world in Malta,
Where sits the river gunboat Mersey and her sister ship Severn,
Two shallow drafted monitors made fit for work in the Delta,
Now taken in tow and on their way with a wish for safe return.
July at the end of a long snail tow and the Konigsberg lookouts sight,
Two black shapes that appear to be off the point Gengeni Island,
The news sweeps through the German crew and their captain makes to fight,
Remember men the Fatherland, of us, our ship, and all that we have planned.
When morning comes the ships engage their cordite burning hot,
Guns crews toil in darkened holds with fear and mighty strength,
Ere the Konigsberg in due course takes a fatal ranging shot,
And then the monitors make their gunfire walk along the cruisers length.
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg settled on the river bed,
When she sunk herself with a scuttling charge preference to surrender,
Abandoned yet still battle proud for the merry chase she’d led,
Whereupon the British raised their caps on high,
cheered death of the German raider.
                                                                                            J. O. White

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