Life on a French Cruiser in War Time

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Life on a French Cruiser in War Time by René Milan, translated from the Les Vagabonds de la Guerre in Le Revue de Paris for Current History. It appears in True Stories of the Great War by Francis Trevelyan Miller, pp. 282-292.

Les Vagabonds de la Guerre


AT last, on the curve of the waves, is marked the outline of the enemy! Alas! They are only torpedo- boat destroyers! Swift and powerful destroyers, I admit, but Austria might very well have offered us an adversary of our own class. But let us be satisfied with the windfall. Too many days have been thrown away against invisible adversaries. These at least are real, living and full of ardour. They gallop toward us, torpedoes pointed; we point toward them our big guns, which cannot yet reach them; the game is equal. Like us, they have run up the battle-flag, and the Waldeck- Rousseau, driving over the waters like a thoroughbred, drags with her cruisers and her two squadrons of torpedo boats to the adventure in which some one must die.

A few minutes pass, packed with anxious silence. The men shut up in the hidden vitals of the ship strain their ears to catch the muffled sound of the first salvo; they may be killed in a moment, if some well-pointed torpedo should touch the cruiser, but they give their whole souls [283] of bronze to their apparatus and their machines, so that nothing may go wrong in this marvellous crisis. Through their range-finders, the gun-pointers watch the distance vanishing by a kind of miracle. Twenty thousand yards—eighteen thousand yards—fifteen thousand—fourteen thousand. Two thousand yards more, and the storm of our artillery will break over our adversary. In three parallel lines the Austrian destroyers pour forth torrents of smoke; they are in solid formation; each line glides over the blue water like a gleaming boa constrictor. Alongside of us our torpedo-boat destroyers have drawn together and are ploughing up clouds of foam that sparkle like silver in the sun.

But what do we see over there? The Austrian lines open out, bend upon themselves, and their heads describe a wide curve. Is it possible? They are going away! They refuse to fight! With a raging anguish we all try to persuade ourselves that our eyes are deceiving us. It is a trick of the sunshine, a puff of wind that bends their smoke. * * * Not at all. They have completed their turning movement and show us their heels, looking like three railroad trains speeding away on rails of foam.

Oh! To have our eyes on our revenge for so many useless weeks, and to see it escape just at the limit beyond the reach of our guns! To feel that under our feet our gigantic machines, which, nevertheless, are not weakening, can no longer catch up with the prey whose legs are too long for us! To measure the distance, and to feel it growing greater, a little more each second, like an elastic that is being stretched! Fourteen thousand yards!

Fourteen thousand one hundred. Fourteen thousand two hundred. * * * Ah! We would fain command the waves, hurl a sudden hurricane into the air, churn [284] the sea into foam and billows. Our potent keels would not slow down, but the destroyers would crash against each billow, would go slower, would exhaust their force, and our triumphant dash would overmatch their cowardice.

They flee toward the labyrinth of the Dalmatian Islands, which grow larger before us like a family of ocean monsters rising from the sea. We continue to pursue. Sixteen thousand—seventeen thousand yards. Perhaps the poltroons will be seized with remorse or indecision. But it is not so; their flight is a premeditated ruse. High up in the sky, slipping and gliding among the transparent clouds, a war plane swoops over the French warships, passes along them, and drops bombs that only our skilful dodging makes harmless ; they burst opposite our ships. On the surface of the water one of the cruisers perceives the furrow of a periscope! Some lurking submarine has launched its torpedoes, perhaps; our speed has deceived it; no one is touched; we take a flying shot at the streak of foam, which instantly disappears. The submarine plunges into the depths, the aeroplane is already out of sight, and the destroyers are close to the channel of the archipelago. Eighteen thousand yards—nineteen thousand.


After a few hours of unquiet dozing I arose, made a summary toilet, ate I know not what food, swallowed hastily, before going on watch. In the middle of the day I found myself on the bridge again. A bright sun was silvering the distance. The three cruisers, deployed in loose order, continued their course toward the south of the Adriatic; behind, almost invisible, the smoke of the naval forces formed a black mane on the horizon. On [285] board, every one who was not on duty was enjoying a siesta. Every one was finding consolation in dreams for the disappointments of the day before, but a few scores of eyes were watching the very calm sea. The Ernest-Renan, a few thousand yards away, was following a parallel course.

Something very white suddenly appeared in the furrows of foam. My binocular immediately followed this wrinkle on the water; you would have said a jet of steam, slipping along just under the surface. For a few seconds I hesitated. Perhaps the fin of a porpoise swimming close to the top deceived me. The remembrance of training in peace times brought back to my memory the track of a periscope, and I hesitated no longer.

“Quick! All on the left! Raise to eight hundred meters! Declination, forty! All engines at full speed ahead! Close the bulkheads! Begin firing!"

The cruiser bounds. In the hold the men of the watch close the bulkheads. The artillery fires. The shells fall around the white, moving streak. They burst like balls of dry snow on a blue wall. All the men, awakened from their siesta, all the officers come up on deck. A few meters from our hull passes the fleecy track of a torpedo launched against us. It has missed us, but a big 194 shell (7% inch), fired from one of our turrets bursts immediately above the periscope. It ploughs the water and splashes it up in the air; the stem of the periscope rises, falls, rises again, falls again, as a wounded animal tries to stand and falls again. Then nothing more is seen. The blue waves show only their habitual indolence. Across the void a storm of cheers comes to us from the Ernest-Renan; they have seen the shell tearing up the water, and they are certain that the explosions have crushed in the submarine.

We are going fast, so fast that in a few seconds the [286] cruiser is far from the place of death. The guns turn and follow it, ready to fire again, but nothing shows any more.

“Cease firing! As you were! Open the bulkheads! Resume your course! Engines at sixty revolutions!"


Every Sunday, divine service is celebrated on board — a serious, simple ceremony. Around the movable altar, flags stretched make stained-glass windows of bunting; the vault of the church is formed by the low whitewashed ceiling of the space between decks ; to right and left, the partitions of the cabins, the white stems of the smokestacks, form the metal walls of the shrine; the parti-coloured tubes, steam pipes, well-polished cocks, cast red and yellow reflections ; chairs for the officers, benches for the crew, are grouped to a depth of eight or ten yards. He comes who so desires. A bugle call announces services, and whoever is not on duty, either comes or stays away. While the priest is accomplishing the holy rites, you hear in the hold the breathing of the engines, the snoring of the ventilators; above your head, on deck, patter the sailors of the watch; the big Adriatic rollers slap against the hull and the quivering of the rapidly moving cruiser makes the altar tremble.


Above the horizon appear the masts, smokestacks, and hull of a ship. Whether her conscience be troubled or at rest, she knows she cannot escape our speed, and does not try to fly. At 5,000 yards her flag informs us of her nationality. English or French, she may go ahead. If she is neutral we show her the international signal:

“Stop immediately!"

[287] And stop she must. If she looks like going on, a blank cannon shot warns her not to play with fire. If she pretends not to understand the invitation, a shell falls just ahead of her, and lets her know we are not joking. If her screw continues to revolve a rap or two on the hull lets her know that the affair is serious. They always stop in time.

The cruiser comes to, within gun range of the suspect. In an instant one of our boats is lowered into the water, the crew seize the oars; the officer on duty, armed with a sword and a revolver, and with a big register under his arm, jumps into the boat, which pushes off.

“Captain, kindly range on deck all persons on board! Let each have his identification papers in his hand. I shall inspect them in five minutes!"

Stewardesses, stewards scatter through the cabins, which are filled with a sudden stir. In the midst of a concert of exclamations, murmurs, and laughter, feverish fingers dive into portfolios and bags. Travellers whose souls are white immediately find what is wanted; the ladies fix their hair, hastily dab a little powder on a suspicion of sunburn, and give themselves a finishing touch. The whole thing is tremendously amusing to them. Just as if it were on the stage! It would not take much to make them put on their prettiest dresses. But the officer is getting impatient, and the Captain is apologizing; one passenger cannot find his passport, which he thinks he has left in his trunk. Exactly! The story is an old one! But let this German quarry climb up, just as he is!

Finally, every one is drawn up in two or several lines—like a row of blind men holding out their trays, each one holds his passport. The men are extremely serious, almost indignant, and, behind their foreheads, you can divine silent tempests; they are on the watch for an imprudent word, in order to invoke their Consuls, their [288] Ambassadors, and the inviolable rights of neutrals. A vain hope. The officer sharply scans them, and turns over their papers with a careful finger. Stamps and paragraphs are in order, and also the description; the passports, the certificate of nationality, do not smell of trickery. But there is no touchstone like language; a few words, a few phrases, tell many secrets to expert ears, and hesitation shows guilt where the papers show innocence.

“Be so good as to tell me where you come from. Be so good as to tell me your name and your birthday. Have you been long abroad? Be so good as to answer in your own language. What is your profession?"

You must question pointblank, in different ways, and be careful not to carry on the conversation. No discussion, an instantaneous judgment, and you pass on.

The true prizes, the genuine booty, you recognize by sure symptoms—Germanic faces, Teutonic accents, harsh or honeyed answers, stammered explanations. In vain do they disguise their names and hand us forged writings, their Germanic race leaks through all their pores. They are hurrying to foment rebellion in Egypt or Tripoli; they are on their way to the Balkans to do their work; to burrow underground in India or China. Invariably they have Swiss or Dutch passports, but their certificate of nationality, brand new, is fresh from the printing press, and reminds you of false coins, too new and shiny. Suspects! The officer goes down to their cabins. Under the mattress, behind the washstand, in the folds of a counterpane, lie the incriminating papers. Enemies!

From this point, one must go on decisively, gracefully, in the French fashion. The officer halts in front of the German, addresses him by name, lays a light finger on his sleeve or shoulder, and says, without raising his voice:

[289] "I arrest you. Follow my sailor, who will take your baggage and put you into the boat."

Cries, explosions of anger, insults must not disturb him. He must add nothing. What has been said has been said.


We have on board an ear that never sleeps; it is the wireless telegraph. The apparatus is buried in the depths of the hold; a padded cabin isolates the operators from the noise of the machinery and the cross-currents of discord. From watch to watch the telegraphers pass over the receiver to each other, and the finest murmurs never escape their vigilance.

The air vibrates in an uninterrupted concert. Coming from stations near or far, from ships wandering on the Atlantic or close at hand, calls, conversations seek out their way; the ether transmits them instantaneously. The powerful antennae of the Eiffel Tower, of Ireland, of Germany, of Italy, or of Constantinople dominate with their noisy throats the feeble whispers. With their full force, to any distance, they launch the official news of the great ordeal. If some one talks too loudly, 500 or 1,000 kilometres away, (300 to 600 miles,) they raise their tones, throw more strength into their voices, until the interrupters become silent.

A tacit agreement alternates their messages. The German does not obstruct the Frenchman, the Turk waits until Malta has finished. Madrir, talking to Berlin, rests while London speaks. For these great stations, controlled by their Governments, send out only announcements of the first importance, such as the whole world should know, and they wish neither to confuse nor to be confused. Reports from the front, happenings at sea, [290] diplomatic or financial transactions, plans or insults, circulate in all languages, and you can be certain that the newspapers will not publish them. If by chance the reader of newspapers finds them in his daily sheet, it will be a week or a fortnight later, in a garbled, unrecognizable form.

Sailors hear every bell and every sound; while the rest of the world must be content with the meagre, delayed communications authorized by the censorship, the sailor already knows. His griefs and joys precede the griefs and joys of the anxiously waiting millions. Ireland announces a simple movement of Russian strategy, but Norddeich — the German post — clamours to all the echoes of a German victory, an advance, the capture of thousands of prisoners. Norddeich laconically explains some event at sea, but Eiffel sets his biggest sparks cracking, announcing to Moscow, to Newfoundland, to the Sudan and the Red Sea the disaster at sea that has befallen some Teutonic force. In how many days, with how many changes, will the public read these bits of news? At every hour of the day and night we receive them brutal and imperious.

No illusions are permitted to us. Our enemies do not lie too grossly in these proclamations destined for their Ambassadors, their Consuls, the innumerable agents who uphold the prestige of Germany throughout the world; it is vital for Germany that these men should receive authentic information, which they will make the most of in their bargainings. There is nothing in common between the rhapsodies of her newspapers or of the Wolff Agency and her wireless announcements. At the most, in the case of defeats, she sends out statements made carefully vague. But this very vagueness makes us prick up our ears, and within a few hours London or Paris confirms the English or French victory.

[291]Outside the Chancelleries and Governments, there are no day-to-day records of the war except on warships. We discuss squarely over flags placed exactly where they ought to be; our forecasts, our hopes are rarely deceived. And if the obligation of secrecy did not impose silence upon us we could tell our friends many a bit of news.

But underneath the great tenors of wireless telegraphy whisper the myriads of baritones, basses, members of the chorus. Thus in the tropical forest the roaring of lions by no means hinders the dialogues of insects and rodents; this network of lower voices gives the jungle its deep life. The slender tones of talking ships fill the atmosphere of the sea with a mysterious animation. A big liner, come from tropical seas, announces her passage of such and such a frequented cape. A torpedo-boat patrolling toward Gibraltar tells Port Said about the ships which it has sighted. This torpedo-boat has not got strong enough lungs to shout to the other end of the Mediterranean; it calls Bizerta or Toulon, who answers, takes its message, and relays it forward, like a rebounding ball, to the antennae of Malta, to the masts of a French cruiser in the Ionian Sea, to the wires of a Russian ship in the Ægean, and finally it reaches Port Said. A mailboat announces its position, a squadron asks for orders, a naval attaché or an ambassador sends out information gained by spies; the Resident General of Morocco is sending wheat to Montenegro; the main guards give warning that a submarine is in sight; colliers ask to be told exactly where they are to meet certain cruisers; the whole Mediterranean taps the antennae of the Commander in Chief as a swarm of subalterns tap at the door of military headquarters.

No disorder, no discord in these gusts of whisperings. Like the musicians in a well-drilled orchestra, all these talkers speak at the minute, at the second previously fixed [292] for their turn; chronometer in hand, the telegraph operators watch for the instant allotted to them, and immediately send forth trills of short, brief notes; whether they have finished or not at the end of their period, they stop and wait, for immediately a distant voice begins its part, and would protest violently if any one prevented its speaking. The whole extent of the Mediterranean is divided into sectors, the time is cut up into fragments, and no one is allowed to break the silence if the pre-established table bids him keep still.

Besides, the guilty parties are quickly found out. Just as the fingers of a blind man acquire surprising sensitiveness, so the operators' ears distinguish the timbre, the tone, the musical value of the chatters whom they have never seen. For the initiated the electric radiations have a personality like human speech. Two posts, two ships have distinct voices, pronunciations. This one talks with a sputter, the other speaks with solemn slowness; the voice of one suggests a match scratched on sandpaper, another buzzes like a fly, another sings small, like the flight of mosquitoes. It is a concert almost magical. In his padded cabin the operator hears and distinguishes the whirr of the cricket, the squeak of the violin, the rasped wing-cover of the beetle, the hiss of frying, which the fantastic electricity is sending forth, hundreds of leagues away. It flickers, ceases, begins again; you would say a goblin symphony in some wide wilderness, and yet the least of these vibrations is a message of war, of life and of death.

And indeed they are careful not to talk without saying anything. They all use only secret languages. This perpetual chatter contains no word, no phrase which any one can understand unless he possesses the key on which rests the safety of ships.