A Life Cut Short - The Edited Letters of Lieutenant Commander Ralph Lyall Clayton, 1885 - 1916

Chapter 7 - The Beginning of the End

We pick up the story of the life of Ralph Clayton in 1913. Unfortunately, we have no letters between the end of 1907 when he joined Edward V11, until June 1913 when he joined the prestigious Battle Cruiser, Queen Mary. By then, he was an experienced Torpedo Lieutenant.

After an initial delay, torpedo trials held on the Tyne were followed by a much anticipated European holiday for Ralph. He wrote copious, large pages of neatly written, careful diary, and drew painstaking diagrams of his travels for his mother: Boulogne, Amiens, Paris,...Music Halls, expensive restaurants, tea at Rumpelmayers, Versailles, Napoleon’s tomb, Dijon, Poligny at foot of Jura Mts, Geneva, Interlaken. By July 14, he was back in a Newcastle which was ‘dirtier than ever’. However, despite the necessity of his presence at the electrical trials for the ship’s commission, Ralph managed to spend much of his time at Edwardian, weekend house parties in the homes of the aristocracy.

July 21st HMS Queen Mary – Home Fleet

weekend at Howick Grange where there was only Lady Howick, Howick himself is electioneering in Mid Herts....Conservative candidate...On Wednesday Lady Howick is coming to Jarrow to go over Queen Mary and bringing her sister in law, Lady Homes. They are prepared to see every thing and negotiate all the vertical ladders, but I expect their resolution will fail a little before they have done much of such climbing.’
July 28th - With Commander James and Arthur Strutt for golf at N.Berwick....out to Blagdon where Lord Ridley lives... Wed, evening till Friday morning and...Howick for the weekend ,..[invited] to Lady Parsons for weekend [place on the moors].I don’t know how Lady Parsons knew of my existence but the Howick invitation came first and I prefer that.

While waiting for the delayed electrical trials to finish Ralph visited Lady Mackyell and Lady Littleton.

Aug 24th

Last from lodgings in N’castle... Although we haven’t nearly as much enamel on as we want, it is determined that we shall leave the Tyne on Saturday... will probably go on board on Thursday with all my belongings.....I’ve eventually decided that two small cabins, one of which is provided with a scuttle in the ship’s side, are better than one larger cabin down below; it is possible that should the Admiral at any time fly his Flag in the ‘Queen Mary ’ temporarily, I shall have to confine myself to one of the cabins....I shall now want curtains to go round the three sides of each cabin where there are shelves overhead. I shall ask the Army and Navy to send patterns. Cretonne is the proper thing to ask for, isn’t it?
There is a good deal of work to be carried out by the Portsmouth dockyard....we aren’t likely to be actively employed until October.....probably shan’t have any important Gunnery or Torpedo Exercises this year....electrical wires, lighting and motors is what we talk about all day now.

September was a busy time in the dockyard: Trying every motor and electrical instrument in the ship...three long days..amount of work increased by the absence of the Admiralty Officials, two days out of three [one of them] was at station at 4.30 to receive crew.’We had much less trouble on this occasion than at the beginning of the trials, in the matter of drink, as there was plenty of work for everyone to do that day. There was a lot of wet paint around and the habits of yardmen workmen, don’t include cleanliness..... A 24 hours acceptance trial was usually carried out but in this case, the Captain managed to get hours very much reduced so that we might land nearly all the Palmer’s men off the Tyne. We didn’t want to have them living in the midst of our newly enamelled mess decks for the voyage to Portsmouth. We hadn’t to remain long at Spithead. At 11.45 we weighed and tugs picked us up at the entrance to the harbour. We found several big battleships in, and all of which looked small beside our outrageous length. We are now in the large new lock with 50 feet to spare at each end, which was only opened 4 months back. It was the first part of the new works to be opened. There is another new lock nearly finished and this part of the Yard is so altered now it is difficult to recall what it looked like 8 years ago in the days of the old Portsmouth T.Bs.

Ralph was glad to learn that Father has made a splendid recovery...you should have the telephone and Uncle Henry’s present seems meant to provide that..glad you had Molly back home all this time...but he had plenty of other things to think about :

...tremendously busy.; crew completed to its full number yesterday and we are lying in the harbour at one of the jettys with about 12 lighters alongside – 13.5 projectiles, cordite, torpedoes and warheads for them, flour and other provisions, rum and oil fuel – O, and I forgot one which contains the torpedo net defence for our port side....on Monday we start to take in 3200 tons of coal, a record amount for any ship. All the Midshipmen just finished their Dartmouth training and Acting Subs arrived yesterday in clouds. Unfortunately their hammocks had been forgotten....so last night they were strewn around in odd places wherever one walked. They all sleep on the deck between the wardroom and Gunroom, so that they get plenty of air and are really well off. They had to remind the Queen’s Private Secretary to send her belated telegram of good wishes to the ship, for her Commission.

Home news mixed with fleet news:

Sept 26th

Disappointing that Father has had another heart attack...nurse must be a great relief....curtains look very nice...busy coaling..only 2900 tons..averaged 170 tons an hour...very high for first coaling of newly commissioned ship.....’A lot of paint hurriedly put on for Admiral’s inspection, [Admiral Mieux, Cin C]

On Dec 20th the letter was black edged and we assume father must have died. But Christmas was approaching and there were interesting activities ahead:

Plans...spend a week eating, drinking, dancing and illuminating at Brest and Cherbourg and the Vigo and Arosa Bay - back in March....I have decided to get the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ The book has been a great temptation all through the years and now I’ve taken it. It means purchase by monthly instalments of one guinea. If you don’t think it too much, would you like to give me the first guinea.....you will be getting me a very big Christmas present.

But there was another excitement just before Christmas:

Dec 21st

Sail loft fire at Portsmouth ‘I had just put on a new pair of tr...s..rs, when I noticed the unmistakeable sounds of excitement on deck...He fought valiantly with the other sailors to stem the fire. They tried to get hoses through the window to the upper floors but the pressure in the hoses was not sufficient to work and the Admiral decided the building must be left to its fate. Suffragettes are mentioned of course and are probably as likely as other causes... Not only the fire but the state of affairs in the world was beginning to cause concern at the end of 1913:

Dec 27th

‘Capt Dent very lugubrious about the political situation – Civil war or Germany, didn’t know which would come first – no oil fuel for our destroyers and battleships.’ But still there was golf and much entertaining of people aboard the Queen Mary; ‘There is always someone going round the ship, where importance and perfection are noised abroad without modesty by her officers...I only escaped..by leaving the larger part of an examination of a training class to my Torpedo Gunner...

There was much preparation for possible visits to Brest and Cherbourg.Ralph had to go to see Admiralty. He wanted various items, ‘A good deal of the work which we consider absolutely necessary for our efficiency will be definitely postponed owing to this cutting down...just had time to look at a new type of gyroscopic compass, which has come over from America and which will probably supersede the German one now in the Navy.

By February, the Queen Mary reached Brest: Howling gales in a most unpleasantly open harbour...wrong time of year....there are four ships of the 1st Battalion Cruiser...the Lion; the flagship; Princess Royal and New Zealand. In the Queen Mary, there was too much wind for a scuttle to be opened safely, so when we did take in a few seas none came my way. I found one in the Ward Room when I went into breakfast... Tomorrow I’ve got to lunch with several more victims, in the ‘Gloire’ and I don’t want to much....Ralph’s impressions of Brest were not favourable...glad to leave and join up with another Cruiser and a squadron of battleships which is now at Cherbourg; coaling in Arosa Bay on Wednesday. We can’t hang about much since England can’t afford to pay very large coal bills, so once settled in Spain we shall probably do no more steaming till we leave for England end of March.

In February, the ship reached Vigo. There were difficulties with net defence...but that did not prevent Ralph from having a long walk with Fleet Surgeon and admiring the visiting boys from the German Training ships playing football, ‘a very nice looking lot of boys, with a very healthy appearance: much bigger than our boys- no doubt they are older....Today I have been with party of six to lunch on German cruiser, Hansa’..quite small, one of the Training Squadron for Cadets and Boys...German officers nearly all talk English and some of the men: while out of all ours only two can talk German. and I should doubt any of the men being able to....cheery lot...with much mixture of wines. Tonight half a dozen from each ship are also coming coming on board to the mixed entertainment of songs and cinematograph, so we are doing something for the peace of Europe you see...’

Ralph was delighted to obtain a larger cabin for himself by the removal of a bulkhead....then I shall want some more curtains. Then in March it was off to Ponte Vedra and Arosa Bay. A German cruiser had remained behind so they could not stay for routine exercises, with a division of Dreadnought Battleships(4). He had an opportunity to meet Admiral Beatty, ‘I dined on Wednesday with the Rear Admiral, with all the other Gunnery and Torpedo Lieutenants of the Squadron. The dinner itself didn’t come up to expectations, being distinctly of the naval cookery type instead of the French, but there was no fault to find with the Champagne or cigars. ‘The Rear Admiral himself is still very young. He became Admiral at 37, after very early promotion from Lieut, to Cd rand Cmdr to Captain. Now I suppose he is 41 or 42 and is almost bound to fill all the important posts in turn: having also the advantage of a rich American wife.

Life on board was enjoyable. There was preparation for the Regatta, ‘I belong at present to the Officer’s Gigs crew which necessitates much more strenuous exercise than I like ‘Queen Mary beat the Lion’s Ward Room officers in a race for naval cutters..several aged officers dragged out to make crew. Off to England for some leave. He looks forward to staying at the Club where they have some quite nice bedrooms now’. He was disappointed to find his leave cancelled, No definite orders’ just like the Navy.’

Queen Mary returned to Weymouth in April and its officers continued to enjoy their Edwardian social life:

April 15th 1914 Weymouth

Forgot to make allowance for curtain tucks – measured straight across...- in dock.... a very good looking girl...party at Hatfield Peveril...besides Lord and Lady Rayleigh...there was Sir Phillip Burne Jones, not so good an artist as his father, but still an artist All the remainder were Balfours....lots of tennis and golf.’

In May it was up to Cromarty and Ralph was still concerned about his curtains and wanted covers for his two chests of drawers. He was also concerned about brother Brian,
I don’t think Bri should have had any complaint about being hauled back to his work. The great thing is to feel necessary, and it isn’t often one is allowed to feel indispensable, so he ought to be gratified; which might form a copy book maxim. Also he’s had the pleasure of breathing the special aristocratic air provided for peers and peeresses for a whole weekend, which he would have done, I suppose, if Mr.Ogilive hadn’t got influenza.
...I saw Sir Day in town while I was staying at the club; his gaze is raised to the level of Kings and Governors and never sees anyone below that rank and I didn’t dare bring his attention to earth’
. Amusement and entertainment was punctuated by...gunnery and torpedo firing off Portland. There was time to be concerned about Ireland: ‘You needn’t worry about Ulster, It isn’t possible, now, to bring in the Army and Navy for another Coup d’etat : and in any case the waters round Ireland are mostly too shallow and restricted for a clumsy great Battle cruiser like us.’

Ralph’s torpedoes proved a problem:

‘Running torpedoes...done before breakfast....my party up getting the torpedoes. By 7.30 out of three torpedoes all had sunk and only one had the grace to see the surface again. Then it occurred to me what a silly miscalculation of weights I had made ; and I had the pleasure of knowing it might cause a couple of thousand pounds to be added to the country’s bill. Luckily the sea was glassy, and the spot where one torpedo departed was accurately known and so before I started breakfast, a diver was sitting on that one and very shortly returned it to its anxious parents. My other child was in a more serious case, as he hadn’t been seen after leaving home. However, they have a nasty habit of exuding oil; and there is usually a leakage of air from them too. So after some search we had the great luck to come on those air bubbles rising from the surface. The divers again went down, in very deep water this time, 120 feet, and in about two hours found that torpedo; so that I had much more luck than deserved, or expected; there is no unpleasant Court of Inquiry into it. There would have been some excuse because we were carrying out special trials at full speed and under abnormal conditions; but I could hardly claim that I had taken all reasonable precautions.

The torpedo problems continued:

May 31st Portland

Big torpedo practice....That night was fixed for an attack on the Fleet by Destroyers, so I was rather annoyed to be out of my own ship; especially as I hadn’t made any arrangements for the searchlight.’ [He was stranded with umpires on George V because the ships had been running late]...had to spend evening playing bridge until nearly twelve, ... and as we were starting on the torpedoes again at five am...at 4.0 next morning I thought it very strongly. It was rather a shame keeping everyone up all night previous to the most important work of the year. There would be a fearful outcry if the same were done tomorrow night before the similar gunnery practice on Tuesday but no one considers that Torpedo people should be given any consideration....We did our own firing for that afternoon, and unfortunately not with any great success. Its unfortunately rather a matter of luck; I shouldn’t, of course, have said that if my torpedoes had all run straight; but two didn’t and it is annoying that no satisfactory explanation can be found.......I spent Wednesday in the Lion analysing the results of the Torpedo firing.
Winston Spencer Churchill was on board that morning, inspected the ship, and remarked on leaving, that ‘on the whole, she was the cleanest ship he had seen – probably as true as most compliments. The Captain, although he says he hates Winston, was very pleased with the remark. He was looking pretty well, not the sort of look on would trust ; but, on the other and, not the kind of man one would pick out as the originator of the Ulster Plot.

Life in the Queen Mary began to take on a more rigorous nature:

May 24th Portland

‘strenuous times...did not do well in Regatta at Cromarty...bottom of the four ships at the end of it....gunnery experiments under the guidance of Sir Robert Arbuthnot, who was on board us both days. I kept out of his way as much as possible as I hadn’t had my hair cut for two months and he has strict ideas on the question of length....on Tuesday important torpedo practice of the year, the only time torpedoes get the attention they merit. As we’re not used to so much,,it is somewhat embarrassing; especially as one’s achievements are minutely analysed and the result printed for everyone to jeer at. On Monday night we have to defend ourselves against a Destroyer attack; and on Wednesday prepare for a big gunnery exercise and also get one or two steamboats ready for an exercise clearing a channel of mines. On Friday evening I shall go to bed for a week. The following Friday, much revived the First Battle Cruiser Squadron leaves for the Baltic where we are to visit Riga, Reval, and Kronstadt, and cement the peace of Europe with a little more putty – made of roast beef and caviar mixed up with Vodka and Champagne, a nasty mess to think of.

Travelling in the Baltic in June, life became more interesting:

‘We hear the Fleet is to have a visit from the Czar and to be inspected internally, with the possibility of his visiting one of the ships...Lion will probably be the one.

On arrival at Riva, Queen Mary was met by a flotilla of destroyers. The weather was calm and she was able to steam with awnings spread, makes a lot of difference, as without them, the rain of ashes from the funnel makes the upper deck very unpleasant.’ A Russian officer came aboard each ship to pilot them in. 12 or 15 Russian warships were in Harbour. Kronstadt provided good entertainment.

June 24th

Russian dinner at Kronstadt. Many courses interspersed with constant vodka, endless sweet Champagne...- King and Emperor....Commanders made speeches in French and English. Russian soldiers sang behind curtain, ‘really good singing, not the noisy shouting which we have on board’...a Russian dinner may be economical for one doesn’t want anything to eat for the next twenty four hours.... The English one next day not so cheerful and enthusiastic...better for a little more life.

The Queen Mary officers gave a dance, not many ladies because names are so difficult for invitations. Russian engineer officers made calls and the English officers were taken to see the sights of the city; there were visits to St Petersburg, to the Palace and Hermitage. There was a visit to the house of grand duke Basil, grand duchess Victoria, wife of Cyril, ‘I made an effort to kiss her hand gracefully without much success, as she didn’t appear to want it....Empress, Emperor and their four daughters. The Emperor is not nearly as like King George as their photographs suggest...The Empress is tall, and though no doubt in the right dress she could look regal, she appears rather more the nice, comfortable sort of woman who would be very pleasant to everyone....Of the four daughters, the second, Tatiana, is dark and rather pale ; the other three are rather like their Mother, brunettes; they are all very pretty girls, the two oldest with their hair up..... Introduced to Tationa and Anastasia... the whole family talk English perfectly...we all put our names in the Visitors book and coming generations will find mine on the page opposite the Emperors. A large party visited the Duma......the Times correspondent has been on board...The Tsar made a detailed inspection of the Lion....then a big dance and supper aboard.... Russians everywhere, can’t be kept out by a curtain or a sliding door.

There was still the tedious and tiring routine of coaling to be done.... the collier didn’t turn up till late, between twelve and four there was not much life left among the men. I put in an hour’s digging then and haven’t got over the effects yet - in fact writing is still difficult my arms are so stiff. Tuesday we have to tow a target for the New Zealand to fire at.

The time for the Fleet Review was imminent and Ralph invited relatives on board to watch the event. The King, Prince Albert and Sir Colin Keppel visited the ship and later Mr Asquith: King quite lively and interested; the princes very timid and looking as if they hoped no one would try and make way for them...much taken with the Chapel and the Laundry and Petty Officers messes’...King performed little ceremony which took place in the Captain’s Cabin – the Knighting of Admiral Beatty – his K.C.B....While they were below, I went up to keep him [Mr.Asquith] company... he asked numerous very ordinary questions...harmless looking old man...not at all one to be picked out of a crowd as Britain’s Prime Minister.’....On Friday Lord Fisher came on board with the Fourth Sea Lord – Capt. Lambert, who was Commodore in the Blenheim after Sir Robert left us...very complimentary as usual.

Political problems of the government and portents of trouble with Germany for the country were beginning to make themselves felt.

July 28th Portland

The news in yesterdays papers should have prepared you for my telegram. I believe there were serious rumours in town on Friday, but we heard nothing down here until Sunday afternoon, when our orders to go out next morning for the New Zealand’s fighting were cancelled. About ten, a signal came to say arrangements were being made to coal the Battle Cruisers as soon as possible, and at one in the morning we were told we should have lighters from the Dockyard alongside at 5.30.. With so many ships requiring coal it was necessary to refill the lighters as soon as we emptied them....no particularly interesting orders, only to complete with all kinds of stores and await developments. The papers should give a very fair indication of how long we are likely to remain in this placed; for if Russia declares war on Austria, we are bound to mobilise fully. Even if we are not actually drawn in....we shall know soon enough I expect...I don’t think matters have ever been quite as serious as this.
Just off at 7am tomorrow probably to Lambash or some other place on the West Coast of Scotland – at any rate, somewhere we shall be safe from attack until we’re required.

July 31st Home fleet

We’ve arrived at a place of very reasonable security, which is as much as you may be permitted to know. Our value increases with the mystery of our movements.

We all feel that war is quite an amusing game; and I think there is very little or no anxiety about it. But that is because we cannot possibly imagine our being involved in war over a question in which 995 of us haven’t the least interest; and when we’re in most of us haven’t enough information to picture any very gruesome horrors, besides which we are in a pleasantly well protected ship with every hope of always getting the best of things.

Our news is very scanty ; what there is comes from the wireless telegrams which are sent out by the |Marconi station at Plodhu, and the German one at Nordddrich [?] The former comes at “ am” and usually has very little information which is not in the daily papers of the morning before. The German telegraph arrives a little later and is more up to date; but then it has to be translated by an officer in the New Zealand; really know very little of the situation at the moment. And of course the Admiral knows more, but all the Admiralty messages are in cipher, and can only be understood in the Flagships.

However, on the face of things, it seems ridiculous that Germany should choose to assist Austria, and have Russia. France, and ourselves on to her at once, with only the doubtful help of Italy to assist her to cope with us. She can only lose and has o chance of gaining anything.

The most ironical item in the telegram today was the information that the meeting of the International Peace Conference which was to sit in Vienna in September, has been cancelled.

August 4th 1914

THE UNITED KINGDOM DECLARED WAR WITH GERMANY - the last chapter of Ralph’s life was about to be written.

(Mary Jones asserts copyright)