Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

6. Well Done—1918
It can be safely said that for the last four years the seamen of Great Britain have
done well. I mean that every kind and sort of human being classified as seaman,
steward, fore-mast hand, fireman, lamp-trimmer, mate, master, engineer, and
also all through the innumerable ratings of the Navy up to that of Admiral, has
done well. I don't say marvellously well or miraculously well or wonderfully well or
even very well, because these are simply over- statements of undisciplined
minds. I don't deny that a man may be a marvellous being, but this is not likely to
be discovered in his lifetime, and not always even after he is dead. Man's
marvellousness is a hidden thing, because the secrets of his heart are not to be
read by his fellows. As to a man's work, if it is done well it is the very utmost that
can be said. You can do well, and you can do no more for people to see. In the
Navy, where human values are thoroughly understood, the highest signal of
commendation complimenting a ship (that is, a ship's company) on some
achievements consists exactly of those two simple words "Well done," followed
by the name of the ship. Not marvellously done, astonishingly done, wonderfully
done--no, only just:
"Well done, so-and-so."
And to the men it is a matter of infinite pride that somebody should judge it
proper to mention aloud, as it were, that they have done well. It is a memorable
occurrence, for in the sea services you are expected professionally and as a
matter of course to do well, because nothing less will do. And in sober speech no
man can be expected to do more than well. The superlatives are mere signs of
uninformed wonder. Thus the official signal which can express nothing but a
delicate share of appreciation becomes a great honour.
Speaking now as a purely civil seaman (or, perhaps, I ought to say civilian,
because politeness is not what I have in my mind) I may say that I have never
expected the Merchant Service to do otherwise than well during the war. There
were people who obviously did not feel the same confidence, nay, who even
confidently expected to see the collapse of merchant seamen's courage. I must
admit that such pronouncements did arrest my attention. In my time I have never
been able to detect any faint hearts in the ships' companies with whom I have
served in various capacities. But I reflected that I had left the sea in '94, twenty
years before the outbreak of the war that was to apply its severe test to the
quality of modern seamen. Perhaps they had deteriorated, I said unwillingly to
myself. I remembered also the alarmist articles I had read about the great
number of foreigners in the British Merchant Service, and I didn't know how far
these lamentations were justified.
In my time the proportion of non-Britishers in the crews of the ships flying the red
ensign was rather under one-third, which, as a matter of fact, was less than the
proportion allowed under the very strict French navigation laws for the crews of
the ships of that nation. For the strictest laws aiming at the preservation of
national seamen had to recognise the difficulties of manning merchant ships all