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2. The Naval Secretariat

The year 1905 was a very busy one for me. By the end of May I had finished with the Canton business — the barrier removal and the bunding work — and I had started Zone Time going. Then on my return to Shanghai I caught hold of neutrality work, which lasted until October. In August I began to be involved in naval reorganization affairs, which lasted for a year and more and developed into the one fiasco of my experience. In August, too, I was requisitioned by the Nanking Viceroy to report on Haichow as a possible terminus for an East and West Railway; and I will tell the little that I have to say about it first.

Haichow city is approached by a little river — or rather a swash-way — through a highwater-covered flat. At low tide the waterway is nearly dry, but at the beginning of the flood tide a bore runs up, and on the crest of that bore a craft drawing twelve feet can rush up at many miles an hour. After my first preliminary inspection from a Chinese man-of-war I sent one of the Customs cruisers to survey the place. The Captain took her in the river and at low water let her sit upon the mud.

That was all right; but when the bore came up it hit her like a waterfall, and she and her two heavy anchors swept up the river like a cockle-shell. Then the Captain put her up a side creek, and there at low tide she settled in the mud, and when the bore came up she did not rise; and we very nearly lost that vessel. In the end she was dug out by a regiment of soldiers.

On the visit that I made I had unexpectedly to stay a night on shore, and was accommodated in the guest-room of a temple, outside the city with a great plain in front of it. Of course the room was infested, but to avoid hurting the feelings of my hosts I stood it until the watchman was asleep, and then I crept out quietly, unbarred the gates, went out on the plain — it was summer time, fine and warm with a full moon — and lay down on the ground with a building-stone as pillow; and soon, in the great comfort of freedom from attack — as I thought — I was fast asleep.

I was wakened by a fetid smell — a smell that pushed against me, as it were, with horrid warmth and dampness — and then I saw the cause of it. Quite close to my face — within an inch or two — was the snout and curled-back lips and glistening fangs of a huge and ragged chow dog. It was a wild scavenger that ate anything that came its way, including corpses, and even when it saw I was not one it seemed to think I soon might be, for it was as much as I could do to shoo it off. In those few moments — they probably were seconds — I was as scared as ever I have been.

The Haichow scheme came to nothing; there was not enough water off the coast to justify an artificial harbour.

And now about the Navy.
In July Admiral Yeh died.
In my confidential report on officers after the battle of Yalu I said: ` Captain Yeh is a most gentlemanly officer and is universally liked, but he is perfectly useless for fighting purposes.

I do not say that he is a coward, but he had no heart in his work.' At Weihaiwei also he did not shine. Yet as an Admiral, I liked him. He was well disposed and comparatively uncomplicated; his mentality approximated to that of an Englishman — as does that of so many educated Chinese. Had I been associated with him in naval reorganization we should have got something useful done. We should have provided a nucleus of efficient administration and might have left a mark.

But Yeh died, and Sah — now Sir Sah Ping-chen, K.C.M.G. — succeeded him.

Sah was not in the Yalu battle, but at Weihaiwei the affair of asking for instructions before he left his post marked him as exceptional in character. In that confidential report I bracketed him with one other as my choice for future advancement. That other became Minister of the Navy, turned traitor to Yuan Shih-kai, and was murdered at Canton. Sah also was Minister of the Navy and for a short time was Premier; and, when he held the latter post and I was Adviser to two Ministries, he appointed me in most complimentary terms as Honorary Adviser to the Cabinet on Sino-foreign relations. That is looking far ahead, but it has a bearing on what I have in hand: the character of Sah and the nature of my relations with him.

To state that one of us is honest in money matters is an insult: it implies the possibility of the other thing; but with a Chinese it is different. Some degree of squeeze of money passing through their hands is both customary and part of their system. Their self-respect is usually involved with doing it to a greater or a lesser extent; and in the public view virtue lies not in abstinence but in — reasonable moderation. For a Chinese — especially one in a high position with no fear of interference — to adopt our Western code of honour in this respect; to realize the evil that squeezing constitutes, and to make himself an unadvertised exponent of a rigid probity in money matters, would be a notable achievement. Sah did it.

There are, doubtless, other cases; I know of one other I could vouch for.

So Sah was endowed with the rare qualities — for a Chinese — of physical bravery and financial integrity; and with the prominence he gained and the positions he occupied, what might he not have done for China if he had only had a reasonably normal judgment and the language to express it ! But he had not. His judgments were vagaries and he was curiously inarticulate. He was full of good intentions, principles and ideals, and he would willingly have let himself be martyred for his country; but one could not get at his ideas; they were as intangible as nightmares; his plane of thought was entirely oblique not only to the Westerner but also to his fellow countrymen. In spite of his virtues he was tortuous and unreliable in his ways; he started as my trusted friend; he became my bitter enemy and got me in the very devil of a mess, from which it took me many months to extricate myself; and later he became my friend — my very generous friend — again.

Of course, I would not say all this about him — I should have confined myself to what was only complimentary — had there not been a need. That need is the explanation of the fiasco of my naval reorganization work. I will tell the story of it now.

Sah had every reason to be well disposed to me. There was my service in the war of '94. Then, when the Chinese fleet — of which Sah was Commodore — was driven out of Shanghai harbour in the Boxer time, Admiral Seymour at my instance sent Captain Cumming in the Hermione to visit Sah at Nanking

— a visit of appreciation in connection with the conduct of the Chinese navy at the time; it was an exceptional and a gracious act on the part of Admiral Seymour. Then later, while Admiral Yeh was alive, Sah was associated with me in neutrality work. Then Yeh died, on the 30th July, as my diary shows; and there are these further entries: —

3rd August. Sah discusses naval reorganization. 12th August. Inspected Nanyang Squadron with Sah. 13th August. Drawing up naval reorganization scheme (1) with Basse at Sah's request.

1 — That scheme was later the subject of an Imperial Rescript in which Basse and I were named as the proposers of it. The Rescript approved the scheme, but it was never given effect to.
These entries merely mean that Sah on getting command of the navy sought my advice. I had no idea of and no ambition for any new adventure; but Basse and Sah and the Viceroys — that was probably the order of initiative — got busy without my knowing it, and one day it was sprung upon me that they wished me to be associated with Sah in a reorganizing scheme, and that I should join in the conference of how it could be brought about.

The idea — within limits — appealed to me. I had no intention of giving up my Marine Department post, but I was willing to devote a year to being — as I put it — a sort of naval St. John the Baptist in preparing the way for a better man. No one could know as well as I did what the Chinese fleet needed and how it should be given to them — no British naval officer could possibly know. In the final scheme — when I had finished — there should be the least possible number of English officers — a Naval Adviser, a Gunnery Lieutenant and a Torpedo Lieutenant would suffice. There should be none of the wet-nursing that Lang had used and had to use; for his problem was to get the fleet as efficient as he could in the shortest possible time in view of the growing menace of Japan. My scheme was to inculcate self-reliance and professional self-respect, however slow the process; a few officers would yearly be sent to England for short-course training, and on their return would be used as staff college instructors, and the pick of them would later be sent again; and so on, making them do the work themselves, however slowly, instead of doing it for them. It would be a most interesting affair to start this scheme a — rolling and then turn it over to a British naval officer. But to do it in a year — to do it at all so far as that went — I should need an exceptional position.

I had all the lessons of the past to warn me — Lay, Forbes and Lang. Executiveness was of course taboo — Sah's normal authority as Commander-in-Chief must not be touched, but in those matters that would usually be the functions of an Admiralty I considered that Sah and I should share the power jointly under the three Viceroys who administered the navy.

This was agreed upon between the three of us — Sah, Basse and myself — and Basse got the Viceroy's imprimatur on the scheme. I was to be Yingwuchu or Naval Secretary, and I concurred in the application to Sir Robert Hart for the loan of my services.

Then suddenly all these high hopes of good work to be done were extinguished. My appointment came. It did not make me Secretary of the Navy; it did not even leave me as Adviser, which would have been a possible position; it made me Secretary to Sah and subordinate to him; and the thing was as formal as it could be — in the name of the three Viceroys, and I am not sure that it had not been sanctioned by the Throne. So there was a predicament !

From Sah I could get no explanation. He just sulked and was sarcastically rude — a complete volte-face in his attitude and manner. And Basse said the only thing to do was to see the Nanking Viceroy — and that it was for me to do it and not for him. So I went and was told that the Viceroy was not seeing any one — he was sick. My diary says he really was; but it may well be doubted. Then Basse said that it was urgent that I should go up North at once and explain things to Yuan Shih-kai. With the extraordinary ease with which he dealt with the Viceroys he assumed that I could do the same.

There was little doubt that Yuan knew that I had come to see him, but camouflage was used; I was told by my friends in his entourage that it would be most impolitic to see him on the matter; the affair had gone too far to admit of any formal alteration or admission of an error; but what was possible would be done. Then I saw Sir Robert Hart and told him what had happened. My diary says that he was kindly severe in his blame for having got myself into such a mess by aiming at too much power; why had I not done so and so, and I replied that in a game of cards one played according to one's judgment, and with the added element of luck one won or lost.

He acquiesced and said that I must continue to play my game myself — to get out of the mess as best I could — he could not help me; and then he added with a spice of humorous malice, ' You have found at last your limitations '; and that was the greatest compliment I ever had.

In the end a compromise was reached: the appointment was to stand but I would be called the Yingwuchu, I should have the right to petition directly the Viceroys, and — a curious touch, but very Chinese — I was to be accorded the honours of an Admiral. The puzzling thing about it all was not only that I had not been consulted before the change was made, but that no explanation of it was forthcoming. But I got a sidelight on the puzzle from an officer on the Nanking Viceroy's staff.

The Viceroy, he said, had discovered to his astonishment that I ranked in the Customs with a Deputy Commissioner, and in those circumstances to give me such a high position as Ying-wuchu was impossible. So that injustice to my predecessor — continued to myself — came home to roost, for Sir Robert Hart was much annoyed at what had happened. I have little doubt that that was the reason, and that the rest of it — the failure to consult me or to explain — was due to the kink in Sah's mentality; then, being what he was, the sense of having injured me became converted into enmity.

But with all the muddle that had happened and the loss of face that resulted from the failure of my attempted visits to the Viceroys, I still could have got usefully to work if Sah would have co-operated. But he would not. He opposed me systematically and started on his own with futile little schemes which had no relation to reorganizing. The only thing I was allowed to do was to compile Naval Regulations with a committee of Captains. That was quite an interesting undertaking; I found the American regulations of the greatest help, especially in disciplinary matters — about Courts of Inquiry, Courts Martial, procedure and rules of evidence — there was less left to the customs of the service than in the British regulations.

There is just one incident to tell about that work. Among the list of offences named in naval codes is that of an unnatural act — the abominable crime, as it is called in English law — and I wondered how the committee would take my proposal that it should be added to the Chinese list, for as in all Eastern countries, it had a certain prevalence. The initiative in proposing penalties lay with me, and, until public opinion on this matter had developed, I thought a year's imprisonment would meet the case. But to my astonishment one Captain saw a point. So lenient a punishment, he said, would cast a slur upon the navy's reputation; he recommended something drastic — I think it was fifteen years' penal servitude on the Western confines of the Empire, and as the others were shy of expressing any view upon the matter, that heavy penalty was incorporated into Chinese naval law.

An affair occurred which might well have landed me in still greater difficulties. A young Lieutenant in the Ting Yuen had behaved uncommonly well in the war of '94; and later he was appointed as my private secretary. But now, at the Admiralty, he and another perpetrated a fraud of outrageous boldness about the sale of the wreck of a Chinese cruiser, and for that purpose the other used the Admiral's seal. Here, however, I had a stroke of luck; the other was the Admiral's Flag-Lieutenant.

The year's service to which I had committed myself would end on the 1st February; but in November, in view of the hopelessness of my relations with Sah and the completion of all I was allowed to do in Naval Regulations, I suggested to the Viceroy that I should be allowed to go on leave. This proposal was the easier to make inasmuch as I drew no naval pay; I was lent by the Customs. Now the Viceroy at Nanking was then Tuan Fang — a Manchu and a great gentleman. He understood the cruelty of the position in which through no fault of my own I had been placed; and to relieve it and to give me face he arranged that I should go on a mission to the British Admiralty on behalf of the Naval Viceroys, to ask for facilities for the training of Chinese officers. But misfortune had not ceased to dog my footsteps in this naval business. In spite of the strict correctness of the credentials I possessed — they were from Admiralty to Admiralty as it were, and not a diplomatic act — the First Sea Lord would not see me. I was treated coldly as if I were a mere adventurer. So here was another and a worse humiliation to be swallowed; and it seems likely that this, too, was somehow engineered from China. When I returned I disguised the matter as far as possible in my report to Tuan; but how much he knew I cannot say. He was, however, charming and complimentary to me and gave me a pair of fine cloisonné vases as a wedding present. Poor Tuan Fang was later murdered in a very brutal way when Viceroy of Szechuen.

I have said before how I regret the fact that so much of this book deals with minor exploits by myself, so it has seemed well to give somewhat fully this story of my great and dismal failure.