THE 'VANGUARD' DEBATE.
MR. WARD HUNT is very angry with the Press, but the Press has at least done him this signal service,—that whereas in speaking at the Mansion House he had nothing but lightness of heart to express in relation to the disaster of the Vanguard,' in speaking on Monday in the House of Commons he had at least been schooled into a due sense of the responsi- bility and gravity of his action in the matter, and took the tone which is expected of an English Minister when explaining to the country the course he has taken in relation to a national calamity of some magnitude. Mr. Ward Hunt's defence of that course was not successful. Over some serious points of the case he appears to have passed without remark, and to the main criticisms on his line of action on which he is compelled to speak, he gives a most inadequate reply. Still the manner of his speech was good, if its substance was defective, and we suspect that even for that he has to thank the criticism of which he so bitterly complains. A Minister who rejoices in the evidence given of the power of a ram when that power was exhibited in sending one of our own ships to the bottom, wants a good bit of schooling to make him take the tone which Mr. Ward Hunt took on Monday night.
What Mr. Hunt had to explain was this,—why the con- clusions come to by the Naval Court of Inquiry as to the cause of the loss of the ' Vanguard' were so completely set aside by the Admiralty, without even ordering a court-martial upon those officers whose conduct had been blamed by the Court of Inquiry, but not tried by any court-martial. The Court-Martial censured and punished Captain Dawkins, of the' Vanguard,' and several of his officers. The Court of Inquiry also censured by implication Admiral Tarleton, in command of the fleet, and also Captain Hickley and Lieutenant Evans, of the ' Iron Duke,' and censured Captain Hickley on more than one distinct ground. The Admiralty declared Admiral Tarleton free from blame, unless it were for not giving a different signal for the evolution of the fleet before the fog from the one he did give ; and also declared Captain Hickley free from blame. But it pun- ished Lieutenant Evans for the responsibility he had taken upon himself in altering the course of the ' Iron Duke' without his commander's orders, and against the regular Admiralty rule, and there it left the matter. Now the country wanted to know what excuse there,. as for thus reversing the decision of the Court of Inquiry as to two of the officers concerned in the disaster, who were superior officers, without any court-martial, though the subordinate officer was punished in accordance with of duties, Manchester claims must be preferred to Indian the opinion of the Court of Inquiry. Mr. Goschen, in his able and lucid statement of the case, put the responsibility of the First Lord in the matter with great force :—" The First Lord of the Admiralty would incur an immense responsibility, if he were to throw over the advice of his professional advisers, but it was for him to see that that advice was embodied in a wise, discreet, and proper shape. If he had had to deal with the case, he would have followed the advice given by his naval advisers • but he would have stared with astonishment, if told that the orders given to the squadron had nothing to do with the disaster. Then he would have asked some pertinent questions. He would have asked Admiral Hornby what was his practice in a fog Did he generally go fast or slow I if slow, that would have been following the in- structions of the signal-book ; if fast, ho would have taken a note of that. The signal-book of the Admiralty stated, dis- tinctly,—' During fogs, the speed of the fleet, except under special circumstances (hear, hear), shall not exceed three to four knots per hour.' Well, there might have been special circumstances, as that cheer seemed to imply, and he might have found that, in the opinion of some Admirals, these instructions only hampered their discretion. Now, he might have made a note of that, in order to see how it might have affected their judg- ment. If the Board were unanimously of opinion that special circumstances justified the course that had been taken, then he would have given way, but only on one condition, that those circumstances were set forth on the face of the Minute. He would have said, We are not going to abandon Admiral Tarleton, but as he is so associated with us, it concerns the honour of the Admiralty that the public should see that we are dealing with him in a just and impartial spirit." And as Mr. Goschen elsewhere pointed out, there was a special duty to the Service and to the public, in relation to an officer so closely connected with the department as Admiral Tarleton had been. It was impossible not to surmise that unconsciously the Admiralty had been biassed in his favour by their intimate knowledge of the man as a brother- administrator. And nothing which Mr. Ward Hunt has said in answer to Mr. Goschen has tended to remove that impres- sion. We are told, as we have been told before, that to slacken speed on the course signalled when there was a tide setting towards the Kish Bank would have been dangerous. Very likely, if the same course was to be pursued, but why not so far alter the course as to make up for the set of the tide, even at a lower speed ? Mr. Ward Hunt hints, first that to make two succes- sive signals in a fog would have been dangerous, which gives us, as Mr. Goschen remarked, a very strong impression that the sooner our iron fleets gain more practice in signalling the better. But Mr. Hunt also adds that to have altered the course in the way suggested would have " set the ships in the moat awkward way across the usual channel for ships approaching Dublin,"—a remark which only shows that either Mr. Ward Hunt's first objection,—namely, that to lower speed while steering the same course would, on account of the tide, have resulted in going a different course,—was not true, or that he does not understand the proposal on which he is commenting. Nobody wanted the fleet to be taken out of the actual course which Admiral Tarleton had intended. What was suggested was that if, with a low rate of speed, that course would not have been retained, on account of the greater in- fluence of the tide over ships at a low rate of speed, then that the course should so far have been altered as to compensate that action of the tide, and take them, in spite of the low rate of speed, in the same course as before. It is childish, as all the Navy seems to agree, to talk of a high rate of speed in a fog as being as safe as a low rate of speed. It is simply in/possible that col- lisions, if they are to happen at all, should not be more serious at a high rate of speed than at a low rate. This collision was nil- doubtedly more serious in consequence of a high rate of speed than it would have been at a low rate. The" phantom" vessel sighted, and, in spite of its phantom character, seen apparently by Captain Dawkins himself, as well as by the look-out, would, if not a phantom but a real vessel (which is as likely as not), undoubtedly have been much more likely to be ran down by a fleet going at a high rate of speed than at a low rate. The accident in the Solent would never have happened if the Queen's yacht had been going at a low rate of speed, and not at the sixteen or seven- teen knots an hour at which she was actually steaming. Now, it is an outrage on common-sense to suppose that it is appreciably more difficult to make two clear and easy signals in succession to a fleet in a fog than it is to make one ; and if that one be intended to keep up a high rate of speed during a fog, while the double signal first lowers speed and then slightly alters the
course, it is impossible that the latter proceeding should not be greatly the safer. In fact it comes to this,—that if the double signal was really difficult, it must have been because the second part of it, the signal to alter the course, was difficult,—for the signal to lower speed can hardly have been more difficult than the one actually made to maintain it. And how is our Fleet ever to be properly kept in hand in naval war, if there is so deep a distrust on the part of our com- manders, as Admiral Tarleton's hesitation implies, of their power to alter the course they are steering by a signal which will be promptly understood and obeyed ? The public will certainly draw one of two conclusions from Mr. Ward Hunt's speech. Either there is in our Navy a great want of that common-sense which tells every man that when he cannot see where he is going, he had better go very slowly ; or else the is an alarming inability to make the commonest signals at sea so as to get them clearly understood ; and whichever be the true account of the matter, it is far from a reassuring one to the nation.
With regard to Captain Hickley's complete acquittal by the Admiralty after he had been blamed by the Court of Inquiry, Mr. Ward Hunt made out a still weaker case. In relation to one most important matter, the neglect to put steam on the fog-whistle, Mr. Ward Hunt appears to have made no answer at all, yet what could be more negligent than to omit the first precaution requisite for advertising comrades of a ship's place in a fog f And in relation to Captain Hickley's con- duct in leaving the deck of his ship before she had re- covered the place in the squadron assigned to her after the evolution, he said what was equivalent to nothing at all, merely that Captain Hickley had got his ship into her right course, and had got her three cables astern of her leader— whereas, it was his duty to place her two cables astern of her leader—and that he left the deck, therefore, only when all the more difficult part of his duty was done. Perhaps so ; but considering the fog-banks which were seen by all the fleet, not when the most dangerous part of the duty was done. It was in closely approaching his leader in a fog that the real danger lay, and it was the duty of dealing with this part of the business which he left to his lieutenant, who blundered, and caused the accident by his mode of dealing with it. On the whole, it can hardly be maintained that Mr. Ward Hunt added even an iota to what the public already knew was to be his line of defence in this matter. And no one who looks well at the case will doubt that the Admiralty Minute which so cavalierly reversed the award of the Court of Inquiry on several points, was a tremendous departmental blunder. Mr. Ward Hunt has, as far as manner and mode of statement are concerned, defended his blunder this time in a dignified and manly fashion. He has not added an outrage on good-taste to an outrage on common-sense, as he did in his Mansion-House speech. But he has not vindi- cated his reputation. He leaves the matter where he found it, as the best evidence the public could well have that the present administration of the Admiralty cannot be trusted either for its judicial fairness, or for its common-sense. The blunders made were no doubt, in a moral sense, pardonable. But morally pardonable blunders are often as full of danger as the most immoral blunders. It is the well-meaning men, for the most part, who ruin armies and navies, and submerge the national influence, as our Naval officers have submerged the ' Vanguard,' a great many fathoms beneath the surface of the sea.