Songs of the Fleet
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Feb 1923, p. 67-79
Newbolt, Sir Henry, Speaker
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Item Type
The origins of the Song of the Fleet. Commentary on each of the songs. A detailed explication of the fifth and last song, the song of the Welcome Home of the dead who died overseas. Some words on independence with reference to Canada's relationship with the British Empire. How the word "Imperialism" is understood within the British Empire. The theory of other Imperialists in Europe. The poetry that came out of the War.
Date of Original
22 Feb 1923
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SONGS OF THE FLEET AN ADDRESS BY SIR HENRY NEWBOLT, KT., D.LITT. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, February 22, 1923

PRESIDENT WILKINSON introduced the speaker, who was received with loud applause, the audience rising and giving three cheers.


Mr. President and Gentlemen,--I have enjoyed every moment of my life in Canada, which I am sorry to say has been a very short life, I am a mere infant; I think it is about a month today since I was born, (laughter) and I am enjoying especially today the fact that I address you, the first audience I have been able to address as in some way, a fellow-countryman, or an imitation of a fellow-countryman. (Laughter) I don't suppose you know exactly why. You could only tell why if you were within sufficient distance to see that I am wearing for the first time in my life a little tiepin made of Canadian gold in the form of a maple leaf. (Hear, hear, and applause) That means I have been elected a member of the parent Canadian Club of Canada. (Applause) There are many other reasons why I am busy, and I will tell you one of them presently.

Your President has asked me, and I suppose it was suggested to him by somebody else, for you


Sir Henry Newbolt, Kt., D. Litt., Lawyer, Educator, Author and Poet, was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and graduated with high honours. He was called to the Bar in 1887 and practised law till 1899. He was Professor of Poetry at the Royal Society of Literature, 1911-1921. He has to his credit a long list of publications especially in poetry.


know there is a power behind the throne, and the throne moved me, and the power behind moved the throne, and the throne has demanded me to speak on certain Songs of the Fleet. This is an astonishment and a surprise to me, but I do not mean to literally obey the command, and to favour you with any personal reminiscences about those songs, be= cause in the manner of their writing they are much like other songs, they came into existence just when they chose, and I had to write them down when I was made to, and there they are; and some of you in this town have been singing them, and others have been hearing them, and there they are, again. (Laughter) They were meant to be songs, and I suppose they are songs, and there is very little to be said about them in that capacity. But of course anything will do, as you know, as a text for a sermon. (Laughter) I see symptoms of cordial assent from several clerical gentlemen near me. (Laughter) If I wanted to preach with those songs for texts I could preach five distinct sermons, all of which would be thoroughly on the point which I came to Canada to talk about.

To begin with the first one, where the fleet is Sailing at Dawn, having been re-constituted; the key-note of the feeling of everybody aboard is that they are leaving home, they are leaving the country which holds their natural life, and all that they hold the most 'dear, and all that is wrapped up with all their recollections of happiness, and they are leaving it on the service, and they express it by saying that they are going into the exile of the sea, that they are making the old surrender, and that they axe going out to serve the age to be. Well, it does not need elaboration, does it? That is exactly what the men in navy services have always done, and what they did before the war, when those songs were written; what the navy is always doing more than anybody else, because nobody can say that any human being is really at home on the sea. Every man is an exile when he is at sea; every man is hoping to get home again. But so did all our expeditionary forces eight years ago go out as exiles into the very strange land of death; so did your boys, to the number of half a million. And this is the point, they were going out to serve the age to be, and not their selfish interests, not even the interests of the moment. And they were making not only a surrender, but they were making the old surrender, the surrender which the British race, although it has been called by its enemies a self-seeking and a hypocritical race, has made more honestly, more thoroughly, and in a deeper sense than any other nation has ever made it. (Applause)

Then if I take the second song for a text, it is just a noisy, rattling attempt to express the thought that the power that nerves them to fight is not the enemy, who is never, after all, likely to trouble an Englishman much (laughter) but it is the Giant that Swings the Seas; and the real cause why there is and always has been only one of all the military forces of the world that is really efficient is that the British Navy is a necessity to us, and that efficiency is a necessity to the British Navy. Nine times out of ten the danger that they are in is a danger from natural elements, and that danger never ceases, day or night; and it is a danger which is a great source of strength to any nation which is conscious of it, because it is a danger which can only be faced by co-operation. When you are at sea it is quite impossible for you to ensconce yourself comfortably in your own corner and say, "Well, it is not my part now; the other fellows can do the work, whatever it is; they have got to look after the ship; I am going to sleep." When there is danger no man on board can do that, for the simple reason that his life depends upon the life of everybody else. He cannot say, "I don't care what happens to the race; I'm going to be safe and comfortable." If the ship goes down, and they go down, you go down too, even though you are asleep at the time. The result is that there is fellowship at sea, that fellowship so close, so real, so insistent that I have often wished that the whole nation could go to sea for four or five or six months; then they would know exactly what human life is for, and how that fellowship and cooperation is simply the recognition of the one fact that we are all members one of another, as we were told many thousand years ago. (Applause)

Then the third of these things is just a little meditation under the stars when there was nothing going on except the everlasting voyage, which seems as silent and as planetary as the sweep of the planets themselves in the sky above. At that time the master, whoever he is, he may be the noblest fellow but he is always as a matter of fact drawn into himself, he has gone into his inner chamber, and he communes with his own heart and his soul. And that, again, is a thing which is very good for man, a thing which is not common enough on shore. I know it is common at sea, for this reason, and it touched me very much when I found it out. I have written, as you know, many songs about the sea, a great many songs about fighting, about ships and about seamen, but I found out, not much more than a year ago, very much to my surprise, that the British officer values one song above the rest; perhaps he does not value the rest at all, but he values one song because he says it so exactly expresses what has been in the heart of every British sailor at one time or other, and he does not understand how it could have been written by a landsman. That song is just the little song of the Midnight Watch. It is the song of a man who feels himself not only remote in distance from the earth and his home and all the little things of earth, but he feels himself actually remote even in point of time. He feels, in fact, that time is dead, and that he has passed into a timeless existence.

Then the fourth one is another rollicking little song about the Little Admiral. Anybody who has ever been in a battleship with an admiral, and seen him take the fleet out, knows the picture that could not possibly fail to strike anybody. The only reason why that poem has never been written before is because it simply happens that poets have not been in the habit of going out on the bridge of battle-ships when fleets are being taken out. I suppose no one has ever done it. There you see all the signal men; everybody busy all over the ship like a hive of bees, signals flying in all directions, officers standing in groups, the commanding officers in quiet tones, and all watching one little man on a platform absolutely alone, walking up and down with his hands behind his back, and apparently never speaking one word. He does speak a word; he speaks a very quiet, very short, terse, decisive, masterly word. He is the brain, the life and the soul, not only of that ship but of the whole fleet; and it is very impressive to see that when he is there he has lost, as it were, the personality which belongs to himself, which was genially displayed at the dinner table afterwards. He has lost that, and he has become a re-incarnation. There have been moments when admirals have been inspired. The sailors really believe it. They don't think that they are really human, the great ones, the ones they believe in. There is an example, perhaps, in one who, though not our greatest admiral, is still a very great fighting man. They don't believe that you can kill Beatty. Beatty has been in actions where any man on earth but Beatty would have been killed. He has been knocked to pieces. His ship, "The Lion," the great historic ship of the British Navy at the present day, has been knocked to pieces in a manner which is absolutely incredible. I need only remind you that in the early part of the day in the fight of the Battle of Jutland, when the Germans made their attempt to boost off the British fleet by a certain number of ruined battle cruisers, that the great "Derflinger," which is the most powerful ship in the world, came right up against the "Lion," which had already been knocked about a great deal. The "Derflinger" was not only the most powerful ship of the world, but her gunnery was magnificent; she had already sunk the "Invincible," and twenty great shells had been sent from the "Derfiinger," but the "Lion" not only survived, but survived with all her fighting power intact, and with her Admiral untouched. At the same time she put into the "Derflinger" twenty-five of her shells, and the result was that there were no turrets on board the "Derflinger;" they were in the sea, and there were only two guns, and they could not fire, and the "Derflinger" had to turn tail and go. (Applause) Now, there was another admiral before the war, called "Tug." His real name was Wilson, and it was he that I had largely in my mind when I wrote that song. "Tug" Wilson had got the Victoria Cross because, being a sailor ashore in one of the great Egyptian battles in 1884, I think it was, he happened to be in a corner of a square when the Arabs broke the square, and you know when a square is broken ,there is a good deal of butchery going on because the fellows get inside the square, and it works a great deal of confusion. Wilson took out his cutlass and knocked a considerable number of Arabs, and laid at the heads of others, and after he broke his cutlass he used the rest of it as a knuckle-duster by giving them great blows on the chin, and for that he got the Victoria Cross, because he saved the day. But his remarkable feats of seamanship were much more notable than that. He had to bring the fleet down to the Scilly Isles, and came down the British lines, and on that cruise he was forty-eight hours on deck without moving even for a little time. He thought he saw something that somebody else did not see, something that gave him his bearings. The sailors do not believe he saw anything, but they believe that he was a re-incarnation. They said that he knew every place on the coast because he had been there for five hundred years. (Laughter) He brought the whole British fleet down there from Perth in the north of Scotland down to the Scilly Islands without one stop, without once having to coal, without once missing his bearings, and without any accident whatever, and they said that was the reason, that he had magic. They said that you could see, as he stood there, all sorts of odd things about him that were not there on ordinary days, and among other things that you could see that he had lost his right arm, that he had his sleeve pinned across his coat, and there were stars on his left breast. They were probably right. The point of that, of course, was that he had the ancient long-descended magic, and like other admirals his voice was never heard, but there he was.

Well, the real sermon that I should have wished to preach if I had time would be on the fifth and last song, that is, the song of the Welcome Home of the dead who died overseas. It begins with the words:--

Mother, with unbowed head Hear thou across the sea The farewell of the dead, The dead who died for thee. For, saving thee, themselves they could not save. Greet them again with tender words and brave,

Now, it is just on that word "Mother" which I want to speak to you. You call England the Motherland, and I doubt very much whether, when you say that, you realize exactly what you mean. You think the British Empire is in some way the parent of Canada, and I think you are wrong. You talk about some day, perhaps, being independent of your mother, being independent of the British Empire. It may be so. It all depends on what independence means. There is one kind of independence that we should be only too glad if you took, any kind of independence but one. You must not suppose, when you have a population, as you may well have in a couple of hundred years, of a couple of hundred millions, while we on our little Island have only a population of fifty millions, and you with all your gigantic strength and wealth and your enormous territory, think the seat of the British Empire even should be in Ottawa or Toronto or Montreal instead of in London, you need not suppose that there will be any feelings hurt in England over that. That is not what we care about. What we care about is the Empire itself, and what we care about is the mother, which is our mother as well as yours. We are not your mother; I am not your mother; no individual Englishman is your mother; we are your brothers. (Hear, hear and applause) What we mean by the mother is what I hope you mean. What we mean by the British Empire is what I hope you mean. It is a very, very old, a very long-descended thing; it is a thing that you cannot make in a year or two; you cannot make it in a year or two; you cannot make it in a century or two; and I doubt if anybody else can make it at all. You have got it by descent as we have got it by descent. There are other people who .are our cousins, but they have mixed their descent, and they have not really got it in the same way.

When you are contrasted, as you ought not to be contrasted, for there is no question of contrast, but when you are contrasted with the English or the English contrasted with you, and it is generally done by our enemies who like to sow disunion among us, there is a mistake being made which goes to the root of the whole matter. Whether we know it or not, you and the English have a creed, a faith, and it is a very queer one, and it is made up of a lot of curious and incongruous elements, but it is a real faith, and it is something that the world cannot do without. It consists partly of the things that men must do, and it consists even more of the things which they must not do; and if you want to realize exactly what I mean you have only to consider the difference between the word "Imperialism" and particularly as between the thing "Imperialism" as it is understood by every other nation on the continent of Europe, and even elsewhere, and -as--we understand it. The word "Empire" does not mean the dominance, the unjust dominance of a tyrannical power. It means a very different thing. The word "Imperialism" does not mean the ambition of a nation to dominate the world or to conquer its neighbours. It does not mean the belief that the morality of a nation is the same thing as their strength. It does not mean that might is right, and that a strong nation is not only right and entitled to conquer the weak ones, but that it is her duty to do so, and that if she does not do so, as a leading exponent of this kind of Imperialism said just before the war, if she does not conquer and does not show her strength she is guilty of a sin against the Holy Ghost. Anything like a display of Christian consideration, Christian fellowship for weaker nations, smaller nations, poorer nations, less happy nations is, if you please, a sin against the Holy Ghost? And the same authorities also proclaimed that war is diplomacy par excellence; that is, it is the supreme act of diplomacy.

Now, an old Englishman, who to our sorrow is just dead, Sir Walter Raleigh, without knowing it, put the other side exactly when he said, "War is the failure of diplomacy. It is the last resort; when you can do nothing else to save the weaker, you must go to war." (Hear, hear) There you have the difference between the two Imperialisms. Nobody in England, and I dare say nobody here, will claim that a man is doing an entirely altruistic thing when he is trying to get money and power and all sorts of things, but what he believes is that those things are so necessary and so great that they have the highest value among human possessions, and that you are right, to sacrifice to the gaining of those things every other consideration on earth not only for yourself but especially for other people. We do not believe that. (Hear, hear) We know quite well, even when we are at our worst, when he are just down in the market higgling and fighting and struggling, when we are shouldering about among other nations of the world, we know at the bottom that there is something better than that. We know that there are some things that we ought to be doing rather than that. There are surrenders we ought to be making, service we ought to be thinking of, the future of which we ought to be talking about, and we know that there are things that we ought not to do. We know that in order to gain absolute power and dominion in this world, in order to gain more wealth, more territory, more rule than other people, it would be necessary to enforce the law of military necessity to its last limit.

The theory of the other Imperialists in Europe was that the necessity of military law took precedence of every other law on earth, not only human but Divine, and they stated it. There was only one man who had the courage to tell them they were wrong, and I always like to mention his name, because he stands to be forever remembered. He was Dr. Nikolai, the great physiologist of Berlin, and he told his people that their argument was a fine argument from the logical point of view, and he considered that they had logically proved their point, but he said, "Nevertheless, the English are right; there is something which is above the law of military necessity; there are things which you must not do, even though the existence of your country depends upon it." And those were the things that his countrymen have done. I need hardly say that he left Berlin. (Laughter)

Well, that is one of these things, this philosophy of life which has come down to us from our ancestors, and it is so deeply ingrained that you cannot foresee the time when it will fail to animate the truth and faith of the English people. You will find in our country at the present day that we are not an old people, any more than you are. The Germans flattered themselves that we were an ancient, decadent and degenerate race; we were so old that we had forgotten the virtues of our youth; we were not prepared to fight for what we held; we were not prepared to submit to suffering, privation, danger and death as they thought they were. It was not true, and the reason it was not true is because the British nation at this moment, the English nation at home at this moment, is younger than it has ever been, more full of the upflow of sap from the same old primeval roots, the roots from which you came, the roots from which we came, not only every year but every day. We are not a dying race, not a decreasing race. (Applause) If you look around the world at this moment, which is the race that is living and growing, whose ideals are stronger every day it lives, and whose only struggles at home are struggles between two sets of men, or three or four or five sets of men as we have at present, all of whom have the same faith, the same desire that life shall not be the terrible thing for one man and the easy, fat thing for another? They only differ as to means. They only lose their tempers when they get arguing, because argument makes everybody lose their tempers. But they are poetic-minded. They are growing as the sap makes the bark grow, and the heart grow, and the core grow. They are growing every day and every hour; and every year I see, and I cannot tell you what it is to see it! I see instead of those decadent generations that the Germans talked about in their folly, I have seen it up to the year 1914, one generation of young Englishmen after another growing up well prepared too endure every kind of horror and even the terrors of unimaginable death itself in order, not to defend their country, which was never for a moment in danger, but in order to see that the world should be a safe place, not for democracy, but a safe place for kindness, fellowship, co-operation, brotherhood, every Christian act. (Hear, hear and applause)

I will say only one word more, Gentlemen. This is what appeals to me especially. In what are called the great days of England, in the Elizabethan days, England was said to be a nest of singing birds. She had a population of three millions, and at any given moment she had perhaps twenty-five poets writing poetry. Not all of it very good, but we marvel at the great days they lived in, and they were writing poetry. There are in England at the present moment, and, mind you, this is significant because this is in an era that saw 900,000 young men give their lives freely, and not even with the hope of fame; for the wars in which they fought there was no such thing as reputation left behind, they just faced the death and darkness in order that they might defend the ideal upon which their country was founded. Now, in that generation, and out of that generation there are coming at this, moment books of poetry by the thousand, and in England at this moment more than one thousand writers have within the last few years published volumes of poetry, and there are more than a hundred of them who are as considerable as the Elizabethan twenty-five were, and there will be more still. The history of the war from 1914 to 1919 was set forth in one volume of English poems, mostly by English soldiers who fought in that war, and .no body of poetry at all comparable to it has ever been produced in four years of the world's history. More than two-thirds of those poems were absolutely first-rate; there was no age that would not be proud of, them. If you want a monument of the English of this generation, and when I say English I include of course Canadians, for there were Canadians among them, if you want a spiritual monument of the life of England in the years of the great war, you cannot find a greater and finer or more immortal monument than the poems which her soldiers wrote, and in which they commemorated their own sacrifice and their own belief in the fundamental faith of the nation in which they were born. (Loud applause)

SIR EDMUND WALKER voiced the thanks of the Club to the speaker.

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Songs of the Fleet

The origins of the Song of the Fleet. Commentary on each of the songs. A detailed explication of the fifth and last song, the song of the Welcome Home of the dead who died overseas. Some words on independence with reference to Canada's relationship with the British Empire. How the word "Imperialism" is understood within the British Empire. The theory of other Imperialists in Europe. The poetry that came out of the War.