Everyone in the Navy experiences the phenomenon before a deployment, but Lieutenant Commander Joseph K. Taussig was struck with an acute case of this military malady virtually from the moment he received a phone call at his home in Norfolk, Virginia, on the evening of April 13, 1917, informing him that his six destroyers were to depart Hampton Roads for New York in a matter of hours. So urgent were the orders from Washington that 15 of his men were left behind because the division got underway before the expiration of liberty the following morning.
Greeted with great fanfare after his arrival at Queenstown in Cork Harbor, Ireland, on May 4, Taussig and his men coming to the aid of the beleaguered British were hailed as heroes. He also achieved instant worldwide fame, uttering one of the first great American sound bites of the Great War. Newspapers across the Anglophone world printed his upbeat reply to Vice Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, who had asked him, "When will you be ready to go to sea?"
"We are ready now, sir, that is, as soon as we finish refueling."
"Of course you know how destroyers are-always wanting something done to them," Taussig continued. "But this is war, and we are ready to make the best of things and go to sea immediately." Had Taussig been as brutally honest with the Royal Navy's commander-in-chief of the coasts of Ireland that day about his voyage as he was known to be later in his career, perhaps the headlines would have been a bit different.
It is unknown whether Taussig commiserated with his subordinates before or during the history-making voyage to Queenstown aboard his flagship USS Wadsworth (DD-60), but he vented his frustrations with his superiors within his diary. Even one century later, perhaps some of his frustrations might resonate with commanders today.
After arriving at New York Navy Yard about 13 hours after departing Hampton Roads on April 14, leaving 15 of his men behind in the rush, he noted:
It was Saturday night, and of course nobody paid any attention to us. So, just as I supposed, the great emergency requiring us to sail at daylight was no emergency at all, and it would have been much better had I been given some discretion in the matter and allowed to remain in Hampton Roads until my liberty men returned. But it is the way we have in the Navy. Somebody somewhere is generally prone to "fly off the handle."What made things even more frustrating for Taussig was that only two of his destroyers were allowed to dock upon arrival, and when he enquired as to why, he was informed that his flotilla was not even supposed to be in New York at all and was instead directed to proceed directly to Boston. He wrote:
There certainly is a lack of communications somewhere. But what can we expect? Our Navy Department is absolutely unorganized so far as its duty in connection with carrying on a war is concerned. Evidently things are very much upset at headquarters. Perhaps someday we will have a real General Staff, but until that day comes we must continue to be buffeted around in all sorts of ways.The metaphorical buffeting continued after Taussig's arrival in Boston, where yard officials estimated that preparations for "any service that might be required" would take ten days. Admiral William S. Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations, called from Washington, declaring flatly that "the destroyers must be ready to leave immediately on receipt of orders, but [he] did not say when the orders were coming."
For nearly three years, the American march towards war was characterized by numerous fits, and non-starts, particularly after the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915. Almost two years later, several weeks after the official declaration of war against Germany, nothing had happened. Unlike the way the war in Europe had begun nearly three years before, American forces did not surge into combat, guns blazing. An entire army would have to be moved from one continent to another before American forces would make a demonstrable impact. But politically, something, anything, needed to happen, despite the fact that, according to a U.S. Naval Academy history of the war, "[a]pproximately two-thirds of our ships...were not materially ready for instant service and 90 per cent fell far short of the compliment necessary for the efficient fighting of these ships."
The head of the Naval War College, Rear Adm. William S. Sims, had been clandestinely dispatched to London before the declaration of war, and from there after consulting with the Admiralty he devised an approach both befitting a Navy clearly not ready for large-scale conflict and a uniformed leadership wary of ceding operational control to foreigners. Sims recommended that the only way to get American naval forces immediately into the war and achieve the greatest impact right away would be "to use its available units to strengthen the weak spots in other Navies and thus effect a more vigorous conduct of the war already so thoroughly underway in all areas."
In no other area was the Royal Navy in more need of assistance than against U-Boats that at that point were an existential threat to Britain's continued prosecution of the war. This strategic plan, to buttress the Royal Navy where needed immediately rather than send a large force of American warships, resonated with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and led directly to Taussig being tapped to lead the first mission of assistance to the British. In Taussig's case, however, the many hands up and down the chain of command between Sims and Taussig did not make for light work. The secrecy practiced at the departmental level made the preparation process all the more difficult for Taussig. In his diary, Taussig mused that "it would seem that the whole result of this war, which has been going on for nearly three years, depends on whether or not six little destroyers sail from Boston for the English Channel on a certain indefinite date known to no one- not even those who are issuing the orders. Can you beat it!"
Taussig did as best he could under the circumstances, working as hard as possible, but fully expecting to be ordered to sea before his ships were ready, which is exactly what happened. On the morning of April 24, a week after arriving in Boston, two officers from Washington arrived with signal books and sealed orders, to be opened 50 miles out to sea. Taussig's "Special Destroyer Division" was to begin their journey immediately. Left on the pier were ice machines that they now had no time to install, as well as target practice ammunition, wrecking mines, and pay accounts. "Some of our lamb's wool-lined jackets did not arrive either," he wrote, "but what I regret most is the non-arrival of a large box of laundry which has been following us from Norfolk."
"I always have the blues when I leave home for a trip," Taussig wrote after getting underway, "but I feel more that way tonight than usual." In addition to missing his wife and young daughter, the frustrating fortnight he had experienced left him feeling that "the [Navy] department did not treat us right." Taussig continued:
Instead of nagging us and not giving us any information, I feel sure that the proper procedure in this case would have been for me to be ordered to Washington and get the situation explained to me confidentially. I feel that the Department kicked us out rather discourteously instead of saying to us, "You fellows are up against a tough proposition. The Department knows that you will do your best and wishes you success. Good-bye and good luck." If we had been treated that way I would be in a much better frame of mind tonight.It is a truism that a kvetching Sailor is a happy Sailor, and despite losing about ten hours conducting repairs en route, Taussig and his gallant crew were happy indeed to have reached Queenstown intact, almost ten days after their departure from Boston. After all, he wrote in his diary, it could have been much worse, and not just because of the heavy winds that buffeted them for over half the voyage. Rear Adm. Sims noted that German submarines had laid mines directly off Queenstown the day before Destroyer Division 8's arrival, and they had been discovered just in time. As the windows of Admiralty House shook with the explosions of mines being harvested by Royal Navy minesweepers on the evening of May 3, Vice Adm. Bayly remarked jokingly "that it was a pity to interfere with such a warm welcome as had apparently been planned for our crusaders." As Taussig and his officers sat down to dinner at Admiralty House after the following evening, the German mines were still exploding in Cork Harbor. "This again impressed our men," Sims wrote, "with the fact that the game which they had now entered was a quite different affair from their peace-time manoeuvres [sic]"
Despite the fact that the greatest naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Jutland almost one year before, had forced the Germans to conclude that only the Kaiserliche Marine's submarines could win the war, savage skirmishes continued between surface combatants. A battle between two British destroyers, HMS Swift and HMS Broke, and six German destroyers early on the morning of April 21 off Dover involved torpedoing at eyeball-to-eyeball range, culminating in Broke ramming one her stricken assailants. For the two minutes the ships were locked together, "a boarding encounter with cutlasses and bayonets, recalling the days when wooden warships came together and the men fought on the decks," ensued. When it was over, 22 British sailors were killed and 40 were wounded, while 72 of their adversaries perished, along with two of the German destroyers.
|Captain E.R.G.R. Evans, RN, in 1917.|
My experience in China makes me feel perfectly convinced that the two nations will work in the closest cooperation and I won't flatter you by saying too much about the value of your help.Just over 123 years after Congress authorized the construction of six frigates to comprise a force that could, in part, protect the nation from the Royal Navy, six American destroyers joined their counterparts in the Royal Navy to face a foe neither had faced together. The shared struggle at sea during that unprecedented war, and the one that would follow a generation later, built the fraternal bond that still exists between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy, one century later.
Editor's Note: For incontrovertible, encyclopedic proof that the naval war between the Entente and the Central Powers was far from over when Cdr. Taussig arrived, check out the new book, Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, 1914-1918 by Vincent P. O'Hara and Leonard R. Heinz (Naval Institute Press, 2017).