Our three’s years being nearly up in December, 1890, we were waiting our relief crew from Hongkong, when the Admiralty ordered me, by telegram, to go home immediately to take up the appointment of Naval Attaché for the whole of Europe. I went home in the Messageries Maritimes Steamer Melbourne, the officers were very kind on board, and I took the opportunity to work up my French. My faithful coxswain, O’Brien, came with me, and we landed at Marseilles and then home overland.
I relieved Captain Domville as Naval Attaché the Ambassador in Paris at that time was Lord Lytton, he was succeeded by Lord Dufferin; Colonel Reginald Talbot was the Military Attaché. I was attached to all the Maritime Ports of Europe, and used to travel about with a red passport, which was supposed to clear you through all the Customs and this it did, except when you landed at Dover!
France, at that time, was the country that required most attention. I passed at least four months each year visiting all the Naval ports, Toulon, Brest, Cherbourg, Rochfort, and L’Orient, also all the gun and torpedo factories and private shipbuilding yards. It was all most interesting, and I managed to pick up a good deal of information with regard to the ships that the French were building, the designs of the boilers and guns. I was also able to learn a great deal about the first submarine they were building at Toulon; it was completely enclosed and, of course, no foreigner was allowed to go near her. The forts were more difficult, but I was able to report on most of them, especially those guarding the Goulet at Brest and the Fort des Signaux at Toulon.
In going round the Forts, the French naval officers, with the exception of the prefets maritimes, were not very hospitable. I remember staying at the hotel at Toulon for three weeks, where a great number of the French naval officers lived, and none of them showed me the least hospitality, but the prefets were all most kind and in some cases even cordial; especially the prefet maritime at Brest, and Admiral le Conte de La Jaille, whom I had met before when he was in command of the French China Squadron; he always asked me to lunch and had a large party to meet me, and used to chaff a good deal about my knowledge of the French ports. I asked him if I might see some of the forts – which is never allowed. Ah! he said across the luncheon table, you must ask the military for that, winking his eye at me, well knowing that I had been right down the Goulet in a fishing boat, taking notes of all the work that they were doing with regard to the forts. I did that three times, and on the last occasion, when I was in a fishing boat with our Military Attaché and Consul, an English steamer, coming in, was on the point of cutting us down: I don’t know how she missed us, but I think it was just her bow wave that pushed the boat away.
The Ambassadors were always kind and I dined with them on several occasions. Lord Dufferin was more than polite, and made you think that you were just the very man that he wished to see. In Paris, I stayed at a little French hotel in the Rue de Lille. I did this chiefly because there I met only French people, and was consequently able to practise my French; it was, at times, very interesting, as I met some of the senators and deputies who discussed political and foreign affairs.
I visited Holland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Russia, and went down through Russia to the Crimea. The Germans would not show me anything—not even destroyers which had been built in England; it really was quite amusing. One thing that all the naval officers were trying to find out was the design of our submerged tube for firing the Whitehead Torpedo, and, when I was at Kiel, a German ship had a submerged tube fitted for trial, designed by Mr. Whitehead, which had been before my Committee and which we put on one side, because there was no means of ejecting the torpedo out of the tube. When I saw the Captain of the ship, the Grieff, I said, “I hear your tube has failed.” He was very angry with me and wanted to know how I had found out. As a matter of fact, they had been trying it in Italy, and they told me there it had foiled.
I visited Berlin, Kiel, and other places in Germany, but could not gather much information as the Germans kept everything very secret. When at Hamburg I received an invitation to dine, by wire from Admiral von der Goltz, to have the honour of meeting the Kaiser, so had to return to Berlin. The Kaiser, the Minister of Marine, and about twenty other German Admirals were present at the dinner. We sat down at half-past six and finished an excellent dinner about eight, then we all adjourned to an ante-room, where we talked and talked until twelve o’clock. The Kaiser tried to draw me out with regard to what manoeuvres we should adopt. I had the honour of sitting next to him at dinner, and he really was quite humorous. One reply he made was very good: he said, “I suppose they are showing you everything that you want to see.” I replied, “Oh no, Your Majesty, they won’t even show me the submerged tube” and his answer was: “Well, May, they won’t even show it to me.” So of course, I had nothing more to say.
I visited Italy twice and went round all the shipbuilding yards, etc. I found the Italians were much in advance of us with regard to burning oil fuel in their boilers, and I learnt a good deal about their arrangements which was useful to me afterwards. An Italian officer told me that they had been shown the arrangement for discharging torpedoes, fitted in our Mediterranean Flagship. I immediately wrote home urging the Admiralty to make it secret, which was done at once. Before this happened, the French Naval Attaché and an Engineer officer were allowed to go over the Vulcan in dry dock at Portsmouth, and see all the arrangements. By chance I saw the confidential report of the above officers, and to my astonishment they had not discovered the secret.
When in St. Petersburg, my friend De Livron (now an Admiral and Chief Staff Officer) was at the Admiralty, and he arranged that I should be shown anything I wanted to see. I again went round the forts and obtained permission for the Military Attaché to come with me. The guns were again manned, and every facility was given us for seeing the details of the fortifications; they were not at all strong – in fact, the reverse. Between the Military Attaché and myself, we made a very fair plan of the forts which was sent on to the Admiralty. I was allowed to go into their shipbuilding drawing office and take notes of any of the designs of the ships that were then being built, and was given permission to visit their Whitehead Torpedo Factory. When I went there with my permit the officer would not let me in, he said no foreign officer had ever been over this factory before. I said, “Here is the order; from the Commander-in-Chief,” but he would not let me in. On returning to the Commander-in-Chief, he again gave a peremptory order, and I was allowed to go through; but really there was nothing very much to see – nothing, at all events, that we did not know about in the British Navy.
During my visit to St. Petersburg, the death occurred of Grand Duke Paul’s wife, daughter of the King of Greece. I attended the funeral, which took place at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The ceremony lasted two days. The service, which was entirely vocal, was most beautifully rendered by the choirs of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Post Office. At the end of the religious service it was very touching to see the Head of the Russian Church, followed in turn by the Czar, her Father the King of Greece, all the many Grand Dukes, and last of all her husband, take their last farewell before the coffin was closed. The work of a Naval Attaché is very hard, because you have to keep yourself au fait with everything that is going on, such as guns, torpedoes, all classes of ships, boilers, etc. There is not a single question that you have not to know something about and to report on.