The Lion at Sea
© 1977 Max Hennessy/John Harris
Kelly McGuire never consciously intended to follow his old man into the Royal Navy, but sometimes fate has a way of dragging you along in its wake. An efficient young officer, McGuire spends the first two years of the Great War escaping sinking ships, evading Germans, Turks,and other enemies of the Empire, and falling into pretty young ladies’ beds. The battle of Jutland introduces the young lieutenant to his first command after his captain is lost, along with many of his shipmates, and it’s clear he has a bright future to blaze. The Lion at Sea is my first WW1 naval novel, I think, and it’s awfully exciting considering how little naval action there was. McGuire always seems to find himself in the middle of whatever that is, for in this book he’s all over the map: the North Sea, Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and even Egypt. I’m accustomed to the protagonist’s friends being introduced and killed off fairly quickly because of Harris/Hennessy’s aviation novels, but here we run into a few people over and over again — to a degree that even the main character finds it absurd. He simply can’t escape one of his old shipmates, an odious son of privilege who reminded me very strongly of Courtney Massengale, the cynical and sly officer who made his way in the world by cultivating and exercising ‘pull’. Readers will witness a young man very uncertain of himself become a highly-decorated, admired, and accomplished senior lieutenant — one more than capable of sitting in the captain’s seat. I found this one delightful all around, especially the bit in which Kelly encounters some Lawrence fellow bumming around in an office and shares intelligence with him about some promising Arab allies.
Some Kindle highlights:
‘You are a wart,’ the sub-lieutenant of the gunroom had told him firmly. ‘An excrescence. An ullage. A growth. You probably imagine that when signalled “House your topmast”, you should reply, “fine, how’s yours?” and doubtless the only time you’ll show any enthusiasm for the navy will be on full-belly nights when we’re entertaining visitors.’
Beyond the surface ships, he could see the low hulls of submarines. Despite his father’s attitude that they were a ‘damned un-English weapon,’ he had a feeling that when war came, like aeroplanes, they might prove highly important.
‘We’re at last about to offer our lives for our country!’ Kelly snorted. ‘I’d rather make the Germans offer theirs,’ he said.
‘Seems to me,’ Kelly said grimly, ‘that the naval staff in London exists chiefly to cut out and arrange foreign newspaper stories in scrap books.’
Charley sighed, then she seemed to take hold of her emotions, forcing herself to face the fact that their world – that place of warmth, security and stability they’d known as children – had started to fall apart the day the first shot of the war was fired and was vanishing now in a welter of adult unreason and misery. Young as she was, she’d reached the conclusion that all the tears that could ever be shed would never make it the same again.
He sighed. There was a great deal more to this business of living than met the eye.