"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
At eight o’clock on Tuesday morning, 4th August, my telegram arrived: “Report at Admiralty ten a.m. Wednesday for medical examination. I travelled by the morning train and that night was in my club in St. James’s Street. London was seething with excitement. Reservists in uniform were being feted by civilians, and some were staggering about the pavements. At eleven o’clock that night the ultimatum to Germany expired. War was declared and the enthusiasm of the crowds became unrestrained. Young men and girls drove on the tops of taxi-cabs, waving little Union Jacks and blowing penny trumpets. Later on, thousands of those young men were standing in the muddy trenches of Flanders, awaiting the sound of a whistle which meant: “Over the top.” Then they went out to die on barbed-wire entanglements, swept by machine-gun fire. That was war. Outside the German Embassy a crowd of three thousand Germans were singing “Deutschland uber Alles.” Armageddon was upon us, and that night I remembered how the men and women of Appledore had greeted war.
Next morning, with a batch of twenty other doctors I awaited medical examination. We all congratulated each other. We had all arrived in good time to be taken on, in the event of war, as “emergency surgeons in His Majesty’s Fleet.” We discussed as to which of us had been the first to apply. I had written to the Admiralty on 25th July. One man had written on 24th July, the day after the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, regarding the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, who was killed on 28th June 1914. At all events, we were all in good time, and the war would be over by Christmas. There was one pessimist who did remind the rest of us that in very small type, at the foot of the undertaking we had signed, was the statement that in the event of a war our service would be for the duration of that war. None of the others had noticed that. In any case the war would be over by Christmas! What did it matter?
After the medical examination I was called in to see the Deputy Director-General of Medical Services.
“Well you have passed for a commission. Probably you will have your appointment long before your commission is signed by the King. The Pay Office will issue your grant for uniform. Go to the outfitters to be measured. The uniform may take three days to make. If you are appointed to a ship before a uniform is ready, join without it.”
“Where am I to be appointed to, sir?”
“I don’t know at present. We are working here day and night. You’ll get a telegram. We may be able to give you a shore billet.”
“I don’t want a shore billet.”
“In the Service you go where we think you are most useful. What is your present address? Your application was from the club in St. James’s Then you notified a change of address. Are you back at the club? Yes! Well, we’ll telegraph you there.”
“I suppose , sir, it’s impossible for me to go back to Devonshire, pending my appointment?”
Not impossible, but if you are appointed to a ship in the north of Scotland, London will be nearer your ship than Devonshire. But if there is any special reason…?”
“None, sir. I shall wait in London.”
Within ten days I was on board the “Comic Ship.” That was what Jimmy the One, as the ratings call the first lieutenant, named her. The armed merchant-cruiser, Empress of Britain was a very large ship, an ocean greyhound. Her speed was reputed to be twenty-three knots, as no doubt it was when she could be dry-docked every month and her engines overhauled. She was built to withstand the cold of the North Atlantic, and was sent to the Equator to cruise between Africa and the mouth of the Amazon. Our commission was to protect British commerce and to look for German raiders, which were mostly armed liners. We had eight 4.7 guns, twenty years old, and outranged by two thousand yards by the 4.3 guns of the German ships. There was one German ship we were not expected to engage – the Karlsruhe, a modern light cruiser who could have blown us out of the water in ten minutes. Fortunately she kept to the South American coast, although she sent us a message en clair: “Empress of Britain, I am going to sink you next.”