Excerpt from "The Outlook" April 26, 1919
On the morning of November 21st, 1918, the British Navy awaited the enemy in a state of mind that is hard to describe. The surrender of the German fleet, they all know, had been demanded and granted; but at the last moment, our men thought, the unutterable disgrace must boil in the veins of those German sailors, and the guns of their great ships must speak their final word of fire before they sank beneath the water.
Every preparation was made for the fight. The ships were cleared. The men were at "action stations." Naval discipline was at its strictest. Every man on board every ship knew his place to an inch, his duty to the most minute detail. The King's ships had made them ready for battle; it is hard for a landsman to realize the awful and inexorable import of such an array.
The Fleet steamed to the appointed rendezvous; waited; and looked eastward. It was a misty morning with a gentle breeze.
One of the ships was the "Royal Oak," chiefly manned by sailors of Devonshire. She was flying on that day a magnificent silk ensign, made for her by Devonshire ladies. On her bridge, sixty feet above the top deck, was a group of officers: Admiral Grant, Captain Maclachlan, of the "Royal Oak," the Commander, and others. It was soon after 9 o'clock in the morning when the German fleet appeared, looming through the mist. Admiral Grant saw them and waited; he could scarcely believe, he says, that they would not instantly open fire.
Then the drum began to beat on the "Royal Oak." The sound was unmistakable; it was that of a small drum being beaten "in rolls". At first, the officers on the bridge paid little attention, if any, to the sound; so intent were they on the approaching enemy. But when it became evident that the Germans were not to show fight, Admiral Grant turned to the Captain of the "Royal Oak", and remarked on the beating of the drum. The Captain said that he heard it, but could not understand it, since the ship was cleared for action, and every man on board was at his battle station. The Commander also heard, but could not understand, and sent messengers all over the ship to investigate. Twice the messengers were sent about the ship, about all the decks. They reported that every man was at his station. Then the Commander himself made a special tour of investigation through the "Royal Oak". He, too, found that every man was at his station.
It must be noted, by the way, that if someone, playing a practical joke, had been beating a drum between decks, the sound would have been inaudible to the officers on the bridge. Secondly, when a ship is cleared for action, the members of the band have especially important duties in connection with fire control apparatus assigned to them. The band instruments are all stored away in the band room, right aft, and below decks.
All the while the British fleet was closing round the German fleet, coming to anchor in a square about it, so that the German ships were hemmed in. And all the while that this was being done, the noise of the drum was heard at intervals, beating in rolls. All who heard it are convinced that is was no sound of flapping stays or any such accident. The ear of the naval officer is attuned to all the noises of his ship in fair weather and foul; it makes no mistakes. All who heard know that they heard the rolling of a drum.
At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon the German fleet was enclosed and helpless, and the British ships dropped anchor, some fifteen miles of the Firth of Forth. The utter, irrevocable ruin and disgrace of the German Navy were consummate. And at that moment the drum stopped beating and was no more heard.
But those who had heard it, Admiral, Captain, Commander, other officers and men of all ratings held then and hold now one belief as to that rolling music. They believe that the sound they heard was that of "Drake's Drum"; the audible manifestation of the spirit of the great sea captain, present at this hour of tremendous triumph of the British on the seas. This is the firm belief of them all.
It may be so. It may be that Drake did quit the port of Heaven in a ship of fire, and driving the Huns across the sea with the flame of his spirit, drummed them down to their pitiful and shameful doom.