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History - The Imperial Visit to Cowes, 1909


The Imperial Visit to Cowes, 1909

by Alexander Spiridovitch
"Les Dernières Anneés de la Cour de Tzarskoié Sélo"

Volume I Chapter 16, The Year 1909
Translated from the original French by Rob Moshein

Needing to sleep after the departure from Cherbourg, I asked the cabin steward to wake me very early, as I wanted to attend our reception by the English fleet. At 7 am I was already on the bridge. The morning was fresh, the sky cloudy, the sea somber. The sailors could just discern on the horizon the smoke from the English fleet coming to meet us.

At precisely 8am, the previously appointed time, the English fleet met us. The French saluted us with canon shots and turned back toward home, while the English, three cruisers and some destroyers, stopped and exchanged salutes with us. It was the Rurik who responded to them with powerful cannon shots. We became enveloped in a thick fog of smoke coming from the cannonades. The English allowed us to pass, made a half turn and formed behind us in a huge semi-circle.

The sailors taught we land-lubbers that the English cruisers were called "Indomitable", "Relentless", and "Invincible". We rapidly approached the harbor at Spithead, and we could soon see the first "little birds": steam boats filled with the newspaper reporters.

Here the morning was again more dreary. A cold wind blew. The sea, inhospitable, was leaden and rippled on its entire surface. On could see in the distance along the coastline and a forest of masts. That was Portsmouth. On the left, we could see the coast of the Isle of Wight, The strait which separates Porstmouth from the Isle of Wight forms the harbor of Spithead, unique in the world.

The royal yacht Victoria & Albert came to meet the Standardt. Cannon shots came from our combat ship, and were responded to by one of the English cruisers. The King came on board the Standardt, and then Their Majesties went on board the Victoria and Albert. Our Imperial Standard was hoisted up next to the English Royal flag.

After lunch, at a little after 3, the Victoria and Albert left in the direction of the fleet. It was followed by the Standardt and Polar Star and our combat ships.

The yacht advanced slowly, and that which unfolded before our eyes was extremely powerful and handsome, we could not tear ourselves away from the tableau which was unfolding.

We had before us the entire North squadron of the English fleet. Three lines of huge combat ships and many lines of smaller ships were arranged in parallel in the harbor of Spithead and were lost out toward the direction of Cowes. One hundred Fifty-three of them, without counting the destroyers and the smaller ships, commanded by 28 admirals, who were receiving their crowned admiral, the Emperor of Russia.

Despite the rather strong winds, the ships remained stationary as they were anchored fore and aft.

It was as if immense spindles had been thrown by a powerful hand between the steel giants, ships formed into links between them, at the same time picturesque and yet of an impressive power. In front of this passed the yachts of the Sovereigns.

A characteristic "hurrah", which was similar to our Russian "hurrah", came to us from the ships also along with the sounds of the Russian national anthem. Our sailors responded back at full voice. We passed before ships each more and more impressive. We arrived before the right flank where we found many dreadnaughts, the pride of the British fleet. This type of ship was at the time a novelty to us, as we did not yet have even one of this class of ship. Seeming like gigantic and monstrous irons as we passed by, they pressed down, so to speak, compressing the entire surface of the sea.

The yachts returned along the same route in reverse and passed before the second line. On several of the ships and, above all on the boats linked between them, we could see women. This astonished us. The women were waving handkerchiefs.

It was watching this spectacle before me that I realized, all of a sudden, in a truly concrete fashion so to speak, why it was that our Sovereigns were always so passionately in love with the fleet. In effect, it is in the fleet that the military power of a State is expressed with an astonishing simplicity and in a truly tangible and visible manner. One may well possess an army of millions of men; yet it is impossible to see them before you in one place, all gathered together, such a notion would be mathematically not possible. A Navy, to the contrary, gives us the chance in a compact reality, within limits, with a finite size.

It was not without some feelings of jealousy that we watched this admirable tableau. If only we had something similar!

Passing before the dreadnaughts, the Rurik could not turn as required, could not "deploy" and failed to hook up with one of the ships. It had to execute a manouever which had the effect to make the ship leave the line. It soon joined back up with the rest of the squadron, at the same place it had occupied before the mishap.

The parade of ships lasted more than an hour. Then at 5 o'clock, the yachts returned to their places and dropped anchor, and one of the dreadnaughts began to salute them with cannon shots. The monster made an indescribable thunder. The Polar Star also dropped anchor. Before us and to our left the entire surface of the sea was covered with yachts and small boats of all kinds. A genuine forest of masts it was, with flags flying from their tops. The tableau was less grandiose than the one in the harbor of Spithead, but was more happy and gay.

Farther on, on the coast, we could see Cowes, where they were then holding the annual Royal Yacht Club races. All of the sporting members of English high-society were gathered there. The attention of yachtsmen around the world was concentrated on Cowes. The politicians, on their part, had fixed their gaze on the town with anguish where they were preparing their own equally important events at the same time.

On board the Polar Star at that time was the Minister of foreign affairs, Isvloski, who loved France almost to the point of forgetting the Russian interests, and who represented, amongst our ministers, the liberal trends, in the european manner; his bureau chief Savinski, handsome man who occupied himself (and who continued for some time to involve himself) in Petersburg society. Adjutant General Byelloselski-Byelozerski who, giving in to the impulses of our aristocracy which were not always proven to be in the manner of thinking and feeling authentically Russian, had earlier converted to Catholicism (though it is true that he lost no time in forgetting his conversion!), who had also valued the attacks on our press which had become free in 1906. Finally, also on board was Gen. Mossolov, who despite his venerable age, kept a youthful spirit, and several minor functionaries from the Minister of the Court.

The closer we approached to the quay, the more the emotions of the passengers grew. Isvloski, wearing a monocle, had a haughty and impenetrable appearance. I heard it said that he put on this appearance in order to control himself and that at any instant he might explode with all the secrets he was hiding. Savinski, with his impeccable elegance resembled a photograph from a fashion magazine. The military men had all made efforts to adopt a civilian dress which none of them were used to, wanting to give the air of being true gentlemen. Unfortunately, they did not really succeed. From time to time, I had noticed an imperceptible smile of disapproving condescension cross the faces of the diplomats when they looked at us.

One of the military men spent his time in raising and lowering the legs of his pants, as he wanted to have them as near as possible to the current style. Finally seeing that he had only succeeded in rumpling up his pants, he have up all further attempts and resigned himself to wear his pant legs without hems. But what a disgrace! What would the English say? "Oh, that scoundrel of a tailor!"

The anchor was finally dropped after a long time. The passengers were pressing, enervated, each wanting to disembark as soon as possible. They asked impatiently why they were late in going into the boats. Prince Vyazhemski, always attentive and ready to oblige, waited for a signal from the Standardt authorising the establishing of communication with the coast. The authorization was finally given. We went into the boat and, everyone all pressed in to take a place, except for Isvolski. No one among us could really say why we were all so pressed to disembark. In reality, no one really had anything to do on shore.

The handsome sailor of the Equipage of the Guard who was the pilot of our motorboat, asked Prince Byelozerski (who the officer on duty had indicated was the highest ranking person among the civilians) permission to cast off. Byelozerski made an approving nod of his head and we left.

The boat went well, but then the Prince gave the order to the pilot to go in a straight line to the quay which would be faster. The pilot respectfully observed that he had to follow the route. The Prince became angry and insisted and gave him a military order. The sailor obeyed. We went out for a few seconds in a straight line, and then we heard a dreadful crash and the boat stopped. The pilot had been right. The Prince was really mad. His companions told him to stop getting involved in things he did not understand, and that the pilot knew full well what to do and how it should be done.

We back up, we went forward, and did so several times. We finally succeeded in freeing ourselves and went into open water, and after several minutes we neared the shore without further incidents, and finally to the quay. Cowes was crammed with people. They looked at us with curiousity. They admired the handsome sailors of the Equipage of the Guard. They were, truly, magnificent.

After we walked across the town, made the acquaintance of the police representatives and discussed the subject of security measures to be taken in case of the arrival on shore of Their Majesties, we then went to visit several shops and went back on board the Polar Star at the dinner hour. My colleague had been very embarassed: no one in Cowes was able to understand a word of his Berlitz English. One charming English lady gave him the same response in bad French: "Pardon me, but I do not speak Russian."

Their Majesties spent that day on board the royal yacht. That evening was a dinner, during which there were many proposals of official toasts. The Royal table was decorated with roses and was resplendent with gold dishes. The suite and Captains of the yachts dined separately, but were invited afterward to join with the circle around the Sovereigns.

The King and the Emperor spoke in their toasts of the Anglo-Russian friendship and of world peace.

The King observed that our Emperor was no stranger to England in general, nor to Cowes in particular.

In his response, the Emperor admitted to having been quite struck by the spectacle of the English Navy. He recalled the past and said that he would never forget the happy days which had passed fifteen years earlier under the reign of Queen Victoria.

It was in summer 1894. The Heir to the Throne of all the Russias was engaged to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt in the month of April that year, and had come in June to spend some time in England with Queen Victoria, with whom her granddaughter, Princess Alix was also then living.

After several days spent at Walton and a three week stay at Windsor, the Tsarevitch then went, on June 7th, with the Queen and his fiancee, to the Isle of Wight where he stayed five days at Osborne House.

The Tsarevitch had also made the trip that time on board the Polar Star.

As then, the Polar Star was moored at Cowes; as then the races were taking place, in the presence of the royal yacht Victoria & Albert. They had, back then, organized a charming picnic for the young people, and that evening the Tsarevitch had given a tea on board the Polar Star for his amiable hosts.

Happy and insouciant days, and the Emperor was quite sincere in saying that he would never forget them.

The second day of their stay in English waters passed, for Their Majesties, with less solemnity.

The weather was exquisite, clear, warm. A soft breeze blew. In the morning they received several deputations, among them a deputation from London, led by the Lord Mayor who gave Their Majesties a magnificent gold coffret. Their Majesties then went on board the royal sailing yacht, Brittania and left to attend the races. The day before, the Emperor had been named an honorary member of the Royal Yacht Club and, as a sportsman, he showed a great pleasure.

Their Majesties did not return to the Standardt until six o'clock, after which they went to visit Empress Eugenie, widow of Emperor Napoleon III, who was on board a private yacht. They stayed with her for about one half hour.

The Grand Duchesses had gone down to Cowes in the morning, which had disturbed the English police. They went by car to Osborne and played there on the beach.

After lunch, the older two Grand Duchesses, Olga and Tatiana, went alone into the town, accompanied by several members of the suite. One had to see the joy and pleasure they expressed above all at being able to walk about without being recognized. Gay, hardy, they seemed quite at ease, entering into shops, buying postcards and all kinds of souvenirs. They took a ferry from one part of the town to another and were very happy that they could pay the price of the passage themselves.

However, the public soon learned who these young ladies were, happy, svelte, frolicking, in grey dresses. They began to follow them and waited in front of the shops, and soon the crowd of the curious became quite large so that the police were then obliged to take energetic measures to cut a path through the street for the Grand Duchesses. As the crowd continued to grow, the members of the suite began to become upset.

Returning to the disembarcation quay, the Grand Duchesses looked at the time and decided that it was still too early to return to the yacht. So they hailed two carriages which took them back to town, as they wanted to visit the local church.

The pastor was extremely happy to show them anything about the church which interested them. They visited the tomb of Henry of Battenberg and the armchair used by Queen Victoria when she went to the church.

The Grand Duchesses returned to the Standardt for tea.

While the Imperial Family was away, the English visited our squadron. In our hospitality cabin the officers had genuinely sealed the anglo-russian unity. Several English officers were accompanied by their wives. Our sailors had arranged everything well. We drank a lot of champagne. On one of our cruisers the English insistantly asked, I really do not know why, for "Russian eau de cologne."

The Emperor gave permission for the English journalists to visit the Standardt. Admiral Tchagyine received them with his customary kindness. The journalists were happily surprised to find in Their Majesties' salon were copies of the works of Shakespeare and other English authors.

Our officers went ashore where they were entertained by the English. Some of our men had even found the means to go to London for several hours.

The only men of the Standardt who did not go ashore were the Emperor, Tchagyine and Sabline. The Empress, to diplay her appreciation, had each man given as a gift of one of solid gold jetons with both the English and French flags, which they were selling in Cowes. That evening on board the Standardt there was a ceremonial dinner, at the end of which they were going to admire a magnificent tableau. As if by the stroke of a magic wand, the entire English fleet was illuminated with electric lights strung along the outlines of each ship. Under the dark blanket of night, the giant ships seemed transformed to be bordered in silver along their contours. As far as one could see into the distance these luminous specters appeared smaller and smaller, with the farthest seeming to be mere fine silver threads.

The colossal fleet, stationary and sleeping, was a fairy tale vision.

When we awoke the next morning, the fleet was no longer there. Silently, without anyone having noticed, they left the harbor during the night. Only a true sailor can really appreciate the virtuosity of such a manouver.

That same morning, our squadron left the English waters and proceeded back, with the Standardt in the lead, toward the Russian coast. The weather had again become somber. The barometer fell.


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