They Chose The Sea

Once I looked from the Tamar Bridge at the warships down below, ships of the modern navy with names I did not know. And, as I stood and gazed at them on the water far below I saw a fleet of phantom ships and men of long ago.

The Rodney and the Nelson, the Valiant and Ramilies Repulse, Renown and Malaya, coming home from foreign seas. I saw Revenge and Warspite, ill-fated Royal Oak, so many ships, their names made faint by shell and fire and smoke. And some I see to harbour come as thro glasses dark, the Barham and the Glorious, the Eagle and the Ark, and then, there comes the greatest, the mighty warship Hood, dark and grey and wraithlike, from the spot on which I stood.

From the cruel North Atlantic, from the Med and Java sea, the big ships and the little ships returned for me to see. There’s the Dorsetshire, Edinburgh, Campbeltown and Kent, the Cossack, and Courageous, the Charybdis and Ardent. Now I can’t see very clearly, must be smoke that’s in my eyes, but mercifully hidden are the men and stilled, their raucous cries.

You don’t know Shorty Hasset, he won the D.S.M. He still fought on when Exeter was burning stern to stem. Where now.! Dodger Long and Lofty, where now the boys and men? They are lost and gone forever-shall we see their likes again? I thought I saw them mustering on deck for daily prayer, and heard ‘For those in Peril” rise on the evening air. Then darker grew the picture as the lowering night came on, I looked down from that lofty bridge, but all the ships were gone. Those mighty ships had vanished; gone those simple men, we’ll surely never-ever, see the likes of them again.

In ocean wastes no poppies blow,… No crosses stand in ordered row, Their young hearts sleep… beneath the wave… The spirited, the good, the brave, but stars a constant vigil keep, For them who lie beneath the deep. ‘Tis true you cannot kneel in prayer On certain spot and think. “He’s there.” But you can to the ocean go… See whitecaps marching row on row; Know one for him will always ride… In and out… with every tide.

And when your span of life is passed, He’ll meet you at the “Captain’s Mast.” And they who mourn on distant shore For sailors who’ll come home no more, Can dry their tears and pray for these Who rest beneath the heaving seas… For stars that shine and winds that blow And whitecaps marching row on row. And they can never lonely be For when they lived… they chose the sea.

Eon Matthews



  1. The poem is called the phantom fleet. My dad was on hms valiant. We read this at his funeral. He joined the navy in 1936 till 1954. He also served on the drake. Hardy. Hasty. Galatia and many more. He was my hero. My dad’s name Arthur mitchell.

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