The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

013 Otto Weddigen and the live bait squadron

Otto Weddigen

German U-boats wreak death and destruction

It is Sunday 20 September 1914. It is the 13th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The German cruiser Königsberg runs amok in East Africa.

The French succeed in stopping the German advance to Saint-Mihiel.

In the east the Eighth German Army chases general Rennenkampf’s Russian forces across the Memel or Neman River.

The Germans are forming a Ninth Army near Kraków in Poland.

British airplanes bomb the Zeppelin shelters near Cologne and Düsseldorf.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force sails for Great Britain.

British troops help the Japanese at Qingdao.

The Northern French town of Noyon is conquered twice, first by the French and then by the Germans.

Alerted by the landing of British marines at Ostend, the Germans begin the siege of Antwerp.

In Cameroon the French and the British make their joint forces stronger.

After the lost Battle of Sandfontein South Africans abandon all hope of an invasion of German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

And three British cruisers go down, a triumph for the German U-boat commander Otto Weddigen.

In the early morning of 22 September 1914 a lovely day out, an absolute picnic, lies ahead of Otto Weddigen and his men of the U-9. He cannot believe his eyes when he sees in his periscope one, two, three British cruisers looming up on the horizon. In an hour’s time they all become prey to the U-9’s torpedoes. Two Dutch merchant vessels, the Titan and the Flora, manage to get 433 sailors out of the water, but 1,459 men lose their lives. Among them were cadets of fifteen and sixteen years old, but also reservists who left families behind. For weeks on end dead bodies are washed ashore on the Dutch coast.

The Aboukir is the first cruiser to go down. The Hogue approaches fast but takes on water soon. Finally the Cressy gets the full blast when she is dragging up men from the sea. One of Weddigen’s crewmembers described the scenery in the waters near the Hook of Holland with much empathy: ‘We in the conning tower tried to suppress the terrible impression of drowning men fighting fort heir lives in the wreckage, clinging on to capsized lifeboats…’.

They were antiquated cruisers that had to do without escorting torpedo-boat destroyers because of the bad weather. The mission the three were part of had been cynically called the live bait squadron beforehand. Their end was a nasty blow for England. The British had been omnipotent at sea for hundreds of years and this was mercilessly brought up for discussion by the Germans. Winston Churchill, responsible for the navy within the British government, owed an explanation. He had most certainly given the order to get the vulnerable cruisers out of the Channel. But when this found no response, Churchill had started to shift his attention to other matters.

Meanwhile Germany cheers Otto Weddigen, their new war hero. The British are horrified about his acts, but their newspapers are full of praise for one particular fellow captain of Weddigen. This Karl von Müller is even called a ‘jewel of the sea’. On the very same 22 September 1914 he, too, serves the Vaterland at sea, but at the other end of the world. Von Müller is the commanding officer of the cruiser Emden and successfully fires at the Burmah Oil Company from the Indian Ocean. This is not his only feat of arms. The Emden is a true pest to the British, but its captain proves to be a galant knight of the high seas. Whenever Von Müller aims at a ship, he always makes sure that the crew can escape by the skin of their teeth.

In the first months of the war German submarines observe the code of honour of the sea as far as commercial shipping is concerned. On 20 October 1914 a British merchant ship becomes prey to a German submarine for the first time. The U-19 surprises the SS Glitra off the coast of Norway. The crew can bring themselves to safety before the Germans sink the ship. But this sort of courtesy will soon be over. The submarine is about to become the assassin of the seas. The ruthless example which Weddigen has set, is copied on a large scale. The sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 by the U-20 is considered the most controversial instance.


Unlike the tank the submarine is no novelty in the First World War. Already in 1776 the Americans brought a submersible into action in their struggle for freedom against the British. That Turtle was not very successful, however. Not until the First World War does the submarine manifest itself as a dreaded weapon. The English have no response to this for a long time. They are equally surprised by the German sea mines. They will develop a hydrophone, an acoustic instrument which picks up the sound of a submarine propeller. Depth charges are produced diligently. From the air they spy for U-boats. Warships are rigged up as merchant vessels, so-called Q-ships that have to draw out submarines. Meanwhile patrols of torpedo-boat destroyers scour the hunting grounds of the U-boats. And later on in the war Flemish submarine bases are attacked. But the scare of the U-boats remains.

Even for sailors who have no claustrophobia it is a most terrifying ordeal to go underwater in an ‘iron coffin’. Life on board is awfully monotonous. The noise of the engines continues around the clock. When the bridge personnel, completely soaked, descends into the belly of the U-boat, it lands in the damp atmosphere of oil fumes and soot. There are hardly any lights. It may be terribly draughty. The common cold, ear and lung diseases are always lurking.

With their submarines the Germans turn the waters around the British Isles into a danger area. The British certainly succeed in eliminating quite a few submarines, but the biggest problem to the Germans is of a diplomatic nature. Germany sets neutral countries against them by attacking the trade with England. American president Woodrow Wilson in particular warns Germany time and again to keep the seas free. Mare Liberum, the age-old principle formulated by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth  century.

In the meantime the British try to deprive the German economy of its import by a blockade at sea. This is a tough job, for the trade is leaking on all sides through neutral countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The British maritime blockade is used by the Germans to justify their unrestricted submarine warfare and vice versa.

When a couple of months after the Lusitania the Germans also send the Arabic to the bottom of the sea, again with American civilians among the victims, that seemed to be the limit for America. Germany gives in and decides to stop their unrestricted submarine warfare. Two years later, however, when the war on land has got hopelessly bogged down, the temptation becomes too big and again the U-boats start hunting at sea in a final attempt to force a decision in the war. Whoever is floating around in the designated Sperrgebieten, should be fearful of German torpedoes. The peak is reached in April 1917, when in two weeks’ time the British lose 400,000 tons of cargo. A ship crossing the ocean from the United Kingdom has a chance of one in four to return safely.

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff predicts that the German U-boats will bring England to their knees within five months. This proves a miscalculation. The number of U-boats is too small to deal the final blow. In the beginning of 1917 the Germans have 148 of them. The Germans also pay a heavy price for their unrestricted submarine warfare: for America it will be an important reason to plunge into the war after all.

The year 1917 also gives birth to a fierce British offensive which will come to be known as ‘Passchendaele’. Its objective, the destruction of the German submarine bases in Zeebrugge and Ostend, is not achieved. The U-boats continue to take their toll, but the convoy system eventually proves to be an effective antidote. Initially the British admiralty wants nothing to do with it. The chance of being hit by an U-boat appears to be much smaller, when ships do not cross the sea dispersed, but huddle together, protected by a convoy. The result is simply spectacular. Of more than 5,000 merchant ships sailing in a convoy in 1917 only 63 are lost.

It is the UB-123 that is responsible for the sad final chord of the unrestricted submarine warfare. On 10 October 1918 Oberleutnant zur See Robert Ramm’s U-boat torpedoes the mail boat RMS Leinster. More than 500 who sail on her are killed.

Let us give a moment’s thought to six of them. Catherine Gould had boarded with her son Michael and her daughters May, Essie, Alice, Angela and Olive, varying in age between 1 and 20. On the other side of the Irish Sea their father, who worked in an ammunition factory, was waiting. Of his family he only saw Essie again. Besides children and post sorting clerks the Leinster also had hundreds of soldiers on board with the western front as their destination.


Let us return to Otto Eduard Weddigen. He was born in Herford, North Rhine-Westphalia, the youngest of a family of eleven children. The Weddigens were manufacturers of linen that to this day conduct the company Weberei Weddigen.

For the final blow he dealt at the Hook of Holland Weddigen received the Pour le Mérite. This is a high decoration which was in German also famously known as Blaue Max. Weddigen published a book about the three direct hits. The following extract is about the return voyage. ‘I remained under water as long as possible, but succeeded in transmitting a radio message to the German fleet that I was coming home and was being followed. By occasionally showing myself I was hoping to lure the enemy into the area where they would be exposed to  capture or destruction by German war ships.’

This little scheme did not work, but Weddigen had made it at home. Beer mugs, medals, wall tiles, statuettes, the Weddigen cult can best be compared with the one surrounding German war aviator Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, although later in the war Weddigen’s fame would not last so long.

Commander Weddigen, who like many others got married within a few weeks after the outbreak of the war, is not really granted the time to enjoy his hero status. The U-9 will no doubt survive the war. Under Otto Weddigen’s command it also torpedoed the British cruiser Hawke in October 1914. But then Weddigen disappears into the sickbay and once cured he is given command of the much bigger and faster U-29, which is rammed by the battleship Dreadnought in March 1915.

Northeast of Scotland Otto Weddigen rests in his watery grave. He was in the 33th year of his life when Neptune called the commander unto him. It must have done the British a world of good that the very Dreadnought, built in 1906, did the job. ‘Dreadnought’ had become a generic name for the heaviest type of battle cruiser. The arms race between England and Germany preceding the First World War concentrated on building as many dreadnoughts as possible. So much prestige and money went into these excellent ships, that especially the Germans could not bear thinking of losing them in a few hours’ time. The First World War never really knew a true sea battle then. The danger lurked under water, not on the surface.

In Versailles the allied victors will try to expel the German shock of the submarines for good. However, in June 1935 another U-1 is launched at Kiel. The national-socialists aptly name the flotilla of submarines the U-1 is part of: Weddigen.

The British tragedy of the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy disappeared from our collective memory. The Dutch writer Henk van der Linden not only recorded it, but also gathered all the surviving relatives together in The Live Bait Squadron Society. A memorial service in the presence of the Duke of Kent is expected in Chatham on 22 September 2014, a hundred years after the dreadful event.

Next week: Herbert Hoover

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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