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Archive for the month “November, 2014”

023 August de Block and the last bit of hope of escape

August de Block  (photo amsab)

August de Block (photo amsab)


The Netherlands puts away Belgian soldiers 

It is Sunday 29 November 1914. It is the 23rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Austrian army first occupies Belgrade, but already within days has to accept heavy losses during the Battle of the Ridges.

 King George V visits the front in Flanders.

 A German attempt to raft across the river Yser below Diksmuide fails.

A heavy battle for the Polish town of Łodz blazes away.

In South Africa the Boer general Christiaan de Wet and his rebels surrender.

After the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki the Russians put up a line of defence behind the Polish rivers Rawka and Bzura. 

In France the Yellow Book is published, a collection of diplomatic documents about the July crisis which preceded the declarations of war.

The Russians take the Armenian towns of Sarai and Bashkal.

In the German Reichstag Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg categorically puts the blame for the war on the British.

And Belgian soldiers revolt in a Dutch internment camp, where one of the prisoners is called August de Block.

Belgian soldiers are heard to call out ‘chocolate soldiers, chocolate soldiers’ to pester their Dutch guards. It is 3 December 1914 and the tension in internment camp Amersfoort-Zeist is so great that you could cut it with a knife. A day earlier three Belgian inmates were arrested. Female relatives had smuggled civilian clothing inside, which was sufficient proof for the Dutch authorities that the three Belgians were planning to escape.

Now the fat is in the fire. The frustration about the poor facilities in the camp comes to a release. This has been built up for weeks on end. The food is like reinforced concrete. Behind the barbed wire lice and rats flourish. The canteen, where the price of one glass of beer was equal to a day’s pay, has already been demolished. The Belgians now shift their attention to the exit of the camp. A threefold warning in Dutch and French has little effect. Then the camp commander decides it is time for his men to take aim. They open fire and kill five men on site. Later another three of the twenty-one Belgians that were hit will die.

How did these Belgians end up behind bars in neutral Holland? Well, this was a result of the declaration of neutrality of 4 August 1914 which the Dutch government strictly observed throughout the war. Soldiers who were with the warring parties and entered Dutch territory were mercilessly disarmed and robbed of their freedom. So it was stipulated at the Second Hague Convention of 1907.

A considerable group of Germans, among whom quite a few deserters, suffered the fate of internment. But also British soldiers who had not been able to prevent the fall of Antwerp found themselves again in a Dutch encampment. By far the biggest group of inmates, however, were the Belgians. Over 33,000 spent the war in a Dutch internment camp. Seven thousand succeeded in escaping, mostly with the aim to stand guard with the rest of the Belgian army at the river Yser.

Amersfoort-Zeist and Harderwijk were the biggest. But also Gaasterland, Oldebroek, Kampen, Assen, Loosduinen, Nunspeet and Zwolle, all of them far away from the border, had these camps of Belgians. In the four years of the war a camp like Harderwijk developed into a complete village, with its own school, church, hospital and washing and bathing facilities. With the support of King Albert in free Belgium the Central Administrative Commission introduced a system, which enabled learned Belgians to teach their illiterate fellow countrymen in the camps. Many inmates started to fill the places in the Dutch firms which mobilized workers had left vacant. Equal pay was not at all obvious.

In 1917 there were 43 sports clubs in the camp of Harderwijk. Lots of Dutchmen came to watch races on the biggest cycling track in the Netherlands, constructed in the camp of Belgians. In due time many women and children of the interned soldiers settled in the immediate surroundings. In the beginning of 1916 villages for women arose near the three biggest internment camps.

Most Belgian inmates fared like August de Block, a workman’s son from Sint-Niklaas, who experienced the bloodbath of december 1914 in Amersfoort-Zeist at first hand. ‘This ‘fusillade’ made a deep impression on De Block’, his biographer Joris De Coninck writes. ‘It deprived him of the last bit of hope of escape.’

At the outbreak of the war August de Block’s military service has not finished yet. As Private first class he has to help defend the fort of Sint-Katelijne-Waver. But the line of defences around Antwerp cannot withstand the German howitzers. ‘When the fort was shelled, our boys realized that they were wasting their gunpowder because their artillery only carried fifteen kilometers, whereas the Germans bombarded us from a distance of twenty kilometers’, De Block has recorded.

He is facing a dilemma. Should he let himself fall into the hands of the Germans or should he flee across the Dutch border? The big group who chooses the second option just like De Block, will have to defend themselves after the war against the reproach of desertion. ‘However, as he was directly involved, August de Block interpreted the escape to the Netherlands completely differently’, his biographer writes. ‘He admitted that the commander-in-chief of the Antwerp stronghold, general Deguise, wanted to defend this bastion to his dying day. Yet on their own initiative several other officers gave their troops the order to flee to the Netherlands. A third group of military commanders abandoned the troops that were subordinate to them just like that. Each soldier from these units had to choose for himself between captivity in Germany and internment in the Netherlands. De Block chose internment, hoping to flee the Netherlands and join the Belgian army.’

Locking up the Belgian soldiers was a small job compared to containing the enormous flood of civilians who were on the run from the violence in the first few months of the war. This exodus was a huge humanitarian disaster. The journalist of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant noted down: ‘From Antwerp to our border it was one long and sad procession of people and animals. Herds of cattle were driven along by farmers from the surroundings who were running away in mortal fear. There were young people transporting an old grandmother on a wheelbarrow. One could see all sorts of vehicles. And all these people, fleeing, kept looking back at their town, that went up in smoke and flames.’

The Netherlands has to take in no fewer than a million Belgian civilians. The small towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal see most of them pass by. In the beginning there is considerable willingness among the Dutch population to take care of these poor Belgians. The Dutch Committee for Support of Belgian War Victims starts a collection which in November has already yielded 300,000 guilders. In his book ‘Buiten Schot’, which is about the Netherlands in 1914-1918, the author Paul Moeyes quotes a story of a Belgian who in gratitude wants to name his daughter, born in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, after the Dutch queen.

But there will also have been scenes such as Jos Wijnant described in 2008. As a 12-year-old boy from Antwerp he arrived at the railway station of Den Bosch, Bois-le-Duc, in 1914. As a 106-year-old he still heard them chant: ‘Down with the Belgians, they eat up everything’. Wijnant was to become deputy town clerk and, still in the possession of a Belgian passport, he would eventually be declared the oldest man of the Netherlands.

For fear of contagious diseases and out of necessity to keep the roads clear for the Dutch army, the Belgian refugees are dispersed over the country as quickly as possible. The Belgians are split into two groups, the needy and the workers on one side and the affluent without possessions on the other. A private individual who provides shelter for an adult refugee from the category of the needy gets a compensation from the Dutch State of 35 cents. For a well-to-do refugee twice this rate is reimbursed.

The number of one million refugees will soon decrease. Now that the battle has abated, the Germans promise the Belgian exiles a safe return. Through burgomasters and local committees the Dutch government, too, gives the Belgians the urgent advice to go back to their own homes. The Dutch state will also pay for the single train journey. Many Belgians accept this. In December 1914 only 124,000 Belgian refugees are left, in January 1916 this number is reduced to 80,000.

The ‘Belgian villages’ that were built in Nunspeet, Epe and Uden have never fully used their capacity. The memory of the neighbouring guests would quickly fade after the war. However, especially in the past few years initiatives have been taken to revive the history of the camps of Belgians. Plans were made to rebuild barracks such as from the Refugee Camp Uden.

August de Block spent four years of his early life in Dutch captivity. His first weeks stuck in his memory as follows: ‘The barracks were not heated, were badly insulated and rain came in. Many inmates died of the consequences of pneumonia and tuberculosis. They also suffered from rheumatism and bronchitis. […] Only once every ten days a shower could be taken, open barrels were used as toilets and waste was dumped in pits.’

These miserable circumstances and the exorbitant prices in the canteens drove the defeated front soldiers to despair. Many took to drinking or gambling. Some committed suicide. Others revolted. Eight of them died in the process. The outrage in the Netherlands about 3 december 1914 was big, but an official committee of inquiry was to judge that the authorities were not to blame.

It was not until 2 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, that De Block and the other Belgians are given back their freedom by the Dutch government. Apparently they wanted to make sure. The Dutch authorities will present ruined Belgium with a bill for the internment of their soldiers: 53 million guilders. This debt was not paid off by the Belgians until 1937. On the basis of international treaties the relief of Belgian civilians, which was a humanitarian feat, came at the expense of the Netherlands itself.

After the war De Block developed into an influential socialist politician. When in the camp he had already manifested himself as the local chairman of the Union of Belgian Workers in the Netherlands. In this capacity he had come into contact with Rachel Hamel, daughter of a jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam. In the camp there was little opportunity to meet, but the relationship held out. They got married and in the Second World War took refuge to England in time.

August de Block died in 1979. According to his biographer he never showed any bitterness or resentment about the way he was treated in the Dutch camps. In his own country the government and army command have never granted August de Block the rehabilitation he so passionately longed for.

Next week: Christiaan de Wet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

022 Paul von Hindenburg and his march with a pure heart

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Germany relies on Prussian values

It is Sunday 22 November 1914. It is the 22nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 The seven-century-old Cloth Hall in Ypres goes up in flames after a German bombing.

The Germans do not spare Reims cathedral either.

 A British squadron blasts the Flemish port of Zeebrugge.

 Portugese congress authorizes the government to side with the allies as soon as she thinks this expedient.

 American president Woodrow Wilson condemns the shelling of unfortified towns.

 After heavy fighting the Austrians withdraw near Krakow and south of the river Vistula.

 British warships attack the German port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa.

 Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf lets three German divisions escape at the Polish town of Lodz.

 The Russians manage to get the mountain passes in the Carpathians under control again.

 And the rank of field marshal is granted to the German hero of Tannenberg, Paul von Hindenburg 

‘What do you do in times of tension?’, Paul von Hindenburg was once asked. He answered: ‘I whistle.’ After which the enquirer remarked that he had never heard Hindenburg whistle. ‘I never have’, the latter replied.

There you are, the caricature of the Prussian hero of the First World War, Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg. Tower of German strength. Imperturbable. Self-assured. Judging by the numerous streets and squares that still bear his name in present-day Germany, his reputation has proved to be quite solid. Whatever his curriculum vitae may have shown afterwards, Hindenburg has remained the Hero of Tannenberg – the icon of German values such as Ordnung and Kampfgeist.

Hindenburg could also count on the respect of someone like David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in the second half of the Great War. When he is elected president of the Weimar Republic in the decade after the First World War, Lloyd George understands. After all, Hindenburg is a ‘very sensible old man’.

To historian and contemporary Hans Delbrück Hindenburg was rather an ‘old nobody’. Delbrück passed this destructive judgement before Hindenburg had the nerve as president to appoint Adolf Hitler Reich’s Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Initially he did not think a lot of the leader of the NSDAP. ‘Böhmischer Gefreiter’, he used to call Hitler amidst his intimate friends: ‘Bohemian corporal’. That was a historical mistake of the field marshal. He mistook Austrian Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, for Bohemian Braunau.

June 1919 does not look good for Hindenburg either. Defeated Germany is dictated its conditions of peace. President of the new republic is social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who telephones Hindenburg to ask what he thinks of it. Hindenburg leaves the answer to his Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Wilhelm Groener. ‘You know what to do. I will go for a walk’, he tells him. Groener tells Ebert that there is nothing for it but to sign, for the German army cannot permit itself to resume the war. When Hindenburg returns from his walk and hears how Groener has acted, he puts his arm on his shoulder and says: ‘You have taken a big responsibility on you.’

October 1918. Wilhelm II receives the Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg and his right-hand man Erich Ludendorff. The offensive on the western front has ended in a big disappointment. The emperor gives Ludendorff to understand that his days are numbered. But to Hindenburg he says: ‘Und Sie bleiben.’ ‘And you stay’. After which Hindenburg politely bows his head, to the dismay of Ludendorff, who had expected solidarity of his old comrade in arms. Hindenburg a tower of strength? Do you think so?


He was born in 1847 as scion of a noble East Prussian family. His father is an officer and for young Paul the only future is a military one. ‘A matter of tradition’, he will remark in his memoirs. In 1866 he is actively involved in the war of the Prussians against the Austrians. He gets by relatively unscathed with a head injury. In 1871 he is present when the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the heart of France. Seventeen years later he is chosen to keep watch as an officer at the dead body of Emperor Wilhelm I lying in state. And in 1911 he is 64, the right age for retirement.

But the historical life of Paul von Hindenburg has yet to begin. When in 1914 Russia puts pressure on the Germans in their very own East Prussia, an appeal is made on old general Von Hindenburg. Together with his energetic aide Erich Ludendorff he achieves a glorious victory in a clash which Hindenburg himself calls the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1410 a German army had to yield to a Polish king there. Hindenburg has now erased that disgrace.

When Hindenburg publishes his memoirs after the war, an extract from September 1914 betrays his world view. He describes how elevated thoughts come into his mind during a ride through Polish regions that German tribes have done a favour to culture here. Of course one can notice that people here live according to East Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Here live simple, faithful and cautious people. Further away in the Russian part of Poland Hindenburg especially notices the mud. People there are brimming with filth, he writes. To a man like Hindenburg civilisation corresponds with Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff will stay in the northern part of the eastern front together for a long time. They are opposites that miraculously complement each other throughout the war. Hindenburg, the composed aristocrat and Ludendorff, the tempestuous commoner general. Hindenburg, keeper of old Prussian values, Ludendorff, careerist without scruples. Together over there in the east they distrust Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who pays more attention to the western front and the more southern battlefields in the east, where the Austrians can do with support from the Germans.

In August 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff seize their opportunity. They take over the Oberste Heeresleitung from Falkenhayn. In the west they take a drastic decision. They give up territory for a front line that can be defended better. Scorched earth is left in northern France when they retreat. The German army regroups in a new system of trenches and concrete bunkers, which will be called the Hindenburg Line.

But there is more than a reshuffle of the battlefield. Politically speaking the army draws almost all power to itself. Germany is beginning to look like a dictatorial nation. Using the writer Sebastian Haffner’s words, the real emperor is Paul von Hindenburg and the real chancellor is Erich Ludendorff. The latter is the one who is really pulling the strings. Forever popular Hindenburg is above all the figure head.

In the year 1916 the Hindenburg Programm appears. It is a thorough attempt to fashion the German economy after the war. Men and women are forced to work in the war industry. Companies that do not serve the war are locked. Through a Kriegsamt which has been set up the army dictates production from now on. It is not an unqualified success. Economic practice appears to be too unmanageable to be controlled by generals.

The duo Hindenburg-Ludendorff has a hand in sending off chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who is too soft to their taste. And in 1918, when the front in the east is shut down after the revolution in Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung launches a full attack. If they do not win this war, it is in any case important to form a good basis for the next one. After all the Romans also needed more than one Punic War to get the better of Carthage.

They get far, but 8 August 1918 will be a ‘black day for the German army’, according to Erich Ludendorff, who mentally collapses because of the military adversity. Hindenburg will record in his memoirs: ‘The depression and the disappointment, that despite all victories the war will not end for us, have also affected our brave soldiers.’

Already in 1919 he is the most prominent spreader of the Stab-in-the-back myth. Germany has not lost because the other party was stronger, but because it was stabbed in the back at home by left-wing revolutionaries.

The twenties are coming and the frail Weimar Republic urgently needs an important mediator, somebody who declares himself above the parties as a pater familias. All eyes are fixed on Paul von Hindenburg. In 1925 the people elect this old warrior their president. Gradually he will listen too carefully to what his right-wing friends have to say. He sidetracks parliament, which is dominated by social democrats. In 1932, when he is 85, Hindenburg is elected for another seven-year term. However, this appears to be overoptimistic. Hindenburg dies in 1934 in a Germany, where meanwhile someone else has become the Führer. How the hero of Tannenberg ended as Adolf Hitler’s master of ceremonies, it is a sad story anyway.


It is 1927 when Time magazine reports on a glorious event. ‘Erect and martial, President General Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg arrived at Tannenberg, East Prussia, to unveil a war memorial to the soldiers who fell in the historic battle of Tannenberg.’

Over a hundred thousand people had gathered to witness the ceremony. There was a queue of veterans six miles long to pay hommage to their old military chief. Some were dressed in field grey, others had proudly put on their plumed helmets and donned imperial uniforms set off with gold. The highest authorities had also assembled, from chancellor Wilhelm Marx and several members of his cabinet to marshal Von  Mackensen and generals Von François and Von Ludendorff. Dressed in the uniform of marshal, staff in his left hand, old Hindenburg, almost eighty years old, strode through the cheering masses, stopping now and then to speak one or two words to his former brothers in arms.

What did Hindenburg say to the old comrades that day? The following: ‘We, the German people, dismiss in every possible way the reproach that Germany should be guilty of the greatest of all wars. It was not envy, hatred or desire for conquests which forced us to take up arms. War was our last resort and making the biggest sacrifices by our entire people was the last means to keep up our prestige against a multitude of enemies. We marched with a pure heart to defend our Fatherland and we brandished the sword with clean hands. Germany will always be prepared to prove that before impartial judges.’

Whoever allows these words to sink in, will see the future come towards him. Paul von Hindenburg’s Germany was simply a bad loser. Germany was heading for new misfortune. It would eventually end like the zeppelin in 1937, which the nazis had named after Hindenburg and which would crash down in flames near New Jersey.

Next week: August de Block

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

021 Oskar Potiorek and destination hospital

Oskar Potiorek

Oskar Potiorek

Austrians cannot bring Serbs to their knees

It is Sunday 15 November 1914. It is the 21st week after the shooting at Sarajevo

Snow falls on the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres is smothered in German frustration and the number of losses on both sides has increased to quarter of a million: dead, missing and wounded.

 Turks have to flee the British in Mesopotamia.

 The British also take Basra, thus getting control of the Persian Gulf.

 Goeben and Breslau, two German warships that have been added to the Turkish fleet, encounter a Russian squadron on the Black Sea.

 In Egypt a corps of Indian soldiers on camels fights the Turks.

 The Germans advance towards the Polish town of Łódź.

 British aviators bomb the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

 The British navy announces to expand the minefield in The Channel.

 And the Austrians cross the river Kolubara, an offensive in Serbia which is bound to fail, led by Oskar Potiorek.

How differently the twentieth century would have passed, if corporal Adolf Hitler had run into a live bullet in the Great War? This is an intriguing but absurd question. History follows a capricious line, but she will absolutely refuse to deviate from it retroactively.

Another silly ‘what if’ question: what would have happened, if Oskar Potiorek had shown his driver the right way on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The chauffeur would not have had to turn the car, with the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary as its passenger,  around. Then Gavrilo Princip would not have had the time to give the go-ahead for the First World War with a bullet for Franz Ferdinand. After which Adolf Hitler would not even have had to run into that live bullet.

Is it subtle but unavoidable processes that control history or do nitwits and accidental passers-by give it a twist? Oskar Potiorek might have prevented the First World War. If he had not called ‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai’, the twentieth century would have been without a world war, according to Pascal’s reflection: ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’

The starting shot for which Potiorek created the conditions only triggered the First World War. The causality behind the war is of course much more complex than the capriciousness of some dignitary.


In 1914 we meet Oskar Potiorek as military governor of the Reichsland Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1878 it came under the flag of Austria-Hungary to the great dissatisfaction of the Serbs. In accordance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Habsburgs start supervising the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After the Bosnian crisis of 1908 it comes to a downright annexation by Austria-Hungary.

All those years Vienna took great pains to convert the muslims, Serbs and Croats into Bosnians, completely in line with the multicultural Danube monarchy, but nationalism gets the upper hand more and more among the three groups. In Bosnia also the political parties are formed along ethnical lines.

These centrifugal forces get on Oskar Potiorek’s nerves. He himself is from Carinthia, Slovene being his native language. As military governor he has been the target of Serbian terrorists, just like his predecessor. He is determined to restore order through a military regime. As a hard-liner Potiorek finds the civilian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his path. Leon von Bilinski, one of their representatives, is a man who has adopted a strategy of conflict avoidance. He cannot prevent, however, that Potiorek, backed by the army, assumes power with the aim to suppress Serbian nationalism. But by Potiorek’s repression the wind blows into the sails of terrorist groups such as The Black Hand, of which Gavrilo Princip is a member.

Another painful question is why this very man of discipline and authority loosened the reins in Sarajevo on 28 June. The protection of the heir to the throne and his wife, who were invited by Potiorek, was absolutely appalling. First a bomb is thrown at their car. When Franz Ferdinand, who is unharmed himself, wants to visit those who have been wounded in the attack, Potiorek has no objection. It would have been worth considering the advice to avoid the streets of Sarajevo for the rest of the day. ‘Do you really think the Sarajevo streets are full of murderers?’, Potiorek barked as a reply to that suggestion from his entourage. Yet Potiorek decided to join the archduke and his beloved Sophie in their car. With his own body he protected them both. Apparently he was so occupied by his task as body-guard that he forgot to tell the driver their new destination, hospital.

Could it have been Potiorek and his men’s intention to expose Franz Ferdinand to danger? However improbable this seems, there is something that supports such a conspiracy theory. Franz Ferdinand belonged to the camp in Austria-Hungary which wanted to avoid a war with Serbia, for fear that this would also lead to a conflict with Russia. Franz Ferdinand even wanted to give the Slavs within the Habsburg Empire a position equal to that of the Austrians and the Hungarians.

At odds with this is the ardent desire in army circles to get the Serbs in the Balkans back in the kennel, starting with the Serbs within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That was also a fervent wish cherished by Potiorek. And then the emperor-to-be with his weak knees is assassinated  by a Serb terrorist. All things considered this is killing two birds with one stone. An important opponent of the war with Serbia has been eliminated and the way in which this has been done is a perfect reason to start that war… It takes some believing.

In the month after the double assassination Potiorek shouts down criticism on his irresponsible hospitality in Sarajevo with a loud call for revenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina he pulls in the reins even more. When war finally breaks out, Potiorek gets more elbow room. He is given command of the Austrian troops in the Balkans, chasing the Serb ‘pigfarmers’. Potiorek focuses his sight on Belgrade.

The Austrians see the Serbs as murderous barbarians. ‘The war leads us to a country whose population nurses a fanatic hatred against us’, Potiorek is recorded to have said. ‘The catastrophe in Sarajevo has proved that it leads us to a country where killing is considered an act of heroism, even by the upper classes. Humanity and friendliness to such a people are out of place.’ It is a kind of reasoning which leads to Austrian war crimes in Serbia, to be compared with those of the Germans in Belgium.

Barbarians in the eyes of Potiorek, the Serbs are mainly very motivated born fighters. Their highly experienced chief of staff is Radomir Putnik. The Serbs even owe it to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph that Putnik again leads the troops. The elderly Putnik was recuperating in an Austrian health resort, when war broke out. The emperor considered it a matter of honour to give the old marshal free rein. After which Putnik started to capitalise his ample knowledge of warfare in the Balkans in a new conflict. Austria-Hungary has always been the shlemiel, the simpleton, of the Great War.

Putnik’s equal on the Austrian side is Conrad von Hötzendorf, just like Potiorek a hawk as far as Serbia is concerned. It is Potiorek’s plan to take over command from Conrad by means of a triumphal march in Serbia. Conrad, who is one year older, has been his rival for years. Small wonder that these two have great difficulty communicating and co-ordinating their plans.

In the beginning of the war Conrad also has to free himself from a difficult position. Serbia is not the only scene of battle for the Austrians, however much their hearts go out to this. Soon the Russians announce themselves in Galicia. This Polish front draws heavily on Potiorek’s range in Serbia. It turns into an extremely bloody fight which flows back and forth. In August the Austrians start with a smooth advance past the rivers Drina and Sava. But once the Serbs intensify their defence, Potiorek has to return to Bosnia in a hurry. The sun rising on 24 August does not see a single Habsburg soldier on Serbian soil any more. Potiorek, who has the rank of Feldzeugmeister, has lost 28,000 men, 4,500 of whom as prisoners-of-war in Serbian captivity. And he has to beg Conrad for extra troops.

In the beginning of September the Serbs invade Hungary. Later that month they also succeed in invading Bosnia itself. To make quite sure Gavrilo Princip is taken from Sarajevo to the fortress of Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Then the first week of November it is Potiorek’s turn again. His next offensive on 2 December results in the fall of Belgrade which he has been looking forward to so much. That victory, however, does not last long. Putnik starts a successful counteroffensive the following day. On 16 December Belgrade is in Serbian hands again. But the price Putnik pays is just as high as Pyrrhus’s for his victories against the Romans. The Serbian army has to sacrifice itself in order to defend the territory. The year after Serbia will yet be overrun.

First winter descends on the smouldering ruins of Serbia. Typhoid afflicts civilians and soldiers. And then Oskar Potiorek has to submit. Archduke Eugen is given command of the troops on the southern front, where all will be quiet until September 1915. Potiorek also has to step down as military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although before the war he had become second in command within the general staff, Potiorek did not enjoy great trust in military circles. He was not less high-spirited than the highly esteemed Conrad. Yet Oskar Potiorek’s ambitions mainly aroused irritations. On horseback he did not live up to his promises. His unmarried status suggested a homosexual inclination, which did not do much good to his reputation.

Potiorek’s disclosure must have brought him to the edge of suicide. But death was not in hurry. Gavrilo Princip declared during his trial that the bullet which hit Sophie was meant for Potiorek. ‘I have been spared in Sarajevo, so that I can die taking revenge’, Potiorek is said to have called out repeatedly in the months after. That was another promise Oskar Potiorek could not deliver. He does not die until 1933, a bitter old man of 80 years old.


‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai.’ It would have been better if the Master of History had given Oskar Potiorek some other lines on 28 June 1914.

Next week: Paul von Hindenburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

020 Kato Takaaki and a quick restoration of the peace

Kato Takaaki

Kato Takaaki

Japan strengthens its grip on China

It is Sunday 8 November 1914. It is the 20th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British set up Room 40, a special branch for the deciphering of German codes.

SMS Emden goes down off the Cocos Islands and another German cruiser, Königsberg, is trapped in the East African Rufiji delta.

The Germans bomb Ypres after a failed attempt to force a breakthrough.

Austrian troops start a new invasion of Serbia.

General Christiaan de Wet and his Boer rebels flee in South Africa.

In a glowing speech Prime Minister H.H.Asquith announces that the British sword will not be put away until Belgium has recovered, France is safe, the position of the smaller nations is secured and the military dominance of Prussia is ended.

The Ottoman sultan Mehmet V calls on all Muslims to start a jihad, a holy war.

The Germans launch an offensive along the river Vistula with Warsaw and Lodz as destinations.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, former commander-in-chief of the British forces, dies 82 years old while encouraging the troops in France.

And the Japanese expand their power base in China after the conquest of the German colony of Qingdao, a masterplan of minister Kato Takaaki.

In its most banal form war is a cost-benefit analysis. Any student of the First World War will get the impression that the cost is weighed a bit lightly, certainly as far as human life is concerned, whereas the benefits are most disappointing, especially in the long run.

One country, however, settled 14-18 most efficiently: Japan. The politician who particularly managed to give his country a boost with minimal effort and loss, was called Kato Takaaki. Bearing the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz in mind, war was only a continuation of politics to a man like Takaaki.

The official number of Japanese soldiers killed in action is 415 at the end of the war, though there are estimates of about two thousand. The Japanese list of the dead of the First World War is in no comparison to the losses of their allies. It is in no comparison either to the number of two million Japanese soldiers to be killed in the Second World War. Civilian casualties were unknown to Japan between 1914 and 1918.

Kato Takaaki was Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu’s government. Shigenobu had been taught by a Dutch missionary. This Guido Verbeek had familiarised Shigenobu not only with the English language and the New Testament but also with the western ideas about a constitutional form of government.

Around the turn of the century Japan was in a straddle between tradition and modernity. Until 1853 only the Dutch had been allowed to make exceptions to the policy of closed doors. But the days of sakoku were gone. Japan had begun to develop into a modern capitalist nation at a great pace, although tradition appeared to be persistent. When in 1912 the last Meiji emperor died, a hero from the Russo-Japanese war committed harakiri. This general’s wife also cut her throat. A wave of emotion and enthusiasm washed over the country, meaning feudal Japan had far from disappeared behind the horizon.

In the beginning of 1914 the rising sun had collided with hard cash. The German firm of Siemens appeared to have paid bribes to the navy command. The people were furious and the fall of the government was inevitable. This Siemens scandal cleared the way for Kato Takaaki, who was taken with Anglo-Saxon thinking. The Sunday’s child had also been ambassador in London, after he had succeeded in marrying the eldest daughter of the founder of Mitsubishi. His tight relationship with this powerful company would later be held against him as a politician.

It was Takaaki’s objective to have cabinet and parliament dictate foreign policy. The power had to be taken away from the small elite of older people, the so-called genrō, for whom the friendship with England had had its day. To the traditional camp Germany seemed to be much more interesting as a sparring partner. Many officers had followed a Prussian training.

The good relationship with Great Britain already dated from long before the war. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 had mainly been aimed at keeping Russia in check. Three years later Japan felt compelled to settle that in a war with the empire of the tsar. Japan had won that battle with surprising ease.

After the victory against Russia, Japan managed to seize power over Manchuria in northeast China, just as it had extended its tentacles to Korea. But in 1911 the tide in China turned against Nippon. The anti-Japanese general Yuan Shikai had succeeded in overthrowing the Manchuria dynasty. So it was about time for Japan to play a new trick in China.

Likewise the British were worried about the urge for expansion of friendly Japan, but it was mainly the Americans who watched Japan suspiciously. It especially concerned China, whose door America wanted to keep open for free trade, whereas Japan rather saw China as its vast back garden. Many Japanese politician foresaw in the long run a decisive clash of the yellow and the white race. Pearl Harbour was to be the opening scene of this in 1941.

To the Anglophile Takaaki the British model implied imperialism. The war which set Europe on fire in 1914 offered him a chance in a million to start really working on this. Soon after the war had started Japan was requested by England to eliminate Maximilian von Spee’s German navy. Von Spee’s cruisers formed a threat to the allied merchant vessels and troopships. Japan had an imposing navy, the Kongo being their flagship.

Takaaki was there like a flash to declare war on Germany after an ultimatum. ‘Although I regret that Japan is forced to take up arms against Germany’, he declared, ‘I am pleased that the army and navy of our illustrious sovereign will show the same loyalty and courage with which they distinguished themselves in the past, so that all may be blessed by a quick restoration of the peace.’

Fine words, but meanwhile Takaaki went further than the British had in mind. Japan did not restrict itself to hunting Von Spee, but also had their eyes set on a series of German islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands and Caroline Island came under the flag of Japan without much of a fight.


The Japanese forces had to make more efforts for the German colony of Qingdao on the Chinese peninsula of Shandong. In 1898 the Germans had managed to get a 99-year lease from the Chinese. As the German empire was quite young, it had been late in speeding up its colonial ambitions. Initially Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chanchellor,  wanted to know nothing about it. But at the end of the nineteenth century Germany claimed its place in the sun. Qingdao was the German springboard to Asia.

Von Spee’s navy had already left its home base Qingdao before the outbreak of the war, but one garrison had stayed behind. It managed to hold its position against Japan’s superior strength for two months. General Kamio Mitsuomi went about it cautiously. He hatched an amphibian plan: an attack from the sea and across the land. In order to make the attack across the land work, he had to violate China’s neutrality. This was fine to the British, who added two battalions to the Japanese army of 60,000 men.

The Germans capitulated on 7 November. A day later an officer who had served in Qingdao stuck up for himself in a German newspaper: ‘We, here at home, will never cease to repeat to our children not to forget 7 November, not to forget to pay back  those yellow Asians, who have learned so much from us, for the huge injustice they have done to us. Even though they have been provoked as mercenaries by those narrow-minded English.’

With a new foot in the Chinese door, Kato Takaaki can put up a good show at home in Japan, even though the genrō keep on sulking. Takaaki manages to pull the initiative of diplomacy towards himself and catches oligarchy in his constitutional net. He can be held accountable for quite a confrontation with the pro-German Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo.

In January 1915 Japan lays down a list of 21 demands in Beijing. Taken together they mean a considerable tightening of Japan’s grip on China. The European powers have had to remove their hands from the vast country. Eventually the Chinese will agree with 13 of the 21 demands. The indignation about this among the Chinese people is big, but Japan will also lose the sympathy of the United States. On 13 March 1915 the American State Secretary William Jennings Bryan presents a twenty-page memorandum to the Japanese ambassador in Washington. The warning to Japan is to refrain from ‘political, military and economic dominance over China’.


It is generally expected that the war in Europe will be over before Christmas. To a large extent this appears to be true for Japan in the Far East. The allied forces will begin to insist on sending Japanese troops to the European battlefields, but Tokyo will keep its distance as much as possible. Japanese ships leave for the Mediterranean to keep the dangerous U-boats under control, but that’s about it.

Japan’s economy is growing fast during the war, mainly thanks to orders placed by the allies and to the loss of a competitive merchant navy. Export to Great Britain and the United States doubles, but to China the Japanese export is four times as much and to Russia even six times. Yet inflation emerges at the end of the war resulting in rice revolts and the fall of the government.

The Russian October revolution also plays tricks on Japan. The Soviets refuse to pay off debts of the tsar. Participation of the Americans in the First World War is not cheered in Tokyo either. A more active role of the neighbour on the other side of the ocean is seen by Tokyo as a threat of Japanese interests. In September 1914 a general like Tanaka Giichi was still daydreaming of taking on the United States.

Whatever the case may be, in 1918 Japan is going to share in the flush of victory of the allies. In 1925, preferring diplomacy to aggression, Takaaki, who is now Prime Minister, makes a treaty with the Soviet Union. He also prepares general conscription and extends universal suffrage to men over 25 years of age. He dies in 1926 in office as a result of pneumonia at the age of 66.

Extreme militarism and nationalism are going to prevail, a development which Kato Takaaki could not stop in time. In his autobiography the Japanese statesman Yukio Ozaki, ‘Father of the Japanese Constitution’, blames this failure on all the favourable winds Takaaki had experienced in his life. ‘He allowed himself to think that he was a great man and could not imagine a side of life unknown to him.’

What happened to Qingdao? Well, it remained in Japanese hands until 1922. The Germans have never returned,  but the brewery they started there in 1903 has grown into the biggest of China.

Next week: Oskar Potiorek

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






019 Maximilian von Spee and the Atlantic family grave

Maximilian von Spee

Maximilian von Spee

German cruisers are scouring the seas 

It is Sunday 1 November 1914. It is the 19th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans take the ridge of Mesen and Wijtschaete near Ypres.

The war between Turkey and the allied powers breaks out.

Horatio Kitchener promises the French army command to transfer a million British men to the continent within a year and a half.

The British have to hand over the coastal town of Tanga, in what is now Tanzania, to German troops, which are mainly composed of native Askaris.

Further east, near Mount Kilimanjaro, fighting breaks out.

Great Britain occupies Cyprus.

Near the river Drina Austrian general Oskar Potiorek develops an offensive against Serbian troops, which are greatly outnumbered.

Finally after 150 years a man is executed in the Tower of London: the German spy Carl Lody, also known as Charles A. Inglis.

The German governor hands over the Chinese town of Qingdao to the Japanese.

And two British cruisers are sunk in the Battle of Coronel, a glorious feat of the German vice-admiral Maximilian von Spee.

‘The small cruisers did not count any losses and were not damaged during the battle. On Gneisenau two men were slightly injured. The crew of the ship started the fight with enthusiasm. Everyone did his duty and played a part in the victory.’

With these words Count Maximilian von Spee concludes almost unemotionally his account of the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914. The German sea hero has just added an ink-black page to the maritime history of the British: it is the first naval battle which they a hundred years’ time. But Von Spee is not the kind of man to crow victory. He also makes an indirect remark that his men had no chance to save the British from the rough seas. As it happens he thought it wiser to remain prepared for a new confrontation.

Apart from making one or two adventures, The Hochseeflotte of the imperial navy will safely stay at home for the duration of the war.  The heaviest cruisers, the emperor’s toys, should not be lost. U-boats are the main weapons of the German navy throughout the war. However, in the first few months of the war the Germans can positively play one or two trump cards on the surface of the world seas. These cards are in the hands of the able and experienced vice-admiral Maximilian von Spee, who has the right to bear the noble title of count. At the outbreak of the First World War, Von Spee has the command of a flotilla of ships, with Germany’s Chinese colony of Qingdao as its home base. In the summer of 1914 Von Spee even entertained British colleagues on his flagship, Scharnhorst. The officers dined there and the sailors practised sport together. Ganz gemütlich.

But even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Von Spee decides to leave port. At the end of July, when war is approaching rapidly, he is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Von Spee’s ships concentrate successfully on eliminating commercial and troop transport ships. Generally speaking they observe the code of honour, saving the lives of crew members whenever possible.

We are talking of eight hijackers, whose names are preceded by the letters SMS, Seiner Majestät Schiff. The heaviest two are the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, names that refer to Prussian generals from the days of Napoleon. Six lighter cruisers have been named after German towns. Let’s have a look at each of them.

SMS Königsberg is forced into the African Rufiji delta. The British close off the way to the free sea and will start the attack on the ship many months later in June 1915. The German captain decides to blow up Königsberg, but takes a couple of guns with him for the German land forces in East Africa.

At the outbreak of the war SMS Leipzig is anchored off the west coast of Mexico, but the cruiser joins Von Spee’s squadron. The sister ship of Leipzig, Nürnberg, has the same objective and left Honolulu in August 1914. Also Dresden will side with Von Spee. The Caribbean has been its territory. When America and Mexico came to blows shortly before war broke out in Europe, Dresden made itself useful by evacuating both the Americans and the Mexican president.

Also Karlsruhe has been moving around in the Caribbean, but this cruiser will hide from Von Spee’s view. When Karlsruhe intends to sink a couple of merchant ships again near Barbados, there is a loud explosion. Something must have gone wrong with the ammunition in the ship’s fo’c’sle, though it may well have been the desastrous result of mixing lubricant with paraffin oil. Whatever the case may be, on 4 November 1914 it is curtains for Karlsruhe.

Then there is Emden, galant captain Karl von Müller’s cruiser. Emden succeeds in eliminating numerous allied merchant ships, even more so than Karlsruhe, be it in the Indian Ocean. Von Müller has been given a free hand by Von Spee. When Emden appears in the waters around the Dutch East Indies, Von Müller is urged by the Dutch to push off as quickly as possible. He slips away between Bali and Lombok.

Von Müller is a cunning old fox. He has placed a fake funnel next to the three real ones, so that from a distance the ship would be taken for a British cruiser. French, Japanese, British and Russian ships hunt down Von Müller in vain for a long time. In the beginning of November no fewer than sixty ships comb the Indian Ocean, looking for Emden. Meanwhile Von Müller resolves to eliminate a telegraph office on one of the Cocos Islands. Crew members of Emden go ashore to carry out this assignment, but an employee of the Eastern Telegraph Company has by then already transmitted a message of an unknown warship into the world. Australian cruiser Sydney arrives within three hours to clip the wings of Emden at long last.

Von Müller and the men aboard the ship are taken to the island of Malta as prisoners. The men who have gone ashore for their telegraph mission manage to escape on a schooner. They eventually arrive in Constantinople in June 1915 via the neutral Dutch East Indies and hostile Arabia. They are welcomed as heroes by the Turks. Life as a prisoner of war awaits Von Müller. When he catches malaria in England, he is allowed to regain his strength in the Netherlands as part of a humanitarian prisoner exchange.


Let us return to Von Spee, who has crossed the Pacific Ocean via Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands and the Easter Islands. While the Japanese roll up a couple of German islands here and there, Von Spee aims at French possessions. However, when he transmits an uncoded signal from the Easter Islands to the captains of his cruisers and bunker ships, this is also picked up by Christopher Cradock in South America.

The British admiral decides to set sail for the Chilean port of Coronel using ships that were certainly not the fastest and most modern. Von Spee in his turn finds out about this. Offshore  he lies in wait for the British cruisers with the setting sun in his back. It turns out to be a massacre instead of a battle. It is 1 November, All Saints’ Day. Monmouth and Good Hope, silhouettes against the evening glow, go down carrying 1,600 men. Glasgow and Otranto escape and manage to warn approaching Canopus.

The debacle hits hard in England. Just before the humiliating defeat at Coronel Prince Louis of Battenberg has had to stand aside as First Sea Lord. Due to his German descent his position has become untenable. A bit late in the day he will change the name Battenberg into Mountbatten in 1917, after having considered Battenhill for a while.

It is 73-year-old Sir John Fisher who has to absorb the tragic news of Coronel in his first working week as Battenberg’s successor. After consulting Winston Churchill, who is part of the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, Fisher decides to direct two battlecruisers towards Von Spee. Churchill and Fisher fear that Inflexible and Invincible will be looking for a needle in a haystack, but luck will be on their side.

Von Spee has chosen the British Falkland Islands, to Argentina the Malvinas, as his next hunting ground. But his opponent, admiral Doveton Sturdee, has also decided to call at the Falklands. When Inflexible and Invincible are refuelling on 8 December 1914, to his astonishment Sturdee sees the German prey approaching.

Now the tables are turned. Von Spee is not quick enough to avoid the fight. His armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are no match for the battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible, which are fast, manoeuvrable and heavily armed. Also the two light cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig are in for it. Dresden gets away. But in March 1915 it will be caught after all by a British squadron near Chile. After three cheers for emperor and vessel this cruiser also goes to the bottom of the sea. Salient detail: Glasgow, a surviving cruiser of the battle of Coronel, is part of the British squadron.

The curtain has fallen at the Falkland Islands for the German navy on the high seas. The oceans have always remained a side stage of the Great War anyhow. Sure, the eight German hijackers had been a pest like hornets. But the 273,000 tons of merchants ships they eliminated were only 2 per cent of the British merchant navy.

Von Spee went down together with 2,200 of his men, among whom his two sons Otto and Heinrich. Von Spee was 53 years old when he died. His name is cherished in German navy circles. Already in 1917 they started building a battlecruiser named Graf Spee. It was not ready for action in time, however, and it was not to be finished after the armistice either.

In 1934 the armoured cruiser Admiral Graf Spee is launched, but already in 1939 the British navy checkmate the ship near Uruguay. The captain decides to blow up the ship. Later he commits suicide after wrapping himself in a flag of the old Kaiserliche Marine, apparently as a protest against the nazi regime. In 2004 the salvage of Admiral Graf Spee was started. They were able to raise the bronze eagle of the ship, including a swastika.

The name Von Spee is not tainted, for in 1959 the Federal Republic of Germany names a training frigate after the sea count of the First World War, whose life led from a Copenhagen cradle to an Atlantic family grave.

After Coronel Von Spee could have chosen to hide in the ‘blue desert’ of the Pacific Ocean. But in the first flush of victory he chose the attack. Or was it rather a heroic form of defeatism? Two days after Coronel Von Spee confided to a friend: ‘I cannot reach Germany. We do not have another safe haven. I will have to split the seas of the world and do as much damage as possible, until I run out of ammunition or a mightier enemy succeeds in catching me.’

This mightier enemy would not fail to arrive soon.

Next week: Oskar Potiorek

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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