The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

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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