The First World War in 261 weeks

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Archive for the month “January, 2015”

032 August von Mackensen and the hat with the skull

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Eastern front is in full swing

It is Sunday 31 January 1915. It is the 32nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

British-Indian troops stop a Turkish attack on the Suez canal. 

British and French ward off a German offensive west of La Bassée.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gives in to the pressure of the admirals and declares a war zone around the British Isles, where U-boats can operate freely.

Montenegrins in Herzegovina manage to stave off the Austrians.

The French flying ace Adolphe Pégoud eliminates three German aircraft over the western front.

In Upington Boer general Jan Kemp surrenders to South African troops.

In Germany bread and flour are rationed.

Germany lends a large sum of money to Bulgaria.

Sailing under American flag oceanliner Lusitania arrives in Liverpool.

And in the Battle of Bolimow, a Polish village, gas is used as a weapon for the first time by the Germans under the command of August von Mackensen.

When hearing the name August von Mackensen, one first of all thinks of his hat – the fur hat of the Totenkopf Hussaren, bigger than the head itself, but especially frightening by the skull on the front with the crossed bones under it. It is hard to imagine that these days you will find another soldier anywhere in the world wearing such a grotesque hat as Mackensen’s. He was born without ‘von’ before his name, but already before the turn of the century he managed to rise into the echelons of the nobility.

The hat with the skull went with an overkill of trimmings and epaulettes on his uniform of the hussars. All this may stand for the frills around the bloodshed of the battlefields. Welcome to the First World War, Von Mackensen calls out to us a century later. We get killed by the thousand, but haven’t we got great hats!

The Field Marshal is one of the transition figures from tradition to modernity. August Mackensen was born as early as the Prussian kingdom, in 1849, a year after liberals had seized constitutional power here and there in Europe. But nationalism was also coming into bloom and so August Mackensen became one of Bismarck’s soldiers who fought for the German empire at the expense of France. He saw the kaiser flee in 1918 and after that witnessed full of disgust Germany’s struggle with democracy in the Weimar Republic. Then August von Mackensen embraced Adolf Hitler and finally died in a Germany occupied by allies, reminiscing about his days under Führer, kaiser and king.

To conclude, he became 95 years old. On his last birthday in 1944 a delegation came to convey the congratulations of Adolf Hitler on behalf of the entire German people. The nazis gratefully used him as the symbol for the obvious transition from the Second to the Third Reich. For that good cheer Hitler presented him with a country estate as a favour in return.

Thanks to the German Wochenschau – also penetrated to YouTube – we can see how Von Mackensen underwent that tribute on his 95th bithday with sincere pleasure. At the end of the film we see the greise Generalfeldmarschall talk to the delegation while gesticulating fiercely. It must have been a powerful peptalk of the war hero of old. A month earlier he had urged the German youth to show ‘Opferbereitschaft und Fanatismus’, self-sacrifice and fanaticism.

Admittedly one can draw a different picture of the man, the picture of August von Mackensen, the devoted Christian. As a devout protestant in nazi Germany he cannot agree with the Gleichschaltung (equalization) of the churches. And he defends the preachers of the Bekennende Kirche, the Confessional Church, when they venture to speak against the ideology of national socialism. Moreover, Von Mackensen protests against the atrocities of the wretched SA, massacres in the Night of the Long Knives and war crimes by German troops in invaded Poland. But he has never drawn the conclusion that all this evil started with Adolf Hitler.

Until the beginning of the First World War Von Mackensen had an atypical career as a Prussian soldier. As a volunteer in the French-Prussian war he is awarded the Iron Cross and is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Initially Mackensen chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying agricultural science. But soon he enrolls in the army again. Without having been to the Kriegsakademie he becomes deputy of chief-of-staff Von Schlieffen and later even aide-de-camp of the kaiser himself. Meanwhile he has recorded the history of the Black Hussars, in two volumes even. His wife, who bore him five children, dies in 1905. Three years later he remarries. His second wife is half his age. She remains with him until his death at a ripe old age.

Now let’s have a look at his achievements in the Great War. As one of the army commanders he has to share the debacle of the Battle of Gumbinnen in August 1914. Von Mackensen himself described it as a ‘mass slaughter’ for the Germans, based on bad intelligence and poor air reconnaisance.

The Russians greatly embarrass the Germans in their own East-Prussia, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff will come to put things right. In the Battle of Tannenberg and the one of the Masurian lakes also Von Mackensen manages to revenge.

In November 1914 Von Mackensen gets the command of the Ninth Army which has been formed two months earlier. He takes over from Paul von Hindenburg who as head of Ober Ost will now look across the entire eastern front. Von Mackensen will help the Austrians at Lodz. Both camps can count their blessings after the battle has ended. The Russians have managed to keep the Polish capital of Warsaw despite a German siege. It is, however, more meaningful that Von Mackensen has succeeded in stopping the Russian advance in Silesia.

By this time Von Mackensen has secured his place in the German Pantheon. In imitation of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Napoleon’s rival from Prussia, the Germans will affectionately call Von Mackensen ‘Unser Marschall Vorwärts’. They also sing their new Marshal Forward’s praises: Mackensen, der edle Ritter, fuhr wie Sturm und Ungewitter’ – ‘a noble knight of thunder and storms’.

Throughout the war he remains active on the eastern front. At the same time he receives a choice of awards. The Pour le Mérité, the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, the Bavarian Order of Max Joseph, quite a chestful.

Commanding the Ninth Army Von Mackensen fights the Battle of Bolimow in Poland against the Second Army of the Russians on 31 January 1915. It is under his authority that for the first time in military history gas is used as a weapon on a large scale. Thousands of gas grenades are fired, but the gruesome experiment fails. The teargas is either  blown back to the German lines or it condenses on the ground as a result of the cold temperatures. Anyway, the Russians are not impressed and neglect to inform their allies in the west of the German test.

Following the big Spring Offensive of Gorlice-Tarnów, two Polish towns east of Kraków, he is promoted to field marshal in 1915.  What starts as a small operation, meant to protect the Austrians, ends in the collapse of the Russian lines. At the end Galicia is in the hands of the Central Powers and there is no longer the threat of a Russian invasion in Austria-Hungary. The crowning glory of the German work is the recapture in June 1915 of Przemyśl, the town that had been seized by the Russians before that after a siege of over a hundred days. On 4 August Warsaw falls into the hands of the Germans after all. The enormous number of 750,000 Russians are taken as prisoners of war.

Von Mackensen wreaks havoc at Tarnow-Gorlice with a murderous artillery bombardment, which lasts for hours, preceding an assault of the Russian lines. He acquires fame by attacking on a wide front and penetrating as far as possible into enemy territory. However, the true brain behind these tactics is his right hand Hans von Seeckt, the same man who will build the Reichswehr from the bottom up during the interbellum under the strict regulations of the Treaty of Versailles.

‘Trust in God and on your own strength’ is the motto of the Hussars with which Von Mackensen urges his men to head for the Bug river, which connects Poland with Ukraine. In September 1915 the Serbs are facing Marshal Forward, who also carries the command of Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. On 9 October 1915 Von Mackensen captures Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

After that he heads the multicoloured Danube Army that deals with the Romanians. It will be his last campaign. Von Mackensen serves the rest of the war as military-governor in Romania and is more concerned with economic business than military affairs. In December 1916 Von Mackensen conducts a military parade in the heart of Bucharest on a white horse. In August and September 1917 he is confronted with Russian-Romanian armed forces. At the Battle of Mărăşeşti the Romanian heroine Ecaterina Teodoroiu dies saying ‘Forward men, I am still with you’. The battle itself ends in a deadlock, but soon afterwards Romania has no other choice than sign the scornful Treaty of Bucharest on 7 May 1918.

In Romania Von Mackensen is taken as prisoner of war in November 1918. He is detained in Hungary and Saloniki, but the old marshal travels back to Germany again in 1919 where he can start resting on his many laurels. He remains loyal to the monarchy and leaves for the Dutch town of Doorn in 1941 in full attire in order to attend Kaiser Wilhelm II’s funeral. The deceased ordained that swastikas are not to be seen. However at his grave the loving power of Jesus rules: ‘Ich bete an die macht der Liebe, die sich in Jesu offenbart’

As far as biographer Theo Schwartzmüller is concerned, Von Mackensen, the monarchist who thought he could reconcile Hitler and Jesus, already presented himself as an ‘anti democrat’ in 1914. Besides, when talking about Von Mackensen’s military successes, Schwarzmüller also sneers at him by calling him the ‘Pyrrhus of the Central Powers’.

Yet the Bundeswehr had two military barracks, at Karsruhe and Hildesheim, carry the name of Mackensen until long after the Second World War. Also this hommage is in the past now, just as the Mackensen Strasse in Berlin has been named after the Jewish poetess Else Lasker-Schüller since 1988.

As it is, August von Mackensen has disappeared into the misty past of the hat with the skull, though his life is less misty than the Myth of MacDonald/Mackensen makes us believe. Even during the Great War rumour had it that the Scottish major-general Hector MacDonald had not killed himself at all in 1903 because he was suspected of being homosexual. No, he had escaped to Germany and taken on the identity of a high ranking German officer, who had died of cancer. Thus Hector MacDonald became August von Mackensen. German Marshal Forward was in fact a Scot. And Adolf Hitler was from the planet Mars.

Next week: Marie Curie

Translation Peter Veltman

031 Franz Hipper and his reputation as a baby killer

Franz Hipper

Franz Hipper

Battle at Dogger Bank leads to deadlock

It is Sunday 24 January 1915. It is the 31st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

A German Zeppelin that bombed the Baltic port of Libau is shot down from the Russian fort.

The Dukla Pass in the eastern Carpathians is the goal of heavy fighting.

Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, gives up his opposition against an operation in the Dardanelles, thanks to Winston Churchill.

Edward M. House, senior advisor of American president Woodrow Wilson, embarks on the Lusitania to Europe to continue his peace initiatives.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Aisne at Soissons.

Great Britain releases a five million pound loan to Romania.

French troops in Cameroon capture the town of Bertua.

A lieutenant named Erwin Rommel is awarded an Iron Cross for glorious actions against the French in the Argonne.

The German government decides to confiscate all supplies of cereal and flour.

A German submarine sinks four British merchant vessels off the coast of Lancashire.

And during the Battle of Dogger Bank the losses remain limited for the German squadron of commanding officer Franz Hipper.

‘If the war of 1914 was not a war which the armies of Europe were ready to fight, that was not so with Europe’s great navies.’

This was a perceptive observation of the military historian John Keegan, who died in 2012. The fiddling on the battlefields, the incapacity to capitalize heavy artillery strategically, the squandering of human reserves – this is what Keegan calls ‘pre-war failures’. The generals had no idea about modern warfare when they started on their campaigns. They did not know how to fit in the handbooks which they had learned by heart with the latest technologies.

For that the admirals of the years before 1914 could not be blamed, Keegan makes clear. The navies from both parties had eagerly embraced the latest novelties. The ships had become faster and faster, their military equipment heavier and heavier. The paradox following from this was that the land war went on and on because of the poor preliminary work, whereas the British and the Germans spared their excellent navies for four and a half years.

Indeed the German U-boats undermined the domination of the British at sea considerably. Indeed Maximilian Graf von Spee’s squadron wreaked havoc on the world seas during the first months of the war, but finally suffered defeat near the Falkland Islands. Indeed the Battle of Jutland, also called Battle of the Skagerrak, in the night of 31 May to 1 June 1916 was a tremendous clash. But the all-decisive battle between the Grand Fleet and the Hochseeflotte never took place. The course of the Battle of the Dogger Bank is symptomatic. In short, the Germans flee and the British fail to set off in pursuit.

It is Franz Hipper, born in Bavaria, who approaches the Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915 with his reconnaissance squadron. Between England and Denmark the bottom of the sea rises to about eighteen feet below the surface of the water over a length of nearly 300 kilometers. In 1781, during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the Dogger Bank had already been the scene of a sea battle.

But that is not what Hipper is after on 24 January. He has come to look at the shallows as he suspects that in reality British fishing boats are patrolling for the Royal Navy. He will of course try to eliminate these boats. But actually Hipper is going to encounter a British squadron at war strength.

Thanks to the crypto-analysts of Room 40 the British know that Hipper is coming. He is in command of three battlecruisers, one armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and eighteen destroyers. The British suspect that he is preparing a new attack on their east coast. The bombings of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby are still hurting the British. Hipper also owes his nickname ‘baby killer’ to this operation.

Yet the importance of his raid of the three coastal towns has remained limited. The Germans mainly dealt a psychological blow, just as the threefold kill of U-boat commander Otto Weddigen in September 1914 had damaged the reputation of the British. But this sort of selective strike action has not brought the Germans any closer to their goal: undermining the maritime superiority of the British until the moment they cannot keep up their maritime blockade of Germany any longer and a real attack by the Germans is justified.

British admiral David Beatty is quite dominant at the Dogger Bank with five battle cruisers, seven light cruisers and thirty-five destroyers. At seven o’clock in the morning he attacks Hipper’s fleet, but fails to cut off the way back for his German adversary. The deficient communication between his ships plays tricks on Beatty. The British still rely on flag-signals instead of trusting their radios. Out of unjustified fear for submarines in Hipper’s proximity, Beatty decides not to go after the German prey.

This is why the German loss remains limited to the only armoured cruiser Blücher, which was at the tail of Hipper’s fleeing squadron. Not an accidental victim. When the ship was launched in 1909, Blücher was already made obsolete by maritime technology. Battle cruisers like Dreadnought, that combined firing power and speed, had already become the terror of the seas.

At half past eleven in the morning Blücher endures a heavy impact. The British cruisers then batter away together, while Hipper and his battle cruisers can sneak off. Left behind by friends and surrounded by enemies Blücher rolls on its side and goes down taking 792 of its crew with it.

Also Hipper’s flagship, battle cruiser Seydlitz, sustains damage. Its rearmost gun-turret has taken a direct hit from Lion, which will not emerge undamaged from the battle either. You can also call it a chance hit, for only six of the 1,152 shells that the British ships fired hit their target.

Sailor Wilhelm Heidkamp recognizes the danger on Seydlitz. When the fire reaches the ammunition depots, the ship will definitely blow up. Heidkamp opens the doors of the depots, allowing water to flow in. The burns which he incurs making his heroic effort, will eventually cost him his life years after the war.

After Dogger Bank the war at sea reaches deadlock which is not broken until the year after at Jutland. They are the only two sea battles in the war where the strongest ships of both navies, ships of the dreadnought calibre, engage in battle with each other.

The Dogger Bank produces a lot of homework for both parties. The Germans especially learn their lesson from the near-disaster with Seydlitz. Instead of going on a rampage again they reinforce the armour-plating of their heaviest ships in their home ports and introduce stricter regulations for explosive cargoes.

Hipper was mainly very lucky at Dogger Bank, but he is also congratulated for his escape. As a maritime tactician his reputation remains intact for the rest of the war. Hipper has not left any memoirs and he has received less biographic attention than other admirals like Reinhard Scheer. An English biography from 1982 typifies him in the title as an ‘inconvenient hero’.

According to the author Daniel Allen Butler there is no doubt that Hipper got through the war with gnashing teeth. The great care of the emperor himself and the half-hearted strategics of the respective commanding officers Von Ingenohl and Von Pohl went against his nature of boldness.

When the more aggressive Reinhard Scheer stood at the helm of the navy, Hipper’s career was very much at risk. He had to go on sick leave. Sciatica caused severe backaches which he fought in a sanatorium. Scheer, the new commander who was not free of envy, wanted to get rid of Hipper, but the navy staff did not support this. Consequently Hipper then was to serve Scheer in the great sea battle of Jutland in 1916. He inflicted heavy blows on admiral Beatty’s squadron, but especially excelled by carrying out a massive charge when Scheer’s navy was experiencing extreme adversity.

Franz Hipper, son of a middle-class shopkeeper from the southern German town of Weilheim, joins the Kaiserliche Marine when he is only eighteen. Henry of Prussia, the brother of kaiser Wilhelm II, is a role model to Hipper. In 1894 and 1895 Hipper is officer on the Wörth, which is a technologically advanced battleship under the command of Henry, who is reputedly a real sailor. At the same time the prince has an enormous popularity among his men. Just like Henry Hipper will also demonstrate his hatred of paperwork.

Immediately after the Battle of Jutland, Hipper is knighted by the Bavarian king Ludwig III. Unlike the German army, which with its decorum counted many aristocrats in its officer corps, there were quite a few citizens in the navy top, with all its technological challenges. This explains how a person like Franz Hipper could become Franz von Hipper after a steadily progressing career. His superior officer was also offered a knighthood for his services at Jutland, but Reinhard Scheer declined.

In August 1918 this very same Scheer is promoted to chief-of-staff of the Seekriegsleitung. Von Hipper is the one to succeed him as commanding officer of the Hochseeflotte. The war is nearing the end, but a man like Von Hipper cannot swallow that the imposing German navy has hardly taken part in the battle. Now that the trump card of the U-boats has been played and the great offensive of the German army on the western front has silted up, the great moment for the navy has come.

Von Hipper organizes the preparations for the heroic final chord of his navy. But then the sailors and stokers got their first wind of the Götterdämmerung which was Von Hipper’s key objective. The revolt spreads from the town of Kiel. A member of the crew of torpedo-boat B97 concluded a letter to his father as follows: ‘Do not worry, even though everything is in chaos. We will not allow ourselves to get shot in these last days.’

Red flags are hoisted on ships. Fights break out between rebellious and obedient divisions. Eventually over eight thousand men are arrested on the quaysides, but Von Hipper avoids a bloodbath among the mutineers, though they have refused him his grand finale in the war.

The Armistice is on 11 November 1918. Already a few weeks later Von Hipper is released from the navy as admiral. However he expresses his approval of the decision taken  by the German navy top in June 1919 to submerse the remainder of the navy off Scapa Flow. But he does not show up during the interbellum in political circles where a rebirth of the German navy is hatched out.

In 1932, at the age of 68, the admiral for whom war was business, not a matter of romanticism, dies. British admiral Sir David Beatty has never met his German opponent, not even in peacetime, but devoted warm words to Hipper when he heard of his demise: ‘I am very sorry. One would like to express one’s regrets for the passing of a gallant officer and a great sailor.’

He was also cold-blooded and ruthless. To the British a baby killer, this is the picture of him that remains: a commanding officer unemotionally giving his orders on the bridge in the heat of the battle, while chewing a cigar.

Next week: August von Mackensen

Translation: Peter Veltman

030 Samuel Smith and death coming from above

Samuel Smith

Samuel Smith

Zeppelins make England tremble

It is Sunday 17 January 1915. It is the 30th  week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting between the French and the Germans in the Bois-le-Prêtre, in the Argonne, goes back and forth.

They are also fighting very hard about the Hartmannswillerkopf, a mountain top in the Vosges.

Dunkirk is shelled from the air by the Germans and Zeebrugge by the British.

In East Africa a British-Indian force has to lower the flag at Jasin.

The Russians succeed in occupying the town of Skempe in northwest Poland.

The Turks have to continue their drawback in Armenia.

Adolf Wild von Hohenborn is appointed Germany’s minister of war, as successor of Erich von Falkenhayn, who remains chief of staff at the front.

British plantations in Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, are attacked by African nationalists under the command of John Chilembwe.

During this rebellion, which was not very successful, the grandson of the legendary David Livingstone is decapitated, because he is said to have oppressed Africans.

In the Bukovina the Austrians succeed in recapturing within a week the mountain pass of Carlibaba, or Ludwigsdorf, from the Russians.

And two German zeppelins drop bombs over England, killing four people, among whom Samuel Smith.

On the night of 19 January 1915 Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old cobbler, goes into the street to see what is going on. Loud bangs lured him away from his workshop. They are explosions of primitive bombs which were dropped from the German zeppelin L-3 across Samuel Smith’s dwelling-place, Great Yarmouth. This seaside town in the county of Norfolk harbours a naval base. When one of the bombs drops on a house, Samuel Smith is hit by shrapnel. He dies on the spot. That day Smith and three other civilians are the very first British victims of an air raid.

Samuel Smith’s fate marks the beginning of perhaps the most gruesome part of twentieth century warfare, demoralizing the enemy by bombing its civilians. Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be introduced to these ruthless tactics. Coventry in the heart of England, though,  lent its name in the Second World War to the German verb meaning bombing complete districts: coventrieren. The English call this nightly shower of bombs ‘The Blitz’, referring to the absolute arbitrariness of fate.

Samuel Smith, who provided for his mother and the two orphans she had taken into her home, cannot have been aware of what happened to him that night. The English were totally unprepared for air raids. No sirens went off. No air defence aiming at the skies. No airplanes storming at the bombers. Never before had death come from above.

Hans Fritz, captain of the crew of fifteen of the L3 zeppelin, could freely throw his explosive cargo overboard for ten minutes. At eleven o’clock in the morning he had taken off from home base Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg together with the L4. At half past one in the afternoon the two airships had been spotted over the Dutch coast, after which the L3 started its mission of terror over Great Yarmouth at eight twenty-five at night, English time. Somewhat at random, for navigation did not amount to much in those days.

The L4 had veered northward to dispose of its bombs over King’s Lynn, which is still Norfolk. The four casualties of that day were shared equally by the two airships. Afterwards they quietly floated back to Germany. The next morning Fritz and his men could disembark again at Fuhlsbüttel. But they could not enjoy their freedom very long. When the L3 returns from a new raid on England on 17 February 1915, it is having engine problems when flying over Denmark. An emergency landing on Danish soil follows.The crew escape with their bare lives. Following orders captain Hans Fritz destroys his confidential documents after which he also sets fire to the damaged ship. He and his men are detained by neutral Denmark for the rest of the war.

Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were the first to withstand the zeppelin attacks, but it was not the first time that an airship carried out a military task. Already on 6 August 1914, when the war has been on for two days, a zeppelin takes part in the attack on the Liège belt of fortresses. The Belgian defenders open fire at the airship. The Z-6 manages to escape, but once on the ground the airship is a total loss. Antwerp also becomes the target of a zeppelin raid. At the end of August a missile from a zeppelin hits a hospital. Twelve people are killed.

What would the very old count Ferdinand von Zeppelin have thought of the fact that his invention had been given a new life as ‘instrument of murder from the air’? Von Zeppelin lived to see the first three years of the First World War. The count was struck down by pneumonia in 1917. In the 1870-1871 war he had witnessed how the French used air-balloons for observation and communication. Some had even managed to escape from Paris in the basket underneath such an air-balloon. This made Von Zeppelin think. And in 1895 he was ready to obtain a patent for an airship that was to bear his name.

Its special feature was its rigidity. A zeppelin consists of a lightweight aluminium structure which does not expand, but contains a number of gas-filled bags. Underneath it the gondolas and engines with propellers are suspended. The development of the airship was accompanied  by numerous design faults. The military took their time in realizing the strategic use of airships. Quite a few pleasure trips were already undertaken with zeppelins, when the German army ordered ten of them. They seemed especially suitable for reconnaissance purposes and escorting ships.

There were other countries that possessed airships, but these did not have the same quality as the German zeppelins. Peter Strasser was the biggest advocate in military circles. He was the commanding officer of the airship section which was the responsibility of the navy. He was convinced that using zeppelins as bombers could make a difference in the war. It was the emperor himself who did not want to accept bombardments of English towns for a long time. After all he still had relatives over there. Impressed, however, by the allied air raids on German targets, he would cast this hesitation from him. Already in September 1914 the British had started their first air raid. The zeppelin shelters at Düsseldorf and Cologne were the first target.

In the course of the war the Germans improve their zeppelins. They become bigger, faster and more aerodynamic. The carrying capacity increases, as does the height they can climb to, though the latter achievement produces its own problems. The thin air and extreme cold demand the utmost of the men, high up in their gondolas. Meanwhile the British increasingly get a hold on the deadly airships. With searchlights and tracers they scan the skies. London is protected by a ‘ring of steel’, the first air defence system in history. Fighter planes begin to climb just as high as the zeppelins. And the new incendiary bullet which does not ignite until it has hit its target, proves fatal to the majestic hydrogen-filled cigars.

The zeppelin crew are not to be envied. They are not allowed to carry parachutes: too heavy. So the crew members know that at a given moment they may face the choice, jump overboard or be burned alive. When the most notorious zeppelin commander, Heinrich Mathy, was presented with this dilemma, he answered that he would not find out until the supreme moment. And that moment arrived.

Mathy is the man responsible for the most horrendous zeppelin attack in the war. On 8 September 1915 London mourns the death of 22 people and a million and a half pounds worth of damage because of Mathy’s L13. But to Mathy himself in his latest airship L31, things do not look too good on 1 October 1916. Over London his ship is caught in beams of light, after which second lieutenant William Tempest climbs higher and higher and fires away in his fighter plane until L31 burns ‘like a Chinese lantern’, as Tempest will testify later.

It cannot have come as a surprise to Mathy, who was an ace among zeppelin commanders. Those who maintained not to be haunted by nightmare visions of burning airships, were braggarts, according to Mathy’s account. What tension it must have been to fear that one single moment, high in the sky, where it is terribly cold and mouse-still, the moment that an enemy pilot comes alongside. In October 1916 Mathy made his choice. He jumped over Hertfordshire. There is this famous photograph showing uniformed Brits looking at the contours Mathy’s body made when it hit the ground. He is said to have lived a couple of minutes on that spot.

By then the zeppelin had had its day as a bomber, so much is clear. Peter Strasser will, however, not give up and on behalf of the navy direct his latest zeppelins to perfidious Albion well into 1918. On 5 August 1918 Strasser himself is on board L70, when high over Norfolk it is shot out of the sky.

In the second half of the war it was mainly airplanes, Gothas, which were to cause death and destruction over British towns. The bomb which was dropped on a kindergarten classroom of a school in Upper North Street in London in 1917 left the deepest scar. On a London memorial one can still read the names of the eighteen dead Gotha children, aged five.

There is no memorial for Samuel Smith, though a documentary in the BBC series Timewatch paid attention to him in 2007. A camera crew joined a grandniece and her son to Great Yarmouth cemetery, where their great-uncle was buried. The voice-over says that until recently the relatives did not even know this. In the documentary mother and son first visit the simple grave of Samuel Smith and then the street where he died.

The impact the zeppelins had on the British people can hardly be exaggerated. The British were horrified and indignant, while German children merrily sang: ‘Zeppelin, flieg, Hilf uns im Krieg, Fliege nach Engeland, Engeland wird abgebrannt, Zeppelin flieg!’

But perhaps the morale of the British homefront became indeed stronger because of the German airforce, just as in the next world war the bomb carpets on Dresden and other German towns for which Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible also seemed to have had the same effect. A British poster from the Great War shows a zeppelin above the silhouettes of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Underneath it says: ‘It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home  by a bomb. Join the army at once and help to stop an air raid. God save the King.’

When the war is over, the Germans are forbidden in Versailles to build any more zeppelins. But already in 1922 the production of zeppelins in Germany starts again, with the American army as a customer. In the interbellum the beau monde chooses zeppelins as their luxurious means of transportation, until the Hindenburg, the biggest airship ever built, crashed in the United States in 1937. The Nazis then see no point in zeppelins any more. Once feared as deadly weapons, they have turned into a historic curiosity.

During World War One the Germans made a total of 159 zeppelin flights that cost 557 lives. One of these was an unmarried cobbler,  of whom we know little more than that one day in January 1915 he wondered what caused the hellish noise out there.

Next week: Franz Hipper

Translation: Peter Veltman

029 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and carnival in the jungle

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Small German army keeps allies in Africa busy

It is Sunday 10 January 1915. It is the 29th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

News about a Turkish advance to the Suez canal seeps through.

Sixteen German aircraft do not succeed in crossing the Channel, but nevertheless drop their  bombs on Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill enthusiastically accepts admiral Sackville Carden’s plan of attack in the Dardanelles. They expect to bring the Turks on their knees in a month’s time.

At the urgent request of Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, Count Leopold von Berchtold, main figure in the July crisis that preceded the war, is replaced by Baron  Burian.

The Russians make headway along the river Vistula.

After the Battle of Kara Urgan in Armenia the Ottoman troops have to bow their heads to the Russians.

The Germans deal blows to the French near the river Aisne, though the French succeed in fighting off attacks northwest of Soissons.

After two months of attacks and counter-attacks the French have barely managed to gain any territory in the Champagne. 

And the Germans have to give up Mafia island off the coast of East Africa, which is a setback for commanding officer Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

When on 11 November 1918 the armistice is declared, Germany is not yet finished.  A day later a German commanding officer is still fighting the enemy. It is a soldier of whom you can hardly say that he has lost the war. Paul von Letttow-Vorbeck has proudly remained standing for four years in the jungle of East Africa.

The war on the European continent was a thriller in far too many instalments, but the war that Von Lettow fought in Africa reads as an exciting boys’ book. It was not for nothing that the general pops up in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicle, the TV version of the cinema blockbusters featuring Harrison Ford. At a certain moment Indiana Jones has the opportunity to shoot Von Lettow, but he grants him his freedom. The German reciprocates in a generous grand manner. He gives his compass to Indiana Jones and the two part as friends.

Of course this is pure fiction. Von Lettow would not be caged. The reconcilement with Indy, however, refers to the reality. Both during and long after the war Von Lettow could count on great respect of his opponents. Take South African General Jan Smuts, who was fruitlessly chasing Von Lettow in 1916. This did not lead to any ill feeling with Smuts. In the years after World War II Von Lettow led a pitiful life among the ruins of Nazi Germany. The elderly general had to earn a living as a gardener. When Smuts learned of this sad fate, he provided his old bully with financial support.


But let us start with Von Lettow in 1907, when the Germans have finally succeeded in quashing a rebellion of the Herero and the Nama people in the west of Africa. The Nama are also derogatorily called Hottentots. As commanding officer Von Lettow also actively took part – and was wounded – in what is now considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.

The order to destroy with which General Von Trotha had confronted the Herero people says it all. The German word Vernichtungsbefehl casts its shadow in twentieth century Germany: ‘Within the German borders each Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot’, is Von Trotha’s command. ‘I will not take on any more women and children, they will be driven back to their people or I will have them shot at.’ One hundred years later Germany has apologized for the violent death of many tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. But requests for financial compensation from Namibia, former Southwest Africa, are still rejected.

Just like Von Lettow, also Von Trotha had gained experience when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China. Germany may have been a latecomer in colonial Africa and may also have had great problems in squeezing profit from its overseas territories. It did not, however, accept opposition from inferior races. For the Germans colonial rule was accompanied by the whip.

During the Great War the African possessions of the Germans crumbled in four separate parts. In August 1914, the first month of the war, Togo already falls, but not until commanding officer Von Doering has taken down the radio mast of the most important overseas radio station of Germany. Their resistance in Cameroon is tougher. It is not until February 1916 that the English and the French succeed in permanently establishing their rule there. The troops were plagued by rain, while more men were killed by tropical diseases than in battle.

Further on the continent Southwest Africa is rounded up by South Africans, joined by Rhodesians. Before advancing towards Windhoek General Louis Botha had to defuse a revolt in South Africa among his own Boers. Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa, falls in May 1915.

Remains German East Africa. This is the area which roughly covers Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (the mainland of Tanzania). It will be the playground of Von Lettow’s little army, though on his long expeditions he will also cross the borders of Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa. Von Lettow knows that he should prevent a confrontation with the much bigger military force of the allies. That is why he confines himself to small-scale operations, a guerilla in the colonial hinterland of Great Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

The writer Hew Strachan refines Von Lettow’s success in the light of the goal he set himself, keeping as many allied troops away from the front in Europe as possible by pinpricks of his Schutztruppen. According to Strachan only few of the 160,000 men chasing Von Letttow were considered for the western front. It was a motley crew of Indians and Africans under British command. In 1917 also the Belgians, from the Congo, and Portuguese, from their part of East Africa, had unsuccessfully kicked off the hunt for Von Lettow.

Von Lettow had to make do with about 15,000 men. As was the case with the allied forces, soldiers of the motherland were a minority in the German Army. In the jungle of Africa, where the tsetse fly was more dangerous than the actual enemy, white troops were synonymous with ‘walking hospitals’.

Askari, which means ‘soldiers’, formed the bulk of Von Lettow’s army. They were disciplined in a gründlich way and also better paid than the indigenous troops of the British. When in the sixties the Federal Republic of Germany decides to support the Askari of 1914-1918 who are still alive financially, only few can prove on paper that they have served Germany. A German banker has a plan. All those that can present a broomstick as a rifle, get their money. Everyone of the three hundred or so Askari who has reported for his outstanding pay, passes the test.

Von Lettow’s triumph starts in November 1914. A miserable Indian expeditionary army starts an amphibian attack on the port of Tanga. Despite a dominance of eight to one, the Indians have to go back into their boats. Besides, they leave a cartload of ammunition and weapons behind for Von Lettow’s men.

Yet Von Lettow wisely decides to turn his back to the sea and to go inland. On 12 January 1915 a handful of Germans and their Askari have to give up Mafia Island off the coast. And in July of the same year the German cruiser Köningsberg goes down in the Rufiji delta. The guns of the ship are dismantled and added to the scarce artillery which Von Lettow has at his disposal. After that it is a cat and mouse game in the jungle.

In 1917 the Germans try to provision Von Lettow’s besieged troops from Europe by airship twice. Both attempts fail, but this rescue operation was not really necessary. Von Lettow himself manages to replenish his supplies. ‘The lion of Africa’ can not be tamed. After a quick and vigorous attack he and his men go into hiding between the forest and the mountains.

In 1926 Von Lettow will publish ‘My Reminiscences of East Africa’. One fragment goes as follows. ‘Many walked barefoot and often they trod on thorns. Frequently one of them resolutely drew his knife during the march and cut a whole piece of flesh from his wounded foot. And then he marched on. After the bearers came the women, the ‘Bibi’. Many Askari had brought their women and children with them on the expedition and during the marches the stork delivered many a baby.’ A bit further Von Lettow continues: ‘They all loved bright colours and when a large number of colourful fabrics were robbed, the procession that stretched for miles looked like a carnival parade.’

On 12 November 1918, one day after the armistice on the western front, the Askari still fight against the King’s African Rifles. Again a day later Von Lettow learns that the war in Europe is over. He surrenders on 25 November. With the allies feelings of shame and admiration fight for priority when they see how small in number their enemy was, not more than a couple of thousand.

Von Lettow is welcomed as a hero in post-war Germany. With 120 of his men in damaged uniforms he parades in 1919 under the Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Also Heinrich Schnee, the Governor of German East Africa takes part in this parade. Schnee had prefered to keep his colony out of the war, but throughout the war he could not stand up to the military drive of his commanding officer.

Von Lettow sees how post-war Germany is sinking away in a class struggle and takes up arms against communist insurgents in Hamburg. In 1920 he also lends his troops for the rightwing Kapp Putsch. This fails and with that Von Lettow’s military fate in the Weimar Republic is sealed.

When Hitler comes to power, a prominent rank is reserved for the war hero. He can become the ambassador in Great Britain, but Von Lettow the conservative won’t let himself be manipulated and taken advantage of by Hitler the proletarian. In speeches he not only urges that Germany gets its colonies back, but he also rejects nazi politics. Joseph Goebbels decides to silence him.

He is then, however, appointed General for Special Purposes in 1938, but he will not actively serve in the Wehrmacht, unlike his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd. They are both killed in action. And when on top of this Von Lettow’s house is destroyed by bombs in 1945, the war hero of old sees himself condemned to poverty. So along comes Jan Smuts, his old rival from the Great War, who provides him with a monthly allowance of 200 Marks.

On the initiative of a German magazine Von Lettow returns to Namibia and Tanzania in 1953. In Dar es Salaam he is welcomed enthusiastically. He gives his travel report the title ‘Africa as I saw it again’.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck dies in Hamburg in 1964 at the age of 94. The Minister of Defence holds a eulogy at his funeral and some of Von Lettow’s Askari have come over for the ceremony. His rehabilitation seems to b  complete, though in the German Democratic Republic he will be remembered as a ‘colonial mummy’.

Next week: Samuel Smith

Translation: Peter Veltman

028 Désiré-Joseph Mercier and the burned incunables

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Belgians suffer during the occupation

It is Sunday 3 January 1915. It is the 28th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British draw up plans to start the attack on Constantinople via the Gallipoli peninsula in order to relieve the Russians.

The Third Army of the Turks perishes on the freezing cold front of the Caucasus.

The Russians approach the Hungarian border via the river Bukovina.

Ada Ciganlija, an island in the river Sava off Belgrade, is occupied by Austrian troops.

The French show modest successes in the Argonne and the Alsace.

The Germans repay a French attack by shelling the northern French town of Soissons with its medieval cathedral.

Lord Kitchener explains the military situation in the House of Lords.

Kaiser Wilhelm II agrees to an air raid of England on the condition that only military targets will be bombed.

The South African government announces the imprisonment of the last rebels in the Transvaal.

And the Belgian parishioners are incited to ‘patriotism and endurance’ by cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

The hero of the resistance in occupied Belgium was a cardinal with the splendid name Désiré-Joseph Mercier. Today the prelate lies as a recumbent effigy in stone on his tomb in the cathedral of Mechelen or Malines. On a poster from 1916 Monsignor  Mercier is still standing straight in best bib and tucker. Mercier is bound to have enjoyed this propaganda print. He assumed his role as fearless patron with fervour throughout the war.

Behind Mercier on the poster we can see the Belgians suffer. They are drawn grey and ashen. But the cardinal, clad in bright red garments, stands firmly before them. He stares ahead with a surly expression on his face. The message to those who caused all this suffering is clear. ‘Enough!’, the cardinal orders. His right hand reaches out to the poor Belgians. With his left hand Mercier clutches the bishop’s crosier as if it were a Lee Enfield. The caption on the poster reads: ‘Cardinal Mercier protects Belgium’. Well, in French of course: ‘Le cardinal Mercier protège la Belgique’.

His fame spread worldwide. Brave little Belgium had a pastor who had the guts to defy German rule. In the first week of the year 1915 the Belgian parishioners take note of a pastoral letter of their cardinal. It is entitled ‘Patriotism and Endurance’. In this letter he lashes out against the devastations the German troops have caused and against the execution of innocent citizens.

To the Belgians it is very important now to persevere in patriotism, which is a Christian virtue according to Thomas Aquinas. As a neo-Thomist cardinal Mercier takes this church father as the subject of a study which he produces in the years before the war. This makes Mercier such a prominent man that some tip him as the new pope. A few weeks after the outbreak of the war Mercier also has to make the journey to Rome to choose together with his colleagues a successor for the deceased Pope Pius X. He travels via London, where Belgian refugees cheer him passionately. It comes as no surprise, however, that in Rome the Holy See goes to another Italian.

What should the new pope, Benedict XV, do with his rebellious cardinal in Mechelen? It is of the utmost importance to the Vatican to maintain a neutral position between the warring parties. In this noble ambition there is no place for a prelate who is doing politics. German cardinal Felix von Hartmann shares this opinion. In quite a roundabout way he urges the Roman Curia to make Mercier keep a low profile.

To the annoyance of the German authorities Benedict XV prefers to pass the buck. He does not silence Mercier. In Rome, January 1916, the two have spoken with each other for over an hour. No doubt Mercier has tried to convince the Holy Father of the need to speak against the German evil. Benedict will certainly have warned the cardinal not to bring things to a head. But neither is going to change course essentially.

In his study ‘Cardinal Mercier and the Flemish Movement’ Robrecht Boudens writes: ‘Mercier has always suspected the pope of having German sympathies. What Benedict XV saw as a duty to neutrality, Mercier considered a lack of courage to advocate a just cause in a fearless manner.’

Mercier remains the necessary irritant to the Germans. How could this man ever have forgiven the Germans for the barbarism with which they had showered his Leuven, Louvain, at the end of August 1914? More than two hundred civilians killed, the old centre set fire to. The university library and nearly a thousand manuscripts, eight hundred incunables and three thousand books went up in flames. Half burned pages fluttered out of the town. It must have been a nightmare for a man of learning like cardinal Mercier, who had even founded a Higher Institute of Philosophy in Leuven.

For fear of turning him into a catholic martyr, the Germans dare not deal with him. In the first week of 1915 rumours circulated that Mercier had been arrested. King Albert, the other figure head of Belgian intransigence, already cried out against it on the other side of the front, but the rumours proved false. The Germans did, however, barge into several parsonages and they also confiscated 40,000 copies of Mercier’s pastoral letter at the printer of the archbishopric. But make the cardinal a prisoner-of-war? The Germans have not got the guts to go that far.


The occupation will show an ever more forbidding face. Those who would like to learn in detail how the Belgians fared under German rule, should read ‘The Great War’ by Sophie de Schaepdrijver. It is the humiliating account of the decline of a country, which in 1914 was the most densely populated in the world. Belgium counted 7.6 million inhabitants. It was the fifth economic power in the world, until the war started to degrade the population to a bunch of down and outs, that were enslaved into the bargain.

The hunger had to be fought with charity, but the Belgians had also lost their freedom. Travelling by train became too expensive and time-consuming. Letters had to be sent in open envelopes. Newspapers had discontinued, they prefered not to publish rather than publish under censorship. Automobiles, carts, carriages, bicycles, everything was requisitioned, even carrier pigeons and plough horses. The Germans put the Belgian clock an hour ahead in order to stay in line with the Heimat, and also the Deutschmark was forced upon the Belgian people. ‘The omnipresence of sentries, Passierscheine, Personalausweise and Verboten led to despair’, writes De Schaepdrijver.

But more sips has to be taken from the poisoned cup. As the war progresses and it becomes increasingly clear that Germany will not be able to finish this gigantic job, Berlin looks more and more hungrily at the Belgian flesh-pots. Hindenburg and Ludendorf agree that the Belgians will also have to contribute to the justifiable battle. After all we are talking about conquered territory.

In Brussels Governor General Moritz von Bissing witnesses the eagerness of headquarters with great disquiet. His main concern is to keep the peace among his Belgians. Unpopular measures play directly into the hands of a man like cardinal Mercier. But Von Bissing has to change his tack. Young men are carried off to German factories as workers or to the front in France or on the river Yser, to dig trenches and shelters. The recruitment often takes place in a rough way. Without being able to say goodbye to wife and children the workmen are put on the train.

At the railway station of Vorst near Brussels a note, thrown from the train, was found. It read: ‘We are all from Aalst and we are on our way to Germany. We are brave Belgians and we will not sign or work. Long live our country!’ Over 120,000 Belgians were used as forced labourers, admittedly a lot less than Hindenburg had planned. 2,614 of them did not survive. Many more returned home, but often broken for life.

The spoils of war contain more than just labourers. With great skill Belgium is looted by the German oppressor, who claims all sorts of raw materials via many regulations and decrees. From 1916 onwards the Germans also force their way into the homes of the Belgians. The army especially needs brass and wool. Whether it is a doorknob or a bedspring, nothing is safe any more. In 1918 the Germans are even keen on church organs and churchbells. Again Mercier raises his voice and this time he gets the support of his German colleague Von Hartmann. The German successfully insists that the emperor spare the Belgian places of worhship. Not much later is the armistice.


Now it is time to put the status of cardinal Mercier as a hero in a Belgian perspective, which means a Flemish-Wallonic perspective.  To the Francophones the unrelenting cardinal may be the paragon of resistance, to many Dutch speaking Belgians he is indeed the symbol of oppression. To them the cardinal is a franskiljon, who considered Flemish unsuitable for the public domain. And in the Flanders of priest and poet Guido Gezelle language is ‘all the people’.

The German oppressors cleverly played along with the disunity of the Belgian nation. Using the Flamenpolitik they tried to provoke collaboration among the Flemish, and they were frequently successful. Mercier wanted to keep Belgium unitary, with French culture as the best guarantee against German dominance. The dutchification of Ghent University for example that the Germans made possible, was a horror to him. Mercier held the opinion that Dutch was not suitable for higher education.

Likewise the cardinal incurred the hatred of the tempestuous poet Paul van Ostaijen. When Mercier visits Antwerp in 1917, Van Ostaijen is one of forty activists who have organized a counter demonstration. He is arrested and put in prison for three months. When the war has ended, he still has to serve his time. Van Ostaijen decides to take refuge in Berlin, together with his girlfriend, who combed the streets with German officers in the nightlife of Antwerp. Van Ostaijen himself is also still blamed by many for Deutschfreundlichkeit  (sympathy for the German cause).

Post-war Belgium is not the place for revolutionaries like the poet Paul van Ostaijen. The prelate Désiré-Joseph Mercier feels completely at home there. He picks up his old life again and until his death in 1926 he will especially devote himself to a reunion of his Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. These attempts are recorded as the Malines Conversations. But apparently it is too early for this oecumenism. The same goes for the Flemings and the Walloons, who will continue their troubled relationship until well after the cardinal’s demise.

There is another war poster of cardinal Mercier, one which he will have appreciated less. A French rooster is resting on his mitre, while a procession of meek priests parades past the blessing cardinal. ‘I belong to a race that is predestined to rule and you belong to a race that is predestined to serve’, says Mercier in French, followed in Dutch by the following conclusion: ‘Never has the oppression of pro-Flemish priests been so enormous as under the dictatorship of this Wallonic ruler.’

Next week: Paul-Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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