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054 Lord Kitchener and the seamless sock

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Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

It is Sunday 4 July 1915. It is the 54th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting in the Argonne gets bogged down.

After five days of attacking on the Isonzo front, the Italians have hardly been able to make progress, despite their overpowering dominance.

General Luigi Cadorna adamantly starts a new offensive with his Second Army, but again he encounters heavy resistance from the Austrians.

In the East African Rufiji delta two British warships, supported by four airplanes, turn their guns on German cruiser Königsberg, but do no succeed in eliminating the ship.

The British conquer trenches at Pilkem in the Westhoek (Flemish Flanders).

The army of the Austrian Archduke Joseph Ferdinand is defeated at Kraśnik.

The Sultan of Egypt, Hussein Kamel, again survives an assault.

The political and military leaders of Great Britain and France meet at a conference in Calais.

The German capitulation in South West Africa is a reality, but General Louis Botha allows the German reservists to keep their weapons and ammunition so that they can defend themselves against the ‘natives’.

And again an appeal is made to the virile part of the British nation by Lord Kitchener.

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045 Alfred Vanderbilt and all the kiddies his boy could find

Alfred Vanderbilt

Alfred Vanderbilt

Lusitania costs Germany sympathy

It is Sunday 2 May 1915. It is the 45th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 At Boezinge, near Ypres, Canadian army doctor John McCrae writes his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

 The wife of Fritz Haber, the man behind the German attacks with warfare gasses, commits suicide.

The Germans recapture Hill 60 in the Flemish Westhoek with the help of gas.

A German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice and Tarnów in Galicia forces the Russians back.

 Italy distances itself from the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

News about Russian victories over the Turks on Armenian territory is filtering through.

The Battle of St. Julien ends when general Herbert Plumer withdraws his troops, but ‘Ypres II’ quickly continues with the Battle of Frezenberg.

Upon the pretext of ill-health British general Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien is dismissed by Sir John French.

At Gallipoli Sir Ian Hamilton sends a telegram to Lord Kitchener: ‘Two new divisions, please’.

And off the coast of Ireland oceanliner Lusitania is sunk by only one German torpedo, causing the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom the fabulously wealthy American Alfred Vanderbilt.

There they lie on dry land. A handful of rusty bullets, eaten away by the salt of the Atlantic Ocean. Remington .303s. It is September 2008 and thanks to an Irish team of divers we are now absolutely sure Lusitania did not only carry passengers. She also transported a considerable war cargo from the United States.

Did that justify the torpedo which on 7 May 1915 accurately led to the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom 35 babies? Who would dare take the responsibility for that? And yet we have to be serious about the German argument behind the attack: Lusitania served the British army.

At ten past two in the afternoon of that fatal day U-20’s Captain-Commander Walther Schwieger can see the ship with her four black funnels slowly move into view. One torpedo is enough to carry out his death sentence. When it strikes, an enormous explosion in the inside of Lusitania quickly follows.

When Schwieger himself forever goes under, north of the Dutch island of Terschelling in 1917, Lusitania is the biggest trophy of the 49 ships he has sent down. Here and there you can read: ‘It was the beginning of the end of the war’. That is a point you can undoubtedly mark sooner or later, but there is certainly a reasoning underpinning this. When Germany has lost the war because of the weight America carried, then the tilting of the balance has started on 7 May 1915, fifteen kilometres away from Kinsale lighthouse, Ireland.

The United States are still a long way short of the war, much longer than the eighteen minutes it took Lusitania to go down with all hands. American president Woodrow Wilson calls for calm three days after the disaster: ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’

So for the  time being Wilson was going to keep his country out of the war, but on that 7 May of the year 1915 American public opinion definitely chose sides: against Germany. Among the victims of Lusitania were no fewer than 128 American citizens. The American press wondered whether Germany had gone crazy.

They are eighteen horrible minutes. While the ship sails on, but is listed on starboard, crew and passengers desperately fight for their lives – or destiny makes them drown petrified of fear.

A man tells his wife to jump. She refuses. She wants to stay with him. But he frees himself of her and then drops her in a lifeboat. When the woman looks back a little later, she sees her husband, still waving at her, disappear into the cold ocean with Lusitania.

Children tumble from lifeboats which are crushed against the hull of the ship, while she tilts and experiences her rigor mortis. A steward tries to cut the ropes of lifeboat 7 with a knife. It turns out to be in vain when also number 7 is pulled into the deep and the water awfully quickly smothers the cries and whimpering of the women and children who had sought refuge.

That was hell, and now for the hero.

That day Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt is the richest passenger on Lusitania, which counted a total of 1,959 persons on board. He is a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a fortune in the nineteenth century with transportation by rail and ship. Another five generations before Cornelius, a certain Jan Aertszoon had left his native town of De Bilt near Utrecht in the Netherlands to go to America, where possibilities would appear to be limitless.

Alfred is a sportsman, who especially loves the foxhunt and driving a chariot. His lovelife is not without excitement either. Alfred’s first marriage ends in divorce after a one-night stand with the wife of the Cuban attaché had become public. Even worse is that the Cuban lady’s marriage also floundered, after which the poor woman took her own life.

On 1 May 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt, 37 years old, boards Lusitania in New York, destination Liverpool. Among other things he is going to inspect his riding stables in England. He is only accompanied by his man-servant, Ronald Denyer.

In the pure panic after the torpedo has hit, Vanderbilt calls out the following to him: ‘Find all the kiddies you can, boy’. This is based on an article which appeared in The New York Times eight days after the disaster. The newspaper talked to a Canadian woman who survived the catastrophe. She is quoted to have said: ‘People will not talk of Mr Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure. He will be remembered as the children’s hero and men and women will salute his name. When death was nearing him, he showed gallantry which no word of mine can describe.’

And then follows the story of the ’kiddies’ his ‘boy’ has to find. When he returns with two, Vanderbilt takes them under his arms and hurries to a lifeboat. When they could not find any children any more, Vanderbilt apparently started helping women. There are other witnesses who testify that Vanderbilt gave his own lifejacket to a woman. She recognized him as the man who had given her five dollars the night before during a charity concert on Lusitania.

The New York Times continues: ‘He looked around on the scene of horror and despair with pitying eyes.’ And then the Canadian woman finishes by saying: ‘I hope the young men of Britain will act with the same cool bravery for their country that Mr Vanderbilt showed for somebody’s little ones.’

And via Lusitania we are back again at the war and its armies. On the eve of the Great War Lusitania’s history tells us about the thin line that runs between civil society and military reality. The oceanliner was built in 1902, named after the Roman province of Lusitania in what is now Portugal. She started to commute between the old and the new world,  but already when she was designed a possible war assignment was taken into account. In 1913 the shipowner was ordered by the British government also to adapt Lusitania for use as an auxiliary cruiser. In September 1914 this was followed by the designation to have Lusitania transport goods for the army.

Before the war the maritime arms race between Germany and Great Britain was also reflected on both sides in the construction of increasingly bigger and faster oceanliners. In 1907 it had been Lusitania that broke the world sea speed record when crossing the Atlantic. This came with an award, the Blue Riband. It had been in the hands of the owner of the German Großdampfer Kaiser Wilhelm II for three years.

Lusitania’s average speed during her record race had been over 23 knots, which is more than enough to outsail any submarine. However, the May 1915 voyage was not made at full speed ahead. Ordered by the admiralty Captain Turner also stated to have refrained from the prescribed zigzag course. That fact frequently crops up in what some people might consider a conspiracy theory but which by others is thought to be more than probable. Lusitania is said to have deliberately been exposed to the threats of the German U-boats in order to ready America for the war. Winston Churchill himself is supposed to have decided to let Lusitania approach Ireland without an escort, fully realizing that the German U-boats were lurking around.

In any case Captain-Commander Schwieger was surprised at the ease with which he could sentence Lusitania to death. He wrote the following in his diary: ‘Unexplainable that Lusitania did not take the North Channel’. This North Channel is the seaway between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

There is another reason to be suspicious. In his memoirs personal assistant to president Wilson, Colonel House, mentions a meeting with both the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and King George V. Both are reputed to have asked him how the United States would react to the sinking of an ocean liner by the Germans. Apparently George even explicitly mentioned the name Lusitania.

One thing is certain, the British fully exploited the propaganda potential of the Lusitania disaster. There was also widespread indignation among the German population regarding the merciless attack on civilians, but the British papers did not mention this. Instead there was the fable that German children were given time off from school to celebrate the sinking of Lusitania, which started to lead a life of its own.

Then there is the bronze commemorative medal, put on the market by a Munich businessman in August 1915, which conveniently leads to functional mudslinging. The British immediately start producing cast iron replicas and distribute these among their own people. The suggestion is that the Germans delight themselves in the death of 1,198 innocent people.

The medal can be interpreted in a different way. Its maker could have wanted to ridicule the unscrupulous greed for money of the shipowner, Cunard Line. On one side of the medal we can see Lusitania going down, with the cynical motto ‘keine Bannware’, ‘no contraband’. On the other side there is a skeleton selling tickets for Lusitania and the words ‘Geschäft über alles’, ‘Business first’.

And this whilst the German embassy had printed a warning in American papers just before Lusitania left. ‘Notice’, it said over this advertisement, which was placed next to an advert of Cunard Line. The message was loud and clear that whoever intended to make an Atlantic voyage should be aware that the waters around the British Isles were war territory.

Alfred Vanderbilt had even received a telegram with the ominous words: ‘The Lusitania is doomed. Do not sail on her.’ The telegram was signed ‘Morte’. Vanderbilt must have thought somebody had wanted to play a joke on him.

Of all shipping disasters only Titanic, three years earlier in peace time, left a deeper impression than Lusitania. Yet a lot of questions regarding her loss still remain unanswered. Did the British army try to make the wreck of Lusitania inaccessible in the fifties for divers by using depth charges? If so, what needed to be hidden? But most of all, did high British circles give the go-ahead for the mass killing on Lusitania? Did the end, winning the war with America, justify the means, losing one single ship packed full with people?

Next week: François Faber

Tom Tacken (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

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)

013 Otto Weddigen and the live bait squadron

Otto Weddigen

German U-boats wreak death and destruction

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

The German cruiser Königsberg runs amok in East Africa.

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

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

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

British airplanes bomb the Zeppelin shelters near Cologne and Düsseldorf.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force sails for Great Britain.

British troops help the Japanese at Qingdao.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Herbert Hoover

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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