Category Archives: Germany

Japan’s Navy Guarded Australasia, 1917

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1901-1936:

At a time when the Wolf and the Seeadler were converging on the Pacific and seas around Australasia, neither Australia nor New Zealand had any adequate naval defence, the number of ships available being greatly diminished by war needs elsewhere in the world. In March 1917 the Australian Naval Board, which knew that, if the Australian fleet had not been in existence, then the Emden and any other raider could have attacked shipping out of Australasian ports with impunity. A report on the disposition of the fleet submitted to the Admiralty in London noted that in 1917 the Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were all serving in European waters, that the HMAS Psyche (which New Zealand had had in its waters in 1914 and had now returned to the Australians), the Fantome and three destroyers were attached to the British China Station. HMAS Encounter was stationed to protect shipping off southwestern Australia. Three other destroyers were stationed at, respectively, Jervis Bay, Twofold Bay and Bass Strait for patrols on the main shipping lane between Sydney and Melbourne.

The board noted that at times, due to ships either relieving with the China Station or undergoing refits, Australian waters had been left largely unprotected. It was known at this stage that some sort of raider was at work in the Indian Ocean and on 3 April 1917 the Encounter was ordered to New Zealand to escort a troop convoy to Fremantle, where it was augmented with Australian troopships, and on to Colombo. Australia had nothing larger than a destroyer left in its waters, and the Naval Board, clearly exasperated, cabled London for some help in safeguarding Australia’s coasts and shipping. Three days later the decision was made to send Japanese ships to Australia.

A number of Japanese ships had paid calls to Australian and New Guinean ports in the early years of the war escorting a number of troop convoys and patrolling the main Indian Ocean shipping lanes, particularly those out of Fremantle. As a result of these latest Australian requests, the light cruisers the Hirado and the Chikuma were assigned to protect Australia for most of the remainder of 1917. They spent some months operating out of Sydney and Jervis Bay, and separately visited Melbourne, Hobart, Townsville, Brisbane and, several New Zealand ports as well as patrolling northwards to the New Hebrides, New Guinea and Fiji. Three other Japanese ships made occasional sweeps down the coast of Western Australia during 1917, giving many Australians the lasting impression Japan was solely responsible for guarding the Pacific Ocean and for escorting Australian troops safely across the Indian Ocean. The official history of Australia’s naval role in the Great War later argued that it was misleading to believe Allied naval defence in the Pacific was solely a Japanese concern, but without the vessels from Britain’s Asian ally there would have been no meaningful defence at sea for Australia and New Zealand during much of 1917. Not that their presence was particularly reassuring, especially for the New Zealanders.

The legacy of the ‘Yellow Peril’ fears, which raged in both Dominions at the end of the nineteenth century, was still strong in the minds of many people. New Zealand’s government firmly believed that, while the Germans posed a present and clear danger, ultimately the British Dominions would face peril from Japan. The alacrity with which the Tokyo government had occupied German islands in the mid-Pacific had not been lost on Wellington. Across the Tasman similar fears were held by the Federal government in Melbourne, and both countries were uneasy about a British undertaking to support Japan’s continued occupation of the Marshall and other islands of German Micronesia. In 1918 Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes asked New Zealand’s William Massey to help him oppose the move when it came to a peace conference, but the New Zealand Prime Minister was much more concerned with advancing his own country’s claim to Western Samoa when the time came. New Zealand’s own defences at sea were practically nonexistent after 1915.

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Outfitting the Sea Devil’s Sea Eagle, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2632-2681:

The raider captain, Count Felix von Luckner — the ‘Sea Devil’ as he would come to be known — was not the sort of man who would lie. His every act was dictated by the conventions of seamanlike chivalry. His early training and experience on sailing vessels surpassed that of most other German naval officers so, although he lacked the seniority in 1916 to rate a command of his own, he was the obvious choice when the Imperial German Navy decided to commission a sailing ship as a commerce raider. He had begun his sea-going career as a fo’c’sle hand, then passed the examination for an officer’s ticket in the merchant marine and finally joined the navy. As noted earlier, the navy was very much the second choice for a military career in Germany. But it was ideal for those who could not stomach the demands of life in the Prussian-dominated army officer corps. Germany had possessed a national navy only since the Empire was founded in 1871, and it had relatively little tradition. It was the darling of the middle classes of the new Germany; not of the Junkers of East Prussia.

Von Luckner’s early rumbustious life at sea certainly would have knocked any pomposity out of the young von Luckner, and he was just thirty-four when given command of the Seeadler. His career in the navy since 1910 had included service aboard the cruiser Panther sent to German Cameroons in West Africa, the battleship Kronprinz during the Battle of Jutland and as gunnery officer on the first voyage of the commerce raider the Moewe. He was a popular officer, and was well liked by his men when he took command of the Seeadler. Those who were captured by him all spoke well of von Luckner.

The choice of a sailing ship for raider operations was an inspired one. It solved the one major headache now that all the German colonies had been lost and the etappen [coaling stations] no longer existed. A sailing ship required no coal nor would it look out of place. There were still plenty of sailing ships on the high seas (the huge square-rigged, four-masted barques would be used in the South Australia wheat trade until 1939).

The ship chosen was the Pass of Balmaha. She had been captured by a U-boat in 1915, an American ship carrying cotton from New York to Archangel in what was then still Tsarist Russia. The ship had been owned originally by the River Plate Shipping Company and was built in 1878 by Duncan and Company of Scotland. The Pass of Balmaha weighed 1,602 tons gross, she was eighty-three metres long and had a draught of 5.5 metres.

Von Luckner knew that he could not rely on sail alone. While sails released him from complete dependence on coal, the wind was not reliable enough. The raider would have to be able to maintain complete and total manoeuvrability so she could make her escape if she encountered an enemy naval ship. The answer was to install a diesel engine, a type of propulsion not yet considered sufficiently reliable on its own but certainly adequate in an auxiliary role.

For weeks workmen had toiled aboard the ship reshaping everything except for the hull and the masts. In addition to the engines, room had to be found for the fuel tanks and for large water tanks which would provide not only for extended duration at sea but for the many prisoners the Germans intended to capture. Access to the engine room — as one of the holds had now become — was by means of a door at the back of a cupboard. The Germans realised that there was every chance that they would be stopped and inspected by the British and the discovery of an engine aboard a sailing ship would arouse great suspicion, but the door to it was not easily spotted. Apart from accommodating a diesel engine, the space below decks was fitted out with hammocks for captured crews, and three-bunk cabins for their officers; these cabins had stocks of French and English books with which the prisoners would while away the long days and nights of captivity. Below decks would also serve, during the run through the British blockade, as a hiding place for part of the crew, should the ship be stopped and searched because the British would never believe that a cargo carrying clipper needed a crew of sixty-five men. One thing that would make an inspection by the Royal Navy of the area below deck impossible, or at least impracticable, was to load the deck with timber; it was common for lumber ships to have a cargo of logs or planks piled over the hatch covers. The vessel’s ordnance (two 105-millimetre guns and 400 rounds of ammunition, plus small arms) were also stowed below.

While the Pass of Balmaha was undergoing the radical changes needed to fit her out as a raider she was temporarily named the Walter, the explanation being given to any curious German that she was being equipped as a cadet-training ship, which provided a plausible reason for the huge number of bunks and hammocks being installed, not to mention the engine.

Once at sea, the ship would have to adopt that status of a neutral. Von Luckner’s first choice was to impersonate a Norwegian clipper named Maletta which bore an uncanny resemblance to his own ship. Unfortunately, the Maletta was also in northern waters at about the time during which von Luckner was due to sail, so that prevented him using her name. Instead an entirely fictitious name, Irma, was bestowed for the purposes of fooling the British should the vessel be stopped and searched. Several members of the crew had been chosen because they could speak Norwegian. As far as the German Navy records were concerned their new sailing ship was called the SeeadlerSea Eagle — an identity she would assume once past the blockade.

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Disguising the German Raider Seeadler, 1916

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2685-2702:

The initial disguise required more than superficial considerations such as painting a false name on the stern and providing a matching ship’s log to support the ruse. Timber, complete with Norwegian markings, was loaded, and papers forged to show that the vessel was carrying its cargo from Copenhagen to Melbourne. All the deck machinery and all the instruments, including the barometers and the compasses, were stamped with the names of Norwegian companies. The crew’s quarters were decorated with Norwegian scenes and Norwegian papers were left lying about. Norwegian and Danish food was used to stock the galley and Norwegian clothing had been bought for the crew.

Not all the men had to be part of the facade. Those whose role it was to hide below deck if the ship was stopped needed to play no active part in the disguise. The Germans had carefully selected twenty-three sailors who could speak Norwegian and these were the men who would be seen by any British force that came aboard. Each of the men, along with four officers (the total of twenty-seven being the typically sized crew for a vessel such as this) was given a Norwegian name and birthplace and was ordered to study as much as possible about the particular town so that he could answer any reasonable questions about the place. They would not be likely to fool a Norwegian, but then it would not be the Norwegians who would be stopping the Seeadler.

The deception became even more detailed. Letters were written in Norwegian so that each man’s locker contained correspondence from ‘home’ and photographs of loved ones were stamped on the back with the names of photographers in the towns whence they were supposed to come. The men were repeatedly quizzed and tested to make certain there were no mistakes, omissions or inconsistencies in their stories. If he gave the wrong age for a child or the incorrect occupation for his father, a crewman would be punished. Von Luckner knew that British patrols in the North Sea were being constantly stiffened. If a Royal Navy officer walked into the mess area his suspicions had to be immediately allayed by the piles of Norwegian books and records and by the photos of the Norwegian king. As a final touch one of the youngest of the sailors was issued with women’s clothes so that he could play the part of the captain’s wife.

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Germany’s Lack of Settler Colonies Overseas

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 409-425:

But colonies were attractive for one other important reason. Germany needed new markets if it was to combat unemployment at home. Emigration was a major concern: between 1871 and 1881, some 800,000 people left the newly united Germany; taking the period 1887 to 1906, the figure grows to over one million. But here was the rub for Germany: almost all of those emigrants went to the United States. By contrast, while many British went to America, large numbers also chose Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia; in other words, Britain ‘kept’ the bulk of its emigrants within its empire, thereby enlarging its own export markets and simultaneously increasing the strength of that Empire. For the Germans, by contrast, their emigrants were lost forever.

Chancellor Bismarck had previously frustrated the colonial lobby simply because he did not want to antagonise Britain or France; anyway, colonies were not part of his design for Germany’s future. In 1884, however, he did a volte-face and approved the annexation of five territories: New Guinea (including New Britain, New Ireland and part of the Solomon Islands), South-West Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons and Tanganyika. The Germans were now convinced territories — and a fleet to protect their trade lines — had become a necessity. The phobia that Britain and other foreign competitors would try to destroy that trade was accentuated by ever-increasing German unemployment in the last decades of the century.

But then, as economic conditions improved after 1900, emigration from Germany slowed to a trickle. Moreover, getting immigrants interested in the new German colonies was not easy: there were no temperate ones with large swathes of potential farmland, or anything vaguely approaching the appeal of the Cape Colony, New Zealand, Canada or the Australian colonies. The Cameroons and Togoland were seen as tropical hellholes, and South-West Africa was unsuited to farming because so much of it was arid. By 1913, this entire empire was home to just 23,500 Germans, and many of those were serving in the administrations, army or police forces rather than as people making a new home. This lack of critical mass of Europeans in the German colonies also meant these territories never became a meaningful market for manufactured goods from the home country.

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German Shortages of Wireless & Coal in the Pacific

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 370-385, 403-409:

The problem facing all the German ships was that their wireless stations had gradually been captured by the Australians and New Zealanders, making it impossible for them to locate any German colliers still in the region. The wireless station in New Guinea had been operating for only a month before the war had begun. The station was erected about fifteen kilometres inland, and in late July the Berlin company building the station had erected a temporary mast so the station could begin operating ahead of schedule. This station, and the one at Apia, were operating just in time to hear the news that they were at war. The Germans on Samoa had already started to wonder: von Spee’s squadron had been due to visit Apia on 27 July and considerable organisation had gone into the welcome celebrations. The failure of the ships to appear off Apia that day had been a great disappointment to the community.

Von Spee had been more concerned with saving his ships. He was not going to provide the British with a sitting target (and he was to learn on 27 August that Japan was in the war, too). At the beginning of August, he had been at Pagan in the Marianas Islands when his tour of the Pacific was interrupted. He had the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau and the collier Titania with him. He immediately ordered the Nurnberg to meet him there instead of in Samoa, and the rest of his fleet to make for that point as quickly as they could. Von Spee was aware of his ability to create havoc amongst British and Empire shipping, but it seems unlikely that he fully appreciated the degree to which uncertainty of his whereabouts in those early days had caused great consternation among British forces. No one was sure where he would turn up, which led to the delay in the departure of Australian and New Zealand troopships across the Indian Ocean for the trenches in France.

One significant problem facing the German Navy was the lack of coal and coaling stations to serve those ships once they had been commissioned. For example, the cruiser Dresden required 170 tons of coal every twenty-four hours in order to maintain a speed of twenty knots. Her total bunker capacity was 850 tons. This rate of consumption could be reduced by lower speeds, and some of the surface raiders frequently kept speed down to four or five knots between periods of action in order to conserve coal, but it was still necessary to have readily available re-coaling ports. To this end, the German navy set out to establish etappendienst, or staging posts, at various points around the world, backed up by orders to all German merchantmen that they must always be ready to take coal and other supplies to warships.

German colonies were the most secure form of etappendienst and, in times of conflict, sanctuary for German ships.

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Naval Competition in the Pacific, 1914

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 226-281:

Apart from the East Asiatic Squadron, the Germans had maintained a small fleet to keep peace and show the flag around the islands of the South Pacific, and to patrol the Chinese rivers. This fleet included the survey ship Planet (which was at Yap in the Carolines at this time) and two gunboats of considerable vintage. One of these gunboats had already finished her tour of duty and was on her way back to Germany. The other, the Cormoran, had been in dry dock at Tsingtao undergoing a refit (and would also later be scuttled along with the Austrian cruiser). This refit, incidentally, involved the dismantling of the ship’s engines, which supports the claim that the Germans in China were taken by surprise by the timing of war. This is even further borne out by the fact that just two months previously, the commander of the British China Squadron itself, Vice-Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram, had paid a courtesy call at Tsingtao.

Cormoran’s crew, enjoying a long shore leave, had been joined by the crews of the Yangtze River gunboats Otter, Vaterland and Tsingtao who had been instructed in July to disarm and abandon their vessels and travel overland to the German colony.

The capture of the Rjasan solved the problem for the Germans of what to do with these surplus crews. The commander of the disabled Cormoran, Korvettenkapitan Adalbert Zuckschwerdt, had decided in von Müller’s absence to mount guns on the luxury liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich and man the ship with some of his surplus sailors. Now, with the Emden’s prize, he had two auxiliary cruisers at his disposal.

The Rjasan had been a member of the Russian Volunteer Fleet and had clearly been designed to be converted to an auxiliary cruiser. Von Müller decided she could well fit this role in the cause of Imperial Germany, with Zuckschwerdt and his men to be her crew. The former Russian ship was moored alongside the disabled Cormoran. The first task was to clean her up, Russian standards of cleanliness at sea being far removed from Teutonic hygiene requirements. On shore, meanwhile, frantic preparations were being made for the defence of Tsingtao itself. The harbour was mined and gun emplacements set up along the waterfront. Small ships were being loaded ready to act as colliers to the German fleet.

Within two days they had the Rjasan ready to sail. She was now re-named Cormoran in place of the shell of a ship still lying at the dock. The main problem for Zuckschwerdt was fuel capacity. The question of coaling the surface raiders is a recurring one throughout this book: not only were commanders constantly concerned where the next supply of coal was coming from, but, when coal was available, getting it aboard ship was a backbreaking and filthy job. Away from ports there was inevitably no crane to help, only the crew working with shovels and buckets. Raiders of World War I, while charged with sinking Allied shipping in order to starve Britain of supplies, eyed many possible victims with the single thought of how much coal they might be carrying. As will be seen later, German colonies were justified in Berlin on the sole grounds of their potential as coaling stations for the Imperial Navy.

In the case of the newly re-named Cormoran the solution to the problem of limited fuel capacity was to move the crew on to the deck and use the ship’s accommodation as extra coal bunkers. By this means Zuckschwerdt gave his ship an additional 16,000 kilometre range. He sailed out of Tsingtao on 10 August 1914. Four months later he and his crew were to be interned by the Americans at Guam, but a great deal would happen to the Cormoran before then.

Meanwhile the might of the British Empire was preparing to expel Germany once and for all from the Pacific. She had not been wanted there in the first place. To the British and Germans the Pacific was a sideshow at a time of momentous events on the European continent. Indeed, many histories of World War I scarcely mention the events taking place so far away from London, Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg. The Germans and the British knew that the question of naval supremacy would be settled in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The wider questions of strategy and planning will be dealt with in the next chapter, but it is clear from contemporary accounts that the people of Australia and New Zealand had a considerable fear of a German presence in the Pacific Ocean. There had been a number of Russian ‘scares’ in the late nineteenth century and, particularly in New Zealand, defensive installations had been undertaken at some harbours in anticipation of the Tsar’s warships suddenly appearing on the horizon. Australia was not quite so hysterical: in 1909 the Australian government noted that the term ‘defended port’ was an empty one, those ports so designated (Sydney, Adelaide, Newcastle, Port Phillip, for example) either had no guns, or if they did, had no trained gunnery officers, searchlights for night firing or supplies for the crews.

But by the outbreak of war, the scare was really on in both countries. On 10 August, the New Zealand Herald reported the Australians were worried about ‘the great naval base of Simpsonhafen (now Rabaul) in Kaiser Wilhelm land (now part of Papua New Guinea) which had allegedly been built at a cost of ‘thousands of pounds’. The newspaper which, despite hostilities, was still printing daily summaries of local shipping movements, warned that the German naval base had been built under the guise of mercantile expansion within striking distance of the Torres Strait, where all the shipping routes between Australia and the Far East converged. It reported that the wharf at Simpsonhafen was 300 metres long with spacious warehouses worth £40,000; if these had existed, this imaginary wharf would have been longer than any other in Australasia and equal to the needs of a city of 100,000 people. The report of this ‘great naval base’ would have been news to the Imperial German Navy, too.

At the outbreak of war, the East Asiatic Squadron faced a superior British and Allied presence and the squadron commander, Vice-Admiral Maximilian Count von Spee, knew that only too well. Apart from the Russian fleet at Vladivostok and the two French cruisers, Dupleix and Montcalm, there was the British China squadron based at Weihaiwei and Hong Kong, the East Indies station at Colombo, and the Australian squadron.

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German Ships in the Pacific, August 1914

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 52-108:

ON 31 JULY 1914 as the shadows of war rolled in, the German cruiser SMS Emden slipped its moorings at the port of Tsingtao in northern China. The previous day had seen Austria-Hungary declare war on Serbia following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Germany followed with declarations against France and Russia, and Britain and its empire would join in on 4 August.

Emden’s captain, Karl von Müller, was anxious to avoid being bottled up in the harbour by the British naval squadron should war be declared. The Royal Navy was based not far away at Weihaiwei — the British territory on the North China coast which had been leased in 1898 for a coaling station (and would be returned to China in 1930). Although the Germans in China were aware that war was threatening, the timing of its declaration seems to have caught them by surprise; the main force of the East Asiatic Squadron was away on a three-month cruise of the Pacific to show the flag along the impressive string of German territories that spread as far as Samoa.

In 1884, the Emperor had proclaimed his sovereignty over the northern part of New Guinea. In 1897 the murder of two German missionaries in China had provided the pretext for the Germans to seize Kiaochow and extract a ninety-nine year lease on the bay at Tsingtao along with extensive railway and mining concessions in Shantung province from the beleaguered Chinese government. Kiaochow, while a German colony, was administered by the Reichsmarineamt and the governor of the territory was not a ministry official from Berlin but the commanding naval officer. Following the murder of the missionaries, Germany had sent a naval force and forced the weak Chinese government to accede to a 99-year lease on the territory; moreover, Germany was given the right to construct two railway lines into Chinese territory and have the rights to any minerals over a 30km-wide corridor through which those lines would run. The German victory set off another round of territorial claims for pieces of China: the Russians took over Port Arthur, France demand Kwangchow and Britain both expanded its land area at Hong Kong with a 99-year lease over what would be known as the New Territories and also took control at Weihaiwei in the north of China.

Meanwhile, in 1899 the Germans bought Marshall and Caroline Islands (now separately the countries of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia) from Spain and then Western Samoa was wrung from the British to complete the new and what would be a short-lived German empire in the east.

Nevertheless, the imperatives of the European situation were such that Germany could give only scant attention to its Pacific possessions. This may explain why the German fleet was scattered at the beginning of August. The armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each of 11,832 tons and launched in 1907 and 1908 respectively, were on the flag-showing cruise and the Emden was in Tsingtao, along with the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich and several colliers. The light cruiser Nurnberg was steaming from North America and due to meet up with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Apia in Samoa, while the other light cruiser, Leipzig, was en route to Mexico.

([Photo caption:] When the Nürnberg was ordered to rejoin the East Asiatic Squadron at the outbreak of war, one of her first jobs was to cut the cable at Fanning Island, a relay station for the vital Pacific cable. On 7 September 1914 the cruiser landed a party of sailors, the Germans smashing the operating room, dynamiting the generating plant, dredging up the cable and cutting it. [Paul Schmalenbach Collection])

Impressive though it was, Germany’s naval squadron in the Pacific was dwarfed in size there by the country’s merchant fleet operating in that vast ocean. At this time, Germany was second only to Britain in merchant tonnage there. In the Pacific the presence of the German territories as well as the normal international trade meant that German merchant ships were frequent visitors to British empire ports; many of the supplies needed by the German settlers in New Guinea came from Australia, and it was the German shipping companies which provided the transport for those supplies. The merchant ships, at least those with radios, could keep in contact with Berlin. In the early years of the twentieth century the Germans installed a network of wireless stations to link their possessions and their ships, the main stations being at Yap, New Guinea and Samoa. In 1908 all German merchant captains had received instructions that in time of war they were to head immediately for a German possession or a neutral port. In February 1914 all German ships equipped with wireless were told to listen to German stations at 0700, 1300 and 2310 each day.

On 3 August 1914, literally the eve of war, there were many German merchant ships around the coast of Australia. The Seydlitz, a Norddeutscher-Lloyd (NDL) mail steamer, was berthed at Sydney’s Circular Quay. Also in Sydney that night were other NDL steamers: the Elsass at what was then the NDL wharf, the Melbourne at Garden Island and the Osnabruck at Woolloomooloo. The Sumatra had arrived from Hamburg the previous day, while the Germania was just in from the Caroline Islands. The Stolberg was docked at Fremantle and the Scharzfels and the Iserlohn had berthed at Adelaide, with the Cannstadt tieing up at Brisbane. The Pommern was at sea between Brisbane and Sydney.

From 3 August the Port of Sydney was closed at night. Three minutes after midnight on the previous day, at the other main port in New South Wales, Newcastle, the collier Luneberg had slipped out of that harbour with empty holds while the captain on the Ulm was so anxious to leave Newcastle he left two-thirds of his cargo on the wharf. The Australian authorities had already instructed the Navy to examine all ships entering or leaving defended ports.

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1918-11-11: End of the Shooting War

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5198-5212:

Behind the lines, the news rarely provoked outright celebration. When the battery commander, Major F. J. Rice, got up that morning and was on his way to the regimental mess for breakfast, one of his men told him that ‘it was all over sir’. Orders had come in that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. ‘All the officers took it very calmly,’ he recalled. After breakfast they managed to get their hands on a bottle of port and shared it with their NCOs. When they saw one of the sergeants walking across the gun park, they shouted out the news. The man merely halted, saluted, and said ‘very good, sir’, before continuing on, seemingly as unconcerned as ever.

The American First-Lieutenant Clair Groover of 313th Infantry Regiment – the junior officer who had survived the assault on Montfaucon – remembered how the quietness that followed the Armistice ‘got to you’. ‘It was so unreal, that it disturbed you emotionally,’ he admitted. ‘Some of the hardest officers wept. It was so unusual that you would walk around without being shot at.’ Within moments he noticed German soldiers getting up out of their positions and moving out into the open. One of them came over and told him, with tears in his eyes, that his brother had been killed the day before and that he would like permission to locate and bury the body. Groover agreed. That night ‘all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air. The first few scared you and you would flatten out on the ground, forgetting that it was all over. That night there were camp fires all along the lines.’ That was it; it was over. ‘It was the end of the shooting war.’

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1918: Quick Collapse on All Fronts

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4440-4447, 4754-4770:

For so long the various theatres of war in Europe, Italy and the Middle East had seemed frozen and immobile; stalemated and deadlocked. And then in late autumn, with surprising suddenness, the thaw finally set in. By 30 September, Bulgaria had signed an armistice, which opened up the southern flank of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was already on the verge of capitulation, and it took only a limited offensive by the Italian Army in the final week of October – the Battle of Vittorio Veneto – to push it over the edge. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was now entering its final death throes. What remained of the Turkish Army in Palestine had been routed at the Battle of Megiddo in late September, and over the following month General Sir Edmund Allenby’s troops pushed north, mercilessly harassing the retreating Turkish columns. Aleppo fell on 26 October and within days an armistice was signed on the island of Mudros – thus bringing the war in the Middle East to a victorious conclusion.

By the first week of November the German Army was in full retreat across the Western Front. From the air ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back,’ wrote one German pilot. Endless lines of weary troops splashed and shuffled their way eastwards, bowed down with their equipment, looking over their shoulders in fear, half expecting to see Allied aircraft or cavalry squadrons ready to scatter them again. It was an awful sight: the faces of young boys overshadowed by the steel helmets that were too big for them, or hobbling along in boots that had been worn away long ago; old veterans who had seen too many battles marching along with glassy eyes and a grim acceptance of death or wounding. It was by now a motley army; the exact opposite of the legions of proud feldgrau that had marched across Europe in the summer of 1914 on their way to enact Count von Schlieffen’s great war plan. The German Army had reached its end; worn down by four years of merciless slaughter and pounded into dust by the brutal Allied artillery bombardments. Some still believed in victory, in some divine intervention – a catastrophic outbreak of flu in Paris or London; a devastating fallout between the English and Americans perhaps – but most realized there was little they could do. How could they defeat the endless power of the Allied guns or their swarms of tanks? How many Americans would they have to kill before they too gave in? And in any case, was it really worth fighting and dying for any more? Did anyone really care whether Alsace-Lorraine was French or German?

Casualties were nothing short of catastrophic. Fritz von Lossberg estimated that by the time the German Army reached the Antwerp–Meuse Line it had lost over 400,000 men and 6,000 guns. Other authorities put it higher, and it is possible that between 18 July and 11 November the Army suffered 420,000 dead and wounded with another 385,000 men being taken prisoner. Such a magnitude of loss was simply unsustainable, and when this was combined with the thousands of casualties from Germany’s spring offensives earlier in the year – perhaps as high as a million – it meant that her army was bleeding to death.

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1918: Respect for German Gunners

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2481-2488, 4523-4538:

Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans: for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought. Within days of reaching the front with his division, Captain Grady saw a German plane fly low over the lines and drop a note addressed to their Commanding Officer. ‘Goodbye 42nd Division,’ it read, ‘hello 77th’. ‘Jerry sure is there with the humour,’ wrote Grady. For Frank Holden, his respect and admiration for the German soldier was summed up in his experience at Boucanville with 82nd Division. It was commonly said that the location of their battalion headquarters was well-known to the Germans, and that they could probably shell it any time they wanted. The divisional staff would joke about the time when three large shells – huge 210mm rounds – landed in a direct line near to the battalion headquarters; two shells behind, one in front. But no matter what the Germans did, they never moved their headquarters, simply because ‘we thought if we did then the Germans would drop a 210 on us just to show us that they knew that we had moved’.

For every group of cowed, shivering soldiers, there were others in the German Army who would not give in; those who were disputing their progress every day, inch by inch: the spine of the German defence, her machine-gunners. These men were both feared and respected. ‘The gunners were brave men,’ wrote T. H. Holmes, a Private with 56th (London) Division, ‘because firing the gun meant revealing the position of it, and up would come a tank and invariably shoot the post to pieces, and then trample it flat. I saw a ghastly mass of crushed heads and limbs tangled up with twisted iron. They said some of these machine-gunners were chained to their weapons.’ Another British soldier, a member of the Machine-Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs how these men repeatedly occupied the best positions with the most deadly fields of fire, and consequently always proved extremely dangerous. Like many soldiers, he soon became used to the sight of machine-gunners crushed beneath tanks. Although it was not true that these men were chained to their weapons – the strap that the gunners wore was often mistaken for some kind of restraint – their courage was legendary. On one occasion, a Canadian, R. H. Camp, came across a gunner who had fired off all his ammunition. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, but Camp was amazed by what happened next. ‘He stood up in his hole and started taking his gun to pieces and he was throwing the pieces at us, anything he could get a hold of. We knew then of course that he was out of ammunition and we up and rushed him.’ Just as the Canadians were about to get to grips with him, their officer ran up shouting. ‘Don’t stick him boys! Don’t stick him.’ He got out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and then put it in the German’s pocket. ‘Don’t touch this man, he’s brave.’ He then told the German to make his way back to the rear. The note was a signed declaration of the machine-gunner’s courage and a guarantee that he would not be harmed.

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