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   Chapter 6 MERCHANT SHIPPING

To Kiel in the 'Hercules' By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 30605

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The difference between the work of the Shipping Board of the Allied Naval Armistice Commission and that of the other sub-commissions was well defined by one of its members when he facetiously described it as "the only branch of the business that pays dividends." The work of the sub-commissions for the inspection of warships, seaplane and airship stations and forts, in that it was for the purpose of seeing that certain disarmament or demolition had been carried out, was largely destructive; that of the Shipping Board, on the other hand, which had as its end the return to the Allies of all of their merchant ships interned in German harbours, was constructive. The Shipping Board began to "pay dividends" (in the form of steamers dispatched for home ports) almost from the day of the arrival of the Hercules in Wilhelmshaven, and these continued steadily until the last of the interned ships surviving-a number had, unfortunately, been lost in mine-sweeping and other dangerous work in which the Germans had employed them-had found its way back to resume its place as a carrier of men and merchandise and restore the heavily depleted tonnage of the country to which it belonged.

At the outbreak of the war there were ninety-six Allied vessels in German harbours, and all of these were promptly placed under embargo. Of these, eighty were British, fourteen Belgian, and two French. As all of the French and Belgian ships were small craft, their tonnage was practically negligible. Besides these embargoed ships, the Allied Commission had been directed to demand and arrange for the return of the thirty-one-twenty-one British, eight Belgian, one American, and one Brazilian-Allied ships which had been condemned in German Prize Courts since the outbreak of the war. Ten of these, it was subsequently learned when the question came up in conference, had been sunk, the Germans having made a practice of using Allied ships in their hands for all work involving great risk.

The question of the return of mercantile tonnage was taken up in the course of the first conference in the Hercules at Kiel. Admiral Goette was requested to produce a complete list of all Allied and American ships lying at the time in German ports, including all mercantile vessels which had been condemned in Prize Courts. This list was to show clearly which vessels were considered seaworthy, and if unseaworthy, from what cause. It was also requested that information should be given as to which of these ships were fitted for mine-seeking or mine-sweeping, as it was planned to leave these temporarily in German hands in order to facilitate the efforts she was supposed to be making to clear the way for navigation. It was directed that ships ready to take the sea should be bunkered and ballasted at once, and that towage should be provided for sailing ships. All explosives were to be removed, and the Germans were ordered to provide a steamer to bring back the crews from the ports at which the embargoed ships had been delivered-the Tyne, in case of British vessels, and Dunkerque for French.

In respect to the ships considered unseaworthy, Admiral Goette was requested to arrange for all machinery, boilers, tanks, and spaces to be opened up, and the equipment made ready for inspection by the Sub-Commission for Shipping. Following this inspection, immediate facilities for dry docking and the carrying out of such repairs as the Sub-Commission considered necessary to prepare each vessel for sea were to be provided.

Although more than three weeks had passed since the signing of the armistice, Admiral Goette admitted at once on the presentation of these demands that not only had no seaworthy Allied ship started on its voyage home, but that nothing whatever had been done in the way of repairing any of those not seaworthy. He agreed, however, to do what he could to expedite matters from that time on in the case of the embargoed ships, but protested that, as the ships condemned in the Prize Courts had, according to German law, ceased to be Allied vessels, he had no authority to deliver them. On being told that the Allied Commission had been appointed to deal with the terms of the armistice, not to discuss matters of German or any other law, he finally gave way and agreed to furnish a list of the prize ships. He made the reservation, however, that the "question of legality," since it did not concern the conferring commissions, should be taken up later between the interested Governments.

Indeed, protests, as preliminaries to acquiescence, formed the major part of the German notes on the shipping question, as will be seen from the following extracts. "I herewith bring officially to your notice," the President of the German Sub-Commission wrote after the first conference, (1) "that we do not recognize the obligations demanded by the Allies to deliver embargo ships on the 17th December by the fact that we are willing to deliver them at the earliest possible moment"; and (2) "that embargo ships proceeding out at the request of the Allies without having been reconditioned in a manner to put them in the same condition in which they were at the beginning of the war will leave prematurely under protest. Germany declines any further obligations with regard to these ships." Writing after the first extension of the armistice and referring to that fact, he intimates that "the period for fulfilling the provisions of Article XXX" (the repair of ships) "is also prolonged until January 17, 1919. Accordingly Germany is not obliged to hand over the interned ships before the 17th January. In spite of this Germany will make every endeavour in the future also to deliver these interned ships as soon as possible, and, as hitherto, will seek to carry out the terms of the armistice most loyally.... Without being under any obligation to do so, and merely in order to furnish further proofs of the loyal and business-like intentions of carrying out the terms of the armistice, measures have been taken for carrying on reconditioning, as far as that is possible and without prejudice, in accordance with the newest regulations of the British Lloyd."

The same formula, it will be observed, was followed in connection with each subject under consideration. There was first the protest, then an intimation that the wish of the Allies should be carried out in spite of the fact there was no obligation to do so, and finally the invariable "patting of themselves on the back" on the part of the Germans for the "loyalty of spirit" thus displayed.

There was a subtle appeal to British sportsmanship in this paragraph from one of the communications of the President of the German Shipping Commission. "I again request you to signify your approval that the German embargo steamer, Marie (ex Dave Hill), now lying in Batavia, in recognition of her signal services during the war, both from the military point of view and seamanship, should be permitted first to put in with her crew to a German port; the ship will then, after handing over her German fittings, be delivered as quickly as arranged in the Tyne."

It was not stated what the "signal services" of the Marie had been in the war, nor for whom they had been performed; but I am under the impression she was the ship which was credited with the very fine exploit of running the British blockade of East Africa, delivering a cargo of arms and munitions to Von Letow, and then making her escape to the Dutch Indies. As this cargo was the one thing which enabled the East African campaign to be carried on to the end of the war (when it must otherwise inevitably have terminated a year or two earlier), there can be no two ways of looking at the "signal service" the Marie performed-for the Germans.

Owing to the difficulty in securing crews to take the ships to the Tyne, Admiral Goette requested that the Allied Commission should furnish in advance a guarantee of safety for those who could be induced to make the voyage. Admiral Browning's reply was a counter-demand for a guarantee of safety for the parties landing from the Hercules to carry out their inspections of German ships and air stations. "The word of my Commission is given here and now," he said, "in the presence of many witnesses, for the security of any German subject who may, in the course of the execution of the armistice, land in Great Britain. It is not customary to give written assurances regarding the honourable observation of the law of nations, but in the case of Germany we are obliged to ask for guarantees in writing because of the description which has been furnished us of the state of the country. We are obliged to ask before we take any steps to see that the terms of the armistice are executed, that the parties should be able to perform their duties without danger, let, or hindrance."

Admiral Goette conceded this demand, and then went on to press his own in a statement highly illuminative of the abject position the German naval authorities found themselves in their relations with both the men of the warships and merchant sailors. "I wish to explain," he said, "that the request which we make is not to be construed into an expression of suspicion or distrust. It is merely in the interests of the men themselves, as we experienced in the case of the personnel of the submarines taken to English ports that the men were obviously under great apprehension that something might happen to them on coming into English parts. The guarantee is merely wanted as something definite to show the crews, as we have great difficulty in getting the men to believe us. That is why we also suggest that the German Commission should receive the minutes of the conference, as they would be quite enough for our purpose in order to be able to show the men in print that the declaration has been actually made."

The mutual guarantees were subsequently given in writing as follows:-

Guarantee by the Government at Berlin as to the Safety of Members of the Allied Commission during their Stay in Germany.

Berlin.

December 6, 1918.

Foreign Office.

No. 172192.

The safety of the members of the Allied Commission and of the representatives of the United States is guaranteed by the Government of the State for the whole extent of German territory. All representatives and functionaries of the Administration of the State, the Federal States and Municipalities of the Army and of the Navy are requested to give them every protection and to assist them in every way in the unhindered execution of their work.

The Government of the State.

(Signed) Ebert.

Haase.

Guarantee as to Security of German Crews of Merchant Vessels

H.M.S. Hercules.

December 6, 1918.

The Allied Naval Armistice Commission.

No. 0379.

In reply to your verbal request of yesterday, 5th December, 1918, we hereby authorize you to communicate to those concerned our assurance that the security of the crews sent over in merchant vessels, restored under Article XXX, Terms of Armistice, will be properly safeguarded on their arrival in British or French ports.

A copy of this document will be forwarded to the Admiralty in London and to the Ministry of Marine in Paris accordingly.

(Signed) M. E. Browning, Vice-Admiral.

(Signed) M. F. A. Grasset, Contre-Amiral.

To Rear-Admiral Ernst Goette.

Guarantees having been provided, the following instructions were handed to the German Commission regarding the carrying out of inspections under the terms of the armistice:-

1. The Allied Naval Commission shall be received on board each mercantile vessel to be inspected by officers of approximately equivalent rank and conducted through the vessel, visiting such places and compartments as the Allied Commission may wish.

2. All compartments are to be adequately lighted.

3. All vessels shall be cleared of men before and during the inspection, with the exception of those necessary to open up machinery, doors, hatches, etc.

4. If guns are mounted they are to be uncovered, and all explosives removed from the vessel.

The Allied inspection parties were instructed as follows:-

(a) To satisfy themselves that all Allied vessels are bunkered, ballasted, and sufficiently manned for the passage to the Tyne, in the case of British and Belgian vessels, and to Dunkerque, in the case of French vessels.

(b) To ensure that the necessary repairs and dry docking of unseaworthy ships are carried out by the German authorities.

(c) To ascertain that sufficient deck and engine stores are provided for the passage.

(d) That all ships' papers, including Log Book and Register, confiscated on internment are returned.

(e) That ammunition and explosives are landed from the vessels which have been used for war purposes.

The arrival of the lists of embargo and prize ships showed them to be scattered about among a large number of ports on both the North Sea and the Baltic. As lack of time precluded the possibility of visiting Danzig or any other Baltic ports east of Kiel, it was arranged that all seaworthy ships in these ports should proceed to Kiel for inspection. After completing the inspection of the five ships in Wilhelmshaven (two of which were found to have machinery defects which made it impossible to deliver them without extensive repairs), the Shipping Board departed by train for Hamburg and Bremerhaven, where the greater part of their work was to be done. Before they rejoined the Hercules three days later at Kiel over thirty British ships had been inspected and the preliminary steps taken for their return to the Tyne.

Admiral Goette's report at the first conference respecting conditions at Hamburg and the vicinity had made it appear probable that a visit to the Elbe would be entirely out of the question, and even after guarantees of safety had arrived it still seemed that venturing there would be attended by uncertainty if not danger. "In the Elbe," the President of the German Commission had said, "power is entirely in the hands of the Workmen's and Soldiers' Council, and Naval Officers have no authority or influence whatever. One of the chief supports of the Workmen's and Soldiers' Council is the light cruiser Augsburg. There are also some torpedo-boats, mine-sweeping vessels and other small craft there which should be disarmed; but officers at Wilhelmshaven have no power to see to it, nor can they give any definite information as to what is there.... The Elbe is much less under the influence of the Berlin Government than either Wilhelmshaven or Kiel. The Elbe Republic appears to have been much more radical than the others from the start, and has from the beginning of the Revolution refused to co-operate with the Naval Officers, while such co-operation was at once in effect in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel."

It is by no means improbable that Admiral Goette was quite sincere in this summary of conditions on the Elbe; indeed, so far as the lack of authority on the part of Naval Officers was concerned, it was an accurate statement of the case. But in assuming that this would necessarily make it impossible for the Allied Shipping Board to carry out their work he proved quite wrong. Contemptuous as they were of their ex-officers, the men, far from displaying a

ny desire to interfere with the work of the Commission, proved themselves no less willing than their mates in Wilhelmshaven to help in any way they could. The Workmen's and Soldiers' Council took over the protection of the party from the moment of its arrival, and, save for a single incident which could hardly have been classed as "preventable," nothing of an untoward nature occurred in the course of the visit.

IN THE ELBE, HAMBURG

RAILROAD STATION AT HAMBURG

At Hamburg the party put up at the Hotel Atlantic, where they reported that their comfort was extremely well looked after in every way. Occupying a wing to themselves and using a private dining-room, they saw little of the other guests. They were not allowed to linger in the foyer or any of the public rooms on the ground floor, and as soon as they had reached their rooms an armed guard of the Workmen and Soldiers took station at the entrance to the corridor. These precautions appeared quite unnecessary, as no signs of unfriendliness of any kind were in evidence.

The rooms were large and furnished with all their pre-war luxuriousness. The linen was abundant and of fine quality. The steam heaters had to be turned off to prevent the rooms becoming overheated. The response from the hot-water taps was immediate. The brass fittings were still in place, and there were no signs of ersatz towels, sheets, or even lace curtains. Soap was the only thing missing, but that difficulty was common to all Germany. Food (even on one of the days which was meatless) was both abundant and wholesome-"well up to the average in a first-class English hotel," as one of the members put it. There was an ample and varied wine list to order from, including-besides many Rhine and Hungarian brands-several French and Italian brandies and liqueurs. There was some discussion over the cigars, the only point upon which the Commission were unanimous being that they were not tobacco, and that any member desiring to experiment in the effect of them upon a human being should do so upon himself, and in his own room. German "substitute" tobacco looks better than it smokes; in fact, the only way in which the Workmen's and Soldiers' guards attached to our parties were in the least obnoxious was through putting up "smoke barrages," and even these were avoidable except in turrets, magazines, shaft tunnels, and other enclosed spaces.

The inspection of the twenty-four British ships in the Elbe revealed the fact that it had been the German practice to convert the best of the embargo steamers into mine-layers, net-layers, seaplane carriers, and other types of war auxiliaries. These had been kept in the best of condition, and, allowing for the hard service they had been engaged in, were in practically as good shape as when first seized. The second-grade steamers and sailing vessels had merely been laid up and left to go to rack and ruin. Stripped of everything in the way of metal or gear that was likely to prove of use elsewhere, unpainted, uncared-for and covered with four-and-a-half years' accumulation of rust and filth, they presented a sorry sight. Although yielding little in the way of metal or technical instruments, the sailing ships had furnished useful loot in the form of hempen ropes and canvas, of both of which they were stripped to the last ravellings.

There was one very interesting discovery made in connection with the inspection of these laid-up ships in the Elbe. A number of them were found to have been filled with concrete, with the evident intention of using them as block ships. Naturally, no explanation of what had been in the wind to prompt this action was volunteered, but the fact that the work had been done at a comparatively recent date pointed strongly to the probability that the Germans, stung to the quick by the blocking of Zeebrugge and Ostend, were preparing a reply, most likely against the entrance to the Tyne. One has only to look at the chart to understand that the latter is a readily "blockable" estuary-to any adequately equipped force able to reach the proper point. Needless to say, such a contingency was not unprovided against, and it would have been a near-miracle if even the most dare-devil leadership could have brought such a force halfway across the North Sea. Whether the armistice put an end to uncompleted preparations, or whether the plan was given up in despair before that time (perhaps through a failure to secure the necessary force of volunteers), there was nothing to indicate, though doubtless revelations throwing light on this interesting mystery will be forthcoming from Germany before long.

Fortunately, the concrete had been put into these ships in the form of blocks instead of being poured, so that the clearing of their holds was not a serious matter.

The drives in motor-cars through the streets of Hamburg revealed the same well-dressed, well-fed crowds which had been so much in evidence in Wilhelmshaven, and not even in the docks or shipyards were there any signs of the starvation we had been assured prevailed in all the great industrial centres. The people were mildly curious but not in the least unfriendly. The only occasion on which anything unpleasant occurred was when a navvy, splashed by the mud from one of the leading cars, petulantly slammed his shovel through the glass of the next in line. The nerves and tempers of the three French shipping commissioners were the only things beside the glass which suffered seriously as a consequence of this contretemps. The Workmen's and Soldiers' guards promptly asserted their authority by arresting the captious culprit, profuse apologies for the indignity were offered by the German officers conducting the party at the time, and later the President of their Shipping Commission called on Commodore Bevan at the hotel to make formal expression of regrets.

There was a refreshing na?veté in the explanation offered by one of the German officers of the reason for this little incident. "It was all the fault of the chauffeur," he said. "The man used to drive for Admiral X-- of the General Staff, and he forgot that he must no longer let his car throw mud on the street workmen."

The German naval officer who received the Allied party on one of the British merchantmen was found in a state of considerable excitement. He had been fired at from the darkness the night before, he said, and missed by a hair. Interpreting this as a warning against wearing his naval uniform ashore, he had dressed in civil attire that morning, brought his uniform along in a parcel, and changed into it on board.

"You'd pity any one but a Hun for having to do a thing like that," was the dry comment of one of the British members of the party when this tale of woe was translated to him.

An instance of the unquenchable optimism of the German industrialist regarding the eagerly awaited future when the seas and the markets of the world are again open to him was furnished in the course of a visit to the great Blohm and Voss yards, which occupy about the same position on the Elbe as do those of John Brown or Fairfields on the Clyde, or Harland and Wolff at Belfast. Several of the embargo ships were undergoing repairs here, and in going over one of these it was pointed out by Commodore Bevan that it ought to be ready to put to sea some days inside the limit set by the Germans for the completion of reconditioning.

"It is quite true the ship will be in a state to make the voyage to the Tyne by the time you say," replied Herr M--, the Director who was showing the party round, "but it will take a number of days longer to put it in the same state it was when placed under embargo. It would be a short-sighted policy on our part to send a badly repaired ship out of our yards at the present time, for it would be certain to react seriously in the matter of future orders. You must bear in mind, sir, that we have a world-wide reputation for thoroughness to maintain."

He appeared far from reassured when he was told that the condition he sent the British ships home in would have no effect whatever upon his future business with the rest of the world; moreover, he must have found that the longer he pondered that plain statement the less comfort there was to be extracted from it. It is astonishing how few Germans appear to realize that there are other things besides workmanship and quality-to say nothing of long credits, state subsidies and pushful salesmen-that will profoundly affect the future of German trade.

The inspection of the eight interned vessels at Bremerhaven brought out nothing of more than routine interest, but the visit to the great home port of the North German Lloyd on the Weser, just as had the one to that of the Hamburg-Amerika Line on the Elbe, offered an incomparable opportunity to see at first hand the staggering blow which the war had dealt to German shipping and-through shipping-to German foreign trade. Although the fact that I had been attached for the moment to the sub-commissions inspecting seaplane and Zeppelin stations prevented my visiting Hamburg and Bremerhaven with the Shipping Board, an illuminating glimpse of the latter was offered me during the passage of the Weser in the course of the journey to Nordholz.

Although the day was overcast and there was some mistiness on the water, one could still see far enough up and down stream during the passage to note the effects of the complete stagnation which had settled from the outbreak of the war upon this second of Germany's great maritime ports. The name Bremerhaven had appeared in raised gilt letters across the stern of every one of the hundreds of North German Lloyd steamers, and from New York to Shanghai, from Sydney to Durban, one was confronted with it in most of the ports of the world, but especially those of the Far East and Australia. I had seen it on the black-hulled, buff-funnelled freighters that were carrying Dutch goods from Ternate to Batavia, Chinese goods from Tientsin to Foochow, Japanese goods from Kobe to Nagasaki, British goods between Sandakan and Singapore. The "Crossed Keys" house-flag was known throughout the East as the symbol of that notorious German trade policy of heavy rate-cutting until competition had been killed and then a forcing up of tariffs to just under a figure which would be calculated to revive competition. But while the Germans had plotted thus ruthlessly to strangle foreign competition, between their own lines nothing of the kind was ever allowed to go on. The Hamburg-Amerika and the Norddeutscher-Lloyd, with three or four other German lines of secondary importance, had divided up the world into "spheres" of trade, with no line encroaching upon that of another except for certain inevitable "over-lapping" in passenger traffic on the Mediterranean and North Atlantic routes.

The lines of the Norddeutscher-Lloyd were stretched like the tentacles of an octopus over the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Pacific, and at the outbreak of the war it was sucking trade from every British, French, Dutch, and Scandinavian line that plied to the ports of Australia, Malaysia, China, and the Philippines upon which it had fastened its slimy grip. The "N.D.L." was more than a German steamship line; it was Germany itself-Germany beginning to rivet down the edges of its "places in the sun." It was Herr Heiniken, the president of this great instrument of "Deutschland Ueber Alles," who, in Hongkong in 1911, exclaimed to a diplomat with whom he was discussing the Kaiser's Agadir bluff: "War! that, sir, is the one thing I want to avoid. What do we want to spend money and men on war when-within ten years at our present rate of progress-we can win everything that the most successful war could possibly give us? War might be a short cut to German world-power; and again, it might not. But hegemony by the trade route-provided only we continue to enjoy the freedom we have today-is sure. Our ships and merchants have already won half the battle, and victory is in sight if they are only allowed to go on."

Herr Heiniken was a hard-headed, clear-seeing man, and one shudders to think how much truth there was in the words quoted. But the slower, more round-about "trade route" to world-power did not suit the hot-headed Junkers, and they forced their country to attempt to reach by the short-cut of war what was almost within the reach of their merchants and shippers. And that day at Bremerhaven we saw one of the results. There, sluddered down into the slime from which he rose, his tentacles all either severed or drawn in, was the remains of the "N.D.L." octopus. Miles and miles of what were once black-and-buff freighters and liners were lying so deep in harbour silt that it would have taken a dredger to get them out of their slips. The tangles of sagging, weed-fringed mooring cables running over and about them-for all the world as though they had been meshed in the web of a Gargantuan spider-accentuated the helpless immobility of craft that had once flaunted the arrogant red, white, and black bunting of the German merchant marine in the uttermost corners of the Seven Seas.

That river full of rotting ships was more than quiet-it was dead. The anchorage of the interned High Sea Fleet, off the inner entrance to Gutter Sound in Scapa Flow, was the first cemetery I had seen of the ships of the power whose ruler had proclaimed that its future was upon the sea. Bremerhaven was another graveyard of that ambient ambition. And the rusting hulks of the remains of the "N.D.L." fleet was not all that was buried in the port of opulent Bremen. The ships were only the tombstones. Deep in the mud beneath their keels was sunk the crumpled framework of a plan which was a long way farther on the way to consummation than most of Americans and Britons will ever realize-Germany's scheme to attain world domination by trade. Germany will, in time undoubtedly have another merchant marine, and she may even begin striving before long toward world domination by any means, fair or foul, that offers a chance of success. But there is a slight probability that she will ever again hit upon any road that will take her so far toward the goal of "Deutschland Ueber Alles" as did the "trade route," the way to which is now all but closed. There was the dankness of mould in the wind that blew across the graveyard of the high ambitions that lie buried beyond hope of resurrection in the mud beneath the weed-foul bottoms of the ships of Bremerhaven.

The whole atmosphere of the stagnant waterfront was brooding and gloomy, and as we drew near to the landing I was conscious of a pronounced depression, for no man who loves the sea can remain unmoved at the sight of neglected ships. To this mood the cheery chatter of a young American Ensign, who had just sauntered out on deck after warming his toes at the charcoal brazier in the tug's cabin, came as a welcome diversion.

"There's a lot of funny things chalked up on the walls around the docks," he said, running his eyes over the signs along the front, "but the one word that is written over the whole darn layout is 'Ichabod.' 'N.D.L.' is the only other to run 'one-two-three' with it. By the look of things I take it that stands for 'No D--m Luck.'"

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