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To Kiel in the 'Hercules' By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 19610

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The German Naval Armistice Commission, perhaps as a reaction from its belligerent attitude at the first conference at Kiel, manifested an increasing amenability to reason with every day that passed, as a consequence of which the work of the Allied Commission was pushed to a rapid completion. The search of the warships was completed in a couple of days, and the decision to limit the inspection of air stations to those west of Rügen reduced the visits of this character to three, all easily reached by destroyers. Of the town of Kiel, nothing was seen at close quarters, visits in that vicinity being limited to the dockyard, ships in the harbour, and the seaplane station of Holtenau, near the entrance to the canal.

Although the Allied ships under embargo hardly arrived at Kiel for inspection at the rate promised, there was little to indicate that the Germans were endeavouring to evade their promise of doing everything possible to facilitate the return of these to the Tyne at the earliest possible moment. The City of Leeds, a powerfully engined little packet which had been on the Hamburg-Harwich run before the war, furnished the only glaring instance of deliberate bad faith. The German Shipping Commission, declaring that her crew had ruined her engines and boilers by pouring tar into them when she was seized, claimed that she had been quite useless since that time, and disclaimed any responsibility for reconditioning her. On inspection by the Allied Shipping Commission, the statement that the engines had been damaged by anything but use and neglect was proved to be absolutely false. Why the Germans should have told so futile a lie was not fully explained, though as a possible reason it was suggested that some private party, desiring to keep the ship in his hands, had made a false report of her condition to the Shipping Commission.

The arrival and departure of Allied prisoners of war was one of the most interesting features of the week in Kiel. The most of these were British-picked up by one or another of the destroyers at this or that port touched at-but there was one large party of French, from a camp near Kiel, and several Belgians, Serbs, and Italians from heaven knows where. These were all made as comfortable as possible in the Hercules, and dispatched to England in the next mail destroyer. Except for a man now and then who was suffering from a neglected wound, they were in fairly good condition, a fact, however, which did not lessen their almost rapturous enjoyment of the heaping pannikins of "good greasy grub" (as one of them put it) that was theirs for the asking at any hour of the day they cared to slip up to the galley. Their delight in the band, in the ship's kinema, in "doubling round" for exercise in the morning, in anything and everything in the life in this their halfway station on the road home was a joy to watch.

Some of the British prisoners came from the same towns or counties as did men of the ship's company, and the exchange of reminiscences often went on far into the night. Passing across the flat between the ward-room and the commission-room late one evening, I heard a Lancastrian voice from a roll of blankets on the deck protesting to a bluejacket in the hammock above that "Jinny X--" of Wigan didn't have yellow hair when he (the owner of the voice) used to know her, and that, in fact, he'd always thought her rather a "shy 'un."

"Thot was afore she worked in a 'T.N.T.' fact'ry," replied the "hammock," with an intonation suggesting that he felt that was sufficient explanation of both changes.

A good deal of rivalry developed between the four escorting destroyers in the matter of picking up prisoners, and to hear their officers discussing their "bags" or "hauls" when they foregathered at night in the ward-room of the Hercules reminded one of campers drifting in at the end of the day and yarning of the ducks they had shot and the fish they had caught. "If we could have waited another half-hour twenty more were coming with us," claims Venetia. "But even with those," replies Vidette, "you would not have been anywhere near our sixty-nine." It was this latter "bag," indeed, which proved the record one of the "season," both in numbers and "quality," for it consisted entirely of non-commissioned officers from a camp near Hamburg.

H. M. S. "HERCULES" AND H. M. S "CONSTANCE" IN KIEL LOCKS

The same cringing attempts at ingratiation and conciliation which had been so much in evidence in the attitude of the civil population toward parties from the Commission when they met in streets or stations seem also to have been consistently practised in the case of prisoners about to be repatriated. Although the German takes naturally and easily to this kind of thing, just as he did to his schrecklichkeit and general brutalities, there was much in the way he went about making himself pleasant to returning prisoners that bore the marks of official inspiration. Several men who came to the Hercules brought copies of circular letters in English which, after pointing out that they had invariably been treated with the greatest courtesy and consideration possible under the very trying circumstances Germany found herself in on account of the blockade, hoped that they would bear no ill will away with them, and that the years to come might bring them back to Germany under happier circumstances. The screeds really had much the tone of an apologetic country host's farewell to guests whom he has had to keep on short commons on account of being snowed in or a breakdown on the line.

One of the best of them was addressed to "English Gentlemen," and went on as follows:-

"You are about to leave the newest, and what we intend to make the freest, republic in the world. We very much regret that you saw so little of what aroused our pride in the former Germany-her arts, sciences, model cities, theatres, schools, industries, and social institutions, as well as the beauties of our scenery and the real soul of our people, akin in so many things to your own.

"But these things will remain a part of the new Germany. Once the barriers of artificial hatred and misunderstanding have fallen, we hope that you will learn to know, in happier times, these grander features of the land whose unwilling guests you have been. A barbed wire enclosure is not the proper place from which to survey or judge a great nation. There will be no barbed wire enclosure in the Germany to which you will return a few months hence. In the meantime we feel that we can count upon you, forgetting the unpleasanter features of your enforced sojourn with us, to exert your influence to reunite the bonds of friendship and commerce which were bringing our countries ever closer and closer together before their unfortunate severance by the sword of war, and upon the knitting up again of which the future of both so greatly depends.

"Three cheers for peace and good will to all mankind!"

Rather a delicate little touch, that "bonds of commerce" one!

Unfortunately, the language in which most of the prisoners described the state of mind which this kind of thing left them in is not quite suited for publication. It was one of the mildest of them-a London cockney who seemed never quite to have got back all the blood he lost when his thigh was ripped open with shrapnel at the assault on Thiepval-who said that "Jerry" never would get over being surprised when "a bloke called 'im a b--y blighter arter 'e'd tried to shove a ersatz fag on you an' 'oped you w'udn't be bearin' 'im any 'ard feelin's in the years to come."

The attitude that German girls and women appear to have adopted toward Allied, and especially British, prisoners from the time the armistice went into force is not a pleasant thing to write of, and I confine myself to a single observation which an old sergeant of the "Contemptibles"-one of the sixty-nine that the Vidette brought from Hamburg-made on the subject. It was one of the most witheringly biting characterizations of a nation I have ever heard fall from the lips of any man. He had been telling me in a humorous sort of way of "raspberry leaf tea," ersatz coffee of various kinds, paper sheets, and various and sundry other substitutes, and then, switched off to the subject by a question regarding a statement a German officer had been heard to make about the relations of prisoners and women of the country, he spoke of the ways of the girls of Hamburg since the armistice.

"There is no doubt," he said, "that the young of both sexes have been getting more and more shameless in their morals ever since the beginning of the war, but it is only since we were practically set free by the armistice that the state of things has come home to prisoners. I don't think that there are very many British prisoners-certainly no man that I know personally-who have had anything to do with these young hussies; but that is not the fault of the girls, for they have pestered us only less in our camp than upon the street. It's principally because we have a bit of money now, and sometimes a bit of food that isn't ersatz. I don't think I'm exaggerating very much, sir, when I say that fifty per cent. of the girls of the lower classes in Hamburg would sell themselves for a cake of toilet soap or a sixpenny packet of biscuits. Ersatz food and ersatz women! By God, sir, Germany's a country of substitutes and prostitutes, and it's glad I am to be seeing the last of it!"

I have yet to hear the Germany of today summed up more scathingly than that.

Speaking of the moral degeneracy of Germany, a poster found by a member of the Commission in a train by which he was travelling sheds an interesting light on the subject. It was addressed to the "Youth of Wilhelmshaven and Rüstrin

gen" by the Council of Workmen and Soldiers, and the following is a rough translation.

"The German youth has been a witness of the great liberating act of the German Revolution. It has witnessed how the fetters of the old régime were burst and Freedom made her entry into the stronghold of reaction, the Prussian military state. And it is the youth of today which will reap the fruits of this great change. It will one day find as an accomplished fact all that for which the best of the people have sacrificed themselves.

"Therefore the most serious duties are laid upon the youth of today, to which it is becoming increasingly necessary to draw their attention. Complaints are unfortunately increasing of late that the youth is lapsing more and more into moral anarchy, which carries with it the most serious dangers for the future. Revolution does not mean disorder, but a new order. Remember that the whole future of Germany depends upon you; you are the trustees of the future. Be conscious of the great responsibility which rests today upon your young shoulders.... You must now learn to be equal to the task which awaits you. Obey your teachers and leaders. That is the first demand made upon all today.

"We expect, therefore, that you take this warning to heart, and that we may not be forced to take stronger measures against those among you who either cannot or will not submit!"

*****

There was a suggestion of power and strength in the name itself, and in setting out to inspect the Great Belt Forts there were few in the party who had not visions of uncovering the secrets of something very much in the nature of a Baltic Gibraltar or Heligoland. "Number One" or the "International" sub-commission turned out in full strength in anticipation of what had generally been regarded as the crowning, as it was the concluding, event of the visit. The very protestations of the Germans only whetted their interest the keener, for it was a precisely similar line to one they had taken in the matter of the visit to Tondern, where there had been something worth seeing. "Look out for surprises in connection with the 'Great Belt' inspection," was the word, and every one in any way entitled to attach himself to what was to be the last party landed before the return of the Commission to England made arrangements to do so.

Brave with swords, bright with brass hats, aglitter with aiguillettes was the imposing line of French, British, Italian, American and Japanese officers who filed across from the Hercules to the Verdun an hour before dawn on the morning of December 16. An hour after darkness descended, wet with rain, bespattered with mud, ashiver with cold, those same officers straggled back to the Hercules again. This is the order in which one of them summed up the day's observation: "The most notable event of the inspection," he said as he warmed his chilled frame before the ward-room fire, "was the sight of the first pig we have clapped eyes on in Germany; the next so was meeting a Hun with enough of a sense of humour to take us three miles round by a muddy road and over ploughed fields and deep ditches to a point he could have reached by a mile of comparatively dry railway track; and the third was a drive through ten miles of Schleswig countryside that was beautiful beyond words, even in the pelting rain. The Great Belt Forts? Oh, yes, we saw them. They were five holes in the ground on top of one hill, four holes in the ground on the top of another fifteen miles away, and a dozen or so ancient guns dumped into the hold of a tug. But-let's talk about the pig."

There is not much that I can add to the succinct summary of the inspection of the forts of the "Baltic Gibraltar." What the sub-commission saw-or rather failed to see-there went a long way toward confirming the impression (which had been growing stronger ever since the arrival of the Hercules at Wilhelmshaven) that Germany had depended upon mines rather than guns for the defence of her coasts. The porker mentioned was the one I alluded to in an earlier chapter as just failing to win the officer sighting it the pool which was to go to the first man who saw a pig in Germany, because an Irish-American member of the party had testified that it had "died from hog cholera an hour before it had been killed." The lovely stretch of farming country driven through showed many signs of its Danish character, and at several windows I even saw the red-and-white flag of the mother country discreetly displayed. This region, of course, falls well north of the line that is expected to form the new Danish boundary.

*****

At the final conference with the German Naval Armistice Commission, which was held in the Hercules on the morning of the 17th, Admiral Goette and his associates, in striking contrast to their belligerent attitude at the first meeting in Kiel, proved thoroughly docile and conciliatory. All of the important points at issue were conceded-including the surrender of submarines building and the delivery of the Baden in place of Mackensen-and tentative arrangements were made for future visits of special Allied Commissions whenever these should be deemed necessary to insure the enforcement of the provisions of the armistice. Work on the reconditioning of all Allied merchant ships was to be given precedence over everything else. Considering that he had no trumps either in his hands or up his sleeve, Admiral Goette played his end of the game with considerable skill. Such futile attempts at "bluffing" as he made were invariably traceable to pressure exerted upon him from the "outside," probably Berlin. Personally, in spite of the severe nervous strain he was under (the effects of which were increasingly noticeable at every succeeding conference), he deported himself with a dignity compatible with his heavy responsibilities. The same may be said of Captain Von Müller, which is perhaps as far down the list as it would be charitable to go in this connection.

*****

Weighing anchor at noon of the 18th, the Hercules was locked through into the canal in good time to see in daylight that section which had been passed in darkness in coming through from the North Sea. A rain, which turned into soft snow as the afternoon lengthened, was responsible for rather less frequent and numerous crowds of spectators than on the previous passage. The ubiquitous Russian prisoner was still much in evidence. An especially pathetic figure was that of a lone poilu-still in horizon blue, with the skirts of his bedraggled overcoat buttoned back in characteristic fashion-whom I sighted just before dark. Leaning dejectedly on his hoe in a beet-field, he watched the Hercules pass without so much as lifting a finger. Most likely the unlucky chap took her for a German, for the rapturous demonstrations with which a score of his comrades signalized their arrival aboard a few days before showed very clearly how a French prisoner would greet a British ship if he knew her nationality.

The Hercules went into her lock at Brunsbüttel an hour before midnight. The Regensburg, which had preceded her through the canal, was already in the adjoining lock, and in attempting to pass on the light cruiser Constance and three British destroyers at the same operation the canal people made rather a mess of things. There was a savage crashing and tearing of metal at one stage, followed by a considerable flow of profanity in two languages. When, the next morning in the Bight, a signal of condolence was made by the Hercules to one of the destroyers following in her wake on the "messy" state of its nose, the reply came back. "Don't worry about my nose. You ought to see the Regensburg. I've got a piece of her side-plating on my forecastle!" That was the second time the unlucky Regensburg had come to grief in locking through at Brunsbüttel with the ships of the Allied Naval Commission.

Owing to the fog, the Germans were unable, or unwilling, to send a ship to take off their pilots from the Hercules and escorting destroyers after the outer limits of the mine-fields had been passed, and it became necessary as a consequence to carry them on to Rosyth. The change of air and food incidental to their personally conducted tour to Scapa (to await the next German transport home) was evidently a by no means disagreeable prospect to them, judging by the way they took the news. The steward who reported that the pilot he was looking after had been "stowing away grub like he expected a long continuance of the blockade," may have stumbled upon the reason for their philosophic attitude.

We found the Firth of Forth as we left it-wrapped in fog. There was just enough visibility to make it possible to find the gates in the booms and the main channel under the bridge. The historic voyage came to an end when the Hercules, after tying up to the Queen Elizabeth's buoy for a few hours, went into the dry dock at two-thirty in the afternoon of the 20th. The Commission left for London the same evening in a special train provided by the Admiralty.

THE END

Transcriber's Notes

Simple typographical errors were corrected.

Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

Spelling in "dialect" passages not changed.

German nouns printed in lower-case have not been changed to upper-case.

Inconsistently-spaced abbreviations have not been changed.

The following three typographical errors were corrected by referencing a later edition of this book:

Page 90, paragraph ending: "Liverpool or Liverpool?" ended with a comma and closing quote.

Page 144 "the latter being" was printed as "the later being".

Page 287: "model cities" was printed as "model cites".

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