Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Captain of the Emden Reflects on the German Naval Disasters of 1914


Crew of SMS Emden Abandoning Their Beached Ship

Captain Karl von Müller of the Cruiser SMS Emden, was taken prisoner after his ship was defeated and by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney and subsequently beached in the Battle of Cocos, 9 November 1914.  A prisoner of war for the duration, he wrote this letter to his parents sometime in the late stages of the struggle. His father was a retired colonel in the Prussian Army.

Captain Karl von Müller
"And so, dearest mother and father, I near the end of my story. Only Dresden got away from the carnage off the Falklands. This lone ship of our proud East Asiatic Squadron remained afloat. But Admiral Sturdee's avengers eventually caught up with her too, sending her down to join Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, and Leipzig at the bottom of the ocean. Of ships' companies of 2,800 officers and men that had sailed from Valparaiso into history in November 1914, less than 500 lived to tell their tales. Most of these were from Dresden. The large part of her crew was able to abandon ship and thus avoid a cruel death at sea.

The same could not be said for SMS Karlsruhe, whose magazines exploded mysteriously in Barbados. She met her end five days before we did—if Graf Spee had made it to the Caribbean he would have searched for her in vain.

And what of those of us who had sailed west into the Indian Ocean? Most men of the Emden never saw home again either. Mücke and Lauterbach were among the lucky ones, but they made their own luck. My first officer and fifty men of the landing party on Cocos Island commandeered a schooner and, after many harrowing adventures in the Indian Ocean, made landfall in Arabia. From there they went to Istanbul, and eventually back to the Fatherland. Lauterbach and the crew of our collier Exford were captured by the British and imprisoned in Singapore with the crew of our first collier, Markomannia, and those aboard Pontoporos. The big man led a daring prison break, however, and, like Mücke, returned home.

Most of my crew was not so fortunate. The Battle of the Cocos Islands killed or wounded 208 men. Only 117 of us were uninjured when the British brought us to our POW cells on Malta. We all suffered terribly from the guilt that the survivors of wars always feel.

Admiral Graf von Spee
Yes, our war was tragic, but after it ended for me, Graf Spee and his sons, and 2,500 sailors from the squadron who did not survive, things got worse, much worse—it is with good reason that they are calling it the 'Great War.' More than ten million soldiers will die before it is all over. Prisoners have not been taken. Unthinkable atrocities have been committed against civilians: hostages have been shot, innocents hung as assassins or spies, passenger liners sunk without warning, and whole peoples uprooted and driven mercilessly to their deaths—Jews, Poles, Greeks, and Armenians. And, as you know better than I, hundreds of thousands are dying of starvation and disease in Germany and Austria-Hungary during these years of Great Britain's merciless hunger blockade. There is no honor in this war. I am ashamed for humanity.

My parents, I fear for our times. The Great War has cut down the Russian monarchy, and it will fell both of our allied empires too. Later they may be reestablished and united, but it will surely happen under the evil banner of nationalistic fanatics who will trigger another great war that will scourge Europe and the world and inflict far higher human cost. And when that second great world war comes to an end the terrible weapons it will surely spawn—weapons much worse than our already terrible killing machines—will certainly grip the entire world in fear. And what if terrorists like those that killed Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 acquire these weapons of truly mass destruction? There will never be peace in our time. Alas, we played our role in starting all of this in 1914—we were so naïve and unexpecting. But all of us in every country opened this terrorizing Pandora's Box. All of this happened under the teary eyes of God."

Will we, his children, ever learn?

2 comments:

  1. What an insightful and prescient letter!

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  2. That last paragraph is astonishing.

    ReplyDelete