Current History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 online

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waylaid its twenty-two victims along the African coast, the Seeadler
turned southwest and preyed on South American trade.

One by one the Seeadler sent to the bottom the British ships Gladis
Royle, Lady Island, British Yeoman, Pinmore, Perse, Horngarth; the
French vessels Dupleix, Antonin, La Rochefoucauld, Charles Gounod, and
the Italian ship Buenos Aires. On March 7, 1917, it encountered the
French bark Cambronne two-thirds of the way between Rio de Janeiro and
the African coast and forced it to take on board 277 men from the crews
of the eleven vessels previously captured. The Cambronne was compelled
to carry these to Rio de Janeiro, where it landed them on March 20, thus
first revealing the work of the Seeadler to the world. On March 22 the
German Government announced the safe completion of the second voyage of
the M√ґwe. (See CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE for May, 1917, p. 298.)

Having thus ended its operations in the Atlantic, the Seeadler rounded
Cape Horn with the intention of scouring the Pacific. In June it
sank two American schooners in that ocean, the A. B. Johnson and R. C.
Slade, adding another, the Manila, on July 8, and making prisoners of
all the crews. Captain Smith of the Slade afterward told the story of
his experiences. His ship had been attacked on June 17, and he had at
first tried to escape by outsailing the raider; but after the ninth
shell dropped near his ship he surrendered. He continued:

They took all our men aboard the raider except the cook. Next
morning I went back on board with all my men and packed up. We left
the ship with our belongings June 18. We were put on board the
raider again. Shortly after I saw from the raider that they cut
holes in the masts and placed dynamite bombs in each mast, and put
fire to both ends of the ship and left her. I saw the masts go over
the side and the ship was burning from end to end, and the raider
steamed away.

After six months of hard life at sea the raider was in need of repairs
and the crew longed for a rest on solid land. Casting about for an
island sufficiently isolated for his purpose, the Captain, Count von
Luckner, decided upon the French atoll of Mopeha, 265 miles west of
Tahiti; he believed the little island to be uninhabited. The Seeadler
dropped anchor near its jagged coral reefs July 31, 1917. On Aug. 1
Captain von Luckner took possession of the islet and raised the German
flag over what he called the Kaiser's last colony. But the next day,
during a picnic which he had organized "to entertain his crew and
prisoners," leaving only a few men on board the Seeadler, a heavy swell
dropped the ship across an uncharted blade of the reef, breaking the
vessel's back. The Germans were prisoners themselves on their own
conquered islet!

Von Luckner had been incorrect in believing the island entirely
uninhabited. Three Tahitians lived there to make copra (dried cocoanut)
and to raise pigs and chickens for the firm of Grand, Miller & Co. of
Papeete; this firm was shortly to send a vessel to take away its
employes, a fact which the Germans learned with mixed emotions.

They brought ashore everything they could from their wrecked ship,
including planks and beams, of which they constructed barracks; also
provisions, machine guns, and wireless apparatus. The heavy guns were
put out of commission - likewise the ship's motor. The wireless plant, a
very powerful one, was set up between two cocoanut trees. It was
equipped with sending and receiving apparatus, and without difficulty
its operator could hear Pago-Pago, Tahiti, and Honolulu.

On Aug. 23 Count von Luckner and five men set out in an armed motor
sloop for the Cook Islands, which they reached in seven days. There they
succeeded in deceiving the local authorities, but a few days later they
and their boat were captured in the Fiji Islands by the local
constabulary and handed over to the British authorities. Thus ended the
Captain's hope of seizing an American ship and returning to Mopeha for
his crew.

On Sept. 5 the French schooner Lutece from Papeete arrived at Mopeha to
get the three Tahitians and their crops. First Lieutenant Kling took a
motor boat and a machine gun and captured the schooner, which had a
large cargo of flour, salmon, and beef, with a supply of fresh water.
Kling and the rest of the Germans, after dismantling the wireless, left
the island that night, abandoning forty-eight prisoners, including the
Americans, the crew of the Lutece, and four natives. Before going they
destroyed what they could not take with them, cut down many trees to get
the cocoanuts more easily, and left to the prisoners very scant
provisions, and bad at that. The few cocoanuts that remained were
largely destroyed by the great number of rats on the island. There was
plenty of fish and turtles.

After the flight of the Germans the French flag was hoisted on the
island and the twentieth-century Robinson Crusoes organized themselves
under Captain Southard of the Manila and M. Fain, one of the owners of
the Lutece. The camp was rebuilt, the supplies rationed out, the
catching of fish and turtles arranged, and the question of going in
search of help discussed. On Sept. 8 Pedro Miller, one of the owners of
the Lutece, set sail in an open boat with Captains Southard and Porutu,
a mate, Captain Williams, and three sailors, hoping to reach the Island
of Maupiti, eighty-five miles to the east; but after struggling eight
days against head winds and a high sea he returned to Mopeha with his
exhausted companions. Two days later, Sept. 19, Captain Smith of the
Slade, with two mates and a sailor, left the island in a leaky whaleboat
dubbed the Deliverer of Mopeha and shaped their course toward the west;
in ten days they covered 1,080 miles and landed at Tutuila, one of the
Samoan Islands, where the American authorities informed Tahiti by
wireless of the serious plight of the men marooned on Mopeha. The
British Governor at Apia - Robert Louis Stevenson's last home - also
offered to send a relief ship; but the Governor of the French
Establishments of Oceania, declining this offer with thanks, dispatched
the French schooner Tiare-Taporo from Papeete on Oct. 4.

Two days later the relief expedition sighted Mopeha by means of a column
of smoke that rose from the island, for the Robinson Crusoes had
organized a permanent signal system to attract the attention of passing
vessels. The arrival of the rescuers was greeted with frantic
acclamations. By evening the last boatload of refugees was aboard the
Tiare-Taporo, and on the morning of Oct. 10 the schooner reached
Papeete, where the prisoners at last were free.

The fate of the Lutece with the main body of the Seeadler's crew was
indicated, though not fully explained, by a cable dispatch from
Valparaiso, Chile, March 5, 1918, stating that the Chilean schooner
Falcon had arrived there from the Easter Islands with fifty-eight
sailors formerly belonging to the crew of the Seeadler. The sailors were
interned by the Chilean Government. Count Felix von Luckner, commander
of the Seeadler, who, with five of his men, had been captured by the
local constabulary of the Fiji Islands, was interned by the British in a
camp near Auckland, New Zealand. In December he and other interned
Germans escaped to sea in an open boat and traveled nearly 500 miles,
suffering from lack of food and water, but were recaptured after a two
weeks' chase.

Treatment of British Prisoners

Shocking Brutalities in German War Prisons Revealed in an Official

A report issued by an official British Investigating Committee, known as
the Justice Younger Committee, appointed to investigate the treatment of
British soldiers by their German captors, made public in April, 1918,
presents a shocking record of barbarities. The commission reported as

There is now no doubt in the minds of the committee that as early,
at the latest, as the month of August, 1916, the German Command were
systematically employing their British as well as other prisoners in
forced labor close behind the western firing line, thereby
deliberately exposing them to the fire of the guns of their own and
allied armies. This fact has never been acknowledged by the German
Government. On the contrary, it has always been studiously
concealed. But that the Germans are chargeable, even from that early
date, with inflicting the physical cruelty and the mental torture
inherent in such a practice can no longer be doubted.

Characteristically the excuse put forward was that this treatment,
not apparently suggested to be otherwise defensible, was forced upon
the German Command as a reprisal for what was asserted to be the
fact, namely, that German prisoners in British hands had at some
time or other been kept less than thirty kilometers (how much less
does not appear) behind the British firing line in France. This
statement was quite unfounded.

Furthermore, at the end of April, 1917, an agreement was definitely
concluded between the British and German Governments that prisoners
of war should not on either side be employed within thirty
kilometers of the firing line. Nevertheless, the German Command
continued without intermission so to employ their British prisoners,
under the inhuman conditions stated in the report. And that
certainly until the end of 1917 - it may be even until now - although
it has never even been suggested by the German authorities, so far
as the committee are aware, that the thirty kilometers limit agreed
upon has not been scrupulously observed by the British Command in
the letter as well as in the spirit.

"Prisoners of Respite"

The German excuse is embodied in different official documents, some
of which enter into detailed descriptions of the reprisals alleged
to be in contemplation because of it. These descriptions are in
substantial accord with treatment which the committee, from the
information in their possession, now know to have been in regular
operation for months before either the threat or the so-called
excuse for it, and to have continued in regular operation after the
solemn promise of April that it should cease. These documents
definitely commit the German Command to at least a threatened
course of conduct for which the committee would have been slow to
fix them with conscious responsibility. Incidentally they
corroborate in advance the accuracy, in its incidents, of the
information, appalling as it is, which has independently reached
the committee from so many sides.

As a typical example, the committee set forth a transcript in
German-English of one of these pronouncements, of which extensive
use was made. It is a notice, entitled, "Conditions of Respite to
German Prisoners." As here given, it was handed to a British
noncommissioned officer to read out, and it was read out to his
fellow-prisoners at Lille on April 15, 1917:

Upon the German request to withdraw the German prisoners of war to
a distance of not less than thirty kilometers from the front line,
the British Government has not replied; therefore it has been
decided that all prisoners of war who are captured in future will
be kept as prisoners of respite. Very short of food, bad lighting,
bad lodgings, no beds, and hard work beside the German guns, under
heavy shellfire. No pay, no soap for washing or shaving, no towels
or boots, &c. The English prisoners of respite are all to write to
their relations or persons of influence in England how badly they
are treated, and that no alteration in the ill-treatment will occur
until the English Government has consented to the German request;
it is therefore in the interest of all English prisoners of respite
to do their best to enable the German Government to remove all
English prisoners of respite to camps in Germany, where they will
be properly treated, with good food, good clothing, and you will
succeed by writing as mentioned above, and then surely the English
Government will consent to Germany's request, for the sake of their
own countrymen. You will be supplied with postcard, note paper, and
envelope, and all this correspondence in which you will explain
your hardships will be sent as express mail to England.

Starved to Death

It seems that the prisoners, from as early as August, 1916, were
kept in large numbers at certain places in the west - Cambrai and
Lille are frequently referred to in the evidence - but in smaller
numbers they were placed all along the line. Their normal work was
making roads, repairing railways, constructing light railways,
digging trenches, erecting wire entanglements, making gun-pits,
loading ammunition, filling munition wagons, carrying trench
mortars, and doing general fatigue work, which under the pain of
death the noncommissioned officers were compelled to supervise.

This work was not only forbidden by the laws of war, it was also
excessively hard. In many cases it lasted from eight to nine hours a
day, with long walks to and fro, sometimes of ten kilometers in each
direction, and for long periods was carried on within range of the
shellfire of the allied armies. One witness was for nine months kept
at work within the range of British guns; another for many months;
others for shorter periods. Many were killed by these guns; more
were wounded; deaths from starvation and overwork were constant. One
instance of the allied shellfire may be given. In May, 1917, a
British or French shell burst among a number of British and French
prisoners working behind the lines in Belgium. Seven were killed;
four were wounded.

But there is much more to tell. The men were half starved. Two
instances are given in the evidence of men who weighed 180 pounds
when captured. One was sent back from the firing line too weak to
walk, weighing only 112 pounds; the other escaped to the British
lines weighing no more. Another man lost twenty-eight pounds in six
weeks. Parcels did not reach these prisoners. In consequence they
were famished. Such was their hunger, indeed, that we hear of them
picking up for food potato peelings that had been trampled under
foot. One instance is given of an Australian private who, starving,
had fallen out to pick up a piece of bread left on the roadside by
Belgian women for the prisoners. He was shot and killed by the guard
for so doing.

Some Merciful Guards

It was considered, so it would seem, to be no less than a stroke of
luck for prisoners to chance upon guards who were more merciful. For
instance, one of them speaking of food at Cambrai says:

If it had not been for the French civilians giving us food as we
went along the roads to and from work we should most certainly have
starved. If the sentries saw us make a movement out of the ranks to
get food they would immediately make a jab at us with their rifles,
but conditions here were not so bad as at Moretz, where if a man
stepped out of the ranks he was immediately shot. I heard about
this from men who had themselves been working at Moretz, and had
with their own eyes seen comrades of theirs shot for moving from
the ranks.

At Ervillers in February, 1917, a prisoner's allowance for the day
consisted of a quarter of a loaf of German black bread, (about a
quarter of a pound,) with coffee in the morning; then soup at
midday, and at 4:30 coffee again, without sugar or milk. On this a
man had to carry on heavy work for over nine hours. The ration of
the German soldier at the same time and place consisted of a whole
loaf of bread per day, good, thick soup, with beans and meat in it,
coffee, jam, and sugar; two cigars and three cigarettes. The food
conditions at Marquion a little later are thus described:

We used to beg the sentries to allow us to pick stinging nettles
and dandelions to eat, we were so hungry; in fact, we were always
hungry, and I should say we were semi-starved all the time. While
we were here our Sergeants put in for more rations, but the answer
they got was that we were prisoners of war now "and had no rights
of any kind; that the Germans could work us right up behind their
front lines if they liked, and put us on half the rations we were
then getting."

Flogged with Dog Whip

The ration was coffee and a slice of bread at 4:45 A. M., soup of
barley and horseflesh at 2 P. M., eight pounds of barley and ten
pounds of meat between 240 men. And they were compelled to work hard
for eight or nine hours a day on this diet. The frequent cruelty of
the guards generally is a matter constantly referred to:

The German Sergeant in charge at Ervillers (says one prisoner) was
very harsh. Twice I saw him (this prisoner was there for a month
only) using a dog whip, and heard of him doing so on another
occasion. He used it mostly on men who were slow in getting out to
work owing to weakness.

The description by a body of these men on their arrival at a camp in
Germany, after being withdrawn from the front, may be taken as
another example of this:

We were forced to work; we were given hardly any food, and when we
fell down from sheer exhaustion we were kicked until we got up
again, and it was not until we absolutely could not get about that
we were sent back.

To add to their miseries, the accommodation provided for these
prisoners was in many cases pathetically inadequate. The witnesses
recur to this again and again. One sleeping place, for instance, for
a large party was a barn with no roof. The rain poured in upon the
men. They had to sleep in their wet clothes and work in the same
clothes. They had no change of any kind. And some of these
prisoners, if they survived so long, were kept behind these enemy
lines for over a year. Their quarters at Cambrai are thus described
by two of the men:

our uniforms, without either greatcoats or blankets. There was no
fire, and it was very cold. We lay on loose straw, which was full
of vermin, and we consequently became verminous. We could only
wash in a bucket of cold water, without either soap or towels.

The Germans did not supply us with any clothing, and as we had to
work in all weathers, conditions were very hard. Our clothes used
to get drenched through, but still we had to go back to barracks
and sleep in them. It was terribly cold also, especially without
our fur coats. We asked for clothing, but never got any.

No Parcels or Letters

But, added to all these hardships, it was the total absence of
parcels and the fact that letters or communications from their
friends rarely reached them that placed these prisoners, for misery,
in a class apart. Instances are on record where the very existence
of some of them was undisclosed by their captors for many months. In
March, 1917, for example, a body of these prisoners who had been
captured as long before as August, 1916, and had been kept at work
by the Germans behind their lines ever since, were returned to a
parent camp in Germany weak and emaciated. On arrival there they
found a number of their own names in the lists of missing men that
had been sent from our War Office through Switzerland and posted in
the camp. * * *

It seems almost incredible, but the committee do not doubt it to be
the fact, that as late as November, 1917, there were at
Limburg-am-Lahn undelivered between 18,000 and 20,000 parcels for
British prisoners on the German western front. In July, 1917, the
German delegates at The Hague plainly recognized that no distinction
in respect of the receipt of parcels could be properly made between
prisoners of war in occupied territories and others. The agreement
then concluded contains provisions on that subject. Having regard to
the condition of things at Limburg as late as November, 1917, the
committee can only regret that the effect of that agreement was
certainly at that date not so manifest as it ought to have been. The
matter, they add, is of tragic importance to the prisoners
concerned. It made and makes just the difference between starvation
and existence to the unfortunate sufferers.

Extracts from Evidence

The committee extract from the great mass of evidence now in their
possession statements as to the impression produced upon those who
actually saw our men upon their escape to the British lines or after
their transfer to camps in Germany. These statements, they believe,
must convince every impartial mind that it is impossible in terms of
exaggeration to describe the sufferings these prisoners had

In April, 1917, three of them escaped over "No Man's Land." They
were received by a British General Staff officer, a Major in the 1st
Anzac Corps. This is what he says of them, under date April 18,

Three men escaped from behind the German lines to us the other day.
They had been prisoners three months, and were literally nearly dead
with ill-treatment and starvation. One of them could hardly walk,
and was just a skeleton. He had gone down from 182 pounds to less
than 112 pounds in three months. I fetched him back from the line,
and it almost made me cry. All that awful January and February out
all day in the wet and cold; no overcoat, and at night no blanket,
in a shelter where the clothes froze stiff on him; no change of
underclothing in three months, and he was one mass of vermin, no
chance of washing. The bodies of all of them were covered with
sores. "Beaten and starved," one of them said, "sooner than go
through it again I'd just put my head under the first railway."

The following is the substance of statements by two witnesses from a
German camp:

About June, 1917, a party of about twenty English soldiers came in
who had been working behind the German lines on the western front. I
became friends with one of them. He was so weak that I have several
times seen him faint on parade. Another of them told me that he was
one of a party of 100 working behind the lines on the western front
digging trenches and carrying up supplies. He said they were all
very badly treated and starved. They were knocked about by the
Germans if they did not march as fast as they wanted them to,
although they were all so weak. He was only sent to Germany when he
became so weak as to be useless for work. When I left he did not
look as if he could lift a shovelful of sand. There was another whom
I knew. He had also been working behind the lines. They had to work
in clogs and no socks. He said they used to tie rags round their
feet. He was employed on road making. I never could have believed
the things I was told but for the terrible state the men were in,
which caused me to feel that no horror I was told was impossible.

Many were brought into the camp who had returned from working behind
the lines; they were in a shocking state, literally skin and bones,
hardly able to walk, and quite worn out physically and mentally;
their clothes threadbare and in rags, without boots, wearing old rag
slippers. They told me that the conditions of work behind the lines,
where some of them had been for months, were terrible; they had to
work eight hours a day, and generally were made to walk ten
kilometers out to their work, and the only food they were given was
one cup of coffee, a slice of bread, and some soup a day - a day's

"Shot at Sight"

From another camp comes the following testimony:

In May of this year a large party of British came into the camp, who
had returned from behind the German lines. They were ravenous
through being starved, and half savages. I spoke to several of them.
* * * Men were shot at sight for a slight cause, such as dropping

Online LibraryVariousCurrent History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 → online text (page 17 of 30)