Deeds That Thrill The Empire. Page 262.
First Of The Commerce Raiders (Sinking Of The “Kaiser Wilhelm Der
For many years before the outbreak of war Germany had been
preparing elaborate plans for the starvation of England.
Not only were regular cruisers built with unbroken regularity,
but also arrangements were made whereby a large number of liners and
merchant ships could be armed with guns and stored with ammunition at
very short notice, and proceed at once to the destination of British sea
borne trade. Many people in
this country regarded the danger as an extremely grave one for us, and
all sorts of demands were made at various times on the Government to
provide hordes of cruisers for protection against the menace.
When the “real thing” came, however, we were to discover very
quickly how hollow the threat really was, and the remarkable promptitude
of the Navy in dealing with it. The
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, though not the largest or the latest, was one
of the most famous ships in the German merchant fleet.
When she was built in 1897 she was the fastest on the Atlantic
route, and so proud of herself were the Germans at snatching the “blue
riband” from Great Britain that they painted along the ship’s sides
in great letters the sardonic legend “Made in Germany.”
The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was one of the many ships detailed
for the attack on our commerce and early in the war she was able to
steal out of New York, mount her guns, and take onboard ammunition and
trained without being in any way interfered with by our patrolling
No warship ever had a more inglorious career.
Keeping as far to the north as she could, she came eastward
across the Atlantic, and in a few days made her first capture. She was, let it be remembered, a ship of over 14,000 tons,
with a length of 626 feet; and she opened the campaign against the
British mercantile marine by sinking a little fishing boat off Iceland! After that, she picker her way south with the object of
waylaying shipping on the way to the Cape, and although she sank only
two vessels, her presence in those waters caused a good deal of
apprehension in mercantile circles.
A number of British cruisers, however, were on her track, and her
end was not far off. On the
morning of August 26th 1914, she was lying off the mouth of
the River Oro, West Africa, taking in coal from two auxiliaries sent out
before the war began, when the outline of a British cruiser was dimly
seen through the mist to seaward. For
a few moments everyone onboard knew that the hour for action had struck;
but the stranger slowly disappeared, and the work of coaling was
But the respite was a short one.
Within an hour cruiser-it was His Majesty’s Ship Highflyer-had
returned, and this time there was no mistaking the fact that it meant
business. When he was about six miles off the British commander,
Captain Henry T. Buller, signalled to ask the German if he surrendered.
The answer came promptly enough: “Germans never surrender, and you
must respect the neutrality of Spain.”
The warning referred to the fact that the Kaiser Wilhelm was
actually lying in Spanish territorial waters; but as she was known to
have been using the same place as a permanent base for some weeks, the
appeal was almost humorously disingenuous.
It was here that the characteristic humanity of the British
seaman showed itself. Captain
Buller signalled that he should attack I half an hour, leaving ample
time for the colliers to get out of harm’s way and for the Kaiser
Wilhelm herself to prepare for a square fight.
Perhaps this was “not war;” but, at any rate, it was playing
the game in a way that no German could ever be imagined as playing it.
The enemy made good use of the interval.
Not only were the prisoners taken from the sunken merchantmen
bundled into the colliers, but a large number of the liner’s own crew
were sent onboard them as well. The
captain knew it would be almost hopeless to attempt to escape, with the
Highflyer waiting for him outside, and therefore only kept onboard
sufficient men to enable his ship to make the best use of her means of
As soon as the period of grace had elapsed the Highflyer again
inquired if the enemy would surrender, and when the answer came, “We
have nothing more to say,” the action was opened without further
parley. The British cruiser
let fly with one of her 6-inch guns at a range of just under 10,000
yards; but the shot fell short. The enemy’s guns were smaller-4.1-inch but much more
modern, and before our shells began to hit the enemy the German
projectiles were falling thickly around and upon the Highflyer.
One shell went between a man’s legs and burst just behind him,
peppering him with splinters. Another
struck the bridge just after captain had left it to go into the conning
tower, and knocked a searchlight overboard.
All this time the Highflyer was steaming in so as to get her guns
well within range; and when the 100-lb shells began to hit they “kept
on the target” in a manner that spoke well for the training of our
gunners. One shot carried
away a 4-inch gun on the after deck of the enemy.
Another burst under the quarterdeck and started a fire; a
third-perhaps the decisive shot of action-struck her amidships on the
water line and tore a great rent in her side.
From stem to stern the 6-inch shells tore their destructive way,
and it was less than half an hour after the fighting began that the
“pride of the Atlantic” began to slacken her fire.
The water was pouring into the hole amidships, and slowly she
began to heel to port. Three
boatloads of men were seen to leave her and make for the shore.
In somewhat similar circumstances British boats have been shelled
and machine-gunned by the enemy, but that is not the British seaman’s
way of making war. The
Highflyer immediately signalled that if the enemy wished to abandon
their ship, they would not be interfered with; and as the guns of the
Kaiser Wilhelm had by this time ceased to answer our fire, the Highflyer
ceased also, and two boats were sent off with surgeons, sick berth
attendants and medical stores, to do what they could for the enemy’s
wounded. The ship herself
was battered beyond all hope, and presently heeled over and sank in
about fifty feet of water.
Although the Highflyer had been hit about fifteen times her
losses amounted to only one man killed and five slightly wounded.
The enemy’s loss is unknown, but it is estimated that at least
two hundred were killed and wounded, while nearly four hundred of those
who had escaped in the colliers were captured a fortnight later in the
Hamburg-America liner Bethania.
The action was in ever way creditable to the British Navy, both
in the manner in which it had been fought and the consideration that had
been shown to the enemy. The
Highflyer had the advantage of being regular warship, but she was little
more than half as long (350 feet) as the Kaiser Wilhelm, which might
possibly have escaped by reason of her superior speed if she had had the
courage to put to sea and make a run for it.
It was noteworthy as being the first duel of the naval war and as
being the first definite step in the process of “clearing the seas.” It is not often that the Admiralty evinces any enthusiasm in
the achievements of the fleet and the following wireless message
despatched to the victorious cruiser is therefore the more remarkable:
“Admiralty to Highflyer-Bravo!
You have rendered a service not only to Britain, but to the
peaceful commerce of the world. The
German officers and crew appear to have carried out their duties with
humanity and restraint, ad are therefore worthy of all seamanlike
consideration.” It need
hardly be said that the officers and men of the Highflyer needed no
advice from home as to the manner in which they should treat their
prisoners. If anything the
British fighting man, whether on land or sea, he has too soft a heart in
their respect. It should be
added that the Admiralty made no further recognition of the services
rendered by the Highflyer and her ship’s company.
Somehow we expect the Navy to do these things, and victory in
most cases has to be its own reward.