War crimes | 19 Aug 1915

Attention Great War shoppers, we’ve got a BOGOF special offer on war crimes in aisle 15. You can get there with a short cut through the Italy corridor.

Mrzli

Back at Second Isonzo, there’s another attack on the Trincerone (“Big Trench”) on Mount Mrzli. Attacking at 2am, with a combination of luck and judgement, the latest attempt succeeds in installing the survivors in new quarters, and they get to work turning the trench around to resist the inevitable counter-attack.

We can perhaps assume that General Boroevic, on the other side of the hill, paused only to mutter something about “if you want a job doing properly” and sack a few hapless generals, before ordering a few Bosnian battalions forward to get him his trench back. Once again they go in with huge studded maces, fighting hand-to-hand, retaking the trench one shattered Italian skull at a time. The fighting lasts all day, but by nightfall the offending trench has been recaptured. Right, on with the war crimes.

U-boats

It’s been a busy few days for U-boats around Britain. U-24, U-27, and U-38 have all been making a considerable nuisance of themselves. Today will be spectacularly successful, with ten civilian vessels falling prey to the German submarines. This includes Arabic, a White Star passenger liner who has the bad fortune this morning to interrupt U-24 in the middle of attempting to sink a mid-sized merchant, fifty miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. The captain has had a couple of encounters with large ships attempting to ram him earlier in his patrol. Counting discretion as the better part of valour, U-24 splats a torpedo into Arabic and makes a quick exit. Minutes later, the liner is on her way down.

This is highly unfortunate for the German Empire. Evacuation procedures and precautions had been greatly improved since the sinking of the Lusitania, and out of a total complement of 429 on board, all but 44 survive. However, three of the dead are American, the last thing that German-American diplomatic relations need after the Lusitania. There’ll be severe ructions over this, make no mistake.

HMS Baralong

And they won’t be the only ones from today. HMS Baralong, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert, is one of the many ships to have received news of the sinking without warning of another passenger liner. The crew’s reaction is, unsurprisingly given the prevailing mood, one of outrage at yet more barbarity on the part of the villainous Hun. And, as Baralong is one of the increasing number of Q-ships (currently cruising around the Scilly Isles), they’re holding out some hope for revenge.

Let us add to this powerful cocktail the knowledge that Lt-Cmdr Herbert, a former submarine officer, is not a very conventional chap. (Yeah, I’m shocked that the service which flies the Jolly Roger when returning to port after sinking someone could produce this kind of nutter.) His attitude to discipline is extremely lax, and he’s entirely tolerant towards members of his crew going out on the piss during their shore leave. He’s also ordered his crew to refer to him only by the pseudonym given to him by the Admiralty in Baralong’s official guise as a rather old and ratty tramp steamer. Gee, it’s almost as though someone’s after plausible deniability.

In mid-afternoon, Baralong, flying the American flag (as you do), picks up a distress call from the freighter Nicosian. The ship was carrying rifles, ammunition, and American mules for the British Army. (Insert hollowly sarcastic comment about the nature of American “neutrality” here.) U-27 has stopped the freighter and allowed the crew to leave, and as Baralong arrives she’s preparing to sink the ship. Baralong signals that she intends to rescue survivors, and then, while the freighter is blocking U-27’s view, swaps her American colours for the Navy’s White Ensign. The Official Naval Historian at this point chooses some spectacularly purple, innuendo-laden prose:

We can easily imagine the tense excite­ment that was throbbing through the decoy ship.

Finest traditions of the Navy, right there. Anyway, childish sniggering aside. The guns are run out, and as soon as U-27 comes back into sight Baralong opens fire at point-blank range. So far, so sneaky, so ordinary. It’s what happened next that makes this whole story worth recounting in this amount of detail. Whether or not Herbert ordered his crew to cease fire is disputed. What isn’t is that Baralong’s guns continued firing on the obviously stricken and sinking ship, cutting down most of the survivors.

Twelve Germans, including the submarine’s captain, emerged unscathed, and attempted to swim to the Nicosian. Lt-Cmdr Herbert then ordered his crew to open fire with small arms, and they were all shot down in the water. Just to leave everyone in absolutely no doubt that he was determined to commit a big honking war crime, there are still six Germans unaccounted for, the boarding party on board Nicosian. Happily, Baralong is carrying a section of Royal Marines for just such an eventuality. Herbert explicitly orders them to take no prisoners, and the boarding party is shot on sight.

E-13

There’ll be more about Baralong and her captain soon, but while all this has been going off, there’s a staggering coincidence playing itself out in the Baltic. (Just in case you were in too much danger of feeling sorry for the Germans.) The German Navy is currently launching a major operation against Riga, and several British submarines have been sent into the Baltic to make trouble. E-13’s magnetic compass has failed, and the submarine blunders into a sandbank. Even better, the sandbank happens to belong to Denmark. Tut tut, buggering around in neutral territorial waters.

Stuck fast, there’s no hope that the ship can escape, and negotiations begin between the crew and the Danish authorities to arrange either a tow, or terms for the internment of the crew and confiscation of the submarine. While all this is going on, some German torpedo boats appear to see what all the fuss is about, and report back. The word from higher authorities is that E-13 is too dangerous a threat to allow the possibility that she might continue on her way. The ship must be sunk immediately, and to hell with Danish neutrality.

The Germans carry out their orders, sinking the ship and then continuing to fire on the crew as they abandon ship. They’re only stopped when a Danish torpedo boat deliberately sails into the line of fire to protect the remaining survivors, and sanity is restored. It’s a lovely war.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of the Isonzo (Second Isonzo)

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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