By the outbreak of the war, a state-of-the-art newbuilding was completing for General Steam, at the yard of the Company’s builders of choice, Ailsa of Troon. The passenger-cargo ship Oriole, registered in London, her home trading port, grossed 1,489 tons. Her paint was hardly dry when she sailed from London on Friday, the 29th January 1915, bound for Le Havre with a hold full of general cargo for the war effort. The crew, all Londoners, were experienced seafarers whose ages ranged from 23 to 53, and would have been thoroughly competent in the safe manning of this fine little ship, which had a speed of 12 ½ knots, certainly respectable for such a vessel but, by no means, would it have enabled her to out-run a submarine. That being said, she would have been in the safe hands of her Master, in whom the Company and the Flag State reposed all their confidence for the safe navigation of the vessel to avoid disaster, if such could reasonably have been avoided. It was called the Master’s Absolute Discretion; it still is, for nobody can overrule the Master’s professional judgement, although he will be accountable if he gets it wrong. In essence it is all about the management of risk. In the words of American Professor John Augustus Shedd:
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
The Master of the Oriole, Captain William George Dale, was a typically competent General Steam man, who expected the highest standards from their Master Mariners. Some idea of the calibre of General Steam Masters can be gathered from the fact that, although generally only engaged on short sea routes to the Continent, all had to have Foreign-Going Masters’ Certificates of Competency. In a piece which appeared in the July 1954 edition of ‘Sea Breezes’, A W Younghusband recalled the Master of the Halcyon who had an Extra-Master’s Certificate and, during the Great War, the Master of the Halcyon’s sister, Philomel, had learned ideas of shipboard discipline as a Naval officer with the Royal Naval Reserve. They were model Masters, who were expected to serve the Company above and beyond the call of duty, and they did. Younghusband recalled the great apocryphal tale:
In this matter of trade, it has been reported that a master mariner died recently leaving £50,000. This was entirely due to his hard work, steadfast honesty, and strict attention to his owner’s interests, and to the fact that he won £49,999 in a lottery.
Up until this point in the war, the Company had no reason to doubt that the Manual of the Laws of Naval War would be observed. At the time when war was declared, they had one, small steamer in a German port, the 42 year old Iris, which had been alongside in Hamburg and was duly seized by the Germans, in accordance with the provisions of the law. There is no evidence that her crew were mistreated, however. On the 29th January, the Oriole steamed out of St Katherine’s Dock, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, and duly dropped her pilot before proceeding on her voyage to Le Havre. The next day, a small British-flag cargo ship, the London Trader, passed her off Dungeness; it would prove to be the last sighting of the Oriole.
She was due to arrive at Le Havre later on the 30th January, but was reported overdue, and disappeared without trace; as a result, on the 17th March, she was declared by Lloyd’s as a presumed total loss; but no distress had been received, and no survivors rescued. On the 6th February, two lifebuoys from the Oriole were washed up on the shore at Rye; then, on the 20th March, a bottle was found by a Guernsey fisherman containing a message merely stating:
Oriole torpedoed – sinking
The handwriting was confirmed to be that of the ship’s carpenter, 50 year old Reuben Swain, by his widow, Eliza.
Subsequent investigation drew the certain conclusion that the Oriole had been torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine, U-20, on the 30th January 1915, 20 miles northwest of Cap d’Antifer. 21 lives were lost, including the Master. Her assailant, Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger, confirmed his responsibility in the most damning way possible with attacks on two other vessels on the same day. Grossing 6,084 tons, the UK-flag Tokomaru was a large cargo steamer owned by Shaw, Savill and Albion of Southampton, under the command of Captain Greene. On the 30th January 1915, she was approaching Le Havre as her first port of call from Dunedin, New Zealand with a cargo of meat, dairy produce and general cargo, when she was attacked by U-20 at 09.00, 7 miles northwest of Le Havre light vessel and southwest of Cap D’Antifer, in the same area as Oriole. All 58 crew had managed to evacuate to a lifeboat and were rescued by a French minesweeper, the Saint Pierre.
On the same day, Captain Matthew Robertson was in command of Ikaria, inbound from South America. Grossing 4,335 tons, she was owned by the Leyland Line of Liverpool and registered under the UK flag. She had first loaded at Buenos Aires and then called at Santos, before sailing for Europe with a voyage plan to Le Havre, London and Liverpool with a cargo of coffee, sugar and general cargo. She had anchored at the pilot boarding area where she would pick up her harbour pilot to proceed to her berth; Captain Robertson reported what happened next:
When about twenty-five miles northwest of Havre, 12.30 on that day, I was on the bridge with the chief and the second officer when we saw the wake of a torpedo coming towards the ship at about 30 feet from the ship. The ship was stopped at the time for the purpose of getting a pilot as two tug-boats were coming up with flags to the fore.
About a second after we saw the wake of the torpedo we were struck in the fore part of the ship on the port side. An explosion occurred, and a volume of water, mixed with cargo, cement, and parts of the torpedo, arose about 60 feet and fell on the deck.
The ship immediately began to sink by the head. The crew were ordered to launch the boats to leave the ship. The crew and I then boarded the tug which was lying close to us, and waited for the ship to sink.
In fact she was still afloat after an hour, so Captain Robertson and some of the crew re-boarded and, with the assistance of the tug, managed to berth alongside in the outer harbour, where she could be salved. On the following day, however, the weather closed in with a gale that was causing her to range and bump against the quayside. The Port Authority was nervous that she would sink and block the port, which was so vital to the war effort; so she was moved out of harm’s way, but the enemy attack had weakened the structural integrity of her hull and she flooded, becoming a total loss, two days later.
At the time, the Germans were still ostensibly observing the obligations for seizing merchant ships under the Laws of Naval Warfare. The Oriole had a fine profile, and a size which might just have misled an enemy submarine to mistake her for an armed merchant cruiser, but there is no evidence to underpin a suggestion that she was mistaken in this way. The common factors were that all three were sunk on the same day, in the same area; by providence, not by any prior warning, the crews of the Ikaria and Tokomaru were rescued, but providence was not so discerning for the Oriole, and we may conclude beyond reasonable doubt that no warning had been given to Captain Dale.
On the 4th February 1915, Germany apparently sought to legitimise Schwieger’s crimes by announcing in the official gazette ‘Deutscher Reichsanzeige’:
The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a War Zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel encountered in this zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to avert the danger thereby threatened to the crew and passengers.
Neutral vessels also will run a risk in the War Zone, because in view of the hazards of sea warfare and the British authorization of January 31 of the misuse of neutral flags, it may not always be possible to prevent attacks on enemy ships from harming neutral ships.
Navigation to the north of the Shetlands, in the eastern parts of the North Sea and through a zone at least thirty nautical miles wide along the Dutch coast is not exposed to danger
The warning was a little late for the ship’s company of the Oriole. Perhaps more fateful still, it was the first declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, and antagonised neutral countries, especially the United States – before Schwieger made things much worse. Three months later he was the man who sighted the Cunard liner Lusitania through his periscope off the Old Head of Kinsale, on the 7th May. That torpedo would famously have an awesome consequence, ultimately bringing the United States into the War – but the fate of the Oriole would already have far-reaching consequences for the way in which total war would now be waged, both for combatants and for prisoners.
By standing by the prize laws to respect the lives of merchant crews in a war zone, the British, it must be said, nobly – but perhaps naïvely - harboured an attitude towards the welfare of non-combatants in war which lagged behind the pace of events on the Continent, but it all led to a very nasty escalation in the harshness of conditions in which prisoners of war were kept. Following in the wake of the Oriole atrocity, the Royal Navy captured the crews of the enemy submarines U-8 and U-12, and put them in detention in Devonport and Chatham. 39 prisoners were taken, some, apparently, wounded, but all, it appears, were put in solitary confinement, as a mark of British outrage of submarine atrocities. The story hit the newspapers with huge publicity, prompting letters to the Foreign Office from the likes of the Brigadier-General commanding the 17th Reserve Infantry Brigade in the UK:
With reference to the correspondence which has appeared in the press, regarding our treatment of the crews of certain German submarines, and the German threat of retaliation - would it not be possible to ascertain through the United States Ambassador at Berlin, whether the German authorities gave orders for submarine crews to behave in this brutal manner?
Whatever the brutality of the German submarine crew for the loss of the Oriole, their treatment in captivity raised issues of fairness that demanded some legal interpretation. We have seen that The Hague Convention 1899, which came into force in 1900 stated that prisoners of war were to be held safely in the custody of the hostile government and must be humanely treated. As to any definition of that treatment, the convention appeared singularly vapid and unhelpful; the closest we get is Article 7:
The Government into whose hands prisoners of war have fallen is bound to maintain them. Failing a special agreement between the belligerents [which there was not], prisoners of war shall be treated as regards food, quarters, and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.
At the time of the Oriole outrage, the British people had very mixed feelings about the whole issue, but stories of similar atrocities started to unsettle this nation which depended upon the sea for its very survival, and which had not confronted such a despicable threat before.
Two months later the Elder Dempster liner Falaba was torpedoed by U-28, in St George’s Channel between Wales and Ireland, with the loss of 104 souls. Launched in 1906 and grossing 4,806 tons, she was registered under the UK flag and operated by Elder Dempster on the route between the west coast of Africa and Liverpool, where the company traditionally recruited its crews. She had a large, impressive profile, unmistakably a lady, with a crew of 95, as she steamed from Liverpool bound for Sierra Leone with 147 passengers and a hold of general cargo worth £50,000. At 11.40 on the morning of the 28th March 1915, as she was steaming some 38 miles west of the Smalls lighthouse, she sighted a submarine, which she reported to be flying the white ensign, but as they closed to a distance at which the liner could not out-run her attacker, the German hauled this down and raised the Imperial German naval ensign. In command of U-28 was Georg-Günther von Forstner, who had sunk Oriole’s fleet sister Leeuwarden just eleven days previously near the Maas lightship, when he had allowed all souls on board to evacuate before destroying her by gunfire. He was not going to do that this time, and signalled to Falaba:
Stop and abandon ship
He gave her ten minutes, but Captain Davis ignored the warning and increased to full speed to out-run the submarine, when Forstner signalled again:
Stop or I will fire on you
Captain Davis realised that he could not, in fact, out-run the submarine at that distance and so he hove to, and swung out five of his lifeboats - but then Forstner fired a torpedo at a range of 150 yards. She remained afloat for just eight minutes after the explosion. It would, of course, have been impossible to launch the lifeboats and evacuate everybody in this time, and Falaba took a list to starboard which seriously hampered the launch of the lifeboats any way, as the falls of one boat slipped, the falls of another jammed, another was destroyed by the explosion of the torpedo, and some boats were dashed against the side of the ship as she sank. The submarine did not wait to rescue survivors, but a steam-drifter, the Eileen Emma, Skipper George Wright, picked up 40 persons, six of whom, including Capt. Davis, died shortly after. Another drifter, the drifter Wenlock, Skipper Denis Randleson, rescued another eight, of whom two died.
This was no humane observance of the Manual of the Laws of Naval War and, given the ship’s obviously peaceful profile and the lack of any threat posed to the submarine, there could have been no mitigation in this case of the murder of 104 innocent people.
Following so swiftly in the wake of the Oriole sinking, the incident heaped such opprobrium on Germany in a public relations disaster with the rest of the world that the Government in Berlin struggled to respond with its own press statement, as 'The New York Times' reported:
BERLIN, April 13, (via Amsterdam to London, April 14.) - A semi-official account of the sinking of the British steamer Falaba by a German submarine on March 28 was made public here today. It follows:
‘On receiving the signal “Stop, or I fire,” the Falaba steamed off and sent up rocket signals to summon help, and was only brought to a standstill after a chase of a quarter of an hour…. Every word is superfluous in defending our men against malignant accusations. At the judicial proceedings in England no witness dared raise accusations. It is untrue that at any time the submarine displayed the English flag. The submarine throughout the affair showed as much consideration for the Falaba as was compatible with safety.’
On the 27th April, in the House of Commons, in reply to a question by Mr MacCallum Scott, Mr Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, said:
No special considerations are applied to German submarine prisoners because they fight in submarines, but special conditions are applied to prisoners who have been engaged in wantonly killing non-combatants, neutrals, and women on the High Seas. Submarine prisoners taken before the 1st February have been treated as any other prisoners in our hands. But we cannot recognise persons who are systematically employed in the sinking of merchant ships and fishing boats, often without warning, and regardless of the loss of life entailed, as on the same footing as honourable soldiers. Incidents such as the Oriole by night, without warning, with all her crew.... force us for the future to place all German submarine prisoners taken after the 18th February, and for as long as this system of warfare is continued, in a distinct and separate category.
We consider it just and necessary that the prisoners should be separated from honourable prisoners of war who are freed from all reproach.