Primary Documents - British Government Statement on the Execution of Captain Fryatt, August 1916

British Prime Minister Hebert Asquith On 28 March 1915 Captain Charles Fryatt, a British merchant captain, attempted - but failed - to ram and sink a German submarine, U-33.  This came in the wake of repeated attempts by the German navy to sink his vessel - the Great Eastern Railway Steamer Brussels sailing the Rotterdam/British east coast route.

Hailed by the Allied nations as a hero - it was variously believed that he had succeeded in his patriotic act, Fryatt was officially rewarded by the British government for his actions.

Fryatt was however taken prisoner by the Germans on a subsequent voyage and charged with being a franc-tireur - a most serious charge and one that carried the death sentence.  So began a war of words between the German and British governments over his case.  Britain argued that Fryatt had been acting in self-defence, while Germany maintained that Fryatt's action in attempting to ram U-33 was undertaken without provocation.

In the event Fryatt was tried and convicted by a German court and executed on 27 July 1916.  The case achieved widespread notoriety in Britain and Captain Fryatt's name - and face, in newspapers, magazines and even bookmarks - was celebrated throughout Britain.

Click here to read the German government's official statement following Fryatt's execution.  Click here to read the response written by former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.

Reproduced below is the official British government statement regarding Fryatt's case.  Click here to read Germany's reply.

Official British Government Statement, August 1916

On March 28, 1915, a German submarine sank the Falaba.  It is well known that the Falaba stopped when ordered to do so by the German aggressor.  Nevertheless, the German captain of the submarine did not give time for the passengers to be put into boats, and torpedoed this great liner while non-combatants were still on board.

One of those who were on the deck describes the scene as follows:

The Commander of the submarine ordered our Captain to get every passenger into the boats at once, saying in good English: 'I am going to sink your ship.'  Then followed a terrible scene.  Some of the boats were swamped and their occupants thrown into the sea, several being drowned almost immediately.  Barely ten minutes after we received the order to leave the ship, and before the last boat had been lowered, I heard a report, and saw our vessel heel over.  The pirates had actually fired a torpedo at her at a range of 100 yards, when they could distinctly see a large number of passengers and crew on board.  It was a dastardly thing to do - nothing but murder in cold blood.

One hundred and four men and women lost their lives.

It was on this same Sunday, March 28th, that Captain Fryatt met the U-33 in the North Sea.  In the afternoon, when on a voyage from Parkeston to Rotterdam, the Brussels sighted a German submarine, at least three hundred feet long, with a very high bow, a very large circular conning tower, and without distinguishing marks, on her starboard bow.

Captain Fryatt soon realized that the speed of the submarine was far greater than his own, and that if he attempted to turn away, he could easily be torpedoed.  The submarine signalled him to stop, but his British courage revolted at the thought of surrender, and the experience of German methods of warfare warned him that surrender would be no guarantee that the lives of his crew would be spared.

He determined therefore to take the best chance of saving his ship, and to steer for the submarine in order to force her to dive, and, if she were not quick enough in diving, to ram her.

This was his undoubted right under international law - to disregard her summons and resist her attack to the best of his power.  It was a contest of skill and courage in which each side took their chance.

Captain Fryatt, therefore, starboarded his helm, and gave orders to his engineers to make all possible speed.  He sent all the crew aft to a place of safety, in case the submarine should fire upon him, and steered straight for the conning tower.

The latter, when she saw that the Brussels would not surrender, but was bent upon exercising her undoubted right of resistance, immediately submerged.  The Brussels saw her disappear about twenty yards ahead, and steered for the place where she had been.  Almost immediately her periscope came up abreast of the Brussels, two feet out of the water.  Captain Fryatt did not feel his ship strike the submarine, but one of the firemen felt a bumping sensation.  The submarine reappeared with a decided list, and afterwards vanished from view.

Captain Fryatt held his course at top speed until he was safely within the territorial waters of Holland.

The claim of the Wolff Bureau that Captain Fryatt allowed the submarine to approach for examination is utterly false, and the pretence of some German papers that he surrendered, and afterwards attacked the U-33, or that he was guilty of any deception or any underhand dealing, is equally untrue.  These false pleas can only be attributed to their desire to conceal a foul crime under a cloak of lies.

Let us not be deceived into thinking that the request to stop was any evidence of humane intention.  The Falabo stopped, and her list of dead is eloquent.  Captain Fryatt, already familiar with the designs of German submarines from his previous adventure, sought to save his ship's company from a similar fate.

Did he do it, as the Weser Zeitung of Germany pretends, "from ambition and lust of gain?"

No; though he is dead, his comrades live, and through his courage and resource they have been saved the fate of the women and children on the Lusitania and many other ships which stopped and surrendered, and whose passengers, through the inhuman conduct of a German submarine, were drowned at sea.

By his action Captain Fryatt undoubtedly saved the lives of those under his charge.  At the date of this gallant act the Germans had already sunk without warning twenty-two British merchant ships, and had attempted to sink many others.

The German Proclamation of February 4th was an offer of attack without further notice to any merchant vessel flying the British flag in those waters; and the Captain, in acting as he did, did no more than defend himself against the illegally proffered violence of the enemy.

The British Admiralty presented Captain Fryatt with a gold watch, suitably inscribed, in recognition of his services.  This watch, and the watch awarded by the Great Eastern Railway Company for his previous exploit, did not fall into the hands of a pirate submarine, but are in the safe keeping of his widow, to be an heirloom in his family.

The award of the watch by the Admiralty was announced in the British House of Commons on April 28, 1915, by Dr. Macnamara, Secretary to the Admiralty, who mentioned, amongst other merchant captains, the name of Captain Fryatt, as one who had baffled a German submarine by his bravery and resource, and had been selected by the Admiralty "as deserving of reward for specially meritorious services."

His Majesty, King George, in a letter addressed to Mrs. Fryatt from Buckingham Palace, lately expressed what will be the feeling of the whole world when he said:  "The action of Captain Fryatt in defending his ship against the attack of an enemy submarine was a noble instance of the resource and self-reliance so characteristic of his profession."

Captain Fryatt sailed from the Hook of Holland on the evening of June 22, 1916, more than a year after his last recorded encounter with a submarine.  A friend who shook his hand as he went on the bridge found him calm and cheerful as ever.

The Brussels had a cargo of foodstuffs and some Belgian refugees on board.  But when well on her voyage to Tilbury she was captured by a flotilla of German torpedo boats, and she was taken as a prize to Zeebrugge.  It was reported at the time that there was a suspicious character on board the Brussels, who spoke German fluently, and was afterwards treated with the utmost consideration by the Germans.

The Amsterdam Telegraaf bears testimony to the quiet and dignified conduct of the crew and its Captain after capture.  It speaks of Captain Fryatt himself as standing in the midst of his officers, his face as calm as if he were on the bridge, comforting the weeping Belgian women with a kindly word, and thinking only of others.

On the 1st of July, the American Ambassador, in reply to an inquiry from the British Foreign Office, assured Sir Edward Grey that the officers and crew of the Brussels were safe and well, and that the Master of the vessel "desired that his wife might be informed."  Nobody suspected at that time the import and terrible significance of those pathetic words.

It was not until the 16th of July that the Government and public of Great Britain first learned, in the columns of the Amsterdam Telegraaf, that Captain Fryatt was to be tried by court-martial on a charge of ramming a German submarine.  The British Foreign Office immediately made inquiries of the American Ambassador, and requested that proper steps might be taken for the Captain's defence.  The report in the Telegraaf was only too true.

We have no particulars of the court-martial which was held at Bruges.  It is not certain whether any independent witnesses were present, and it is unlikely that the Germans will ever disclose what took place there.  Everything appears to have been done in the dark and in haste, as by those who shunned the light of publicity in the performance of their sinister work.  We can only quote the bald outlines of the German official telegram, which stated that:

On Thursday, at Bruges, before the Court-Martial of the Marine Corps, the trial took place of Captain Charles Fryatt, of the British steamer Brussels, which was brought in as a prize.

A postponement of the trial had been asked for; but this was refused, on the ground that "German submarine witnesses could not be further detained"!  Upon such an outrageous pretext, the trial was immediately held, and Captain Fryatt was "defended" by Major Neumann, "in civil life an attorney and Justizrat."

Under what principle of international law was he tried?  What was the nature of the impeachment?  What are the names of the judges who condemned him?

According to the German official pronouncement, Captain Fryatt was condemned because:

Although he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 28, 1915, to ram the German submarine, U-33, near the Maas Lightship.

That resistance to such an attack is legitimate, is clear from the prize law of all the great states; of the British Empire, the United States, Italy, Spain, and others.  It is even admitted by the German prize regulations; for in an appendix to these, dated June 22, 1914, may be found the following clause:

If an armed enemy merchant vessel offers armed resistance to the right of visit, search and capture, the crew are to be treated as prisoners of war.

It is true that the German regulation speaks of armed merchant vessels; but that can make no difference.  A merchant vessel is none the less a merchant vessel because she is armed; her officers and crew do not become members of a combatant force because the vessel carries guns for defence; a merchantman is permitted to resist an enemy warship, not because she has any combatant quality, but because she will be captured at the best, or if she meets a German submarine, probably sunk without warning; and even capture is an act of hostility to which a merchantman need not submit.

The justice of these contentions has been admitted by an eminent German international lawyer, Dr. Hans Wehberg, in his hook, Das Seekriegsrecht, published since the outbreak of the present war.  He writes:

In truth no single example can be produced from international precedents in which the States have held that resistance is not permissible.  On the contrary, in the celebrated decision of Lord Stowell in the case of the Catharina Elizabeth resistance was declared permissible, and Article 10 of the American Naval War Code takes up the same standpoint.  By far the greater number of authors and the Institute of International Law share this view... The enemy merchant ship has then the right of defence against an enemy attack, and this right she can exercise against visit, for this is indeed the first act of capture.

The opinion that such resistance is illegal is scarcely held outside Germany; it is of recent growth; and its chief exponent is Dr. Schramm, who is legal adviser to the German Admiralty.  It is not difficult to conjecture that his opinion, and the opinion of his friends, was first conceived at the time when Germany was making her final preparations for an assault upon civilization.

Moreover, the German Government, in a memorandum which it handed to neutral Powers on February 10, 1916, while maintaining that, in the view of Germany, merchant vessels were not entitled to defend themselves, stated that: "It takes into consideration also the contrary conception by treating their crews as belligerents."

In the face of the horror and incredulity of the whole world, which, despite a surfeit of German barbarity, could scarcely comprehend this latest crime, the Germans have made frantic efforts to justify this judicial murder.  They have justified it under a German prize rule relating to neutral ships!  They have argued that the good of their cause demanded it - a wicked argument which can weigh with nobody outside Germany.  They have argued further that Captain Fryatt was a franc-tireur.

"One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British Merchant Marine against our war vessels," states the German official telegram, "has thus found a belated but merited expiation."

During the Franco-German War of 1870, various French irregular forces carried on an intermittent warfare against the German army.  Throughout the war the Germans shot every such irregular soldier that fell into their hands.  This brutal conduct aroused the indignation of many peoples in many lands, and now, by an article of the Hague regulations for the conduct of warfare on land, such irregulars are entitled to be treated on the same footing as regular forces when they are under a responsible commander, wear a distinctive badge, carry arms openly, and conform with the laws of war.

Further, even the requirements of a responsible commander and a distinctive badge are dispensed with, where the population rises spontaneously to resist an invader, and in this case unauthorized bodies of men, armed and obeying the laws of war, are entitled, if captured, to be treated as prisoners of war.

Here then is an exception to the general rule that a fighter must be a member of the authorized armed forces in order to make good his claim to be treated as a prisoner.  A similar exception has existed from time immemorial at sea.  And indeed the difficulty felt by the Hague Conference in granting to irregulars on land the right to be treated as prisoners does not exist in the case of a merchant seaman.  He and his ship are on the open sea, and in full view; he cannot change his clothes, and lose his identity amid a crowd of civilians; he cannot take his enemy unawares.  From the moment when he is attacked, he is permitted to defend himself, and his attacker is at no disadvantage.

Every German submarine in the war area may be assumed by a British merchant captain to be engaged in carrying out the orders of the German "Higher Command."  The presence of such a submarine in the neighbourhood of a British merchant ship is an offer to strike coupled with the capacity to fulfil the threat.

It is, in other words, an offensive act, for visit is, as Dr. Wehberg says, the first act of capture.  Under these circumstances the captain of a merchant ship may defend his ship, and is not a franc-tireur if he does so; when captured, he must be treated as a prisoner of war, Captain Fryatt defended his ship; he was not captured; at a later date he fell into the enemy's hands, and has been shot because he dared to exercise his undoubted legal right.  We say "undoubted," because no doubt arose until the apostles of German militarism and of the "freedom of the seas" were perfecting their final plans.

But what need is there to pay the German Government the compliment of supposing that it has acted under any mistaken view of law?  Consistently with itself, it has but complied with its own military needs.  It has now become a habit in Germany to reckon as a franc-tireur any class of persons who are particularly obnoxious to the advancement of German militarism.

For instance, the Rheinisch Westfalische Zeitung of August 1, 1916, published an article calling upon the German Government to treat American volunteers fighting with Allied troops against Germany as francs-tireurs and, when captured, to shoot or, preferably, to hang them.

On the 30th of July the Telegraaf learned that Captain Fryatt had been shot towards the evening of the Thursday before, on an enclosed part of the harbour grounds at Bruges, and that an Alderman of the town had attended as witness.

The news of his death was officially confirmed by a telegram from the American Ambassador.  No further details are known; nor probably will they ever be known.  The German Government had learnt enough wisdom from its execution of Edith Cavell to know that such things are better done in secret, though they had not learned sufficient humanity, nor won enough sense of justice nor common sense, to feel that such things cannot be done at all, without outrage to the feelings of the civilized world.

The Germans well knew that this latest judicial murder would arouse the indignation of the whole world; but they were resolved, if possible, to discourage imitation of Captain Fryatt's gallantry at all costs.

"Doubtless there will be among England's sympathizers all the world over a storm of indignation against German barbarism similar to that roused by the case of Miss Cavell.  That must not disturb us," wrote the German Kolnische Volkszeitung of July 29, 1916.

The Volkszeitung was not disappointed.  A shudder of loathing and detestation, of horror and incredulity ran through every neutral country, the British Empire, and the countries of our Allies.

The universal verdict was that the barbarities of the world's past, even of the German past, were outdone.  The voice of the New York Herald was raised in protest against a "CROWNING GERMAN ATROCITY."  The New York Times saw in the shooting of Captain Fryatt "a deliberate murder - a trifle to the Government that has so many thousands to answer for."

In Holland, the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant of July 29th condemned the outrage, and said:

At the time that the Captain of the Brussels made his unsuccessful attempt, the submarine war was being carried on in the most brutal manner in contempt of all rules of humanity.  The mere sighting of a German submarine meant death for hundreds who are now called 'francs-tireurs' in the German communiqué.  To claim for oneself the right to kill hundreds of civilians out of hand, but to brand as a franc-tireur the civilian who does not willingly submit to execution, amounts, in our opinion, to measuring justice with a different scale, according to whether it is to be applied to oneself or to another.  This is, in our view, arbitrariness and injustice.  And that touches us even in the midst of all the horrors of the war.  It shocks the neutrals, and arouses fresh bitterness and hatred in the enemy.

A Swiss paper, the Journal de Geneve, denounces the German crime and says: "It is monstrous to maintain that armed forces have a right to murder civilians but that civilians are guilty of a crime in defending themselves."

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A sandbag was a sack filled with earth from which defences were built.

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