On 24 July 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was executed by the German armed forces in the Belgian city of Bruges for his attempt of sinking a German submarine by ramming. The nature of his execution sent a shock wave throughout international political circles, many in the British government becoming outraged that a man should be condemned for exercising his right to resist an opposing aggressor. Germany had justified its military tribunal on the proviso that Fryatt was an illegal combatant, a franc-tireur, reintroducing a Franco-Prussian war concept, which could prosecute anyone that conspired to perverse the ‘established’ rules of war.
Fryatt’s illegal aggressive act occurred in 1915. He was a seaman in the Merchant Navy captaining the SS Brussels on the Harwick-Hook of Holland route when on 28 March a German U-Boat (U-33) surfaced and ordered him to submit to German interrogation. Contrary to these orders, Fryatt turned the ship around at high speed and attempted to ram the U-33. Within a margin of a few metres, the German submarine managed to escape destruction by scrambling an emergency dive. Continuing on its voyage, the SS Brussels managed to reach Rotterdam unscathed. As a reward for his bravery, the British Admiralty congratulated Fryatt for his patriotism and presented him with a gold watch inscribed accordingly:
Presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to Chas. Algernon Fryatt Master of the S.S. 'Brussels' in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28th, 1915.
Enraged and embittered, the German Imperial Navy conspired to target Fryatt on a subsequent voyage. On 25 June 1916, five German destroyers intercepted the vessel, ordering it to stop its engines and submit to German authority, whereupon Fryatt and all members of the crew were taken prisoner and escorted to occupied Bruges. Declared a franc-tireur, Fryatt was charged with committing an illegal act upon the U-33 and was sentenced with summary execution. On July 27, Fryatt was court marshaled and executed by firing squad at 19:00. Accordingly, the following execution notice was given:
From the beginning of war and the occupation of Belgium and France, Germany feared similar actions to those of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 taking place. Throughout their campaign, individual German soldiers were targeted frequently by sharp shooting French free citizenry, or partisans, known to the Germans as franc-tireurs (literally translated as ‘free shooters’). The threat of civilian uprisings and resistance was ever present in German occupied territories; steps were taken, therefore, to prevent such occurrences. The Molke directive judged that “[e]very non-uniformed person, if he is not designated as being justified in participating in fighting by clearly recognizable insignia, is to be treated as someone standing outside international law, if he takes part in the fighting … [or] participates in any way in the act of war without permission. He will be treated as a franc-tireur and immediately shot according to martial law.”
NOTICE. The English captain of the Mercantile Marine, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. This is the reason why he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the War Council of the Marine Corps and has been executed. A perverse action has thus received its punishment, tardy but just. Signed VON SCHRODER, Admiral Commandant of the Corps de Marine, Bruges, July 27th, 1916.
The case of Captain Fryatt was met with similar consequences. In retaliation for his action against the U-33, Fryatt
was condemned to death because, although he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 20, 1915, to ram the German submarine U-33 … One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation.
Cartoon depicting German military police accosted by Belgian franc-tireurs (1914)
The news of Fryatt’s execution was met with consternation and anger, the British simply could not accept that his act of defiance was contrary to international law and punishable by death. British authorities claimed that the captain had the “undoubted right of resistance,” and the authority to do his utmost to protect his ship, its crew and to carry out his orders to the best of his conviction. Moreover, the merchant seaman had followed the directives described by the Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The Admiralty threatened to prosecute any ship captain who surrendered his vessel to a U-boat without attempting to resist it “either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming.” Various newspaper articles were written condemning the execution order, including a satirical cartoon drawn by Louis Raemaekers of Captain Fryatt in the company of Germans depicted as stereotypically savage Native Americans. In one official statement (Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923), the British Government attacked the German decision:
[T]he 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.
Louis Raemaekers, Captain Fryatt cartoon (1916)
In response to these accusations, the German high command posited that the court marshal was justified in attempting to eradicate the partisan menace from the seas. On 10 August 1916, in a written statement (Source: Ibid) they argued that the action of Captain Fryatt was
not an act of self-defence, but a cunning attack by hired assassins…
The German War Tribunal sentenced him to death because he had performed an act of war against the German sea forces, although he did not belong to the armed forces of his country. He was not deliberately shot in cold blood without due consideration, as the British Government asserts, but he was shot as a franc-tireur, after calm consideration and thorough investigation…
Germany will continue to use this law of warfare in order to save her submarine crews from becoming the victims of francs-tireurs at sea.
Certainly, the case of Captain Fryatt is a sobering reminder of the perilous role that merchant seamen played in World War One. The Merchant Navy was crucial for the war effort, despite its classification of civilian status. Seas fraught with danger notwithstanding, their ships were perceived in non-defined terms, seen as both military targets and non-combatants by U-boat crews. Though they were systemically targeted by German crews they were threatened with immediate repercussions if they attempted to defend themselves. This contradictory notion was compounded further by the orders of the Admiralty and their own government, making it punishable to surrender without due duress. Positioning themselves within these restraints was no easy task, many crews falling foul of submersible attack with only devil’s advocate to play them out.
Charles F. Horne (ed.), Source Records of the Great War (New York: National Alumni 1923), Vol. IV. Public Domain Dedication.
J. Murray Allison, Raemaekers’ Cartoon History of the War (New York: The Century Co., 1919), Vol. II, Fig. 192. Copyright © 1919 The Century Co.
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