On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.
Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.
Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.
The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.
Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.
During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.
As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.
Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.
In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.
… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.
On this date in 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was shot at Bruges, Belgium as an illegal combatant.
Fryatt was a 42-year-old civilian mariner captaining the SS Brussels on the Harwick-Hook of Holland route when, in March 1915, a German U-Boat ordered him to heave to.
Fryatt wheeled the Brussels around on the submarine and attempted to ram it. The German ship escaped by a whisker only by scrambling an emergency dive. The Admiralty gave Fryatt a gold watch and a pat on the head for bravery.
It was not until the following year that the Germans captured that same vessel with that same captain on board. When they realized who they had, they subjected him to a snap tribunal for violating the laws of war: he’d participated in combat (by trying to ram the U-Boat) whilst being not a member of his country’s armed forces. That made him an illegal combatant, a franc-tireur in the still-current term for a civilian partisan left over from the Franco-Prussian War.
The Germans mightily loathed such terrorists, feared they would bedevil their steps in Belgium and France: people not sporting enough to stay beaten, people with the effrontery to fight back without being a duly enrolled member of a nation-state’s standing army. They did not scruple to push an expansive line on the definition of civilian non-participation.
“Every non-uniformed person,” read the a Moltke directive to the army, “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.” (Source.)
So … that’s exactly what happened to Captain Fryatt.
This shooting set off a flurry of international recriminations and rebuttals.
People of normal moral sense can see readily enough that a merchant captain who scares off a submarine has not committed a grave crime any more than has a teen who chucks a grenade at commando firing at his home. The legal question for deliberation in Fryatt’s case was all about whether the merchant mariner had or had not committed an impermissible belligerent act by charging* … and as always, the definition of a war crime turned out to mirror precisely the political interest of the definer.
The British at this point had the Germans handily bottled up in a naval blockade that even seized food as “contraband”. (A tactic angrily denounced as a war crime in Berlin.) The Germans needed to get out of this stranglehold, and lacking anything approaching parity on the high seas, they staked their hopes on the U-boat. So the German interest was for maximum latitude for submarine activity; in fact, early in 1915, it was just in the process of rolling out its unrestricted submarine warfare policy of unannounced attacks on civilian freighters carrying war materiel. This does not seem to be what the U-boat stopping the Brussels did, but it gives you an idea of the scene. German military judges naturally said that German submarines who stopped a British merchant ship were not to be defied.
And the British interest, and by wonderous coincidence also its policy and legal position, naturally maintained maximum restrictions on a U-Boat’s potential targets, and maximum rights for the realm’s Captain Fryatts to resist.**
Fryatt, indeed, had followed the directives laid down by that Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill threatened to prosecute any ship captain who surrendered his vessel to a U-boat without opposing it “either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming”: the theory was that routine resistance would maximize costs to the German navy, and maybe lead slow and vulnerable U-boats to skip the parley stage in favor of sneak attacks on unflagged steamers, which would sooner or later sink an American ship, which would help pull the U.S. into the war. (In May 1915, making no mistake at all about its target, a German U-boat intentionally torpedoed the Lusitania, generating a helpful stateside scandal also attended by dickering over the legality of the attack.)
So, the initial German announcement tersely reported that 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.
Britain replied that the captain had exercised only his “undoubted right of resistance,” and pointed out that a different merchant vessel that did obey such an order on the very same day had been sunk before it could evacuate — drowning 104 souls.
[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.
This led Germany to reiterate, on August 10, its view that Fryatt’s
act 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.
There’s a 1917 monument to Captain Fryatt still displayed at London’s Liverpool Street Station, as well as a mountain in Alberta named in his honor.
Nobody was ever prosecuted for Fryatt’s execution.
* The distinction as parsed by Germany hung on whether the intended merchant prize was armed (allowed to resist) or unarmed (not).
** U-boats were new legal territory in 1915. The 1930 London Naval Treaty — although Germany was not party to it — attempted to clarify the status of these machines.