Add comment July 27th, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was shot at Bruges, Belgium as an illegal combatant.
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.
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.
Also on this date
- 1781: Francois Henri de la Motte, French spy
- 1990: Gideon Orkar, for a Nigerian coup
- Special: One Thousand and One Nights for One Thousand and One Deaths
- 1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair
- 1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners
- 1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade