Wednesday, April 11, 2012

100th Anniversary of the Titanic Sinking and Its Forgotten Precursors

The Kaiser Wilhelm, which set trends which others struggled to attain or surpass.
Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic.  It’s a story pretty well known to most people so the Titanic link will fill in anybody who doesn’t know the story.   A lesser-known story is that the Titanic and others were created to steal the glory from the Germans with their fast luxury ships and near-decade of domination of the Atlantic speed record.
Set the Wayback Machine and jump back to 1897 and the launching of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Große a ship of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line, the first of the Kaiser class ships.  It had a several firsts that the other liners envied and copied.  For example, it was the first liner to have four funnels.  Since the steam driven Victorians seemed to equate smokestacks with power, the Kaiser Wilhelm sported four, more than anybody else and set a new trend.  Never mind that two of the smoke stacks were unnecessary, it’s on the same principal as having a noisy muffler on a car:  it must be fast, look at all the noise it makes.  By the way, the Titanic also had four funnels, only one of which was fake, keeping to the trend of more smokestacks make for a faster, more powerful and safer ship as well as keeping up appearances.

The Kaiser Wilhelm didn’t need a playing card in the spokes to make it seem to go faster, it was faster.  In fact, it held the world record for Atlantic crossing from 1898 and holding the coveted Blue Riband until 1900 until it lost the title the Deutschland of the Hamburg Amerika Line.  German ships held the Blue Riband from 1898 to 1907.  Losing to the British Cunard Line's RMS Lusitania in 1907, which has it’s own tragic history and controversy in connection to WWI, being sunk less than a year after the Kaiser Wilhelm.

The ship was comfortable and luxurious too.  Although fast, the engines were couched with shock absorbers so that the ship would not shake unduly while under steam, ensuring a comfortable, but swift ride.  The engines were two massive triple expansion reciprocating engines and sported two propellers, which could act independently, adding to power and maneuverability.  The Kaiser Wilhelm record-breaking speed over a trans-Atlantic trip averaged 22.09 miles per hour over five days and 20 hours.
Another first was the installation of the new wireless Marconicommunication system that allowed the use of telegraph signals anywhere, which increased safety and security.  It was the first one on a commercial vessel, installed February 1900.  As an aside, an Arsène Lupin story, features just such a communications system as plot device on a pleasure cruiser, in the story The Arrest of Arsène Lupin from the collection of short stories by Maurice LeBlanc, called Arsène Lupin Gentleman-Cambrioleur published in 1906.

To get around military arms treaty limits on military vessels, Germany made sure that many of their ships could be converted quickly and easily to military roles.  The Kaiser Wilhelm had been built for just such an eventuality, with areas predesignated for cannon mounts and ammunition magazines.  When the order came to arm, many of Germany’s civilian ships could be converted to warships, supply vessels and troopships easily.   The British also had the same scheme, as in the case of the Lusitania, which although never armed, carried military supplies and arms.
When war was declared in August of 1914, the Kaiser Wilhelm was set up as a weapon of war, rather than a pleasure vessel.  It was armed with six four-inch guns and two 37mm cannon and painted in military black & gray.  With its speed and range, it was a perfect commerce raider.  Captain Max Reymann of the Imperial German Navy, commanded the war vessel and conducted himself with all the rules of Victorian chivalry.   The Kaiser Wilhelm sank three ships in short order, but the crews were allowed to escape before being sunk.  In fact, Capt Reymann came across two enemy liners, but declined to sink them because of the large number of women and children aboard the vessels. 

Needing to refill her coalbunkers, she approached the west coast of Africa; she went to Rio de Oro a neutral port.   Prisoners and other survivors of the sinkings were released at that time and reprovisioning began..  The recoaling was still going on when a British warship appeared, the obsolete, but still formidable, HMS Highflyer.  Although low on ammunition and not fully recoaled, the Kaiser Wilhelm sailed out to battle the British on the 26th of August, less than a month after war was declared.

Accounts vary greatly about the Battle of Rio del Oro.  The Kaiser Wilhelm soon exhausted her scanty ammunition and Captain Reymann ordered the Kaiser Wilhelm destroyed rather than surrender.  After the crew abandoned ship, pre-placed scuttling explosives were set off, blowing a hole in the side of the ship and it capsized quickly and sank.  Conversely, the British record indicated that the Kaiser Wilhelm had been badly damaged in battle with the HMS Highflyer, when it was abandoned by the crew.  Nobody has yet sorted out which story is true, but clearly the Kaiser Wilhelm had little armor and we know that they were nearly out of ammunition when they entered battle.  The HMS Highflyer was an armored warship with more guns as well as having torpedo tubes.

Captain Reymann swam to shore and in disguise worked as a common stoker on a neutral ship and made his way back to Germany.   I did a good deal of on line research but could not find much further information about Capt Max Reymann. On a list of Chef des Stabs of the Marinestations, Kapitän zur See Max Reymann (26 Sep 1919-16 Mar 1920) is listed but nothing more.  The Kaiser Wilhelm lay on the bottom until 1952 when it was salvaged and broken up for scrap, taking away any evidence and chance of determining the true end of the ocean liner and commerce raider.

So on the 100th anniversary to the Titanic sinking, I took a little time out to talk about the ship that started the trend of fast, super luxury liners, way back in 1897, but forgotten by all but a few, while the Titanic is one of the most celebrated vessels in memory.  I cannot afford an authentic object from the Titanic, but I do have an original hat tally from the Kaiser Wilhelm der Große, the ship that started it all.  I wonder if anybody will remember the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Große, 26th August 2014, 4:45 p.m. off the coasts of Africa or will it simply pass on quietly.       
Other useful links:

Maurice LeBlanc’s copyright free works can be downloaded for free on the web.