"The Kaiser's Coolies"

These (translated) extracts of the book Des Kaisers Kulis by Theodor Plivier (published in Berlin in 1930) are courtesy of Michael Phillips (mike@CRONAB.DEMON.CO.UK), who first posted them on MARHST-L in February, 2000. Mike notes that "the book is a most remarkable description of life on the lower deck of the German Navy right through the war."

(an earlier MARHST-L post asked about the origin of term COOLIE for German Imperial Navy crewmen)

There is a book `Des Kaisers Kulis` by Theodor Plivier, published in Berlin in 1930. A translation was published in the US in 1931 by Alfred Knopf Inc.

Plivier describes how the crew of the SS Lesbos arrived back in Germany from the Mediterranean at the end of July 1914 and were rounded up by police in a raid on a bar reminiscent of the press-gang abandoned by the Royal Navy 100 years before and "Shanghaied", as he puts it, into the German Navy, where "we remained coolies at fifty pfennig a day."

They were harassed by petty restrictions - a raid on a theater in Cuxhaven by shore patrols resulted in the arrest of a number of sailors wearing overcoats - orders specified only officers in dress uniform were allowed in theaters.

He served in the protected cruiser Ariadne which was sunk at Heligoland Biight in 1914, at Jutland and in the raiders Belgravia and Wachtfels renamed S.M.S. Wolf. The Wolf, her crew and prisoners all suffering from scurvy, after 444 days at sea, returned to a Germany disintegrating under the effects of the Allied blockade. They are presented with the same medals again and again in front of different cameramen, but their families no longer had sufficient money to by the rationed substitute food.

October 28th 1918; to the popping of champagne corks on the Thuringen, Lieut. Cdr. Rudloff stands up glass in hand " We shall fire our last two thousand rounds at the English and then go down gloriously. To the death ride of the German fleet." The coolies looking down through the skylight into the wardroom have different ideas. Marines arrest 300 mutineers in Thuringen and the same number in Helgoland but the cells are smashed and the men released. Five thousand officers had sworn loyalty to the flag but only three - on the Koenig - defend it. Firing pistols until the grey tide of coolies sweep over them.

The Admiralty in Berlin capitulates to a petty officer and six men.

(a subsequent scanning of the following pages describing the first murmurings of mutiny. A few pages later five of those taking part were shot by sentence of a court martial.)

The Friederich der Grosse at mess. There were dried vegetables, following turnips, soup made from potato peelings and dried cod, all in the same week. The cook came with the dishes and dealt out the rations - warm water and green stuff and that was all. The officer` galley was situated in the same casemate amid-ships. The odour of roast meat was wafted through the deck, with the fragrance of the apple fritters and sauces served to the Admiral, the fleet staff, and the ship`s officers. The soup seemed to splash about in your stomach. You can`t go on like that.

One full-grown man collapsed. He was begrimed from his work at the boilers. He lay on the linoleum-covered deck as white as a sheet. One or two others were busied about him. "No wonder! You don`t need no privy after a soup like that it trickles and sweats out of itself. Water! Rot! "What he wants is a bit of roast." A steward passed by with a dish of meat. The long arm of a stoker wound itself round his neck. The dish fell with a crash. Bent backs and eager, snatching hands crowded round it. One mess got something to eat, and they kept part for the man who had fainted.

On another occasion the men purloined the officers` roast from the pan, so that the latter had to wait two hours while the cook prepared another meal. Hundreds of loaves and bushels of potatoes disappeared in the process of delivery. There wasn`t a ship in the fleet where the provision-room hadn`t been rifled. Men refused their rations and nobody fetched them from the kitchens. The officers in command summoned the crews and read them the articles of war.

One of these gold-bespangled gentlemen was standing on the covering of a gun-turret, legs wide apart: "....... I need hardly tell you that your families at home have much less in the larder than you. These are hard times." Down below one or two men nudged one another; they be-longed to the cutter`s crew who had fetched the speaker from ashore in the boat a few evenings earlier and had brought him on board drunk.

"You fellows down there." He fixed his eyes on one who, unlike the others, was not looking up at him. "I`ll spit on your heads in another minute; I`ll keep you on the run. Swine!" Then, turning to the firemen: "You foul swine! You knock-kneed curs! I`ll teach you! You`ve got too soft a berth. What you want is more drill."

"Division officers!" The division officers stood at attention. "Read the articles of war to each division and give them each separate instruction."

They read the articles of war: "forbidden, under penalty, confinement to quarters, brig, cells, degradation, the firing squad!"

But the food didn`t improve. And threats don`t still your hunger.

In the Prinzregent Luitpold, July 3rd ten p. m. The third stokers` watch was coming off duty. There were fifty of them and they had scrubbed themselves clean as best they could with sand and soap-substitute. They were naked except for their wooden clogs, and carried in one hand, rolled in a towel, their dirty stoke-hold dungarees and their toilet gear.

They came like that into the mess-deck.

The group gathered round the notice-board.

"It`s enough to knock yer down! "Is the engineer office crazy?" "We`re off duty tomorrow. It was our turn for the pictures." But there it was on the blackboard: "Third stokers` watch tomorrow morning at 8.30, drill."

Infantry drill in the great drill-ground in Wilhelmshaven after their work in the stoke-hold. "Instead of the movies, they`re going to keep our noses to the big grindstone." "They`ve got you this time!" - "They`ve done that because we asked for more soap." "The greedy hogs! They`ve got good toilet-soap in their drawers." "That`s right, they have boxes of it. I`ve seen em myself." "Do you know what the crew of the Pillau did?" "They was cheated too and got no leave, So the whole lot cleared off and didn`t come on board again till evening."

"Just let me get to the blackboard."

One of the firemen elbowed his way forward. He had a piece of chalk in his hand and wrote across the order: "If there are no movies tomorrow, then we beat it without leave."

Next morning after breakfast the petty officer on duty gave the order: "Third watch fall in outside the armoury."

But the watch didn`t fall in outside the armoury. They slunk off one at a time down the gangway and assembled ashore under the Jachmann Bridge. Forty-nine of them passed out of the dock-yard gate and marched through the town to the dike.

They went back on board for midday dinner.

"The best thing to do would be to stand the whole lot against the gun- turret and shoot `em." declared a Chief P.O. as they came up the gangway.

At two o`clock they were reported to the captain. All forty-nine stood in line on the upper deck. The captain, the commander, and the division officer strode along the line and scanned their faces.

"Fall out!"

"Fall out!"

They picked out eleven men: "Fourteen days` brig! Twenty-one days` extra duty! Degradation!"

Eleven were punished and the rest dismissed.

That evening after "pipe down" there was no peace on board. The men sat in the dark beneath their hammocks and discussed the affair. And in the dockyard a number of them squatted in a railway car deck-hands and stokers from the Prinzregent, one or two from the Friedrich der Grosse, and several from the light cruiser Pillau.

"Eleven out of forty-nine! And look how the division officer picked them out - big Willem because he goes unshaved all of `em men whose faces he didn`t like. "We can`t submit to it any longer. These high-handed ways have got to stop." "And the everlasting drudgery. And the hunger rations."

"A week ago when they was guzzling at noon on the Thuringen, we turned the hose on `em. And plenty of pressure. Dishes and plates, all flew across the deck. And when the officers tried to get to the door, they got a stream of water in their mugs and on their bellies. Soon laid `em out flat on their behinds."

"And what happened afterwards?"

"Nothin`! Went to their cabins and changed. Never gave a sign, no nquiry, nothin`! If that `ad come out, they`d `a got the sack. They all go about now with their Brownings in their trouser pockets."

Last Updated: 28 February, 2000.

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