A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘My dear parents, I have been sentenced to death...’
Albin Köbis was a humble stoker whose doomed protest foreshadowed the mutinies that would eventually cripple Germany’s navy
My Dear Parents,
I have been sentenced to death today, September 11 1917. Only myself and another comrade; the others have been let off with 15 years’ imprisonment. You will have heard why this has happened to me. I am a sacrifice of the longing for peace, others are going to follow. I cannot stop it now, it is six o’clock in the morning, I am being taken to Cologne at 6.30, and on Wednesday September 12 at nine o’clock in the morning I am going to be sacrificed to military justice. I would have liked to press your hands once more to say goodbye, but I will do it silently. Console Paula and my little Fritz. I don’t like dying so young, but I will die with a curse on the German militarist state. These are my last words. I hope that some day you and mother will be able to read them.
Always Your Son,
The day after he wrote this letter, Köbis, a 25-year-old stoker aboard the German Imperial Navy’s battleship SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, and a fellow rebel, Max Reichpietsch, were marched before a 20-man firing-squad of sailors at the Wahr military firing range in Cologne. They were tied to posts, blindfolded and executed, in a brutal climax to a dispute that had been ignited by swedes: the large, yellow-fleshed, bland-tasting root vegetables normally used as pig fodder.
Both had been found guilty of “treasonable incitement to rebellion”. But it was the swedes that began it.
Stokers of the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold in 1913 (Alamy)
The harsh winter of 1916-17 had halved Germany’s potato harvest, while Britain’s North Sea naval blockade was also having a serious impact on food supplies. Aboard the Prinzregent Luitpold, docked in Wilhelmshaven, the officers were given good food, but ordinary sailors had, like many Germans, been surviving for months on a diet of swedes. By 6 June 1917, the stokers had had enough. They refused to eat the food given to them, saying it was unfit for human consumption. They also refused to work. Only the promise of better rations made them call off their mutiny.
The government agreed to set up food supervisory committees comprising ratings and petty officers, who were meant to monitor the quality of food supplies. But the officers refused to implement it. Alarmed by the February revolution in Russia and strikes by Kiel naval dockyard workers in March, commanders were more concerned with crushing every hint of revolution.
Perhaps inevitably, stokers such as Köbis became more radical. They too rejected the idea of food committees. Instead, they aimed to set up a sailors’ council which they hoped would address abuses in the navy and issue a demand for immediate peace.
But the officers got wind of the sailors’ plans and clamped down. On 31 July, Köbis and 46 other stokers were informed that their off-watch rest periods had been cancelled, along with a promised cinema show, and that they had to do guard duty instead.
The furious sailors responded by walking off the ship. Captain von Hornhardt, their commanding officer, ordered the arrest of 11 of the mutineers. Köbis escaped and held a meeting in a railway freight car the same evening, in which he and others called for a walk-out on other ships docked in Wilhelmshaven.
When Kobis returned on board, however, he and the other mutineers were arrested. The next day, 600 sailors walked off other German battleships in sympathy and called for an end to the war.
Naval and regular police went sent in to surround the mutineers, and 75 alleged ringleaders were arrested on the orders of Admiral Scheer, the commander-in-chief.
The executions were to backfire on the military command. They were denounced as “murders” in socialist newspapers, and they played a role in the far bigger mutiny throughout the navy a year later, in the autumn of 1918.
That rebellion erupted after the high command announced plans for a final battle against the Royal Navy in the North Sea which most considered to be suicidal. The naval mutinies which ensued were key factors that helped to end the war.
Today, the mutiny of 1917 is largely forgotten. Yet the name of Albin Köbis lives on: a street near the naval headquarters in Berlin was named Köbisstrasse at the end of the Second World War.
Tomorrow: A German genius in East Africa
The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar
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