Story by Jasper Copping, Telegraph, October 16, 2010:
It was one of the most controversial episodes of the First World War, ruthlessly exploited by both sides for maximum propaganda advantage.
But while other stories from the conflict remain familiar, the act of bravery shown by British merchant sailor Charles Fryatt as he tried to ram an enemy U-boat and his subsequent death by German firing squad have since slipped from public awareness.
A new exhibition featuring artefacts linked to these extraordinary events is due to open on Saturday (16 October) in a bid to restore his place in history.
Captain Fryatt became an overnight hero in Britain and a villain in Germany for his actions on 28 March 1915 when his ship, the SS Brussels – a passenger ferry which ran a regular service between Harwich and neutral Holland – was intercepted by a submarine, U33, in the North Sea.
Rather than see his vessel sent to the bottom, Captain Fryatt ordered full steam ahead and tried to ram the U-boat, forcing it into a crash dive.
On his return to Britain, he was lauded as a hero for taking on and humiliating the Imperial German Navy. He was feted in the House of Commons and awarded a gold watch by the Admiralty.
However, his actions had enraged the Germans, who considered them a breach of international law, which stated that merchant vessels should not take aggressive action, even against war ships intent on sinking them.
Determined to exact revenge, they deliberately set out to capture him and, in June 1916 sent destroyers to again intercept the SS Brussels. This time, he and the vessel were captured and taken to occupied Belgium.
Capt Fryatt was found guilty at a court martial of being a “franc tireur” – a civilian who took up arms against the usual rules of war – and executed by firing squad. The gold watch was produced as evidence against him.
His death prompted an international outcry, including in the United States, which had not yet entered the war, where there was outrage that a civilian had been killed for defending himself.
It was described by newspapers there as “a deliberate murder” and “the crowning German atrocity”.
The British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described it as an “atrocious crime against the laws of nations and the usages of war” which showed the Germans had adopted a “policy of terrorism”.
King George V expressed his indignation in a letter to Fryatt’s widow, Ethel. His personal secretary wrote: “I am commanded to assure you of the abhorrence with which His Majesty regards this outrage.”
A memorial was erected in Fryatt’s honour at Liverpool Street Station and, at the end of the war, his body was exhumed from the cemetery near Bruges where he had been buried, and returned to Britain where he was given a funeral, with full honours, in St Paul’s Cathedral.
During the war, his death was compared with the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell, who was killed by the Germans in 1915 for helping British soldiers escape from occupied Belgium, but it now remains the less well known of the two.
However, it is now the focus of an exhibition which opens at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, this week.
Nick Hewitt, a historian at the museum, said: “Captain Fryatt has rather slipped out of the public imagination but his is a fascinating story and a very sad one for him and his family that we hope to highlight.
“At the time, the Germans were not practising unrestricted submarine warfare, so U-boats had to surface and allow the crew of the merchant ship to abandon ship and, in theory, board and inspect the ship and make sure it was carrying illegal cargo before they sank it.
“For their part, merchant skippers could not take offensive action against submarines. These were the rules as they had been developed, in a much earlier period, before submarines even existed, with their origins in the Napoleonic era.
“Everyone was discovering that there were impracticalities about the rules and the whole thing would get blown out of the water later in the war with the Germans practising unrestricted submarine warfare, which did not acknowledge any rules.
“In a strictly legal sense, the weight is in favour of the German argument that they were entitled to try and execute him. But that is an interpretation strictly on the letter of the law, and not a moral one.
“Whether they were morally justified in doing so is a totally different argument.
“As with Edith Cavell, it was a catastrophically stupid decision by the Germans. In both cases, they might have had a technical entitlement to execute them both, but they would have had a far more significant propaganda success if they had sentenced them to death and then pardoned them.”
Doris Stewart, 90, from Southampton, is a great niece of Captain Fryatt, born four years after his death.
She said: “There was a large photo of him hung in our front room when I was growing up and when we asked who it was, we were just told that it was uncle Charles and that he was shot by the Germans.
“We weren’t told anything of his background. Children weren’t told about those sorts of things in those days.”
She only discovered the story behind his death in 2006, when a local historian in Southampton gave a talk on the subject.
The exhibition will include the port scuttle light from the SS Brussels, a half crown coin reportedly given to Captain Fryatt by a nun on the day of his death, and medals he was awarded posthumously – the British War Medal and the Chevalier of the Order of Leopold and Maritime Decoration, 1st Class, which was awarded by the Belgian government
It will also feature notices written in Flemish, German and French announcing the death sentence.
The SS Brussels herself was torpedoed several times by the British during the Zeebrugge Raid, an attack on the port in 1918, but did not sink.
She was later scuttled by the Germans in the port, before being raised at the end of the war and presented to the Admiralty.