Authors: Nigel Barley
THE TALE OF CAPTAIN LAUTERBACH
AND THE SINGAPORE MUTINY
The life of Captain Julius Lauterbach was so extraordinary that no one would dare to invent it. Juli-bumm, as he was known to his friends, was very much a real person although he lives on chiefly as the myth he was transformed into. The
was a real ship. The events described here â for the most part â really happened, though they were later hushed up, especially by the British authorities.
The First World War left Germany feeling a little short of classic heroes. The circumstances of the land campaign were not conducive to gentlemanly conduct and it was only in the air and at sea that a space was left for the conventional hero the public still demanded in an age of callous
Hence the continuing importance of SMS
, a light cruiser of the Far East squadron, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Karl von Mueller, whose story has often been told and is something of a cult in Germany, neatly offsetting that of the negative âRape of Belgium,' just as frequently repeated in the rest of Europe. Von Mueller was of military family and noble blood, cold, distant, ruthlessly correct and punctilious in the interpretation of the articles of war. In 1914, the
was sent as a raider into the Indian Ocean to prey on Britain's merchant fleet. It was not expected she would return. In the course of three months, however, she sank sixteen merchant ships and two warships and carried out daring raids on the harbours of Penang and Madras, making a mockery of British naval supremacy, paralysing trade and making the Allies fear for their crucial troop convoys from Australasia. In the course of this, barely a life was lost. Von Mueller devoted himself to looking after the welfare of enemy crews and liberated them in safety and good health whenever circumstances permitted. Often, they cheered him as the
sailed off. His reputation and popularity throughout the Empire became a personal embarrassment for the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, who had seventy-eight vessels of British and allied navies searching the world for the enemy ship. In Germany, the legend of the
remained alive long after the war and spawned a whole series of vessels of similar name, becoming the official, acceptable face of the German navy.
But there is another side to the ship of legend â Captain Julius Lauterbach of the naval Reserve. His memoirs were written up as war propaganda and he too was portrayed as fearless, fanatically nationalistic and inevitably devoid of individual, intelligent thought. Yet, if we strip him of such conventional pieties and try to transform him back into a realistic human being, it seems likely that, for every austere virtue of von Mueller, Lauterbach possessed the corresponding vice. He was gross, beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking and uxorious, a seasoned filcher, braggart and â above all â a survivor. Lauterbach was made prize officer of the
in charge of loot. Rarely do navies match a man so ideally to his job. Lauterbach stuffed the warship with luxuries and one may suspect that, like others in his position in other navies, he had an eye to his own comfort and profit at the same time. When the
was finally shot to pieces Lauterbach was snugly installed in a prize ship a safe distance away.
Captured by the Allies, he was imprisoned in Singapore. In 1915, making opportunistic use of a mutiny amongst his Indian guards, Lauterbach made good his escape. His account of his involvement in that mutiny is inconsistent and shifty and has invited speculation. He now embarked on a protracted series of adventures as he tried to head back to Germany with a price of Â£1,000 (later inflated in his memoirs to Â£10,000) on his head and sought by all the British and Japanese agents in the East. He had contacts all over China and the Pacific from his sailing days as well as on German vessels interned in all the neutral harbours. He spoke Malay, pidgin Chinese, Dutch, Swedish and English as well as German. Beneath the flag of patriotism, Lauterbach performed several feats of great physical endurance and bravery, mixed with low cunning and self-interest. He was not a modest man. Often, when he had fooled or tricked anyone, he sent them a gloating postcard. After many adventures, he managed to return to Germany from the other side of the world and resumed an active role in the navy, though again one resting as much on deceit and cunning as military bravery.
Oddly, Captain von Mueller refused to write his own story, feeling it would be a base profiteering that would dishonour so many dead comrades. Lauterbach's tale has been told several times. It appeared twice in German, with a deadly patriotic twist for wartime propaganda purposes, first under his own name as
1000Pf Sterling Kopfpreis â tot oder lebendig
in 1917 and again as
Als Fluechtling um den halben Erdball
by Reinhard Roehle n.d. Then, in 1930 Lowell Thomas, an American journalist, took up the story and reworked it for the German-American market as
Lauterbach of the China Sea
which went back into German as
Mein Freund Julibumm
by Graf Luckner. It is with the luxury of hindsight that we can now see him as a far more interesting character than the nationalistic obsessions and hatreds of the time allowed him ever to appear. Thomas calls him âFalstaffian' but we should perhaps nowadays see him as more âFlashmanesque'. Any truth about Julius Lauterbach goes far beyond the extant straightjacketed patriotic renditions. The version given here is no more than a possible version but to offer it is in no way to denigrate Julius Lauterbach. If anything, it seeks to humanise an exceptional man who has been caricatured as a fanatical martinet and return to him his deserved human condition. He is a man for whom I have a particular fondness. I hope readers will feel the same way.
THE SWAN OF THE EAST
The hard heat beat down upon Tsingtao. No one could remember a hot season like it. For week after week, the black-white-red of Germany hung limp in the air till the meteorological station's equipment, fresh from Berlin, gave one final, desperate click and locked solid. With a thousand brass hammers the sun cracked the red rooftiles of the Chinese shophouses and bleached out the features of the Kaiser's portraits, nailed patriotically above all cash registers. It mined and split the concrete of the new German harbour and sucked the very life from the roses planted by homesick Europeans in the gardens of their villas. On the roof-terrace of the
beergarden, the troops bleared wistfully at the cool but distant Laoshan mountains, grew tearful and confused at the unwonted tropical vigour of the imported German pinetrees there, drank another beer, sang another “Muss i Denn” and fumbled absently at the breastless Chinese serving wenches whose
bodices flapped limp with unfulfilled expectation. Colonial life was a thin membrane of glory stretched over a yawning pit of boredom.
“Bloody mockery,” snivelled Captain Schulz, gulping fizzy beer and belching. Another month and he was due for the more solid forms of German home leave. He would be there now if it hadn't been for the last-minute malaria. Instead he was on his jack, on this roof, in this mockery of a town, that yodelled with dumpy south German towers and all the gingerbread cosiness of Bavaria. A lissom Chinese waiter in
minced past on hairless legs and Schulz shook his head in pain.
At the neighbouring table sprawled a bunch of young naval officers, empty steins discarded around them in puddles of beer, sporting a muddled variety of uniforms, military and merchant, that meant nothing to Schulz. The whole of this Kiaochow Chinese protectorate was treated like some bloody great ship of the Reich, Admiral Tirpitz in charge, another popinjay captain as governor. Even the soldiers were called âmarines' and only he and a few other officers were real army men, stuck like bored housewives in the stinking barracks at Fort Bismarck while the navy went off to play their silly games at sea.
“Bloody mockery,” he snarled again.
Tsingtao, the capital, was a model city, the teeming humanity of mainland China tamed and dammed by German colonial efficiency and the pouring in of millions of marks â water, roads, street-lighting, hospitals, schools, a railway, a floating drydock, and everywhere great naval guns poking at sky and sea. Undersea cables linked them to the wider world of Shanghai and the Pacific colony of Yap. The other side of the bay, disappearing in blue haze, was German too but under Chinese administration, a convenient muddle that gave excuses for military intervention whenever Germany needed them. The wind shifted and blew a sweet miasma of excrement,
excrement over the town. Costive European dung was disdained as poisonous and fed into the maws of proud modern sewers to be belched out beyond the lighthouse but Chinese was traditionally composted for manure on one of the harbour islands and shovelled lavishly over their food. One way or another the Chinese made them all eat their shit. Schulz belched again. The wind shifted anew and now it was loud, beery conversation that blew over from the next table.
“There is absolutely no doubt about it. A missionary assured me â¦ with his own eyes â¦”
“Ah, Juli-bumm, missionaries â¦”
Missionaries had a certain mythic power in Tsingtao. The protectorate had been seized following the murder of a couple back in 1897. German righteous outrage had led to an armed landing, a fine exacted in silver coin, raising of the German flag and the establishment of a profitable trading colony â all in search, not of gain, but allegedly to teach the Chinese a well-deserved moral lesson.
“No, no, a reliable man of experience â with a long white beard â I have known for many years, a Dutchman, a bishop even â¦” The speaker was huge, a great bear of a man, well over six feet, 18 stone of bullish flesh, bone and luxuriant fat, barrel-chested, vast Bismarckian head topped by a crewcut, full moustache and beard and little piggy eyes that gleamed like the colonial dollars the sailors were paid in. In his late thirties, he was far older than the clean-cut and pared young men at his table, a sea-dog amongst sea-puppies. He sighed and wiped his sweaty face with a pink, hairy hand, gestured for another round and poured it down as if dousing a fire in a waste-basket.
“I picked the Dutchman up in Talien, the end of the Trans-Siberian railroad.” With a finger, he drew elegant cartography, as in a primary school, in the slops on the table. “He'd come through from the West and everywhere, he said, Russian troops were moving back the other way. Germany, Austria. Great trains full of them â pale Ukrainians and Siberians â stuffed with rifles. Thousands more shunted into sidings. I tell you there's a war coming.”
Howls of derision. “Juli-bumm, rubbish. Who are the Russians going to fight?” The Japanese had given them a bloody nose just the other year and sunk their navy. There would be no war. The boys had just come from the beach. The sun was shining. Their skin was taut and tanned. Hair bleached and sleek. Just last week that British navy had dropped by for football, horseracing, horseplay. The admirals had gone snipe shooting together and chortled in their clubs. The ratings got drunk and danced fraternally entwined. There would be no war. The big man sighed and wiped the ruined railway away, flicked the drops from his palm onto the floor.