Sunday 26 January 2020

Brian Muphy: Germany's aid - and the bravery of its naval officers - must be remembered in our accounts of Easter 1916

The Aud
The Aud
Roger Casement. Photo: National Gallery of Ireland
Brian Murphy. Photo: Frank McGrath

Brian Muphy

Though many people do not know it, the reference in the 1916 Proclamation to "gallant allies in Europe" was an acknowledgement of German assistance to the Irish rebels. In making their stand in Easter Week, a number of leading Irish rebels believed that if Germany won World War One, then Irish freedom would be guaranteed by the post-war peace conference.

Many of the guns used by Irish nationalists during Easter Week 1916 originated in Germany and had been smuggled into Howth and Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, during the summer of 1914. The guns had been bought by Erskine Childers, the father of a future President of Ireland, from the Hamburg-based munitions firm of Moritz Magnus der Jungere.

The guns were not sophisticated in terms of the advances that had been made in modern weaponry. Many of these guns actually dated from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1, but they were still in working order.

From the outbreak of World War One in 1914, advanced Irish nationalists sought direct assistance for their rebellion plans from the Imperial Government in Germany. With the tacit approval of the German government, Roger Casement (pictured inset right) had sought to persuade captured Irishmen in the British Army, who were being held in German prisoner of war camps, to join an Irish Brigade and return to Ireland to fight for Irish freedom.

In spring 1915, Casement was joined in Berlin by Joseph Mary Plunkett, a poet, a member of the IRB Military Council and subsequently a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation. Casement and Plunkett met with representatives of the German General Staff. Plunkett confided in the German government that revolutionary plans were being hatched in Ireland. Bethmann Hollweg, the German chancellor, promised to deliver arms and ammunition for an Irish uprising against British rule.

Ultimately, the German government declined Irish requests to land German troops in Ireland, but they sent a single shipment of arms consisting of 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition. The German arms shipment was of dubious quality and mostly comprised of weapons captured from the Russians on the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, this quantity of weaponry would have significantly boosted the chances of the poorly armed Irish rebels if this arms cargo had actually made it safely ashore.

Captain Karl Spindler, a native of Königswinter, near Cologne, and an officer of the Imperial German Navy, was handed the secret mission of delivering the arms shipment to Ireland in time for the planned Easter Rebellion in April 1916. On April 9, 1916, Spindler set out from the Baltic port of Lubeck on board a German ship, 'The Libau', which was disguised as a neutral Norwegian freighter and renamed 'The Aud'. Two days later, Casement sailed for Ireland from Wilhelmshaven, aboard the German submarine U19 with the intention of meeting up with 'The Aud' in Co Kerry.

After surviving a bad storm, 'The Aud' (pictured inset right) arrived in Tralee Bay on April 20, 1916. However, poor communications and an unexpected car accident, in which Irish Volunteers who were to meet Casement ended up being drowned, meant that no-one was present to meet the German ship.

After a long wait in Tralee Bay, Spindler reluctantly sailed away. Although Spindler did not know it, his movements were being monitored by the British Navy, who had tracked 'The Aud' on its journey. Earlier in the war, British Navy Intelligence had cracked the German codes so the British Navy was aware of 'The Aud' and its cargo almost from the moment it began its journey.

'The Aud' was intercepted by 'The Bluebell', a British destroyer, and ordered to sail to Queenstown (Cobh). Though captured, Spindler and his colleagues were not prepared to hand their arms cargo over to the British. After a number of failed attempts to escape, the German sailors ultimately scuttled their own ship using pre-set charges of explosives.

Meanwhile, Casement, who had landed from the German U-boat on Banna Strand, was captured on Good Friday, April 21, 1916. When Eoin MacNeill, the head of the Irish Volunteers, learned that Casement had been captured and the German arms were lost, he issued an order countermanding the Rising, which had been planned for Easter Sunday. Ultimately, the Rising would break out the following day, Easter Monday, 1916.

Early on Tuesday morning of Easter Week, German battle cruisers, under the command of Rear Admiral Friedrich Bödicker, shelled the English coastal towns of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. Meanwhile, a German zeppelin raid took place on Essex and Kent. The purpose of these German military actions was to try to divert British attention away from Ireland in order to give the rebellion a chance to take hold.

The rebellion lasted only six days. It involved not much more than 1,200 rebels and its leaders knew they had little chance of winning against a far superior number of British troops.

Roger Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London, in August 1916.

Captain Spindler was interned as a prisoner of war in Donington Hall in Leicestershire. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange towards the end of World War One. He subsequently wrote a bestselling book about his Irish adventure.

In 1966, as part of the official State commemoration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, surviving members of the crew of 'The Aud' and the U19, including Captain Raimund Weisbach, Walter Augustin, Otto Walter, Hans Dunker and Frederic Schmidt, visited Ireland as distinguished guests of the Irish government. The retired German sailors travelled to Kerry to witness the laying of the foundation stone of the Casement Memorial at Banna Strand.

In 2016, little mention has been made of the role that German naval officers played in the Easter Rising, but their bravery deserves to be remembered.

Dr Brian Murphy lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He previously worked as a speechwriter to two Taoisigh.

Irish Independent

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