Date of birth: 1st December 1871
Date of death: 27th July 1916
As at the time of publishing Captain Fryatt’s story to this website in February 2014 his name did not appear on the Cenotaph or Memorial Wall. Members of his family who reside in Southampton and information received from the descendants of his immediate family did not explain why; however, it is possible that because Captain Fryatt and his family were living in Harwich at the time of his death his family never thought that as a ‘son of Southampton’ his name should be included on a Southampton memorial.
The Southampton family members had Captain Fryatt’s name recorded on the Memorial Wall in time for the 2014 Remembrance Service and were joined on the day by members of his family now living in Essex.
Charles A Fryatt was a British mariner who was executed by the Germans for attempting to ram a U-Boat (U33) in an incident on the 2nd March 1915. On 25th June 1916 the following year, while in command of the SS Brussels, the ship was captured off the Netherlands and although a ‘non-combatant’ he was court-martialed and sentenced to death! International outrage followed his execution near Bruges in Belgium and in 1919 his body was reburied with full honours in England.
Charles was born in Southampton on 1st December 1871 to Charles and Mary Fryatt (Charles Senior at one time served as First Officer in SS Cambridge) and attended Freemantle School in the late 1870s. There were 7 siblings in total, Charles had 3 sisters and 3 brothers. In 1881 the family lived at 22 Trinity Terrace, Southampton, with them later moving to Harwich where he attended the Corporation School.
After leaving school Charles decided, in 1892, to follow his father into the Merchant Navy and trained in HMS Worcester, signing on with the Great Eastern Railway Company as a seaman on board SS Ipswich. He went on to serve in the Steamships County Antrim, Ellenbank, Marmion and Harrogate; Charles rose through the ranks and his first command was SS Colchester. In 1913 he was appointed Master of SS Newmarket.
First U-boat Incident
On 2nd March 1915, when in command of the Great Eastern Railway ship SS Wrexham, he was attacked by a German U-Boat and decided to make a run for it. Wrexham was subsequently chased by the U-Boat for 40 nautical miles (74km), but with the help of the deckhands, the firemen managed to get the vessel’s speed up to 16 knots (18.2mph) when normally they would have been hard-pressed to make 14 knots (16mph); Wrexham arrived at Rotterdam with burnt funnels! In recognition of this amazing feat, the Great Eastern Railway presented Fryatt with a gold watch inscribed:
“Presented to Captain C. A. Fryatt, by the Chairman and Directors of the G.E Railway Company as a mark of their appreciation of his courage and skillful seamanship on March 2nd, 1915.
Second U-boat Incident
Later that month he was in charge of SS Colchester when this vessel was also unsuccessfully attacked by another U-boat.
Third U-boat Incident
On 28th March 1915, as Master of SS Brussels and near the Maas light-vessel, he was ordered by U-33 to stop! Realising the surfaced U-boat was about to torpedo his ship Fryatt ordered full steam ahead and attempted to ram U-33, forcing it to crash-dive. This action was in compliance with orders issued by Winston Churchill (1st Lord of the Admiralty) to captains of merchant ships; these orders included treating the crews of U-boats as ‘felons and not prisoners-of-war and white flags were to be ignored’. Churchill’s orders also stated that survivors from U-boats might be shot if this was more convenient than taking them prisoner; further, if a captain was to surrender his ship he would be prosecuted by the British. The Germans became aware of these orders when they found a copy of them upon capturing the SS Ben Cruachan in October 1915. For this second action, Fryatt was awarded a gold watch by the Admiralty, inscribed:
“Presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to Chas. Algernon Fryatt Master of the S.S. ‘Brussels’ in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28th, 1915”.
Fryatt was also presented with a certificate on vellum by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and was also praised in the House of Commons.
Fourth U-boat Incident
On 25th June 1916 SS Brussels left Holland bound for Harwich. Lights were shown from the beach, a flare fired and a passenger was reported to have remained on deck, signaling to shore; it was then that five German destroyers approached and surrounded the Brussels. The passengers were told by Captain Fryatt to take to the lifeboats and he gave further orders for the destruction of official papers. After these actions were successfully carried out SS Brussels was taken by the Germans who destroyed the ship’s radio before escorting the vessel into Zeebrugge.
Capture, Internment, Trial and Execution
Charles and his crew were sent to a civilian internment camp at Ruhleben near Berlin and on the 16th July it was reported in the Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, that Fryatt had been charged with ‘sinking a German submarine’. The Germans knew U-33 had not been sunk because at the time of the trial records proved that U-33 was on active service as part of the Constantinople Flotilla. The basis for the charge was the inscriptions on his watches!
Tried at a Court Martial held at Bruges Town Hall on the 27th July 1916, he was found guilty of being a ‘franc-tireur’ (free-shooter) and sentenced to death! The sentence was confirmed by the Kaiser and at 19:00 he was executed by firing squad and buried in the small cemetery just outside Bruges which the Germans used for burying Belgian “traitors”!
The grave was later visited by diplomat Sir Walter Townley (British Ambassador to the Netherlands from 1917 to 1919) and his wife.
Notice of Execution
An execution notice was published in Dutch, French and German announcing the death of Fryatt. It was signed by Admiral Ludwig von Schroder. A translation of the execution notice reads as follows:
“NOTICE: The English captain of the Mercantile Marine, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. This is the reason why he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the War Council of the Marine Corps and has been executed. A perverse action has thus received its punishment, tardy but just”.
Signed VON SCHRODER, Admiral Commandant of the Corps de Marine, Bruges, July 27th, 1916.”
German Post-War Confirmation of Court Martial
On the 2nd April 1919, a German International Law Commission named the “Schücking Commission”, after its chairman Walther Schucking, reconfirmed Fryatt’s sentence:
“The execution by shooting of Captain Charles Fryatt, which was given by the Court Martial Bruges, due to the sentence of the court martial proceedings on 27 July 1916, contains no violation of international law, the commission apologizes most vividly for the hurry in which the judgment was enforced.”
However, the Commission’s ruling was not unanimous as two members of the legal review panel, Eduard Bernstein and Oskar Cohn, dissented because in their opinion Fryatt’s sentence had been a severe infringement of international law.
Reaction to Sentence
On the 31st July 1916 the British Prime Minister, H H Asquith, issued a statement in the House of Commons:
“I deeply regret to say that it appears to be true that Captain Fryatt has been murdered by the Germans. His Majesty’s Government has heard with the utmost indignation of this atrocious crime against the laws of nations and the usages of war. Coming as it does contemporaneously with the lawless cruelty towards the population of Lille and other occupied districts of France, it shows that the German High Command, under the stress of military defeat, have renewed their policy of terrorism. It is impossible of course to conjecture to what atrocities they may proceed. His Majesty’s Government desire to repeat emphatically their resolve that such crimes shall not, if they can help it, go unpunished. When the time arrives they are determined to bring to justice the criminals, whoever they maybe and whatever position they may occupy. In such cases as these the authors of the system under which such crimes are committed may well be the most guilty of all. The question of what immediate action can be taken is engaging the earnest attention of the Government and I hope very soon to announce to the House of Commons what we can do”.
Lord Claude Hamilton MP, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, denounced the execution as “sheer, brutal murder”.
The Mayor of Harwich opened a fund to erect a permanent memorial to Fryatt; while a similar fund was opened in the Netherlands.
In the United States, the New York Times denounced the execution as “a deliberate murder”. The New York Herald called it “The crowning German atrocity”.
In the Netherlands, the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant described the execution as “arbitrary and unjust”, while the Handelsblad Holland called it “A cowardly murder inspired by hatred and revenge”.
In Switzerland, the Journal de Genève said “It is monstrous to maintain that armed forces have a right to murder civilians BUT that civilians are guilty of a crime in defending themselves”.
The Dutch Branch of the League of Neutral States presented to the Great Eastern Railway a memorial tablet which was erected at Liverpool Street Station. The memorial was unveiled on the 27th July 1917, exactly one year after Fryatt’s execution; the scrap value of SS Brussels was donated towards the cost.
The Great Eastern Railway awarded Charles’ widow a pension of £250 per annum. The Government granted her an extra £100 per annum pension on top of her entitlement. Charles’ insurers (Provident Clerk’s Association) immediately paid the £300 to which Mrs Fryatt was entitled, dispensing with the usual formalities. The Royal Merchant Seaman’s Orphanage offered to educate two of the Fryatt’s seven children – they had 6 daughters and a son. The King expressed his indignation and abhorrence at the execution of Charles in a letter to Mrs Fryatt, in the letter he also wrote:
“The action of Captain Fryatt in defending his ship against the attack of an enemy submarine was a noble instance of the resource and self-reliance so characteristic of his profession”.
Funeral and Reburial
In 1919 Charles’ body was exhumed and returned to the United Kingdom for burial. His coffin was landed at Dover and transported by South Eastern & Chatham Railway (PMV No. 132) to London. On the 8th July 1919 his funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral with hundreds of merchant seamen, widows of merchant seamen and fishermen attending; the route of the coffin, which was conveyed on a gun carriage, was lined with people. Representing the Government were many members of the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, the Cabinet and the War Office. The band of the Great Eastern Railway, augmented by drummers from the Royal Marines, played the Dead March, the hymns Eternal Father Strong to Save and Abide with Me were sung and a blessing given by the Bishop of London. Charles was buried at All Saints’ Church, Upper Dovercourt, Essex.
His widow was presented with the insignia of the Belgian Order of Leopold which had been posthumously awarded to Charles; he was further posthumously awarded the Belgian Maritime War Cross.
The incident inspired an Australian film The Murder of Captain Fryatt (1917).
A wing at Dovercourt Cottage Hospital – now known as the ‘Captain Fryatt Memorial Hospital’ – was named in his honour.
A public house in nearby Parkeston is also named in Captain Fryatt’s honour.
In Alberta Canada in 1921, two peaks were named after him, and the ship in which he was taken:
Mount Fryatt – 11,027ft (3,361m).
Brussels Peak – 10,371ft (3,161m).
|Published.:||14th February 2014|
|Updated:||Insert dates here|
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