No.82 Condemned as a Prize (Diary of the War No.10)

Hard on the heels of last week’s Gallipoli blog comes this week’s contribution, featuring May’s First World War wreck on the centenary of her loss on 1 May 1915. The circumstances were neither unusual – sunk by collision in fog off Beachy Head – nor a result of wartime action, but her background provides the opportunity to illustrate a lesser-known aspect of the war at sea between 1914 and 1918.

The First World War saw huge technological advances and the mechanisation of combat as aircraft took to the skies, tanks rolled across landscapes, and submarines prowled the seas. Yet, given the century that had elapsed since the last major pan-European conflict ended in 1915, it was perhaps unsurprising that older practices and technologies were still retained in many respects: we may think, perhaps, of the cavalry regiments who saw action on the Western Front.

Many a Lloyd’s List of the 18th century lists details of vessels ‘taken’ by enemy warships or privateers and subsequently ‘condemned’ as prizes. Condemnation as a prize did not mean that the ship was intended for destruction, but rather that it was adjudged a lawful prize by an Admiralty court, and would sail again under a new flag.

On the declaration of war on August 4, 1914, a number of German and Austrian vessels were detained in British or Empire ports. A month later the London Gazette published the names of these vessels, which were to be brought before the Prize Courts and condemned as prizes, a fate that appears at first sight more redolent of the age of sail. Today’s vessel, the Horst Martini, was one of this group, detained in Newport, Wales.  She had started out life as the British vessel Crosshill in 1883, but was sold into German service in 1900, initially as the Hugo und Clara, then renamed Horst Martini.  With the judgement of the Prize Court, she was about to re-enter British service as a collier. (1)

While her prize status had no bearing on the wreck event, it did have an impact on the subsequent court case. The owners, master and crew of the Horst Martini brought a claim against the owners of the other vessel involved in the collision, the Runic:, who were not permitted to counterclaim against the owners of the Horst Martini,  who proved to be none other than the ‘Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom’. As a concession, they were allowed to sue her master instead. Both vessels were found to have contributed to the accident, with three-quarters of the blame being assigned to the Horst Martini. (2)

Turning these prize vessels over to the colliery service made a significant contribution to the landscape of war since coal was the national fuel. The circulation of coal was based on well-established historical routes from the colliery to the consumer by sea, even for the domestic market. Routes to market were slow to adapt to wartime exigencies: with hindsight it is easy to wonder why recourse was not had to the less immediately vulnerable rail network. (There were many reasons for this, including the integration of the colliery and shipping industries under the coal magnates.)

In turn this meant that that sinking colliers was an effective way of striking at the British economy. The nation needed all the colliers it could get, and those German ships interned in British ports on the outbreak of war fulfilled an immediate need: the seemingly old-fashioned prize law plugged the gaps of a market that, to modern eyes, appears to have been slow to respond to the dangers posed by modern forms of warfare.

(We will follow the adventures of several other ‘prize’ German colliers over the course of the War Diary.)

(1) The Times, 22 January 1915, No.40,758, p34

(2) The Times, 20 May 1915, No.40,859, p3.

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