Court-Martial in Germany and the Mutiny at William's Haven

About the court-martial of the German sailors involved with the mutiny at William's Haven.


The compulsive writhings that accompanied the death struggle of Germany's Navy, in 1917-1918, resulted from recurrent mutinies. These were encouraged by the political sharp-shooting of sailors' unions, social revolutionaries, communists, and other leftist organizations that fed on the growing decay of a tottering Germany.

One of many similar incidents, it began aboard the Prinzregent Luitpold, at anchor in the Wilhelmshaven dockyard. Hans Becker, stoker and a leader in the sailors' union movement, was intoxicated with self-admiration, drunk with the power that allowed him to influence 1,000 less extroverted followers.

It was July 31, 1917. Six hundred dissatisfied crewmen looked forward to a promised 24-hour, duty-free watch, movies, and special food, but this was not to be. Lieutenant Hoffman announced there would be no day off, but infantry drill instead. There were angry mutterings.

Below decks, Becker told his followers: "If there are no movies tomorrow, we will go AWOL." This answer to a broken promise sparked a full-scale mutiny. The Prinzregent Luitpold steamed clear of the harbor to conduct an investigation. Sympathizers aboard the Kaiserin, Konig Albert, Markgraf, Friedrich der Grosse, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Grosser Kurfurst, Westfalen, Rheinland, Helgoland, Ostfriesland, Posen, and Pillan, rose in force. On August 5, the entire fleet steamed clear of the harbor; dissenters were imprisoned.

The Court-Martial. Those accused of lesser crimes than high treason received sentences of from 2 to 10 years in the penitentiary. In the trial for those accused of the highest crime, 3 naval officers and 3 judiciary officials acted as judges. There were 2 admirals and 5 captains among the 12 prosecutors.

Sachse, Reichpietsch, Weber, Becker, and Kobis, charged with high treason, had legal counsel and were heard separately. Stoker Petty Officer Willy Sachse was called 1st. The charge: "That said man, attached to the S.M.S. Friedrich der Grosse on July 15, 1917, did join in unlawful conspiracy during a state of War."

After an aggregate of 12 hours of testimony for the 5 accused, the stony-faced judges delivered their verdict: "guilty on all counts." The recommended sentence: death by a firing squad.

Admiral von Scheer, chief of the high sea fleet, exercised his right of final judgment. To Reichpietsch and Kobis, death. To Sachse, Weber, and Becker, 15 years' imprisonment for each man.

Significance. There is no short handy explanation for mutiny, nor can there be a short encapsulated sentence of a court-martial's significance. For centuries, military establishments have lived by one commandment: "Obedience or death." This irrational creed has accomplished little except to father other equally irrational creeds.

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