War Stories, Hull: Minesweeping; Anti-German Feeling
When we think of the First World War we remember the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in the trenches of France and Belgium, but the hardships of war were also felt at home. German U-boat attacks on Hull’s trawler fleet made the already perilous job of fishing the North Sea waters even more dangerous, and many trawlers and their crews were commanded by the Navy to serve as minesweepers in the seas off Great Britain’s east coast. Dr Robb Robinson of the Maritime Historical Studies Centre at the University of Hull, recalls the role played by his grandfather George Robinson.
Dr Robb Robinson
A Hull trawler skipper was probably about as skilled as any seafarer in the world, but they hadn’t been to war. Their trawlers would be requisitioned, they were armed, given a three-pounder, six-pounder gun, they were fitted out to what they call sweep the mines from the sea. To do that you had to actually enter the area of the waters where these mines were. And one wrong move and your ship would be sunk. And I’m very lucky in that I’ve got before me here my grandfather’s diary which he kept while minesweeping. And what comes out of the diary very clear is this sort of mixture of periods of dire monotony, you know just sweeping the seas day after day, and then interspersed by periods of frenetic activity and great tension when either they’ve got a mine stuck or they’ve come across a mine or they’ve just missed one, or even they encounter a U-boat.
July the 20th. Started sweeping 4am. 9am, as near death as I have ever been. Enemy mine afloat. Lookout failed to see it. Just cleared mine after an anxious few seconds. 10.30am Queen of the North blown up. 19 survivors out of a crew of 43. One officer saved.
On one occasion he tells me he recalls the tale of being in the pub on the night and having a pint with one of his best friends who was skipper of a Grimsby trawler called the Strymon. The next day the ship and the crew including the skipper were blown up. You know, as he says, you never know when your time’s up. It was a bitter, long war and they played an invaluable and now forgotten role.
Though he had never intended to embark on a military career George continued to serve his country beyond the First World War and again in World War Two.
Dr Robb Robinson
To me it’s a remarkable story of seafaring of an ordinary person, somebody who hasn’t chosen to have a military life, but by venture of their skills and circumstances of life they’ve gone on to do all this. So yeah, he was for me quite a remarkable person. I don’t think he would have thought of himself in that sense but when you look back and think of the life that he led and compare it with the lives that many of us led it’s a remarkable time. They got on with it. They had to.
The first Zeppelin raids on Hull brought the war home in a very direct way as homes and businesses across the city were bombed. Christian Wagner was a German pork butcher who settled in Hull and in 1899 founded a prosperous and popular butcher’s shop on Spring Bank with his partner Friedrich Kress. In 1905 Christian married Friedrich’s sister Sophie. The business opened another shop on Welbeck Street and the couple had four daughters: Frieda, Emma, Lucy and Elsa. The Wagners were proud and popular members of the local community but anger at the Zeppelin raids on Hull made them targets for anti-German feelings.
Dr Nicholas Evans
From 1915 the Zeppelins brought the war to Britain on the home front. The front line of the warfare now became homes and businesses here in Britain and these attacks led to prejudice, instantaneous responses from civilians attacking anything German or perceived to be of German origin. They were attacking it as the Germans had attacked their homes. The level of violence permeated all across the city but especially as it spread to the suburban areas, refined areas like the avenues, it showed the level of prejudice. Prejudice was now reaching all areas of life. All classes of life, all walks of life now hated the Germans, hated the Kaiser where previously they’d worshipped the Kaiser, enjoyed German culture and tasted his cuisine.
Christian wrote home to his family in Germany to reassure them he was managing to cope.
Voice of Christian Wagner
Allow me to send you a few lines. We have received your kind and valued letter with the enclosed photograph and thank you very much for it. We have already suffered enormously and only God knows what is still to come and we are hoping for the best. We are under heavy pressure on all sides, partly because of competition and partly because of the contempt of the people. The shop is still open but business is slow and we are only doing about a third of the business that we used to do at this time of year in previous years. We will, however, be content if we can carry on like this. We enclose a photo of our girls. We lost our dear grandfather last May and therefore they are all dressed in quite dark colours. Now I need to come to a close but I will write again soon to let you know how we are getting on. With best wishes from us and our children.
In 1916 Christian was conscripted to the Middlesex regiment, serving in the British army as a cook.
Dr Nicholas Evans
The prejudice which we see rapidly declines. What became apparent was that actually Germans, innocent Germans were being affected by this war just as badly as Britons, so Britain realised that in its economic state during the war, once war ended it needed to resume trade. We need to start working, trading again and our number one trading ally, before the war and after the war, was Germany.
Once the war was over Christian and Friedrich returned to Hull where the anti-German sentiments were soon forgotten. The shop prospered for many years after.