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The Heligoland Crisis 1895

Posted by Adam on July 29, 2017 at 7:35 PM

Here is the background notes for the 1895 campaign set on the Heligoland Islands.

 

The Heligoland Crisis 1895

 

In February of 1895 a small group of “scrap metal dealers” raised the flag of the German Empire over an abandoned herring canning plant on the uninhabited island of Duene. The significance of this action lay in the ownership of this sandy speck in the North Sea, the British Empire.


Following the collapse of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty in 1890, the small island group generally just known as Heligoland, had become an unwanted diplomatic headache for the British Government who had administered the islands since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Their preference had been to hand them over to the newly united German Empire in return for a few useful concessions in Germany's expanding African colonies. A finely crafted treaty had been scuppered at the last knocking by the young German Emperor Wilhelm II.



The departing Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck arranged for publishing of the minutes from a meeting with the Kaiser, where Bismarck had queried the real value of the islands compared to potential colonial wealth. The Kaiser had responded with a stream of bellicose abuse and bravura openly bragging of his wish to build a German navy that would control the World’s oceans and allow Germany to control any overseas colonies she saw fit. To what extent Bismarck stage managed the meeting is hard to know but his fingerprints are certainly on the route that it took to a journalist in the Washington Post after his resignation.


“As fine a piece of political chicanery as I have ever seen,” commented one Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister. Whatever the real machinations were behind the newspaper story, it effectively killed off any chance of the treaty being ratified by the British.


 



On hearing the startling news that Kaiser Wilhelm was planning for the Royal Navy to be demolished by his new German fleet, some voices within the British Admiralty were raised in support of keeping a naval base which could observe and if necessary block aggressive naval forces emerging from the Kiel Canal. That wiser heads did point out the difficulties in defending a station only 50 miles from the German coast, only served to cause there to be a political deadlock within the British establishment. National pride was feeling bruised in London and Berlin, but little appetite could be summoned to hash out a face saving compromise. With the Kaiser’s credibility still in tatters it only took the activities of a small nationalist society to bring matters to a head.


The Bremen Fatherland Society had a well organised "Rifle Club" including several off-duty NCOs from the Imperial German Army. On February 20th 22 of their number were transported to Duene on the paddle steamer Ozeanwelle. Reports that this was crewed by Kriegsmarine personell were never substantiated and quite unlikely. Within 48 hours their provocative flag raising had been noted by passing fishing vessels and reported to the British authorities.



The first response was a visit from HM Steam Patrol Boat Fowey, which scouted out the small island on the 23rd February. Seeing the German flag still flying over the old cannery and a ramshackle group of tents erected around the crumbling buildings, a small shore party was landed.


Lieutenant Franz Hoeskstra of HM Coastguard decided on low key approach to the situation taking only one Seaman with him to go and talk to the interlopers. Neither man had a firearm despite the shore party being well equipped with modern Lee Metford rifles and Hoekstra by regulation should have been wearing his holster and Webley revolver. The Coastguard officer's diplomatic approach had no sway with the Bremeners and all he receive in return was nationalist slogans and personal abuse. When the first shot rang out the pair were already halfway back to the boat and the remainder of the shoreparty. Hoekstra was killed instantly by an expert rifle shot to the head and AB Dudley was hit twice as he attempted to carry his stricken officer to safety.


The shore party was thrown into confusion at this turn of events but cooler heads amongst them were able to lay down some covering fire (perhaps causing the only German – non Coastguard German that is, casualty of the encounter.) Whilst retrieving the shore party the HMPB Fowey fired rounds from its 2“ gun into the cannery where the initial shots were supposed to have come from. The Bremeners had already made tracks however, crossing the tiny island to where they had boats hidden and splitting up into several smaller groups. Effectively their task was complete.


The importance of this incident was not initially realised. The newspapers in London and Berlin ranted and complained but none of them openly predicted that this would be the spark to a wider conflict. The British reaction was initially muted. The German Ambassador was not summoned for almost a week to the Foreign Office and then it was for an informal discussion. In the War Office it all barely raised a flicker of interest. On the islands themselves the Heligoland Garrison Regiment stepped up shoreline patrols and the small police force was on the lookout for the Bremeners in its own way.


It was not the Bremeners who the Garrison Regiment members of B company found on the 28th February however. Just before dawn the five man patrol almost walked right into a full company of the German Imperial Army (Lower Rhine Fusilier regiment, No. 39) recently disembarked in a secluded bay under the cover of darkness. Luckily the sergeant was an old India hand and realised that getting word to his superiors was of more importance than any heroics. Embassy staff in both Capitals were about to have a very long day!



(Before I get any grief from nutters and button counters, please let me make it clear most of the above is an alternative history exercise in "what-ifs..." I have for a start added a sizable companion to the real main island at Heligoland and the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty did take placeand wasn't scuppered in 1890. Much is based on truth however: the Kaiser's unfortunate penchant for saying the wrong thing to newspapermen, the falling out between him and Bismarck and the wish by some in the British Establishment to keep hold of the island - Queen Victoria for one!)

Categories: Campaign News, Heligoland Victorian War

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3 Comments

Reply Hanni
1:43 AM on August 1, 2017 
Looks excellent. Well done.
At least two of us will be taking part, don't care about the Philistines.
Now, where can I get a gunboat ?
Reply Adam
8:16 AM on August 1, 2017 
Hanni says...
Looks excellent. Well done.
At least two of us will be taking part, don't care about the Philistines.
Now, where can I get a gunboat ?

Great minds think alike! I had a look at the various MDF firms but haven't seen quite what I want. There is one who does some good components (funnels and superstructure bits) that might make scratch building quite straight forward. Also Caliver have the old PMS gunboat/torpedo boat that looks right for the period and again you can buy the components separately... I can see a purchase happening there.
Reply Hanni
12:57 PM on August 1, 2017 
Adam says...
Great minds think alike! I had a look at the various MDF firms but haven't seen quite what I want. There is one who does some good components (funnels and superstructure bits) that might make scratch building quite straight forward. Also Caliver have the old PMS gunboat/torpedo boat that looks right for the period and again you can buy the components separately... I can see a purchase happening there.


Not looked at Caliver, been to most of the other sites that do 28mm boats and so far I need a very large loan !
Prices are very variable, I like the Sarissa colonial riverboat and the Clyde Puffer from Minimi. Also like the various Paddle Boats from Sarissa and Dixons, but not seen a proper gunboat except for the Grand Manner ones - scary prices. Might add it to the list for scratchbuilding, not done that for years.