On 20 June 1914 Europe was at peace. That day, when the armored cruiser Gneisenau sailed from the German Cruiser Squadron's base, Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea, no one had reason to suspect that it would be for the last time. Among her company was the squadron chaplain, 32-year-old Evangelischer Marinepfarrer (Protestant Naval Pastor) Hans Rost. Rost's letters home, never before quoted in an English-language publication, provide a unique perspective of the drama into which he and his shipmates were soon cast.
Plans called for the Gneisenau to join her sister ship, the Scharnhorst, the flagship of Vice Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee, on a summer cruise to the German possessions in the Central and South Pacific. The plans, however, did not survive the crisis ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. On 7 July, the day the two vessels rendezvoused in the Caroline Islands, Berlin ordered Spee to await developments.
Between 3 and 5 August, the admiral was informed that Germany was at war with Russia, France, and Great Britain. Five days later, after having been joined by the light cruisers Emden and Nurnberg, Spee proceeded to Pagan in the Marianas, to which nearby German commercial vessels were directed. There on 12 August, he learned that Japan was expected to intervene on the enemy side. Japanese belligerence would make it impossible for the cruiser squadron to remain in the northern Pacific. Spee therefore resolved to make for the coast of South America, where the German Imperial Navy's underground logistics network could support subsequent operations. On 14 August he detached the Emden to attack enemy trade in the Indian Ocean, and accompanied by a covey of colliers and supply ships, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Nurnberg set out across the Pacific.1
Pastor Rost delivered his first wartime sermon on the Gneisenau's quarterdeck on Sunday, 9 August. He chose for his text Psalm 60:14: "With God's help we shall perform deeds," and thus, "We are strong without, stout of heart, and faithful in service."2 The ship's executive officer, Commander Hans Pochhammer, was so impressed that he asked Rost to conduct a second service that evening for the men whose duties had prevented them from attending the first.3
The outbreak of war had not surprised the pastor. Years earlier, his reading of international affairs had convinced him that a major conflict was inevitable. Nor had he any question that Germany's cause was just. Both views were typical of the conservative society to which Hans Rost belonged.
A pastor's son from the village of Schweikershain in Saxony, he had begun his ministry as an assistant pastor in Olsnitz, another Saxon village. By then, as a university man, he had attained what contemporaries often identified as the acme of a middle-class German male's social ambitions: a commission as a reserve officer in a good regiment, in his case, the Bavarian Guards. The quiet life of a country clergyman must have paled, however, and in 1910 Rost entered the German Navy, serving first as chaplain of the school ship Hansa. He joined the Gneisenau shortly before Christmas 1913. He had never married.4
In his first letter to his parents after Germany went to war, Pastor Rost proudly reported, "The men's sentiment is splendid." His duty, as he conceived it, was to do everything in his power to support those feelings. The scriptures on which he based his sermons were chosen to speak to men at war; for example his selection of 23 August from 1 Corinthians 1:10: "Hold fast to one another. Let us be true comrades."5
He also developed several patriotic lectures for Sunday afternoons. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were named in honor of Prussian generals in the War of the Sixth Coalition (1812-14), in which a number of German states made common cause with five nations against Napoleon and his allies. Rost perceived many parallels between that conflict and the war that had just broken out. Using his small shipboard library, he composed an hour-long discourse on General August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, "especially characterization." Theodor Korner, a Saxon poet and playwright killed in action in 1813 at the age of 22, became the subject of another inspirational lecture. Rost found such activities deeply rewarding. In a letter to his parents late in August, he wrote:
I am happy to be able to have the opportunity to exert an influence. The finest thing in life is the feeling of being worth something, of being able to accomplish something . . . . I can encourage the downcast, for whom everything goes too slowly, who are pained to see themselves condemned to inactivity when a year ago they may have been undersea boat commanders, torpedo boat officers, etc. It is really very difficult to wait in great excitement and have to look on.
And a month later he wrote that
For most people on board, seamen and stokers, petty officers and officers, these eight weeks since mobilization have meant nothing but watching and working, waiting and keeping alert, wishing and caring or fretting about things at home, etc.
And what they need, search for, is strength and joyfulness, equanimity and endurance! That I should help them to that goal is the beauty of my work. Never have I preached so gladly as in these weeks. It has never become easy for me, I have often felt very inadequate; even now, this feeling is not absent-but more than ever I am exalted by the feeling "to some the words are a comfort, a help . . . ." And so I rejoice in my work and thank God that he helps me, for then my work, my life, has a purpose.
The pastor must have reflected for a moment after writing those words, for he added, "Of course, the sky is never cloudless." But if at times less positive thoughts intruded, one should not be discouraged; "on the contrary, steel must be hammered, otherwise it remains ordinary iron." His only regret was that he could not be in Germany to share in the national enthusiasm the war had inspired.
On 12 October the cruiser squadron anchored off Easter Island after a voyage of 8,000 miles. There, it was joined by the light cruisers Leipzig and Dresden, which were off the coast of revolution-wracked Mexico when the war began. A week earlier the Dresden had signaled Spee that a British squadron had rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific in search of him. Botched communications had convinced the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, that the Admiralty desired him to engage a force he knew to be greatly superior to his own.6 Spee sailed to meet him on 18 October.
Late on the afternoon of 1 November the opposing squadrons converged off Cape Coronel, Chile. Cradock's force consisted of the undergunned armored cruisers Good Hope (his flagship) and Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, and the armed merchant cruiser Otranto. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau each threw almost as much metal in a single broadside as these four ships combined. The ensuing action was sharp and short.
Pastor Rost's post was at the main battle dressing station on the middle deck. He related his experiences in a letter to his parents:
Just as "Clear the guns for night" was being piped, as it is piped every evening between 4:00 and 4:15, a lieutenant rushed by outside my cabin and shouted, "Pastor, it's starting! The Englishmen are over there!"
In my haste I forgot to put on overshoes, as I've always done at other times. (A necessary act, because the decks have all been flooded-on account of the danger of fire.) So, "wet feet"! Well, that can't be helped now-I stow the most important books, because I believe my high-flying cabin is sure to take a beating.
I am doubtless somewhat excited, pay no attention to our ship, and have no recollections of what went on around me. I know only that it is awfully dark in the ship; the emergency lighting still isn't burning everywhere, and observe that most things are proceeding according to plan and according to drill.
Feverish activity everywhere, everywhere running, readying, working, boats were "lashed down," armored shutters placed before the side windows, and below decks ammunition is made ready. Everyone is at his post, everyone is doing his accustomed duty, steadily and calmly. . . . Later I went below decks to the central engine room. There, too, complete order and calm, much more even than above, because here nothing is being taken away, brought out, lit up, etc.
The chaplain caught a glimpse of the British ships, but was below decks when the battle began:
At 5:40 I saw the enemy for the first time as he sailed along proudly in line ahead, immediately afterward, after I had finally proceeded to the middle deck, the cry "Long range action to starboard" ran through the chain of runners, an indication of which side would be the action side and which the disengaged side. The apparatus measured the range to the enemy and then the ranges ran through the runner chain, always in 100-meter measurements. Also as in the familiar drills, this was repeated loud and clear. . . .
My watch showed 6:36 when I heard two shots. Who had fired? The enemy or Scharnhorst? Immediately afterward, our guns thundered. Tension. When will the enemy shells come? When will one hit?
He also wrote of keeping himself and his nearby shipmates occupied while awaiting the arrival of casualties at the dressing station:
Minutes become very long when one cannot distract himself with work. Before the beginning of the action I took out Weyer's Flottentaschenbuch [Fleet Handbook] to look up the enemy ships and their guns. We are clearly somewhat stronger. My comrades in the battle station were also interested in the data, the doctors, the staff paymaster, the judge advocate, as well as the barber and both the bed patients, who were carried below to the main battle dressing station because the actual sick bay beneath the bridge is not well enough protected. . . .
After a few minutes the cry, "An enemy ship is burning," then, "Two enemy ships are burning," went through the runner chain. How can I describe to you what kind of thoughts went through our minds! Joy and thanks, hopes and cares, how at the same moment all these feelings raced like lightning through the mind-then mechanically a glance at the watch, for it had become quite impossible to estimate the time. It was a great moment, a great hour, so that the evening after the battle we all sat quietly in the wardroom. No one had much to say. It was like a dream. . . . God's grace had protected us.
After the action Rost hurried to his cabin to see if it was still there. He discovered that a light bulb had been broken and his water pitcher and alarm clock overturned. German casualties were two men slightly wounded. The Good Hope and Monmouth, however, went down with all hands-1,600 officers and men. The Glasgow escaped under cover of darkness; the Otranto had prudently retired when the shooting started.
On 3 November the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Nurnberg entered port at Valparaiso. According to international law, only three belligerent warships were permitted in harbor at the same time and they could stay no longer than 24 hours. Mess officers seized the opportunity to restock their larders. A few days later Pastor Rost wrote his family:
If you could see me, you would be astonished at my paunch. Because the catering is faultless; for example, this evening lobscouse and draft beer, tea, and home-baked brown bread. Sunday evening there was suckling pig and plenty of fine vegetables. Also, the wine hasn't run out yet. Of course, there were 14 days once when there was no beer, fresh meat and potatoes were also at an end. . . . Water also had to be rationed. Of wine glasses for the 43 men in the wardroom, there were 4. Egg cups, etc., were serving as liquor glasses. Now it's going better with us again.
After months with no new reading material, the pastor and his messmates also devoured the German newspapers and magazines that could be bought in Valparaiso. Not all the news was good. The Japanese had captured Tsingtao, and the Australians had sunk the Emden, but the main tiding was that in Europe the German armies stood on enemy soil. Rost stitched the newspapers together to extend their useful life. Commander Pochhammer recorded that Pastor Rost "regarded it as part of his duty to fortify our moral well-being by numerous attentions of this kind."7 The pastor also undertook an unfamiliar domestic chore. The Gneisenau's Chinese laundrymen had gone ashore at Pagan, and although orderlies washed the officers' clothes, they did not press them. "On the 19th I took courage," Rost declared, "and wielded a flat iron to press a pair of blue trousers that had been washed after coaling. After this succeeded, I pressed .5 dozen pocket handkerchiefs and .5 dozen white collars, plus a few sport shirts. That you should have seen!"
In the following days, the cruiser squadron worked its way down the Chilean coast, anchoring twice to take on coal and supplies from its colliers and captures. For Pastor Rost, they were busy days. On 14 November he gave his Korner lecture to the crew of the Nurnberg. On Sunday, the 15th, he held divine services in the Gneisenau and Leipzig and swore in several dozen Germans, mostly naval veterans and reservists who had volunteered to join the squadron at Valparaiso. The next day he conducted the funeral of a seaman who had died in an accident on board the Scharnhorst. On the 18th he held services in the Gneisenau and on the 22nd in the Scharnhorst and Nurnberg. "In eight days six different orations," he reported, "sometimes after an arduous boat trip."
Later that month, Rost permitted himself to strike an uncharacteristically somber note. "November is nearing an end," he observed, "and again I'm far from Europe and must remember that it's time to write Christmas letters. The 5th Christmas that I will spend on distant seas approaches, in the event that I am still alive."
The pastor wrote his siblings' Christmas letter on 25 November. He was sure that, as reserve officers, both his brothers were at the front. He did not know that one had been killed in action in September.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In four weeks it will be Christmas and in five weeks the bells will toll a new year in and an old one out. Sometimes we heard them at home when the bells of the village church rang across the snow-covered fields in the quiet Christmas night and sometimes we listened to the soft, harmonious tolling of bells from far away to the north. But who among us will hear them this time!-and-nevertheless, a deep peal of beautiful memory sounds in our minds, and we will all feel even more strongly that, despite the great distance between us, we are not far apart. . . .
What will the bells sing to us? Certainly they won't ring out peace. And where and how will we celebrate Christmas? . . . But of this I'm certain, wherever it should be, songs of the homeland will pass through our minds, deep thankfulness will stir us.
And wherever these lines reach you, whether in a cozy parsonage or a bivouac in an enemy country, whether in a comfortably furnished home or a newly built barracks, whether in Saxony or on the German seacoast: there they shall tell you all that your far-distant brother thinks of you in faithful old thankfulness.
This was the pastor's last letter to reach home; mail from the warships was transferred to a collier a day after he wrote it. Had Rost written that morning he could have reported that he had been chosen to receive one of the 300 Iron Crosses Kaiser Wilhelm authorized Spee to award for Coronel.
The squadron rounded Cape Horn on 1 December. A British bark carrying coal was captured the next day, and the Germans anchored off remote Picton Island to transfer her cargo to their colliers and coal ship. On 6 December, the squadron put to sea. Hours earlier, Spee had informed his captains of his decision to attack the British coaling and wireless station at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on his way north.
It was a fatal decision. The British Admiralty had sent a powerful squadron to the South Atlantic to avenge Coronel. Quite by chance, the force reached the Falklands on 7 December, and at 0830 the next morning, lookouts in the Gneisenau were surprised to see the topmasts of British warships in Stanley Harbor. Spee cancelled the attack and ordered his cruiser squadron to steer east, into the open Atlantic.
The weather around the Falklands is among the bleakest in the world. On two out of three days, visibility is obscured by rain, mist, or fog. Any of these conditions would have virtually guaranteed the squadron's escape. On this of all days, the sun shone brightly, and Pastor Rost would have had ample time to consult his handy Flottentaschenbuch. He could not have liked what he found. Seven ships were following in the squadron's wake. Five were cruisers, three armored and two light, that the Germans could have fought on equal terms. It was the identity of the other two ships that was alarming. They were battlecruisers, ships whose reasons for being included catching and destroying armored cruisers. Recognizable as members of the Invincible class, they were significantly superior to Spee's big ships in every respect, most critically their speed and the strength and range of their main armament. The outcome of an action between the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and these vessels was never in doubt.
That action opened around 1320. By then, waterspouts from the battlecruisers' long-range fire had begun springing into the air around the German ships. For the cruiser squadron to continue its flight would invite its piecemeal destruction. In recognition of that grim reality, Spee turned back to engage the battlecruisers with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in hopes that their sacrifice would allow the three light cruisers to escape. The Gneisenau had already taken her first hit and, despite their superb shooting, the German ships were gradually beaten to pieces. In contrast to their inactivity at Coronel, on this occasion Pastor Rost and his comrades in the main battle dressing station had plenty to do. Gunner's Mate Neumann was told that the pastor had personally bound up his wound and afterward given him a water glass full of cognac. Neumann himself could not remember anything from the time he was hit until the ship began to sink.8
At 1615 a single shell obliterated the dressing station, killing nearly everyone there. The dead included Pastor Rost, who would never hear the Christmas bells again. Commander Pochhammer, who had visited the station a little earlier, wrote Rost's parents. "On this day, as throughout the whole war," Pochhammer assured them, "he was calm and composed, conscientiously kept a diary (even during the action) and took helping with the wounded very seriously, as he did his purely professional duties."
The Scharnhorst went down with all hands-approximately 765 officers and men-at 1617. The Gneisenau followed at 1800. Of her complement, the British rescued 178. Spee's hope that they might buy time for the light cruisers to get away proved in vain. Four British ships had skirted the engagement and continued after them. Only the Dresden escaped. She was scuttled on her captain's orders in a Chilean fiord in March 1915 after a brief engagement with a superior British force.
To modern sensibilities, Hans Rost's outlook may seem at times more befitting the reserve officer he had been than the chaplain he became. It is, of course, possible that the editing of the 1920 publication in which his letters first appeared subtly shifted their emphasis, but the consistency of their tone makes that unlikely. Like all historical characters, Pastor Rost must be viewed in context. In 1914, war did not bear the stigma that the events of the following four years did so much to give it. It was war-against the Danes in 1864, the Austrians in 1866, and the French in 1870-71-that had unified the Germany of which Pastor Rost was so proud. The German Army was the only one whose belt buckles proclaimed, Gott mit Uns-"God is with Us"-but the others shared the sentiment. That was among the reasons why the war of 1914-18 was so hard fought and so disillusioning. Everyone knew that God was on his side.
1. There is a substantial literature on the operations of the German Cruiser Squadron leading to the battles of Coronel and the Falklands in both English and German. The most recent of the former is Keith Yates' Graf Spee's Raiders: Challenge to the Royal Navy, 1914-1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995). The old reliable is CAPT Geoffrey Bennett's Coronel and the Falklands (London: Batsford, 1961). Richard Hough's elegant The Pursuit of Admiral von Spee: A Study in Loneliness and Courage (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969) also merits mention. The best German source remains Kapitan zur See Erich Raeder, Der Kreuzerkrieg in den auslandischen Gewassern, Vol. I, Das Kreuzergeschwader (Berlin: Mittler 1922), part of the official history, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918. Information readily available in these and other published sources has not been footnoted.
2. The quotation is from the German Bible, as translated by Martin Luther, which differs from the King James version.
3. CAPT Hans Pochhammer, trs. H. J. Stenning, Before Jutland: Admiral von Spee's Last Voyage (London: Jarrolds, 1931), pp. 60-61.
4. Barring other documentation, all references to Pastor Rost, including the excerpts from his letters, are drawn from "Geschwader-Pfarrer Hans Rost" in Johann Edmund Hottenroth, ed., Sachsen in groaer Zeit: Gemeinverstandliche sachsische Kriegsgeschichte und vaterlandisches Gedenkwerk des Weltkrieges, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Lippold, 1920), I: 68-74.
5. C. Dick, Das Kreuzergeschwader: sein Werden, Sieg, und Untergang (Berlin: Mittler, 1917), p. 59. See also note 2; the King James Bible again differs.
6. For a detailed analysis of Cradock's decisions, see Jack Sweetman, "Coronel: Anatomy of a Disaster," in Gerald Jordan, ed., Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century (London: Croom Helm, 1977), pp. 70-89.
7. Pochhammer, Before Jutland, p. 180.
8. Walter Heichen, Helden der See: Heldentaten unserer Marine 1914/18 (Berlin: Weichert, n.d. [c. 1938]), p. 58.