The Belgian Prince

The Belgian Prince was a British cargo steamer. On a voyage from

Liverpool to Philadelphia, with Captain Hassan in command, she was, on

July 31, 1917, attacked and sunk by a German U-boat. For brutal

savagery and barbarism, the drowning of the crew of the Belgian

Prince is one of the most astounding in the history of human warfare.

Captain Hassan was taken aboard the U-boat, and no further knowledge of

his fate has bee
received. The Belgian Prince was a merchant ship,

not a warship in any sense of the word.

The Germans evidently intended to sink her without a trace left behind

to tell the story, as their Minister to Argentina advised his

government to do with Argentine ships; but three members of her crew,

the chief engineer and two seamen, escaped as by a miracle. Their

stories are now among the records of the British Admiralty; they have

also been published in many books which have a place in thousands of

libraries, public and private, all over the world. How will the Hun,

when peace comes again, face his fellow-men?

The story of the chief engineer, Thomas Bowman, is as follows:

At 7:50 P.M. on the night of July 31, the Belgian Prince was

traveling along at ten knots, when she was struck. The weather

was fine and the sea smooth. It was a clear day and just

beginning to darken. I was on the after deck of the ship, off

watch, taking a stroll and having a smoke. The donkeyman shouted

out, "Here's a torpedo coming." I turned and saw the wake on the

port about a hundred yards away. I yelled a warning, but the

words were no more than out of my mouth when we were hit.

I was thrown on deck by a piece of spar, and when I recovered I

found the ship had a very heavy list to port and almost all the

crew had taken to the boats. I got into the starboard lifeboat,

which was my station. Until then I had seen no submarine, but

now heard it firing a machine gun at the other side of the ship.

With a larger gun it shot away the radio wires aloft so that we

could send out no S.O.S. messages. As soon as we had pulled away

from the ship I saw the U-boat, which promptly made toward our

own boats and hailed us in English, commanding us to come

alongside her. We were covered by their machine gun and

revolvers. We were in two lifeboats and the captain's dinghy.

The submarine commander then asked for our captain and told him

to come on board, which he did. He was taken down inside the

submarine and we saw him no more. The rest of us, forty-three in

number, were then ordered to board the submarine and to line up

on deck. A German officer and several sailors were very foul and

abusive in their language. They ordered us, in English, to strip

off our life belts and overcoats and throw them down on the


When this was done they proceeded to search us, making us hold

up our hands and threatening us with revolvers. These sailors,

while they passed along the deck and were searching us,

deliberately kicked most of the life belts overboard from where

we had dropped them. Beyond making us take off our life belts

and coats there was no interference with our clothing. They

robbed me of my seaman's discharge book and certificate, which

they threw overboard, but kept four one-pound notes.

After searching us, the German sailors climbed into our

lifeboats and threw out the oars, gratings, thole-pins, and

baling tins. The provisions and compass they lugged aboard the

submarine. They then smashed our boats with axes so as to make

them useless, and cast them adrift. I saw all this done myself.

Several of the German sailors then got into our dinghy and rowed

to the Belgian Prince. These men must have been taken off

later, after they had ransacked the ship.

The submarine then moved ahead for a distance of several miles.

I could not reckon it accurately because it was hard to judge

her speed. She then stopped, and after a moment or two I heard a

rushing sound like water pouring into the ballast tanks of the


"Look out for yourselves, boys," I shouted. "She is going down."

The submarine then submerged, leaving all our crew in the water,

barring the captain, who had been taken below. We had no means

of escape but for those who had managed to retain their life

belts. I tried to jump clear, but was carried down with the

submarine, and when I came to the surface I could see only about

a dozen of our men left afloat, including a young lad named

Barnes, who was shouting for help.

I swam toward him and found that he had a life belt on, but was

about paralyzed with cold and fear. I held him up during the

night. He became unconscious and died while I was holding him.

All this time I could hear no other men in the water. When dawn

broke I could see the Belgian Prince about a mile and a half

away and still floating. I began to swim in her direction, but

had not gone far when I saw her blow up.

I then drifted about in the life belt for an hour or two longer

and saw smoke on the horizon. This steamer was laying a course

straight for me, having seen the explosion of the Belgian

Prince. She proved to be a British naval vessel, which also

found the two other survivors in the water. We were taken to

port and got back our strength after a while. None of us had

given the submarine commander and crew any reason for their

behavior toward us. And I make this solemn declaration

conscientiously, believing it to be true.

The two common sailors who survived were William Snell, a negro, of

Norfolk, Virginia, and George Silenski, a Russian. William Snell's

story is as follows:

Two men of the submarine's crew stayed on top of the conning

tower with rifles in their hands which they kept trained on us.

Seven other Germans stood abreast of our line on the starboard

side of the boat, armed with automatic pistols. The captain of

the submarine, a blond man with blue eyes, was also on deck and

stood near the forward gun, giving orders to his crew in German,

and telling them what to do. Pretty soon he walked along in

front of the men of the Belgian Prince, asking them if they

had arms on them. He ordered us to take off our life belts and

throw them on deck, which we did. As they dropped at our feet,

he helped his sailors pick them up and sling them overboard.

When I threw my belt down, I shoved it along on the deck with my

foot, and finally stood on it. As the commander walked along the

line, he huddled us together in a crowd and then went and pulled

the plugs out of our lifeboats, which were lying on the

starboard side of the submarine. When he went back to the

conning tower, I quickly picked up my belt and hid it under a

big, loose oilskin which I was wearing when I left the Belgian

Prince. The Germans did not make me take it off when they

searched me. I hugged the life belt close to my breast with one


When the commander returned to the conning tower, four German

sailors came on deck from below and got into our captain's small

boat, which was on the port side. The submarine then backed a

little, steamed ahead, and rammed and smashed one of our

lifeboats, which had been cast adrift.

The four men who had jumped into our captain's boat now pulled

alongside the Belgian Prince. The submarine then got under way

and moved ahead at about nine knots, as near as I could guess,

leaving her four men aboard the Belgian Prince, and all of us,

except our skipper, huddled together on the forward deck, which

was almost awash.

She steamed like this for some time, and then I noticed that the

water was rising slowly on the deck until it came up to my

ankles. I had also noticed, a little while before this, that the

conning tower was closed. The water kept on rising around my

legs, and when it got almost up to my knees I pulled out my life

belt, threw it over my shoulders, and jumped overboard. The

other men didn't seem to know what was going to happen. Some of

them were saying, "I wonder if they mean to drown us."

About ten seconds after I had jumped, I heard a suction as of a

vessel sinking and the submarine had submerged entirely, leaving

the crew of the Belgian Prince to struggle in the water.

I began to swim toward our own ship which I could see faintly in

the distance, it being not very dark in that latitude until late

in the evening. The water was not cold, like the winter time,

and I was not badly chilled, but swam and floated all night, on

my back and in other positions. One of our crew, who had no

life belt, kept about five yards from me for half an hour after

the submarine submerged. Then he became exhausted and sank. I

could hear many other cries for help, but I could not see the


When day came, there were lots of bodies of old shipmates

floating around me. Then about five o'clock, as near as I can

judge, I made out the Belgian Prince and four men coming over

the side. They had been lowering some stuff into a boat. I cried

out, "Help, help!" but they paid no attention to me.

Then the submarine came to the surface and the four sailors

hoisted their stuff out of the rowboat and were taken aboard.

Ten minutes later the submarine submerged. Then there was a

great explosion as the Belgian Prince broke in two and sank.

Soon I saw a vessel approaching and she passed me, but turned

and came back just in time. I was all in. It was a British

patrol steamer, and as soon as I came to, I made a full report

to the captain of the loss of the Belgian Prince and the

drowning of her crew.

The Russian, in his story, tells of the taking away of the life belts

and the smashing of the lifeboats; of the crew of the Belgian Prince

being left to sink or swim after the U-boat submerged--in all of these

details agreeing with the stories of the other two. And he adds:

Then I swam toward the ship all night, although I had no life

belt or anything to support me. About five o'clock in the

morning I reached the Belgian Prince and climbed on board. I

stayed there about an hour and got some dry clothes and put them


I saw the submarine come near the ship and three or four of her

men climbed on board. I hid and they did not notice me. They

had come to put bombs in the ship, so I jumped overboard from

the poop with a life belt on. The submarine fired two shells

into the ship to make her hurry up and sink. Then the Germans

steamed away. I climbed into our little boat which had been left

adrift and stayed there until a British patrol ship came along

and picked me up.

Do you wonder that the members of the British Seamen's Union have taken

a pledge, "No peace until the sea is free from Hun outrages"; and that

they have declared a boycott on all German ships, cargoes, and sailors

for seven years after the war? Sailors of other nations are joining

with the British in this boycott.

* * * * *

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The thronèd monarch better than his crown:

* * * * *

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.