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 thronÃ¨d 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.