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America Fallen!/Chapter 4

 
 

IV


EMBARKATION OF THE GERMAN ARMY


Upon the declaration of peace, the German Government announced that the military rule and censorship which had obtained throughout the war would be extended to cover the few weeks which would be required for the demobilization of the German army. It was explained that this course was adopted for the double purpose of facilitating the orderly return of the citizen-soldiers to their homes, and of delaying any publication of the strength of the German army in the field at the close of the war, and of its total losses, until such time as the government thought best to make these facts public.

On the very day, March 1st, of the signing of the Peace of Geneva, and in some cases even while the ink of the signatories was wet upon the paper, the great fleet of German merchant ships which had been interned in foreign ports during the war cast loose its moorings and set sail for the Fatherland. Among the first of these ships to start out from her pier and head for the open sea was the great Hamburg-American liner Vaterland, and as she and the Kaiser Wilhelm II, of the North German Lloyd, followed at intervals by other ships of these two companies, steamed down the North River, and out through the Narrows, New York wished them Godspeed on their homeward voyage with the flying of flags, the dipping of ensigns by the shipping, and the prolonged roar of a thousand steam whistles and sirens.

Meanwhile in Germany all public traffic over the railways was suspended and the huge task of returning some seven millions of men to their homes was begun.

Not all of the troops, however, were thus immediately redistributed to the farms and factories and business houses of Germany. A picked force of 200,000 veterans of the first line was diverted to the leading German seaports on the North Sea and the Baltic, and within a few days after the close of the war 20,000 of these troops, with the necessary artillery and equipment, had been embarked upon certain transports of moderate size and draft, which, as soon as the troops were aboard, pulled out into midstream and awaited further orders. In every case the troops went aboard at night, and during the operation the cordon of secrecy drawn around the various naval bases and ports at which the embarkation took place was tightened.

While the loaded transports were awaiting their orders, the troops remained below deck and only the regular working force of the ship was visible. One by one, and from widely separated harbors, these ships slipped their moorings and put to sea. Some by the way of the English Channel and others following the route around the north coast of Scotland and Ireland, they proceeded at slow speed to their appointed rendezvous in the western Atlantic.

Each ship sailed at sundown, and during the first night out the color and banding of its smokestacks were changed to that of some foreign ship of similar size and contour, the corresponding foreign flag being flown. Those that took the southerly route regulated their speed so as to pass through the straits of Dover at night; those that laid their course around the north of Scotland maintained a good offing, beyond signaling distance of the coast guard and signal stations. As soon as it was well clear of the Channel and the Irish coast, each ship, avoiding the regular sailing routes, laid its course to the westward.

Meanwhile the work of transforming the largest and fastest of the German ocean liners, headed by the Imperator and her recently-completed sister ship, the new Bismarck, into transports was being rushed day and night by the largest working force that could be crowded upon their decks. The commodious, first-class state-rooms were stripped of their furniture and galvanized-pipe folding berths were fitted on each wall. The spacious saloons, restaurants, palm gardens, etc., were similarly denuded of their furnishings and fitted with berths. The wide promenade decks were inclosed by canvas and fitted with berthing accommodation. So vast is the space available on the nine decks and in the holds of these ships, which in peace time can carry 5,000 souls, that when the alterations were completed, it was found that each of the three ships of the Imperator class could carry 10,000 troops with their full equipment.

The work of transforming the liners that had been interned in the United States began on the day they left New York, and they were stripped and ready for the shipyard workmen by the time, seven days later, they reached the home ports. With such efficiency and dispatch was this work carried through that the second expeditionary force of 50,000 men was embarked and had sailed on or before the 28th of March. The transports carrying this force were vessels of from 20 to 23 knots' speed. Some of them sailed boldly on advertised schedules, direct for New York; the rest slipped away by night, adopting the same ruses and secrecy as the transports of the first expedition. They sailed at intervals during the last two weeks of March, and the rate of steaming was so adjusted as to bring the whole expedition to New York, Boston, and Washington between the 1st and 3d of April.

The third army of 130,000 men, in transports of from 14 to 19 knots' speed set sail on April 1st, the faster ships of the George Washington and America type pushing on with all speed, and the slower ships proceeding as a fleet under convoy of the ten battleships of the Wittlesbach and Kaiser Wilhelm II. classes.

And so it came about that, by employing the full force of every naval and private shipyard in the country, Germany, within the month, had embarked upon the seas an army of invasion composed of 200,000 of the picked veteran troops of the war, completely equipped with artillery, transport, and supplies.

And, thanks to the tightening of the censorship and the patriotic silence of the shipyard employees, not a whisper of what was going on escaped to the outside world, until on April 1st the third expeditionary force, convoyed by battleships, steamed boldly out into the North Sea and laid its course by way of the English Channel for the coasts of America.