By Mike Stevens
Captain Eduard Brickenstein watched the port town of Bremerhaven recede into the misty distance behind the S.S. Deutschland, on this gray December day. The ship was bound first to Southampton, England, then on to New York City. On board were 123 people emigrating to America, hoping to take advantage of the promise of a golden future that was America. Brickenstein was troubled by the fact that he had no clear idea of their exact position. The weather was atrocious. He knew he should have slowed down or stopped until their exact position could be determined, but hated to waste that much time, and so, the ship blindly sailed on.
Klaus Bremen watched the shores of his native Germany vanish over the horizon behind The Deutschland. He was excited and scared to be sailing towards his new life in New York City. His cousin Wilhelm owned his own brewery, and had sent for Claus to join him in New York. Brewing was what he knew best, and he was excited to be going to America. At the same time, he was scared. By leaving behind everything he was familiar with, he was literally sailing into the unknown.
Captain Brickenstein stared into the distance, which in this case was about ten feet in front of the ship. Lord, this weather! A curtain of white blanketed his view in every direction. God help anyone stuck out in this. He took time out from watching the gray veil to glance at his watch. 5.00 straight up. It was December 5th today, and he was anxious to make the journey as quick as possible. As he was wishing he had a better idea of their location, the ship gave a mighty lurch, and all forward motion was halted suddenly. He was thrown off his feet; and jumped up to see what had happened. The ship was fast aground, and the only possibility was Kentish Knock, a the only known shoal in the area. This meant they were roughly 30 miles from where he’d reckoned. He’d try to rock her off the shoal they were stuck on.
“Full astern!” he commanded, but the only result of the attempt to break free, was a broken propeller, and Captain Brickenstein was forced to call off those efforts. They were still stuck hard aground. And now, to make matters worse, he had just learned that they were taking on water. The only thing to do was to wait for the tide to rise, and refloat her, and somehow fix the leak.
It hadn’t worked. They’d waited for the incoming tide, but the ship was still securely lodged on solid ground. Captain Brickenstein, for the first time, had to face the obvious; the ship was mortally wounded, and would have to be abandoned. He reluctantly gave the abandon ship order.
Klaus Bremen watched as panic ensued, among the passengers and crew alike.
The distress rockets the S.S. Deutschland fired high into the sky seemed to have been ignored by the many ships that could be seen from the deck, so an attempt to launch the lifeboats was undertaken. The first fully-loaded lifeboat had made it to the water, but was immediately swamped in the roiling seas, and all aboard were lost. A second lifeboat was launched, tentatively, with only the quartermaster, a sailor, and another passenger on board. They made it away, and headed off in the direction of the Isle of Sheppy, an island fairly close by. They were soon swallowed up in the storm.
The next morning, the residents of the Isle of Sheppey saw a forlorn lifeboat wash ashore, and they ran down to the beach to help possible survivors. They found only the quartermaster still alive. He weakly told them of the wreck, and this alerted the townspeople of S.S Deutschland’s peril.
The tug Liverpool was launched (later to become part of the controversy), and it made its way out to the wreck site. They reached the stricken ship later on the day of December 7th, and found only 134 people, out of 213, left alive. Including the surviving quartermaster, a total of 135 people had survived, while 78 lost their lives, victims of drowning, or the frigid elements, because everyone had to remain on deck, as below decks was flooded.
Among the dead were 5 Franciscan nuns fleeing the anti-Catholic Falk Laws, and the cold became their undoing. Later, their tragic circumstances were recounted by Catholic poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, in a poem entitled, “The Wreck of The Deutschland.”
As word of the disaster reached the residents of nearby towns, such as Harwich and Ramsgate, the men decided to make a visit to the wreck, not to see if they could help, but to scavenge things of value, even from the dead. It was a cold-hearted decision that would bring ridicule and scorn from many.
One nearby newspaper later wondered in print why the dispatch of the Liverpool had been so slow. It claimed the wreck had been known of for 15 of the 30 hours it took until the Liverpool had made it to the scene, charging a deliberate delay for unknown reasons. However, a subsequent Board of Trade inquiry, which opened December 20th, saw thing differently; with only Charles Butt, who had been briefed by the German Government, questioning how a ship as big as the S.S. Deutschland could remain unseen from the many residences along the shore. In the end, it was deemed almost entirely Captain Brickenstein’s fault; he had let his vessel ‘get ahead in it’s reckoning’, and who had ‘shown a great want of care and judgment.’ Brickenstein later called on German president Otto von Bismark to launch an independent an official German inquiry. but this had been ruled out.
Klaus Bremen caught another ship bound for America. He was having a hard time accepting the last few hours. From the dry deck, he relived the horrors of the wreck of the S.S. Deutschland.