Submarines, pirates and an RICS member in World War One

Cathy Linacre

Head of Reference Service (RICS)

An intriguing sentence caught my eye when scanning old copies of the journal during my research on RICS, or the Surveyors’ Institution as we were then, in World War One:

"The Hon. Alexander A Fraser, the Master of Saltoun, Gordon Highlanders, was among those selected by the German Government for solitary confinement in reprisal for the imprisonment of the German submarine crews in this country."

U-boat U12

This set my investigative antennae off and a quick Google search led me to this article on the BBC website.

On 9 March 1915 U-boat U12, which had been targeting cargo ships off the east coast of Britain, sunk the steamer Aberdon and was hunted down by the three British destroyers. The U-boat was shelled and sank with the loss of 19 lives and 10 survivors.

The survivors surrendered but this led to a diplomatic incident. They were treated as pirates by the British for the way they were targeting cargo ships and put into solitary confinement. This angered the Germans who did the same with British prisoners of war, one of whom was our member Alexander Fraser.

Ten officers were involved and, according to the Times, were chosen as they belonged to families and regiments which they consider to be the most distinguished in this country. Alexander Fraser was the Honourable Master of Saltoun and the son of a Scottish representative peer.

On 12 May 1915 another article in the Times discussed a report by the American Ambassador in Berlin to the Foreign Office on the conditions in which the prisoners were being kept:

The cells are approximately 12 ft long and 8 ft wide, but those in which the lieutenants are imprisoned are only about 5ft. wide. Each cell has a window and bed with a sheet and one blanket; the beds, however, are chained up to the wall during the day. There are also shelves where things may be kept, a chair and a table for writing, &c. The light is good and the cells are clean. The meals, for which 1.00 marks or 1s. 7d per day is paid, are the same as those furnished in the officers' camps; for breakfast two pieces of bread and butter and a cup of coffee: for lunch, at 12.30 o’clock a piece of meat and potatoes and bread; and for dinner at 6.30 p.m., two pieces of bread, one of them with sausage, and a cup of coffee.

On the whole the officers looked as well and appeared as cheerful as is possible under the circumstances. There were no complaints as to the treatment received from the officers …. under whose immediate jurisdiction they were placed. 

Annoyingly, I can’t find the end of the story! Further reports suggest that the neutral Swiss were involved in negotiations for the release of the prisoners on both sides but then the trail goes cold.

One reference in the Times Court Circular in late November 1918 reports that “Master of Saltoun had arrived in London from Holland.” Had he been held prisoner until then or is he returning from the front line? 

Alexander succeeded his father to become the 20th Lord Saltoun and therefore a member of the House of Lords in 1933. He died in 1979 and the age of 93.

If anyone knows more about the end of this incident do let me know at clinacre@rics.org.

It is interesting to think that when this was reported in the minutes of the AGM held on 31 May 1915, news of the sinking of the Lusitania by U-boats on 9 May would have still been fresh in the mind and the Times article quoted earlier would have only been two weeks old. This was a hot story of the day that an RICS member was involved in.

U-boat U12

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