On July 27, 1916, in Bruges, Belgium, German officials execute Captain Charles Fryatt, the former commander of the Great Eastern Railway steamship Brussels, after a German court martial found him guilty of making an attack on a German submarine.
The Brussels, a British merchant vessel, was intercepted by the Germans during one of the ship’s regular twice-weekly crossings from Harwich in Britain to Holland. Fryatt and his crew were arrested and taken to Ruhleben prison camp outside Berlin. Later transported to Belgium to stand trial, Fryatt was accused of acting as a “pirate”–the incident in question occurred the previous March 28, when Fryatt, his ship under attack by a German U-boat submarine, turned the Brussels around and attempted to ram the German craft. The submarine fled, and Fryatt’s courageous conduct was honored by the British Admiralty with a gold watch.
The German court martial in July, however, convicted Fryatt of attempting to attack the submarine although he himself was not a combatant. In what was condemned by the British as an act of savagery, even during wartime, the Germans executed Fryatt on July 27. In terms of anti-German propaganda, Fryatt’s trial and execution undoubtedly worked in the Allies favor: in the United States–neutral in the conflict as of yet–The New York Times called his death a “deliberate murder.” As John Ketchum, a Canadian civilian who had been studying music in Germany when war broke out and who had been interned at Ruhleben with Fryatt and his crew, recalled: “The judicial murder of a man who had lived at Ruhleben, if only for a month, caused deep shock and anger, and brought the war home to the camp as nothing had done before.”
Much later, some 10 days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in late June 1919, Fryatt’s body was returned home to Britain, where a memorial service was held in London commemorating his heroic act; the body was subsequently reburied in British soil at Dovercourt.