Portsmouth’s German Village:When Old World Europe Came to the Navy Yard
By Diane Cripps, Curator of History, Portsmouth Museums
“…the homesick sailors of the interned ships built a real little town with all German Conveniences.”
–“A German Village on American Soil,” Popular Science Monthly, Volume 90, No. 3, March, 1917
It is a pleasant spring day in 1916 Portsmouth, Virginia. Perhaps you are looking for a diversion with family or friends. Why not visit the German Village, the unique tourist attraction on the grounds of Norfolk Navy Yard?
In one of the more bizarre episodes of Hampton Roads history, interned German sailors constructed a “village” complete with a church, windmill, houses, shops, fences, and gardens on a stretch of riverfront property at the Navy Yard adjacent to their hulking ships. Curious tourists strolled the village’s lanes, interested in meeting these Germans they were reading so much about on the pages of the local newspapers.
Why were the Germans in the newspapers? Because there was a war on. But the war had not reached the United States. Not yet.
Postcard view of the German ships Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Prinz Eitel Friederich outboard of one another along the Elizabeth River bank with the “German Village” on Navy Yard property beside them. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Collection.
The War in Europe
“The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls.”
—US President Woodrow Wilson, August, 1914
When The Great War broke out in the summer of 1914, its first name, the European War, indicated how it was perceived elsewhere, such as in the United States. People in the U.S. read about the war’s outbreak with ambiguity. President Woodrow Wilson adopted a strict isolationist approach to the war. America would remain neutral, Wilson declared.
Barely a month into the war, on August 19, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and the nation, asserting that the US would remain neutral in the European war:
The effect of war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned. The spirit of the nation in this critical matter will be determined largely by what individuals and society and those gathered in public meetings do and say, upon what newspapers and magazines contain, upon what ministers utter in their pulpits, and men proclaim as their opinions upon the street.
The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it.
Wilson understood that in his nation of immigrants, there were many people sympathetic to all of the various participants in the war. He warned against obvious support for one side over the other. However in the months to come, those participants would draw the United States closer and closer to the conflict, until finally there was no resisting it. In the coming months and years, passion would indeed be difficult to allay.
A little bit of Germany in Portsmouth
By the spring of 1915, the war was raging thousands of miles away. It was becoming harder for the US to “act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality,” as President Wilson advised in 1914.
In Portsmouth, the ambiguity of national neutrality manifested itself in a unique phenomenon: The German Village at Norfolk Navy Yard. For a brief few months, Europe came to Portsmouth, which welcomed it with open arms—before banishing it immediately upon the declaration of war.
In Germany, civilian ships had been pressed into service as commerce raiders on the open seas, outfitted with armaments and given instructions to raid Allied merchant ships for their coal and supplies and then sink them. Two of these ships, the Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, came to symbolize the strangeness of US neutrality in Hampton Roads.
A private snapshot of the two ships, taken from the Elizabeth River on March 17, 1916. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum
Both ships had been considered two of Germany’s finest luxury liners, prized for their speed and amenities by wealthy passengers. Speed would be important to their new military mission. When the war began, they and many other German ships were stripped of their lavish appointments and outfitted for raiding and defending themselves on the high seas. The ships were continually underway; there weren’t any friendly ports to put into, given their activities. They stayed at sea, stealing fuel and disrupting enemy supplies by sinking foreign vessels.
From September of 1914 through the spring of 1915, both ships left an amazing path of destruction. The Kronprinz Wilhelm sailed for 251 straight days and more than 37,000 miles in the south Atlantic. She sank 14 British or French ships and destroyed 60,000 tons of Allied shipping. Meanwhile in the Pacific, the Prinz Eitel Friederich also destroyed multiple merchant vessels before rounding Cape Horn in January 2015. In an attempt to get back to Germany, it sank several more vessels including an American ship, the William P. Frye.[i] Both ships accomplished all this while evading the British Navy that was looking for them. However, by the spring, both ships were in poor repair and running low on fuel.
Color postcard of the ships at Norfolk Navy Yard, c.1916. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
Despite wanting to get back to Germany, the Prinz Eitel Friederich’s fuel and maintenance requirements were too great to attempt a crossing of the Atlantic. She had to find a neutral port where she could land. The captain headed for Newport News, Virginia. On March 11, the Eitel sailed into Hampton Roads. There were no British ships waiting, as the British thought the Eitel Friederich was still in the Pacific. A month later, with British ships patrolling Hamptons Roads, the Kronprinz Wilhelm found herself in the same dire straits. But the Wilhelm used its speed and stealth to successfully slip past the British at night undetected on April 10. Both ships proceeded to Newport News Shipbuilding on the James River for repairs, where they were given a strict time limit for repairs by American authorities. After that, they were on their own to face the British. Neither ship’s captain wanted to submit to internment, which meant impoundment in a neutral country, because it would mean sitting out the war for an indefinite period. In the end, however, both ships were interned. The crews were not prisoners of war, but rather “guests” of the United States government. They could no longer stay at a privately-owned shipyard. By May, both ships were transferred to Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth.[i]
Postcard overview of the German Village, looking onto the Navy Yard property from the river’s edge. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
The German sailors, numbering about 1,000, enjoyed liberal leave and socialized with locals in Portsmouth. Their arrival made national news. Due to ongoing war coverage in the media, the presence of this many Germans on American shores was something that kept the sailors in the spotlight. They were hosted by politicians, dined with officials, and visited local beaches and attractions.[i]
However, many of the sailors were not pleased at the notion of being sidelined from the war. There were numerous escape attempts. “The most famous escape was when six officers were allowed to purchase a small yacht, named Eclipse, ostensibly for the purpose of recreational sailing around Hampton Roads. On the morning of October 9, 1915, in plain sight, the Eclipse sailed out of Hampton Roads never to be seen or heard from again.”[ii] This incident, combined with continuing U-boat attacks and sinkings that claimed American lives, began to turn US sentiments against the Germans.
Following the disappearance of the Eclipse, the German sailors were confined to their ships and the immediate shoreline at the shipyard. The pressures of confinement appeared to manifest themselves in creativity, as the sailors embarked on a unique project. With scrap materials gleaned from the shipyard, they embarked on the construction of a “German Village” in January of 1916. Soon, an empty stretch of bank along the Elizabeth River was filled with little buildings representative of those from the Old Country.
A German sailor shows off one of the cottages of the German Village, in the shadow of one of Norfolk Navy Yard’s cranes. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
In this excerpt from the January, 1917 issue of Popular Science Monthly, the village is described in detail:
Built in front of their ships on a little strip of land set apart for them by the United States Government, the village was amazingly complete. The houses were painted red, green, or blue, and some all three colors. The roofs were of straw, except some of the more elaborate, which were shingled. At each window of the houses hung freshly-starched curtains, and over the doorways appeared picturesque names and sayings, either suggestive of the war or of German folklore. The gardens in front of the houses were surrounded by fences, some of which were original enough in design to set a future style in such enclosures.
But the German seamen were not content with merely raising flowers. In their spare time they planted oats, barley, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and many other vegetables, each gardener trying to surpass his neighbor in the variety of products. Thousands of sun flowers reared their yellow heads above the garden vegetables and gave the village a truly rural complexion.
Plans for the German Village were worked out long before the sailors knew where they would be located. During a long winter’s session they perfected plans for their village. They made tools out of such materials as happened to be at hand.
The animal mascots aboard the ships—animals rescued from ships that were sunk—were taken ashore and given real homes in the village. There were goats, black pigs from the tropics, rabbits, birds, dogs and cats innumerable. In the officers’ garden a fish pond was built and trout and carp, their favorite fish, were placed in the water. The men never were without plenty of eggs, salads and fresh vegetables.[i]
By the time of the publication of the Popular Science article, the German Village was gone. In fact, the article opened with a lament: “The German village at the Norfolk, Virginia, Navy yard is no more, and the whole South is the sufferer thereby.” Portsmouth’s brief, strange tourist attraction and manifestation of neutrality, gave way to its now-familiar role as an epicenter of military production and support. There was a war on.
German sailors gathered around the Village church, with a ship’s mast and a crane visible in the background. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
Shifting out of Neutral
“WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it
Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and
That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”
—Joint Resolution Passed by the United States Senate and House of Representatives, Effective April 6, 1917, at 1:18 p.m.
While the Germans enjoyed immense popularity and hospitality in Portsmouth, their military counterparts abroad continued their exploits in destroying Allied shipping. The U.S. military, even in this period of ambiguity, saw the writing on the wall and began to prepare for war. These preparations included extensive expansion plans at Norfolk Navy Yard. The navy yard needed the land upon which the German Village sat. By September, 1916, the village was gone, and the sailors and their ships were sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard.[i] The ships were ultimately converted for US use as troop and supply ships, and, after April of 1917, the German sailors became prisoners of war and sent to the Army’s Fort McPherson near Atlanta, Georgia. The land upon which the Village sat became the Shipyard’s Dry Dock #4, the world’s most complex concrete construction project up to that point.
It had to be an odd contradiction for Portsmouth citizens to witness the charm of the German Village against the backdrop of the increasingly ominous reports of the war overseas. One writer tried to capture the duality of living with the military build-up (and the eventual military projects) that were a part of daily life in Portsmouth and the shipyard, while trying to remain neutral. It was a losing battle:
Because of the navy yard at Portsmouth, the people of that city were fully acquainted with the war temper of Europe long before April 6, 1917. The German vessels Prinz Eitel Frederic and Kron Prinz Wilhelm [sic] were interned there. The preparation of thousands of submarine mines, the equipping of transports, colliers and mine layers, the building of high-powered submarine chasers and destroyers—all tended to prepare Portsmouth for energetic war work. The sentiments of the people were generally pro-Ally, and the propaganda regarding Germany’s “outrage against humanity” removed all feeling of neutrality by April 6th.[ii]
For a time, Germany agreed to secure the safety of passengers before it sank unarmed vessels. But by January 1917, it announced that it was resuming unrestricted warfare at sea. At that point, the US broke off diplomatic relations with the Germans. Just three days later, the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a U-boat, although all of the 25 American passengers aboard were rescued by a passing British steamer.[iii]
Sailors stroll the lanes of the German Village. Postcard from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
In order to attempt to provide safe passage for cargo and passenger ships, the Navy began to install armaments and assign trained Navy personnel to those civilian ships facing the danger of U-boats on the open sea. This was taking place even before the US’s formal declaration of war. In March of 1917, the Navy provided three six-inch guns and a crew to the S.S. Mongolia, a passenger and cargo ship then plying a New York to London route. On April 19, 1917, thirteen days after the US officially joined the war effort, the Mongolia engaged a German submarine in the English Channel, where the Germans were blockading the British. Mongolia fired her aft gun at the sub, driving it off and possibly sinking it. This was long before any of the American mobilization efforts delivered any soldiers overseas to serve in the trenches. It is considered the first American hostile shot of the Great War. That gun is now on display in Gosport Park, adjacent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard off of Lincoln Street in Portsmouth.[i]
On April 2, President Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany, and by April 6, 1917, it was official. The U.S. had entered the war.
Despite the well-known miseries of the war in the trenches, the war at sea would affect Portsmouth in profound ways in the coming months and years. By the time the war was over, “the allies deployed nearly 10,000 ships, thousands of planes, and more than 100,000 mines to combat the U-boat threat, which totaled some 340 submarines. The Germans lost 178 U-boats during the war but sunk 5,000 ships.”[ii] More than 13 million gross tons of shipping was lost in the war.[iii] The Navy Yard saw an enormous construction program to support the war, significantly expanding its footprint and facilities. Efforts to win the war at sea, secure vital seaborne supply shipments, produce unique ordnance to combat submarines, and support the expanding navy would all change the face of the small city on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. Portsmouth’s role in the war effort reflected its century-and-a-half relationship with the shipyard up to that point, and guaranteed that it would exit the war a different place than it entered.
But during that brief, odd period of neutrality, ahead of The War to End All Wars, a bit of peaceful Old World Europe sprang up temporarily, in the shadow of Norfolk Navy Yard.
Dry Dock # 4 under construction on September 4, 1918, on the same land where the German Village had been in 1915/1916. Norfolk Naval Shipyard Glass Plate Negative Collection #1852.
Adapted from “To Face the Unknown: Portsmouth and the Great War,” unpublished research paper by Diane L. Cripps, Curator of History, Portsmouth Museums, which supported the 2017 exhibit of the same name at the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, Portsmouth, Virginia.
[i] Bill Edwards-Bodmer, “Enemy or Tourist Attraction: The German Village at the Norfolk Navy Yard during World War I,” article included on website “Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia,” Marcus W. Robbins, Command Historian & Archivist, http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/edwards-bodmer.html, p. 2.
[ii] Edwards-Bodmer, p. 3.
[iii] Ibid., p. 3.
[iv] Ibid., p. 3.
[v] “A German Village on American Soil,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 90, No. 3, March, 1917, pp. 424-425.
[vi] Edwards-Bodmer, p. 4.
[vii] Arthur Kyle Davis, Virginia Communities in War Time, First Series (Richmond, VA: The Virginia War History Commission, 1926), p. 202.
[viii] “Germans Unleash U-Boats” (History.com, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/germans-unleash-u-boats, 2009; accessed September 4, 2016), p. 3.
[ix] Marcus W. Robbins, “Navy’s First Shot of World War I, April 19, 1917,” History Matters: The Official Blog of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, April 17, 2015, http://www.nnsyhistorymatters.com/2015/04/navys-first-shot-of-world-war-i-april.html, accessed 12/4/2016.
[x] Golson, Jordan, “How WWI’S U-Boats Launched the Age of Unrestricted Warfare” (Wired, www.wired.com/2014/09/wwis-u-boats-launched-age-unrestricted-warfare/,September 2014; wired.com; accessed online, 9-4-2016), p. 4.
[xi] “U-Boat Campaign (World War I),” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U-boat_Campaign_(World_War_I)#Allied_and_Neutral_Tonnage_sunk_by_submarines_in_World_War_I; accessed September 4, 2016.