The decisive moment for Germany's fleet in the Great War was, indisputably, its ill-timed arrival at the Falkland Islands. Having avoided detection by the Allies for three months since the outbreak of hostilities, it was their great misfortune to head straight for the Falklands just hours after the British fleet put in to coal there. Had they borne in and launched an offensive, they would have caught the British in the disarray of refueling. Instead, and for unknown reasons, all eight ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Graf Von Spee, tried to flee. Compounding this fatal decision was atypical weather: Bright, cloudless sky hung overhead; there were neither the usual fog banks nor the low-lying squall clouds to afford even momentary concealment. The British, with their superior cruisers, were quick to pursue. From all sides gunfire bombarded the Germans. After three hours of battle, Von Spee's flagship, the Scharnhorst, turned over on her beam, heeled gradually to port, and slid into the icy Atlantic, a cloud of black smoke shooting up from the boilers as she submerged. Only a coal collier, which was later interned in Argentina, and the small cruiser Dresden, which was to be run down and blown up in three months, escaped the fiery battle. Within hours, the rest of the squadron met its fate at the bottom of the sea.
The question, then, is what brought about this decisive event. What accounts for Von Spee's untimely arrival at the Falklands? Why did he order his ships to flee? How did so gallant and skilled an admiral, a man known for his precision, bring about the destruction of the German East Asiatic Squadron and turn, forever, the tides of the Great War?
Fleet of Misfortune: Graf Von Spee and the Impossible Journey Home
14th January 1912
My dearest Max,
I'm unsure as to where you are, but I'm sending this to Grete at Gjellerup Haus in the hopes she's had word from your household and will forward it.
Alice and I have found ourselves in quite difficult circumstances. One month ago Father passed on and I left my position in Lancashire immediately. Please don't be angry with me for not writing sooner. I needed time to determine in exactly what station this placed me and, I'm afraid to say, it's worse than I first suspected. How I should like to curse the textile industry and this endless muddle of strikes. The cost of Father's faith in English labour, it now appears, has been nearly his entire life savings. By my most modest calculations, the sum left can sustain Alice and me no more than six months. I cannot accept a new position unless I can bring her with me & even your extravagant letter of reference (indispensable demeanour? really, Max) cannot outweigh the obvious difficulty of Alice let loose in a respectable household. The solicitor, who looks to be younger than myself, seems convinced an impoverished twenty-two-year-old woman could not possibly tend to the needs of a nineteen-year-old. He "most emphatically advises," for Alice's welfare, for my own welfare, and for the good of the community, that I place her in one of the Crown's colonies at Bethlam or St. Luke's. Well, I, in turn, have told him in most unladylike terms that I should sooner lock myself away than Alice. Incarceration is the growing fashion these days. Even as I write this, the Feeble-Minded Control Bill is edging its way through both houses of Parliament. Progressthat's what the doctors and the legislators like to call it. If it passes, I'm not sure what we will do. Alice has only me, now, and I cannot let her down.
I know we made no promises to one another. But all this past year I was happy so long as I dreamed I might see you again. What could be grander than to think of you giving up everything and coming for me? Forgetting your responsibilities, your life, arriving on my doorstep with a handful of lilies from your garden. That was my hope, and how silly it now seems. Did you ever realize how childish I could be? But with Father gone, my sense of the world has darkened. I've lost the conviction that life eventually works itself out for the best.
Excerpted from Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes Copyright© 2003 by Jennifer Vanderbes. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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