Nautical Book Review: To the Last Salute, by Georg von Trapp (rerun)

If you’ve seen The Sound of Music–and who hasn’t?–you’ll remember Captain von Trapp.  The real Captain’s real-life children were not thrilled with the way he was portrayed in the movie–according to them, he was by no means that rigid disciplinarian who summoned the children with a bosun’s whistle and required them to line up in military formation.  (The bosun’s whistle was real, but only for communication purposes on the large estate…no lining-up involved.)

The movie was indeed correct that Captain von Trapp was a former naval officer whose services were much desired by the Nazis after their takeover of Germany and, later, Austria…and that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. His memoir, To the Last Salute, was originally published in German in 1935 and later translated into French; an English translation is now also available  This post is a rerun of my earlier review, inspired by a WSJ article about the movie and its continuing large fanbase.

Captain von Trapp could not be called a brilliant writer, but he does achieve some nice descriptive and reflective passages. Here, he is returning from a patrol very early in the First World War, when he was commanding a torpedo boat:

We had been out all night searching for enemy ships that had been reported, but once again, had found nothing.  Far out in the Adriatic we had investigated, looked, and looked, and again came back disappointed through the “Incoronate,” the rocky, barren island,s that extend in front of the harbor at Sebenico…These islands look bleak; nevertheless, years ago people found them and still live there…It is a heavenly trip there between the islands with the many large and small inlets swarming with fish. But it is most beautiful in the wind still nights, which are uniquely animated.

From one place or another, red and white lights flash on and off. They are the beacons that flash their warnings to the ships. Out of the many inlets merge innumerable fishermen’s boats. Some are under sail, hauling big nets; others, sculled about almost silently by heavy steering rudders, search the water with strong lanterns…As they put out to sea, the people always sing their ancient folk songs: ballads with countless verses, wild war cries, soft, wistful love songs…

The war broke into this peaceful world. Traveling between the islands changed overnight…The singing has become silent, for fishing is forbidden, and the men are fighting in the war…Mines lie between the islands.  At any moment an enemy periscope, or a plane with bombs, could appear, and the nights have become exceptionally interesting; there are no more beacons. The war has extinguished them.

Soon, Captain von Trapp was reassigned to command of a submarine,the U-5.  This boat was one of a type that was extremely primitive, even by WWI standards. Propulsion for running on the surface was not a diesel but a gasoline engine, and gasoline fumes were a constant headache, often in a very literal sense.

The Captain seems not to have thought a great deal about the rights and wrongs of the war.  As a professional, at this stage he also felt no animus toward the men it was his duty to attack; quite the contrary. Here, after sinking a French cruiser:

I quickly scan the horizon. Is there absolutely no escort ship? Did they let the ship travel all alone? Without a destroyer? WIthout a torpedo boat? No, there is nothing in sight, only five lifeboats adrift in the water.

After discussing the matter with his exec and determining that there was no feasible way to take the survivors on board:

With a heavy heart, I order the engines to be turned on, and I set a course for the Gulf of Cattaro. “They let our men from the Zenta drown, too,” I hear one of the men say.  The man is right, but I cannot bear to hear that yet.  With a sudden movement I turn away. I feel a choking in my throat. I want to be alone.

I feel as if something were strangling me…So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession. Approximately seven hundred men must have sunk with the ship!

On returning to base, von Trapp found numerous letters of congratulation waiting for him, one from an eighth-grade Viennese schoolgirl.  To thank her for the letter, he arranged to have a Pruegelkrapfen from a noted confectioner to be delivered to her.  “The outcome of all this is unexpected. Suddenly it seems all the Viennese schoolgirls have gotten the writing bug because it rains little letters from schoolgirls who are sooo happy and so on.  But such a Pruegelgrapfen is expensive and, at the moment, I don’t have time to open a bakery myself.”

On one patrol, U-5 met up with an allied German U-boat, and von Trapp had an opportunity to go on board.  He was quite impressed with the diesel engine, compartmentalization of the boat, the electrically-adjustable periscopes, and even creature comforts like tables for dining.  “It’s like being in Wonderland…”  The German commander’s comment, on visiting U-5, was “I would refuse to travel in this crate.”


The worst thing about the Crate was the persistent gasoline fumes. Captain von Trapp describes one attack that had to be carried out after there had been very little time on the surface to ventilate the boat:

A couple of minutes later, five men lie poisoned and unconscious on the floor, and the rest who are still able to work are overcome by a nausea and a headache that feels as if an iron band were clamped around their head. ..After each lookout I correct my course and speed. The closer we two enemies get, the slower our U-boat has to travel so that the periscope doesn’t create a wake. Suddenly I feel as if the floor were giving way under my feet; I have to sit down on a folding stool in front of the periscope.  “Hermann, wake me in three minutes! Ten degrees starboard!  And I collapse on my seat.

These attacks were conducted mostly against French and Italian ships; sometimes British.  As the United States–still officially neutral–began increasingly putting its weight on the side of the Allied Powers, von Trapp did not find our conduct to be rational or fair.

President Wilson has openly joined England’s side. He wants to eliminate the Central Powers’ most dangerous weapon, the U-boats, and with the cheap slogan: “upholding the most sacred of human rights” he pushes for the safe passage of passenger steamers. A free American citizen must be able to move about wherever he wants to, and on every steamer–even English ones–he must be certain of his life.

At the same time, these transports filled with munitions and troops are dispatched to England and are armed. So woe if a Yankee war supplier gets a scratch when he happens to go to England to conclude his business!  It is only luck that they have no business transactions in enemy trenches; if they had, they might also have to be under protection there.

On shore leaves, von Trapp heard increasingly frequent stories about corruption, and also saw evidence of the disaffection of some of the nationalities and ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian empire.  While having some shipyard work done in his submarine, he observed that “the work is actually delayed. It is quite similar to Penelope’s tapestry: mysterious forces impede the construction. The crew is suspicious.”  He thought it likely that Czechs working in the shipyard were deliberately slowing the work, noting that  “At the American declaration of war, they supposedly really celebrated, but you can’t pin anything on them.”

As the war continued, Captain von Trapp was not able to maintain the “it’s nothing personal” orientation toward the enemy with which he started the war:

It is exactly one year since I sank the Leon Gambetta; I can well remember how I had felt then. But…during this past year much has changed.  I have been home on leave. There I watched my children eat beetroot; meat, vegetables, butter, and eggs are not even talked about anymore.  I heard that gypsum was mixed into the flour for bread and that supposedly coffee was made of roasted May beetles.. When you had to eat the stuff, you could almost believe it.  I have seen women who couldn’t nurse their own children because they themselves had nothing more to eat, and children, even very small ones, who had to be fed with a substitute tea…Today I would not have any scruples about sinking my first cruiser. Since my leave I understood what the enemy means by “war”—annihilation. And the whole future generation would be annihilated with it.

I was aware of the widespread hunger that existed in Germany during the latter half of the First World War; it makes sense that this would have been the case in Austria as well.  The food shortage was caused largely by the very effective British blockade of the Central Powers, together with unavailability of food shipments from Russia–now an enemy–together with a bad harvest in Germany in 1916 and reduced availability of manpower for farm work.  Some estimates (see also here) put the number of excess deaths attributable to the blockade at 400,000 to more than 700,000 in Germany, and about 450,000 throughout the Austro -Hungarian empire.

Captain von Trapp’s feelings about this human suffering are very understandable,  but he should have directed part of his anger toward the political and military authorities of Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany, who had taken their countries to war without proper consideration of the likely chain of events when an import-dependent power takes on the world’s greatest sea power and also cuts off a primary source of land-based supply. It surely would have been psychologically difficult for a commander to do this in the middle of the war, but apparently when this book was written and published in the mid-1930s, he was still viewing the Allies as the main blameworthy party for the civilian suffering he had seen. (It should be noted that the blockade continued after the armistice, in full force until January 17 of 1919…after this date, Germany was invited to send ships to Allied ports to transport food to Germany…it did not do so until March because of fear that the ships would be confiscated. It should also be noted that during the war there had been widespread hunger in occupied Belgium and Northern France because of German confiscation of the harvest.)

The outcome of the war represented a geopolitical disaster for Austria-Hungary: the empire ceased to exist. Also, the remaining Austrian state lost access to the sea. At the end of the war, von Trapp writes:

The next morning at 8:00 the Austro-Hungarian flag is to be raised for the last time with a twenty-one-gun salute and thereafter lowered forever…Slowly and solemnly I personally raise the flag, wait for the gun salute , and take her down again. For the very last time! Tears stream down every face.

When von Trapp returned home, his wife Agathe told the children, “You must be very sweet and kind to Papa because he lost the war and the Navy.”

Overall, the book provides an interesting and human view of the submarine war from the enemy side.  Captain von Trapp was, I think, a very decent man who followed his Emperor without too much question, but drew the line firmly at the outright evil cause represented by Naziism.

7 thoughts on “Nautical Book Review: <em>To the Last Salute</em>, by Georg von Trapp (rerun)”

  1. Sounds absolutely fascinating. Another take on the Austro-Hungarian navy submarine service is an interesting fictional version. It was mentioned several times on the Ace of Spades Sunday morning book thread. Sailor of Austria, by John Biggens – it’s good and rather heartbreaking. At the end of WWI, the hero, like von Trapp, has lost the war, the Navy and his country.

  2. It seems every generation has to learn for itself that the cost of winning a war is unimaginable and only exceeded by the cost of losing. The Allies certainly had nothing to celebrate, they had left millions of their best and brightest as bones scattered across nearly every continent and every ocean. Millions more maimed and disabled. They had turned the wealth of generations into smoke and bloody fragments. Every war starts with parades and bands and flags marching jauntily off and ends with the survivors limping back.

  3. I am reminded of Gaza, not that the subject much exercises me on most days.

    But every time the Pals complain about blockade being a war crime, which after WW2 it was so made with the general agreement of the Allies, I remember that the Allies had practiced blockade with great energy. I can only assume Britain decided after 1945 that the utility of this practice had finally run its course, or the Royal Navy had run its course, or they might have resisted calls for its criminalization. Odder still, when so many Americans and Brits join the Pals in calling blockade a war crime. Again, it now is, but how soon we forget.

    Britain in particular made it a first tier, implemented on day one of every war, strategic level weapon for about 200 years. Basically, from the mid-18th century when they became just about capable of enforcing one, Britain blockaded Europe in every war. Even against France and Spain, the traditional enemies, it was reasonably effective and frustrating since their naval capacity rarely proved able to fully or permanently thwart the Royal Navy, though they were near peer naval powers. I doubt France, a rich producer, starved, but maybe it did for one reason or another.

    The continental powers always made noises about it being a war crime, WW1 Germany in particular.

    Of course, the Germans also practiced what amounted to blockade, since that is the point of submarine warfare.

    The US, so infuriated by German submarine warfare, seemed initially just as condemnatory of the British blockade but drifted in a more partisan take when US civilians were killed on British ships.

    Obviously, I understand the reasoning. But even as a kid I marveled at the idea that the US and its citizens expected to travel into war zones freely and in absolute security on the ships of a combatant nation. My adult mind has taken on the nuances of international law then and now, maritime law, the cruiser rules, past practices, and so on. But, still, I marvel that Americans then, even more than now, expect plenary immunity from the events around them in a space they freely enter, and marvel too that people back then should have expected civilian ships not to be targets. What a different age from most before or since.

    Of course, the irony was completed and the US scores in my mind huge bonus points for self-awareness and frankness when Admiral Chester W. Nimitz wrote to the Nuremberg Tribunal in defence of Admiral Doenitz on, at least, the charge of waging unrestricted submarine warfare as a war crime, conceding if not indeed boasting that the US had waged unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan from day one of the Pacific War. Whether he noted in his letter the tremendous success of that campaign, I don’t know.

    The point of which, of course, was to starve the Japanese out.

    That was less focused than I had hoped but if I were to offer a point it would be that blockade will always come back whenever the stakes really matter, we are hypocrites to condemn it who come from nations that took part in it on an epic scale, and that submarine warfare sinking civilian ships was a part of it early on by the Allies when they could, and the US with unprecedented strategic success, and we are somewhat hypocrites to condemn the Germans for doing it in WW1. It was the mirror of what Britain was doing to them, with the same aims.

    I get von Trapp on that point. Indeed, even if the ships were never carrying contraband which, of course, they at least often were, c’mon. How did people actually expect to carry on civilian passenger shipping into the war zone of the biggest war in a century, if not ever to that time, in absolute safety? I still think that’s nuts. Even as a general legal and moral expectation one should be sanguine about exceptions. It’s a war zone. The proper course of action for neutrals is to bug out at the start unless on government business.

  4. Be careful! Some people get really pissed when you criticize Germanic militarists.

    As far as British policy, in the wars against against France from 1792-1815, two points are worth noting. The first is that both sides were trying to starve the other when they could . . . but when necessary they traded. Andrew Roberts mentions the bad British harvest of 1809, when Napoleon allowed continental grain to be sold and shipped–in exchange for gold.

    In WWII, some American PoWs were killed when the Japanese ships (or other Axis–there were even Italian merchant vessels out there) they were being transported on were sunk by US subs or planes.

  5. Any war that lasts more than a few weeks becomes a total war. This makes the person that grows the food for the person that makes boots, just as much an enemy as any poor grunt crawling through the mud in those boots. Ascending the food chain to more direct munitions suppliers, any real distinction ended about the first time somebody dropped a hand grenade from an airplane. Of all the things that lost the war for Germany and Japan, the long list of materials we were able deny them are high on the list.

    We just haven’t been fighting an enemy in the last 20+ years that had any industry. May it ever be so, not that I’m willing to bet that way.

  6. “We just haven’t been fighting an enemy in the last 20+ years that had any industry.”

    But it is OK — now Our Betters have outsourced so much of the US productive economy, the US itself does not have much industry any more. That makes today’s wars more of a fair fight.

    Which brings to mind a statement by some US commander in Europe during WWII — The only time we get into a fair fight is when I have screwed up.

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