On 7 May 1915 the British Ocean Liner ‘Lusitania’ encountered a U-20 submarine off the coast of Ireland. A torpedo struck the ship near its bow. After a second explosion which was caused either from munitions stored below deck or from a coal-dust explosion, the ship sank in under twenty minutes. 1,198 people were killed.
During the following months, the British government and the press made extensive use of the tragedy for their own purposes. Numerous posters urged people to join the war effort.
There had been the occasional outbreak of violence against Germans in the North East in the earlier days of the war, most notably after the bombardment of Hartlepool in December 1914.
But now the hostilities against ‘ordinary’ Germans reached a high.
Riots started in Liverpool and London, and soon spread to the North East. The press estimated crowds of up to 10,000 people. While this sounds unlikely for places like Crook, it can be said with certainty that substantial numbers took part.
The mob consisted largely of women and young people, as well as men in their forties, unable to fight the Germans on the front line. They usually gathered in the evenings to attack and often loot any shop with a German-sounding name.
In Newcastle, four shops were wrecked on 13 May 1915. “Groans and hoots filled the air, and then a thud on the closed shutters of Messrs Kaufmann’s shop changed the roar into a howl of delight. Every crash of glass was greeted with cheers. There was a wild rush, and within a few minutes the premises had been almost completely looted.” (Newcastle Daily Journal)
German residents became victims regardless of their sex or their age. In Gateshead, “each shop was visited in turn, and after doing the damage the crowd went away singing ‘Tipperary’, and shouting at the top of their voices, ‘We will not leave any homes for the Germans.’. One old lady, a German aged 78 years, who occupied a small shop in Mount Pleasant, and who has done a lot of knitting for our soldiers, was not exempt from the attention of the crowd, her premises suffering a like fate.” (Newcastle Daily Journal)
The local authorities often tried to dismiss claims for compensation.
Despite the large numbers the rioters were certainly not representative of the whole British population.
Many British people who read about the riots in the local papers were outraged and wrote a letter to the editor. Others tried to help their friends and neighbours.
After the internment of Fred (Friedrich) Seitz, his wife and five of his children lived above their pork butcher’s shop in South Shields. As the rioters smashed the windows of the upstairs living quarters, the family’s domestic servant, a young English woman, aided the family’s escape through the back door and sheltered them at her own house.
The German communities did not recover in the years following the war. The total number of Germans in Britain fell from around 57,000 in 1914 to 22,254 in 1919.
Anti-German sentiment amongst some of the public and the press continued, and government policy continued to be oppressive towards the German minority. Returning Germans were required to legally anglicise their names.
The term ‘enemy alien’ was still in use months after the armistice.
But despite the hardship, internment and atrocities they had experienced, many Germans stayed or returned to England, they country they felt was their home.