Within minutes of the First World War breaking out in 1914, Newport was thrust into the action as armed police were sent to seize a German ship which was anchored off the town. MARTIN WADE reports.

WHEN the captain of the German liner Belgia was steaming past the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall on the night of August 3, 1914, he would have had much on his mind.

The 8,132 ton ship, sailing from Boston for Hamburg, was in need of coal.

Much further away, a greater threat loomed. The captain had heard that war had broken out between Germany and France.

Fearing he might be seized by French naval vessels he headed for the safety of the Bristol Channel, and took on a pilot when he was off the coast of Devon.The ship arrived off Newport the next day on Monday August 4 – before war had been declared later that day between Britain and France.

The captain hoped to obtain coal at Newport before sailing on to Hamburg. He had tried to contact the German Consul there but he was refused admission to the port itself and had to wait at the mouth of the Usk.

As he waited, Britain edged towards war – a war which would engulf much of the world in slaughter for four bloody years.

For now, as the ship edged towards what was still a friendly port, everything was quiet.

Legend has it the ship was spotted by the keeper of the West Usk lighthouse as it was anchored off Newport.

As the Belgia sat off the Welsh coast, the world around her changed. Britain declared war on Germany. Her country was now at war with the UK in whose waters she waited.

As soon as this news broke, Captain Cutliffe, the docks master organised a team to seize the ship.

He was joined by Chief Constable Gower, Inspector Graves, Sergeants Davies and Drewett and eleven constables of Newport Police, armed with service rifles and sailed out to the Belgia in a tug.

They came alongside the German liner, lying five miles from the Bell Buoy which marked the mouth of the river Usk.

The Argus told how the captain of the ship was hailed and he was advised to go to Alexandra Docks, “as he was faced with danger from all points”.

The armed police officers were hidden in the cabin of the tug, part of what the Argus called “a remarkably planned and clever manoeuvre”.

The Belgia was carrying 76 German naval reservists onboard and the delicate footwork of Chief Constable Gower and Captain Cutliffe was aimed at avoiding a confrontation.

After some discussions, the captain of the Belgia, followed by the chief mate, chief engineer and the pilot, Mr T Ray of Newport, descended into the tug for a “conference”.

Admittedly, the odds were stacked against the Germans. By now they would have learned that their country was at war with Britain. Nevertheless, had the armed constables tried to board the ship they could have expected a hot reception.

Happily, the captain agreed to sail to Newport and the armed policemen remained hidden in the tug.

Although the move had been completed with sleek diplomacy, the ship still had the difficult job of actually entering Newport. The Belgia was the largest vessel then to have entered Alexandra Dock. She drew 20 feet of water while there was only 30 feet of water in the river. “However”, readers learnt “everything went well” and the ship entered the dock by the new lock entrance which had been opened just the previous month.

As the Belgia lay alongside in a “fitting finale to a stirring and wonderful adventure” the armed policemen finally appeared from the cabin of the tug and boarded the German ship. Her capture was complete. Chief Constable Gower placed an armed guard on the vessel.

The Belgia was not the only German ship to be seized in Newport. The Horst Martini, a regular visitor to Newport was placed under arrest and armed police stationed onboard.

There was no dramatic operation here as she was already berthed at Newport Docks.

When the Belgia was boarded it became clear exactly what she was carrying. There was food to the value of around £200,000, there were reports of bullion being carried and, of course, the 76 reservists, who were forced to sign a declaration of neutrality.

Bizarrely, she was also carrying a variety of animals, destined for Hamburg Zoo, including alligators, racoons, rattle snakes, chameleons and a number of exotic birds.

These were reportedly sold off later, with some later displayed at a fair in Abergavenny.

The Argus was jubilant. “What a position! What a strategy!” it said, beneath headlines which told of ‘Sensational coup off Newport’ and ‘Arrest of great German liner’.

The report praised the “remarkable daring and originality” shown by those responsible for the capture of the ship.

“It is safe to say that no body of police officers, large or small has ever played such an important affair which could hardly have a parallel in fiction, let alone in sober fact.”

The owners of the Belgia, the Hamburg-Amerika line, protested that the action was against the convention by which ships finding themselves in port unaware that war had broken out were exempt from seizure.

Strangely, despite being at war, the case was heard in 1916.

Law lords decided that because the ship had been held at the mouth of the Usk, did not mean it was actually in the port of Newport and said the appeal should be dismissed with costs.

The German company stood little chance of getting the Belgia back anyway. By the time the case had come to court, the ship had been pressed into service for Britain and taken as war prize.

In common with other seized ships, it was renamed in the anti-German spirit of the time with names prefixed with ‘Hun’ and called the ‘Huntstrick’ and taken up by the Merchant Navy. It was sunk off Morocco in 1917 by a German U-boat while carrying stores and troops to Salonika with the loss of 15 lives.

By 1917 many hundreds of thousands had been killed in unprecedented numbers. On that fateful day in 1914 those horrors could scarcely have been imagined and many believed the coming war would instead be known for feats of daring and strategy rather than mechanised slaughter.