What was the sentiment among naturalised or second generation Germans living in Britain following the outbreak of World War I? AncestryProGenealogist, Simon Pearce, tells the story of one soldier who enlisted to serve against his homeland.
At the outbreak of the World War I in August 1914 there was a rush of enthusiasm across Great Britain, which saw men and women in the thousands enlist for service across a variety of roles. An overwhelming sense of duty for King and Country swept the nation and undoubtedly a sense of adventure and a desire not to miss out was prevalent too. But what was the feeling among naturalised or second generation Germans living in Britain following the outbreak of war?
This was certainly a difficult time for such individuals who were living and working in a nation now at war with their homeland; perhaps friends and family members back home were called up to serve in the German Army.
Throughout the war scores of Germans and Austro-Hungarians residing in Britain were imprisoned in an attempt to protect the nation against enemy spies and for the safety of the immigrants themselves in the face of growing tensions. However, when browsing military records available on Ancestry and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is clearly evident that individuals of German descent served and died with the British Army during the First World War. In fact, in 1916 two labour battalions were formed within the Middlesex Regiment, consisting of naturalised or second generation ‘enemy aliens’.
One man who fits into this narrative is Edgar Mellin. Edgar was born in London on March 7, 1896 to German born parents Max Louis Mellin and Fanny Schreiber, both originally of Prussia and who married in England. Edgar’s father was born in Memel, formally in East Prussia, now known as Klaipėda and part of Lithuania.
The Mellins set up their family home in Willesden, north-west London and in June 1904 Max became a naturalised British citizen in Liverpool, declaring his allegiance to King Edward VII; Max’s naturalisation record can be viewed on Ancestry within the Naturalisation Certificates and Declarations collection. German relations of the family were evidently present in the UK as in 1911 Edgar was studying in St. Ives and boarding in a household which included Henrietta Schreiber, clearly a relative of Edgar’s mother.
In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany and within a month Edgar had joined the British Army, enlisting with the 12th Battalion London Regiment, a Territorial Force unit known as the Rangers. After training and a period of adjusting to military life, Edgar was sent to France, landing on the continent on March 9, 1915, two days after his 19th birthday.
Just over a month after arriving on the Western Front, Edgar and his unit found themselves embroiled in the Second Battle of Ypres, a struggle for control of the Belgium town of Ypres, now so firmly written into the annals of the Great War. The battle commenced on April 22 and a few days later, while stationed in Verloerenhoek, just north-east of Ypres, Edgar’s unit encountered Canadian troops who had been exposed to a gas attack; this was the first mass use of gas by the Germans during the war. The advent of this new type of warfare must have been terrifying for Edgar and his comrades, who may have wondered how they were going protect themselves against this latest threat.
As the battle wore on, Edgar’s unit found themselves dug in and solidifying a position known as Frezenburg Ridge on May 2 , where they were pounded by artillery fire, the scourge of the infantryman. The Rangers were continuously troubled by artillery and suffered numerous casualties until they were relieved on the night of the May 7 – 8, weary and exhausted from the incessant threat of shell and shrapnel. To compound matters, Edgar and his comrades were bombarded throughout their relief and subjected to further shelling a few hours after arriving in their new dugouts; there seemed to be no escape from the enemy’s artillery and the men were prevented from getting any rest, sustaining more casualties.
The Rangers were soon on the move again and within a few hours the 200 or so survivors were ordered to push forward, advancing through a gap in the wire on which German machine guns were trained, which caused significant casualties. Exposed to heavy shelling and rifle and machine gun fire, numbers rapidly dwindled and those left managed to dig in and hold up the German advance. Only 53 men were eventually accounted for; no officers were left and the remainder of the battalion had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or were missing. One of these casualties was Edgar, who was deemed to have died on, or since, the May 8, 1915; his body was never recovered and he is one of over 54,000 casualties who have no known grave and who are commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
The impact of Edgar’s death on his parents must have been devastating; Max was a naturalised British citizen, but their British born son died fighting the German Army, the army of their homeland, where they were raised and almost certainly where they still had friends and family. The emotional and psychological struggle of such a scenario is beyond comprehension.
Later in 1915, after hearing of her son’s death, Fanny contacted the Red Cross in the hope that Edgar may have been taken prisoner by the enemy. Edgar’s record within the Red Cross prisoner of war collection confirmed that he disappeared near Ypres on 8 May 1915. Despite efforts made by the Red Cross, Edgar’s card was simply stamped with the French words ‘negatif envoyé’, denoting that the soldier was not recorded as a prisoner and was almost certainly dead.
Research into the Red Cross records revealed an interesting twist in this already heartbreaking story: Fanny’s address on Edgar’s Red Cross record was Frau Mellin, of Hannover, Germany (another Hannover based Schreiber also enquired into Edgar’s whereabouts). Edgar’s parents do not appear to have separated prior to Max’s death in July 1918 and it is almost certain that Fanny did not travel to Germany during the war.
We may never know the exact circumstances of the Mellin family, but Fanny may have visited Germany before the war and ultimately became stranded following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. The Mellins are surely one of many German families with ties to England who were deeply affected by the war of 1914-18.
Sources and Citations:
Matthew Stibbe, “Enemy Aliens and Internment,” 1914-1918 Online (http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/), accessed November 2016.
“The Enemy Alien labour units of the Middlesex Regiment,” The Long, Long Trail (http://www.1914-1918.net/), accessed November 2016.
Vincent Wheeler-Holohan and G.M.G. Wyatt, The Rangers’ historical records from 1859 to the conclusion of the Great War (London, England: Harrison and Sons, 1921), p.p. 34-36.
“Cemetery Details,” Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Commonwealth War Graves Commission (http://www.cwgc.org/), accessed November 2016.
“Prisoners of the First World War, the ICRC archives,” International Committee of the Red Cross (http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/), accessed November 2016.