Event, Politics, Source, Women's History

Captured by Germans – WWI Women Seafarers

On Friday 23 June 1916, five seawomen were captured by the enemy.

Despite wartime dangers women crew were still sailing. These stewardesses were on the Great Eastern Railway ferry Brussels caring for Belgian refugees, after leaving the Hook of Holland for Britain. Their ship was captured after Captain Fryatt was accused of sinking a U-boat.

German crew who boarded the ship wondered at the women’s calmness. ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ they asked. After all, Edith Cavell had been executed by firing squad just seven months earlier. ‘“We are Englishwomen” was considered sufficient reply,’ claimed the women’s company magazine afterwards.[1]

When the captured ship was taken to Zeebrugge then Bruges their blue uniforms with brass buttons caused a confusion about identity. ‘Germans took them for fighting women: England’s last hope.’[2]

The women’s male Brussels shipmates were sent to Ruhleben, a civilian detention camp near Berlin. As females, the stewardesses were interned at the Holzminden camp, near Hanover.

Hungry and miserable, they must have been worried, too. Internment meant the women lost earnings. Many seawomen were family breadwinners so their dependents were at risk. No shipping company paid crew who were not working. Wages stopped the day after shipwreck. For the Brussels women this meant six months without an income.

They were released in October, 1916. One of them, Edith Smith, went straight back to marry her fiancée by special licence, just before his unit left for Egypt.[3]

During Edith’s incarceration there was a high-profile publicity campaign and diplomatic initiatives to free the women. Indeed, they got more publicity than any other seawomen in that entire war. Media headlines spun the story into another shocking tale of Hunnish brutality.

Surprisingly no newspaper ever suggested the women should not have been working at sea. 

Jo Stanley (c) July 2012

Jo Stanley’s book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, will be published next year by Yale University Press



Brusselsstewardess at Holzminden internment camp, summer 1916.



[1] ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine, November 1916, p273-4.

[2] ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine,November 1916, p273-4.

[3] Great Eastern Railway Magazine, Vol 6, no 72, p302.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,