World War One: A traitor in Sunderland

CONDEMNED TO DEATH: Adolph Ahlers under armed guard.
CONDEMNED TO DEATH: Adolph Ahlers under armed guard.
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Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner today looks at the life of a World War One traitor.

BELT merchant Adolph Ahlers was a man to be envied at the outbreak of World War One – combining a prestigious role as Wearside’s German Vice-Consul with a thriving business.

Just days later, however, he was arrested as a traitor for helping German reservists return home to fight against Britain – earning a date with the hangman’s noose for treason.

“He was to escape with his life after an appeal based on international law. Sadly, his wife wasn’t to be so fortunate,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on August 4, 1914, saw Sunderland swamped by troops – with roads, bridges, railways and the coastline all being placed under armed guard.

But, as thousands of Wearside men stepped forward to serve their country, so anti-German tensions started to run high – with 60 local Germans rounded up and arrested on August 8.

“A wave of anger was aroused by the war. The reputed kicking of dachshunds in the street was but a symptom of the hatred aroused against German firms and nationals,” said Douglas.

“Those with German-sounding names, even those who were British born, were the subject of speculative comments and glances – the finger of suspicion pointing at them all.”

Among those to fall under suspicion just two days into the war was Hamburg-born trader Nicholas Emile Herman Adolph Ahlers – Sunderland’s own Consul for the German Empire.

In addition to representing his country’s interests across Wearside, Adolph – of Sugley House in Roker – also ran a leather belting business at York Chambers in St Thomas Street.

However, despite being a naturalised British subject since 1905, and with three of his 14 children born here, he openly acknowledged he was still “naturally a German at heart”.

“Military authorities issued orders that German nationals capable of bearing arms should be arrested, and the Pottery Buildings Mission was requisitioned to hold them,” said Douglas.

“Ahlers was arrested after his office was searched for incriminating papers, when lists of German-born men in Sunderland who were indeed capable of bearing arms were found.

“It was believed he had been helping local German reservists to return home, by paying for their passage, so that they could serve in the German army. This was regarded as treason.”

So great was the interest surrounding the Ahlers case that admittance to his initial hearing was limited to ticket only, with only the affluent able to afford a spot in the public galleries.

And, after Ahlers was led in, the indictment against him – including that he “maliciously and traitorously did adhere to the King’s enemies” – took a full 15 minutes to deliver.

But, although the merchant appeared “dejected and nervous” as the charges were read out, keeping his “head bowed” throughout, his not guilty plea was made in a “strong voice.”

“Among those to give evidence was German reservist Otto Martin, a cashier with Laidler Robson Ltd, who met Ahlers on a tram and was told to report to his office,” said Douglas.

“Other men testified that they likewise had been invited. Both they, and Martin, had received a letter from Consul Ahlers saying all men capable of bearing arms should report to him.”

Martin refused to attend the meeting, as did sailor Johann Bieman. Indeed, Bieman instead reported to the local police station as an alien – ruling himself out of the war entirely.

Another man, Castletown miner and German reservist Leonard Korfer, did show some interest in the offer of an all-expenses trip home. However, he was arrested the next day.

“During the court case it was revealed Ahler’s dealings came to light after he stopped to chat with John Heaton, a director of Sunderland AFC, just after war broke out,” said Douglas.

“He apparently told Heaton he’d had a busy day sending 18 reservists home to Germany, paying for them out of his own pocket. After those revelations, his office was searched.

“Lists of German residents in Sunderland, in Ahlers’ handwriting, were found in the safe. Against some names was written “backing out,” indicating those unwilling to leave Britain.

“This list was regarded as convincing evidence against Ahlers. The documents suggested strongly that the Consul was doing all in his power to persuade men to fight for Germany.

“But perhaps the most damning evidence against Ahlers was a remark he himself made to Heaton that day: ‘I am a naturalised British subject, but naturally I am a German at heart.”

Wearsiders waited with bated breath, as did Ahlers, for the trial outcome. They had to be patient, however, as it was adjourned until December – for further evidence to be collected. “It had actually been permissible for German men to leave Britain and return home right up until August 11, 1914, and their wives were allowed to stay, or go, home as well,” said Douglas.

“But what Ahlers allegedly did was assist the mobilisation of the German army in this country – an entirely different matter. It was for these actions he found himself charged with treason.”

The re-opening of the Ahlers trial on December 9, 1914, sparked national and international interest – with reports of the case even featuring prominently in the New York Times.

Under cross-examination Ahlers admitted he had helped several Germans return to fight, but claimed he had originally believed that Germany wouldn’t risk going to war with England.

“Apparently, Ahlers received a telegram at one point urging him to instruct all German men in this country, aged between 17 and 45, to find their way home at once,” said Douglas.

“But, even though he booked tickets for eight voyages to Germany on the day war broke out, he claimed he had been too busy to read about, or hear, that Britain had declared war.

“This point proved the crucial turning point in his trial.”

Although initially sentenced to death for high treason, Ahlers appealed against the decision – his conviction quashed after justices accepted he had been ignorant of war breaking out.

Nevertheless, 50-year-old Ahlers was stripped of his British citizenship, interred as an alien at a camp in Islington and eventually deported back to Germany at the end of the war. His 46-year-old wife Emma was also interred, due to her husband’s activities. Highly strung, and described as a little unstable, she became dependent on the sleeping drug Veronal.

“She was held at Holloway Prison and poisoned herself with the drug; either intentionally, or in ignorance. Despite a verdict of suicide, the truth will never be known,” said Douglas.

“Ahlers later appealed to the Revocation Committee for the retention of his British citizenship but, after a brief hearing, the request was refused and his deportation went ahead. But there is an ironic end to this story of the Sunderland spy. Ahlers’ eldest British-born son, Curt, signed up to fight with the Middlesex Regiment against Germany in the same war.”

•Do you have a World War One story to tell? Email sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk