The German Attack on Tahiti

As Told by Miss Geni La France, an Eyewitness

[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]

San Francisco, Cal., Oct. 7.—Graphic stories of the plight of Papeete, capital of Tahiti, in the Society Islands, were told here today by passengers arriving on the Union Steamship Company's liner Moana. Several of those on board the steamer were in Papeete when the town was bombarded by the German cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. They said the place was in ruins and that the natives were still hiding in the hills, whence they fled when the bombardment began.

The stories of those arriving on the Moana vary only in unimportant details. Perhaps the most graphic story was that told by Miss Geni La France, a French actress. She told of the Governor's heroism and his self-sacrificing devotion to duty, which caused him to face death rather than surrender. All of the passengers were loud in their praise of this Frenchman, who thought first of his country, next of his guests for so he considered all travelers and next of the city's residents.

"While the shells screamed and exploded with a deafening roar, tearing buildings and leaving wreck and ruin in their wake, this old Governor was calm throughout," said Miss La France.

"It was his bravery that enabled us to bear up under the terrible strain, although it was impossible to flee the city, as shells were exploding all about.

"I was sitting on the veranda of the hotel, having a lovely holiday. Every one was happy and contented. The sunshine was lovely and warm and the natives were busy at their work. I noticed two dark ships steaming up the little river, but was too lazy and 'comfy' to take any interest in them.

"Suddenly, without any warning, shots began exploding around us. Two of the houses near the hotel fell with a crash, and the natives began screaming and running in every direction. For a minute I didn't realize what was happening. But when another volley of shells burst dangerously near and some of the pieces just missed my head, I was flying, too.

"Every one was shouting, 'To the hills, to the hills!' My manager could not obtain a wagon or any means of conveyance to take me there. I felt as if I had on a pair of magic boots that would carry me to the hills in three steps. But I didn't. It was a good six miles, over bad roads, and we had to run.

"The shells from the German battleships kept breaking, and the explosions were terrible. I am sure that I made a record in sprinting that six miles. The cries of the people were terrible. I was simply terror-stricken and could not cry for fear. I seemed to realize that I must keep my strength in order to reach the hills.

"We hid in the hills and the natives gave up their homes to the white people, and were especially kind to the women."

"The native population probably hasn't come back from the hills yet, and when we left, two days after the bombardment, the European population was still dazed," said E. P. Titchener, a Wellington, New Zealand, merchant, who went through the bombardment.

"From 8 o'clock until 10 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau circled in the harbor, firing broadsides of eight-inch guns at the little gunboat Zelie and the warehouses beyond.

"Only the American flag, which the American Consul hoisted, and an American sailing vessel also ran up, the two being in line before the main European residence section, saved that part of the town, for the German cruisers were careful not to fire in that direction."

According to all accounts, the cruisers directed their fire solely toward the Zelie, but their marksmanship was said to be poor. Many shots fell short and many went wide, so that the whole business district, the general market, and the warehouses along the water front were peppered and riddled.

The French replied from some old guns on the hills as well as three shots from the Zelie, but ineffectively.

"It was plucky of the French to fire at all," said Mr. Titchener. "At 7 o'clock we could see two war vessels approaching, and soon made out they were cruisers. They came on without a flag, and the Zelie, lying in the harbor, fired a blank shot.

"Then the Germans hoisted their flag and the Zelie fired two shots. The Germans swung around and fired their broadsides, and all the crew of the Zelie scuttled ashore. No one was hurt.

"The Germans continued to swing and fire. Their shells flew all over the town above the berth of the Zelie and the German prize ship Walkure, which the Zelie had captured. Perhaps not knowing they were firing into a German vessel, the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst continued their wild cannonades.

"During the two hours of bombardment a hundred shells from the big 8-inch guns of the cruisers fell and exploded in the town. The sound was terrific, and nobody blamed the natives for running away.

"With all the destruction, only three men were killed one Chinaman and two natives. The Germans evidently made an effort to confine their fire, but many shots went wide, and these did the main mischief.

"Finally, about 10 o'clock, without attempting to land, and not knowing that the German crew of the Walkure were prisoners in the town, the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst steamed away and disappeared over the horizon. They sailed off to the westward, but of course we could not tell how they set their course when they got beyond our vision."

The damage to Papeete was estimated at $2,000,000. Two vessels were sunk and two blocks of business houses and residences were destroyed. The French set fire to a 40,000-ton coal pile to prevent the Germans replenishing their bunkers.

The voyage of the Moana was fraught with adventure. From Papeete the vessel, which flies the British flag, sailed with lights out and dodged four German cruisers after being warned by the wireless operator, who had picked up a German code message sent out by the cruisers which had razed the island city.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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