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The story of the WWI Kaiser Caper

100 years have passed since local plotted Kaiser kidnapping

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Just as in the children’s storytelling game, even historic family stories can differ from teller to teller and generation to generation.

The World War I story about the attempt to kidnap German Kaiser Wilhelm is no exception. From those directly involved to first and second generations who heard or researched the escapade, some details of the adventure differ, but the crux of the story is the same.

After research that included numerous news articles, personal writings by a few of the participants and interviews with second-generation family members, the intent of this article is to remember and celebrate the heroism of a few brave men who wanted justice for the tens of millions of casualties during World War I, still known as “one of the most deadly conflicts in human history.”

On a cold New Year’s Eve in 1918, a daring but little-known exploit began. 

A small band of Americans based in Tuningen, Luxembourg, as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), set off on a secret, non-sanctioned mission to capture Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern II, the emperor of Germany. The band of eight all heralded from the great state of Tennessee: three from Franklin.

The day before the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice between the Allied Forces and Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and slipped into exile in neutral Holland. There he lived lavishly in the 17th-century Dutch castle owned by Count Godard Bentinck. 

The Kaiser’s exile incensed Allied troops, who saw comrades’ blood splattered over battlefields throughout the European continent due to the Kaiser’s zest for power and were still waiting in barracks for passage home.

To ensure justice, Col. Luke Lea, of the Tennessee National Guard 114th Field Artillery attached to the 55th F.A. Brigade and leader of “the only all volunteer regiment in the World’s War,” hatched a plan to kidnap and deliver the Kaiser to President Woodrow Wilson “as a New Year’s gift,” with the intent he be put on trial, Lea wrote in his 1935 memoirs kept at the Tennessee Historical Society. 

Wilson was in Paris delivering his Fourteen Points for peace at the Paris Peace Talks.

“He intended to kidnap 'Kaiser Bill' and give him to President Wilson as a Christmas gift to face war crime charges, but since it was after Christmas [the Kaiser] would have been a New Year’s gift,” said Lea’s granddaughter Sally Lea Nance, a Franklin resident. 

In his memoirs, Lea, a former U.S senator and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean wrote, “The capture, trial and punishment of the Kaiser was to the American doughboy the object which inspired him to leave home ... to become a cog in the best disciplined fighting machine in any war and finally give his life, if need be.” 

The inspiration

According to Lea, the idea to kidnap the Kaiser was incubated months earlier, after an afternoon tea in England with the British Duke of Connaught and other American field command officers. With no concern for the company he was keeping, the Duke pridefully and with arrogance boasted he was uncle to both the “August Majesty, the Emperor of Germany and the Emperor of Great Britain and India.” 

Months later, after the Kaiser abdicated and escaped into an exiled life of luxury in a castle in Holland, Lea and most Allied troops were outraged and wanted him brought to trial and punished for war crimes.

A plan in motion

On the last day of 1918, Lea and six hand-picked soldiers, each with a five-day leave pass, loaded into an authorized regimental seven-seater Winton car and headed out on a 600-mile journey through Belgium, Germany and Holland to do what Lea officially called some “journalistic investigation.” He was accompanied by three officers: Captains Thomas P. Henderson and Leland S. MacPhail and 1st. Lt. Ellsworth Brown, and three enlisted men: Sgts. Marmaduke Clokey, Dan Reilly and Owen Johnston. Henderson, Rielly and Johnston were Franklin residents well known to the colonel. All were chosen for their particular expertise and reliability.

As soldiers accustomed to packing light, the group left with an extra supply of gas, bed rolls and their firearms.

According to Lea, no member of the group save Lea himself knew the actual mission. He merely told them, “The trip might be dangerous! It certainly will be exciting.” 

Other accounts claim Henderson and MacPhail were involved in creating the plan and the plan relayed to the others when they were close to their destination when all were given a chance to withdraw. No one did.

According to Henderson’s story, written by his grandson, Tom Henderson III for the Nashville Retrospect using letters Capt. Tom wrote to his wife, Lucinda, Henderson “was personally recruited by Lea.” Both he and Capt. Leland S. “Larry” MacPhail were also involved in planning the mission.

“They wanted the French to try him,” said John Henderson, nephew of Captain Tom. 

There is also a mention in Henderson’s letters of an uneventful trial run on Christmas Day 1918, when the group took advantage of a two-day leave pass to kidnap the Kaiser. Hours into the trip, they found they needed passports to enter Holland and more time to execute the job. 

The second attempt they were more prepared.

A former U.S. senator, Lea had contacts and friends all over the world. A stop in Brussels to see Minister Brand Whitlock, the ambassador to Belgium, yielded passports for the travelers within hours, sans the normal red tape. In addition, they procured a laissez passer from the Dutch embassy. That document came in handy later, when an arrogant Dutch officer at the Holland border denied them entry, stating, “No American officers are wanted or permitted in Holland.” 

He changed his demeanor when the laissez passer was presented.

The Winton was known to be unreliable and a gas hog. True to form, several hours into the trip, it “blew up” according to Lea. As luck would have it, an American corps truck came by heading for the 115th F.A. Since the commanding officer was also a friend of Lea’s, Clokey accompanied the truck to the base with instructions to “bring back a regimental car.” 

While waiting for Clokey’s return, Reilly and Johnston repaired the Winton. Clokey arrived a few hours later with a reliable, eight-cylinder Cadillac. He also brought Egbert Hail, the son of a leading Nashville business man and chauffeur for the 115th making it a team of eight.

Once they reached Holland, the group traveled through the night until they reached Nijmengen in Holland, where they attracted a large group of curiosity seekers and an adventure-seeking youngster about 15 or 16 years old who volunteered and was hired to be an interpreter for the American soldiers. Although his name was Botter, the soldiers called him “Hans.”

Just outside town, high waters took out the bridge over the tributary of the Rhine River, where they planned to cross. They were 16 kilometers from Amerongen, the castle and the Kaiser. The cars motored along the road paralleling the river until they found a ferry.  Once again the laissez passer came in handy. It convinced a reluctant ferry captain to allow them to cross. However,  when asked to remain on that side until they returned, he wouldn’t budge, making it a high probability changes would be made to the plan, but at no time did they consider abandoning the plan.

“Our plans and acts must be viewed not in the light of today’s (1935) callousness, but in the glaring reflection of the conflagration of 17 years ago, which had consumed a large part of civilization and was threatening to ignite the other,” Lea wrote.

So close

The soldiers arrived at their destination at about 8 p.m. on Jan. 5, 1919. According to Lea, the plan was not to attack but to use the power of rank, sheer confidence, gall and surprise to get into the castle. 

It worked. 

The three officers and the young interpretor entered the castle and were ushered into the library, where they were “greeted by the Count and his son and asked the nature of their visit,” Henderson wrote Lucinda. The whole scene overwhelmed Hans, who fainted and was carried out by 1st Lt. Brown. Henderson, MacPhail and Lea remained to wrangle a visit with the Kaiser.

Lea took over the conversation using his college German, enhanced by conversations with German prisoners of war, to introduce himself and his fellow officers and requesting to see the Kaiser. The conversation went back and forth for a while — the count asking the nature of their visit and Lea evading the question, until the count left the room.

From the next room the officers could hear much of the back and forth conversation in German and the phone calls being made. When the other person was addressed as “Your Majesty,” they knew the count was speaking to “Kaiser Bill.” When they heard the phone calls, they surmised military reinforcements were being called.

It turned out the count could speak perfect “Harvard English” and he used it to say his “August Majesty” considered the request for an audience “but could not grant it unless the object of [the] interview is expressed.” 

After about an hour of back-and-forth evasions between the count, the burgomaster, or mayor, of Amerongen and Lea, the American officers decided theyhad stretched their luck far enough. 

The burgomaster finally announced, his “Imperial Majesty positively refused to see the Americans unless the object of their visit was stated,” and what exactly was meant by “journalistic investigation,” Lea wrote.

Lea was “willing to go to any length within the boundaries of the truth, no matter the consequences might be to see the Kaiser and accomplish the object of the mission,” he wrote. “I was, of course, unwilling to make a false statement.”

So when he was challenged to give his word of honor as an American officer that he represented President Wilson, General Pershing or Colonel House to be granted an audience with the Kaiser, Lea replied he did not represent any of the above but tried one last plea to see the Kaiser, which was ignored.

Return to the base

It was time to exit the castle, but one member of the party was not leaving without a souvenir. Capt. MacPhail pocketed one of the Kaiser’s many ashtrays scattered around the library. 

Outside, they found their vehicles surrounded by Dutch soldiers and townspeople along with machine guns on the castle walls. There was no time to hesitate. Showing no fear, the officers walked to and entered their vehicles, then drove slowly without stopping through the crowd and off the castle premises to the ferry. 

It was past midnight when they reached the other side of the Rhine. Still almost 300 miles to go — they were due at the base and in regiment form by noon. They made it with five minutes to spare.

It was the missing ashtray that brought official attention to the escapade and an investigation that eventually ended with a mild reprimand in the files. 

In 1921, Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing attended the 30th Division’s reunion in Nashville. He was asked about the Tennesseans’ attempt to kidnap the Kaiser. The general replied, “I’d have given a year’s pay to have been with those boys in Holland.”

“I asked [Capt. Tom] once why he did this,” said John Henderson. “He said, ‘They were no longer fighting; he wasn’t going home for a while; they just wanted to do something different — have a little fun.’ He didn’t worry about a court martial. He was a citizen soldier.”

Nance said that years after the kidnapping attempt, Lea’s adult children would still get phone calls about the event.

“People were still interested in the story when I was growing up,” she said. “I remember Daddy would get calls asking for information. It was interesting that someone could pull everything together — get eight men to go with him and almost pull it off — that’s really pretty amazing.”

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