Hang the Kaiser!
Colonel Lea's Covert Mission to Kidnap an Emperor
The man had to pay for what he’d done, raged Colonel Luke Lea, but he wasn’t. Instead of sitting in a court and being judged like a criminal, he was luxuriating in the Netherlands on a lovely country estate. Ten million men dead in a war he’d started, yet he was free to live his life. That rankled the colonel, and he was not one to be rankled.
As a can-do kind of guy, he swore he’d do something about it since no one else was. And that was why Colonel Lea of the American Expeditionary Forces decided to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Luke Lea (born 1879) was a born-and-bred Tennesseean and New York-trained lawyer who, by means of some byzantine political machinations by the Tennessee General Assembly and after no fewer than eleven ballots, was elected to the U.S. Senate as a compromise candidate in 1911, aged 31. He established himself as a firm progressive ally of President Woodrow Wilson, favoring women’s suffrage, prohibition, and lower tariffs, but lost his primary in 1916.
The American entry into the Great War came along a year later and Lea, now out of a job, raised the volunteer 114th Field Artillery regiment—former U.S. senators did that sort of thing back in them days—became its colonel and headed off the France, where his regiment would distinguish itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Lea was a dynamic, “colorful” (always a euphemism) figure, a keen self-publicist and maker-upper of stories, one of which was that the Duke of Connaught had told him at the end of the War that he was the uncle of both King George V of England and the Kaiser, the two of them being Queen Victoria’s grandsons. Lea claimed Connaught had intimated to him that the “Establishment” would protect Wilhelm II, which offended his staunch Jacksonian principles and stank of typical Euro-aristo nepotism. Lea immediately resolved to undertake his unsanctioned mission to bring Wilhelm to justice.
Or at least that’s what he later said. The date of Connaught’s remark was recorded as being on June 11 at a camp near Winchester in Britain, and it wasn’t made directly to Lea. It might have simply been a sardonic or off-handed comment. The real point is that it occurred five months before the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended the War, so how did it somehow inspire Lea into planning to snatch the Kaiser when he was still in power and no suggestion of going into exile had yet been made? This whole story sounds a bit like a justification for his action ex post facto.
Revealingly, a colleague, also notorious for his major-league boozing, would later say Lea actually came up with the kra-zee scheme during a drinking session several weeks after the Armistice.
In the last doomed days of the fighting in November 1918, Emperor Wilhelm II, once Germany’s Supreme War Lord, finally assented to his generals’ pleas to abdicate to forestall a total collapse of the German Army and a national Bolshevik revolution. With him gone, they hoped to negotiate their armistice with the Allies.
What does one do with a dethroned sovereign? The Netherlands seemed to be the optimal place to drop him off. It was nearby, it had a long tradition of granting asylum, it was a monarchy friendly to ex-monarchs, and there was a tame Prusso-Dutch noble named Count Godard van Aldenburg Bentinck who was willing, if not enthusiastic, to host a temperamental, tetchy former head of state until such time as he acquired his own place (with enough room for an entourage of thirty).
So off went the Kaiser to Bentinck’s 17th-century pile, Amerongen Castle.
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Having acquired some Dutch maps during a wine-quaffing session with a priest linked to French military intelligence, Lea also knew where Kaiser Bill was. In late December 1918 he started putting his team together. At its simplest—and Lea was not one for complex, well-thought-out plans—his grab squad would drive across the Dutch border, show up at Amerongen, surprise the Kaiser, throw the cad in the trunk, and Shanghai him to Paris, where the American, French, British, and Japanese negotiators were meeting at the Peace Conference to discuss terms with Germany.
His number twos were both battery commanders of the 114th, the first Captain Larry MacPhail, fiery and known as the Raging Redhead (and the colleague, mentioned earlier, who thought Lea conjured up with the idea while in his cups), and the second Captain Thomas Henderson, a Democratic Party activist. Both were cronies of Lea. Then there was Lieutenant Ellsworth Brown, a signals specialist, plus three sergeants—Marmaduke Clokey, Owen Johnson, and Dan Reilly, all known and trusted by Lea.
On January 1, 1919, Lea submitted a four-day leave request to his division commander, Brigadier-General Oliver Spaulding. He was suspicious, especially after Lea refused to tell him where he was going, but that was no reason to forbid it. Later that day, the uniformed and pistol-armed team took the 114th’s Winton Six staff car and its sister regiment’s eight-cylinder Cadillac and drove to Liége to acquire passes to enter Belgium from Lea’s old friend, the American minister there, Brand Whitlock.
Whitlock unexpectedly invited Lea to stay for a jolly dinner that evening for a Dutch diplomat based in Brussels. It’d be worth the delay, he promised. And it was. The Dutchman helpfully provided “Senator Colonel Lea” with a laissez-passer, a document issued in the name of Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands allowing its holders to travel when and where they wished.
Lea couldn’t believe his luck. Holland was otherwise closed to Americans; now he had a free pass. Gratifyingly, when the Winton Six and the Cadillac were stopped by Dutch border guards, a flash of the laissez-passer gave them instant entry. At around 8:30pm on January 5, having hidden their pistols under the car seats, the cars arrived at the gate of Amerongen, where they were halted by a sentry.
Lea was convinced that this fellow was a crack German imperial guard prepared to protect the Kaiser at all costs, whereas he was in fact a Dutch reservist seconded to rather dull guard duty at an out-of-the-way castle. Dressed in his impressive officer’s uniform, Lea stepped out of the car and in German demanded that he be taken to see the emperor; the man, much to their surprise, said the Dutch equivalent of “no problem” and escorted them to the castle—or rather, what Lea thought was the double-moated castle but which actually was the lodge of the estate manager.
Asked to wait and served cigars by a butler, they were soon visited by a young man in evening dress who said he was one of the count’s sons. According to Lea’s account:
“Quite formally he asked the object of our visit. I gave him an indirect answer by asking to see the Kaiser and introduced myself and the other officers. The Count [sic] repeated his question. I countered by stating that I would reveal the object of our visit only to the Kaiser. [Bentinck] seemed much disturbed and no little excited. He then excused himself and left the room. We could hear him talking in the adjoining room, speaking in German. He addressed the one to whom he was talking as ‘Your Majesty’.”
When the young man returned in the company of the burgomaster of Amerongen, Lea began to bluster in his stumbling German only to be interrupted by the latter who said “in beautiful, fluent, Bostonian English” that “I am sure we will progress more rapidly speaking in English. I am a graduate of Harvard University.”
It didn’t help much. The conversation kept going around in circles as the Dutchmen insisted on knowing what the object of the visit was while Lea reiterated that he could divulge that information only to Wilhelm himself. They would retort that such a meeting was impossible until they knew why the Americans were here, and Lea would reply that they would find out when he met the Kaiser.
Then the Dutch would disappear for a little while and return to say that His Majesty would only consent to a “brief audience” if Lea had come as an official representative of President Wilson or General John Pershing. Lea considered asserting that he was there on presidential business, but thought better of it when the Dutchmen looked as if they were hoping he’d try to brazen it through so they could catch him out.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Brown had noticed that a detachment of Dutch soldiers was gathering outside. A couple of machine guns and floodlights were being set up and pointed in their general direction. It was time to go.
Lea and his team bade a farewell to their unwelcoming hosts, hastily got into their cars, and sped off, leaving behind a very bemused set of gentlemen and a reportedly “nervous” former emperor.
Captain MacPhail merrily told everyone the evening hadn’t been a complete failure: He’d pocketed a heavy brass ashtray as a souvenir of their escapade. It was definitely one of Kaiser Bill’s, they thought as it was passed round: The German coat of arms was stamped on it and there was an inscription reading “W.I”—Wilhelm Imperator.
The men congratulated themselves on having imposed on Wilhelm II the loss of such a valuable asset and got back to France without much incident, but in total ignorance of the diplomatic brouhaha they had provoked.
Whenever the burgomaster and the count’s son had periodically left the room, the Americans had suspected that they were making telephone calls. It was true; they had. First the Dutch troops had been summoned from their barracks, but they had also called the governor of the province to alert him that there was something odd going on. During a follow-up conversation after Lea had skedaddled, they specifically mentioned that an officer had dishonorably stolen an ashtray.
That really set the ball rolling.
The governor called the Dutch Foreign Office to complain, which in turn complained to the U.S. Minister to The Hague, who in turn complained to the American Expeditionary Forces’ Inspector General in France, which in turn summoned Colonel Luke Lea to Chaumont to discuss the whereabouts of a missing ashtray and, while he was at it, to answer some questions about his unauthorized excursion.
When Lea duly appeared in Colonel J.C. Johnson’s office at the Inspector General, he was in fighting form. The lawyer in him came out when Johnson waved General Order No. 6 before him, which forbade travel to neutral nations without permission from headquarters. Lea pointed out that the Order pertained only to enlisted men, and he was a colonel.
Johnson conceded the point, then returned to the offensive by asserting that Lea had used an official vehicle whilst on leave. This was pretty weak tea by any standard, and Johnson knew it. He caved quickly when Lea promised to summon several generals to his court-martial and ask them to testify whether they had ever used a staff car for non-official business.
The last rope Johnson had to hang Lea with concerned that ridiculous ashtray. Theft was a serious crime, but Lea already had it covered. In a real Saul Goodman move, he had earlier told MacPhail to retain him as his lawyer, so when Johnson asked him about the ashtray Lea could truthfully claim that everything he knew about the incident was protected by attorney-client privilege. Then when Johnson demanded MacPhail tell him about the ashtray the latter merely referred him to his lawyer, one Colonel Luke Lea.
And with that, the inquiry was over. Johnson recommended a court-martial but all that happened is that Lea received a mild, pro forma letter of reprimand from General Pershing stating that:
“As an officer of the American Army, you had no right whatsoever to present yourself at the chateau of the ex-Emperor of Germany without the authority of the President of the United States first obtained.”
A slap-on-the-wrist was always inevitable, though. Lea was a former senator and pal of the president; he was hardly likely to be shot at dawn, even if someone in his party did nick an ashtray.
Lea & Co. returned home with the 114th Field Artillery in March 1919, while Wilhelm purchased a country house in Doorn the following year. Until his death in 1941, aged 82, he rarely left its confines.
As for Lea, he went on to become a newspaper publisher but was convicted of bank fraud (he said it was a politically motivated charge) before dying at 66 in 1945. Larry MacPhail, ashtray-stealer, later became the president and owner of not just one, but three, baseball teams (Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees).
The Lea Mission certainly has its comical aspects, but had they become involved in a firefight with Dutch troops or killed the Kaiser or been captured themselves, the international consequences would have been very serious.
If they had succeeded, though, in bundling the Kaiser into a trunk and hauling him to Paris, the ramifications would have been just as bad.
The Armistice negotiations were then in progress and the question of Germany’s “war guilt” was of central concern. To what degree was Germany collectively guilty of starting a war? Had some other countries played significant roles? What about Russia, Turkey, and Austria? Was any state guilty, come to think of it? Perhaps the war had broken out by accident. Or maybe all of them were partly guilty—because of the alliance system’s instability.
If that was too knotty a problem, perhaps it would be simpler to put Wilhelm II himself on trial? Now, “Hang the Kaiser!” was a popular chant at the time, but as with all similar, bumper-sticker slogans the issue was more complicated than the chanters and sloganeers tend to believe.
Among other things, what responsibility did this one individual bear for leading Germany to war? Had it been a deliberate policy or was it evidence only of irresponsibility? Had he even been in command, really? Why shouldn’t his generals and admirals and politicians stand in the dock next to him? Should a head of state enjoy immunity or not for crimes . . . that may not have been adequately defined as crimes in the first place?
And even if you figured out a solution to all these questions, there was the practical matter of actually getting your hands on the man you were going to try. Wilhelm II was in neutral Holland, where he existed in the nebulous state of being both a refugee and an exile. When Napoleon had finally been defeated in 1815, nobody had suggested putting him on trial; instead, he was exiled. Well, wasn’t that already Wilhelm’s fate?
The more one thought about it, the worse it got. Assuming Holland handed him over (which it wouldn’t), where should the trial take place? Georges Clemenceau didn’t want it held in France as much as Wilson didn’t want it in the United States. The Japanese weren’t interested. That left London, but King George V was Kaiser Bill’s cousin, and though he considered him “the greatest criminal known” he would be in an awkward position, Euro-royal-wise, if he was asked to grant clemency to Wilhelm.
By attempting to kidnap the Kaiser, Lea had actually lessened the likelihood of putting him on trial—the very opposite of his intention—because he frightened the Allies into confronting the kind of dire realities they’d have preferred to kick down the road. As a consequence, they got scared and waffled their response. In June 1919, several months after Lea’s escapade, they added a strange article, number 227, to the Treaty of Versailles to establish a “special tribunal” of five judges to try Wilhelm for offending “international morality and the sanctity of treaties”—whatever that meant. The Allies would request the Netherlands to extradite Wilhelm, but no coercive methods to ensure compliance were mentioned.
Article 227 was merely an excuse to look as if they were serious, but it was easily ignored and the matter was soon dropped, which was exactly the plan. The issue of war crimes and, later, crimes against humanity, would only be resurrected in the wretched aftermath of the Second World War.
In the end, Lea’s unsanctioned “black ops” mission was more than just an entertaining piece of derring-do and his reasoning (if he brought the Kaiser in, the U.S. government would be, as he said, “legally obliged to string him up”) sounds like the blokey kind of thing someone would come up with during a boozefest with the lads. Ultimately, it serves as a caution against avoid over-romanticizing covert operations that lack strategic and political purpose.
Most importantly, though, the mystery of the missing ashtray has never been solved. It’s allegedly in a safe-deposit box somewhere overseen by MacPhail’s heirs, but who knows.
Further Reading: G.G. Battle, “The Trials Before the Leipsig Supreme Court of Germans Accused of War Crimes,” Virginia Law Review, 8 (1921), 1, pp. 1-26; M. MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001); J.H. McCall, Jr., “‘Amazingly Indiscreet’: The Plot to Capture Wilhelm II,” Journal of Military History, 73 (2009), 3, pp. 449-69; J.C.G. Röhl, The Kaiser and his Court Circle: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); W.A. Schabas, The Trial of the Kaiser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).