THE CAPTURE OF SS BELGIA
On the morning of 4th August 1914, just hours after Britain declared war on Germany, a troop of thirteen Newport policemen armed with borrowed rifles set off from the town to strike the war’s first blow. Their target was the SS Belgia, a German steamship moored in the Bristol Channel about ten miles from the city. The steamship Belgia was owned by the Hamburg-Amerika line, and was travelling from Boston to Hamburg. At 9pm on Sunday 3rd August 1914, when the ship lay off the Scilly Isles, the captain received information that war had broken out between Germany and France. He sailed in to what he believed were safer waters in the Channel. However, as a merchant ship registered under an enemy flag following the declaration of war she was now a legitimate target.
Carried by boat, the police force quickly took control of the Belgia and brought her up to this spot on the river. The German sailors were arrested as enemy aliens, becoming the first prisoners of the war.
The cargo and crew were captured at Alexandra Dock. As well as a cargo of flour, bullion, and 73 German reservists, it also carried a consignment of zoo animals bound for Hamburg Zoo: these included alligators, racoons, fighting bull-frogs, rattle snakes, chameleons and a number of exotic birds!
Newspaper reports indicated that the Belgia was also carrying wheat, copper ingots, tobacco, cotton bales, logs, phosphate rock. The live alligators and other reptiles destined for Hamburg Zoo which were acquired by an entrepreneurial character from Abergavenny and put on show in the town!
In early September much of the cargo was already included in auctions conducted at the Waterloo Hotel. In June 1915 the vessel was declared a lawful prize by the Admiralty and passed into new ownership, having been acquired by the Strick Line in London and renamed the SS Huntsrick. The ship became a British merchant vessel. It was sunk off Morocco in 1917 by a German U-boat while carrying stores and troops to Salonika. 15 lives were lost.