previous arrow
next arrow

Remembering and Forgetting: Some Photographs from a
Small Corner of the Great War


1.  He was my grandfather, my Opa.  Albert Karl Gustave Facknitz, born 12 September 1890, died December 1963. In October 1909 he began training in a marine unit, the naval infantry, joining the third Seebataillon, first Company; he was posted to Tsingtau (Qingdao) by February of the following year.  He served for over a decade, including an eight month leave and redeployment to Cuxhaven in 1913.   During that time he met Martha Zorn, one day my Oma. He returned to China, served as consular guard in Tientsin, then returned to Tsingtau for its fall, and was captured by the Japanese on 6 November 1914, the day before official surrender.   After five years as a prisoner of war in Japan, Albert was repatriated to a Germany beset with the turmoil and shortages of the postwar period.  He married Martha in November, 1920.   The photograph, taken by Japanese photographer Y. Kobayashi in Tsingtau, was printed on heavy stock and sent back to Germany, he sent to his sweetheart in Pomerania, inscribed, “To remind you of me, your friend Albert.” 

 My grandfather was a private soldier, later a corporal, participating in the maintenance of Tsingtau, Germany’s most ambitious project as a late-comer to imperialism.  As early as 1871, the German geographer, geologist, and world traveler Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen (uncle of the Red Baron), ended his overview of the wealth and potential of Shantung Province with this exhortation:  “Although the rise of the Empire of China is likely to antagonize European interests in intellectual, material and industrial respects, still this rise will become urgent from the pressure of necessity, and taking this fact into consideration the various foreign powers will each have to secure for themselves the greatest possible advantage in the approaching era of China’s renascence” (Forsyth, 96).  Sun-Yat-Sen, after a visit to Tsingtau with its spacious streets, running water and sewers, modern hospital and docks and rail terminus, offered the opinion that Tsingtau was a model for Chinese cities of the future.

 These are some of the photographs he brought back with him.

2. Among solid and stately administrative buildings, this cenotaph commemorated two German Catholic missionaries, Franz Xaver Nies and Richard Henle.  They were killed by a gang from the Big Swords Society, 1 November 1897, in Zhiang Jia village in western Shantung.  Nies and Henle, on All Soul’s Day, were visiting their colleague and fellow priest Georg Maria Stenz.  Within two weeks of their death, Germany landed an occupying force at Kiaozhou Bay.  Germany later compelled the Qing government to remove a regional governor, build three new Catholic churches, and pay a reparation of 3,000 taels.  Later the singularity of the Juye incident, so-called, was blurred by the emergence of the broader and more coherent uprising Yihequan Movement, the Boxer Uprising, of 1899-1901.  Simultaneously, Germany negotiated—exacted is perhaps a more nearly accurate term—the Kiautschou Bay Concession: a ninety-nine year lease of over two hundred square miles, which, while still belonging to China, were under the sovereignty of Germany. The agreement permitted construction of harbor facilities; a railroad connecting Shantung to Manchuria, and to the Tran-Siberian, and eventually Berlin; coal mining; and the planting of a modern German town. 



3. The Boxer Uprising, cause and pretext for the European consolidation of power in China, also provided great and lasting rhetorical momentum.  This photograph, entitled “Execution of the Leaders of . . .,” dates from 1899-1901, ten years before Albert Facknitz’s arrival.  It shows Qing onlookers, decapitated Boxers, and Japanese officers and executioners.  Like several of the photographs, this is one was probably purchased, mounted on heavy paper, and titled in a careful hand in old-style German script.  Two heads are missing from this copy.  Who tore the photograph and why I do not know.  I do know that my father as a boy would sometimes sneak into the cupboard and get out the pictures his father brought back from China.  This one, he said, riveted him in its grisliness.


The presence of Chinese and Japanese soldiers in the execution photograph remind us of the tensions in the historical moment, particularly in China where the ambiguities of class, language, region, and decadence had not been sorted and simplified as they had been in the nationalizing fervor of Meiji Japan or, for that matter, Bismarck’s Germany.  Japan was among the eight nations which expanded their influence in China, especially Shantung and Manchuria, at the time of the Boxer Uprising.  Such was the civil and military incoherence among the Chinese that under what circumstances the Chinese soldiers participated in the execution would be impossible to say with certainty. 

4. Similarly enigmatic is this photograph of a European nurse—she wears the Red Cross medallion at her collar—flanked by women on either side.  At first glance, the image seems simply to record the fact of the presence of western women in the colonial drama of the early twentieth century. Who she is, why she is in China, and exactly when the picture was taken and by whom, are details that I cannot recuperate.  This recalls the conundrum of women’s history; we know they were present in equal measure to men, but their documentation is sparse by comparison. So, in the absence of contextualizing narrative, frustrated in our desire to know who was this young woman with the modest smile and the good posture, we risk missing some startling details if we accept that her anonymity makes her unreadable.  But as text, this photograph is remarkably rich.   All the women to her right and the first two to her left are Chinese.  The four at the right of the photograph, her left, are Japanese.  The Chinese women are younger than the Japanese, not as well dressed, and while the Chinese look at the camera, none of the Japanese do.  In other words, a complex cultural and circumstantial dynamic is at work here.  That much we can know.  What put these thirteen people in the same place and the same time?


5. This photograph my father once said he thought to be the gate to the old city of Tsingtau. It may have been anywhere, actually, and probably not Tsingtau, as the town was little more than a fishing village when the Germans arrived and began developing a port city, a railroad terminus, and an administrative and military center.   By 1910, in China, Tsingtau was second only to Hong Kong in commercial traffic, amenities, cultural diversity, and strategic naval importance.  It had massive and domineering new buildings in the Teutonic Imperial manner, but no significant remnants of Chinese antiquity.  Still, notably in this photograph, the field of view divides between the awnings and shaded figures on the left (perhaps merchants?)  and the waiting rickshaw drivers in the open light on the right.  At midpoint, middle distance, there are three men.  Two with umbrellas, two in European dress, talking and looking toward the camera. 

Some others, equally evocative:


6. A small grouping of houses, presumably on the outskirts of Tsingtau.  Schatzekon: sweetheart.

7. Sonnenuntergang: Sunset.  One of the most poorly preserved of the photographs pasted to heavy stock.

8. Bambushain: bamboo grove.  The condition of this picture is even worse, more blurry and bleached than the sunset. The adventure into China, while predictably exotic, seems also to have been sentimental, superficially exotic but archetypally European.   A tidy hamlet, a sunset, and a grove mark the ambivalence between alienation and expropriation.  What does it mean to fetishize the exotic even while assigning it familiar qualities characterizes several other pictures, still among those that appear to have been purchased and then mounted?  Germany’s project of building a modern commercial center and port city, occurred while simultaneously colonizing West Africa and Samoa.  Since it is not at all clear that my grandfather stopped in Samoa, it seems likely that his several pictures from there were part of a trade among other Germans. 


9. In this, Weiberans Samoa, Samoan women, the woman with the elaborate headdress in the middle apparently bore a resemblance to my grandmother, or so thought my father and his older brother.


10. The appeal of this one to a soldier bivouacked among men in a foreign garrison is obvious. After release from prison in Japan, more than a hundred of my grandfather’s cohort decided to remain in Japan.  Many preferred to emigrate to Samoa.

11. Samoan princess?  With headdress and knife, a bemused expression; it is not entirely clear that she knows what she is being asked to represent.

 Other photographs in the collection are, it appears, one-offs, certainly not commercially produced, and some of these include my grandfather or members of his company.


12. The Germania Brewery, opened in 1904, provided Pilsner beer to the German soldiers and citizens of Tsingtau.  In this picture the Chinese man with the palm fan, is not entirely sure of what he is doing or why he is in the middle. Today, the Tsingtao Brewery maintains a sizeable presence in the domestic Chinese market and makes one of China’s principal export beers. 

13. Sergeant Wilhelm Schmidt’s squad.  Everything suggests that the German troops in Tsingtau were exemplary in matters of morale and unit cohesion—disciplined, vigorous, and dauntless, they were young men who like my grandfather had eluded the near invincible determinants of 19th Century poverty and were now beneficiaries of fresh air, camaraderie, ample food, dry bunks, and steady pay.  In finding respect for country and fellow soldiers, they found self-respect. My Opa was a sorrowful man; he was a man of unsurpassed dignity.

14. “The Fun Bunch,” loosely put.  The young Chinese male in the lower right seems to have been tugged abruptly toward the soldier to his left at the moment the photograph was taken.  Higher up, more beer, and one additional Chinese person.  The environment is of rocks and trees; nothing to remark an ambient culture,  for the master plan of Tsingtau made China largely invisible behind the robust and vast Bismarck Barracks and spacious Catholic and Lutheran churches.

15. A picturesque and madcap set of poses at seaside.  The blurry single Chinese, bottom center, suggests that photographer’s command to hold still was sometimes lost in translation.  A special limitation of the photograph as historical evidence is precisely the hegemonic blurring of the cultural topography, so novel and obvious are the contours of the physical landscape. Photographs are deceptive precisely because of their immediacy, their stability.

16. Spreading out over rocks—here at the seaside—seems to have been a motif.  My grandfather is just above the penciled arrow.


With the assistance of the British, the Japanese began a naval blockade of Tsingtao at the end of August, 1914, a few weeks after the declaration of war in Europe.  In the first week of September Japan began to land the 18th Division of Infantry at Lungkow and Laoshan Bay.  The Germans, outnumbered by more than six to one, prepared to defend Tsingtau.  At this moment my grandfather, disguised in civilian dress, made his way by train back to Tsingtau from Tientsin, where he had been attached to a diplomatic guard unit.  Well-provisioned, the Germans spent September and October waiting, establishing trenches lines, redoubts, and artillery batteries.  In 1915, American journalist Jefferson Jones wrote of Tsingtau  that “Germany has . . . been forced to surrender all this magnificent work,” and “the Tsingtau of 1914 will clearly standout in the memory of its visitors and Far Easterners as the finest, the prettiest, most modern and sanitary city in the Orient” (153).   Post-war, still believing in the promise of the city, several dozen of my grandfather’s fellow P-O-W’s came back to Tsingtau to settle.

The photographs from this moment make plain the severity of landscape as well as the remarkable similarity of German defenses in China to the trenches of the Western Front.
17. Machine gunners take up a position in the rocks and wait.


18. Front line troops before the siege. A defensive position that is downhill of the advancing infantry is not ideal, though this may have been an opportunistic position, either for the camera or because the soldiers could use agricultural terracing as breastworks.

19. From what appears to be a much more tenable position, a German lieutenant surveys the terrain.

20. Troops in a defensive drill.  Once combat began in serious, 31 October 1914, the Japanese advanced steadily, and while the German garrison had ample food and medical provisions, they soon exhausted their artillery shells and were compelled to surrender.  My grandfather’s right cheek was grazed by a bullet; at one point debris from a shell burst landed so heavily on him that he asked a comrade if his legs were gone.  In fact, they were merely bruised. 

German casualties included two hundred dead and five hundred wounded compared to more than seven hundred Japanese and British dead, a ratio consistent with casualty comparisons between defensive and offensive troops in the European theater.  Most of the German Imperial ships had previously left for Europe; however, a remaining cruiser, torpedo boat, and four gunboats were scuttled by their crews before the German surrender on 7 November.  All the men of the Third German Sea Battalion were taken prisoner and shipped to Japan.  In Europe the sea battalions were put into the lines in Flanders and inflated to the size of divisions, eventually two marine divisions known as the Marine-Korps-Flandern, totaling seventy thousand troops.  Had he been in Europe, rather than a P.O.W. camp, my grandfather likely would have been exposed to action at Yprès in 1915, or the Somme the next year, or in Flanders the year after that, and, on the slim chance he would still be alive, in the final desperate offensive of early 1918, he might have fought in the Kaiserschlacht.  Instead, he experienced relatively good treatment in Japan, first for almost a year at Asakusa  (now in central Toyko), and for the rest of the war and all of 1919 at a camp thirty kilometers away in Narashino.

21. The gatehouse of the Narashino prisoner of war camp.  Compared to Asakusa—converted crowded and outdated Japanese barracks—Narashino, a large camp, purpose built, housed nearly a thousand, with sports facilities, camp library, and orchestra and chorus.    My grandfather belonged to the Tischler-Innung Narashino, a cabinet maker’s guild. In addition to numerous chess sets, which he gave to his captors and his comrades, he made a dozen violins.  The boundaries of the camp were remarkably fluid; the prisoners worked with local farmers and gardeners, sharing ideas from German horticultural practices.  (My grandfather treasured his rose bushes in later life.)   Ordinary soldiers received half a yen a day which allowed them to purchase tobacco and soap.

22. The washhouse at Narashino, for bodies and clothing.  Except for the influenza in 1918, staying healthy was not a particular challenge.

23. In large measure, the generous Japanese treatment of their prisoners derived from the captives limited number and from the fact that in modernizing of their military in the Meiji period the Japanese had attended to Prussian successes, constitutional and military.  They respected my grandfather’s cohort as soldiers.  Several pictures, such as this large bell outside a Shinto shrine, suggest his admiration for Japan and its culture. Once in America, to which he escaped from the hyper-inflation in 1926, bringing with him his wife and my oldest uncle and my father, the rise of Hitler would present him with a devastating sense that Germany’s ultimate defeat was self-inflicted.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor deepened his grief, for standards of order and decency which he had endeavored to make his own would be lost in such bigotry and violence.  From the post-World War II perspective—after the Bataan Death March, after Auschwitz—my grandfather’s love of honor and organization, his trust in authority, seem remarkably antiquated, naïve.  And yet.

24. In this photograph, he crouches in the middle of the second row.  It could be a very ordinary picture of a company of soldiers in smart uniforms, all looking fit and healthy, assembled for an official photograph, were it not that the men in this photograph are all prisoners of war, inmates of the Narashino camp, who apparently had their dress uniforms in their kit when they left Tsingtau. They have assembled outside the boundaries of the prison to have their picture taken in front of a splendid Shinto temple.  Yet, the historical momentum that culminated in the fall of Tsingtau was the same as that which took Rupert Brooke almost to Gallipoli, or led Remarque’s Paul Baumer to the moment when, the last of his platoon, he stretched his hand toward a butterfly, or Wilfred Owen to the Sambre-Oise Canal where he died exactly a week before the Armistice.  In our Eurocentric reading of the catastrophe, we ignore that elsewhere the catastrophe may read differently.  In my family, it comes down to the simple fact that my grandfather had the great good fortune to be taken prisoner by the Japanese halfway around the world at the moment of the First Battle of Yprès in which eight thousand Germans would die, ten thousand would go missing, and nearly thirty thousand would be wounded.

25. With the author, Centerline, Michigan, in 1950.  My Opa’s mother had died when he was a child; his father was remote and his step-mother a martinet.  He was sent from the family’s rough rural cottage in Pomerania to an apprenticeship with a carpenter at an early age.  I remember him smelling of snuff, a quiet and melancholy man, an old soldier who was extraordinarily tender to his grandchildren. 


Burdick, Charles B.  The Japanese Siege of Tsingtao.  Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1976.

Fenby, Jonathan.  The Siege of Tsingtao.  Penguin: Beijing, 2014.

Forsyth, Robert Coventry, ed.  Shantung: the Sacred Province of China.  Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1912.  See especially, Chapter V, “Notes on the Province of Shantung,” by Baron Richtofen, originally published in 1871; Chapter, VI, “The Treaty Ports of Shantung”; and Chapter VII, “Germany in Shantung;” 72-137.

Jones, Jefferson.  The Fall of Tsingtau, with a Study of Japan’s Ambitions in China.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.

 Pluschow, Gunther.  My Escape from Donington Hall: Preceded by an Account of the Siege of Kiao-Chow in 1915.  Trans. Pauline de Chary.  London: John Lane, 1922.   (Originally published in Germany as Die Abenteuer des Fliegers von Tsingtau in 1916.) 

 Steinmetz, George.  The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.  Chicago: U Chicago P, 2007.

 Wheeler, W. Reginald.  China and the World War.  New York: MacMillan, 1919.  Especially Chapter I, “The Attack upon the Chinese Republic from Without, During the First Year of the War: Japan’s Capture of Tsingtao and the Twenty-One Demands,” 1-24.

 Whittaker, Robert E.  Dragon Master: The Kaiser’s One-Man Air Force in Tsingtau, China, 1914. Cleveland, WI: Compass, 1994.

Author's Bio

​​faculty facknitzMark Facknitz is Roop Distinguished Professor of English at James Madison University. The 1989 winner of the Virginia Prize for fiction, his creative work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Story Quarterly, The Iowa Review, and other journals. His essays on Raymond Carver, Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Joseph Conrad, Michel Tournier, and others have appeared in Studies in Short Fiction, CEA Critic, The Journal of Modern Literature,Twentieth-Century Literature, The Journal of Narrative Technique, and other publications. In recent years he has divided his research interests between the Great War and Willa Cather. His essay "Kitsch, Commemoration, and Mourning in the Aftermath of the Great War" appears as Chapter 16 of Jonathan Vance's The Great War: From Memory to History (Wilfred Laurier UP, 2016). He has published on Ivor Gurney's shellshock in The Journal of the Ivor Gurney Society, on war cemeteries and the margins of memory in Bridges, on Luytens and Thiepval as paradigms of commemoration in Crossings, and on pre-1914 gardens as trope for the soldier's remembered self in a/b Autobiography Studies. His not purely academic interest in the Great War depends on a German grandfather, prisoner of war in Japan 1914-1919; an American grandfather, an engineer in the AEF; and a great uncle who died for Canada. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.