WWI Centennial: “The Black Day of the German Army”

David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 315th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

AUGUST 8, 1918: “THE BLACK DAY OF THE GERMAN ARMY”

The failure of the final German offensive on the Western Front in July 1918 was the decisive turning point of the First World War. Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch had unleashed his first major counterattack with French and American troops at the Second Battle of the Marne, forcing outnumbered German armies to withdraw from the Marne salient thanks in part to American heroics at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. This retreat effectively marked the end of German offensive capability on the Western Front, but the Germans remained dug in across northern France and Belgium, meaning the war was far from over. To achieve victory, the Allies would have to mount a series of massive offensives of their own—the greatest campaign in military history to that point.

On August 8, 1918, the British Expeditionary Force took the first swing with an all-out attack against enemy forces around the historic Somme battlefield. They needed to free the strategic Paris-Amiens railroad; alleviate the threat to the channel ports including Boulogne and Calais, which served as key British supply bases; and liberate coal mines critical to French industry, per the plan agreed by Foch and BEF commander Douglas Haig on July 24, as the final German offensive petered out.

Maps of World War I positions in August 1918
Erik Sass

The Battle of Amiens from August 8-12, 1918, was a decisive Allied victory, crushing the German Second Army under the mighty hammer blows of the British Fourth, Third, and First Armies. They were supported by overwhelming artillery firepower, close air support for observation and ground attacks, with over 1,400 Allied planes facing less than half that number of German machines; and hundreds of tanks advancing ahead of the infantry to smash enemy strongpoints (top, British troops preparing to fire). The defeat was so devastating that German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff rued August 8, 1918 as “the black day of the German army.” It marked the first day of the fateful “Hundred Days’ Offensive” by the Allies, which culminated in the final collapse of the German Empire.

The Allied plan emphasized surprise, beginning with the stealthy concentration of attack troops along a 20-mile stretch of front around Amiens, requiring hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of artillery pieces and tanks to move only at night to conceal their locations from enemy spies and aerial observation. Edward Lynch, an Australian private, recalled a miserable march to the front on the night of August 7, 1918:

“Two nights later, we did another rotten night march. It took us six hours to march 12 miles as the roads were so congested with traffic. Motor traffic had the center of the road whilst the slow-moving horses and mules kept to the outside edge of it. We were anywhere we could get, walking, running, dodging, and shoving our swearing way in and out between motor wheels and horses’ legs, abusing and being abused; swallowing dust, motor fumes, and the smell of dirty mules.”

Inclement weather only added to their woes. Another Australian soldier, W.H. Downing, left a vivid impression of conditions as his unit moved up to its staging position under enemy fire:

“Every night the cobblestones of all the roads of all the countryside resounded with the clatter and the roll of many parallel streams of transport. The highways were crowded with tanks, with field guns, with motor lorries carrying war material of every kind, with 9.2 howitzers, with gargantuan siege guns whose mammoth barrels were borne on tractors, while their bodies rolled behind them on their giant iron wheels—all going the same way, making the hillsides vibrate with their thunder. Among these packed columns, strings of horsemen and laden infantry wound their way. It began to rain. The boom and flickering of guns were nearer and nearer. At length there were shell bursts on the road, a derelict tank, a dead mule or two. We had marched 20 miles. That night we lay in the rain, on the side of the railway embankment, under heavy shellfire.”

Modeled on the short-lived victory at Cambrai in November 1917 and the success of the French Tenth Army counterattack in late July, the Allies launched the attack without a preliminary artillery bombardment, relying instead on hundreds of tanks advancing under cover of darkness to catch German defenders unaware. The only artillery preparation was the standard creeping barrage, unleashed at the last minute to provide a protective moving wall of fire in front of infantry and tanks. Downing recalled the sudden unleashing of the barrage in the early morning hours of August 8, 1918:

“As though a flaming dawn had been flung into the sky, the whole world flared behind us. There was a titanic pandemonium of ten thousand guns. We shouted to each other, but we could not hear our own voices, buried beneath colossal ranges of sound. The lighter, more metallic notes of thousands of field guns were blended in one long-drawn chord. The hoarse and frantic rumble of the 60-pounders, the long naval guns, the great howitzers, was like the rapid burring of a thousand drums.”

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, described the scene in the early morning of August 8, 1918:

“The darkness of the night became a glare of lightning-like red, yellow, and white flashes. The Earth shook as from an earthquake. Breathing suddenly became difficult as our nerves grew number from the terrific concussion caused by the crashing, roaring, blasting, air-splitting din about us. Thousands of guns were firing from wherever room for one could be found, on a front 20 miles long. Thousands of tons of high explosive and gas were being thrown into the German trenches, gun positions, and routes over which his reserves must march. How any of the troops in that part of the German line ever escaped that terrible bombardment is a miracle.”

Next came the tanks, described by Downing:

“White smoke curled over us and hid the flaming skies. There was a thrumming as of gigantic bumble bees, and a low chug-chug-chug, as the ugly noses of tanks poked through the mist above us. We hastily scattered from the path of one and found ourselves almost beneath others. They went forward in a line, scarcely thirty yards between them. They were in scores, and their vibrations sounded through the fog from every side, like another layer of sound on the bellow of the guns … Whenever we found ourselves in trouble, we signaled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! As their little toy guns spoke and their little, pointed shells flew, another German post was blown to pieces. A brick wall tottered and crumbled amid a cloud of red dust. They passed the place. The machine gun and its crew were crushed and still.”

On the other side, one anonymous German soldier in the 58th artillery regiment recalled British infantry supported by seemingly endless numbers of tanks on the morning of August 8, 1918:

“Ahead of us, the khaki lines of British infantry were emerging from the ravine. ‘Look out, buddies, or else we are lost!’ somebody shouted. We began firing time shells. The enemy wave slowed down, swayed, and dispersed … Suddenly Sergeant Niermann, commander of one of our two remaining guns, shouted, ‘A tank, straight ahead.’ A light tank was roaring toward us with great speed, plunging into craters and climbing over trenches, while his machine guns kept firing at our battery. Bullets were whizzing all around us. Our men feverishly set the sights and fired one, two shells in rapid succession. Before us, there was a shattering roar followed by a dark cloud the size of a house: the tank had been destroyed. But this was only the beginning. Two large tanks emerged from the ruins of Lamotte, flames flashing from their steel turrets. Their projectiles were exploding around our battery. Our pointers aimed at them hurriedly, fired a few shells, and disposed of the two tanks as rapidly as they had wiped out the first. But three new tanks were approaching in single file through the high grass on our right, and had arrived within several hundred yards. We could clearly see their occupants’ flat helmets above the turrets. Their guns opened fired on us, and again four men of our battery were badly wounded … The order, ‘Fire at will!’ was followed by a desperate cannonade … The tank’s destruction was our last-minute salvation. Now it was high time to fall back. The British assault troops behind the tanks were surging forward in small groups in all directions.”

On the right the French First Army, which lacked enough tanks to participate in the surprise attack, waited 45 minutes after the British infantry and tanks went over the top before unleashing another attack preceded by the traditional artillery barrage. All along the front, the surprise attack caught thousands of German troops in frontline trenches, resulting in terrible bloodshed followed by panicked withdrawals. Lynch, the Australian private, remembered gory scenes as the Allies advanced:

“We cross the old front line and are in what was old no-man’s-land a few hours ago. We pass through the gaps in our wire and reach the enemy wire which has been smashed and tossed about by our barrage. Dozens of dead everywhere and not a whole man amongst them. Limbless and headless they lie coated in chalk, torn and slashed.”

German POWs in World War I
John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lynch and his comrades encountered huge numbers of surrendering Germans, reflective of the cratering enemy morale, as ordinary troops—already hungry and suffering from the flu—simply gave up in the face of the Allies’ overwhelming manpower and material superiority (above, German POWs). As Lynch wrote, some enemy officers couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering and committed suicide—or perhaps they simply refused to allow their troops to surrender, and were lynched for their trouble:

“Now a big crowd of Fritz are running back to us. There must be a hundred of them captured by our advancing companies … Into a little thick green wood and we’re in an enemy camp. Transport carts and wagons are here in dozens. Dead Fritz everywhere and about 30 wounded are lying under a big shady tree. Fritz with little red crosses on their arms are bandaging the wounded … ‘Come here, sir!’ a man calls, and I follow an officer up to a little sentry box and we look in. A Fritz officer is in it, dead; hanged by a white cord around his neck. The sight is horrible, especially the bulging eyes and the swollen, protruding tongue.”

William Orpen, a British war correspondent, described the huge numbers of dejected German POWs:

“Any day on the roads then one passed thousands of field-grey prisoners--long lines of weary, beaten men. They had none of the arrogance of the early prisoners, who were all sure Germany would win, and showed their thoughts clearly. No, these men were beaten and knew it, and they had not the spirit left even to try and hide their feelings.”

Fritz Nagel, an officer in the German anti-aircraft artillery, remembered August 8, 1918 as the final nail in the coffin of German martial spirit:

“The German armies were in very bad shape. Every soldier and civilian was hungry. Losses in material could not be replaced and the soldiers arriving as replacements were too young, poorly trained, and often unwilling to risk their necks because the war now looked like a lost cause. Since the Allied breakthrough on August 8 in the Albert-Moreuil sector, the enemy’s superiority in men and guns became visible to even the simplest soldier, and morale was breaking down gradually.”

Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, noted in early August 1918, “It also appears from the same source that the enemy have unheard-of numbers of tanks, including new models. It is gradually turning into a complete war of machines.” And in his famous novel and war memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque remembered the mounting deprivation and despair of the war’s final phases:

“Our lines are falling back. There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there. There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. Too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes. But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels.”

Ominously, many ordinary German soldiers no longer bothered to conceal their feelings from military censors, a sure sign that morale was close to the breaking point. In August 1918 a report from German military censorship noted uneasily, “It is by the way remarkable that letter writers, after having recently vented their anger in most drastic form, often add, ‘I know they are checking my correspondence, but just let them read this, this way they will at least learn the truth.’”

At the same time the Germans were both impressed and discouraged by the appearance and spirit of well-supplied American soldiers, although they were also puzzled by some new American habits, according to Nagel:

“A few days before, I had seen about 20 American soldiers who had been taken prisoner and were marching by to be shipped to some prison camp. They looked healthy, well-fed, and above everything else, their marvelous clothing and uniform accessories impressed us. Everything they had seemed to be of the best—fine heavy boots and thick leather for their gun holsters, belts, and gloves. All of them were chewing furiously, which confounded the bystanders until I explained to them the importance of chewing gum to the American way of life. Most Germans never had heard of chewing gum.”

It should be noted that not everyone was impressed with the Americans’ martial bearing, at least among their own Allies. On encountering American troops for the first time during this period, Stanley Spencer, a British soldier, recognized their fitness but was otherwise skeptical:

“On the second day of our stay, one of the new American battalions marched through the village and I never saw a more disreputable looking party in my life. They were a fine lot physically but their uniforms were an amazing mixture of American, French, and British, and they shambled along the street out of step and out of line, with hardly a trace of discipline amongst them.”

With the German armies beating a swift but relatively orderly retreat in the west, the fighting ground on mercilessly, as the Allies maintained a close pursuit, inflicting heavy casualties and paying heavily in blood for these gains—the climactic resumption of the open warfare of the first days of the war, with its terrible harvest of death and suffering. Lynch, the Australian private, wrote of continuing combat August 17 (below, an Australian battalion resting):

“The darkness is stabbed on every hand by vivid lightning-like flashes that leap from the ground with mighty, shuddering roars. Under foot we feel the ground rumble and vibrate. Over our ducking heads, shell fragments whizz and hum through the air as along the trench we hurry, fearful lest a shell gets amongst us at any step. Fingers of death are clutching through the night … We are stumbling along a deep grassy trench when my foot treads on something soft and springy in the trench floor. I stumble as if walking on a half-inflated football, peer down and see I have trodden on a man’s stomach. A torch flashes and its fleeting beam shows a headless and legless Australian body lying amongst the lank grass underfoot. A few steps more and an officer gives a breathless sigh as he sidesteps something else in the grass, something round, something gruesome even to a war-hardened officer—the mangled head of the man whose body lies a few yards back.”

Australian 6th Battalion in World War I
Australian War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A few days later Lynch described ghastly sights that had become all too familiar for young men over the previous few years:

“On every side are up-turned faces, greeny-black in putrefaction and great, swollen, distorted bodies. Sightless, dull, dust-filled eyes. If they would only close! But no, they remain open—and move! Open, gaping mouths are surely moving too! We’re sick in every fiber as we hurry on past open eyes and open mouths. Past eaten-out eye-sockets and mouths that are a seething mass of feasting grubs. We’re in the land of rotting men in the year of Our Lord, 1918.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

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