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World War 1 History: Captain von Trapp Before the Sound of Music

Updated on January 4, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Captain von Trapp and First Wife

Georg Johannes von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe Whitehead circa 1910.
Georg Johannes von Trapp and his first wife, Agathe Whitehead circa 1910. | Source

Von Trapp Joins the Submarine Service

Many people know of Captain von Trapp because of his portrayal by Christopher Plummer in the 1965 musical drama “The Sound of Music” about the world famous von Trapp Family Singers. Their story, dramatized and sanitized as it was, would not have happened if Captain von Trapp had not been an Austrian naval hero during World War I. Austria was not always the small, landlocked nation it is today; up until the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire stretched across southeastern Europe and along the Mediterranean Sea.

Georg Johannes von Trapp (1880 – 1947) was born in the coastal city of Zara in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, nowadays the city of Zadar, Croatia. He followed his father's footsteps, joining the Austrian Navy in 1894. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion in China, von Trapp was decorated for his performance aboard the armored cruiser SMS Empress and Queen Maria Theresa. He soon became enamored with submarines and secured a transfer to Austria's newly-formed submarine service, the U-Boot-Waffe.

Von Trapp on the U-5

World War One: On the U-5 bridge, Captain von Trapp. 1915.
World War One: On the U-5 bridge, Captain von Trapp. 1915. | Source

Captain of U-5

After World War I broke out, he was given command of the U-Boat U-5, a small, 100-foot-long submarine displacing 240 tons, on April 17, 1915. U-5's ventilation system left a lot to be desired and sometimes filled the sub with poisonous fumes. Nevertheless, during his command of U-5, von Trapp conducted nine combat patrols in the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. On April 27, less than two weeks after assuming command, U-5 sank the French cruiser Leon Gambetta just off the heel of Italy's boot. The 12,000 ton Gambetta sank in ten minutes and 684 of its crew, out of 821, were lost. Von Trapp struggled with the realities of modern warfare:

So that's what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession.

— Captain Georg von Trapp

Later, in August, U-5 sank the Italian submarine Nereide, Italy having entered the war in May 1915 on the Allied side after being promised a greater share of the spoils of war than the Central Powers were willing to offer.

Austrian Naval Theater

Postcard of U-14

World War One: SM U-14 (Austria-Hungary) as depicted on a World War I postcard. This particular postcard was from U-14's commander, Georg  von Trapp, to his son and was postmarked on 23 February 1917
World War One: SM U-14 (Austria-Hungary) as depicted on a World War I postcard. This particular postcard was from U-14's commander, Georg von Trapp, to his son and was postmarked on 23 February 1917 | Source

Captain of U-14

Captain Georg von Trapp was later given command of another submarine on October 14, 1915. The U-14 had started out as the French submarine Curie, but had been sunk while trying to infiltrate an Austro-Hungarian Naval base. It had been recovered and repaired by the Austrians and re-designated U-14. Von Trapp's new sub was 170 feet long and displaced 400 tons. Although U-14 was damaged by a depth charge attack in February 1916, Von Trapp managed to get the sub back to base for repairs and modernization.

Captain von Trapp commanded U-14 from October 1915 until May 1918, when he was given command of an Austrian submarine base. During that period, U-14 sank eleven cargo ships, including the Italian steamer Milazzo, which, displacing 20,000 tons, was one of the largest cargo ships in the world.

All told, Captain von Trapp made 19 war patrols, sank 11 cargo vessels totaling 46,000 tons, captured one cargo vessel and sank two warships. For these acts, he was awarded several honors, among them the Military Order of Maria Theresa, the highest award given in the Austrian Navy. Von Trapp was the most decorated officer in the Austrian Navy and was made a knight, earning the title “Ritter” and became Georg Johannes, Ritter von Trapp, though he was often referred to as Baron von Trapp.


Maria von Trapp

This is a photo of Maria von Trapp, Georg's second wife (who Julie Andrews portrayed in The Sound Of Music) from her US naturalization application.
This is a photo of Maria von Trapp, Georg's second wife (who Julie Andrews portrayed in The Sound Of Music) from her US naturalization application. | Source

After the War

After the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up and Austria became a land-locked nation with no need for a navy. In 1922, his beloved wife Agathe died of scarlet fever. Having lost the two loves of his life, the navy and his wife, Georg von Trapp bought an estate in Salzburg, Austria and moved there with his seven children. In 1926, he hired Maria Kutschera from a nearby abbey as a tutor for his ailing daughter, also named Maria. In 1927, Georg asked Maria to marry him. Maria had come to love all the children, but wasn't sure she loved Georg, but they married and Maria came to love him as much as he loved her.

During the Depression of the thirties, von Trapp's bank failed and he lost most of his family's money. Georg was very depressed because he had no gainful employment. Maria took charge and arranged for the family to sing at various events to earn a livelihood. And the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history. In the main, true, if embellished, dramatized and sanitized to make a ripping yarn more ripping. Georg despised the Nazis who pressed him to join the German Navy, but, unlike the movie, they did not flee to Switzerland across mountaintops to escape them. Instead, they simply boarded a train and left Austria for Italy. Since Italy had absorbed his hometown Zara into its own territory (one of the spoils of war), the entire family was then considered Italian. From there they went on a world-wide singing tour, including Scandinavia and the United States. In 1939, they traveled from Norway to the US and stayed there, buying a farm in Stowe, Vermont.

Captain Georg von Trapp died in 1947 of lung cancer, attributed to breathing the poisonous air during his first command aboard the U-5.

Christopher and Julie

Christopher Plummer (Captain von Trapp) and Julie Andrews (Maria) during filming of "The Sound of Music" in 1964
Christopher Plummer (Captain von Trapp) and Julie Andrews (Maria) during filming of "The Sound of Music" in 1964 | Source

The Sound of Music

His wife, Maria, published The Story of the Trapp Family Singers in 1949 and, eventually Hollywood got hold of the story resulting in The Sound of Music in 1965, winner of five Oscars starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Despite all the liberties taken with the facts, the family's main complaint is how Georg von Trapp was portrayed as cold and militaristic with his family. According to one of his granddaughters: “"He did not dress them in uniforms and he did not have them march in formation. He was a beloved father to them."

Daughter Maria Franziska von Trapp

Image of Maria Franziska von Trapp on her Petition for Naturalization, 1948
Image of Maria Franziska von Trapp on her Petition for Naturalization, 1948 | Source

2014 – The Last of the Trapp Family Singers Dies

Maria Franziska von Trapp, Georg's second-oldest daughter (not to be confused with her step-mother Maria Augusta von Trapp), passed away at her home in Vermont at the age of 99 on February 18, 2014. Born in 1914, she was the last of Georg's children to die.

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • Prakash Dighe profile image

      Prakash Dighe 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas, USA

      Absolutely fascinating and enjoyable! I still enjoy watching "Sound of Music" for the music and the story line, and even though I knew this family did exist, I had little idea about the actual Baron and Maria. Thanks for sharing so much information - voted up!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      "The Sound of Music" is one of my favorite movies. This is so interesting as I didn't know about von Trapp other than he was a Navy hero in WWI and then the movie. It is interesting to get the story before the story. Thanks so much for enlightening us.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Prakash. I agree. I don't think the "facts" in any way diminish the "Sound of Music". I was never a fan of musicals, but I enjoyed that one-- and still do. Thanks for commenting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, suzette. I was looking for inspiration and saw something about the Trapp family and wondered whether Herr Trapp was an actual hero-- and indeed he was.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Fascinating account. I'd seen the Sound of Music, but didn't know the story behind it. That said, I feel obligated to let you know that there's a filked version of the theme song, by a hiking friend from my old college days, Paula McMasters. It starts out:

      "The hills are alive,

      Arghhh..."

      Voted up and more.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Yuk yuk yuk. Isn't there a series of horror movies about hills? Apropos for those as well. Thanks for reading and commenting, Larry.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      Very interesting bio and photos of the life of Von Trapp and how the story came to be written - rather different from the musical, but that's not any great surprise really. Voted up.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Greensleeves. I do remember, even as a young teenager when I saw the movie thinking "an Austrian naval hero? Huh?". Of course I was only thinking of Austria 2.0, the landlocked version.

    • profile image

      qwerty 4 years ago

      very good very good

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, qwerty. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

      Edelweiss... Edelweiss... whoa the flip side of The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer could have starred in a totally different film playing the same role. :)

      Another fascinating war hub David, cheers.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Steve. Thanks for the comment. Yes-- now that I know von Trapp's story, I'm kind of surprised a movie wasn't made about his WW1 exploits. I did enjoy Plummer's role in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (Holywood version). Hey, have you ever considered doing a hub on the three Swedish films of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played fith Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest")?

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

      I haven't till you mentioned it David, there are so many favourites I want to produce hubs on, mostly classics but who knows if the mood takes me. :) Have you seen the remake by David Fincher?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Yes and I really enjoyed it-- though I actually preferred the Swedish version.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Somehow I missed this article when you wrote it, which annoys me because The Sound of Music is my favorite musical, and musicals are my favorite music. I did read Maria's book once, and also liked it, and got the impression from it that as much as Captain von Trapp is in the end a hero in the musical, he was much more of a hero in the real Maria's eyes.

      There are Trapp family grandchildren, or is it great-grandchildren now, who do concerts occasionally; they were here in Denver a couple years ago.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi aethelthryth, I think some of the "children" are still alive, though they may be the children begotten of Maria and the Captain. Thanks for commenting.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 2 years ago from USA

      An enjoyable yet informative article. Knowing this background gives light to the rest of the story and makes sense. Learning about his service record and honors adds excitement to the plot in how they escaped. I would have never guessed it was to Italy. It's sad to hear that the last remaining child has now left earth as well.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for reading and commenting, favored. I wished the movie had touched more on his exploits, but I suppose a musical drama can't carry too much baggage. I remember wondering what a submariner would be doing in a land-locked country, but that was before I knew Austria had been drastically reduced to that status after World War 1.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 2 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      I really enjoyed reading your hub. Thanks for the interesting history lesson.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 2 years ago from USA

      This was so interesting I came back to show my husband.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      mbgphoto, so glad you found it interesting. History doesn't have to be dry with dates and numbers. The trick is to slip them into the narrative without overwhelming the reader.

      favored, repeat reading and sharing is a great compliment. Thank you.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 2 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      This is interesting as the true story has so much more to it than the fictional account turned out by Hollywood. I really liked your presentation and great research!

    • Ilonagarden profile image

      Ilona E 2 years ago from Ohio

      I love hearing the actual backstory to "true" movies. The details about U-boats was a very interesting sidenote.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Dressage Husband, thanks for commenting. I enjoy the research as much as crafting an article out of all the bits of information I find. Just as important are finding public domain images-- all part of the research.

      Ilonagarden, thank you. I look forward to reading more of your articles as well.

    • Yvette Munro profile image

      Yvette Munro 2 years ago

      What an interesting hub. One doesn't always realize what's the real story is behind the movie.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Yvette. I think the backstory is as fascinating as the movie, but it's also very different. Maybe a "prequel" could be made... but a drama and not a musical.

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