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