Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
J. Martin Briggs
CDR Hugo William Koehler (1886?-1941), a career officer in the U.S. Navy, was also a prolific writer of letters and despatches. This edited collection of his writings spans the years from 1902 to 1925.
The prologue to the collection describes Koehler’s early life – including speculation that Koehler might have been and illegitimate son of Archduke Rudolph of Austria – as well as Koehler’s education at Harvard and his training at Annapolis.
Koehler’s early naval service included a billet with the Yangtze Patrol in 1911. In 1917 he commanded a sub-chaser squadron in Ireland, where the attended Sinn Fein meetings in disguise. As an aide to Admiral Robison after the war, Koehler continued to insist on the importance of naval intelligence gathered through social intercourse with elites. “I’ve had experience in this and I’ve found that all the information about armaments, treaties, and fortifications, is not obtained in dark corners and underground caves as one reads in novels, but simply and quietly in after dinner conversation or a chat over a cup of tea…”
On inspection tours of post-war Germany, Koehler observed the demoralization of the German Navy. He also served as a translator at the Paris Peace Conference.
Most of Koehler’s surviving letters date from the eleven months he spent as aide to Rear Admiral N.A. McCully in South Russia in 1920. Koehler met many of the leading White Generals, including P.N. Wrangel, A.P. Kutepov, A. I. Denikin, Y. A. Slashchev, and A. G. Shkuro. He was interrogated by the Red Army General I. P. Uborevich. His critical observations were informed by a clearly developed political philosophy and conceptions of historical processes, as these examples indicate. “[General Denikin and his entourage] all had one fundamental in common. Not one of them realized there had been a revolution in Russia – a revolution which had affected the thought of the people no less than it had affected things political.” “In [Denikin] had thrown dice for every decision he would have improved just 50%.” “A [Land] Law expressed in simple terms, without qualifications, giving the peasant unqualified possession of all the land he could work, would have spelt the end of Bolshevism.” “In answer to my question what good the Reds had accomplished, [one woman] said they made theatres free and had open air movies almost every night in summer.”
After leaving Russia, Koehler spent a year-and-a-half as naval attache inn Poland, and also travelled in the Baltic states. His observations underscored the fragility of the new political arrangements.
A final chapter briefly recounts the life Koehler led from 1923 to his death in 1941, during which time he married Matilda Bigelow Pell, ex-wife to the diplomat Herbert C. Pell, and settled near Newport, Rhode Island.
Capelotti, P. J., "An American Navy Spy Hugo William Koehler Letters and Despatches, 1902-1925" (1989). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 2057.