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Heligoland [in ancient spelling Helgoland, or Hertha Isle] is a small island at the mouth of the Elbe in the North Sea, about fifteen miles distant from the mainland. It is triangular in outline, slightly over a mile in length, but much less than a square mile in area. It is treeless and almost destitute of shrubbery.

Heligoland consists of a Rock Island, a mile long, and of a Sand Island, which can accommodate in summer some two thousand holiday-makers from the Continent. Till the year 1720 this sandy dune was connected with the main rock, but the fierce gales of that stormy winter broke down the link, or what the Heligolanders called de waal, and about a mile of comparatively deep water now rolls between. An improbable tradition existed that Heligoland and Schleswig-Holstein were in former times joined together, and that many hundred years ago people walked from Holstein to Heligoland, across the sands, in a day.

Heligoland [ie, Holy Land] formerly belonged to Schleswig-Holstein, but was taken by the British in 1807, the year memorable for the bombardment and occupation of Copenhagen by an English force under Lord Cathcart, and for the capture of the whole Danish fleet. During the Blockade of 1812 it was a great resort of smugglers. Its possession was formally secured to Great Britain by the treaty of Kiel in 1814. The islanders were for a long time allowed to retain their old Frisian constitution. But in 1864 a new constitution was substituted for it; and finally, in 1868, the latter was abolished, and the legislative and executive authority was placed entirely in the hands of the governor, acting under instructions from the Colonial Office.

It was no doubt occupied in the first instance on account of its possible importance as a strategical and commercial position. But it had no fortifications, and no garrison beyond a few members of the coastguard, and relied for protection upon the fleet of its adopted mother country, the United Kingdom.

From a map claiming to have been found on the island, it would seem that Heligoland was at one time very much larger than it is at present. The area now, including Sandy Island, does not exceed three quarters of a square mile. The main island is a precipitous sandstone rock of triangular shape, with the apex towards the North-West and the open ocean, the base towards the South-East and Germany. On three sides the island, which consists of hard red clay and marl, and is about 1/5 square mile only in area, rises nearly perpendicularly from the sea to a height of 200 ft., forming a long and narrow triangle called the Oberland. On the S.E. side only a low, flat bank of sand rises from the water, called the Unterland. The island contained 2000 inhabitants of Frisian extraction, whose dialect, habits, and costume were in many respects peculiar. The bathing-season and the lobster-fishery were their chief sources of gain. The German language is used in the schools and church.

The ocean gives it a temperate climate ; and its healthiness is attested by the longevity of the people, whose average length of life is over 60, and by the extremely low rate of infant mortality. But, exposed as the rock is to all the winds and storms of the North Sea, it is hardly a tempting place for a winter residence, while for the same reason trees will grow only where they are protected from the wind. Almost the whole of the surface of the island, however, above the cliff is cultivated, mainly for potatoes.

The visitor in the 1880s disembarks on the UNTERLAND, on which are situated a bath-house, a basin used by bathers when prevented by stormy weather from crossing to the 'Dne', the Conversationshaus, the chemist's shop, the theatre, and most of the restaurants. The principal streets , recently provided with English names, which however have not been adopted by the population , were the Diinen- Strasse , or Oesundheits-Allee, on the N.B. side of the group of houses, and the Bindfaden- Allee, which runs parallel to the cliffs from N.B. to S.W. At the end of the latter is the 'Rothe Meer', a bathing-place so called from the colour with which the red clay tinges the waves. From the Unterland an easy flight of 190 wooden steps ascends the rock to the OBERLAND, a plateau planted chiefly with potatoes, and intersected by the Kartoffel-Allee. The pastures support goats and about 300 sheep only. The principal street in the village, called the Falm, skirting the S.E. margin of the cliff, commands a fine view of the Unterland, the downs , and the sea. The best views of the cliffs are obtained at the Sathurn (South Horn) and Nathurn (North Horn), which last is a favourite point towards sunset. The Lighthouse merits a visit.

By the 1890s the name Heligoland suggested to most people such ideas of distance and difficulty of access that it may be surprising to know that even in winter it is only some thirty-six hours' journey from London via Flushing, though it was true so rapid a flight can only safely be ventured on when one has made a careful study of time-tables, for the winter communication between the island and Hamburg is limited to twice a-week, and an unwary traveller might find himself stranded for three days or more at Cuxhaven. Familiar as one may be with Heligoland in summer, with its glittering sea, its gay cafes, its operatic fishermen, its medley of princes and Kaujleute, of grand- duchesses and humble tourists, he can form no idea of what it is like in winter. In summer the Heligolander tries, and naturally tries to make as much money as he can, though no one could say that his prices are fancy prices ; but in winter there are no strangers, and no occasion for much exertion until the fishing season begins towards the end of March. So life is spent in enjoyment of the simplest kind.

Heligoland was the smallest of all the British dependencies. It derived its revenue to a great extent from foreign visitors. It is interesting as being the point at which Great Britain and Germany came most nearly into contact with each other, and as being the only part of the world in which the British government ruled an exclusively Teuton though not English-speaking population.

Many negotiations and propositions for its exchange were made by a long line of German chancellors. Heligoland formed one of those Frisian islands of the North Sea which formed the cradle of the race. Most of these islands were secured by Prussia in her annexation of Schleswig- Holstein, and if it suffer the same fate, Heligoland would but go the way of the Frisian world.

The transaction between the British and German Governments, through which the latter obtained Heligoland was by no means always as popular with the Germans as it later became. In 1890 von Caprivi, four months after he had succeeded Bismarck, concluded with Lord Salisbury what had since been considered one of the most comprehensive of all African agreements, viz., the treaty defining the spheres of influence in East and West Africa between Great Britain and Germany. It included, in return for Germany's recognition of a British Protectorate over Zanzibar, the cession of Heligoland to Germany. Bismarck, together with the rapidly-growing Colonial party, severely criticised both the terms and the principle of this treaty, maintaining that it destroyed all possibility of a greater East African German Empire. They refused to accept von Caprivi's contention that "the days of flag hoisting " were over. Heligoland appeared but a small compensation for what they abandoned in East frica. But times and sentiments have changed very much since those early days.

Heligoland became the very apple of their eye. Heligoland formed, with Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, the nucleus of the German coast-defence system. It is situated about forty miles from the mainland and equidistant from the Weser and Elbe mouths. Immediately after taking possession of the island, the Germans proceeded to make it the Gibraltar of the North Sea. Its armaments, defences, positions, etc., were secrets which were most jealously guarded.

While the importance of Heligoland as a protective harbor of refuge for German warships was, of course, slight as compared to the safety of the Kiel Canal, its value as a coaling station and a submarine and torpedo-boat base was incalculable. Heligoland, as the apex of the "wet triangle," was said to be the most formidable naval fortress in existence, not excepting Gibraltar. It bristled with guns of the most powerful type, so well protected as to be practically safe from any bombardment. The ravages of the sea, which caused such havoc in the days of the British occupation, had been entirely checked by the German engineers, who had, indeed, turned the tables on the devouring element and wrested a considerable tract of land from its maw. This successful reclamation work had trebled the original expanse of foreshore, and provided space for the laying out of a small dockyard, with berths for twelve vessels of moderate dimensions, and the usual workshops, storehouse, and magazines.

Since 1910, over four or five years over 30,000,000 marks ($7,500,000) had been expended on the construction of large moles, harbors, sea-walls, etc., in order to protect the island from the ravages of the storms, and, at the same time, offer some shelter to ships. On the southeastern side two moles had been built, one of nearly 2,000 feet, and another of 1,300 feet in length, curving inwards at the extremities and enclosing a spacious and absolutely protected harbor. Thus, while the dockyard itself is intended mainly for torpedo craft and submarines, other vessels of all except the maximum dimensions are able to use the artificial harbor, the narrow entrance to which can easily be made secure against torpedo attack. In this way something over seventy acres of land had been reclaimed. The new harbor surface extended to over eighty acres, and was divided into the North and the South Harbors. The former was the smaller. The latter had a large number of short piers for submarines and torpedo-boats. Their depth was about twenty-three feet.

The first naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought nearby in the first month of the war.

The Germans installed fortifications were razed after World War I according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, Germany refortified Helgoland in 1936 and used it as a naval base in World War II. In 1947, British occupation authorities, after evacuating the islanders (mostly fishermen), blew up the fortifications and part of the island in one of the largest known nonatomic blasts. The island was largely rebuilt after British occupation forces returned it to West Germany in 1952. It is now a popular tourist resort and a center for scientific research, particularly ornithology.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:43 ZULU