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Sylt Island

During the Great War the northernmost bastion of Germany's line of North Sea defense was Sylt. Until 1912 no permanent defenses existed here. So far as is known, the defenses were almost entirely mobile, consisting of heavy and light field ordnance. In addition to these bases and fortified places, there are several other minor point along the North Sea coast which, although unfortified in peace time, had been put into a state of defense From the Ems to the Danish frontier there was not a miles of accessible seashore without its formidable defenses, which would have to be reduced before any landing could be attempted.

Sylt is the farthest northern island of Germany in the North Sea. Today it is a high-society area and many rich cititizens of Hamburg spend their weekends there, because it is just two hours in car away. During WW2 the entire island of Sylt was a military area with no less than 4 or 5 airfields on it.

The North Frisian Islands, frequented as sea-bathing resorts by the Germans, lie off the West coast of Schleswig-Holstein, from which they are separated by a narrow arm of the sea, known as the Watten. The narrow navigable channels between the numerous sand-banks are indicated by brooms. A characteristic feature in the archipelago is formed by the Halligen, low green islets rising a few feet only above the surface of the sea upon which they seem to float. The chain of islands represent the old coastline, and efforts are now being made to prevent farther encroachment by the sea and even to form new land (koog) by reclamation.

The greater portion of the coast between the Elbe River and Horn Reefs consists of low marshy ground enclosed by dykes, sheltered by a range of islands and sand banks, and surrounded by extensive flats, which partly dry at low water, leaving narrow channels between them. The islands are known as the North Frisian Islands. The western side of the outer islands, as also the coast of Eider- stedt in Schleswig, consist of sand dunes, and on the whole extent of this coast there are but few objects sufficiently high to be visible from a vessel outside the channels, except the beacons.

The long and narrow island of Sylt is the largest German island in the North Sea, being upwards of 39 sq. M. in area (4800 inhab. in 1910). It contains numerous 'giants' graves'. On the west shore of Sylt the ebb current sets northward from Hornum and southward from Lister Deep, meeting off Westerland; and the flood current, separating at this point, flows south and north round those points of Sylt. These currents extend about 4 miles offshore.

The principal village on Sylt is Westerland, which had been a favourite sea-buthiny resort since 1858. It was separated frum the sea by a range of sand-hills, across which a wooden pathway led to the beach. To the right (N.) was the gentlemen's, to the left (S.) the ladies" bathing-place. The Curhaus was opened in 1878. The sea was generally rougher than at the other bathing-places on this const, and boating is not practicable except in the Watten, or shallows, between the island and the mainland. Annual number of visitors was about 3,400 in 1890. Wenningstedt ('Central Hotel; Schsischer Hof), 2 M. to the N. of Westerland, was also frequented for sea-bathing. Near it is a burial tumulus formed of huge blocks of granite.

The villages on the east coast of Sylt were protected from the inroads of the sea. But it was sad to hear the complaints of the inhabitants of Westerland and Rantsum. They had the sand-hills between them and the sea, but these sands move landwards when the south-west wind rages in winter and spring, and the houses in which their parents lived, and the spots where they played as children, had disappeared. In vain had the inhabitants of the western coast sought to stop the movement of the sand-hills : they plant all along them grasses, whose tough roots, it is hoped, will hold the drifting sand together.

Sylt was the most advanced post of Germany : the wild sea, nowhere wilder than on this coast, tore it away ages ago from the continent, and it stands amid the waves, exposed to the destructive attacks of Ocean. But this peninsula, constantly menaced by water and by the Danes, was once the abode of the most powerful of the Germanic races, the North Friezes, who conquered England, and laid the foundation of our might. Sylt is the northernmost of the group of islands into which the encroaching sea has broken up what was once dug land : it contained but little soil fit for cultivation, for the greater portion was heath and piled-up sand, where only sheep can find scanty provender.

The inhabitants of the island in the 1860s were daring, hospitable, true-hearted beings, not remarkable for beauty, though the men were strongly built, and the women had a graceful form and speaking eyes. They all regarded the sea with longing and yet sad glances, for it had robbed everybody on the island of some one dear to them, and many of their all. But the men did not cease to navigate it : the courage and skill of the Sylt captains was known in every sea of the world, and there were few lads on the island who did not go to sea so soon as they left school. Many never returned, but none ere they have saved so much on their voyages as to be able to live at home at ease. The women of Sylt, on the other hand, rarely left their houses. They fear the sea which had robbed them of fathers and brothers, husbands and betrothed ; and the nearest town on the continent was the farthest extent of their wanderings. To see Hamburg was a desire not accorded to all, and only two or three had been in England. Hence it happened that on this island so few young men, so many widows and old maids, may be found.

In spite of their insular isolation and conservative temper, by the mid-19th Century many old customs had died out among the good folk of Sylt. Thus, the old picturesque costume had entirely disappeared. So late as the end of the 18th century, the women wore a short crimson skirt, coming scarce lower than the knee, white stockings, a finely-worked bodice, and a head-gear nnt unlike that which we see in pictures of Queen Elizabeth's court. As to the long coats with heavy silver buttons, and the gaily embroidered waistcoats, formerly worn by the men, they were kept as curiosities in some of the houses on the island.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:50 ZULU