On a cold January night in 1919, U.S. Army Col. Luke Lea and six American soldiers made a brazen visit to a 17th century Dutch castle where Kaiser Wilhelm II lived in exiled comfort with his wife and entourage.
That night, Col. Lea and the other men entered Holland illegally under false pretenses: Lea demanded an audience with the deposed German ruler. Lea’s intention, he claimed, was to kidnap “Kaiser Bill,” and deliver him to face war-crime charges in Paris, where the allies were holding peace talks.
The colonel’s ill-conceived exploit would have been ignored if one of his cohorts had not stolen an ashtray. A dramatic investigation prompted the Army’s Judge Advocate General to call this incident “An act of grave indiscretion.”
After America declared war in April 1917, Lea joined the Tennessee National Guard. Born into a wealthy Tennessee family, Lea briefly practiced law, became the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and, at age 31, had won a seat in the U.S. Senate. He lasted just one term in office.
During World War I, Lea’s Tennessee Guardsmen, federalized as the 114th Field Artillery Regiment, saw action at St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in France. After the war, Lea’s unit was assigned occupation duty in Luxembourg, a tiny country requiring little military caretaking. It was then that Lea hatched a plan to kidnap the Kaiser.
Lea was never clear on why he wanted to bag the German leader, but later suggested in his posthumously published account of the escapade, “The Attempt to Capture the Kaiser,” patriotism and revenge were the motives.
“The capture, trial and punishment of the Kaiser,” he wrote, “was to the American doughboy the object which inspired him to leave home, to cross submarine swept sea, to surrender the freedom of a citizen of a republic, to become a cog of the best disciplined fighting machine in any war and finally to give his life, if need be.”
On December 31, 1918, Lea convinced Brig. Gen. Oliver Spaulding to grant a five-day leave to him, three other officers and three enlisted men. Lea told his commander they had no interest in the usual places American soldiers visited, but wanted to see as many other countries as possible without violating orders. Spaulding signed the leave orders and authorized the use of a government automobile.
On January 1, Lea gathered his men into a seven-passenger Winton. Among them was Capt. Larry MacPhail, who Lea knew from Nashville. Lea didn’t say where they were going, only that “the trip might be dangerous,” but “would certainly be exciting.”
Two days later, the convoy arrived at the American Consular office in Maastricht to get passports for Holland, a neutral country during the war but still off-limits for American soldiers. Still, no one in Lea’s group questioned his intentions. When Lea learned the passports were delayed, he convinced Belgium’s U.S. minister to issue them documents in the name of Holland’s queen. They let Lea and his men pass into Holland for a “journalist investigation.”
When the Americans reached the Dutch border, a guard told them “No American officers are wanted or permitted in Holland.” Lea flashed the queen’s letter. The Dutch guard saluted, and Lea’s convoy drove across the border.
Then Lea told the men of the trip’s true purpose. Lea said that anyone who was uncomfortable with their kidnapping mission could return to brigade headquarters or wait at the Dutch border.
Not one of the men left.
When they arrived that night, Lea jumped from his car, rattled the castle’s heavy gates and drew a German sentry’s attention. Lea gruffly insisted, in broken German, on seeing the officer in charge. Instead, the Americans were led into a large library where the castle’s owner, Count Bentinck, appeared wearing a full evening coat and tails. He demanded to know why Lea and his men were in his castle.
When Lea refused to answer, Bentinck stormed from the library and was heard talking to the kaiser in an adjoining room.
As Lea’s party waited, they noticed some of the kaiser’s ashtrays on a table. Each bore the German coat of arms and initials W.I. — Wilhelm Imperator.
Bentinck returned and warned Lea and his men he would not receive them unless they had official business with the kaiser. Before the situation grew ugly, Lea decided to leave — but not before Capt. MacPhail slipped one of the kaiser’s ashtrays into his coat pocket.
As the Americans left the castle, they encountered a frightening scene. Hundreds of civilians had gathered by the gates. Lea nervously ordered his unarmed men into their car. As Dutch troops surrounded them, the Americans gunned their vehicle’s engine and allowed them to pass.
Sitting next to Lea in the Winton’s back seat, Capt. MacPhail reached into his pocket and said, “Colonel, I have secured a souvenir for you and the other members of the party.” Without looking down, Lea replied, “I don’t want to hear nor know what I think you have done.”
Two days later, the men returned to brigade headquarters where Lea told Gen. Spaulding little about the trip. Lea never mentioned Holland, the kaiser or the ashtray.
Meanwhile, The Hague’s American military attaché alerted the Military Intelligence Division in Washington that Kaiser Wilhelm had filed a formal complaint against an uninvited group of Americans and had stolen a precious ashtray. MID believed Lea was involved.
Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, ordered his inspector general to investigate the complaint. Fearing an embarrassing international incident, Pershing urged his IG to “speed this up and let me hear about it.”
For weeks, Brig. Gen. Andre W. Brewster and his IG investigators grilled every known participant and witness to the trip. A no-nonsense combat veteran, Brewster wanted to know if Lea and his men had violated neutrality rules by visiting Holland, had violated Army regulations by using Army vehicles, and if they had stolen the Kaiser’s ashtray. Lea’s testimony was crucial. He gave the IG nothing. He answered questions with limited responses and denied violating orders.
After testifying, Lea had lunch with MacPhail. As they ate, MacPhail received a message to report immediately for questioning by the IG. Lea told MacPhail, “I’ll serve as your legal counsel.”
During his grilling by the IG, MacPhail’s responses about the kaiser’s missing ashtray were less than truthful: “I saw the ashtray and took temporary possession of it,” admitted MacPhail. “I have not got the ashtray now, and I don’t know where it is.” When asked who took the ashtray, MacPhail replied, “I do not know.”
After reviewing the evidence, IG Brewster wanted Lea court-martialed for illegally entering Holland under false pretenses and attempting to communicate with the enemy. Later, Army Judge Advocate Gen. Col. Walter A. Bethel agreed but argued against a court-martial. He wrote, “I do not believe that Colonel Lea would be found guilty of anything more in substance than an act of grave indiscretion,” Gen. Pershing had the final say and let Lea and the others off with only letters of reprimand placed in their service records.
After the war, Lea found himself in more serious trouble. He owned several Tennessee newspapers financed by a North Carolina bank. When the bank crashed, investigators found that Lea and his eldest son had committed fraud.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s postwar life was less dramatic. He lived in Holland until his death on June 4, 1941. He was 82 years old.
What became of the Kaiser’s ashtray? MacPhail proudly displayed the stolen souvenir on his desk while serving as a Major League Baseball executive. MacPhail died in 1975, leaving the ashtray to a grandson. Today, nearly a century after it was stolen, the ashtray is said to be stored in a safe-deposit box at an undisclosed bank somewhere in the United States.
Mitchell Yockelson is the author of “Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I” and a historian with the United States World War I Centennial Commission
Read more Retropolis: