The curious tale of the Kaiser on the Devon beach
As Radio 4’s long-running wartime drama Home Front moves location to Devon, we get an opportunity to investigate one of the most extraordinary tales in British propaganda history.
British soldiers in the First World War would often talk about giving the Kaiser a bloody nose. Alfie Price, the son of a beach attendant at Rapparee beach in Ilfracombe, Devon actually did in 1878...
Alfie and the Kaiser
Known locally as the “Alfie and the Kaiser story” (there’s even an Ilfracombe restaurant called Alfie and the Kaiser), it’s a truly British incident in which self-importance and snobbery is ignored in favour of fair play. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s oldest grandson who apparently spoke English without an accent, was holidaying near in Ilfracombe, and was spending a sunny afternoon on a local beach, Rapparee. His tutor decided to explore the cove and wandered off. The 19 year old Kaiser became bored and started throwing stones at the numbers on the beach hut doors.
The beach huts were the province of Philip Price, and his son Alfie, 16, was on duty that afternoon. Annoyed by the paint chips flying about and this stranger’s disregard for this father’s property as the Kaiser continued his target practice, Alfie challenged him. The Kaiser said the one phrase guaranteed to infuriate any red blooded Englishman - “Don’t you know who I am?” Alfie replied hotly “I don’t care a dash who you are - stop chucking stones or it will be the worse for you.”
The grudge that led to the Great War?
This was taken as a challenge and the encounter would fuel a grudge which supposedly continued burning up until the outbreak of war. Alfie dotted the Kaiser on the nose, making it bleed and flooring him. An outraged Kaiser, who’d been schooled in boxing, responded vigorously and the fight continued for about quarter of an hour, watched with amusement from the cliff top above by Alfie’s father Philip and his brother in law, Tom Gibbs. The tutor returned and, horrified, separated the struggling boys, reprimanding the Kaiser for fighting with a ‘peasant’ and paying Alfie thirty bob to keep quiet about it. Fat chance of that, especially with the fight being witnessed by his proud father and brother in law.
What’s extraordinary about the story is the way it became an emblem of the British fight against the Germans. Once war was declared, the story was featured in the 1914 edition of the Ilfracombe Chronicle. A local poet, W H Coates, wrote an ode about events on Rapparee beach entitled ‘Why the Kaiser hates England, or What Happened at Rapparee”. This was circulated to troops as a morale booster during the First World War.
You can hear actress Kelly Williams, who plays Elspeth Taverner in Radio 4’s Home Front, reading the poem below. Kelly’s parents are both from Ilfracombe and she discovered the story while researching a school project about the town.
Ilfracombe residents were incredibly proud of Alfie Price, and claimed this incident was the origin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s hatred of England. Historians may claim that this was also due to his chilly relationship with his English mother and his withered arm, for which he blamed his English doctor, but we know what we believe; it was all down to Alfie Price knocking the Kaiser onto his regal behind in the sand of a Devon beach.