The gates of history turns on small hinges, at least if you believe that great events have their roots in trivial incidents. So did a punch on the nose lead to the massacre of a generation in World War One?
The year is 1878 and a nineteen-year-old Prince Wilhelm was misbehaving himself by throwing stones at beach huts on Rapparee Beach in Ilfracombe, Devon.
Sixteen-year-old Alf Price was working as a beach attendant told the future Kaiser to behave himself, but the arrogant Wilhelm called Price a peasant and ordered him to back down.
Price would have none of it. ‘I don’t care a dash who you are – stop chucking stones or it will be the worse for you,’ he said, then punched the prince on the nose before the royal minders intervened to break up the scuffle.
Price was paid thirty shillings to keep quiet about the incident, about £150 in today’s money, but it was a significant event in shaping Wilhelm’s character.
As one historian put it: ‘He was wildly jealous of the British, wanting to be British, wanting to be better at being British than the British were, while at the same time hating them and resenting them’. And that resentment was reinforced by a bloody nose on a Devon beach.
Price continued the family business in Ilfracombe, renting out beach huts as his parents did before him, but until his death in 1923, he always claimed that the humbling of the future Kaiser was his greatest achievement.
The story of what happened that day resurfaced in 1916 at the height of the war when W H Coates penned the poem ‘Why the Kaiser Hates England. Or, What Happened at Rapparee’ which was circulated among British troops to boost morale.
You can read the poem by clicking the image on the right, but it says of Price that:
He knocked the Kaiser on the nose. And tapped the r’yal blid,
And then he bashed ’n in his eye, upon me word he did.
The poem describes how Wilhelm vowed revenge saying: ‘Mine friend! You’ll rue this day / For what you’ve done t’mine poor nose.’