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3 In Peril on the Sea February–August 1915 “Our sword must always remain clean. We are not waging war against women and children. We wish to fight this war as gentlemen, no matter what the other side may do. Take note of that.”1 Kaiser Wilhelm II uttered these words to his admirals late in November 1914 in expressing relief that a large British liner escaped a submarine. Just over two months later, on February 4, 1915, the German Admiralty proclaimed a submarine blockade of the British Isles. After two weeks, enemy merchant vessels would be destroyed, “even if it may not be possible always to save their crews and passengers.” More important for the United States, Germany observed that “neutral vessels cannot always be prevented from suffering from the attacks intended for enemy ships.” In an explanatory note issued two days later, the German Foreign Office warned that neutral merchantmen must avoid the war zone or use such designated safety areas as the Dutch coast.2 The chief of the German Admiralty staff, Hugo von Pohl, stressed the blockade’s urgency. Although England, he observed, had a mere six or seven weeks of food supplies remaining, grain would soon arrive from Argentina. At the same time, Germany faced a dwindling food supply. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, state secretary of the navy office and the man who had created his nation’s massive fleet, expressed himself bluntly. Although still reluctant to engage in major submarine warfare, he told an American journalist in late December: “England wants to starve us. We can play the same game. We can bottle her up and torpedo every English or allied ship which nears any harbor in Great Britain, thereby cutting off large food supplies.”3 Hopefully 58 In Peril on the Sea 59 an isolated Britain, severed from outside supplies, would give up its blockade and consider peace. When Wilhelm toured the Wilhelmshaven naval station, Pohl persuaded the emperor to support the case for intensive submarine warfare. Civilian leaders were confronted with a fait accompli. German economists and an enthusiastic public backed the admirals, which prevented Chancellor Bethmann from resisting the pressure. Bethmann accused England of seeking to starve 70 million people. As neutral nations had not protested against the British blockade, “they must take the consequences. We certainly are not going to die of a famine.”4 Originally Germany envisioned submarines as a mere experimental weapon, at most an observation craft or an auxiliary arm in striking enemy dreadnoughts. It began the conflict with a mere eighteen U-boats, far fewer than Britain or France, and of these eighteen a mere third were serviceable at any one time. Not until September 1914 did the Admiralty perceive U-boats as raiders on the high seas. An attack made on a single day, the ninth, on three aged British vessels—Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir Bay—revealed their effectiveness against enemy cruisers. Because the German High Seas Fleet had remained confined in harbor while Britain established control of the North Sea, the submarine suddenly emerged as a most appealing weapon against maritime commerce, indeed one that would hopefully ensure victory. Berlin’s gambit reflected irresponsible bluster and gross miscalculation. The German public remained unaware that the major offensive on the Marne had failed. The Reich’s naval effort was sheer bluff, a mere “paper blockade.” Germany could deploy only four submarines in designated waters; hence, U-boats woefully lacked the ability to sever Britain’s lifeline. Because the Germans harbored an exaggerated estimate of British defenses across the Straits of Dover, they did not risk crossings through the English Channel. Instead they ordered their submarines to make a detour of fourteen hundred miles around the North Sea and Scotland, adding an extra seven days to reach the Atlantic. Furthermore, the Royal Navy did not fear the tiny number of submarines available to Germany. In March Allied losses were relatively small, certainly in comparison to the many merchant ships that safely reached the British Isles from the Western Hemisphere. Viscount Richard Haldane, England’s lord chancellor, stated accurately: “The submarine business is annoying but that is all.”5 Even when the submarines began to attack large British ocean 60 Nothing Less Than War liners, the overall military threat remained negligible. Between February and September 1915, the twenty-seven U-boats becoming available for duty sank only 21 of 5,000 ships that traveled to and from Britain. Conversely, Germany’s decision deeply antagonized the United States...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813130033
Related ISBN
9780813130026
MARC Record
OCLC
729749435
Pages
432
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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