restricted access 5. Frustrating Times: August 1915–March 1916
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5 Frustrating Times August 1915–March 1916 On August 19, 1915, seventy miles off Queenstown, Ireland, at about three in the afternoon, the German submarine U-27 halted the British mule steamer Nicosian. Acting in accordance with the rules of international law, the U-boat was waiting for the Nicosian’s crew to evacuate, when a vessel that appeared to be a tramp steamer, flying the American flag, approached. Once the oncoming vessel reached within one hundred yards of the submarine, it hoisted the English flag, opened fire, and immediately sank it. In reality the supposed rescue craft was a British “Mystery Ship” or “Q-boat,” a decoy ship named Baralong. Eleven German sailors were shot as they floundered in the ocean and sought refuge on the Nicosian. The Nicosian’s crew murdered the U-boat captain in the water while his hands were raised in surrender. Within ten days, several of the forty-five American “muleteers” on board the Nicosian revealed what had transpired.1 “Isn’t this one of the most unspeakable performances?” asked Wilson upon hearing the news. “It’s horrible.” Lansing ruled Britain’s behavior “shocking,” though he did not lodge a protest, claiming that the affidavits of the ten or so American muleteers conflicted in some details. Such use of the American flag, the State Department maintained, had occurred during previous wars; the United States had engaged in this practice.2 London quickly defended the Baralong’s action. The ship, it said, was merely a defensively armed steamer, although it possessed twelve-pound guns and was commissioned in the British Navy. Foreign Secretary Grey curtly remarked: “The British Government does not think it necessary to make reply to the suggestion that the British navy has been guilty of inhumanity.” Britain did propose that an impartial tribunal of American naval officers 122 Frustrating Times 123 investigate the affair. Such a probe, however, must include three other incidents as well, one being the Arabic, another involving a German destroyer alleged to have fired on the crew of a British submarine off the Danish coast. The German government rejected the proposal.3 To Berlin, “playing by the rules” had proven futile. Certain Allied seizures appeared particularly outrageous. On October 31 a prize crew from a British warship brought the steamer Hocking, headed from New York to Norfolk, into Halifax, Nova Scotia. Just about that time a British cruiser forcefully searched the Zealandia. Bound from Pensacola to Tampico, it was seized just off Progreso, a port in Yucatán. In autumn the British detained another ship, the Genesee, at St. Lucia; it was carrying coal from Norfolk to Montevideo. One boat, the Kankakee, ended up at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Similarly, in December the French confiscated the Saginaw at Marseilles. British men-of-war chased the Vineland, an American cargo ship of Danish registry, as it sailed from New York to Norfolk ; the craft escaped its pursuers. In mid-December the Marquis of Crewe, Lord President of the Council, blatantly told the British House of Lords that his government sought to starve Germany: “There is no difference from the point of view of humanity in besieging a city and besieging a country.”4 In October Hearst’s New York American, admittedly a neutralist newspaper , expressed great anger, declaring that London had no right “to confiscate our beef cargoes, to make our cotton contraband, to seize our ships bound to neutral ports, to restrict our trade, suppress our commerce and limit our free rights upon the seas—all of which things she has done without warrant of international law.” Americans suspected Britain of deliberately enticing Americans to travel on its ships so as to create a crisis with Germany. One advertisement in a New York newspaper ran: “Help Wanted—Male. Men feeding horses to France receive pay and return transportation; American and British only. Greenwich Agency.”5 Wilson now decided that he could not press American claims against Germany and Britain simultaneously. Though Wilson and Lansing in private had expressed support for the Allies, they increasingly thought it necessary to challenge British behavior. On October 21, Lansing, acting under administration pressure, sent Grey such a sweeping indictment that he risked breaking off further relations. Admittedly, the note made no retaliatory threats and maintained that it acknowledged the “legitimate” prerogatives of British sea power. Nevertheless, the missive accused London of seriously violating international law and indeed took on the entire British 124 Nothing Less Than War maritime system, clearly...


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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Diplomatic history.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Public opinion.
  • Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1913-1921.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- United States.
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