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Part I   (cont'd.)

Chapter 7: The First Declaration of Submarine War Against Commerce

The origins of submarine warfare: the German government's deliberations upon economic pressure. – The last enquiries into Germany's economic position in war, the weakness of Germany's position in the last months of 1914. – The German naval war plan and its failure. – The first proposals for submarine war on commerce. – The composition and the powers of the German high command. – The German government misunderstand the British order of 2nd November, which gives a great incentive to submarine warfare. – The German government's opinion upon reprisals. – Why the first proposal for submarine warfare was thought premature. – The proposal for submarine warfare raised again. – Admiral von Pohl made commander-in-chief; the German public begin to exert pressure. – Admiral von Pohl persuades the chancellor and the emperor. – British and German methods of exerting economic pressure. – The beginnings of the German-American controversy.

In a previous chapter, I examined the economic duress to which the enemy was subjected in the first months of 1915, and explained, that the measures then taken against the enemy's sea-borne commerce had reduced their supplies on a scale that had hitherto only been effected by regular blockades. On the other hand, my enquiry showed, that our measures of constraint, though more embracing than had been hoped for, were by no means the equivalent of a blockade, in that a considerable portion of the general trade between Germany and neutrals was still uncontrolled. It would be interesting to speculate, whether, with the instruments of coercion at our disposal: the fleet commanding the commercial avenues to northern Europe; and the doctrine of continuous voyage asserted, agreed to, and operated through special agreements, we should ever have controlled this general trade. Our authorities would certainly have endeavoured to do so; and it is equally certain that they would have found it very difficult; for neutrals would have resisted stiffly. The German government gave us an opportunity, and indeed a right, to claim that the general commerce of northern Europe was an object within the theatre of our maritime operations; for after long and careful deliberations, in which the chances of war were repeatedly reviewed and calculated, the enemy decided to stop up the sea communications of Great Britain with their submarine fleet, and to press their attack without pause or respite. By this decision, the Germans changed the war at sea from a succession of cruiser forays, minelaying expeditions, and fleet sorties, into a struggle as ferocious, as desperate and as unrelenting as the war by land; for their decision engaged them in a battle for the mastery of the sea highways, and the battle raged for nearly four years, before either side secured a decisive advantage. Inasmuch as the Germans intended that every ship plying to Great Britain should be sunk, that is, that every link in our network of communications should be severed, if they could cut it, the British government had no option but to make a corresponding declaration. They answered, therefore, that they would block up all the communications of the central empires, and stop all supplies from reaching them. Both sides thus proclaimed that they would do the same thing with different agencies, and from the dates on which these two announcements were made, two rival methods of exerting economic pressure were struggling for mastery: our economic campaign, and the German submarine fleet, were as much pitted against one another as the armies on the western front, or the battlefleets at Scapa and Wilhelmshaven. The German and British governments declared what the philosophers of military history would call unlimited economic war.

It is an ancient rule of military honour never to belittle the achievements of an enemy who has fought hard and well; and, if the rule had been observed in England, the public would be better able to appreciate the place that submarine war upon commerce will occupy in the history of strategy and war. Unfortunately, the [192] screams of terror, and the ill-considered vituperation of the pressmen have been repeated from more responsible quarters, with the result that the catchwords about piracy and assassination have passed into the language, and have excited appropriate sentiments in the hearts of the people.1

The subject deserved more scientific treatment. I propose therefore: to review the origins and beginnings of this form of warfare; to show in what councils it was deliberated, and by what general influences and apprehensions of danger those councils were influenced; and to compare the economic warfare that the British government conducted with diplomatic instruments, with the economic warfare that the German government conducted with submarines; for it is only by thus inspecting the origins of submarine warfare, and by explaining what obstacles to its exercise were overcome by the German government, and what obstacles were found impassable, that the two rival methods of exerting economic pressure can be accurately appreciated.

i) The origins of submarine warfare: the German government's deliberations upon economic pressure

Submarine operations against commerce cannot be attributed to any single person or to any particular operating cause. The first declaration was issued: because the German authorities had a great dread of economic pressure, and thought, quite honestly, that reprisals against those who exercised it were justifiable; because the German naval war plan proved a failure, and the German naval commanders could not agree what plan should be substituted for it; and because the proposals of those who urged that submarines should attack commerce proved a sort of rallying point to statesmen, admirals and generals. These controversies upon strategy, and these apprehensions of danger were, so to speak, collateral currents of cause and effect, which were forced into a single channel where their united strength was irresistible. I shall now examine each in turn.

It was certainly an achievement to have embarked upon a regular economic campaign by the close of 1914; but it cannot be said that the campaign was then a danger to Germany; for the Germans subsequently resisted pressure far more severe than any to which they were then exposed. It is therefore strange, that, in the winter of 1914, German statesmen, admirals and generals should have considered the economic campaign to be the urgent danger, which darkened the whole prospect, and which was only to be combated by desperate measures. This however was their estimate. In the autumn of 1914 the German nation's powers of resistance were still untested; the dangers of an economic campaign, or, as the German officials called it, a three front war, had been repeatedly reviewed; and the warnings of the expert advisers, standing commissions, and naval and military commanders were a large and gloomy volume of official literature. The provisions that the German government had made against economic pressure in war, their insufficiency, and why such conscientious and able public servants as German ministers and their staffs should have been unable to make adequate preparation against a danger that they measured quite accurately, can only be explained by a retrospective survey.

It is curious, that Germany's capacity for resisting economic pressure in war was judged sufficient, in the days when the military leaders anticipated a long drawn struggle, and when the naval commanders considered that Germany's enemies would [193] blockade all her coasts from Memel to the Ems. These, however, were the official forecasts, when France and Russia were considered to be the most probable enemies of the empire. In 1883, the German war staff asked for an enquiry into supplies of wheat and meat, and the imports that could be counted upon during a double front war (Zweifrontenkrieg); the ministry of commerce replied, after long and careful examination, that, even if Germany were blockaded, the armies and population of the empire could easily be supplied with food and necessaries, from the produce of her own soil.2 This satisfied the military authorities, who had only raised the question, because they wished to be certain that the stocks upon which the quartermaster-general's department depended would always be available; they did not think that the matter was a great national concern, and many years passed before it was so regarded. Nevertheless, provision for an emergency was made; for, a few years later, German consuls in Belgium and Holland were instructed to arrange, that the great grain dealers should send corn supplies into the country, if the consuls were warned that there was a danger of war. In addition, the Austro-Hungarian war ministry undertook to prohibit exports after mobilisation was ordered, and to send a certain proportion of the Hungarian grain crop into Germany. In the last official appreciation it had, however, been stated, that there was no reason to suppose that indirect trade through neutral states could be interfered with, and this seems to have satisfied the general staff that there was no danger. During the next decade, therefore, the matter was more discussed by publicists than by high officials, and Admiral von Tirpitz appears to have been the first minister of state to question this assumption.

The Schlieffen plan of invading France through Belgium was elaborated and approved in the year 1905. Early in the following year, Admiral von Tirpitz presented a paper to the war minister. The naval secretary first invited his colleague to consider what would happen, if Germany were ever simultaneously engaged against continental forces, and against a power overwhelmingly strong at sea. The German coasts would then be closely blockaded, and it had hitherto been assumed that this would only be a serious matter for the coastal towns and provinces, provided that trade with neighbouring neutrals was unimpeded. Was this general assumption accurate? High Admiral von Tirpitz was doubtful. In the first place, he did not think it reasonable to suppose, that the British government would allow neutrals to thwart their blockade. If indirect trade between neutrals and Germany were found to turn the flank of the blockade, then, the British authorities would certainly impose restraints upon Dutch, Belgian and Danish commerce. Also:

      If military operations of any kind extend to border countries, the best possible excuse will be provided for closing their harbours against German imports and exports.3

In conclusion, Tirpitz urged that Germany's powers of economic resistance must be reviewed as a whole. Even though neutral harbours remained open, there would be enormous congestions; was it certain that the German railways could distribute goods after the points of delivery had been displaced, that is, when Rotterdam and Copenhagen had been substituted for Hamburg? These matters were no longer questions affecting only the military and naval departments of supply; they must be investigated by a commission on which all the departments of state should be represented.

The military authorities gave this paper a rather cool reception, but Tirpitz succeeded in forcing an enquiry. The conclusion of the German home office and statistical department, who carried out the investigation, was that although imported foodstuffs and forage had now become essential to the nation, domestic [194] supplies would nevertheless suffice for nine months. The investigation therefore proved, that Germany's powers of resistance were contingent upon an early and decisive success in the field. The provisioning of the people, and the maintenance of the armies were henceforward looked upon as tasks that would be discharged successfully, if the continental campaign were comparatively short. It is, therefore, of some interest to determine in what degree the military leaders were confident, that the plan to which they were committed, when executed, would end in that overwhelming victory upon which everything depended.

When Schlieffen4 and his staff elaborated their famous plan of operations, they obviously abandoned Count von Moltke's5 views, who had warned the Reichstag that the German nation must discipline itself to anticipations of: A seven, aye even of a thirty years war. Presumably also, the new plan cancelled a number of more conservative projects, which implies confidence in its efficacy. Nevertheless, if the few utterances made by Schlieffen, or by his assistants, are read carefully, they suggest that he prepared his plan for a great flanking movement through Belgium, more because he was impressed by the dangers of a long war, than because he was confident, that his project ensured a short one. Even in their official report, Schlieffen's staff stated only: In Manchuria, armies could remain in unassailable positions for months at a time. In western Europe we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of this kind of warfare...... This is more a warning of danger than a voucher of success, and Schlieffen himself elaborated it:

      A campaign protracts itself. Such wars are however impossible, when a nation's existence depends upon an unbroken movement of trade and industry...... The strategy of exhaustion cannot be attempted when milliards must be spent to support millions.

These are the observations of a man who has reflected deeply upon the nature of war; but they express dread of a long war, and not blind confidence that it can be averted. Moltke,6 Schlieffen's successor, was even more conscious of the danger; for to him it seemed as though the industrial structure of a modern state was not the brittle, flimsy thing that it had often been supposed to be; and that it was rather an organ of national life, very adaptable to changing circumstances, and, on that account, a great source of endurance in war. As these were the views of those responsible for executing the war plan, it is rather strange that they should have minuted the latest review of Germany's economic resources, her supplies of potatoes, corn, meat and fodder as they did. For, on the general conclusion, that the German nation could maintain itself on its own resources for nine or ten months, but no more, the military authorities reported only: This suffices for present purposes.

The naval secretary was alarmed at this complacency, and circulated a remarkable warning of the dangers that the latest enquiry had made patent. In the first place, he protested strongly against concluding that all further enquiry was unnecessary, because it had been proved that there were sufficient supplies for a nine months' war, and because this was supposed to be its probable period. Even if both assumptions proved correct, was it not plain sense to institute a further enquiry into Germany's economic resistance during an eighteen months' war? The naval secretary then repeated his mistrust of the prevailing confidence, that trade with border neutrals would not be interfered with: to assume this was to regard international law as absolute security for German imports. Apart from all this, the experts at the ministry of marine had recently conducted an independent enquiry, which proved how necessary it was to make further investigations. This enquiry contained impressive figures, illustrating the difficulty of distributing imports if they were diverted to neutral harbours.7 In the first place, the German railways had never [195] carried the surplus foodstuffs of eastern provinces to the great industrial centres of the Rhineland, which had always been supplied from overseas, by Rotterdam and Antwerp. Food-consuming armies would suddenly be added to this food-buying population, and rolling stock would be diverted from commercial to military uses. Even though prohibitions of export kept the requisite quantities of foodstuffs within the country, the accumulations in the eastern provinces would accentuate the difficulties of distribution, which could, indeed, only be overcome by long and careful preparations. Finally, the home office experts had only enquired into supplies of food; was it not equally important to enquire into the supplies of the metal and textile industries, and to test the reciprocal influences of all consequences of war?

Admiral von Tirpitz and his staff were, in fact discovering by their investigations that Germany was slowly dividing itself into two economic units. The manufacturing towns of the west were feeding and stocking themselves with supplies carried by sea to Holland, and thence down the Rhine to the industrial areas; while the central and eastern parts were sending their surplus products to the local market towns, or into Russia and industrial Bohemia. It would have been well for the empire if their military leaders had been as quick as the naval chiefs to grasp the implications of this; actually the general enquiry that Tirpitz asked for was not undertaken until six years later. Some preparations were made during the intervening period, mostly by the department for home affairs, but these preparations were principally for securing better and more regular statistical returns of agriculture and consumption; and for increasing production by enlarging the areas of cultivated land. According to the German official historian, the explanation of this indifference is, that two great conferences on international law were assembled during this period; and that responsible authorities in Germany considered, that the code of maritime law agreed to at the London conference was a satisfactory guarantee against economic pressure. Admiral von Tirpitz represented that an unratified instrument gave no security whatever:8 the official view appears to have been, that, ratified or unratified, the declaration of London had been recognised officially as an authoritative corpus of established usage,9 and that serious departures from it were not to be expected. It is certain, at all events, that for five years, the question was but little agitated in official circles.

When, however, the question was raised afresh, those who reviewed the economic position of Germany drew gloomy conclusions. In November, 1911, the quartermaster-general's department circulated a paper at headquarters, and a few months later, a certain Dr. Fröhlich presented a memorandum at the chancellor's office. These two independent investigators drew identical inferences from the figures that they had examined. Both admitted that agricultural production had increased during the previous decade, but maintained that the increase had not been proportionate to the increase in imported foodstuffs. Some agricultural products were being exported, but they were of a special kind; and keeping them in the country would not assure the nation a sufficient supply of bread. These two surveys were made when the German nation was still excited by the memory of the Agadir crisis; no official action was taken on either of them, indeed Dr. Fröhlich's memorandum was suppressed; but it would appear as though the official anxiety [196] of the previous decade had by now become a popular apprehension of danger. The growing conviction that Great Britain would be a belligerent, and that overseas imports would, in consequence, be precarious, was engaging the attention of the mercantile classes, and of a number of scientific observers from the universities, who placed their brains at the disposal of the industrial magnates. After the Agadir crisis, pressure from these quarters was too strong to be resisted. The official historian's words are worth quoting:

      No publicity had been given to the discussions between the military and political leaders on these questions of economics in war. The official silence which had been preserved on matters relating to military mobilisation was maintained on these matters also. When, therefore, there was an animated public discussion about Germany's economic position in war, the growing anxiety about Germany's political difficulties was strengthened still further. These public discussions began in 1907 and continued until war began; they were more frequent and more anxious than the calm and confident appreciations made at the beginning of the century.

This intervention may have alarmed and annoyed the officials of the home office  - where Dr. Fröhlich's paper was subjected to scathing criticism - but at least it enlarged the boundaries of the matter under discussion. The official anxiety had been mainly in respect to military supplies, and the home office had taken the view that military supplies would best be secured by leaving trade and agriculture alone. Industrial magnates, and corporate bodies now agitated the question, because they were anxious about their factories and industries. The public that they represented were demanding not an enquiry or a more exhaustive review, which had been the burden of Tirpitz representations, but active preparation: a wirtschaftliche Moblimachung [sic]. The government yielded to the pressure; a conference of ministers assembled at the end of the year 1912, and recommended that a standing commission be appointed. This commission regulated a number of highly technical matters: improvements in the statistical returns of agriculture; deciding what allocations of rolling stock would ensure a proper distribution of supplies; determining where stocks from the agricultural states were to be stored, and to which industrial centres they were to be carried. In fact this standing commission may be said to have prepared Germany's extraordinary resistance to economic pressure, and to have made it possible for a nation, lacking a quarter of its normal quantity of foodstuffs, and an even greater proportion of certain raw materials to defy a ring of enemies for four whole years.

ii) The last enquiries into Germany's economic position in war, the weakness of Germany's position in the last months of 1914

But the execution of these preliminary measures only showed how difficult it would be to prepare any plan for supplying the whole nation during war. In the first place, the long and careful enquiries of the commission proved, as no enquiry had proved before, that the country's sources of economic strength had become so numerous, that they could not be covered by any one protecting plan. In consequence of this, the commission were persuaded, that what the public had demanded  - economic mobilisation by an economic general staff - would be most unwise, in that it predicated an interference with trade and industry which would be extremely damaging to both. In fact, the last review of Germany's power of resistance, which was presented a few months before war began, was little but a repetition, with an abundance of illustrative statistics, that a short war, and free, unimpeded commerce between Scandinavia and America were the only protection of any permanent value. It is true that the commissioners did not state this, in so many words, but their last report upon the difficulties that were still to be overcome contains an equivalent admission:

      These figures are a proof that German industries and agriculture are now woven into the economic life of other states, to an extent that was by no means the case during the last war; they explain also why anxiety has increased yearly about the effects of a war in these altered circumstances. When it is realised that the war will be on three fronts, that the imports of raw [197] materials and half finished goods and the export of finished articles will be virtually crippled, it will be understood that Germany will be changed, abruptly, from a country connected on all sides with the industries of the world, to an isolated industrial zone, and it will also be grasped how much will have to be done to provide the people with means of life, and to produce what is needful.

The report that continued this gloomy preamble was practically a catalogue of the measures that were still to be taken to distribute supplies in the besieged country; very little was suggested on the great question how the siege was to be broken. The commission admitted, that they had entered into engagements with the great corn receivers at Rotterdam, whereby they were to purchase all the supplies they could, and forward them to Germany; but these purchases were only to be made at the outset. It was so uncertain whether they could be continued, that the commission did not suggest making Rotterdam a point of regular supply, and allocating rolling stock accordingly. The words of the chairman, Dr. Clemens Delbrück, are indeed explicit, that the future seemed dark and gloomy, and that the only relief to it was the hope of an early, crushing victory in the field.

      According to my memory of the business transacted, wrong and overcheerful reviews of our position, or a tepid reception of suggestions, is the last thing that can be charged against my colleagues. Certainly nobody anticipated that the war would begin so soon; but every person [on the commission], took his tasks most seriously, being persuaded by the enemy's encircling policy that defence against it would sooner or later be necessary. Admittedly it was often repeated, dogmatically, that a long war was impossible; but the members of the commission were too conscious of their responsibility to make up their minds upon such suppositions. Unfounded optimism was not what actually crippled our will power; it was rather the contrary, a well founded pessimism. There was a doubt, stronger and more widely felt than the official records can show, whether what was proposed would avert the danger or so much as mitigate it, whether real security was even possible [im Bereiche der Durchführbarkeit].

This being the considered opinion of the commission, in the first months of the year 1914, when the secretary for home affairs presented the last report, it can readily be understood how grave the whole future of Germany must have seemed in the last months of the year, when the naval and military war plans were under review. Falkenhayn had then abandoned his attack upon the Channel ports - a last desperate endeavour to secure a decision in the field - and was preparing for a spring campaign. The government were, therefore, menaced by the two dangers that the expert advisers had regarded as most serious: a protracted war, and a stoppage of commercial intercourse with America. It is therefore not surprising to find, that a way out, and a separate peace, were then commonly discussed at great headquarters; indeed Falkenhayn and Tirpitz appear to have talked of little else.10 Civilian ministers had an additional reason for being apprehensive of a protracted war, in that they appear to have undervalued the work of Delbrück's commission, and to have thought that the country was literally defenceless against economic pressure. Helfferich writes as though he thought that nothing had been done at all:

      We had no plan prepared for collecting, holding in reserve, and distributing the foodstuffs and raw materials needed for the people and the conduct of the war, or for maintaining our industry and commerce, or for grouping our supplies of labour......

It must be remembered, moreover, that whereas the British authorities were then imposing all the restraints that could possibly be imposed upon commerce, by applying the law of contraband and continuous voyage against it, and were persuaded that no more pressure could be exerted for a considerable time, the German authorities were convinced, that our economic campaign had only just begun. The decree of November, which was prepared by the Admiralty without consulting any other government department, and was intended only as precaution against mine-laying by neutrals, was by the Germans interpreted as a declaration of unlimited [198] economic war. The extraordinary stimulus given by this decree to the desperate counsels then in agitation will be explained later. It is only when all these dangers measured as the Germans then measured them, and not as we assess them now, with their greatness much depreciated by our memory of Germany's stupendous resistance, that we can understand how such crude proposals for a new war plan as were then canvassed, were agreed to by the chancellor and his colleagues.

Scriptorium comments:
for the German view of WW1 naval warfare, its backstory and events, please see here; for submarine warfare in particular, see here.
iii) The German naval war plan and its failure

The danger of a protracted war, and of the consequences that the German commissions had foretold might, in itself, have been enough to incline the German authorities to desperate expedients. They were, however, subject to an additional influence: the naval war plan was an admitted failure, and a sharp controversy about the plan most suitable as a substitute was engaging the attention of the high naval command, when the proposals for submarine war were first presented.

It has been explained, in a previous chapter, that until Admiral Wilson left the Admiralty, and a naval war staff was appointed, the British naval authorities intended to blockade the German coasts; and that the war orders under which the British fleet actually took up its stations were only issued a few months before war began. The first draft of the new war orders was, however, completed in 1912, so that, from this date, the project of closely blockading the German coasts may be said to have been abandoned.

The agents and observers upon whom the German authorities placed most reliance seem to have divined, vaguely, that our naval war plans were under revision; for in a report prepared shortly before war began, the German naval intelligence department stated, that they could not decide whether the British intended to blockade the German coasts closely or from a distance.

      There is nothing certain about how England will wage war. A series of fleet manoeuvres in previous years suggested a close blockade of our coasts; later manoeuvres, and a number of weighty considerations suggest that a distant blockade had been chosen as the starting point of the British war plan.11

The German naval staff decided, however, that under either plan, the British would place powerful outpost forces within striking distance of the German bases, and that these outposts would be supported by battle squadrons of the first line. It was also thought certain, that, under both plans, powerful squadrons would, from time to time, sweep into the Heligoland bight to attack the German outposts.

It was under these assumptions that the Germans drew up their first naval war plan. It was a plan of attrition: the forces supporting or operating the British blockade were to be reduced by minelaying and minor attack, or by offensive sweeps with the battle cruisers; when such losses had been inflicted that the battle fleets were roughly, of equal strength, then, the high seas fleet was to force a fleet action. The actual text of the order was as follows:

      His Majesty the Emperor has issued the following orders in respect to the conduct of war in the North sea:
      1. The object of the operations is to damage the British fleet: by offensive sweeps against the forces watching or blocking the German bight; by ruthless minelaying expeditions carried right up to the English coasts; and, when possible, by submarine attack.
      2. When this campaign has made the two forces equal [ein Kräfteausgleich geschaffen ist] all our forces shall be made ready and assembled, and an endeavour made to force an action under favourable circumstances. If a good opportunity offers before this, it is to be seized.
      3. War against commerce is to be conducted according to prize regulations. The commander-in-chief of the high seas fleet will give the orders for war against commerce in home waters.

[199] It will be as well to explain, with some particularity, why this plan was pronounced a failure during the first months of the war.

First as to the minelaying. The British battleship Audacious was certainly sunk on the German minefield off Tory island; but this did not shake the conviction of the German staff, that minelaying could not be made a major operation of naval war. Between August and the end of the year, the Germans made five minelaying expeditions. The minelayer Berlin had been unable to return; and two other expeditions (3rd November and 16th December) had been supported by the battle cruiser squadron and the high seas fleet. During the same period, two expeditions had been abandoned, and another overtaken and destroyed (17th October). The inference was clear: the campaign could not be pressed in the continuous, unremitting, fashion that a major operation is pressed, and it was futile to expect that the British fleet would be reduced by it.

In contrast to this, the U-boats, which were ordered to assist in this war of attrition, had inflicted considerable loss upon us: the Pathfinder, the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy, the Hawke, and the Formidable were all destroyed by U-boats during the first months of the war. This was impressive, and so high an authority as Sir Julian Corbett thought it strange:

      That a nation credited with so full a measure of the military spirit should so soon have turned its promising method of offence against a commercial objective instead of persevering in a purely naval one.

The explanation is that neither the German authorities nor the submarine commanders rated these successes as highly as the British official historian. It was evident to the enemy, that these dramatic blows had been struck against ships of low combatant power, and it was not until early in October that the U-boats established contact with the grand fleet, and got some measure of the task before them. The sweep conducted between 6th and 9th October by U-boats numbers 5, 12 and 16 seems to have made a deep impression. The track of the submarines carried them into a zone that grand fleet units were patrolling, and for many hours they watched the grand fleet squadrons passing and repassing them. They delivered one unsuccessful attack, and the difficulty of assisting that Kräfteausgleich, which was the first object of the war plan, must have been apparent to everybody concerned. This, moreover, was not the only failure. Simultaneously, the German submarine commanders made a very determined attempt to interrupt the movements of military transports in the Channel and the Flanders bight. They failed to sink a single one.

It must not therefore be imagined, that the first successes of the U-boats excited an exaggerated belief in their combatant power. Quite the contrary; as scouts they had failed; for the grand fleet was unlocated at the end of the year in spite of their repeated cruises into the North sea; as instruments of attack against first-class ships they had failed; and they had been powerless against fast-moving, escorted traffic. The German naval historian is probably repeating views expressed in the reports of these long cruises when he states:

      No U-boat had been able to score a success against war vessels after U 9's lucky attempt; for when the Hawke was destroyed the enemy withdrew his warships from their reach. [Emphasis added by Scriptorium.] In contrast to this, the sinking of the Glitra proved that submarines might be used successfully in war against commerce, although the U-boat commanders were satisfied, that it was the business of the surface forces to stop the heavy steamship traffic off the south-west coast of Norway by offensive sweeps.

Towards the end of the year, therefore, it was generally recognised at German headquarters, that although the submarine flotillas had done good service, they could not execute any part of the general plan of attrition. The submarine commanders were, in fact, representing strongly, that the operations upon which they were engaged had been misconceived, and that their orders needed drastic revision. Their opinions upon the operations they thought themselves best adapted to execute will be reviewed later.

[200] In the second paragraph of the German war orders there was a reference to a good opportunity of fighting a successful action with the British fleet. The good opportunity anticipated by the German naval staff was an offensive movement into the Heligoland bight by the entire British fleet, when it was hoped that the German squadrons would be able to give battle in their own waters, and among their own minefields. Their hopes were not unfounded. Admiral Wilson had intended to attack Heligoland and to seize islands on the German coast, but, as had been explained, his successors abandoned the plan. It is true that Admiral Fisher, who went to the Admiralty in October, was attempting to revive the project during the last months of the year; but this was unknown to the German staff, who seem to have been quite satisfied, that the British fleet would not execute a major operation against the German coasts. Indeed they believed, that the grand fleet had been permanently withdrawn from the North sea, and that it was based upon some remote Scottish inlet.

From all this, it will be understood that the operations by which the German fleet was to execute the great object of the war plan failed, successively, during the first months of the war. Indeed, nobody can fully appreciate how keenly the failure was felt by the German high command, and how insistently a more embracing war plan was being demanded, unless he reads the actual words in which the German admirals expressed their disappointment. Admiral von Tirpitz was, perhaps, the most emphatic, for he criticised the war plan from its first inception, and pronounced it an utter failure, with a force of argument that exasperated the emperor and his entourage. In a letter to Prince Henry of Prussia, dated 10th September, the high admiral wrote:

      Your Royal Highness will freely admit that our fleet was built for battle. Defensive, guerilla warfare can never, in my opinion, turn to our advantage. Believing this I am in opposition to the naval great ones of to-day and indeed to His Majesty......

Later, when he found that the commander-in-chief was partially of his opinion, he wrote a vigorous minute which he concluded:

      Experience shows that we cannot hope to equalize forces by this guerilla warfare, we can rather expect the opposite.12

These are two extracts from an enormous correspondence on the same subject. The high admiral's measured criticisms, sober appreciations, and intemperate sarcasms, have all been collected together; they cover about five hundred pages of print, and are little but repetitions, or variants, of a single assertion, that the German fleet had been built for battle, and not for a miserable Kleinkrieg.

In the letter quoted, High Admiral von Tirpitz referred to his disagreements with persons whom he called the naval great ones. He was certainly in open controversy with two admirals on the emperor's staff; but he appears to have had the weight of German naval opinion with him on the main issue, that the war plan was not succeeding, and needed revision. On this point the commander-in-chief, von Ingenohl, was as outspoken as Tirpitz himself:

      After six weeks of war, he wrote in his memoirs, the enemy had undertaken no offensive operation - with the exception of the sweep on 28th August - and our guerilla warfare had done nothing to equalise the forces, notwithstanding the enterprise and energy of the torpedo boats and submarines that had been engaged, and the single but splendid success of U 9. It therefore appeared to me that the general operation order was no longer adapted to existing circumstances. The assumption and basic hypothesis of the whole order had proved wrong, viz.: a strategic offensive by the enemy to enforce a blockade or to maintain a permanent watch upon the German bight. This alone would have provided an opportunity for equalizing the forces and fighting a major action under favourable conditions.13

It is true that Admiral von Ingenohl wrote this some years after he was removed from his command; but it accurately expressed his opinion, for his official representations were just as emphatic on the failure of the general plan. In the early autumn, he [201] reviewed the conduct of the war at sea, in a long paper which he sent to the chief of the naval staff for submission to the emperor. The paper contained the following passages:

      An operation with the entire high seas fleet is, in my opinion, the best way of securing an action with a detachment of the enemy fleet. But the operation order, and the emperor's wishes, communicated to me by your excellency, limit the employment of the high seas fleet; according to these orders we are to wait for an attack against the high seas fleet...... Our submarines and minelayers have, it is true, scored a few successes; but whether they will equalize the forces is, at the lowest, most doubtful. It is my firm conviction that this equalization of naval forces will only be effected by forcing one or more actions with detachments of the enemy's fleet. This however can only be done if we seize the initiative, take the entire high seas fleet to sea to cut off detachments of the enemy's fleet, which have been reported at great distances from their coasts.

Subordinate officers admitted the failure just as frankly as these high commanders, for at the end of the year, Captain Zenker, an officer of the operations division, circulated a paper at headquarters containing the following remarks:

      Notwithstanding the successes of our U-boats and our mining operations, we have not sensibly damaged the enemy's main forces. This mining warfare will not oblige the British to search for the enemy to their commerce, by blockading the German bight, or to seek him at his ways of exit...... The measures pursued thus far: U-boat patrols, mining expeditions and occasional attacks against the British coast will probably be even less productive in future...... When we consider the future conduct of the war at sea we must not count upon an equalization of forces, by minor attack, nor must we expect the enemy to alter his strategy, so long as we adhere to ours.

The German admirals and their staffs were not merely grumbling at the war plan, and criticising those whom they thought most responsible for it. They were, it is true, declaring the bankruptcy of the Kleinkrieg on which they were engaged; but they were far from declaring the greater purpose of the war orders to be impossible of achievement. On the contrary, they were asking with the greatest insistence, how the German fleet could best dispute the command of the ocean highways with the British. The war plan had been ordered for that purpose; it had failed, what plan of operations was to be substituted for it? If the German admirals had agreed that the best policy would be to engage the British fleet at the greatest advantage obtainable, and to force a decision, submarine operations against commerce would certainly have been postponed for many months, possibly they would never have been ordered. It so happened, however, that German naval opinion was sharply divided. Tirpitz, Ingenohl, Capelle, Behncke, and a number of captains serving at sea believed, that although the British fleet had been withdrawn further north than they had anticipated, it would still be possible to overwhelm detachments, if the high seas fleet were more freely employed; and that, after a succession of these partial victories, the German fleet would be able to force a general decision. There was, however, an equally strong body of opinion that disagreed; for Admiral von Müller, who advised the emperor on naval appointments and promotions; Admiral von Pohl, who advised the emperor on naval operations; and Admiral von Lans, who commanded one of the battle squadrons, each opposed any plan for engaging the high seas fleet in the northern and central parts of the North sea. Admiral Scheer, who subsequently became commander-in-chief, seems to have held views midway between these two opinions. By his subsequent conduct, he showed that he did not fear a fleet action; but he states expressly, in a paper written during these critical months, that a German success would never, in his opinion, be decisive enough to enable the German fleet to deprive the British of their control over the ocean highways:

      Even after a successful action we could scarcely hope so to control the ocean that we should drive English traffic off the sea.

The other admirals' objections to a fleet action were highly technical, and are therefore not relevant to this history.

[202] The question was repeatedly under discussion during the last months of the year 1914, and the opinions of the cautious party prevailed. Two imperial orders were issued, one in October, the second in January. The first order was substantially a decision that the Kleinkrieg be adhered to for the time being; the second granted the commander-in-chief more freedom than he had previously enjoyed, but it still debarred him from forcing a major action at any considerable distance from Heligoland. The last clauses in the order were decisive:

      The commander-in-chief is empowered to undertake frequent sweeps into the North sea, on his own judgement, with the object of cutting off and overwhelming outpost forces of the enemy. But he is to avoid, as far as possible, himself becoming engaged with superior enemy forces; [and must remember] that, as the general position stands to-day, the high seas fleet is of particularly high significance as a political instrument in the imperial hands, and that, in consequence an unsuccessful fleet action would be a very heavy burden.
      Projects for sweeps of greater compass, up to the enemy's coasts are to be submitted beforehand, to His Majesty the Emperor.

In the opinion of the staff this order left things as they were:

      His Majesty's decision...... (wrote Captain Zenker), is, in my opinion, equivalent to a refusal to agree to your excellency's proposal. Under this decision, the commander-in-chief is not empowered to change the conduct of war, and a radical change is necessary unless the fleet is to be for ever debarred from asserting its military and political influence......

Naval officers in high position did not unanimously endorse the last decision; but at least they must have realised that it would not be altered, for everybody knew that the emperor had not issued it on his own responsibility and without consultation. Pohl and Müller seem to have advised it, and the first order had only been issued after Pohl had summoned a general meeting of flag officers at Wilhelmshaven, and discussed the issues with them. Apart from this, it must have weighed with the emperor and his naval advisers, that Ballin, writing on behalf of the great shipping interests, most strongly urged that there should be no adventures at sea. If the German empire was to emerge from the war as a great maritime power, then, the structure of her maritime strength must be preserved undamaged. It was curious, that the great industrial magnates whom Ballin represented should have been urging that the German fleet should be kept for peace - after previously agreeing that hundreds of millions should be spent upon preparing it for war - but this was their considered opinion, and it was weighty and influential. Tirpitz has stated in an impressive passage of his memoirs that it was the German commercial magnates, and not the military aristocracy and the nobility, who unswervingly supported the great building programmes.14

This, therefore, was the position at the close of the year: The German navy were unanimous that Great Britain could not be permitted to enjoy the uncontested control of the ocean highways: but though united in purpose they were much divided as to method; and the most natural and simple plan of forcing a succession of great actions at sea was pronounced unwise after long and careful consideration. It was to a high command thus distracted that the first proposals for a new campaign at sea were submitted.

Scriptorium comments:
for the German view of WW1 submarine warfare, see here.
iv) The first proposals for submarine war on commerce

During the first weeks of the war, the German submarine commanders were engaged on the Kleinkrieg about which there was so much discussion at headquarters. They were, in consequence, employed on cruises against our main forces, in the northern and central parts of the North sea; and it was not until the end of September, that they were ordered to undertake warfare against our lines of communication. Towards the end of this month, the German high naval command despatched boats to interfere with the transports that were moving across the [203] Flanders bight and the eastern Channel; and it was by those who conducted these operations, and who watched the uninterrupted movement of commercial traffic to and from the Thames through their periscopes, that the first proposals were made. Captain von Hennig of U 18 was the first submarine commander to penetrate the Dover straits. He took up his station off Dover mole, and after remaining there for several hours, wrote in his log:

      Many freighters passed going to and from the Downs. In my opinion sinking a few merchantmen with U-boats would make an unexpected commotion in public opinion and disturb England's economic life. It would be easier to do this than to lay minefields.

The very first document on the subject thus contained a reference to the Kleinkrieg with which everybody was so dissatisfied, and to the terror that would seize the British nation if the submarine commanders could be given a free hand. Later on, this extraordinary confidence, that a score of U-boat commanders could terrorise millions of brave and resolute men infected everybody, and became a strong persuasive influence. [Scriptorium comments: this confidence was not as unwarranted as the author makes it seem; otherwise the Allies would not have made the complete and unconditional surrender of the entire German submarine force such a core demand in the Treaty of Versailles.]

Hennig's entry in his log was not, however, an official proposal: the first submission to high authority was made by Captain Bauer, who commanded the submarine flotillas, and who, in consequence, closely cross-questioned the U-boat commanders on their return. It does not appear, however, that Bauer was influenced by Hennig, for his argument was that the British minefield, which was laid across the straits as soon as the Admiralty learned that submarines had entered the Channel, was laid in violation of international law, and justified reprisals. He was, in fact, arguing that, as the minefield would restrict submarine cruises in the Channel, so, his commanders should be given more powers in zones where they were still free to operate.

      We must henceforward reckon that U-boats operating in the Channel will suffer losses, and I submit, with the greatest deference, that the following public announcement be made: If the barrage, illegally placed across the Channel is not withdrawn within a given period, the Germans will, on their side, start submarine operations against commercial traffic on all the British coasts.15

This proposal was laid before Admiral von Ingenohl, the commander-in-chief. A few days previously Admiral von Pohl had convened the conference of flag officers on board the Friedrich der Grosse, and had virtually informed them, that the war orders could not be revised, and that the battle fleet could not be engaged on any major operation. This may have inclined Ingenohl to Bauer's proposals to which he gave a good reception.

      From a purely military point of view, he wrote, I beg to point out that a campaign of submarines against commercial traffic on the British coasts, will strike the enemy on his weakest spot, and will make it evident, both to him and to his allies, that his power at sea, is to-day insufficient to protect his imports.16

Then, after referring to the heavy stream of commercial traffic that submarine commanders had observed off the firth of Forth and the Thames, Admiral von Ingenohl continued, that the consequences of sinking a few steamers off these great centres would be considerable; and that probably all the traffic up the east coast would come to a stand, if U-boats off the firth of Forth could block the harbour. Further, as there was then but little traffic to the German harbours, the enemy could not retaliate effectively. Admiral von Ingenohl was, however, conscious that the proposals could not be judged purely by their military value:

      It is beyond my judgment, he added, whether it will be held possible and feasible to proceed with this proposal, for considerations of policy and law, neutral opinion, and the weight to be attached to it, must be reviewed conjointly.

These documents were sent to the chief of the naval staff, and it will, at this point, be convenient to describe briefly, how the high naval command was constituted, and what were the responsibilities of those that belonged to it; for it was because [204] the constitution of the high command was peculiar, that the first proposals for submarine warfare were never critically examined. Under any other system of command, the proposals would have been subjected to that general inspection which serves as a check upon hasty decisions.

v) The composition and the powers of the German high command

By the constitution of the German empire, the emperor was responsible for all operations by land and by sea. He had, however, failed to exercise any effective control over continental operations; for, had he attempted this, he would have been compelled to live almost permanently at great headquarters, surrounded by a vast staff of military secretaries, and separated from his ministers at Berlin: in fact lost to the empire. His control over naval affairs was, however, more easily exercised, and we have it on the authority of Admiral von Tirpitz that he was determined to assert it. In point of fact his powers of control were great: the commander-in-chief was not empowered to take the fleet to sea, unless the operation he proposed had been explained to the emperor, and by him approved.17

Two officers of high rank were the emperor's principal naval advisers. As chief of the naval staff, Admiral von Pohl was responsible for preparing war plans, projects of operations and allocations of forces. In theory, he alone was responsible, but in practice, he seems to have felt obliged to consult other flag officers occasionally. The great defect of this arrangement was that whereas the officer holding the post should have been, above all things, a seaman of good judgment, the talents most useful to him were those of a courtier: the emperor's permission had to be obtained before any operation could be begun, and, according to Tirpitz, permission was more often obtained by cajolery than by rational explanation.

The emperor's other naval adviser was Admiral von Muller, the chief of the naval cabinet. In theory, it was his duty to advise the emperor upon appointments, promotions and honours; but it is undoubted that he had great influence on matters outside the boundaries of his official responsibility. The post of kabinetschef [sic] was the only naval office in Germany with a constitutional tradition, for the chiefs of the civil and military cabinets have, for centuries, been high officers in the Prussian government. These kabinetschefs have acted as secretaries on military and civil affairs, and were, in the past, responsible for informing the king of Prussia of all the facts and circumstances that he should be aware of, and of transacting, on their own responsibility, that daily business with which the king was not concerned. Naturally a great deal of responsibility was transferred from the kabinetchefs [sic] to the ministers of state, in the later constitutions of the empire: the fact remains that the offices survived, with all their traditional associations attached to them. It is therefore not surprising, that Tirpitz speaks of Admiral von Müller's extraordinary influence. This was inevitable, for his office was old: the office of naval secretary was new. It is, however, impossible to say exactly on what questions Müller exerted this influence: the published documents show that he drafted and transmitted the emperor's decisions on the conduct of war, and that he was empowered to discuss strategical questions with such men as Ballin. He was, therefore, well qualified to feel the pulse of public opinion on naval matters, and to report on it.

These two officers and their staffs were the emperor's principal advisers, and may be said to have constituted the high naval command; for the naval secretary, Tirpitz, was an administrative officer, responsible only for building programmes, material, and for naval budgets. As it was impossible to deny the officer who had built the German fleet the right to suggest how it should be employed, Pohl had been instructed, by a special order, to consult Tirpitz on war plans and operations. [205] This, however, gave the naval secretary no influence on questions that were settled by the emperor and his advisers. Tirpitz's objections to the Kleinkrieg war plan were consistently disregarded.

The theory of the constitution appears to have been, that the chiefs of the staff were solely responsible for naval and military strategy, and the chancellor and foreign secretary for political. The proposals that Ingenohl laid before the chief of the staff in the first week of October were, however, neither purely military nor purely political. When such matters were in agitation, it was the custom for the chief of the staff to come to a preliminary understanding with the chancellor. There was no difficulty about this; constant attendance on the emperor brought these two officers together, and, to judge by the documents exchanged between their staffs the union between their two offices was close. There was, however, another alternative: that of convening the chief officers of the empire, and obtaining their opinion. It is difficult to say anything certain about the powers of this extraordinary council. It was frequently assembled later on, when those present were consulted about the conduct of war; but it does not appear, from the minutes of proceedings, that this great council was a regular organ of the constitution. Officers who were present at one meeting were absent from another - which suggests that it had no regular composition - and it is to be remarked that Gebhart does not mention the council, in his work on the constitution. This council was not, therefore, a body comparable to a French or British cabinet, whose resolutions are binding orders to ministers of state. It appears rather, to have been an assembly convened at moments of great danger, and dismissed at pleasure. It was not consulted about the original proposals for submarine war, but was frequently convened, later on, to discuss its political repercussions.

From all this it will be evident, that although the civil and military officers of the empire had ample opportunity for consulting one another on matters midway between strategy and policy, they were, nevertheless, under no compulsion to submit their proposals to the general scrutiny and criticism of the whole government. In the documents published there is good testimony that the chief of the staff felt obliged to consult the chancellor and the foreign secretary; but there is in them nothing analogous to the minutes that are always to be found upon the original documents of the British orders in council, diplomatic notes to America, and the other great measures of the economic campaign: To be brought before the cabinet, or: Cabinet approves. This may explain in part, why the history of the submarine campaign is a record of furious charges and precipitate retreats, and the history of its great opponent, the blockade, a record of regular progress.

vi) The German government misunderstand the British order of 2nd November, which gives a great incentive to submarine warfare

Admiral von Pohl did not feel obliged to consult the political officers about the first proposals, and decided on his own authority, that they could not be pressed. He considered that submarine warfare against commerce was a rude violation of international law, and did not think that British violations warranted it. He added, however, that the proposals, if executed, would make a great impression, and would probably incline England to peace. He therefore agreed with Ingenohl upon their military value. The two persons who considered the question were thus persuaded, at the outset, that the measures proposed were justifiable only as a reprisal.

The Admiralty declaration of 2nd November gave the German naval authorities the excuse for which they were waiting. It was, in fact, quite misunderstood by them, which is natural. Before it was issued, Germans of every condition were apprehensive [206] of the economic campaign, and they regarded this November declaration as an announcement that it would be pressed with the utmost vigour. Ballin spoke of our first order in council as a measure of extraordinary and quite unwarranted coercion; Ingenohl thought the same, and wrote to Pohl that the British government intended to stop all German commerce with the outer world. As these expressions were used in private correspondence, which the writers did not intend to be circulated, they show that whereas we considered, in the first months of the war, that we were conducting a restricted campaign for stopping contraband, the German authorities regarded it as unlimited economic war. They circulated a note to neutrals in which they virtually so described our first measures; and as the note is an elaboration of sentiments that high officers expressed in their private correspondence with one another, it would be futile to describe it as a partisan statement. It was rather a document that faithfully accorded how much the German government dreaded a danger that had been reviewed at intervals for twenty years, and which, on each successive assessment, had appeared more formidable.18

It is not surprising, therefore, that the German authorities considered the November declaration to be an announcement that the country was blockaded. Two days after the declaration was published, Admiral von Pohl reversed his first decision, and laid a general proposal for submarine warfare against commerce before the chancellor; in it, he claimed that the recent declaration justified the measure, as the German government had an obvious right to extraordinary retaliation. As this German claim, that they had a right to make reprisals has been treated with great levity by British publicists, it will be worth while to discover what opinions were honestly held in Germany and for what reasons.

vii) The German government's opinion upon reprisals

Both the chancellor and Helfferich have maintained, that England's measures for subjecting Germany to economic duress were quite unjustifiable. Their remarks are, however, very general, and are not directed against any particular measure. It is not possible to decide, from what they have written, whether the measures in force when submarine warfare was begun, that is the orders in council of August and October, were by them considered as flagrant violations of legal principle. It is true that the chancellor's words come rather near it, for he says:

      Even though there was no international code about U-boat warfare, our claim to neutral tolerance was nevertheless well founded. Viewed from the standpoint of international law the U-boat warfare was a reprisal against England's hunger blockade.

This, however, is not satisfactory. When the German government ordered submarine war, the British authorities were only intercepting contraband, and were not attempting to impose a hunger blockade. The chancellor, writing retrospectively, has obviously confused dates and facts. But he expressed exactly the same conviction, that the government had a right to exercise reprisals, in an official paper to Admiral von Pohl, which was written in December, 1914, when every clause and sentence of our orders in council must have been familiar to him:

      When we consider the purely utilitarian rules by which the enemy regulate their conduct, [when we think] of their ruthless pressure on neutrals, on the pretext that they are stopping contraband, we may conclude that we are entitled to adopt whatever measure of war is most likely to bring them to surrender......19

Unless we dismiss these words as the statement of an expert hypocrite (for which we have no warrant) it must be granted that they express an opinion honestly held.

[207] Helfferich is equally vague as to facts but quite as explicit as to the general proposition:20

      As soon as war began, he writes, the British government issued orders which forbad all payments to persons living in enemy territories under pain of penalties. The prohibition was soon extended to any transaction with the enemy...... British measures at sea were even more severe. Without allowing her purpose to be deflected by international custom, Great Britain subjected all commerce, even that of neutrals to her control in order to stop all traffic to Germany, direct or indirect. Then neutrals were subjected to control, in their own country, so that the blockade should be effective along all Germany's borders. From the moment war began, Great Britain, supported by her allies, openly and ruthlessly endeavoured to supplement the pressure of her land and sea forces by an economic strangulation. By stopping raw materials required by Germany in war, the country was to be made defenceless, by stopping imported foodstuffs she was to be starved and forced to surrender. From the very beginning Great Britain treated this not as a means, but as an object of war: independently of military operations Germany was to be reduced to submission by economic pressure; Germany's industrial strength - so harassing to Great Britain - was to be stricken a death blow......

It is not relevant that these statements are arguable; for the question at issue is not whether a court of justice would decide that our orders in council, and our contraband agreements with neutrals, were as illegal as the German ministers claim them to have been, but simply, how German ministers viewed the economic campaign at the close of the year. As evidence of a conviction these statements are decisive, for no doubts can be thrown upon the honour of those who made them. They are, moreover, confirmed by a document of an entirely different kind: Dr. Kriege's official paper on the German government's right to reprisal. This gentleman was a legal adviser to the German foreign office, and it would be waste of time to question his honesty. Dr. Kriege maintained, that as the declaration of London had been acknowledged to be a code of recognised custom, so, a flagrant breach of it was a breach of international law. The British government had, in his view, violated the declaration, not perhaps by one particular measure, but by their general conduct. By assimilating conditional to absolute contraband, and by declaring commodities on the free list to be contraband, the British government were imposing restraints upon commerce not warranted, indeed expressly forbidden, by customary law. None of these measures had been taken as a reprisal against anything done by Germany, and were therefore mere arbitrary acts of power.

It would be just as easy to answer Dr. Kriege's interpretation of the law as it would to answer the chancellor's and Helfferich's; but his statement, like theirs, is here only recorded as evidence of a conviction; moreover, all three statements must be adjusted to the circumstances in which they were made, and to their antecedents. The German official historians have proved, that German statesmen had always considered the declaration of London to be a protection against economic pressure, and had been so confident that it was an adequate protection, that they had deprecated making preparations for resisting an economic campaign. But we know from the reports of our expert observers, that in the last months of 1914, Germany was being subjected to economic pressure far more severe than we had thought possible to be inflicted with the engines of pressure that we controlled. It was not until the early months of the new year, that the first German recovery was evident. Surprise that Germany should so suddenly have suffered such wants; terror of the dangers ahead; ignorance of the country's resisting power, evidently combined to make the danger appear greater than it actually was, and to convince the German authorities that their country was being subjected to unwarranted coercion; and that they, in consequence, could justifiably order extraordinary measures of retaliation. From the moment that Admiral von Pohl's proposals were received in the chancellor's office, those proposals were tested solely by the rules of expediency. The emperor's emotional dislike of submarine warfare, Pohl's original hesitations [208] were no longer an obstacle;21 nor did the German foreign office ever object that the proposals were in themselves, unjustifiable. A number of circumstances thus made the project submitted by Admiral von Pohl exceptionally attractive.

viii) Why the first proposal for submarine warfare was thought premature

In the paper now submitted to the chancellor, Admiral von Pohl suggested that Great Britain should be declared blockaded, and that neutral governments should be warned, that as the blockade was to be executed by submarines, neutral ships would run a grave danger of being sunk without warning, if they attempted to break it. He had, however, presented this paper without waiting for the report which he had ordered his staff to make, and they saw serious technical objections. They estimated, in the first place, that ten blocking positions would have to be held, if anything resembling a blockade was to be enforced, and although they thought that this would be very difficult, they deemed it just barely possible. They were, however, exceedingly sceptical of the results. The extraordinary campaign against commerce would only be justifiable if it were really successful; it would only be so, if it were executed for a long time, and were so destructive and terrifying, that neutral shipping avoided British harbours. The staff did not, at the moment, state whether they thought this probable or not, but they added unequivocally: We are not in a position so to cut off England's imports that the country will suffer hunger.

This report was prepared after consultation with the foreign office officials, who presented another.22 Having been warned by the naval staff that the submarine fleet was hardly strong enough to execute the project, the diplomatic advisers drew attention to the political dangers of threatening more than would be actually done. The strength of neutral protests would, in their opinion, be in inverse ratio to the success of the plan; sporadic sinkings would not so terrify them that they would avoid the danger zone, and would, indeed, only harden their opposition and make it dangerous. It was, therefore, essential that the operating submarines should stop all traffic to England for a week at a time. If less destruction and stoppage was anticipated, then it would be better to wait until more submarines were available, and the military position on the continent was really good. The naval secretary objected to the proposal for exactly the same reasons. Tirpitz admitted that submarine war was the last and most effective means of coercing England; it was, on that account all the more important that it should only be tried when everything was ready. The moment chosen by the chief of staff was obviously unsuitable: Lord Fisher had recently replaced Prince Louis of Battenberg at the Admiralty, which made it probable that the British fleet would make some attempt against the German bight; until British intentions were clearer, it would be most unwise to detach large numbers of U-boats from the high seas fleet to make war on commerce. The entire proposal, concluded the naval secretary, sounds too much like bluff.23

The chancellor was not called upon to exert himself against this proposal, for the emperor, uninfluenced by him, was not prepared to countenance it. On 25th November, he ordered Pohl and Captain Zenker to attend him at dinner, and told them, he did not approve of the suggestion.24 He confirmed this, on the following day, to Tirpitz, to whom he said that he had no objection to submarine war, in itself, but that he was determined to wait until it could be waged effectively. If these objections to beginning submarine war without adequate preparation had [209] been sustained, submarine operations against commerce would not have been attempted until much later; when attempted, the method of execution would have been entirely different, and the German authorities would not have involved their country in an overwhelming catastrophe; for it will be shown later, that the American government would have tolerated submarine operations, if certain limiting precautions had been imposed. But these objections to a hasty, ill-conceived operation were either abandoned by those who first made them, or swept away by others in a few brief weeks. Indeed, a scandalous pamphleteer would hardly dare to accuse the German authorities of such levity and frivolity as their own official records prove them guilty of.

ix) The proposal for submarine warfare raised again

It is rather curious that Admiral von Pohl, who has been described as the smallest and the vainest of men, should have over-persuaded so many persons more eminent than himself. That he did so is proof, that even though he had the faults charged to him, he was also a man with an extraordinary talent for manipulation. On 14th December, that is, just three weeks after the emperor had refused to entertain his proposals, he sent a new paper to the foreign office. His arguments were these: during the discussions that had just come to an end, the foreign office had proved that there were serious objections to declaring England blockaded; Admiral von Pohl therefore proposed to declare the waters round England to be a war area, and to use the same language, and the same warnings of danger, that the British government had used in their November proclamation.25 The foreign office had also objected to beginning the campaign prematurely; in reply to this Pohl stated, that by the end of January, the naval authorities would have made all the necessary preparations: he therefore proposed to issue the declaration on that date; to give neutrals a fortnight's delay; and to begin active operations at the end of February.

For the moment, this new paper only provoked a repetition of all the objections that had previously been made. Tirpitz explained, that the submarine fleet would only be ready when a large number of small boats could be massed at the Belgian bases for operations against the Thames and the Channel; he could not promise the necessary forces until the autumn. Admiral von Müller also opposed the suggestion. The chancellor was therefore still supported by expert naval opinion, when he objected to proceeding further with the proposals. In common with the other political advisers he had peculiar reasons for being distrustful of this new naval plan. Early in December, the Italian ambassador at Vienna informed the Austrian authorities, that their invasion of Serbia upset the equilibrium of central Europe, and that Italy was entitled to compensations. This communication presumably warned every diplomat in the central empires, that the consulta was critical and unfriendly, and might become dangerous. Hitherto the German foreign office had only dreaded serious opposition from America; henceforward therefore they had this additional anxiety, that the Italian government might make submarine war a pretext for giving a nasty turn to negotiations that would, in any case, be difficult to conduct successfully.

The substance of the chancellor's reply was, therefore, that there was great danger of active opposition by America and Italy.26 America might order a commercial boycott of Germany - which would effectively stop such indirect trade as was being maintained through neutrals - the Italian government was very uncertain. Why then, provoke this dangerous opposition, at the very moment when the British, by their coercion of neutrals, seemed in a fair way to exasperate half Europe? For the recent meeting of the Scandinavian kings at Malmö seemed proof that the northern neutrals would not tolerate British restraints upon their commerce. [210] The chancellor considered, moreover, that submarine warfare should only be begun, if the submarine fleet were strong enough, and if the military position were really good. At the moment, the military position was that there was a deadlock on both fronts, and that the Austrians had been defeated in Serbia.

x) Admiral von Pohl made commander-in-chief; the German public begin to exert pressure

Admiral von Pohl answered this in a rather feeble paper; but, in the meantime, circumstances combined to rally naval experts around him, and to introduce a new influence: the pressure of public opinion. If the objections hitherto raised by the naval experts are inspected closely, they suggest that Admiral von Pohl's staff and Tirpitz had not reviewed the suggestion for submarine war as a single proposal; but had all the while been adjusting it to the bigger controversy about seeking a decision with the battle fleet. They had not abandoned the hope that permission to force a fleet action would be given, and had therefore been trying to adjust submarine warfare against commerce to their bigger plans for forcing a decision at sea. This is certainly the explanation of Tirpitz's objections to detaching large numbers of submarines from the high seas fleet; and there is a passage in the first appreciation of the naval staff, in which they suggest that submarine war against commerce should be made part of a general plan of operations, executed by all available forces. So long as the naval staff hoped that the entire naval war plan might be reconsidered, it was natural that they should receive all subsidiary projects cautiously. But on 7th January the second imperial order was issued to the fleet, in which the commander-in-chief was forbidden to engage the battle squadron seriously; in addition, as though to make the order more rigid, it was then generally known, that the emperor intended to remove Ingenohl from the command of the high seas fleet, and to replace him by Pohl, who was very adverse to great fleet actions. Henceforward, therefore, submarine warfare against commerce was the only naval war plan being considered; even Tirpitz admitted it was no longer of any use to urge that the high seas fleet should be more freely used. During this month of January there was, in consequence, a sharp change in naval opinion. On 20th January, the staff, which a few weeks before had reported against starting submarine war, reversed all they had previously said, and urged that it should be begun without delay. Henceforward, writes their official historian, Admiral von Pohl was pressed on by his own staff.27

The chief of the staff was assisted by another adventitious circumstance. The German naval staff had never examined how economic warfare could best be waged against the British empire; the plans considered and approved had, apparently, been plans for breaking a close blockade, and for making the German coasts unapproachable; pelagic operations had never been considered. Now only Captain Bauer and the captains of the U-boats had any expert knowledge of submarine operations; neither Pohl nor any member of his staff had ever served in a submarine. The matter under discussion was, therefore, one about which few positive facts had been collected, so that when Pohl made dogmatic statements, nobody could refute or even criticise them. This immunity from criticism was of the greatest service to him; and he unexpectedly received support from yet another quarter.

On 21st-22nd December, that is just after Pohl raised the question afresh, the great organs of the German press published the report of an interview between Admiral von Tirpitz and an American pressman.28 During the interview, the naval secretary stated:

      America has raised no protest and has done little or nothing to stop the closing of the North sea against neutral shipping. Now what will America say if Germany institutes a submarine blockade of all England to stop all traffic?

[211] The pressman then asked whether such measures were contemplated. Admiral von Tirpitz answered:

      Why not if we are driven to extremities? England is endeavouring to starve us; we can do the same, cut off England and sink every vessel that attempts to break the blockade.

This interview had apparently been given a month previously; but the German censorship was only asked to pass it for publication on 19th December. They discovered, upon enquiry, that a copy had been carried past the frontiers by a press courier, and that the foreign press had already published it. The truth is that Admiral von Tirpitz had been taken unawares. The interview took place in his bedroom at great headquarters: his bed was still unmade, and he had presumably only just got up.29 He did, it is true, make the pressman promise to submit his report of the interview to the foreign office; but he took no precautions. He was probably sleepy and tired.

When the German nation studied the report of this interview, foodstuffs were becoming scarce, and the great industries were still dislocated by the first shock of the war. The people read in it an announcement that this incipient blockade would be broken; their reception of the news is best described in the chancellor's own words:

      The first and decisive step was thus taken. The enemy was openly warned to prepare for a submarine blockade; an infallible measure of war was announced to the German people. Thereafter U-boat warfare was not to be removed from the heart of the people.30

For the time being the chancellor stood to his objections, and the emperor supported him. On 7th January, Admiral von Pohl's second proposal was answered by an imperial order, that submarine warfare was to be postponed for the time being; and that, when the military position was clearer, the question was to be raised again. This was the chancellor's view; but forces were now gathering that neither he nor the emperor could control.

      The chief of the staff and his advisers were not only supported by public opinion (writes the official historian) they were openly driven by it. The report of the Wiegand-Tirpitz interview echoed through the German press. Thereafter, the high naval command, and the political authorities, were assailed by a mass of papers written by eminent financiers, shipping and industrial magnates, politicians and scientists, in which they urged the government not to be deterred from using a decisive weapon by any false misgivings.

The pressure was, indeed, the more difficult to resist in that it was now exercised by persons of high qualifications and knowledge, who knew well how to support their petitions with telling arguments and statistics. In January, the chancellor, the chief of the naval staff, and the commander-in-chief of the high seas fleet received a paper prepared by the highest unofficial experts in the empire: the professor of political science, the professor of law, and five other dignitaries of the university of Berlin added their signatures by way of endorsement.31 Men of such high standing cannot be silenced by any censorship; for, whatever laws may be enforced, persons in their position can always persuade thousands, by explaining their views in their lecture rooms and in society. The paper circulated by these gentlemen was the more weighty in that it was extremely sober. After carefully considering the available facts, the university experts gave it as their opinion, that the industries of the country would not be paralysed by the existing shortages, and that they would shortly revive. Also, the professors considered that difficulties of distribution, then so apparent, would soon be overcome. They insisted, [212] however, that the recovery would be temporary; and that it could only be made permanent by forcing Great Britain to relax some of the restraints imposed upon neutral commerce:

      If matters reach such a pass that our navy is not able to prevent an organised attack upon our commerce, it will no longer be a fact that we can supply ourselves with necessaries...... or that starvation is not to be feared. On the contrary; in this case there will be a serious shortage of imports, and if the shortage continues for a whole year, after our stocks of domestic wheat, cereals and other foodstuffs are exhausted, there will not only be a tremendous rise in prices, which must cause a panic, but such a lack of everything necessary that the country will no longer endure the war......

The professors completed this by a survey of British stocks, and importations, from which they concluded, that a general organised attack upon London by airships, and upon sea-borne commerce by submarines, would so reduce British supplies that the country would be in great difficulties.

xi) Admiral von Pohl persuades the chancellor and the emperor

Being conscious that he was now so universally supported, and that his wishes would sooner or later be irresistible, Pohl took no heed of the last imperial order, and repeated his proposals. There was, however, one person whose objections were not to be overcome by merely repeating what had already been urged; for the chancellor stood firmly to all his objections to a war plan that would exasperate America and Italy, and was not to be shaken. His objections were overcome by downright misrepresentation. On 1st February, Pohl discussed the whole matter at the foreign office. Besides himself, Bethmann Hollweg, Zimmermann, the assistant foreign secretary, Clemens Delbrück, the minister for home affairs, and General von Falkenhayn, the chief of the general staff, were present. No minutes were taken, but Zimmermann states, that he remembers the conference; and that, after Bethmann Hollweg repeated all his fears about the irritation of neutrals, Pohl answered, that it would be possible to distinguish between enemy and neutral ships; and that only enemy ships would be sunk. The chancellor then said that he would not raise any further objections. It has been questioned whether Zimmermann's memory is to be relied upon, and it has to be admitted, that the assistant secretary could easily be mistaken about an interview which took place some sixteen years before he was asked to describe what took place. Some exceptional assurance must, however, have been given; for the chancellor admits he was persuaded against his better judgment:

      I must admit without disguise, that in the winter of 1914, the confidence of the naval leaders made an impression upon me. I did not strongly resist the urgent representations of the naval staff.32

After this, the emperor's consent was easily obtained; but Pohl took every precaution that his assurances, whatever they may have been, should not be subjected to the scrutiny and criticism of the other admirals on the high command. He carefully concealed his interview with the chancellor from Tirpitz, and when Admiral Bachmann relieved him as chief of the staff, on the following day, he informed him that the matter had been settled, and that it could not be raised again. Bachmann was astounded to discover that a declaration was prepared and ready for issue. The emperor had still to give his consent, but this was easily secured: on 4th February he inspected the high seas fleet, over which Pohl was about to take command, and while the kaiser was in the cabin of a picket boat that was carrying him across the harbour, confused and flustered by the bustle of an official inspection, Pohl took the orders for submarine war from an inner pocket of his coat, and the emperor signed them. In this extraordinary manner, and under this extraordinary combination of circumstances, submarine war upon commerce, one of the boldest [213] and most desperate campaigns in the history of sea warfare, was ordered to be begun.33 As the complex of measures that is popularly known as the blockade of Germany, and the German fleet's operations at sea may henceforward be likened to opponents engaged in a relentless struggle, it will be appropriate, at this point, to compare the strength and fitness of the two antagonists.

xii) British and German methods of exerting economic pressure

The economic campaign against Germany, and submarine war upon commerce were being executed for a common purpose: the control of communications; and as the object of nearly every great operation, whether it be conducted by land or by sea, is to stop up an enemy's communications, or to enlarge your own, both plans were well adjusted to the great purposes of war. The German plan of operations was virtually an assertion, that submarine commanders must be allowed to exercise the same severities at sea that commanders of armies have always exercised by land: it assimilated the sea communications of the empire to strategic roads and railways, and it assumed belligerency in whole nations, since everything necessary to the British nation was to be destroyed. This assumption that the civil population are belligerents of a second order is the excuse for all strategic devastations. The Palatinate was wasted in order that the imperial armies should be denied the agriculture produce of the country; Marlborough destroyed the farms and crops and cattle in Bavaria for a similar purpose; Wolfe ravaged the province of Quebec for the same reason. In fact, requisitions that leave whole populations starving, and strategic devastations that spread ruin, desolation and famine are the commonplaces of military history; and it would be pedantry to multiply illustrations. The argument that pure communicational warfare at sea is exceptionally cruel is therefore hollow and unsound. The civil population has always been afflicted by this form of warfare, and it has always been their scourge. The thirty years' war reduced the population of Germany by millions; the seven years' war was nearly as destructive; Massena's requisitions, and the evacuations ordered by Wellington in Portugal starved 40,000 souls. These tremendous calamities have been inflicted by armies endeavouring to secure and to deny supplies: the very purpose in which the British foreign office and the German submarine commanders were engaged. The statement, that civilians and armed forces have only been treated as a single belligerent mass since the year 1914, is one of the most ridiculous that has ever been uttered: more ridiculous still, the statement has been accepted as true in a country where a hundred million pounds of public money are spent yearly on the people's education.

It will be objected that this analogy between land and sea warfare is imperfect because the belligerent on land has full jurisdiction over the territory that he holds, whereas the sea is a locus communis usus, where neutrals, as well as belligerents, have rights; and where such rights as a belligerent possesses, are only exercisable when he has complete control of the waters in which he operates. That is certainly the law, but it does not damage the analogy; for the sea, like the land, is subject to what one may call a higher law of war, from which neither treaties, [214] nor conventions nor written codes will exempt it. This higher law of war may be stated thus: the greatest devastations of property that are recorded in military history have been ordered by a belligerent, who is determined that his enemy shall not enjoy the use and benefit of some tract of country; and who only has an imperfect, or temporary, possession of the district from which he wishes to debar his enemy. A moments reflection will shew that the economic campaign against Great Britain was subject to this general law. For the first time in history, economic warfare was becoming a major operation, which promised to be decisive: in every major operation there is a decisive theatre, and the decisive theatre in the economic campaign against Great Britain was the Channel, and its western approaches, and the Irish sea. The Germans were thus bound to deny their enemies the use and enjoyment of this theatre as far as they were able; they could not do this by establishing a full, undisputed control of waters that they could only enter as raiders, for which reason, they were driven, by sheer necessity, to operate by destruction.

The confused and tortuous state papers of the German authorities, and the crafty manoeuvres of Admiral von Pohl must not, therefore, be allowed to excite prejudice against the principle for which they were contending. The principle was sound on all points, if tested by military logic, and was that every area of strategic importance, whether it be a town, a district, or a zone of water, may properly be treated as a theatre of military operations; and that inasmuch as the Channel and its western approaches constituted a zone with a strategic importance equal to that of Toul, Verdun and northern France, so, it was ridiculous to struggle for the mastery of the one with vast armies, and military engines of every kind, and to allow Great Britain the undisputed enjoyment of the other. The weakness of the German plan was that it could only be justified by logic and reason, which do not in themselves make drastic innovations palatable.

It would be waste of time to recite the rules of comity, which have tempered the practices of sea war; and it must be sufficient to say, that the accepted rules of international law quite obviously forbad such operations as the Germans were about to undertake. But just as our authorities discovered, that rules elaborated largely by the civilians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could not be applied ad litteram against the complicated transactions of modern commerce, so, the Germans could claim with equal justice, that rules elaborated when cargoes were intercepted, searched and destroyed by three deckers and frigates, and when the political structure of Europe was entirely different, were in need of revision. They could in fact argue, that, whereas the British government were controlling the communications of northern Europe by elaborate diplomatic instruments, strengthened by all the mechanical devices of the modern world: telegraphy, scientific deciphering and the rest, they, on their part, were debarred from attacking the communications of the British empire, unless they did so in the eighteenth century manner.

It is, however, a mere commonplace that all the restraints imposed upon war against sea-borne commerce are concessions to neutrals; for if commanders at sea had been as free as commanders by land, they would long since have treated all cargoes with a hostile destination as army leaders have treated crops, cattle and industrial plant. It followed, therefore, that war upon commerce could only be relaxed or enlarged after very careful tests of what neutrals would tolerate; and it was on this point that the British plan was incomparably the better. We claimed, that our contraband agreements with neutrals, and the private agreements with great traders and shipping firms were instruments for applying the law of continuous voyage; that they were necessary for adjusting the law to present circumstances, and justifiable, because the essential principles of the law were upheld. A supreme [215] court of justice might, or might not, endorse this, which is not a matter of great moment. Strict legality does not in itself satisfy neutrals; for practices that the most learned lawyers in England honestly believed to be justifiable in law, raised two coalitions (politely termed neutralities) against us. The great virtue of our practice in 1914 was that every claim advanced was carefully tested by long negotiations; for every sentence in every agreement was inserted after discussion and treaty, and was thus a record of what would be tolerated. Our practice was therefore tried step by step and was a slow experimental adjustment of old rules to modern circumstances.

In contrast to this, the German plan tested the temper of neutrals by experiments of which nobody could foresee the outcome. The political consequences of sinking a small cargo steamer with a miscellaneous lading, and a crew of obscure and humble men, were certainly less dangerous than the consequences of sinking a steamer that carries persons of wealth and influence; but no submarine commander, when he fired his torpedo, could foretell whether, by doing so, he would involve his government in serious complications; or whether he would merely make them the recipients of a formal protest. The authorities that ordered the operations were even less able to calculate the consequences, or to mitigate them. The whole plan was thus a hazardous experiment, which was operated by contributory experiments on the high seas that were even more hazardous.

This was not the only point in which the British plan was superior. It is undoubted, that the difficulty of operating either plan successfully was the difficulty of adjusting purely military conceptions of war to what political caution demanded. This was hard to surmount, because a plea for severe measures will always sound more convincing than a plea for caution, notwithstanding that prudence is as necessary to the conduct of war as boldness. It was not a peculiarity of German generals to urge that necessity knows no law, but it was a defect in the German system that this counsel was allowed to become irresistible. Now the British system gave ample opportunities for adjusting this inevitable conflict between military and diplomatic opinion, and of doing justice to each, simply because no section of the administration was independent or powerful enough to force a serious diplomatic conflict by its own acts. To give a single example: the severe detentions of Swedish copper, during the last months of the year, certainly provoked a controversy between the British and Swedish governments; but the controversy was not comparable to those excited by the German submarine commanders, and in any case, as it fell to the Foreign Office to conciliate the Swedish government, and to consider their complaints, they were at once able to judge, whether the contraband committee's severities were likely to cause a serious complication or not.

Again, American opposition and anger was a danger that threatened the British economic campaign, and German U-boat warfare, alike, and our precautions against it were by far the more effective. It is true the British administration cannot take the entire credit for reducing the chronic controversy with America to an exchange of notes, for American public opinion was more or less decided that the controversy should never be serious; but at least it was left entirely to the Foreign Office to watch over this great danger of American opposition, and to do whatever was necessary to avert it. No section of the government could possibly have forced the Foreign Office to subordinate Anglo-American politics to military necessity. In contrast to this, the German naval authorities did actually maintain, that the operations of the submarine fleet should not be impeded by concessions to the American government, and they frequently had their own way.

Moreover, there was no possible reconciliation between what the German submarine commanders and the German admirals demanded, and the precautions that the German foreign office thought necessary. When the German diplomats insisted, that neutral shipping must not be treated with the same severity as enemy ships, [216] the German seamen replied, that for technical reasons differentiation was impossible. Neither the emperor nor the chancellor could ever adjust these differences; indeed the German navy and the German diplomatic service were demanding things so different, that each successive order upon the conduct of submarine war became, virtually, an announcement that the foreign office's proposals had been entirely granted, or entirely refused. It will be shown, later, that this inevitable conflict between civil and military opinion began a few days after the declaration had been issued, and that it was a juxtaposition of demands intrinsically irreconcilable.

Finally, there was a fatal weakness in the German plan: it was a calculation of success, which started from an assumption so ridiculous, that it is difficult to understand how it could ever have been entertained. The German naval experts admitted freely, that they could not stop British supplies merely by sinking; they hoped, nevertheless, that seamen of all nations would be so terrified by their operations, that all neutral traffic would abandon British harbours; and that the British nation would be so panic stricken, that their government would sue for peace. Their confidence as to this can only be appreciated by reading the expressions they used, and the statements that they made, in the secret and official papers that they exchanged with one another:

      (i) We must reckon after all, that we are not in a position so to cut off British exports that the nation suffers hunger. But it is to be hoped that losses in ships and cargoes, added to losses in human lives will be such a threat to Great Britain's safety and well-being that, combined with the diversion of neutral traffic it will incline the nation to peace. (Official report of the naval staff to Admiral von Pohl, 13th November, 1914.)
      (ii) Before we can judge of the miscarriage (Misserfolg) feared by the staff, we must be clear as to what kind of success is anticipated. This success will not be the entire destruction of British trade, but will be achieved by terror, which will reduce supplies by forcing traffic on to uneconomic routes, and by raising insurance premiums. (Captain Bauer, commander of the U-boat flotillas to the Commander-in-chief, high seas fleet, 1st January, 1915.)
      (iii) I told [the chancellor] that, inasmuch as submarine war upon commerce was an untried experiment, there could be no absolute certainty about its military consequences. But I was persuaded that such a deep impression would be made that a great number of merchantmen would be held back by the menace...... (Minute of conversation between Tirpitz and the chancellor, 27th January, 1915. Politische Dokumente, p. 301.)
      (iv) The naval secretary and the chief of the naval staff are persuaded that Great Britain will give way [einlenken] six weeks after the new war on commerce begins provided that all available military means are applied to this form of warfare. (Joint report of Tirpitz and Bachmann, 15th November, 1915. Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 119.)
      (v) The declaration of commerce warfare against England has already exercised a terrifying influence. The commerce of the northern kingdoms with the east coast of England is already crippled. But this will only continue if our U-boats in the North sea make themselves conspicuous. (Bachmann to the Emperor, 19th November, 1915. Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 132.)

Many of the German staff's miscalculations can be explained and understood, but this one is simply incomprehensible. It can be understood, for instance, why they estimated that half of the submarine fleet would always be actively engaged upon operations, whereas experience was to show, that only a third to a fifth could be counted upon. The mistake was natural: submarines had hitherto only been employed as raiders and reconnaissance vessels; the additional repairs, refits and rests that would be necessary when they were engaged in a continuous, unbroken operation had not been calculated, and were still incalculable. But why should the German staff have imagined that their enemies were so timid, when everything proved the contrary? If the British nation was to be stricken with a craven panic by a mere threat of danger, the western front would long since have been broken, and the British armies would have been scattered fugitives in all the towns of France; for not even the German staff can have supposed that Englishmen are brave men in France, and arrant cowards when they live at home. As for the assumption that shipping of all nations would fly in terror from four to six U-boats, posted off a few [217] British harbours - no more were available at the time - it was equally extraordinary. If Tirpitz, Bachmann, and the staff had been counting for success upon the exceptional courage and discipline of the German navy, they would have made no miscalculation. This, however, was not their method of reckoning. They started from an assumption that experienced seamen ought never to have made; for they had served long enough at sea to know, that seamen do not lack courage, and that although sailors may be charged with many faults, they cannot be accused of poltroonery. The great miscalculation of the German staff was, therefore, that their plan was only good if their assumption was just, that they were living in a world of cowards. [Scriptorium comments: it is remarkable how completely the author changes his tune in Chapters 30 and 31!]

xiii) The beginnings of the German-American controversy

The exact undertakings given by Pohl to the chancellor are perhaps doubtful; it cannot, however, be doubted that he secured the chancellor's support for his plan by giving a fairly definite promise about the lives and safety of neutrals. The first declaration, approved by the chancellor, but issued without consulting the naval experts, neither confirmed Pohl's undertaking nor withdrew it: the document was merely ambiguous, and its material portions ran thus:

      The waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole English channel, are hereby declared to be a military area. From 18th February onwards all enemy ships within this area will be destroyed, irrespective of the impossibility of avoiding, in all cases, danger to the passengers and crew.
      Neutral shipping will also be in danger, in the military area, for, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the British government on 31st January and of the uncertainties of naval warfare, it will not always be possible to avoid neutral vessels suffering from attacks intended for enemy ships.34

The operations against commerce were only due to begin on 18th February, and as Pohl had not consulted his colleagues, nor the submarine experts, when he gave his promise to the chancellor, no orders had been prepared for the conduct of the submarine commanders. When the declaration was issued, those responsible for executing the plan were conscious that only very weak forces were available, and were, therefore, but little inclined to endorse any promise of moderation that Pohl may have given. The staff now estimated, that they would be able to station one U-boat off the Tyne, another off the Thames, another in the English Channel, another in the Irish Channel, and another off Bristol. With this force they hoped to terrify half Europe, so that it was to them in the last degree important, that no restraints should be imposed.35

Neutral governments, however, gave the announcement such a reception that both the chancellor and the foreign office were persuaded, that if the operations were directed indiscriminately against all shipping, the German government would be involved in really serious difficulties. On the very day that the declaration was issued, the Italian premier renewed the demands of his government for territorial compensation from Austria-Hungary more insistently than ever; and Baron Sonnino's remarks upon the declaration confirmed what the German foreign office had feared.36 The Italian premier refused to discuss the accusations against Great Britain, or to admit that Germany had a right to make reprisals. Great Britain's conduct, he said, was a matter which lawyers must decide upon. About the declaration itself, he was cool and ambiguous, and Bülow reported that the Italian government would probably watch the American government closely, and govern their conduct accordingly. At a later interview, Sonnino was unfriendly and almost menacing: he said that if an Italian ship were sunk it would be Une chose énorme.37

[218] The Italian authorities did, indeed, represent in the United States that neutrals ought to act in concert, and although the secretary of state sternly discouraged these offers of co-operation, the Italian ambassador in Washington was probably able to inform his government, that the American government intended to protest against the German announcement. The American protest, received a week after the declaration was issued, strengthened all the chancellor's apprehensions, and persuaded him that definite guarantees must be given to neutrals. The discussions showed, however, that the naval and political desiderata were not to be reconciled.

The German authorities considered the American note to be very sharp: it did certainly contain a serious warning:

      If the commanders of German vessels of war should act upon the presumption that the flag of the United States was not being used in good faith and should destroy on the high seas an American vessel, or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights, which it would be hard to reconcile with the friendly relations now so happily subsisting between the two governments......38

The German chancellor and the foreign office authorities were decided, that the reply to this ominous note must contain an undertaking, that neutral ships would not be deliberately attacked. In the answer prepared by them, they therefore stated, that German naval officers would receive orders not to molest neutral ships, if they were recognisable, and provided that they were not carrying contraband.39 They qualified this with every possible reservation: that it would be most difficult to recognise neutrals, that visit and search would not always be possible, and so on.

Admiral von Pohl agreed that this vague undertaking should be given; but the other naval experts protested vigorously, explaining, which was indeed undeniable, that if this undertaking were given, then, U-boat commanders must be specifically forbidden to attack neutral ships; and that for technical reasons, they would be unable to obey the order. How, for instance, could a submarine commander, operating off Liverpool, distinguish between enemy and neutral shipping during the night? Apart from this, the naval experts were persuaded, that if these restraints were imposed, they could no longer hope to terrorise neutrals, and it has already been shown that intimidation was the essence of the plan. The foreign office and the naval authorities were both immovable, and their contentions were laid before the emperor at headquarters. The foreign office were, however, unexpectedly supported by Falkenhayn, who represented, that it would be the height of folly to irritate the American government, while the British armies were still unbeaten in the field. The emperor realised that his consent had been too lightly given, and complained that Admiral von Pohl had laid this enormously weighty question before him during a steamboat trip in Wilhelmshaven.40 He therefore approved the foreign office's draft reply, and made a few additions of which the most important was, that U-boat commanders should be forbidden to attack American vessels if they were recognisable. Instructions were also given, that submarine commanders were not to attack neutrals.

[219] But the emperor gave this instruction as hesitatingly as he had given his previous approval, and in a few days it was withdrawn. Admiral Bachmann again represented, that if the order were allowed to stand, the campaign must be abandoned outright. He was strongly supported by Tirpitz, and the two admirals, working in close collaboration, drafted several papers, in which the technical difficulties of executing the order were explained with great force and clearness. In the words of Admiral Spindler the arguments were: militarisch [sic] unlösbar. The emperor was shaken, and allowed his order to be cancelled. The final instructions were that the U-boat commanders were to take heed of the difficult political relations with Italy and America; they were to allow American cotton ships to pass through the Channel to Rotterdam and Bremen; and they were warned to be particularly careful of Italian ships, which mostly plied to Liverpool. A handful of naval officers, most of them under thirty years of age, without political training, and isolated from the rest of the world by the nature of their duties, were thus given a vague and indefinite instruction to give a thought to politics before they fired their torpedoes. It was under these orders that they started their operations.41

1At the first Washington conference Lord Lee of Fareham, the first lord of the Admiralty, made a number of ill conceived remarks about the only scientific review of the subject: Synthese de la Guerre Sousmarine, by Captain Castex. He said that Captain Castex was infusing poisonous doctrines into the French navy, a strange description of the first dispassionate review of what was at least one of the great operations of maritime history. ...back...

2Weltkrieg: Kriegsrustung [sic] und Kriegswirtschaft, Band I, pp. 296-299. ...back...

3Tirpitz to General von Einem, 13th March, 1906. Kriegsrustung [sic] und Kriegswirtschaft. Anlage No. 70. ...back...

4Count von Schlieffen was chief of the general staff in 1905. ...back...

5The elder, chief of the staff during the Franco-Prussian war and subsequently. ...back...

6The younger, chief of staff at the outbreak of war. ...back...

7Kriegsrustung [sic] und Kriegswirtschaft, Anlage 70 and 75. ...back...

8The naval secretary's warning was repeated by Count von Reventlow in an exceedingly able pamphlet. In the closing chapter Reventlow reviewed the Macht frage [sic] that might make the declaration imperative. Gross Britannien, Deutschland und der [sic] Londoner Declaration. Berlin, 1911. ...back...

9See Dr. Kriege's memorandum - Krieg zur See, Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, pp. 44, 45. Dr. Kriege was a legal adviser to the German foreign office; the memorandum quoted in the German official history was certainly written at a later date than the one here being considered; but there is no reason to doubt that the views there expressed had been held consistently by German officials during the decade preceding the war. Dr. Kriege was obviously making a departmental and not a personal review of the question, when he prepared the document. ...back...

10See minute of conversation between them. Tirpitz, Politische Dokumente, pp. 166, et seq. ...back...

11Krieg zur See Nordsee, Band I, p. 54. ...back...

12Politische Dokumente, p. 121. ...back...

13Krieg zur See Nordsee Band II, pp. 83, 84. ...back...

14Erinnerungen, pp. 100, 109. ...back...

15Krieg zur See Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, Anlage 1. ...back...

16Krieg zur See Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, Anlage 2. ...back...

17Politische Dokumente, p. 33. ...back...

18Politische Dokumente, p. 282, and Krieg zur See Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band 1, Anlage 9. ...back...

19Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 54. ...back...

20Weltkrieg, Band II, p. 38. ...back...

21The German official historian states that the emperor had a strong sentimental dislike of submarine war, which is confirmed by an anecdote in Helfferich's memoirs. Vol. 2, p. 305. ...back...

22Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 53. ...back...

23Politische Dokumente, p. 286. ...back...

24Politische Dokumente, p. 287. ...back...

25Politische Dokumente, p. 237. ...back...

26Politische Dokumente, p. 292. ...back...

27Handelskreig [sic] mit U-booten, Band I, p. 66. ...back...

28Politische Dokumente, p. 623. ...back...

29Sien [sic] Amtszimmer ist das grosse Schlafzimmer, worin das Bett noch so war wie es sein Besitzer verliess. (German text of the reported interview.) ...back...

30Krieg zur See Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 60. ...back...

31Handelskrieg mit U-booten. Anlage 24. ...back...

32Betrachtungen Zum Weltkriege, Band II, p. 116. ...back...

33Admiral von Müller's opinion is worth quoting: I approved of this stage management as little as the naval secretary. The moment was badly chosen, the means not sufficiently ready, the declaration unskilfully drafted. Pohl secured the approval of the chancellor, who knew nothing about the technical side of the question, and then hurried the emperor into approving the declaration, during a boat trip across Wilhelmshaven. It was disloyal of Pohl not previously to have discussed the declaration and its issue with the naval secretary; it was also disloyal to me, whose advice he had always taken when important decisions were being considered. He desired above all things that the declaration should be issued over his own name. (Politische Dokumente, p. 307.) ...back...

34Official translation, circulated to the Cabinet by the Foreign Office. ...back...

35Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 96. ...back...

36Osterreichisches Ungarisches [sic] Rotbuch, p. 85. ...back...

37Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 133. ...back...

38United States Foreign Relations, 1915 Supplement, pp. 94, 117, 122. The American determination to act alone was truly remarkable. The Netherlands government enquired, on 16th February, whether they could count upon the moral support of the United States government if a Dutch ship were sunk under the German declaration. The reply was that the Dutch government could count upon sympathy but that the secretary of state: Did not understand what moral support means. (Secretary of State to Minister in the Netherlands, 17th February, United States Foreign Relations, 1915 Supplement.) This was the second time the United States authorities gave a surly answer to a suggestion that neutrals should act in concert. ...back...

39Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 112. ...back...

40Von Treutler's minute of proceedings reprinted in Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band I, p. 118. ...back...

41It is hardly credible that such an order could have been given. Here, however, is the text of it. Seine Majestät der Kaiser haben befohlen dass der am 18 Februar ubersandte Allerhöchste Befehl für die Durchführung des Handelskriegs mit U-booten, nunmehr für das ganze Kriegsgebiet in Kraft zu treten habe. Seine Majestat der Kaiser wollen jedoch die U-boots Kommandanten ausdrücklich darauf hingewiesen haben, dass mit Rücksicht auf das schwierige politische Verhaltnis zu den Vereinigten Staaten und Italien, in bezug auf amerikanische and italienische Dampfer die grosste Vorsicht geboten ist, um ein unbeabsichtiges Versenken derselken zu vermeiden. Bezuglich der amerikanischen Passagier dampfer verglieche Sachlage vom 21 Februar. Amerikanishche Baumwoll dampfer passieren den Kanal auf dem Weg nach Rotterdam und Bremen and Zurück. Italienische Dampfer gehen mit Ladung zum Teil nach Hafen der Irischen See, in grosseren Zahl nach Kohlenhafen des Bristol Kanals, um dort Kohlen und Fracht zu nehmen. (Handelskrieg mit U-booten, p. 139.) [Scriptorium: all transcription errors sic, as per the author's original.] ...back...

A History of the Blockade of Germany
and of the countries associated with her in the Great War:
Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

by A. C. Bell (Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence).