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Part III: The Rationing System and the American Embargo   (cont'd.)

Chapter 30: The German Economic Campaign, September, 1915 - January, 1917

The state of the enemy's economic campaign in the autumn of 1915. – Conferences between the naval and military leaders; the chancellor's opinions upon submarine warfare. – The state of the campaign in the winter of 1915. – The chancellor re-states his objections to a general campaign; and a further compromise is ordered. – The sinking of the Sussex; and the demands made by the United States government. – German deliberations on the American note. – The consequences of Jutland. – The army high command again intervene, and the discussion changes its character. – The final decision is taken without deliberation. – General considerations upon the conduct of submarine warfare.

i) The state of the enemy's economic campaign in the autumn of 1915

When the German government settled their differences with the United States, in September, 1915, their submarines had sunk about 770,000 tons of allied and neutral shipping. This had been done in seven months, by a fleet of about thirty-five submarines, which was then being increased by about four boats a month. It must be remembered, however, that the German high command had conceived of the campaign as one directed rather against Great Britain than against the alliance as a whole; so that, the rate at which British tonnage was being reduced was, to them, the test of success or failure. Now some 570,000 tons of British shipping had been sunk since February; it followed, therefore, that this monthly average of 80,000 tons of British shipping destroyed might easily be raised to 160,000, and there maintained, when the Germans had seventy good boats in service; for the new boats were of far better design than those with which the campaign had been opened. On a hopeful view of the matter, it might have been reckoned that about 180,000 tons of British shipping would be put out of service every month, at no very distant date. The restraints upon which the American government had decided to insist did not materially affect this calculation; for, after some hesitation, the United States authorities had pronounced the campaign unobjectionable, provided that it was directed against enemy commerce, and provided, also, that passenger ships were left alone. In any case, although the submarine commanders had been given a licence to attack and sink enemy ships without warning, they had not done so in most cases; for at least ninety-five per cent. of the ships they had sunk, had been dealt with in a manner that the United States government considered legitimate.

In September, 1915, therefore, little remained to be done, in order to enlarge the campaign against British commerce into a campaign of approximately equal strength to the one we were waging. We had not succeeded in closing every avenue of German commerce; nor could the Germans hope to reduce us to famine, merely by destroying two million tons of British shipping in the course of a year; but it required no elaborate calculation to prove, that this campaign against British commerce would impose a tremendous strain upon us. The Germans were, indeed, very well informed about our shipping: they knew that a large proportion of it was removed from the carrying trade, by being put to military uses; they knew, also, that another part was in the allied carrying trade; and could be certain that the prospective loss of two million tons would be borne by the residue that was carrying British imports and exports. Also, the Germans had enough information before them to be certain that these losses would not be replaced; for our shipbuilding yards had been so depleted of men by the recruiting officers, and of material by Lord Fisher's naval programme, that they were then only delivering some 650,000 tons of shipping in the year.

Scriptorium comments:
"not being satisfied with it" had nothing to do with it; for the German view of WW1 submarine warfare against commerce in 1915, please see here.
[584] An economic campaign of this magnitude was, therefore, in prospect in the autumn of 1915; and it will always be one of the marvels of military history, that the German high command could not be satisfied with it. The invasion of France and Belgium has been of such consequence in the military and political history of Europe, and all thinking people have been so much impressed by the rapidity with which the operation was executed, that it has been commonly imagined that the leaders of German military thought had for long conceived of war as a series of great offensives only. This is far from accurate: the German staff did certainly decide, after long study, that the war they anticipated would be best terminated by a great initial offensive; but it must by no means be supposed that the practice of defensive warfare was no part of the German military doctrine. Quite the contrary: General von Moltke, who established the historical section of the general staff, gave particular instructions that the campaigns of Frederick the Great, the great classics of defensive war, were to be exhaustively studied. A long staff history of these campaigns against the Austro-Russian coalition had, therefore, been circulated among German staff officers during the years before the war; and, if the staff historians insisted upon anything, it was that a defensive war, protracted for a sufficient length of time, could be as productive of final victory as any other. According to their own military doctrines, therefore, the plan of campaign most suited to the circumstances in which the German coalition was then placed, was to hold fast to their gains in France, Russia and Serbia, and to use the economic campaign as an auxiliary to their general plan; for it followed naturally and logically, that, as the war could not last for ever, so, it must inevitably end, when the allies failed to break down the defensive system of the central empires. It will, therefore, be instructive and curious to review the circumstances that drove the German high command to follow an exactly opposite line of reasoning.

In October, 1915, Holtzendorff and Müller, the naval advisers to the emperor, were agreed amongst themselves, but were in sharp controversy with the commander-in-chief of the high seas fleet. As has been explained, this officer would never agree that submarines operating against commerce should restrict their operations to what the prize regulations allowed, and rather than order them to do so, even as an experiment, he held all submarines in harbour, save for such exercise cruises as he sanctioned from time to time. This difference was settled: by reinforcing the submarines in the Mediterranean; by pressing the campaign in that theatre only; and also, by pushing on vigorously with the mining campaign in home waters. As there were not enough submarines available for simultaneous operations in all theatres, this compromise was sufficient for the time being. Of all the alternative plans of operations, the one chosen was the least dangerous; for it had been agreed on all hands that campaigning in the Mediterranean must be conducted according to prize regulations, while minelaying in the approaches to commercial harbours had not been protested against by any neutral. Nevertheless, the new campaign did provoke a disturbing incident. On 23rd November, Commander Valentiner sank the Italian passenger ship Ancona in a manner thought objectionable by the United States government. It had, however, been arranged that the boats of the Pola flotilla should operate under the Austrian flag. The Austrian government were therefore put into controversy with the Washington authorities, and as there had been no antecedent friction between Washington and Vienna, the matter was more easily adjusted. The incident showed, however, that passenger steamers should be left alone in all circumstances, and additional orders were sent to that effect.

For so long as the commander-in-chief forbad the submarines in home waters to participate in the campaign, these arrangements were a mere temporary adjustment, and it is most curious that in a service famous for its discipline and respect for authority, the obvious remedy of ordering the commander-in-chief to stop his [585] opposition, or to leave his post, was never attempted. Admiral von Holtzendorff could, of course, have persuaded the emperor to issue an order that submarines were to act uniformly in all theatres; but, as this meant over-riding the commander-in-chief, and so provoking another controversy in the high command, he did not do so. Nevertheless, after a good deal of searching for an expedient, another compromise was reached. Admiral von Pohl admitted it would be bad for the officers and crews, if they had no training in commerce warfare, and therefore agreed that they should begin again, provided that no order was issued that would damage the principle which he was maintaining: that restraints upon commerce warfare should be special acts of grace, which could be revoked at will. After some discussion, therefore, it was agreed, that a submarine from the high seas fleet should be sent out on an experimental cruise. Similar orders were sent to the Flanders flotilla; to whom a special instruction had been sent a few days before: that they were to keep a close watch on the cross-channel traffic, and attack vessels that were obviously making for French harbours, between Dunkerque and le Havre. By the end of November, therefore, submarine warfare was virtually restarted in all theatres, and the immediate results were satisfactory: during December some 31,000 tons of shipping were sunk in the European theatre, and 76,000 in the Mediterranean.

ii) Conferences between the naval and military leaders; the chancellor's opinions upon submarine warfare

Thanks to Admiral von Holtzendorffs excellent management, therefore, the campaign against British commerce was continued. In home waters mining was prosecuted with good effect, while the Flanders flotilla continued their attacks against cross-channel shipping. The Mediterranean was the theatre of a very destructive campaign, which was conducted roughly as cruiser warfare is conducted; for the submarine commanders discovered that they could examine a ship's papers, and allow the crew to get into the boats, without thereby decreasing the number of vessels that they destroyed in a day. All this had, however, been effected by compromises and adjustments which left serious differences on points of principle unsettled. Admiral von Tirpitz still raged inwardly, as he thought that the future conduct of the campaign had been compromised by the undertakings given to the United States government: Admiral von Pohl and his staff were determined, that the compromise reached should not become a binding precedent, and it is curious that it was a soldier who first blew these smouldering differences into flame.

General von Falkenhayn was then preparing his plans for the new year's campaign. He had decided to attack on the western front, and had chosen Verdun as his point of attack: he was confident that he could carry the French fortress, but he did not regard the operation as one which would defeat the French armies outright, and was only hoping to leave the French army weakened by heavy losses of men, guns and transport, and discouraged by the loss of one of the great bulwarks of the frontier. This plan of operations was peculiar, in that it was neither offensive nor defensive. The attack that was about to be launched against the French was a major offensive, in that all available reserves were to be absorbed into it; and yet it did not promise those decisive advantages, which alone are supposed to justify a major offensive. On the other hand, the plan was far in excess of what defensive strategy demanded; for, if Falkenhayn had decided to hold the territories that had been won, and to force the allies to expend their strength and resources in fruitless operations for their recovery, then, the proper course for him to pursue would have been to collect and distribute his reserves, and to wait upon events. The plan was, thus, more a political than a military one: the enemy's discouragement and confusion were substituted for a purely military object, and it was, for this very reason, that it combined so well with submarine warfare; for it was then [586] realised that the great military consequence of a successful submarine campaign would be the confusion and depression that it would occasion. In any case, Falkenhayn's line of reasoning was natural: if the strategic points to be won in a campaign are mere geographical features, the forces necessary for carrying them may perhaps be calculated; but if discouragement and confusion are the principal ends, then, every auxiliary means of attaining these indefinite objects ought to be set in motion. The general therefore invited the naval leaders to a conference, and told them that he would like to see submarine warfare more vigorously prosecuted, as he could no longer hope to get a decision by land. Falkenhayn freely admitted he was now reversing opinions that he had given formerly; but explained this by saying, that, when the controversy with America had first seemed dangerous, he was deeply engaged in the Balkan campaign, and had, therefore, been unable to support any plan, which might have as its consequence that American troops should be sent to the western front, before the conquest of Serbia was completed. This danger was now past, and there was no longer any political danger in pressing the campaign by land and by sea. General von Falkenhayn was, however, careful to put forward his suggestion rather as a question than as a definite proposal: what could the naval leaders hope to achieve if the campaign at sea were restarted without restraints? Would it, when combined with the success that might be gained on land, end the war by the coming winter?

It has been said, that, when Admiral von Holtzendorff took up his post, he was convinced that the submarine campaign had been over valued. Since then, however, he had changed his opinion. A number of shipping experts had been examining the state of the British carrying trade, and they had reported that Great Britain was already short of shipping, and that the losses of a submarine campaign would be borne, not by British shipping, but by that nucleus of it which was working in the essential trades. The destructions foreseeable would certainly remove a large proportion of this irreplaceable nucleus, and would be correspondingly difficult to bear. For these reasons Admiral von Holtzendorff now announced, that, if submarine war were restarted soon, and executed sharply, it would bring about an unbearable state of affairs in England by the winter of 1916. Admiral Tirpitz endorsed this, but separated himself, sharply, from those who believed that Great Britain would be reduced to famine and ruin by submarine warfare:

      It stands to reason (he said) that England cannot be beaten outright by any one weapon, not even by U-boat warfare. Nevertheless those same U-boats can so increase England's difficulties that she will, in the end be obliged to give way.

The naval leaders and their technical advisers estimated that these difficulties would be insurmountable after from six to eight months; it followed, therefore, that America's entry into the war could be disregarded, as it was not conceivable that she could give any material assistance to the western allies in so short a time. The outcome of these discussions was, therefore, that the admirals and generals present: Holtzendorff, Tirpitz, Koch, Falkenhayn and Wild von Hohenborn, the war minister, passed a sort of resolution: That submarine warfare without any restraints should be started early in the new year.

There was, at this time, a good harmony between Bethmann Hollweg and Holtzendorff, who never desired to override the chancellor or the foreign office, and was, indeed, anxious that there should be no differences between his department and theirs. When, therefore, this resolution was handed to the chancellor he answered it freely, by saying he did not see why the government should not secure a satisfactory peace, by holding whatever territories had been won against all attempts to recover them. In the chancellor's war plan there was no place for an unrestricted campaign against commerce; for, if the enemy's discouragement was to be the great strategic object of the war (it was so to him as much as it was to Falkenhayn), then, it seemed to Bethmann, that the enemy would be very much discouraged, and [587] possibly inclined to make peace, if they failed to break down the German defensive system. An unrestricted submarine campaign would, however, have the very opposite effect; for the enemy would regard it as a challenge to continue the war without pause or respite. The chancellor never thought that anything certain could be predicted about submarine warfare, except that it would provoke a struggle of unprecedented bitterness. In his serious moments, he called it the ultima ratio, in his lighter, a roulette game, and he never swerved from his proposition: if it fails, then finis Germaniae. The chancellor argued clearly, but he compromised on the proposal submitted to him; for he admitted that it was, intrinsically, a just and reasonable suggestion, and urged only, that nothing definite should be decided until March. This postponement merely allowed the project, which he so strongly disliked, to gain additional driving force during the interval, by being well canvassed in the war office, the admiralty and the high seas fleet. The explanation is, probably, that Colonel House was again on his way to Berlin, and that Bethmann Hollweg hoped, that his negotiations with the American envoy would provide him with reasons for postponing submarine war still further; for he stated in his reply to the admiral's resolutions:

      That, although he had no firm political grounds for supposing that an honourable peace was in sight, there were nevertheless various signs of it in the enemy's camp, and that they ought not to be disregarded.

iii) The state of the campaign in the winter of 1915

During these discussions, the campaign was pursued mainly in the Mediterranean: only one U-boat was sent to the west coast under the orders issued on 30th November, and during January little was done in home waters except by the minelayers. The submarine commanders of the Flanders flotilla were, however, still nominally executing the order of 15th November, which directed them to attack the cross-Channel traffic. Two events of some consequence occurred during this respite: the first was that Admiral Scheer was appointed to command the high seas fleet, the second was that Captain Kophamel, the senior submarine commander in the Mediterranean, reported that his officers must be allowed to attack all armed merchantmen without warning, if they were to continue their operations successfully.

Admiral Scheer's appointment to high office was important in the history of the campaign. Not many state papers were presented by the new commander-in-chief; his opinions, nevertheless, exerted great influence, for he made the high seas fleet a sort of radiating point for the few simple propositions, which impressed the popular fancy, and strengthened the clamour for submarine war. It will have been seen that submarine warfare against commerce had, hitherto, been urged mainly as a substitute for some other plan, or as a compromise between conflicting plans, or as an auxiliary to the campaign on land. To Admiral Scheer, submarine warfare against commerce was as much an act of modern war as an artillery bombardment, or an aeroplane raid, or, indeed, as an assault by an army in the field. This kind of military logic was, of course, so simple that every young hot head, and every staff officer had been expounding it for long; but it acquired exceptional weight and dignity when Admiral Scheer adopted it. He was a far abler man than his predecessor, for he could argue an abstract concept with force and eloquence; and, a few months later, after Jutland was fought, he enjoyed a reputation second only to Hindenburg's. Now Scheer held to his opinions with unshakable obstinacy, and was less inclined to compromise than Tirpitz or Bachmann: as the headquarters staff had never been powerful enough to override so feeble a creature as Pohl, they were even less able to enforce obedience upon the victor of Jutland. Scheer was always at great pains to let his opposition be widely known, as he hoped that the people would raise a clamour, when they learned that the commander-in-chief [588] was being thwarted in a matter that they would regard as entirely within his own competence. The persons whom he hoped to overturn by these manoeuvres proved stronger than he anticipated; but this endeavour to inflame the nation was persisted in for half a year, without respite of any kind, and must certainly be counted among the strongest influences at work.

Kophamel's report, from the Mediterranean, was also of some consequence, in that it was a warning, that operations might be brought to a check, in the theatre where they were being pressed hardest; for since October, when operations began, the sinkings had been irregular but very promising.1 Kophamel did not specifically say that the success of the operation was in jeopardy; but he showed that a rising number of armed vessels were escaping. This report was received soon after the conference of naval and military leaders decided, in a general way, that submarine warfare was to be re-started as soon as possible; further than this, it coincided roughly with the beginning of the campaign on land for which Falkenhayn had asked assistance; for, on 21st February, the German armies opened the attack on Verdun. As it was important that there should be no check in the Mediterranean (which was then the principal theatre of submarine war) when affairs were in this posture, there were some reasons why Kophamel's suggestion should be acceded to.

Nevertheless, if what young Kophamel recommended had been examined by persons competent to review the whole state of the war at sea, and not merely by persons who were ignorant of everything but the difficulties of summoning and examining armed merchantmen, then, it would surely have been decided that the existing practice must be adhered to. The consideration that a man of ordinary foresight and prudence would have thought decisive would have been whether an order giving Kophamel and his brother officers more freedom could safely be issued in the circumstances. The circumstances were these. When Kophamel's report was received, Bernstorff was bringing what he called the second Lusitania controversy to an end, and was finding the American administration very harsh and unyielding. More important than this, however, Kophamel's report coincided, roughly, with the American proposals for a modus vivendi.2 If, then, the German authorities had carefully considered the American proposals, they would surely have concluded, that what the American government were then urging would be far more embarrassing to the British authorities than it would be to the German; and that, if the American administration decided to press hard that their proposals be acceded to, the British administration would be in a great difficulty. British merchantmen were not being fitted with guns, in order that they should sink and destroy submarines, but in order that they might keep submarines at a distance, and so, make their escape. The American government were therefore proposing that British merchantmen should be sunk, whenever a German U-boat could overtake them: our losses from the campaign were already so disturbing, that we could not possibly contemplate agreeing to anything that would increase them still further. As far as could be judged, moreover, the Americans did intend to press their proposals: the secretary of state wrote to the president, that the British objections ought not to be regarded as a definite refusal; and an instruction was sent to all American representatives in neutral countries, in which they were ordered to canvass neutral governments on behalf of the [589] modus vivendi. If common prudence had guided them, therefore, the German authorities would have given the American proposals a cordial reception, and would have warned their U-boat commanders to be very careful during the coming weeks; for, by doing these two things, and no more, they would have increased British difficulties considerably. Instead of this, they did the very opposite, for the worst of reasons. When Kophamel's report reached the German operations division, the chief of the staff and his officers were rather depressed, that the decisions recently taken in conference bebarred [sic] them from pressing the campaign at sea for some time to come. The report thus gave them an excuse for what they called a preliminary sharpening of the campaign. They then had before them papers showing how British captains of armed merchantmen were instructed to use their guns, in order to escape capture: they therefore collected these together; added to them some extracts from statements that the first lord had made in the house of commons; and, after presenting this dossier to the emperor, persuaded him to sanction the issue of a new order to the submarine commanders, and to allow them to present a document that caused the American government the greatest misgiving and anxiety, at the worst moment that could have been chosen for presenting it. This paper opened with a long, and not very persuasive, tirade, about British practices at sea; for none of the accompanying documents proved that the instructions given to armed merchantmen were anything but instructions how they could best defend themselves against submarines: it ended with the announcement:

      In the circumstances set forth above enemy merchantmen armed with guns no longer have any right to be considered as peaceable vessels of commerce. Therefore, the German naval forces will receive orders, within a short period, paying attention to the interests of neutrals, to treat such vessels as belligerents.

As can be imagined, the officials of the German foreign office objected to the paper itself, and to the moment chosen for presenting it. Their objections carried little weight, however, as the naval staff so arranged matters that nothing was communicated to the German foreign office, until the emperor's decision was given. The German high command was thus still unable to adjust what policy and strategy demanded by any rational principle.

Naturally enough, the president and the secretary of state were very resentful; for the paper, and the final announcement seemed to them to be an impudent withdrawal of the promises that had just been given by the German government. More than this, the American state department could not give even a qualified assent to the German contention that a merchantman, defensively armed, was, in effect, a war vessel. This proposition had more than once been raised, in a contentious manner, by those sections of American society who desired to lay blame, equally, upon both sets of belligerents, and, on every occasion, the lawyers of the state department ruled that the captain of a merchantman was entitled, by the law of nations, to resist visit and search, if he cared to take the risk: a fortiori, he was entitled to resist visit and search by a hostile submarine, as the best treatment he could expect, if he submitted to it, was that he and his men would be put into open boats, before their ship was sunk. The American authorities never intended that their modus vivendi should be construed as a withdrawal of their opinion on this matter; and were careful to instruct their representatives:

      That there was no present intention to warn Americans to refrain from travelling on belligerent merchantmen armed with guns solely for the purpose of self defence; that, if Americans should lose their lives in attack by submarines without warning upon merchantmen so armed it will be necessary to regard the offence as a breach of international law, and the formal assurances of the German government.

The announcement thus made the American president and his advisers suspicious and watchful; but as there was no immediate protest, the German naval staff thought that they had scored a great success by being firm; and that, if they [590] continued to be so, all difficulties would disappear. Admiral von Holtzendorff therefore composed a state paper, in which he represented, that the moment for enforcing a general regulation of submarine warfare was now clearly arrived; for this reason he recommended: that submarine warfare should be re-started on the west coast of England; that all enemy ships should be destroyed, whether armed or unarmed; that examining papers should be avoided as much as possible; that attacks with the torpedo should be attempted whenever feasible; that all passenger vessels should be left alone (in doubtful cases a ship was to be treated as a passenger ship); and also, that submarine commanders who made honest mistakes should be protected.

iv) The chancellor re-states his objections to a general campaign; and a further compromise is ordered

This paper could not, however, be circulated to the fleet as an order, unless the emperor agreed, and Bethmann Hollweg, knowing that another council would have to be summoned, laid all his objections before the emperor. It would be interesting to know how much the arguments in the chancellor's state paper were influenced by his recent conversations with Colonel House. Those conversations have been recorded by House only, and no papers have ever been published, which would allow any certain inference to be drawn about the importance that Bethmann, Zimmermann and Jagow attached to them. All that is known is that House warned the German officials, that the peace terms they hoped to secure were, in his opinion, unobtainable, which was a strong hint that the president's mediation would not help to secure them; the American envoy also warned them that a renewal of the submarine campaign would be extremely unwise.

There are, however, reasons for supposing that Colonel House's arguments influenced the chancellor's state paper; for whereas, on the last occasion, Bethmann Hollweg had suggested, merely, that a final determination of the matter should be postponed, he now pronounced against any enlargement of the campaign, with great energy and eloquence. First, the chancellor argued, that everything predicated about the consequences of submarine war was the result of arithmetic calculations about tonnage, freights, and so on. This was a bad beginning, for the success or failure of the campaign would certainly be decided by Great Britain's endurance, and a nation's endurance was not calculable in figures. The estimate upon which the naval leaders were so confident pre-supposed that Great Britain would leave things as they were: let it be admitted that she would be roused to make a tremendous exertion, and the statistics then treated as mathematical proof would give no guidance; for how could anybody measure the energy with which Great Britain would meet the challenge? Before she allowed her naval supremacy to be wrested from her, she would economise her shipping, cut down her imports, strengthen her defensive system, in fact, she would spend her last farthing and her last drop of blood, rather than admit she had been defeated at sea. Secondly, the chancellor maintained, that such a campaign as the naval leaders now contemplated would provoke the United States to war, or to active opposition: the saving clauses about passenger ships might postpone the breach, but the enlarging of the campaign would make it inevitable. The new campaign would therefore be directed, not against Great Britain alone, but against England and America combined. If arithmetic calculations about Great Britain's endurance were misleading, they were doubly so about the endurance of a British-American coalition. History taught that coalition wars, which cannot be ended by decisive blows, are ended by differences between allies: He wins in war, whose nerves are strongest. Was it not, then, plain sense, that a British-American union, conscious of its enormous strength and resources, would be [591] stiffer in purpose than Germany? The articles in the pan-German press did not represent German opinion: the German nation were intelligent enough to know that victory had been denied them, because their enemies were too numerous to be defeated. The people would certainly ask, whether it was not inviting sheer ruin to increase the number of Germany's enemies still further, and America's declaration of war would spread discouragement through the nation. Furthermore, it was argued, that the United States were already giving the entente powers so much assistance by loans, and deliveries of munitions, that they would be of no more prejudice to Germany as an enemy, than they were as a neutral. The chancellor considered this to be a most misleading argument: for so long as the United States were neutral, then, the financial assistance given to Great Britain must necessarily be tempered by British credit, calculated on a commercial reckoning. Let it be assumed, however, that the United States and Great Britain were allies in a tremendous struggle, and there would be no calculable limit to the assistance that America would grant. Again, the American government might not persuade, or even attempt to persuade, the border neutrals to declare against Germany; but at least the authorities in Washington would combine with those in Whitehall to press Holland, Denmark, and Norway to reduce their exports to Germany: the pressure exerted would be so severe, that the neutrals might be forced to stop exporting to Germany altogether. The loss of Dutch and Danish produce would give the economic campaign against Germany a great accession of strength; the imports from Holland alone were valued at twenty-one million marks.

      Reason refuses to allow that we are in a condition to end the war by victory in such difficult circumstances...... As against this, it may be asked, whether our position is so desperate, that we are forced to play a game of roulette, in which we stake our existence as a great power, and our whole future; a game in which the odds supposed to be in our favour are not calculated odds, but a mere speculation that Great Britain will be reduced by the autumn: once again reason refuses to agree.

Finally, the chancellor disputed the assumption made by the high command: that the war could only be ended by a decisive stroke in which Great Britain or Germany was laid prostrate. Certainly the public utterances of the entente's statesmen gave some colour to the supposition, that the entente powers would be satisfied with nothing less than final victory; but was it to be supposed they would still hope and strive for it, after they had failed to recover what Germany had conquered, and had waged another year of indecisive, unsuccessful war? Rising difficulties and growing disappointment must necessarily incline the entente nations to peace:

      All these possibilities are swept away if we declare unrestricted submarine war, and bring America and other neutrals in against us. There will then be a state of affairs (we ourselves will have created it) which will allow of nothing but a war fought out to the bitter end...... Our task is, therefore, so to conduct submarine war that there will be no break with the United States: every loss inflicted on Great Britain will then be pure gain to us.

A week after this powerfully argued state paper was circulated, a conference was held in Pless: the emperor appears to have been persuaded by the chancellor's arguments; for he decided that he could not, as head of the state, sanction a measure of war that would provoke an American declaration against Germany. On the other hand, he gave a ruling which very much tempered this decision; he accepted the calculation that U-boat warfare would be decisive in from six to eight months, and agreed, on this account, that a final decision would have to be reached by 1st April. In the meantime, the chancellor was to put all political and diplomatic measures in motion, to give America a proper insight into Germany's position, and so to obtain a free hand for Germany's prosecution of the war. Until then, U-boat warfare was to be carried on against England alone. This obviously encouraged the naval party to persevere, as a final decision was merely postponed.

[592] The emperor's decision was, moreover, an order that U-boat warfare against England should be re-started in home waters, and Holtzendorff at last thought himself at liberty to issue it to the high seas fleet. On the 13th March, therefore, the submarine campaign was ordered to be re-started in home waters, with the following limitations:

  • Enemy vessels in the war zone were to be destroyed outright.
  • Enemy vessels outside the war zone were only to be destroyed if they were armed.
  • Enemy passenger steamers were in all circumstances to be left alone.
  • The order previously given to the Flanders flotilla, with regard to the ships found between Dunkerque and le Havre, remained in force.

These orders were a great success for the extreme party; for they were the first issued in which nothing positive was ordered about the treatment to be given to neutrals. The contention so often advanced: that neutrals were to be spared only as an act of grace, was, thus, tacitly accepted.

v) The sinking of the Sussex; and, the demands made by the United States government

The U-boats at once put to sea in large numbers, and it must be explained that the crisis with America, which occurred soon after, was not occasioned by this renewal of the campaign; for it was not the general orders, but a subsidiary instruction that had been in force for months, which had caused the trouble. As has been shown, the German admirals had throughout felt compelled to compromise on their principles in respect to submarine warfare in the Channel; for it was impossible even for them to disregard Falkenhayn's pressing calls for assistance, or to ignore the reports of the commanders at Zeebrugge, that effective operations could be conducted in the Channel without provoking diplomatic incidents. Late in November, therefore, the Flanders flotillas were instructed to operate against traffic entering and leaving the French ports. This order was a dead letter for nearly three months, for it was not until February, that the Flanders flotilla was reinforced by boats sufficiently powerful to operate effectively in the central parts of the Channel. Towards the end of the month of February these new boats put to sea, to execute an order three months old, and which had never been revised or reconsidered in the interval. The order had been prepared from the experience gained from one experimental cruise, that of U.C.6; it was so drafted, that any submarine commander would read it as an intimation that passenger ships were only plying on the Folkestone-Boulogne route; and that vessels on all other cross-Channel tracks could be sunk without warning. On 24th March, therefore, the commander of U.B.29, torpedoed the cross-Channel steamer Sussex, as she was entering Dieppe, honestly believing that she was a transport. The news was reported to Washington on the following day.

For the third time running, therefore, the one principle on which the Washington authorities stood firm was breached by a young fellow, less than thirty years old, with nothing to guide him but his periscope, and his desire for professional distinction; and, if the authorities at Berlin had at once informed the Washington government how the mistake had occurred, it is more than likely that President Wilson would have been satisfied with very much less than he ultimately demanded. Instead of doing this (or anything similar) the German naval staff added blunder to blunder. The best way out of the difficulty would have been at once to communicate the general orders under which the campaign had been re-started, and the particular orders for operations in the Channel; for, it would then have been apparent, that both sets of orders contained the most explicit instructions that passenger ships were to be left alone. But the naval staff had decided, some time previously, that orders should never again be communicated to Washington (as had been done to settle the Lusitania controversy), and even when reason and commonsense demanded [593] that this old decision should be reversed, it was firmly adhered to. To this blunder the German staff added a mistake which was more excusable. It arose thus. Pustkuchen's log and diary did not reach Berlin until 9th April; and when the naval staff examined them, they came to the conclusion that the vessel which he sank on the 24th was not the Sussex, but that she was what Pustkuchen described her to be: a transport with a large number of troops in the fore part. On such a question as this, the Berlin foreign office were compelled to accept and offer such explanations as the naval staff offered them. On 11th April, therefore, the German government presented a rambling note in which it was contended:

      That the damaging of the Sussex was attributable to another cause than the attack of a German submarine.

As a result of all this, President Wilson and his advisers judged of the whole matter more severely than they would have done had they been better informed. First, they knew, long before the Sussex was attacked, that a new and more vigorous campaign had begun, and they had received no explanation of this that could be given the name; for nothing had been communicated to them, except a statement that armed merchantmen were to be given specially severe treatment. The American administration had also received a state paper from Bernstorff, in which he attempted to carry out the orders of the imperial council: that he was to make diplomatic preparation for an unrestricted campaign. Bernstorffs memorandum was a well argued state paper, but it was not a sufficient and satisfactory explanation of what was already occurring at sea. The United States authorities were, thus, only informed that a new campaign had begun, by a rising list of sinkings, and by a succession of guarded admissions and disclosures, which made them suspect that more was being concealed than was being acknowledged. With regard to the attack on the Sussex, the president had before him the reports of the French, British and American experts, who had inspected the hull; and from these reports it was obvious, that the Sussex had been torpedoed without warning by a German submarine. The natural consequence of all this was that the president took the worst view of the German conduct, and judged: that the German staff were reinstating the campaign by small encroachments upon the undertakings given; that they were deliberately breaching the one principle on which the United States considered their honour and dignity to be engaged; and, worst of all, that they were prevaricating and lying.

Owing to this strange, but persistent, succession of accidents, the German case was judged before it had been heard; for, from the end of March to the 10th of April, when the German explanation was first received, the American press repeated, at regular intervals, that the sinking of the Sussex was a challenge that had been issued without the decencies and punctilio of a challenge. When the German explanation was received and made known, the most respectable papers in the United States roundly accused the German government of deceit and treachery. This steady rumble of anger was the president's mandate during the controversy, and, which was particularly unfortunate for the Germans, President Wilson saw no reason why he should abate the popular indignation, as he thought it justifiable: he, like the newspaper editors, and the ordinary citizens of the country, considered that the United States were being defied, and contemptuously treated, and that no compromise was any longer possible. Nobody concerned in the matter had any grounds for believing the bare truth, which was, that the highest council in the German empire had decided that nothing was to be done in breach of the undertakings given to the United States; and that the German authorities were guilty of nothing worse than mismanagement and obstinacy.

Notwithstanding that the president judged the German conduct severely, he was reluctant to act as firmly as the secretary of state and Colonel House advised him. His ambition was still to mediate between the powers at war; and, as he was convinced he would acquire far more reputation and fame as the pontiff of a peace [594] conference, than as the head of a government at war, he flinched from any course of conduct that would turn him from the pursuit of his plan. For this reason, he was for days very evasive to all his advisers, and it was only when the German government's note excited a storm of anger in the United States, that the president decided to obey the national mandate. Even then, he sought a way out; for the first draft of the note that he proposed to send was judged inadequate by all his advisers (11th April). The president accepted their counsel, but only after long hesitation; and it was not until the evening of 17th April, that is, three weeks after the Sussex had been torpedoed, that the note was ready. The president was now satisfied that the national indignation was sustained; and that he had no choice but to demand satisfaction in a stern, peremptory manner; for the note presented to the German government was so stiff and uncompromising that war might well have been declared, soon after it was presented. In this note, the president withdrew all the toleration previously granted to submarine warfare, and virtually demanded that it should cease. The argument was that accidents, which the American government could not tolerate, were inevitable, if submarine warfare were persisted in:

      The government has accepted the successive explanation and assurances of the imperial government, as of course, given in entire sincerity and good faith, and has hoped, even against hope, that it would prove possible for the imperial government so to order and control the acts of its naval commanders as to square its policy with the recognised principles of humanity as embodied in the law of nations. It has made every allowance, and has been willing to wait until the facts became unmistakable and were susceptible of only one interpretation.
      It now owes it to a just regard of its own rights to say to the imperial government that that time has come. It has become painfully evident that the position which it took at the very outset is inevitable, namely the use of submarines for the destruction of an enemy's commerce is, of necessity, because of the very nature of the vessels employed, and the very method of attack which their employment, of course, involves, utterly incompatible with the principles of humanity and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the sacred immunities of non-combatants.
      If it is still the purpose of the imperial government to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against commerce by the use of submarines, without regard to what the government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law, and the recognised dictates of humanity the government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue. Unless the imperial government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German empire altogether......

It will at once be seen of what grave prejudice it was to the Germans that the president had been forced by accidents, and pressure of circumstances, to recede so far from the tolerant propositions of his earlier notes. In every document previously presented there had been an admission that submarine war upon commerce was, in itself, legitimate; in the paper presented in January, this had been repeated in the most embracing language: four months later, the president was challenging the whole system; and yet, during that four months, the German government had decided that no order should be issued, which would provoke a break, or even a quarrel, with the United States.

vi) German deliberations on the American note

The note was strong enough; and it was accompanied by warnings that were given simultaneously in Berlin and Washington: That unqualified compliance would alone be accepted, and that an unsatisfactory answer might provoke an immediate breach. War with the United States was thus considered in council, on 30th April, for the second time in two months; but, whereas, on the first occasion, it had been examined as a distant contingency, which could be put off at will, it was discussed at this second meeting as a pressing danger. The civil advisers and Bethmann-Hollweg could only repeat what they had said before. Falkenhayn, [595] on the other hand, was particularly anxious that there should be no relaxation at sea, for his plan of campaign was going badly. Even when he hoped to carry Verdun, he thought it important that submarine warfare should be pressed as a supplement to the campaign on land. At the end of April, when this second conference was assembled, the battle had raged for two whole months, the French had given comparatively little ground, and the time when the British would begin their counter-attack was drawing nearer. Falkenhayn now doubted whether he would even achieve the limited objects, which he had hoped for in January, and stated he would be obliged to break off the attack altogether, if U-boat warfare were relaxed. Curiously enough the naval advisers, who had precipitated the crisis by their obstinacy, now counselled caution. Even when Holtzendorff had yielded to the pressure of his staff, and had endorsed the statement that U-boat warfare would be decisive, one of his subordinates wrote, in a private letter to Tirpitz, that Holtzendorff was not with them in his heart. Now, when the chief of the staff was called upon to give advice that might swing the council to provoke or to decline a war with America, he recovered his good judgment, and rallied to the chancellor, saying, that, even if it were granted that a general victory was no longer probable, Germany was more likely to secure a good peace by careful diplomacy, than by pressing on with submarine warfare. As for submarine warfare itself, he now agreed with the chancellor that it was a roulette game. Helfferich had probably shown him how little could be inferred for certain from the statistics and calculations of his experts. Admiral von Capelle, who had now succeeded Tirpitz, was persuaded that if U-boat warfare were continued according to prize regulations, the sinkings would not be much reduced; he also advised that what the American government demanded should be granted in full.

The majority in the council were thus in favour of yielding, and the emperor's opinion coincided with the majority's. Nevertheless, the note to America was so badly drafted, that a great number of papers in the United States urged that it should be answered by breaking off diplomatic relations at once. The Germans promised, unequivocally, to conduct submarine warfare in accordance with the general principles of visit and search; but they claimed the right to continue to treat enemy trade in enemy freighters as they had hitherto done, as they had never given any assurance with regard to them; also, they repeated that they would never dispense with the use of the submarine in war against enemy trade. This was considered blunt but unobjectionable; but the American press hotly resented a long and rambling contention which was added: that unless the United States would force the British government to relax the blockade, and so keep pace with them in concessions, then, the German government would be facing a new situation, in which it must reserve itself complete liberty of decision. The editor of an obscure country paper in the central states was probably expressing the sentiments of millions when he wrote:

      What von Jagow would have us agree to is just this. If White House will be so good as to risk a war with Great Britain, why then I may take my wife and children to Europe; but if Woodrow wants to do better than that, why then the Tirpitz boys may come and shoot us all up.

Notwithstanding this universal resentment, the president accepted the note as one which granted all that he had asked, but sent back a sharp rebuke to the contention that had been so ill received. For the sake of clearness it will be as well to review in what posture the campaign stood, after this new controversy was settled.

(i) Inasmuch as the United States government could no longer recede from the promise they had made to break with the German government, unless their conditions were obeyed, so, the dividing line between what the United States would, and what they would not, tolerate was clear and definite, and the consequences of passing the line were no longer to be mitigated by negotiation and treaty.

[596] (ii) The campaign that the United States would consider unobjectionable was limited by the following conditions:

The right to sink enemy vessels in the most convenient manner was not contested.

A promise had been given that neutral vessels would be visited and searched; but it was patent that only American vessels need be so treated, as the United States ambassador had explained to the emperor:

      That the president was not acting as referee for the world in breaches of international law, but was engaged in protecting American citizens in their rights.

(iii) The campaign could, therefore, be continued safely if two precautions were taken. The first of these was that the practice of the majority of submarine officers - who were capturing vessels before they sank them - should be made the rule of all, and that the codicil about torpedoing at sight, which the commander-in-chief and not the naval staff had issued, should be revoked and cancelled. The second precaution was that the special orders about operations in the Channel should also be withdrawn and re-considered.

(iv) Even if every precaution were taken, the campaign still promised to be a powerful instrument of economic pressure, which, if persisted in, would reduce British and allied tonnage at the rate of about 160,000 tons a month.

(v) Although it was still possible to continue the campaign, the whole operation was henceforward more risky, as the president was now compelled to judge mistakes and misadventures as severely as downright breaches of promises given.

There was, however, a governing condition to all this, which was, that everybody concerned in the conduct of the campaign should agree that the distant and speculative objects of the campaign should be abandoned as unobtainable, and that it should be regarded as ordinary commerce war has always been regarded, an auxiliary to whatever was being done on land. It was only if all were agreed on this point, that the necessary precautions could be taken. There was, however, no agreement, and every project for re-starting the campaign with proper precautions for its conduct, only divided the high naval command against itself, and distracted the government.

Holtzendorffs first plan for regulating the campaign is interesting on account of its close resemblance to a plan designed some months before by Monsieur Fromageot, the legal adviser to the Quai d'Orsay. During the autumn of the year 1915, American opposition to the economic campaign was more than once examined in conference by the French and British jurists, and it was during these discussions that Monsieur Fromageot suggested, that the American objections might best be answered: by declaring Germany to be blockaded; and by claiming that the blockade was enforced in the North sea by our cruiser squadrons, and in the Baltic by the submarines there operating. This declaration would not alter existing practice, and would meet the American objection that the allied navies were asserting the rights of a blockading force without performing its duties. Admiral von Holtzendorffs project was similar. Starting from the assumption that the British blockade of Germany had been built up from foundations that rested more on the law of contraband than the law of blockade, he suggested that submarine operations should be assimilated to British practice by the following measures. First, the German contraband lists should be thoroughly revised, and put on an exact footing with the British. Secondly, the declaration of a war zone should be withdrawn, and a blockade of Great Britain declared instead. Thirdly, all ships carrying contraband to Great Britain were to be sunk after their papers had been examined. Fourthly, all ships carrying British exports to neutrals to be sunk in execution of the declaration that Great Britain was blockaded. In Holtzendorffs view, these practices could be justified, by holding the Americans to their admission, that blockades could be [597] adapted to circumstances without thereby becoming irregular, and to their further admission (repeated in so many notes), that submarines could legitimately operate against an enemy's commerce. Furthermore, Admiral von Holtzendorff argued, that this declaration, and the practices corollary to it, would make submarine operations against British exports more regular and comprehensible. Holtzendorff did not suggest that operations in the Mediterranean should be modified.

vii) The consequences of Jutland

This plausible project was at first well received in the fleet; for Admiral Scheer said he would be willing to operate it, if it were understood that the Auswartige [sic] Amt would be implacably firm when difficulties arose. The chancellor was doubtful, but raised no insuperable objections. Before anything could be done, however, the battle of Jutland was fought; and this exerted a tremendous influence upon public and official opinion in England and Germany. Each side, in the words of Voltaire: sonna les cloches pour la victoire qu'on n'avait pas gagnée; for it would be absurd to apply the word victory to a fleet action, which did not alter the course of the war by a hair's breadth. The German nation, and the German fleet were, however, justly proud of the successes of the day; for it was, after all, no more and no less than the simple truth, that the German fleet had engaged forces that far outnumbered them, and yet had inflicted losses about twice as great as those they had suffered. From the bare facts, therefore, which could not be disputed, every German had the right to believe that ship for ship, and man for man, they were very much our masters; and it was a natural consequence of this that Admiral Scheer was acclaimed throughout the country as a great commander. Trusting to the popularity and influence he had thus acquired, Admiral Scheer now rejected the compromise that he had been considering a week before the battle was fought, and pressed for a renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare, in his despatch upon the battle, and in a number of memorials written subsequently. To all these the chancellor replied with his usual skill, and the upshot was, that the commander-in-chief refused all further compromise, and ordered all the U-boats in home waters to abstain from commerce warfare altogether. The campaign was, however, continued in the Mediterranean with the restraints practised hitherto. In all this Admiral Scheer was strictly consistent, but his ambitions were, by then, very much enlarged.

      The fleet command (says the German historian) was extremely distrustful of the co-operation then evident between the chancellor, Admiral von Holtzendorff and the Auswartige [sic] Amt.

Admiral Scheer therefore hoped for important political consequences, when it became known that the submarine fleet in home waters was abstaining from commerce warfare altogether: the Reichstag would be disturbed, and would ask for explanations, and the chancellor would withdraw from office, unable to face the popular indignation, when the nation were informed upon the whole matter.3

During June, July and August, therefore, the campaign was but little prosecuted in home waters; nevertheless the commander-in-chief's Achillean manoeuvre was weakened by compromises, which even he was forced to sanction. First of all, the U-boat commanders, whom he sent out to watch the fleet bases, and to cooperate in the great fleet sortie of August, did sink merchantmen on their outward and inward trips, without breaching the rules of cruiser warfare. They did this under the impulse of what the German historian calls: Their inherent activity pressure. Admiral Scheer did not forbid it. More important than this, however, the commander-in-chief could not order that complete cessation in all home waters, which he hoped would be of such political consequence, because Falkenhayn was, [598] all the time, insisting that something must be done to check, or disturb, the transports and munition ships in the Channel. Powerful as he was, Scheer was not able to thwart Falkenhayn on such a matter as that, for the German armies were then fiercely attacked on the Somme. Thirdly, Scheer was forced to make a further concession to the military authorities. General Brusilov had recently launched a tremendous attack against the Austrian armies, and was driving them before him. Falkenhayn represented that something ought at least to be attempted to stop the flow of supplies and munitions that were reaching the Russians through Archangel. Admiral Scheer agreed to this, and U-boats from the fleet operated on the Archangel route, until the cold weather, and the long nights made operations impossible in those northern waters.

Admiral Scheer may possibly have yielded on these two points, because the popular uproar, which he had hoped to provoke by his opposition, was weaker than he expected. During the summer, at all events, the chancellor boldly faced his critics in the Reichstag, and contrived that submarine warfare should be discussed by secret committees. Being thus free to present the whole case to a body of educated men, the chancellor and Helfferich persuaded the government's critics; and, early in October, Mr. Grew, the American chargé d'affaires reported that Bethmann-Hollweg was temporarily master of the government.4

viii) The army high command again intervene, and the discussion changes its character

This piecemeal reinstatement of submarine warfare was, however, judged insufficient by Falkenhayn, whose difficulties were rising. The attack upon Verdun was now quite abandoned; British pressure on the Somme was unrelenting; the Austrians were still falling back before General Brusilov; the Rumanian government had now declared war, and their armies were advancing into Transylvania. It was therefore intolerable to him, that the navy should be helpless to assist in so great a crisis of affairs, and he asked, with the greatest insistence, that the whole matter should be reconsidered. A conference was summoned, but Falkenhayn did not attend it; for, on 29th August, he was relieved by General von Hindenburg. Holtzendorff met the new chief of the staff and his quartermaster-general, General Ludendorff, on the day of their appointment, and on the 31st, the matter was discussed in council. The chancellor, Jagow, Helfferich, Admiral von Capelle, and General Wild von Hohenborn were present.

It is peculiar, and possibly illustrative of a movement of opinion, which is recorded in no documents, that the two naval leaders, Capelle and Holtzendorff, who, a few months before, had sided with the chancellor, were now converted to the simple conceptions of the commander-in-chief: that a country in danger must make every exertion possible; that unrestricted submarine warfare was on that account inevitable, and that it had better be begun at once. Holtzendorff's conversion was indeed complete:

      Finis Germaniae consists not in the use, but in the withholding of a weapon which cripples England's ability to support her allies and to continue the war.

Even the chancellor spoke far less decisively than he had done previously, and admitted, at the outset, that nobody any longer doubted that U-boat warfare would come, and that the important question was to choose the right moment. Helfferich and Jagow stood firmly to their opinions, and showed, once again, that nothing certain could be predicted about the consequences of submarine war, [599] except that it would be directed against a coalition of boundless resources. It is somewhat surprising that Hindenburg, who was a very simple man, and Ludendorff, who was learned in the science of quartermaster-generalship and ignorant of all else, were not at once persuaded by the crude reasoning of the two admirals; but hazard again influenced the conference.5 During the preliminary conversations, Bethmann-Hollweg had said he feared that the border neutrals would declare against Germany, if submarine warfare were declared. Of all the dangers that threatened the German empire this must surely have been the most distant and unlikely; but it influenced Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The two generals were then painfully collecting an army to repel the Rumanians, and Hindenburg stated, that he could not accomplish this, and, at the same time, station additional troops on the Dutch and Danish frontiers. The written conclusion of the conference was, therefore, that a final decision must be postponed; but it was no longer doubtful what the final decision was to be; for this meeting must be regarded as the beginning of a new period in these long deliberations. Even the short jerky notes of the official reporter to the council - a record that contains nothing but the bare substance of what was said by each speaker, which omits every personal or intimate detail, and conveys nothing of the manner of speaking, whether it was forceful and heated or calm and balanced - even this cold, passionless, record shows that the high council of the German empire was changing its method of investigation and enquiry. Hitherto, the execution of the campaign had been haphazard and clumsy, but, at least, the question whether the campaign ought, or ought not, to be executed without restraint had always been properly considered; for whenever this was examined, the certain and the speculative consequences of submarine war against commerce were fairly presented. This was now ending: from now onwards, a few bald assertions by the admirals and generals are the only subjects under discussion; the question is no longer whether the campaign should, or should not, be pursued without restraint, but only what will be the best moment for removing every restriction. Admiral Scheer's contention was, in fact, at last admitted, and the generals and admirals were now agreed, that an unrestricted campaign was a sort of military reserve, which was to be thrown into the struggle at the appropriate moment.

ix) The final decision is taken without deliberation

Admiral Scheer was, presumably, so confident that an unrestricted campaign would soon be declared, that he raised no objection to a general order, issued in October: that submarine warfare was to be restarted in home waters, and conducted according to prize regulations. This order was issued for the strangest of reasons. Since September, Bartenbach's commanders at Zeebrugge had been operating in the Channel according to prize regulations; they sank 82,000 tons of shipping in that month alone. Bartenbach at first thought he would easily persuade the staff of the high seas fleet, that, if operations were conducted according to prize regulations, enough tonnage would be sunk to make the operations of high military value. Indeed, he seems to have been so simple as to have imagined, that the commander-in-chief only opposed regular warfare with submarines, because he was ill-informed. Bartenbach therefore visited the high seas fleet, where he was soon undeceived. After his visit, he felt bound to represent to Holtzendorff, that he and the captains of the Flanders flotilla were in a most uncomfortable position, in that, on their own responsibility, they were conducting operations of which the commander-in-chief and his staff most strongly disapproved; and that nothing could relieve them [600] except an imperial order. This moved Holtzendorff to do what he had refrained from doing all the summer, and, on the 6th October, an order was sent out to all forces in home waters: the essential part of the orders was that all vessels were to be searched, and their papers examined. Regular submarine warfare was, therefore, conducted in all theatres, and on a uniform system, from October to January; and, if the results of it had ever been presented fairly, then, the inferences to be drawn from them would certainly have strengthened the case for a submarine campaign, which exhausted British resources, without adding to them, by presenting Great Britain with a new ally. It does not appear, however, that any scientific comparison of what could be done by regular, and of what could be done by unrestricted, operations was ever presented to the civil authorities, or even to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, to whom the final decision had virtually been left.

Soon after the September conference, Ludendorff gave a representative of the naval staff a general assurance, that he was in favour of unrestricted submarine warfare; he added, significantly, that he thought it a great pity the civil authorities had ever been allowed a say in the matter. Submarine warfare was, in his opinion, a military question, as it rested entirely with the military and naval authorities to decide what forces, and what employment of them, were necessary for bringing an enemy to terms. The naval staff were now so satisfied that the general would force the government's hand, that they made no further move.

The final decision was taken very rapidly, and for reasons which seem most hasty and insufficient. On 15th December, the French made a great counter-attack at Verdun, and recovered nearly all the ground they had lost in the early part of the year. Ludendorff was, at the time, planning and considering the next year's campaign, and the success of the French attack seems to have made a great impression upon him; for he wrote, a week later, to the chancellor, that what had occurred on the western front had persuaded him that unrestricted submarine warfare must begin in January. The general claimed, moreover, that it had been decided at the last conference that the decision should rest with the chief of the staff. There was now an exchange of letters between headquarters and the chancellor, in which Hindenburg maintained that he alone was responsible. The careful balancing of advantages and disadvantages which had been attempted earlier in the year was now a thing of the past, and the whole matter was reduced to the simple proposition: that the empire was hard pressed, and must make every exertion in the coming year. No other reason was given at the decisive conference. The naval staff did, it is true, send a long memorial to general headquarters on 22nd December. This paper was the final edition of a paper circulated previously and then much criticised by Helfferich. It was a long, arithmetical calculation of Great Britain's resisting power, loaded with statistics about grain prices, freights, tonnage, and insurance rates: the answer, or final result, of the calculation was, that Great Britain's resisting power would last for from six to eight months only. Ludendorff states, however, that he was not influenced by this document.

When the chancellor received this peremptory letter from headquarters, he made all the arrangements for assembling a conference. Actually two conferences were held. The first, on 8th January, 1917, was attended only by the naval and military leaders; they were all agreed and there was nothing to discuss. The chancellor arrived on the following day, well knowing that the matter had already been decided. He still had a strong card in his hand; but he did not play it. His recent invitation to a peace conference (12th December), had been ill received, and the German admirals and generals were quite right in regarding it as irrelevant to the question being considered. President Wilson's invitation to a general negotiation for peace, which was still unanswered when the German authorities assembled at Pless, was another matter. Every responsible diplomat in the world must have realised that the president intended his note to be the first move in a long manoeuvre; for he [601] merely asked every government at war to state its conditions, leaving it to be understood, that, when he had received these conditions, he would again approach the belligerents with proposals of his own. The Germans had, moreover, been assured more than once, that the president intended to press his mediation very hard, and that he would even coerce the allies, if they resisted his diplomacy. The chancellor, therefore, had an exceedingly powerful argument for delaying the final decision until the president's intentions were better known; but so helpless did he feel that he never even presented it, and said merely:

      Submarine warfare is the last card: a very serious decision. But if the military authorities think that U-boat warfare is necessary, I am not in a position to dispute it.

After this admission, the conference had only to fix a date on which the campaign should begin: February 1st was agreed on all hands to be a convenient moment.

x) General considerations upon the conduct of submarine warfare

From all that precedes, it will be evident, that, when the German authorities decided to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, they were influenced by matters that are only faintly indicated in historical documents and records; for it is not to be imagined that the German state archives contain a document, or a set of documents, explaining rationally, why it was thought unwise to provoke an American declaration in May, and wise and proper to do so six months later. No discovery had been made in the intervening period, and all the reasons previously given why an Anglo-American combination would be irresistible, were even stronger in January, 1917, than they had been in May, 1916. Some excuse might be made for those naval officers, who were persuaded by the laborious calculations set out in the final memorial; for they might argue, that this calculation of British resistance was a discovery from facts not previously understood. The final decision was not, however, taken by the naval staff, but by Ludendorff and Hindenburg; and Ludendorff denies that this document influenced him.

This irrational decision, taken by men of irreproachable character, and unbounded devotion to the empire, is probably to be explained by a military analogy. Decisions taken by a commander in the field are not governed by pure reason; for historical research shows, that the decisive manoeuvre in a great battle has generally been ordered on a wrong appreciation of the facts, or, more often than not, because the commander ordering it believes (for reasons that he can rarely reconstruct later on) that the moment for a last desperate exertion has arrived. This, at all events is the explanation that Hindenburg gives himself: Those who decided on unrestricted submarine war, he writes, have been accused of gambling with the nation's destinies; but he adds boldly, that, even if the charge of gambling be proved, it lays no odium upon those who incur it, simply because taking risks is inherent in the conduct of war:

      If a commander in the field sends his last reserves into the battle line, he does no more than his country justly demands of him: he takes all responsibility upon himself, and acts with the courage that is necessary if a victory is to be obtained. A leader who will not take the responsibility of risking all to secure a victory, simply breaks faith with his own people. If he fails, he will certainly be a mark for the scorn and insults of weaklings and dastards. That, however, is a soldier's destiny. If everything in war could be settled by certain calculation; if fame and glory could be earned by other qualities than courage and responsibility, then, there would be no such quality as greatness.

This is probably the best and fairest explanation ever given why unrestricted submarine warfare was ordered: the decision for it rested with men, who thought it their duty to leave reason behind. Nevertheless, the explanation needs supplementing. If Hindenburg judged the nation's position to be as dangerous as the position of the Prussian army at Leuthen, when the last reserves were thrown in (the analogy is his, not mine), then, he must have been persuaded that his country was near [602] exhaustion. He can only have been persuaded of this by those numberless appearances of fatigue, want, anxiety and distress, which display themselves in an exhausted country, and this is equivalent to saying that our economic campaign had brought the German empire to a desperate condition.

Comparisons have already been made between the British and German systems of economic warfare, and it would be superfluous to repeat them, except only on this one point. The documentary records of the British economic campaign contain a full and satisfactory explanation of what objects were being pursued, and what was hoped for, by everybody concerned in it; and, in so far as it is possible to speak generally of so complicated a matter, it, may be said, that our conduct of the campaign was determined by a principle, which was never put in question: that the operation would only give good results, if the United States government did not interfere with it. Estimates of the American danger varied, but in all the records there is not a suggestion, that the operation could be persisted in, if the United States actively opposed it. This principle was not established by making surveys of the economic power of the United States; it was simply accepted as an axiom in Euclid is accepted. Also, in all the elaborate calculations and forecasts which are to be found in the records of the economic campaign, it would be futile to search for any proof that the campaign would be decisive. Experts, who watched the shortages in Germany, never said more than that some shortages might be made good, and that others would probably be progressive. As these were the most embracing forecasts ever circulated, it seems established, that nobody operating the campaign ever hoped that a particular object would be gained by it: the economic campaign was simply regarded as an operation valuable enough to be persisted in, provided always, that it did not provoke the American government to an open breach. If the German authorities had conducted their own campaign on these two simple axioms, they would probably have subjected Great Britain to pressure nearly equivalent to the pressure exerted upon Germany, and they would not have involved their countrymen in one of the most terrible disasters that has ever overtaken a proud nation.

Shipping losses in the Mediterranean,
October 1915 - January 1916.

Allied ships
  Neutral ships  
October 61,340 2,508 63,848
November     146,457   6,425 152,882  
December 72,463 1,278 73,741
January 27,979 27,979

2See Chap. XXVIII, pp. 549 et seq. ...back...

3These are the motives imputed to Admiral Scheer by the German official historian, and largely confirmed by a letter from Admiral von Trotha. See Krieg zur See, Handelskrieg mit U-Booten, Band III, p. 201 et seq. ...back...

4These discussions, being held in secret, cannot be followed from the Reichstag records; but Mr. Grew, who was ordered to learn whatever he could about them, executed his instructions with some ability. The general course of the discussions may be followed from Mr. Grew's despatches; U.S. Foreign Relations, 1916, Supplement, pp. 56, 291, 292, 293. ...back...

5If a man's abilities and knowledge may be judged from his writings this seems a fair estimate. Ludendorff s memoirs are an admirable account of the campaigns for which he was responsible, with a running commentary upon politics and government, which would be thought crude from a school prefect. His later book: The Coming War, is simply childish. ...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).