wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Trevor Wilson

The Myriad Faces of War

Up to January 1917 the naval and military forces of Britain had generally been taking the war to the enemy. On the water the Royal Navy had instituted a blockade of Germany and had forced the High Seas Fleet to keep off the high seas. On land Britain had launched offensives against the Germans in Flanders and France and against the Turks at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia.

Germany, by contrast, had so far made no direct attempt to knock Britain out of the war. Twice around Ypres during the first year of the struggle German forces had dealt savagely with the relatively small British army. And at sea in 1915 the limited number of U-boats had sunk a considerable body of British merchant ships. But these blows were not of the same order as those Germany had launched against France in the opening weeks of the war and again at Verdun in 1916—blows intended to eliminate the French from the ranks of the combatants.

In January 1917 this situation changed. The rulers of Germany determined that Britain should now become the adversary destined for swift elimination. This would not be done on land, given Britain's continued strength in manpower and in industrial resources. Instead advantage would be taken of Britain's acute vulnerability to naval blockade. Germany's enlarged submarine force would be employed to sink a large proportion of the merchant shipping approaching and leaving Britain's shores. This would have a double effect. Neutral vessels would soon refuse to run the U-boat gauntlet and so would cease trading with Britain altogether. And British shipping would become so depleted that it could no longer adequately supply the nation's civilian population, war machine, and expeditions abroad. The calculation was that the destruction of 600,000 tons of British shipping a month, combined with the total withdrawal of neutral shipping, would force Britain to sue for peace within six months. The German plan depended on the adoption of unlimited submarine warfare. That is, every merchant ship of Allied or neutral origin, within a large area of sea, would be considered fair game. And no regard was to be had for the safety of their passengers and crews. Attacks would be carried out without warning and, where appropriate, from beneath the sea.

Developments in the submarine war had, in any case, been pointing the Germans in this direction. The new U-boats that Germany was building had a considerably increased torpedo capacity, thus facilitating many more submerged attacks. And Britain's growing practice of arming its merchant ships, along with its use of Q-ships, was rendering submarine attacks on the surface both more perilous and less rewarding. As long as the U-boat could strike from beneath the sea, the weapons of merchantmen and Q-ships held no dangers.

Technical evolution, then, was directing German thinking towards the unrestricted use of the U-boat. What the country's rulers contributed was the calculation that the consequent sinking of neutral vessels would not be an unfortunate corollary. Rather, it would be the most lucrative part of the whole campaign. For whereas attacks on British shipping would deprive Britain only of that proportion of its merchant fleet that actually went to the bottom, the campaign against neutrals would accomplish far more. It would drive all neutral shipping from Britain's shores.

Germany's leaders, of course, were not under the illusion that in adopting this course they had nothing to lose. The United States would certainly become belligerent. President Wilson might be prepared to retreat from his stand on the Lusitania and kindred incidents, whereby he had refused to tolerate the sinking even of Allied passenger ships if American lives were thereby endangered. But he would never back down so far as to tolerate the course that was now being contemplated: the indiscriminate sinking of American-owned and -manned merchant ships. Nevertheless, the Kaiser's advisers calculated that this would not matter greatly. In their view, American industry and raw materials were already at the disposal of the Allies. So the only further contribution the United States could make was in manpower. But the USA had for the moment no army deserving consideration. Hence its attention would signify only if the war went on long enough for the Americans to raise and train an army that they could then transport to Europe. If all went according to German plans, this would never happen. The U-boat campaign would ensure that the war ended much earlier. And anyway, by the time the USA possessed a considerable army, the shipping required to carry it to the battlefield would have ceased to exist.