April is the 100th anniversary of the United States declaring war on Germany and its allies the Great Powers. The Wilson administration’s decision to go to war was not taken lightly or in haste. In fact, it was almost two years after the sinking of the Lusitania that The president appeared before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917 and asked that body to declare war. Woodrow Wilson’s speech outlined a number German actions – specifically unrestricted submarine warfare, committing sabotage in the United States and attempting to lure Mexico into the war on their side – that justified this country being involved in what many Americans viewed as a European conflict. This will be a two-part blog: the first dealing with the sinking of the Lusitania; the second, German efforts at sabotage in the United States and the Zimmermann Telegram.
The submarine brought a new dimension to warfare on the world’s oceans. A vessel that traveled under the water, out of sight of other vessels, had an advantage over the ships they were targeting. Before the submarine, if a warship stopped a merchant vessel belonging to an adversary or a neutral nation, their crew would board that ship, determine it was carrying forbidden cargo, send the crew safely off, and then sink it. During the the early part of the Great War, submarines would surface, would use that procedure and sink the ship with a torpedo. Neutral shipping would be left alone by the Germans as long they were not carrying contraband. That is until the British started using neutral nations’ ships, such as American freighters, to carry war materials. Early in February 2015, the German government stated that the area around the British Isles would be considered to a war zone and ships carrying contraband would be targets for U boats. The German action was partly in response to the Royal Navy blockade of Germany’s coast. (1)
The RMS Lusitania was scheduled to sail from New York on May 1, 1915, with cargo and passengers on board and Liverpool as her destination. The German Embassy in the United States took out an advertisement in the New York newspapers warning Americans not to sail on British ships. For the most part that warning was ignored by the Americans who had booked passage on her.
The day before the Lusitania sailed out of New York harbor, a U boat backed out of its berth at Emden, Germany, followed the estuary of the Ems River into the North Sea, and set a northerly course that would eventually take it around the British Isles and Ireland to it’s patrol sector in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Periodically the U-20 would send radio messages back to it’s base in Germany, unaware that the Royal Navy code breakers in Room 40 in the Admiralty in London were intercepting them. Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger and the commanders of the six other U boats at sea were under orders from the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) to hunt British ships and sink them without warning. ( 1 )
While the codebreakers in Room 40 knew the approximate location of the German U boats, they had no knowledge of the position of British passenger or merchant ships in the waters around the British Isles, where the submarines were on the prowl looking for targets. Messages had been sent to masters of British vessels whose voyages took them past the south coast of Ireland to avoid headlands, choose a course that took up the middle of St. George’s Channel, zigzag to minimize their ships as targets, and to time their arrival at the Liverpool bar so they wouldn’t to stop to take on a pilot.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Woodward Wilson was trying to find a way for the United States to bring peace to the war fought mostly in Europe. When the conflict had broken out in the summer of 1914, Wilson had told the American people to be “neutral in thought as well as action.” President Wilson sent his closest advisor Colonel Edward M. House on a peace mission to Europe in January 1915 on the Lusitania. On that voyage, the captain raised the United States flag when the vessel approached the Irish coast.
Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger’s U boat reached the southern coast of Ireland on 5 May. Before he encountered the Lusitania on 7 May, Schwieger attacked four other vessels. He sunk two of them with torpedoes, shelled one after sending its crew away, the torpedo he used for the fourth mis-fired. When the Lusitania appeared in his periscope, Schwieger released a torpedo. It struck the ship on the starboard side, causing an explosion. There was a second explosion minutes later causing the liner to sink in eighteen minutes. Only 764 persons of the 1962 total of passengers and crew survived. Of the dead a number were women and children, and 128 were Americans. After the fact, the U boat commander claimed he didn’t recognize the profile of the liner until after he had launched the torpedo and a crew member recognized her. Most authors who have written about the tragedy claim Schwieger was being disingenuous. The German government justified the sinking by claiming the liner was carry munitions in its cargo holds, pointing to the second explosion as proof. In Great Britain, the sinking raised a number of questions; primarily, why hadn’t the Royal Navy sent destroyers to guide the Lusitania through treacherous waters where German submarines had been active. On 10 May, the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill) appeared at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons to answer members’ questions. Part of one of Churchill’s answers: “I have stated that two warnings were sent to the vessel, together with directions as to her course. I made that quite clear. If the hon. Member asks if a special escort was sent out my reply is “No.” No exception was made to the regular method by which our seaborne commerce is conducted.” (2 )
For almost a year extensive diplomatic correspondence was carried out between the American State Department and the German Foreign Office. (4 ) In February 1916, the Germans agreed to quit sinking neutral vessels. America stepped back from war, for at the least time being.
(1) For those readers who want to read the German government’s note, use the following: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/subch1
(2) Patrick Beesly, Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1918, is the best source on Room 40, but the only copy in Cardinal in owned by Forsyth County’s Central Library, which is closed for renovation. Beesly lists the reasons that could have contributed to the liner sinking so fast and questions the disappearance of documents that could answer several question relating to the Lusitania.
(3) For the full transcript of Churchill’s statement, use this link: http:n//hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1915/may/10/statement-by-mr-churchi
(4)To read this correspondence: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/ch8
For further reading:
Christopher Andrew, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, pp. 86-127.
A. Scott Berg, Wilson, pp. 362-369.
Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
Diana Preston, Lusitania, an Epic Tragedy.