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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 13a - The Military and Political Significance of the U-boat Campaign

OUR fleet was built for the protection of German interests at sea; its object was quite definitely a defensive one. This was proved in its construction; its main strength consisted in battleships and torpedo-boats which were meant exclusively for naval battles. There were so few cruisers that they barely sufficed to scout for a fleet on the move. Both in numbers and in construction they were unfitted to threaten the trade of the enemy; they could not touch English world-trade, because the British Isles formed a barrier in the North Sea. We had no naval bases abroad. Thanks to English policy, in this war a hostile fleet ran little risk in attacking ours, though it was built as a defence against such attacks. England had secured the co-operation of the next strongest land and sea Powers, and could count on the benevolent neutrality of the United States of America, until they, too, sided with our enemies. Nevertheless, England forbore to risk her superior fleet in battle, and her naval policy in the war was confined to this: to cut Germany off from all supplies by sea, and to starve her out by withholding food and raw materials.

On October 2, 1914, the British Admiralty published a warning that it had become necessary to lay a large minefield at the entrance of the Channel into the North Sea; this was 1,365 square sea miles in extent. It left free a narrow channel near the English coast, which was only passable within British territorial waters. On November 2, 1914, the whole of the North Sea was declared to be in the War Zone. Any ships which crossed it other than by routes prescribed by the British Admiralty would do so at their own peril, and would be exposed to great danger from the mines laid in these parts and from warships which would search for suspicious craft with the greatest vigilance. This was the declaration made by the British Government. The provisions of the Declaration of London of 1909 had not been ratified by England at the time, and she therefore did not consider herself bound by any international laws which would have made it possible to get articles of trade through neutral countries into blockaded Germany. The result of the measures adopted by the British Government were as follows:

1. All import trade into Germany both by land and sea was strangled, and in particular the importation of food was made impossible, because the distinction between absolute and relative contraband was done away with. Even the importation of goods that were not contraband was prevented, by taking them off the ships on the plea that contraband might be hidden in them; then when they were landed, either they were requisitioned or detained on the strength of some prohibition of export so that they had to be sold.

2. The neutral states in order to obtain any oversee imports for themselves were forced by England's demands to forbid almost all export of goods to Germany. The British Government even demanded the cessation of trade in free goods and their own produce between these countries and Germany, threatening to treat the neutral country as an enemy if these demands were not complied with.

3. In neutral countries, especially in the United States of America, whole industries were forced to stop all trade with Germany. In addition to this, the neutral countries of Europe were compelled to set up organisations which controlled all the trade of the country, and thereby placed it under the control of England. Persons and firms who did not comply with the regulations were cut off from sea trade, because all cargoes addressed to them were detained under suspicion of being destined for the enemy.

4. Free trading of neutral merchant vessels on the North Sea was made impossible when that was declared to be in the War Zone, because every ship that did not follow the instructions of this declaration was exposed to the risk of destruction. In this way all shipping was forced to pass through English waters and so to submit to English control. Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, openly expressed the aim of the British Government in his speech at the Guildhall on November 9, 1914. He said! the British people had taken as their motto, "Business as usual during alterations in the map of Europe," and they expected the Fleet, on which they had spent so much care and money, to make it possible for them to adhere to this motto, and the Fleet was at the moment about to do so. It was very difficult at the beginning of war to estimate the full effect of the pressure exerted by sea power. The loss suffered was obvious and easily computed; the loss they inflicted was often invisible, or if it was visible its extent could not be determined. The economic stringency of the blockade required time to attain its full effect, They saw it then only in the third month. They must have patience and consider it in the sixth, the ninth, the twelfth months; then they would see the success which would be achieved gradually and silently, which meant the ruin of Germany as surely as the approach of winter meant the fall of the leaves from the trees.

The attitude of the English Fleet was absolutely in keeping with this declaration. They avoided battle or any attempt to destroy the German Fleet. They thought they could force Germany's submission without any fear that the English Fleet might forfeit its superiority to the other fleets of the world. Their strategy also gave` their fleet certain tactical advantages if we should seek to join battle in those waters which it had selected for its stand. From this position the English Fleet was enabled to carry out the system they had planned of watching the approaches to the North Sea and the routes which lead to Scandinavia, and at the same time most effectively to protect this system from German attacks emanating from the Bight.

The English plan, however, was based on the further assumption that the Fleet would be able effectually to protect English trade. They probably counted upon the life of our cruisers in foreign waters being a short one, and reckoned that only in exceptional cases auxiliary cruisers would evade the watch in the North Sea and get out. These might temporarily disturb trade, but could never have any decisive effect. The English were not mistaken in this assumption; and in their certainty of controlling the seas, without any regard to the rights of neutral countries from whom they were not likely to meet with serious opposition, they took such measures as were best adapted to cut off Germany. When they declared the War Zone they dropped the old idea of a blockade, because mines and submarines made it impossible to carry out a regular blockade effectively. So far as the Englishman was concerned, that was the end of the blockade, and he proceeded to introduce an innovation which, to his idea, was suited to the times, and therefore justified; nor did he trouble in the least about the protest of neutrals.

To English ideas it is self-understood that naval warfare is directed towards the destruction of enemy trade, and equally so that all means that can promote this end are right. Their practicability was founded on the might of the English Fleet, from which neutral protests rebounded unheeded. This war has made it clear that the neutrals were mistaken when they thought that they could demand of that great Sea Power, England, the same rights that she had secured by treaties when she herself had been neutral. These rights of neutrals are nothing but pretensions which a mighty Sea Power would like to turn to its own advantage if on some occasion it should not be one of the belligerents and should wish to carry on its trade regardless of whether one of the parties at war should suffer thereby or not.

This was typical of the relations between us and America. Of course, the semblance of right must be maintained, and for that purpose any catchword! which happens to appeal most to the people is made use of.

In this war it was the "dictates of humanity " which had to bolster up American trade interests. No State, not even America, thought it against the dictates of humanity to build submarines for war purposes, whose task it should be unexpectedly to attack warships and sink them with all on board. Does it really make any difference, purely from the humane point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?

What England considered to be maritime law is most clearly seen by the layman in her attitude towards the Declaration of London. On the invitation of the British Government there was a conference in connection with the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1909 by which a number of rules were drawn up, the signatory Powers—amongst them England, France, Russia, the United States, Germany and others—" had agreed in the statement that the rules drawn up in the Declaration were in all essentials in conformity with the generally accepted principles of International Law." England had not ratified this treaty owing to the veto of the House of Lords because it did not take British interests sufficiently into consideration. She therefore had the formal right not to abide by these rules, but at the same time she ran counter to the principles of International Law recognised by every State. On August 20, 1914, the British Government announced that it had decided to accept the Declaration of London in general, but with certain changes and additions that it considered absolutely imperative in order to be able to carry out operations at sea effectively. Here with touching ingenuousness it is stated that the Englishman considers himself bound by law only in so far as it does not hinder his operations, and that he will allow himself such deviations as will ensure the effective execution of his plans. That meant that he contravened the right of neutrals to send any goods to Germany and put obstacles in the way of such trade by every means in his power. The Neutral States even had to give an undertaking to consume all food received from overseas in their own countries and not to make use of foreign imports to set free a like quantity of home-grown food for transport into Germany. Anyone who wished to defend himself by means of remonstrances or protests in law was foredoomed to defeat owing to this brutal policy of might; but unfortunately this was the form our own policy had taken.

Moreover, we looked in vain for sympathy from the neutrals. America declared that if England ignored International Law that did not give us the right to pursue a course contrary to International Law to which America would be expected to submit. On the contrary, she demanded for her citizens the right to travel anywhere by sea unmolested. If we did not refrain from the counter-measures we had announced, which she considered contrary to the dictates of humanity, she would hold us responsible. Such a peremptory tone was not employed towards England. And why should it have been ? The Englishman was only too glad of the visits of American ships, for they brought him everything that he badly needed. No disturbance of trade was to be expected from him, for he would have thereby injured his own interests and could, therefore, never be in the awkward position of running counter to the dictates of humanity as understood by America. How the efforts of Americans to tighten the screw of hunger on our people could be reconciled with humanity is a question that can only be explained by the peculiar maxim of the Anglo-Saxons that "business " has nothing to do with it.

When the starvation of Germany was recognised as the goal the British Government were striving to reach, we had to realise what means we had at our disposal to defend ourselves against this danger. England was in a position to exert enormous pressure. We could not count on any help from the neutrals. Without exception they had submitted to England's will, though they had not all sought their advantage in it as Norway and America had done. As we have explained in the preceding chapters, in view of the attitude of the English Fleet, our Fleet with its smaller numbers, and as it was constituted at the outbreak of war, could not hope to score a decisive success by means of which German trade might revive and British trade be at the mercy of our cruisers. The assumption that we might have done this is Utopian and does not take into account the subsidiary means of controlling sea traffic which would still be left to England, even if her war Fleet proper were badly damaged.

The help of such neutrals as were left in this war would not have afforded us sufficient security to enable us to maintain our economic life, so long as imports from overseas were lacking, even if they ,had been in a position to treat us in a more friendly manner after their spines had been stiffened by a severe English defeat at sea. We could only escape from this tight corner if we could find the means of exerting a still more stringent pressure upon English trade and so force England to yield. The U-boat might rescue us, because the protection which the English afforded trade was powerless against this weapon

A military and political problem of the utmost importance thus arose: Germany was in possession of a weapon which would render the English Fleet ineffective and was capable of upsetting England's whole plan of starving us out. It was only when the effectiveness of these boats under the pressure of war had proved to be far beyond all expectations that it became clear that the U-boat could attain such importance as a weapon in naval warfare. The closest understanding between the political leaders and the Naval Command was requisite for the use of this weapon. The first considerations were of course those concerning Maritime Law.

It would take too long to reproduce here all the legal discussions that took place on this question. The novelty of the weapon demanded new methods which the opposition considered unjustifiable and which they, of course, opposed with the greatest vigour, since they were contrary to their interests. But there was no doubt that the English conduct of the war had given us the right to use retaliatory measures, especially since they had shown by example that it was a simple law of necessity imposed by war, to make use of the means at one's disposal "in order to carry out operations at sea effectively."

The submarine was a weapon of war adopted by every state. This gave us the right to make use of it in the manner to which, owing to its peculiar nature, it was best adapted. Any use of it which did not take this peculiar nature into account would be nonsensical and unmilitary. The U-boat's capacity for diving made it specially suitable for war on commerce, because it could appear unexpectedly and thereby cause fear and panic and scare away trade, while at the same time it could escape the pursuit of the enemy. The fact that it could travel under water made the new weapon particularly promising. If it sank merchant vessels, including their crews and any passengers, the blame would attach to those who despised our warnings and, open-eyed, ran the risk of being torpedoed, in exactly the same way as the crews of those steamers that would not submit to English dictation, and in spite of the English warnings, took the risk of crossing the areas where mines were laid.

Was the audacity of the merchant seamen to prevent us from seizing a weapon on the use of which our fate depended ? Certainly no legal considerations could stop us from pursuing this course, but only political considerations as to whether we were strong enough to disregard unjustified protests. It was imperative to make the most of the advantages arising from the submersibility of the boat, otherwise the weapon would be blunted at the start and bound to be ineffectual. The U-boat must constitute a danger from which there was no escape. Neither watchfulness nor speed could afford ships sufficient protection. That was the consideration on which the conclusion was based, that, as the loss of ships increased, trade with the British Isles must ultimately cease. The submersibility of the boats would also leave the enemy in doubt as to the number of boats with which he had to wrestle; for he had no means of gaining a clear idea of the whereabouts of his opponent. One single successful U-boat that had made a route dangerous might produce the impression that two or more had been at work. For it is human nature to exaggerate unknown dangers. The target of attack presented to the U-boats by English trade, spread all around the British Isles, was vulnerable at every point of the coast. Therein lay a great advantage as compared with the conduct of war against trade as carried on by cruisers. They had to seek the open sea where there was little traffic in order to escape pursuit; the U-boat on the contrary could frequent the neighbourhood of the coast where all traffic met, and could escape pursuit merely by diving.

All these considerations had led to the same suggestion being made at one and the same time from the most varied sections of the navy—that our conduct of naval warfare must follow the example given by England, and be directed towards the destruction of commercial traffic, because in that way we can hit England in a vital spot. The U-boat will serve as a suitable weapon for this purpose.

In November, 1914, the Leaders of the Fleet laid this suggestion before the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral von Pohl, advancing the following arguments:

"As our coast is not blockaded, our trade with neutrals, in so far as it does not involve contraband, might continue in the usual way. Nevertheless all trade on the North Sea coast has ceased. England exerts strong pressure on our neighbours to put a stop to all trade between them and us in goods which we need for the conduct of the war. Their most vigorous efforts are directed towards preventing the import of food from neutral countries. This does not apply merely to food imports destined for the troops; England wants to starve our whole nation. In this she overrides all rules of International Law, as food is only conditional contraband and only liable to stoppage, therefore, when intended to assist in the conduct of the war. According to the provisions of the London Conference, conditional contraband can only be stopped when it is shipped direct to the enemy country. If it be sent via a neutral country, e.g. Holland, it is not permissible to stop it. In spite of this a large number of steamers carrying food, oil, metals, etc., to neutral countries have been held up on the way, although it had not been ascertained with certainty that their further destination was Germany.

"As England is trying to destroy our trade it is only fair if we retaliate by carrying on the campaign against her trade by all possible means. Further, as England completely disregards International Law in her actions, there is not the least reason why we should exercise any restraint in our conduct of the war. We can wound England most seriously by injuring her trade. By means of the U-boat we should be able to inflict the greatest injury. We must therefore make use of this weapon, and do so, moreover, in the way most suited to its peculiarities. The more vigorously the war is prosecuted the sooner will it come to an end, and countless human beings and treasure will be saved if the duration of the war is curtailed. Consequently a U-boat cannot spare the crews of steamers, but must send them to the bottom with their ships. The shipping world can be warned of these consequences, and it can be pointed out that ships which attempt to make British ports run the risk of being destroyed with their crews. This warning that the lives of steamers' crews will be endangered will be one good reason why all shipping trade with England should cease within a short space of time. The whole British coast, or anyway a part of it, must be declared to be blockaded, and at the same time the aforesaid warning must be published.

"The declaration of the blockade is desirable in order to warn neutrals of the consequences. The gravity of the situation demands that we should free ourselves from all scruples which certainly no longer have justification. It is of importance too, with a view to the future, that we should make the enemy realise at once what a powerful weapon we possess in the U-boat, with which to injure their trade, and that the most unsparing use is to be made of it."

Such action was suggested on military grounds. As was only natural, the political leaders were filled with grave doubts on account of its probable effect upon neutrals. The Imperial Chancellor sent a reply to the Admiralty on December 27, 1914; in this he summed up his reflections on the subject and declared that there was nothing from the legal point of view to be urged against the U-boat campaign, but that the decision must depend upon military and political considerations as to its advisability. The question was not whether it should be done, but when it could be done without ruining our position. Such a measure as the U-boat blockade would react detrimentally upon the attitude of neutrals and our imports; it could only be employed without dangerous consequences when our military position on the Continent was so secure that there could be no doubt as to the ultimate outcome there, and the danger that the neutrals would join our opponents might be regarded as out of the question. At the moment these conditions did not exist.

This answer shows that the importance of this matter was not fully recognised or appreciated.

It was not a question of whether the Navy might make use of a new and peculiar weapon in order to make the conduct of war at sea more effective and many-sided; the question was whether the gravity of the situation had been truly appreciated. The Imperial Chancellor's answer culminated in the remark: First the war on land must be successful; then we can think of attacking England.

Enemies on all sides! That was the situation. Could the war on land alone rescue us from the position, or war at sea as carried on heretofore ? How could we increase our efforts so as not to be defeated? Simple and straightforward reflection on this question pointed to the U-boat campaign against commerce as the way out. Of course it was our duty thoroughly to weigh its political consequences, its practicability from the military point of view, and its chances of success on a careful estimate of English economic conditions. But the study of these points ought to have preceded the war. It was neglected then because no one foresaw that a fight with England would mean a fight against her sea traffic with all the consequences it would entail. For who anticipated that we could possibly be in a position to inflict as severe an injury on English trade as that which we must expect to receive from the effects of the English blockade? It is no reproach to anybody not to have foreseen this. On the contrary, such aggressive ideas were quite foreign to our naval policy. In the course of the world-war, under the necessity of defending ourselves against the nations opposed to us, when we recognised the magnitude of the disaster which England had planned for us then, and then only, we descried a prospective possibility of winning freedom. It was lucky for us that our naval policy made it possible for us to carry out this plan; that we could pass from the state of defence, in which the enemy would cheerfully have allowed us to go on stewing, to an offensive; that we not only possessed this weapon in our naval armament but that we also had the men to use it, men with sufficient technical knowledge and the necessary courage; and lastly that the U-boats could rely on the security of their bases which the Fleet was called upon and ready to maintain.


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