The prospect was one of overwhelming magnitude, for it meant
neither more nor less than the realisation of Germany's demand for the freedom
of the seas. If we compare the importance of this undertaking with the manner
of its execution we are filled with bitter disappointment over the lack of
farsightedness and resolution amongst those with whom the ultimate decision
lay; and with deep regret for the great and heroic sacrifices that were made in
Thus the U-boat campaign became almost entirely a question
of politics. It was originally suggested by the Navy for military reasons; for
it was the Fleet that had to bear the brunt of English pressure at sea, and it
was the Fleet's duty to neutralise the effect of that pressure, which was very
definitely directed against our economic life. Considering the strength of the
English Fleet and its strategy, it was impossible to remove this pressure
directly, but all the same the U-boat had proved to be a weapon with which we
could inflict direct injury on English economic life, notwithstanding the
protection which the Fleet afforded it. Economic life in England was almost
entirely dependent on shipping, and so there was a prospect of our inflicting
such material injury upon that island State that it would be unable to continue
the war; four-fifths of the food of the country and all raw materials it
needed, excepting coal and half of the iron ore, had to be imported by sea.
Neutral shipping also took part in supplying these imports. That is why the
U-boat war against English trade became a political question, because it might
do very considerable injury to the interests of countries which so far were not
involved in the war.
There is such an enormous literature on the subject of the
economic as well as the legal conditions, that I shall content myself with an
account of the political developments of the U-boat campaign and of its
military realisation as it affected us in the Fleet.
The suggestion made by those in command of the Fleet to
inaugurate a U-boat campaign against commerce was adopted by the Chief of the
Admiralty Staff, von Pohl, in the form of a declaration of a War Zone which was
published on February 4, 1915, of which the wording was as follows:
|NOTICE IN THE IMPERIAL GAZETTE (Reichsanzeiger)
|1. The waters around Great Britain and Ireland,
including the whole of the English Channel, are herewith declared to be in the
War Zone. From February 18, 1915, onward, every merchant ship met with in this
War Zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to obviate the
danger with which the crews and passengers are thereby threatened.
|2. Neutral ships, too, will run a risk in the War
Zone, for in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordained by the British
Government on January 31, and owing to the hazards of naval warfare, it may not
always be possible to prevent the attacks meant for hostile ships from being
directed against neutral ships.
|3. Shipping north of the Shetland Islands, in the
eastern part of the North Sea, and on a strip at least 30 nautical miles wide
along the Dutch coast is not threatened with danger. Chief of the Naval Staff,
(Signed) v. POHL.
This declaration was made with the consent of the
Government, which sent a memorandum to the Powers affected, in which it was
clearly indicated that the declaration referred to the use of U-boats. The idea
of declaring a blockade of the whole British coast, or individual ports, had
been dropped. In declaring a War Zone we were following the English example.
The characteristic of a blockade had always been that it must be rendered
effective. But the number of boats at our disposal at that date could not be
considered sufficient for such a purpose. The blockade of individual ports
would not have fulfilled the object of spreading consternation amongst the
whole English shipping community, and would make it easy for the English to
take defensive measures if these could be confined to certain known areas.
Unfortunately, when they declared the War Zone, those in
authority could not bring themselves to state in so many words that all
shipping there was forbidden. Such a prohibition would not have been in
accordance with the Chancellor's ideas as expressed at the end of December in
the memorandum stating his doubts of the political wisdom of the move. This new
declaration represented a compromise. We know from Grand-Admiral von Tirpitz,
Secretary of State to the Imperial Admiralty, that he was given no opportunity
to influence this decision. This is all the more incomprehensible, because he
had to furnish the necessary material, and therefore should have had the
casting vote as to whether the scheme were practicable or no. There seems to be
no particularly valid reason why the announcement should have been hurried on
in this way, except that perhaps Admiral von Pohl wanted to close the
discussions with the Foreign Office by publishing this declaration before he
took up his new post as head of the Fleet, to which he had already been
appointed. This undue haste proved very awkward for him in his new position
when he realised that the U-boats could not act in the way he had planned, on
account of the remonstrances of the neutral States. He found himself obliged to
protest against the orders issued for these reasons, orders which endangered
the vital interests of the U-boats.
The success of this declaration of a War Zone depended upon
whether the neutrals heeded our warning and refrained, for fear of the
consequences, from passing through the War Zone. If they did not wish to lose
the advantages accruing to them from their sea trade with England they had to
take the risks.
The memorandum issued by the Government had characterised
our action as a retaliatory measure against Great Britain, because the latter
conducted the war against German trade in a manner which ignored all principles
of International Law. It then proceeded:
" As England has declared the waters between Scotland and
Norway to be part of the War Zone, so Germany declares all the waters round
Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole English Channel, to be in the
War Zone, and she will combat hostile shipping in those parts with every weapon
at her disposal. For this purpose, from February 18 and onward, she will seek
to destroy every hostile merchant ship which enters the War Zone, and it will
not always be possible to obviate the danger with which the persons and goods
on board will be threatened. Neutrals are therefore warned in future not to
risk crews, passengers and goods on such ships. Further, their attention is
drawn to the fact that it is highly desirable that their own ships should avoid
entering this zone. For although the German Navy has orders to avoid acts of
violence against neutral ships, so far as they are recognisable, yet, in view
of the misuse of neutral flags ordained by the British Government, and owing to
the hazards of warfare, it may not always be possible to prevent them from
falling a victim to an attack directed against an enemy ship."
Our U-boats received orders to adhere to the following rules
while conducting their campaign against commerce:
" The first consideration is the safety of the U-boat.
Consequently, rising to the surface in order to examine a ship must be avoided
for the sake of the boat's safety, because, apart from the danger of a possible
surprise attack by enemy ships, there is no guarantee that one is not dealing
with an enemy ship even if it bears the distinguishing marks of a neutral. The
fact that a steamer flies a neutral flag, and even carries the distinguishing
marks of a neutral, is no guarantee that it is actually a neutral vessel. Its
destruction will therefore be justifiable unless other attendant circumstances
indicate its neutrality."
This attitude was all the more justified because the object
of the whole enterprise was to make use of the U-boats to compensate us, since,
owing to our geographical position, it was impossible for our surface ships to
touch English world commerce. A perceptible effect of the campaign against
commerce could only be achieved if the peculiarities of the U-boat were taken
into consideration, as they were in the instructions issued to them. The
U-boat, as a special weapon in the war upon sea-borne trade, was to carry out
the blockade in the War Zone. Its strength lay in the difficulty of perceiving
an under-water attack, and it had to make use of this in the interests of
self-preservation. You do not demand of an aeroplane that it should attack the
enemy on its wheels.
The danger which the neutrals ran arose from the difference
in their attitude towards the two declarations of a War Zone made by England
and by Germany. Never did a single ship, not even an American, defy the British
order, and thereby test whether, in an extreme case, England would have carried
out her declaration of a War Zone by the exercise of violence. On the contrary,
the neutral ships voluntarily followed the routes prescribed by the English
Admiralty, and ran into British ports. In our case the neutrals, despite all
warnings, tried to break through again and again, so that we were forced to
carry out our declaration in such a way that the threatened danger became a
The assumption that the neutrals would accept our attitude
without protest was not fulfilled. The United States especially raised very
decided objections, accompanied by threats. In view of the attitude they
observed towards England they could not contradict the statement that the new
conditions of naval warfare formed a reason for new laws; but they made use of
the maxim that the dictates of humanity set limits to the creation of new laws.
That was equivalent to saying that human life must be spared under any
circumstances, a demand which the U-boat is not always able to fulfil, owing to
its very nature. This is an extraordinary example of the Anglo-Saxon line of
thought. You may let old men, women and children starve, and at the same time
you insist that they must not be actually killed, because the English blockade
of the North Sea could be carried out in such a manner that the ships only
needed to be taken into port and not sunk.
It appears very curious to-day that the possibility of such
objections was not foreseen and their consequences carefully examined. Owing to
such objections our Government was faced with the following alternatives:
Either it must retract its declaration of a War Zone, or, in carrying out
activities in the War Zone, should consider the neutrals, and in so doing
gravely diminish the chances of success, if not destroy them altogether. Once
we had shelved the question of our moral right to carry on the U-boat campaign,
because of the American demands made in the name of humanity, it became
increasingly difficult to take it up again later in an intensified form, if
this should prove necessary; for if there were need of an amelioration of the
military situation, which the U-boat campaign could have brought about, then we
must expect that the politicians would object on the grounds that the
employment of this weapon would only make the general situation worse.
That is the key to the continued opposition of the Imperial
Chancellor to the initiation of a mode of warfare which could have dealt an
effective blow at England. He had made it impossible from the very start. For
in their answer to the American protest our Government said that they had
announced the impending destruction only of enemy merchant vessels found in the
War Zone, but not the destruction of all merchant shipping, as the American
Government appeared erroneously to believe; and they declared that they were
furthermore ready to give serious consideration to any measure which seemed
likely to ensure the safety of legitimate neutral shipping in the War Zone.
This recognition of legitimate shipping was in direct
contradiction to the intentions of the Naval Staff. It is not clear why the
declaration of the U-boat campaign should have been made so hastily, if the
political leaders had not the will to carry it through. But there had to be a
clear understanding on this point, if we intended to institute a U-boat
campaign at all. One almost is tempted to think that this was a feeler to see
if the neutrals would tamely submit to our action. But the consequences which a
refusal must entail were far too serious. The form of the announcement of
February 4 made it possible for our diplomats to maintain their declaration,
and at the same time, in the conduct of the campaign, to grant the neutrals the
immunity which they demanded. This restriction was forced upon the U-boats, and
thus the U-boat campaign was in fact ruined.
The Note could not have been worded with greater diplomatic
skill if we had wished not to carry out the will of our leaders responsible for
the conduct of the war, but rather to protect the interests of our enemies,
which in this case were identical with those of the neutrals.
Before the date fixed for the opening of hostilities had
arrived, two telegrams were received by the Fleet on February 14 and 15. They
ran as follows:
1. "For urgent political reasons send orders by wireless to
U-boats already dispatched for the present not to attack ships flying a neutral
flag, unless recognised with certainty to be enemies."
2. " As indicated in the announcement on February 2, H.M.
the Emperor has commanded that the U-boat campaign against neutrals to destroy
commerce, as indicated in the announcement of February 4, is not to be begun on
February 18, but only when orders to do so are received from the ' All
Thereupon the head of the Fleet telegraphed to the Naval
"' U 30 ' already in the neighbourhood of the Irish Sea. The
order only to destroy ships recognised with certainty as hostile will hardly
reach her. This order makes success impossible, as the U-boats cannot determine
the nationality of ships without exposing themselves to great danger. The
reputation of the Navy will, in my opinion, suffer tremendously if this
undertaking, publicly announced and most hopefully regarded by the people,
achieves no results. Please submit my views to H.M."
This telegram reflects the impression made upon Admiral von
Pohl, as head of the Fleet, by the receipt of the two orders, which so utterly
contradicted the hopes he had placed on his declaration of a War Zone. And it
also proved how unwilling the Admiral himself was to demand such action from
the U-boats. But the doubts which had arisen among our political leaders as to
the wisdom of risking America's threatened displeasure continued to hold sway.
I do not intend to question that their estimate of the general situation,
combined with our capacity to carry on energetic U-boat warfare, justified
their doubts; but then it was a grievous mistake to allow such a situation to
arise, for it blocked the way for an unrestricted U-boat campaign in the
On February 18 instructions in conformity with the new
conditions were issued to the U-boats with regard to their course of action.
They ran as follows:
"1. The U-boat campaign against commerce is to be prosecuted
with all possible vigour.
"2. Hostile merchant ships are to be destroyed.
"3. Neutral ships are to be spared. A neutral flag or funnel
marks of neutral steamship lines are not to be regarded, however, as sufficient
guarantee in themselves of neutral nationality. Nor does the possession of
further distinguishing neutral marks furnish absolute certainty. The commander
must take into account all accompanying circumstances that may enable him to
recognise the nationality of the ship, e.g. structure, place of registration,
course, general behaviour.
"4. Merchant ships with a neutral flag travelling with a
convoy are thereby proved to be neutral.
"5. Hospital ships are to be spared. They may only be
attacked when they are obviously used ,for the transport of troops from England
"6. Ships belonging to the Belgian Relief Commission are
likewise to be spared.
"7. If in spite of the exercise of great care mistakes
should be made, the commander will not be made responsible."
On February 22 the U-boats were to begin their activities on
these lines. In these instructions the Naval Staff had been obliged to conform
to the declaration which the Imperial Government had made to America,
explaining its conception of the conduct of the campaign against trade in the
War Zone, although they had had no opportunity of expressing their doubts of
the possibility of carrying out these instructions in practice.
The activities of the U-boats were made much more difficult
because, for the time being, all goods conveyed to the enemy in neutral bottoms
reached him without obstruction, and their successes were thereby reduced to a
third of what they would otherwise have been; for that was the extent to which
neutral shipping was engaged in the commercial traffic with England. Further,
neutrals could not be scared out of trading with England, because they knew by
the declaration made to America that activities in the War Zone would be
attended with less danger than had been threatened. Our intention of pursuing a
milder form of activity was confirmed to Holland when, after the sinking of the
steamer Katwyk, popular opinion in Holland grew very excited, and our Foreign
Office assured the Dutch Government in the following Note that an attack on a
Dutch merchant vessel was utterly foreign to our desires:
"If the torpedoing of the Katwyk was actually the work of a
German U-boat the German Government will not hesitate to assure the Dutch
Government of its profound regret and to pay full compensation for the damage."
Besides the neutral ships, many enemy ships by disguising
themselves with neutral distinguishing marks could get through with their
cargoes in safety if the U-boat was not able to set its doubts on the subject
at rest. This became very noticeable when the arming of steamers, which had
meanwhile been carried out, had been added to the misuse of flags, and the
U-boats were exposed to great danger in determining the nationality of ships.
All these circumstances contributed to lessen the results.
Our enemies acted in an increasingly unscrupulous manner, especially when
bonuses were offered for merchant vessels which should sink U-boats. A
particularly crude case was that of the British auxiliary cruiser, the
Baralong, whose crew shot down the whole crew of " U 27 " (Commander,
Lieut.-Commander Neigener) when they were swimming defenceless in the water and
some of whom had taken refuge on board an American steamer.
Regardless of all added difficulties, our U-boat crews
devoted themselves to their task. Trying to achieve the greatest possible
results, they nevertheless avoided incidents which might be followed by
complaints, until on May 7 the sinking of the Lusitania, the English liner of
31,000 tons, aroused tremendous excitement.
The danger which England ran, thanks to our U-boats, was
shown in a lurid light; the English Press expressed consternation and
indignation. It was particularly striking how the English Press persisted in
representing the loss of the Lusitania not so much as a British, but as an
American misfortune. One must read the article in The Times which appeared
immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania (8/5/1915) to realise the degree
of hypocrisy of which the English are capable when their commercial interests
are at stake. Not a word of sympathy or sorrow for the loss of human life, but
only the undisguised desire (with a certain satisfaction) to make capital out
of the incident in order to rouse the Americans and make them take sides
They were not to be disappointed in their expectations. In
an exchange of Notes, which lasted until well into July, the Americans demanded
the abandonment of the U-boat campaign because the manner in which we used this
weapon to destroy trade was in practice irreconcilable with America's demand
that her citizens should have the right in the pursuit of their lawful business
to travel by sea to any spot without risk to their lives in so doing. We
expressed our willingness to abandon this use of the U-boat if America could
succeed in inducing England to observe International Law. But this suggestion
met with no success. The U-boat campaign was, however, further hampered by an
order not to sink any big passenger steamers, not even those of the enemy.
On August 19, 1915, a further incident occurred when the
steamer Arabic was sunk by " U 24 "; although the boat acted in justifiable
self-defence against a threatened attack by the steamer, yet the prohibition
with regard to passenger boats was made more stringent, for the order was given
that not only large liners, but all passenger steamers must be warned and the
passengers rescued before the ship was sunk. On this occasion, too, when the
answer to the objections raised by America were discussed, the Chief of the
Naval Staff, Admiral Bachmann, was not allowed to express his views.
Consequently he tendered his resignation to His Majesty, which was duly
accepted. Admiral v In Holtzendorff was appointed in his place.
In consideration of the small chances of success, the U-boat
campaign off the west coast of the British Isles was abandoned. The Chief of
the Fleet, Admiral von Pohl, also asked to be released from his office if this
last order concerning the passenger ships were insisted on, because he could
not take the responsibility of issuing such instructions, which could only be
carried out at great risk to the U-boats, in view of the fact that so many
losses had occurred since the first limiting order had been published; further,
he held it to be impossible to give up the U-boat campaign, which was the only
effective weapon against England that the Navy possessed. His objections to the
limitation of the U-boat campaign were dismissed by the remark that he lacked
full knowledge of the political situation.
Though the U-boat campaign west of England was given up, it
was not stopped entirely, for subsequent to March, 1915, a U-boat base had been
established at Zeebrugge, and another in the Mediterranean. "U 21 " had been
sent under Hersing's command in April, 1915, to assist our warships which were
engaged in the defence of the Dardanelles, and this had given proof of the
great capacity of our U-boats. Consequently the newest boats, "U 33 " and "U
34," were sent to Pola, the Austrian Naval Base, in order to carry on the
U-boat campaign in the Mediterranean. The secession of Italy (May 27, 1915) to
our enemies gave our boats there a new field of activity, because practically
all steamer traffic in these waters was carried on under enemy flags, and
complications with neutrals were hardly to be feared.
Thus the U-boat campaign dragged on, though with but
moderate success, to the end of the year. Yet it managed to deal wounds to
English sea trade which exceeded in gravity anything that the island State had
ever thought possible. The total sinkings from February to August amounted to
120,000 tons. Further results were:
|September, 136,000 tons.
|October, 136,000 tons.
|November, 158,000 tons.
|December, 121,000 tons.
Before the U-boat campaign oversee traffic to and from
England had hardly been seriously reduced. Although the cruiser campaign
carried on by the Emden, the Karlsruhe and the Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm and
the Prinz Eitel-Friedrich had had a disturbing effect, yet no decisive results
could be achieved owing to the lack of oversee bases. The rise in freights was
still moderate, and on the whole the Englishman hardly suffered at all. There
was no question of want anywhere, and the rise in prices was slight. The U-boat
campaign, however, changed British economic conditions fundamentally. Freights
rose considerably. In May, 1915, they were double what they had been in
January; in January, 1916, they had risen on an average to ten times the amount
they had been before the war (January, 1914). Wholesale prices, of course,
followed this movement, and though imports had not decreased so much that there
was any talk of want, yet the U-boat campaign had led to a scarcity, because
the demand, so much increased by the needs of the army, was greater than the
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