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

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 vain.

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:

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 reality.

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 Highest.' "

Thereupon the head of the Fleet telegraphed to the Naval Staff:

"' 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 future.

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 to France.

"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 against Germany.

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 supply.


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