Germany Resumes Unrestricted Submarine Warfare I THE GREAT WAR Week 132


There had been new offensives, new weapons and tactics from each nation this war, trying to hasten it to a successful conclusion. Some of those you know are going to have serious repercussions, and one of those happens this week as Germany goes all in and declares unrestricted submarine warfare. I’m Indy Neidell. Welcome to the Great War. Last week, the Greek government formally apologized to the Allies for a December attack, though there was a political double game going on. The French had set their huge 1917 offensive for April 1st. There was fighting in Arabia and German East Africa, and the SS Laurentic was mined and sunk off the Irish coast. A lot more to do with the sea followed this week. On January 31st, Germany says that British hospital ship traffic between Britain, France and Belgium would no longer be tolerated. They claimed that hospital ships had been misused for the transport of troops and munitions. It’s a bit tough to take their word on this, since they had the right to search hospital ships, but had yet to do so one single time. This becomes a side note the following day, as the Germans reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare. There was no serious opposition to this plan in the government or from the public. Germany was expanding its military culture anyhow. The Hindenburg Program of removilizing and re-equipping the army, which I mentioned a few months ago, made all males between 16 and 60 liable for war-related work and output was rapidly increasing. There was the danger that unrestricted submarine warfare would bring the US into the war. American trade with Britain was enormous and a big chunk of the American economy kind of depended upon it. What would happen to that economy if American trade were cut off by sinkings? With the drowning of American civilians? That’s a real good cause for war, you know? Still, German High Command figured this was the only way to swiftly win the war. And cutting off British imports will make Britain suffer the same Turnip Winter of starvation Germany was currently suffering. There were a couple of problems with this. First, international law forbade sinking civilian ships without warning and basic humanity said you should give people a chance to get to the lifeboats. This was now dismissed by German Naval Command as “Humanitätsduselei”. Germany believed Britain was trying to starve them anyhow. They also believed – with a fair amount of truth – that the US, as a neutral state, had disproportionately helped the Allies, giving them the credit that had held out the value of the pound and kept the French war economy running. And a lot of them believed that even IF the US did intervene, it wouldn’t make much difference. The US had ships but barely any army, and that would have to be trained. So, IF the war was won in 1917, US intervention wouldn’t make much difference. If. But were there enough subs to starve Britain? The German Navy had called into well-known economists from Berlin University. Max Sering and Gustav Schmoller, who opined that the British economy would indeed collapse, especially when you added zeppelin bombings of grain depots and British ports into the mix. German Naval Chief of Staff Henning von Holtzendorff said he could cut British shipping in half, sinking 600,000 tonnes a month. And that there would soon be food riots in Britain. German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, who I said before had been against this plan, was very skeptical. For starters, his advisor and Secretary of the Interior Karl Helfferich, was good with numbers and said that the Navy’s numbers were just a fabrication. But for a German public that was living on rat sausage and turnips, there wasn’t any way he could effectively object. On February 1st 1917, the zone around the British Isles and western France was now subject to sinking on sight. Holtzendorff had 105 submarines under his command with more under construction, and now he let them ride. In a twist of irony, the very next day Istanbul University proposed Kaiser Wilhelm as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Germans were not the only ones active at sea though. On the 2nd, the British bombed Bruges harbor and that same day off the Anatolian coast, Russian warships sank 18 small Turkish vessels. But what about the Russian Army? Back in November at the Chantilly Conference, Britain and France had decided to go on the offensive again in 1917, even possibly as early as February. They had planned to convince Italy and Russia to attack at the same time. At the beginning of February, a conference in Petrograd addressed this issue. The main problem was supplying guns and ammunition, since the performance of the Russian railways had deteriorated. There was also the question of whether Russia would be even capable of attacking. Reports were growing stronger of a looming revolution. By now in Russia, war weariness called into question the continuation of the war. In 1914, there had been 183 strikes. Most of them for economic reasons. In 1916, that number had risen to 2306, with 1,7 million participants. And in just the first few weeks of 1917, there were 751 strikes and of those, 412 had a political background. The situation grew worse each day. As for British and French attacks happening in February, there were a few this week. Though a large offensive wasn’t planned until April 1st. In the west on January 27th, the British took German positions and 350 prisoners near Transloy. On the 30th south of Leintrey in Lorraine, French raiders penetrated to the German second line, destroying the garrison and taking prisoners. On the 31st, the total German prisoners taken by British and French in January was listed as 1,228, including 27 officers. There were no major offensives at all going on actually, but the war was business as usual. In the Bukovina, the Russians took enemy positions between Kimpulung – today Câmpulung Moldovenesc – and Iacobeni the 29th, taking 1,218 prisoners. The next day, to the east of Iacobeni, they captured hill fortifications and over 1,000 prisoners. Far to the north on the Riga front, a German attack on the 30th between Tirlit swamp and the river Aa was successful and took 900 Russian prisoners. On February 1st on the Italian Front, on the northern slopes of Monte Maso along the Posina torrent and in the Astico Valley, Italian patrols destroyed Austrian outposts, taking a dozen or so prisoners. While over in Mesopotamia on the Tigris, the British advance on Kut-al-Amara continued, taking all but the last lines of Turkish defenses east of the Tigris-Shatt al-Hayy junction. The Macedonian Front remained quiet as it had for weeks because of winter. There were of course skirmishes, but with negligible results. The terrain was somewhat similar to that in France and the frontlines became somewhat similar as well. Deeply entrenched and unable to drive the other back. The Serbian capital, though, had been reestablished in Monastir. If you look at the last six months there, you can see that Maurice Sarrail, commander-in-chief, had been a real disappointment to the Allies. All of the fighting and dying had yielded Monastir and not much else. Militarily, the Bulgarians held their own on defense with forces very much inferior to the Allies in numbers, showing once again the advantages of playing defense and the abilities of the Bulgarians. And the week comes to an end with small actions on many fronts. The Allied flags formally saluted in Athens and on the 27th in Petrograd, Nikolai Pokrovsky resigned as Russian Foreign Minister. He had been minister only two months and unlike his predecessor, Boris Stürmer, he was very much in favor of continuing the war to its conclusion. And was trying to work out a way to bring American capital to Russia to kickstart the Russian economy. He actively asked for the whole government to resign. It was that messed up. Total spoiler here: he would be the last Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire. Norman Stone in World War One writes: “Great wars develop a momentum of their own.” And you know…back in 1914, leaders did think that war could be turned on and off, if several leaders had wanted to do so. But by now, the complete hatred of the enemy, the enormous loss of life, conscription and above all, the overwhelming voice of public opinion that just could not be ignored pretty much precluded any leader trying to end the war and saying it was just a big mistake. There were several leaders who would have liked having this option. But by January 1917, you had new radical leaders offering various knockout blows. In France, you had Robert Nivelle who had replaced Joseph Joffre last month as Commander-in-Chief. He promised to win the war with new infantry methods and meticulous creeping barrages. German High Command recognized stalemate in the west, but hey! Submarines to starve out Great Britain, why not? Germany was starving. Why not Britain as well? There is not a trace of compassion to be found in modern war.

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