The way European wars used to be conducted – by people, and outdoors – spring and autumn were the peak fighting seasons. These were the seasons when extreme weather was least likely to interfere with the process, and when it was easiest for armies to live off the land, so offensive military planning through the ages timed its opening gambits for when the ice had melted or the harvest had been gathered.
The innate optimism that comes with emergence from winter hibernation, and the fact that high summer is less of a dangerous overshoot than deep winter, probably explain why spring campaigns have tended to be more ambitious than their autumn counterparts, and more eagerly anticipated by those in the know. The spring campaigns of 1915, as planned by all the main European belligerents, were the most eagerly anticipated military actions in history, both because mass literacy meant more people than ever before were in the know, and because everyone in the know expected the year’s spring offensives to bring the greatest war ever seen to a final decision.
On the Eastern and Western Fronts, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, French and British armies were swelling, straining economies were producing more and bigger guns, and generals were plotting massed assaults that would surely, this time, overwhelm enemy resistance by their sheer scale. The Russians had started the seasonal ball rolling by finally capturing the besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl (and claiming 120,000 Habsburg prisoners) on 22 March, but this was the culmination of a long, painstaking campaign, essentially a leftover from 1914, and as the month drew to a close the mass-communicated world was braced for the hammer blows to come.
But while the Great Powers of Europe prepared to applaud the predicted sacrifice of lives by the hundred thousand, the wider world was getting worked up about a practice that occasionally killed a few hundred people. On 28 March, 80 kilometres off the coast of St. David’s Head in Wales, the German submarine U-28 torpedoed and sank the SS Falaba, a British passenger and cargo vessel bound for West Africa, killing 104 of the 240 people on board and igniting a powder keg of global outrage that had been waiting to blow since Germany’s introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare a couple of weeks before.
The modern public mind thinks of U-boats as a Second World War phenomenon, but though First World War submarines were relatively few in number – not to mention slow, unreliable, of limited range, able to carry only a few weapons and operated by crews working in cramped, hot, airless, sometimes poisonous conditions – they punched well above their weight and had a huge impact on contemporary public thinking.
Because submarines were new and terrifyingly sneaky by the standards of the day, they appalled the world at large and attracted condemnation as a barbaric weapon. And once the German Navy gave its U-boats licence to attack anything found leaving or approaching Britain, they became the most emotive wartime issue facing neutral states the world over, because civilians, neutral citizens and ultimately neutral ships were also put at risk. Risk became reality when the Falada went down.
The U-28 had surfaced and warned the Falada of its impending destruction, but given the casualty figures the world preferred to believe a British claim that the U-boat’s captain had opened fire a mere five minutes later, over German insistence that the Falada was given a full 23 minutes’ grace. Even more seriously for German diplomacy, the dead included neutrals, and although the demise of a substantial (though uncertain) number of Africans on board passed without comment at the time, the death of a single American mining engineer, Leon Thresher, did enormous damage to Germany’s reputation across the Atlantic. The incident dominated headlines in the United States, was denounced as ‘a massacre’, ‘murder’ and ‘an act of piracy’, and brought the first demands – ignored for now by the Wilson administration – for war against Germany.
On the bright side for the German Navy, which could never muster more than six of the floating death traps to patrol British waters at any given time, the practical effects of U-boats were almost as sensational as their diplomatic impact. By the end of March they had sunk some 85,000 tons of British shipping. They hadn’t come close to starving Britain, but they had certainly alarmed the world’s great sea trader and would continue to be a substantial thorn in the British Empire’s side during the next few months. So, two weeks in and the economic war at sea is hotting up, but on balance it’s currently doing Germany a little more harm than good.
As a postscript, by way of illustrating the fragility of Great War submarines and because it’s a good story, it’s worth mentioning that Fate eventually got her own back on the U-28, which dispatched forty ships before being sunk on 2 September 1917. Official records merely state that the submarine was caught in the blast when its last victim, the British armed steamer Olive Branch, exploded – but another source claims that the exploding steamer sent a truck flying into the air, which landed on the U-boat and sank it. The world of 1915 may have seen U-boat crews as arch-villains, but they suffered and died in conditions that ranked with most terrible thrown up by a terrible war.