This can be a busy and potentially depressing time of year (ask any shopper), so we all understand why European minds turn to the warm, sunny Canary Islands. A winter break in Tenerife wasn’t an option back in 1916, even for wealthy, leisured men like Asquith, Grey and other pre-War titans of the British political establishment who found themselves consigned to history from 6 December, when David Lloyd George took over leadership of the governing coalition. Nor could the beleaguered population of Bucharest, which surrendered to German-led invasion forces on the same day, escape to the sun, though the country’s great and good, led by King Ferdinand, were already safe behind Russian lines in the northern province of Moldovia.
The change of tenant at 10, Downing Street signalled the climax to one of Britain’s greatest political careers, and was arguably the moment when British government joined the twentieth century, while the potential economic benefits from annexation of the Romanian heartlands fed the world-changing madness of the Third Supreme Command in Germany. But Christmas is coming and I live in Norwich, so I can’t really help turning to the Canaries – and today marks the centenary of a complaint by Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands that the archipelago’s ports were being subjected to a ‘virtual blockade’ by German submarines.
The Canary Islands had been under Spanish colonial control since the fifteenth century, give or take a couple of years under British rule in the early nineteenth, and they shared Spanish neutrality in 1914. Though it had close diplomatic and economic ties to the Entente, Spain’s neutrality was never really in question at the start of the War. The Spanish royal government had signed pre-War agreements with the British, French and Portuguese that guaranteed the Iberian peninsula’s neutrality in the event of war – and though these proved meaningless when the Allies found a use for Portugal’s armed forces in 1916 (9 March, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice), everybody concerned recognised that Spain was in too much of a social and economic mess to restore any kind of military competence to its decrepit armed forces.
So long as Spanish interests didn’t coincide with any of the War’s battlefronts, all the Allies wanted from Spain was benevolent neutrality, unencumbered by the costs of financing a military ally. Britain in particular wanted Spanish benevolence expressed in maritime terms, as cooperation with Allied seagoing trade and obstruction of German or other enemy shipping (within the limits of international law). In that context, nowhere administered by Spain mattered like the Canary Islands.
The Canaries were a vital crossroads and supply station for European trade with South America and Africa. As such, they had long attracted attention from the British Royal Navy, which used warships from bases at Gibraltar and in West Africa to protect merchant shipping in the region. The islands’ strategic importance mushroomed as everyone’s plans for a short war in 1914 matured into mobilisation for a prolonged, global economic conflict, but Allied trade via the Canaries carried on without too much trouble for the next couple of years. Regular patrols of nearby sea lanes by British and French cruisers enforced the blockade against enemy trade and kept commerce-raiding German warships at bay, while fears that German agents in the Canaries were sending fuel and supply tenders to meet enemy shipping at sea were never substantiated.
The possibility that German naval units could be resupplied locally raised the greater fear – shared by British naval strategists, British officials on the islands and a population dependent on the free flow of trade – that U-boats were operating around the Canaries, and from the spring of 1915 the islands were alive with rumours of submarine sightings and submarine attacks. Increased patrols and searches for German supply lines revealed no conclusive evidence of U-boat activity off the west coast of Africa, but in a world without radar or sonar the threat couldn’t be discounted. In fact no German submarines operated anywhere near the Canaries, or took on fuel from the islands, before late 1916, when improved technology and altered strategic priorities finally persuaded the German Navy to send U-boats to the equatorial east Atlantic.
The disappointments of Jutland and appointment of the risk-taking Third Supreme Command had cemented German loss of faith in surface warships during the summer of 1916, while the development of bigger, more reliable submarines had made long-range operations feasible for the first time. As part of a renewed commitment to limited submarine warfare against Allied trade, the first U-boat bound for the Canaries, the UC-20, left the Austrian Adriatic port of Pola in mid-October 1916, and arrived off Lanzarote on 12 November. On 17 November it sank the Portuguese barque Emilia 15km east of Las Palmas, the first wartime loss to German submarines in Canary waters.
Survivors of the Emilia raised the alarm, and Spanish authorities followed British instructions to conduct yet another search of the archipelago’s remote harbours for German supply bases. The few motor boats that constituted the islands’ anti-submarine defences were sent out on patrol, but the UC-20 escaped the area unmolested, and hopelessly overstretched Spanish defences had no more success with the next two submarines to arrive, the U-52 and U-47, which sank four ships in early December before shortage of fuel forced their withdrawal.
For the remainder of the War, the waters around the Canaries would remain easy pickings for U-boats, and their activities would intensify with the expansion of German commitment to unlimited submarine warfare and deployment of the giant ‘cruiser’ boats first seen when the Deutschland visited the USA (24 August, 1916: Deep Thinking). Spanish naval capacity was always hopelessly overstretched, colonial authorities were never able to effectively monitor the archipelago’s major ports, let alone its remote harbours, and the Allies were never prepared to compromise Spanish neutrality by sending state-of-the-art anti-submarine units to the islands.
Even so, U-boat attacks in the waters around the Canaries were never a strategic success, largely because the Allies, recognising the vulnerability of the Spanish islands, routed most neutral east Atlantic merchant traffic via Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, which could receive direct protection because they belonged to a co-belligerent, Portugal. The slump in the economy of the Canary Islands that followed from this change in trading patterns was exactly what the Spanish authorities feared when they issued their forlorn complaint against the arrival of U-boats in December 1916.
That was hardly an anniversary, more a glimpse at a corner of the First World War that, while neither blood-soaked nor world-changing, altered the history of a region familiar to millions of modern European tourists, and that is almost completely forgotten outside academia. It’s also a reminder that, while it’s easy to condemn the many nations tempted into joining the First World War for gain, neutrality amid the flailing avarice of the warring Great Powers often came at a price.