1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets

Poor old Kaiser Bill. All he ever wanted was to be adored, to make an enormous impact on world history and to lead Germany towards its manifest destiny without interference from below. Things had looked so promising back in the 1890s, when he’d been a young monarch and Germany had been the economic and technological sensation of the age. Even through the first decade of the new century, despite distinct signs that Germany’s destiny was boiling down to expansion, revolution or decline, Wilhelm II dreamed grand dreams of naval power, colonial empire and European dominance.

The man who signed the order sending Germany to war in August 1914 was an altogether more nervous figure, desperately uncertain about the forces he was unleashing and in need of serious persuasion by his advisors. By that time, Wilhelm’s political strategists were clear that only war could prevent the nation’s surging dynamism from imploding and destroying the regime, and his generals were clear that, with Germany’s neighbours becoming ever stronger, war could only be won by striking quickly.

By early 1917, the strategic situation had worsened. Mired in a military deadlock that could only be maintained by stretching social cohesion beyond known limits, Germany now needed a quick victory as an alternative to inevitable defeat by economically superior enemies. Entirely dependent for his crown’s survival on the industrialists that kept the resources flowing, and on the military that deployed those resources, Wilhelm had become little more than a puppet emperor, without the will to seriously oppose the demands of a military-industrial dictatorship.

It was therefore in a spirit of resignation, his fear and uncertainty now closing in on utter despair, that the Kaiser signed the order, on 7 January 1917, authorising unrestricted submarine warfare by the German Navy. That order came into force a century ago today, the day after European newspapers reported that Constantinople’s Stamboul University (or to be precise its literary and legal faculties) had suggested Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Poor old Kaiser Bill…

The latter gesture was part of the ongoing propaganda battle over December’s peace offers, and the university’s citation of Wilhelm as the ‘forefighter for the peace idea’ has prompted predictable mirth ever since. On the other hand it can be argued that the Kaiser’s authorisation of unrestricted submarine warfare did make a considerable contribution to what would these days be called the peace process, because it was the first wartime act by either side that unpicked rather than tightened the deadlock. As such the first day of the new submarine campaign, 1 February 1917, has as good a claim as any single date to be remembered as the beginning of the end of the First World War.

Before I attempt to justify that punch line, a few words about unrestricted submarine warfare, starting with a definition. Under the prize rules that governed restricted submarine warfare, boats were required to surface, search the suspect vessel, issue a warning and allow time for those on board to escape before attacking non-military or neutral targets. The new policy allowed German submarines to attack without warning any vessel, including neutral civilian ships, found in any waters considered a war zone (as defined by the German Navy, and was a global game-changer on two levels.

First, it was bound to outrage neutrals, was equally likely to kill quite a lot of them, and was all but certain to bring the ‘great neutral’, the United States, into the War on the Allied side. US participation would be a disaster for Germany, turning a clear Allied advantage in available resources into an imbalance so vast it was sure to mean defeat for the Central Powers. Then again, and secondly, unleashing submarines gave Germany a chance of winning the War before the United States could mobilise its resources in Europe. History knows this as the gamble that sealed German defeat, and rightly sees it as a very long shot, but posterity knows a lot more about the limitations of submarine warfare, and how to defeat it, than anyone knew in January 1917. Without hindsight, both sides thought it might just work.

Under prize rules, crews were given time to escape before merchant ships were sent to the bottom.

In Germany, High Seas Fleet commander Admiral Scheer had been lobbying aggressively for a policy of all-out Handelskrieg, or trade warfare, since his appointment a year earlier (15 January, 1916: Beneath The Surface). After the failure of his surface ships at Jutland the previous summer, he had refused to detach U-boats from the High Seas Fleet for Atlantic patrols under prize rules, and he had been the driving force behind their switch, in October 1916, from operations with the surface fleet to a restricted campaign against British home waters (and the Bay of Biscay), and behind the Third Supreme Command’s simultaneous order for the construction of 89 new submarines.

The British campaign was a success, with Scheer’s U-boats sinking about 300,000 tons of shipping per month through the autumn, while a smaller force in the Mediterranean was also providing grounds for German optimism, sinking more than 660,000 tons of registered shipping (256 ships) during the second half of 1916. All this had been achieved with a total active force that had risen to 88 U-boats by the end of the year, and to 111 by 1 February (including 53 with the High Seas Fleet, 33 stationed on the Belgian coast to attack Western Front supply lines and 18 based in the Adriatic), of which about 40 could be active at any given time. New boats with superior range and speed were pouring out of the dockyards, and 80 were expected into service during 1917, while minimal losses suggested the Allies had no answer to the threat. Given the existential desperation that underpinned German strategic thinking, the idea that all-out submarine warfare could force the British (and thus the rest of the Allies) into ending the War within six months seemed both plausible and irresistible.

The idea certainly convinced the Third Supreme Command, which ordered a defensive posture on the Western Front to preserve resources for the Navy, and it went down a storm with the German public, providing the kind of boost to morale that Ludendorff and his backers hoped would counteract the slackness they perceived in the national war effort. It also scared the Allies.

In Britain, the losses of the autumn had caused genuine alarm and ignited a national debate about the best way to combat underwater trade warfare. Things got a lot worse after 1 February. Though the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany two days later, no immediate declaration of war followed, and meanwhile Allied losses soared. U-boats sank 230 registered vessels that month, fifty of them in Mediterranean, amounting to almost 465,000 tons of shipping, and another 300 neutral vessels refused to sail. March figures passed 500,000 tons, and as the weather improved another 400,000 tons were sunk in the first two weeks of April, forcing the British government to make plans for food shortages and forcing a decision on the convoy issue.

This was the turning point for Handelskrieg. March had seen the collapse of Russia’s Tsarist regime and the USA had finally entered the War on 6 April. Both events were vital to deconstruction of the deadlock, and they’ll both get a fair share of my attention another day, but their immediate effects on the war at sea were to distract the Third Supreme Command into ambitious plans for the Eastern Front, and to confirm that only a few months remained before American forces would tip the balance on the Western Front. These factors lengthened the odds against victory through U-boats, but convoys were the clincher.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had discovered that grouping merchant shipping into convoys and providing warship escorts provided protection against attacks on seaborne commerce – but by 1914 the British Admiralty had found several apparently good reasons to reject convoys as protection against submarine attacks.

Most convincingly, a service stretched to the limit by the demands of global multi-tasking couldn’t spare the destroyers and smaller craft needed to protect convoys, which were seen as requiring about one warship for every three merchantmen. Secondly, the Admiralty considered merchant crews incapable of maintaining convoy formations with any efficiency, and thirdly it believed that a convoy’s need to travel at the speed of its slowest vessel increased its vulnerability to attack. Both the latter arguments proved false, as did the widely held belief underpinning them that offensive patrols and barrages like those at Dover and Otranto were the best ways to end the threat from U-boats. In an echo of the land war in Europe, convoys were reinstated only when this offensive dogma had failed repeatedly and on almost every conceivable level, but once they arrived they transformed the battle.

Explains itself.

After a highly successful trial with cross-Channel traffic had seen all but nine of 4,000 ships reach their destinations in February, March and April 1917, the first long-range convoys set sail from Gibraltar and the US at the end of April. At that point, the Allies were losing one merchant ship of every four that sailed, but adoption of convoys for almost all transatlantic and most Mediterranean traffic had reduced losses to one percent by the end of the year. By then it was game over for Handelskrieg, and the deadlock of the European land war was finally unravelling. The magic bullet of convoy protection had done its job, and would maintain its dominance over submarines for the rest of the War, only to be forgotten again twenty years later… but that really is another story.

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