In a world pregnant with the seed of modern propaganda techniques, the second week of March 1915 looked pretty good to the British public. On 10 March, the BEF launched the first independent British attack of any size on the Western Front, up in northeast France, just west of Lille, and after three days of heavy fighting a great triumph was declared. In fact, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle gained the BEF two square kilometres of territory (including what was left of the eponymous village) at a cost of 12,000 or so casualties on each side, and its tactical lessons – that initial gains, easily enough achieved with sufficient firepower, were impossible to exploit – remained unlearned.
More triumphalism followed the Royal Navy’s sinking of the SS Dresden, the last of the German Navy’s raiding cruisers to remain at sea, off the coast of neutral Chile on 14 March, though little was made of the routine and ruthless manner in which the helpless ship was pounded to destruction. The British press was meanwhile presenting Anglo-French attempts to force a passage through the Dardanelles as a string of small successes, when in fact they were a series of blundering failures, and making much of steady Russian gains against Austro-Hungarian forces defending the long-besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl, which were genuine enough but strategically irrelevant.
The week’s most strategically significant War story was held back until the following Monday, 15 March, when the British government announced its decision, made the previous Thursday, to extend the Royal Navy’s blockade against the Central Powers. This was big news, in theory a major step on the road to defeating Germany, yet it was given a relatively low-key reception by British propaganda. Why was that?
The new blockade rules declared an absolute embargo on all goods bound for the Central Powers, including for the first time food, and claimed any neutral vessel intercepted in the course of such trade as a British prize. They were recognised as retaliation for a German declaration, made on 4 February and put into practice from 22 February, that the waters around Britain and Ireland were a ‘war zone’, and that enemy merchant shipping would be sunk without warning by its submarines.
Both announcements were extremely important because ships were the one and only key to global trade. Without freedom to trade across the seas – without money from exports or access to imports of raw materials and food – the world’s most developed economies could not function and grow as capitalism intended, so any nation denied access to sea trade would, in theory, find it impossible to fight a major war for very long.
These factors applied wherever merchant shipping operated, underpinning wars fought by, among others, the Russian, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman navies, but they were of particular importance to the war efforts of Britain and Germany. Britain, the world’s naval superpower, devoted a lot of strategic thinking and resources to blockading German trade all over the world, in the confident belief, eventually almost justified, that this would win the War. Germany was meanwhile determined to stifle vital seaborne supplies to Britain, a nation that depended on imports to feed its population, and was ready by early 1915 to make maximum possible use of submarines for the job.
Both announcements also sparked anger and outrage in neutral states. German authorisation of unannounced submarine attacks was widely regarded as barbaric, and everybody recognised that the policy would put neutral vessels at risk. The British blockade had been making it difficult for neutral nations to carry on their usual business, let alone profit from the War, since August 1914, and this latest extension was seen as high-handed, greedy interference with legitimate trade.
Britain, its media and public were not too bothered about being thought high-handed, and identification with martial aggression was unlikely to damage the German regime’s self-image, so London and Berlin were happy enough to ride roughshod over international outrage, even at a time when neutrals of every size were being courted as possible allies… or would have been but for the one neutral power nobody wanted to upset, the United States.
Rich in raw materials and cash, and a maritime trading power rising to rival Britain, the United States was the one neutral certain to make a decisive difference if it joined either side at war. Politically divided between strict neutrality and varying degrees of support for the Entente powers, the USA was already an important economic influence on the War, having sold goods worth more than 800 million dollars to the Entente by the end of 1914 and, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade, almost nothing to the Central Powers. This trend would continue, so that by the time the US entered the War in April 1917 Britain and France would have spent a staggering eight billion dollars on American goods, compared with 27 million dollars spent by the Central Powers – but by the spring of 1915 it was already quite clear that, if and when the USA abandoned neutrality, it would do so in support of its major creditors.
The reason Germany made minor concessions to international opinion before putting submarine warfare into effect, and the explanation for Britain’s relatively sheepish flexing of its blockade muscle, were two sides of the same coin. Germany was terrified of outraging US public opinion to the point of war, but hoped to starve Britain before that happened; Britain was equally afraid of souring American opinion to the point of delaying or debarring US alliance with the Entente, but wasn’t about to let go its death grip on the German economy. As news of the economic world war’s latest escalation broke around the world on the Ides of March 1915, it remained to be seen if either submarines or blockades could end the War before US military involvement became a live issue.
Watch this space…