102 years ago, the Great War was in its 8th month. The war of mobility of the early months was long gone, replaced by the lines of trench works which would characterize the rest of the war. Off the battlefield, the German and British governments each sought to choke the life out of the other’s economy. Great Britain held the upper hand, with the superior deep-water surface fleet. To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, parity would come in the form of a submarine.
Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer. That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba.
The German submarine U-28 stopped Falaba on this day in 1915, sinking the ship to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher. The first American killed in the “War to End all Wars”.
German policy varied over the course of the war, from unrestrained submarine warfare, to strict adherence with international law. U-28 Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner claimed to have given Falaba 23 minutes to evacuate, cutting that short and firing his torpedo only in response to Falaba’s distress rockets and wireless messages for help. British authorities claim to have been given only 7 minutes’ warning.
The death of the first American in the European war set off a diplomatic row which threatened for a time to bring the Americans into the war. American newspapers called it the “Thrasher Incident”, denouncing the sinking as a “massacre”. An act of “piracy”.
The Germans claimed that subsequent explosions proved Falaba to be carrying contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, some even tended to support the German view.
President Woodrow Wilson stayed his hand, winning re-election the following year with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”.
What remained of Leon Thrasher washed ashore on the coast of Ireland on July 11, 1915, after 106 days in the water. Authorities mistakenly believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating him Body No. 248.
The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland 40 days earlier, killing 1,198, 124 of whom were Americans. The US came close to the brink of war that time too, but the last and final straw wouldn’t come for another two years. In the form of a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.