In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet. Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”, a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population. With good reason. One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.
World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.
Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike. By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone, where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.
Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland. German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.
The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war. The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.
Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack. In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare. The first put their people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil, into the war.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”, a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.
In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.
Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.
“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace”.
The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.
In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.
President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.
At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo. In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association. In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.
Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008. Remote submersible operators discovered some 4,000,000 rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war. The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis: “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.
American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition. “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”
Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI. Rankin would be elected to a second (non-contiguous) term in 1940, just in time to be the only vote against entering WWII, following the Japanese attack on the United States’ Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.