One-hundred and five years ago, the “War to end all Wars” had not yet entered the 9th month. The war of mobility from 1914 was gone now, replaced by the hundreds of miles of trench-works, destined to characterize the remainder of the war.
Off the battlefield, German and British governments sought control over the waters and thus to choke the economic life, each out of the other.
In 1914, both Germany and the United Kingdom were heavily dependent on foreign trade, not only to feed their own war industries but also to feed civil populations, back at home.
After the war, the German Board of Public Health claimed 763,000 civilian deaths due to disease and starvation, specifically brought about by the blockade. Ten years later, one academic study put the number at 424,000.
In theory, neutral America was happy to trade with any and all comers but in practice, Britannia ruled the waves, her deep-water surface fleet holding all but undisputed superiority over Atlantic trade routes, the English Channel, and the North Sea.
To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, blockade parity was to come in the shape of a submarine.
Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer from Hardwick, Massachusetts. That March, the 31-year-old 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, later sinking the vessel to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher.
For the United States it was First Blood. The first American to die 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 pleas for assistance.
British authorities claim Falaba was given only 7 minutes’ warning. Hardly enough to evacuate 245 passengers and crew.
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”.
Germans claimed that secondary explosions within Falaba’s hull proved her to be anything but neutral, carrying some 13*tons of contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, but many tended toward 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 in July 1915, following 106 days in the water. Authorities initially believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating the remains, Body No. 248.
The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland only 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 would not come for another two years.
The United States entered the war in April 1917 as a result of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.
4 thoughts on “March 28, 1915 First Blood”
Yes… yet the more we look at Johnnie Trench Fighter or Doughboy Dave, the less we see of the morphine glut begun by China’s 1912 ban on narcotic dumping. TR and Taft had been using the Hague as a prohibition vehicle imperiling Austro-Prussian Big Pharma plans. Wilson and Bryan were babes in those woods… so… let’s talk about Johnnie and Dave…
THANK YOU for this window into a very important time in world history. Amazing that passenger ships (which may or may not have also been carrying munitions…) were torpedoed several times before the US finally entered WWI. I heard a long radio program this past week about the flu epidemic which circled the globe during the final year of that war. I think one historian said that Wilson (who gave NO public health advice regarding the flu because he wanted the US public to remain focused/upbeat regarding our war efforts) ended up contracting the flu when he was in Europe hammering out the details of the peace treaty — and that he was in fact quite feverish and unreliable (poor short term memory among other things) during the final process and caved on several portions of the treaty which would have offered more generous/respectful terms for Germany… This historian left us listeners wondering how the 20th century in Europe might have unfolded very differently if Wilson had not contracted the flu during the treaty process… So much to learn — and re-learn — about human life here on planet earth!!!
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Early on, German unterseeboots (U-Boats) would stop and board merchant vessels and only sink them, if they were carrying contraband. There were instances of U-Boats even towing lifeboats into British territorial waters before quietly slipping away. That more chivalric phase came to an end when first lord of the admiralty Winston Churchill ordered British merchants to fly the flags of neutral foreign nations and open fire and/or ram, when approached by surfaced U-boat. The resulting policy of unrestricted submarine warfare did more than anything else, to bring the US into the war in 1917.
Reblogged this on Dave Loves History.
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