Naval blockade and U-boats

Lusitania 1915
Lusitania 1915

A German U-boat sinks the British ocean liner, almost 1,200 people perish.

[May 1915] Already in August 1914, Great Britain had established a naval blockade, cutting off Germany from imports of all kinds. It was not a close blockade with warships being placed in sight of the blockaded German harbors, but a distant one reaching from the Shetland Isles to Southern Norway. In early November 1914, Britain declared the North sea to be a war zone. To the Germans, it was a blatant attempt to starve a people including women and children, into surrender. In fact a naval blockade violated accepted internal law, and many neutrals, among them U.S. President Wilson, did not approve.


The only way Germany could impose a blockade on Britain was through the new submarines, the U-boats. The Germans admiralty war convinced that the submarine would be able to bring the British to an early peace. They declared, on February 4, 1915, the waters around the British Isles as warzone in which every ship would be attacked without warning. This meant that most crews and passengers would not survive.

Britain armed its merchant ships. Merchant ships began travelling in convoys, escorted by destroyers. German U-boats sunk several commercial and passenger vessels, including several U.S. ships. Tensions arose between the USA and Germany, and Germany lost a lot of sympathies among the neutrals.


By May, then they were terrible headlines. The British ocean liner Lusitania had been hit by a German U-boat torpedo and sunk, only 761 passengers had survived.

There had been warnings. In late April and early May 1915, several New York newspapers published a warning by the Imperial German embassy in Washington that passengers on British or Allied ships in war zones were liable to destruction in those waters and did so at their own risk. This warning was printed adjacent to an advertisement for Lusitania’s return voyage. The ship’s passengers and crew were worried, but nonetheless, the Lusitania had departed New York on May 1, 1915 on her return trip to Liverpool with 1,959 people aboard.

As she steamed across the ocean, the British Admiralty had been tracking the movements of the German U-20 and given several warning messages to the Captain, he took precautions. On the morning of May 7, again warnings to all ships were sent: “U-boats active in southern part of Irish Channel. Last heard of twenty miles south of Coningbeg Light Vessel”.

In the early afternoon of May 7, the German U-20 spotted the Lusitania, and got in firing distance. At 2:12 p.m. the Lusitania was hit by an exploding torpedo on its starboard side. The torpedo blast was followed by a larger explosion. Within 20 minutes, the Lusitania sank. Of her 1,959 passengers and crew, 1.198 people had perished, among them 128 Americans.

Soon after the catastrophe, questions were raised, even more when it came out that the Lusitania was carrying war supplies for Britain. Had the captain and the Admiralty done enough to keep the Lusitania safe? Had one risked the passengers’ lives?
Above all, the loss of so many lives caused outrage against Germany. The United States launched a protest, Germany apologized and pledged to end unrestricted submarine warfare. American public opinion began to shift away from neutrality and turned against Germany. If more American died, the US would interfere.

“America Fallen!” Should America be prepared?

That was the drastic title of a new book, urging the United States to prepare themselves for a sudden attack. There was a war raging in Europe, with mighty fleets and lethal submarines, gigantic armies were destroying one another, military leaders sent hundreds of thousands of men into their certain death. What would happen if a naval and military power armed to a maximum and determined to destroy itsenemieswould attack the USA? What if an enemy U-boat suddenly appeared before the East coast?

The USA had only a small army and navy, and were hardly prepared. Indeed “preparedness” for war became a big issue. Especially in Eastern cities, a new Preparedness Movement proclaiming that the U.S. needed to immediately build up strong naval and land forces for defensive purposes.

Roosevelt opts for intervention

It was definitely not enough for former President Theodore Roosevelt, he heaped scorn on President Wilson for his failure to take sides in the World War. Interventionists, like former president Theodore Roosevelt, rallied to shape public opinion. “Preparedness against war does not invariably avert war, any more than a fire department in a city will invariably prevent a fire, and there are well-meaning, foolish people who point out this fact as offering an excuse for unpreparedness.”

The photo is from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.

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