Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 1915

In February 1915 Germany makes a crucial decision, adopting a strategy of submarine warfare against commercial shipping that will eventually bring the United States into the war.  The Lusitania, on its way from New York to Liverpool, flies the American flag as she transits the Irish Sea; this time she completes her voyage safely.  As diplomatic notes are exchanged on the subjects of submarines, flags, contraband, and the rights of belligerents and neutrals in wartime, it becomes clear that the old rules regarding the blockade of ports and the interception and search of merchant ships at sea probably won't work very well in the age of the submarine.  French offensives on the Western Front and German and Austro-Hungarian offensives on the Eastern Front meet limited success.  In the Mediterranean, a combined British and French fleet begins the bombardment of Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles.  Japan, having driven the Germans out of the Shantung Peninsula, presents twenty-one demands to China, reflecting its low regard for that nation's sovereignty.  In the United States, President Wilson suffers an embarrassing political defeat as the Democratic Congress is unable to pass the administration's Ship Purchase Bill.  The Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco celebrates the newly opened Panama Canal, and another icon of the Old West passes from the scene as Jesse James's brother dies in Missouri.


Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Advocate of Submarine Warfare

In the war against commerce, February was a month of major escalations.  It began with the outbreak of the war.  On August 20 and October 29, 1914, the British government issued Orders in Council designed to prevent war supplies from reaching Germany by expanding the scope of "contraband" subject to seizure on the high seas.  Then on November 2, citing the "indiscriminate" laying of mines by German ships disguised as fishing vessels, Britain declared the entire North Sea a war zone, warning all ships entering it that they did so at their own risk.  Following U-boat attacks last month, the British Admiralty on January 31 issued instructions authorizing civilian merchant ships to display neutral flags.  On February 4, at the urging of Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Chief of the German Naval Staff, the German government declared its own war zone:

"The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole English Channel, are declared a war zone from and after February 18, 1915.  Every enemy merchant ship in this war zone will be destroyed, even if it is impossible to avert dangers which threaten the crew and passengers.  Also, neutral ships in the war zone are in danger, as in consequence of the misuse of neutral flags, ordered by the British Government on January 31, and in view of the hazards of naval warfare, it cannot always be avoided that attacks meant for enemy ships endanger neutral ships.  Shipping northward, around the Shetland Islands in the eastern basin of the North Sea and in a strip of at least thirty nautical miles in breadth along the Dutch coast, is endangered in the same way."

The day after the German announcement, Admiral von Pohl assumed command of the High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven.

R.M.S. Lusitania

Before the German announcement was made, the British passenger liner R.M.S. Lusitania had left New York on its regular voyage to Liverpool.  On February 5, the day after the announcement, the Lusitania arrived at the south coast of Ireland, where it encountered rough weather.  Near Queenstown it received a message that German submarines had been sighted.  The crew prepared the lifeboats for immediate use if necessary, and in accordance with the Admiralty's January 31 advice the captain ordered the American flag hoisted.  As the weather improved, the Lusitania raced at full speed through St. George's Channel and the Irish Sea to Liverpool, arriving safely at the mouth of the Mersey at 9:00 Saturday morning, February 6.

A Word to the Wise

The German threat to sink enemy merchant ships without warning runs counter to international law as it has been previously understood, which forbids the destruction of merchant vessels without removing the passengers and crew to a place of safety.  In addition, the threat to neutral shipping implied by the reference to the use of neutral flags raised concerns in noncombatant nations including the United States.  On February 10 the State Department delivered a strong objection, calling the attention of the German government "to the very serious possibilities of the course of action apparently contemplated."  Noting the reference to the use of neutral flags, the note pointed out that under international law warships of belligerent nations have the right of visit and search on the high seas, a principal purpose of which is to determine a vessel's true nationality.  It warned that if German naval action were to destroy an American vessel or the lives of American citizens "it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights which it would be very hard indeed to reconcile with the friendly relations now so happily subsisting between the two Governments."  In such a case "the Government of the United States would be constrained to hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for such acts of their naval authorities and to take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas."  It concluded with the statement that the United States had also made "representations" to the British government "in respect of the unwarranted use of the American flag for the protection of British ships."

A Note for Each of You

In that note, delivered the same day, the State Department referred the British government to its January 31 authorization to use neutral flags, as well as to the Lusitania's actual use of the American flag on February 5.  It advised the British government to consider "the serious consequences which may result to American vessels and American citizens if this practice is continued," and expressed "the grave concern which this Government feels in the circumstances in regard to the safety of American vessels and lives."  Responding to Great Britain's reliance on the accepted practice of employing a "ruse de guerre," the American note drew a distinction between the occasional use of a false flag "under the stress of immediate pursuit and to deceive an approaching enemy" and the "explicit sanction by a belligerent government for its merchant ships generally to fly the flag of a neutral power."

John Bull Flying the American Flag

Germany replied to the American note on February 18, the announced effective date of its new policy.  The note adopted the same cordial tone as the American note to which it responded, but offered few if any concessions.  Germany says its new policy "is in no way directed against legitimate commerce and legitimate shipping of neutrals, but represents solely a measure of self-defense, imposed on Germany by her vital interests, against England's method of warfare, which is contrary to international law."  It says "the German Government is resolved to suppress with all the means at its disposal the importation of war material to Great Britain and her allies."  Although there is no intent to attack neutral ships, "neutral vessels which ... enter these closed waters will themselves bear the responsibility for any unfortunate accidents that may occur.  Germany disclaims all responsibility for such accidents and their consequences."  Its efforts to protect legitimate shipping of neutrals in the war zone, the note argues, will be rendered more difficult by "the misuse of neutral flags by British merchant vessels"  and the "contraband trade ... especially in war materials, on neutral vessels."  The right of visit and search is insufficient because "the British Government has supplied arms to merchant ships and instructed them forcibly to resist German submarines," a policy that exposes submarines and searching parties attempting to exercise that right to the risk of destruction.

The next day Great Britain responded to the American note regarding the use of the American flag.  It argued that it would be "unreasonable to expect his Majesty's Government to pass legislation forbidding the use of foreign flags by British merchant vessels to avoid capture by the enemy, now that the German Government have announced their intention to sink merchant vessels at sight with their noncombatant crews, cargoes, and papers, a proceeding hitherto regarded by the opinion of the world not as war, but piracy."  It argues that "the United States could not fairly ask the British Government to order British merchant vessels to forego a means, always hitherto permitted, of escaping not only capture, but the much worse fate of sinking and destruction."  It reminded the American government that "instances are on record when United States vessels availed themselves of this facility during the American civil war" and argued that the United States should not "grudge British ships the liberty to take similar action" in the present circumstances.

In a separate note delivered the same day, the British government advised the United States that the cargo of the American steamer Wilhelmina, seized by the Royal Navy, would be held for the decision of a prize court.  The decision is significant because it indicates a hardening of the British government's attitude toward foodstuffs (previously considered conditional contraband) en route to Germany.  In a related development, it was announced on February 28 that the former German merchant ship Dacia, purchased by the American Edward Breitung, transferred to American registry and bound for Rotterdam with a cargo of cotton, had been seized by a French cruiser in the English Channel and taken to the French port of Brest.  Its disposition will now be determined by a French prize court, in which the law regarding a change of registration in wartime is more favorable to the position of the Allies than it would have been in a British court.  Seizure by the French rather than the Royal Navy also avoids aggravating further the already strained relations between the United States and Great Britain on the subject of neutral rights.

Trying to Keep His Balance

Responding to the apparent impasse on the subject, United States Secretary of State Bryan informally proposed a modus vivendi whereby Great Britain would permit the importation of foodstuffs to Germany for distribution to civilians under American supervision, Germany would agree not to use submarines to attack merchantmen except under the rules of warfare applying to surface ships, and both nations would agree not to use neutral flags.  Reports at month's end indicate that Great Britain will reject any compromise proposal and instead will announce a policy of reprisals designed to cut off all imports to Germany.

"She's Done, By Ginger"
(A Cartoon from the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

The Ship Purchase Bill, authorizing the United States government to create a government-owned merchant fleet, has been strongly supported by President Wilson, but is opposed by most Republicans and supported only lukewarmly by Democrats.  At the president's insistence, Democrats in the Senate rejected an amendment proposed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to exclude ships owned by citizens of belligerent nations.  In the Senate the Bill encountered a filibuster beginning February 8, and on February 10 the Senate adjourned without bringing the Bill to a vote.  After a personal appeal by the president in a visit to Speaker Clark's home, the House of Representatives passed the Bill on February 17.  When it returned to the Senate, however, it was sent to a conference committee where it is expected to die with the expiration of the 63rd Congress on March 4.

Conrad von Hoetzendorf

As a French offensive achieved small and hard-won gains in the Champagne region, the main efforts of Germany and her ally Austria-Hungary were concentrated on the Eastern Front.  A combined Austrian-German offensive is under way in the Carpathians under the command of Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf, Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff.  Its goal, so far unachieved, is to relieve the Russian siege of Przemysl.  Farther north in the vicinity of the Masurian Lakes, the German Eighth Army, under the command of General Erich Ludendorff, launched an attack on February 9 aimed at expelling Russian forces from East Prussia.  After advancing some seventy miles, the offensive was halted by a Russian counterattack on February 20.

H.M.S. Inflexible Opening Fire on Turkish Forts

A combined British and French fleet under the command of British Vice Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden has been assembled to begin the Allied attack on the Dardanelles.  The objective is to force the Straits with naval forces alone, notwithstanding the presence of Turkish forts commanding the Straits and the threat of mines, especially in the Narrows, where the waterway is less than a mile wide.  The attack began on February 19 with a bombardment of the outer forts, but weather forced a withdrawal after the first day.  The bombardment resumed on February 25, resulting in the reduction of the forts on both sides of the entrance to the Straits. The success of the attack thus far is due in part to the Allied ships' ability to stay out of range of the Turkish guns while concentrating their fire on the narrow targets presented by the forts at the extreme end of the peninsulas that define the entrance to the Straits.  Those favorable conditions will no longer exist when the time comes for the Allied warships to enter the narrow confines of the Straits themselves.

Earlier in the month, on the day the German government declared its war zone around Great Britain, Turkish forces in the Sinai abandoned their attempt to drive the British from the Suez Canal.


Japanese Foreign Minister Takaaki Kato

A developing crisis in American relations with Japan came to a head this month.  Japan has followed up its recent conquest of the German leased territories on the coast of China, as well as its previous victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, with a set of demands that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China itself.  The demands, twenty-one in number, were presented to Chinese President Yuan Shikai in January, but their full scope was not apparent until the Chinese government revealed them on February 18.  The American government has expressed its concern because the demands appeared inconsistent with Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door Policy of 1900, which sought to protect China's territorial integrity and open China to trade with all nations on equal terms, and with the 1908 Root-Takahira Agreement, in which Japan agreed to abide by the Open Door Policy.  In response to inquiries from the United States, the Japanese government has moderated its position somewhat, indicating that it will not insist for the present upon compliance with the most extreme demands.

An Aerial View of the Panama Pacific Exposition

Some 50,000 people gathered on February 20 in San Francisco for the ceremonies opening the Panama Pacific Exposition.  They began at 9 o'clock in the morning Pacific Coast Time and were attended by Governor Hiram Johnson, Mayor James Rolph, Jr., and Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane.  Secretary Lane, representing the federal government, gave an address in which he praised "The American Pioneer": "Without him we would not be here.  Without him banners would not fly nor bands play.  Without him San Francisco would not be today the gayest city of the globe."

At noon, President Wilson pressed a button in the White House that sent a surge of electricity to the Tower of Jewels, the centerpiece of the Exposition.  By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, 225,000 fair-goers had been admitted to the grounds, far surpassing the previous daily record set by the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.  The exposition grounds cover over 600 acres, extending from Fort Mason to the Presidio along San Francisco Bay.  Aviator Lincoln Beachey entertained the crowd on opening day with a flight over the South Garden and around the Tower of Jewels, during which he released several "peace doves" from his aeroplane to the delight of the thousands of spectators below.

Frank James

Frank James died on February 18 at the James farm in Clay County, Missouri.  He and his younger brother Jesse fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War and then embarked on a life of crime, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches as members of the notorious James-Younger Gang.  Shortly after Jesse was shot and killed in 1882, Frank surrendered to the authorities, and spent the last thirty years of his life as a law-abiding citizen.

February 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, March and April 1915
New York Times, February 1915

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
John Keegan, The First World War
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Hew Strachan, The First World War Volume I: To Arms
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram