Two months after the sinking of the Lusitania, Member of Parliament Bonar Law told the British legislative body that in less than a year of war, submarines had sunk some seventy-five ships and seventy-two fishing vessels, causing the loss of 1,550 lives.
The success of the submarine was not limited to merchant shipping. On the dark and stormy night of January 1, 1915, the battleship HMS Formidable, a thirteen-year-old ship of 15,000 tons, was sunk by two torpedoes in the English Channel. The Formidable's, captain signaled other ships in the vicinity to stand clear because of the danger from the submarine. Only 201 officers and men of the battleship's crew numbering more than 700 were rescued from the icy Channel waters.
On Saturday, August 14, 1915, the British transport Royal Edward went down, taking a thousand of the sixteen hundred men on board down with her. Five days later submarines sank the brand new HMS Nottingham and the three-year-old HMS Falmouth , both cruisers of slightly more than 5,000 tons. U-boats caught them as they sortied from the British naval base at Scapa Flow in response to a false report that the German fleet was leaving its ports for battle.
On the same day the British steamer Arabic was sunk by a submarine with the loss of two American passengers, among others. The German government expressed its regret, disavowed the act, and promised indemnities for the American victims. The sinking made the front pages of American newspapers and served to irritate the wound caused by the sinking of the Lusitania three months before.
However, it was not until almost a year after the Lusitania disaster that a significant number of American lives were again lost in a submarine attack. On March 24, 1916, the SS Sussex , a French passenger steamer, was en route from Folkestone to Dieppe across the English Channel. On board were 380 passengers, of whom 270 were women and children — with many Americans among them. The torpedo struck at 4:20 in the afternoon and the Sussex quickly sank with great loss of life.
The United States reacted with another note to the government of Kaiser Wilhelm II about the seriousness of the situation which had arisen
"not only out of the attack on the Sussex , but out of the whole method and character of submarine warfare" as practiced by the Germans. The German government, the note said, had apparently "found no way to impose on (U-boat commanders) such restrictions as it had hoped and promised"
after the Lusitania disaster.
The note went on to say that, to the pain of the United States Government, it had become clear that
"the employment of submarines for the destruction of enemy trade is of necessity completely irreconcilable with the principles of humanity, with the long-existing, undisputed rights of neutrals, and with the sacred privileges of non-combatants."
The note concluded by saying that
"if the Imperial Government [of Germany] should not now proclaim and make effective renunciation of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and cargo ships, the United States can have no other choice than to break off completely diplomatic relations with the German Government."
To this stiff note Germany replied that its submarines had been given orders not to sink merchant ships
"without warning and without saving human lives, unless these vessels attempt to escape or offer resistance."
From the date of this reply in May, 1916, until February, 1917, German U-boats operated under this restriction.
The curb led to at least one strange situation. Lt. Comdr. Ernst Hashagen in the U-22 apprehended the British steamer Fritzoe on the high seas and fired a shell across its bow. The Fritzoe hove to, and Hashagen was faced with a dilemma: he had a British ship in his hands, but his orders prohibited him from sinking it.
Hashagen decided on an unprecedented course of action. He summoned the Fritzoe' s captain to a conference on the submarine. There the U-boat commander told him that he would sink the Fritzoe unless the British captain changed his course and made for Cuxhaven, the home port of Hashagen's U-boat. The British skipper, thinking that his only alternative to complying with Hashagen's demand was a torpedo below the Fritzoe' s waterline, agreed.
With its captain back on board, the British steamer got underway in the direction of the German port and it was soon out of sight over the horizon. Hashagen never expected to see it again, assuming that as soon as it was a safe distance away it would again alter course and head for its original destination. Memory of the incident had almost slipped from Hashagen's mind when he brought his U-boat into Cuxhaven after completing his patrol. But there to greet his eyes was the Fritzoe , a prize of war. The British captain had been as good as his word.
It was in the period of uneasy " truce " with merchantmen that a German U-boat was called on to perform one of the more unusual submarine missions of the war. Onto a U-boat in a German port came a bearded man who spoke German with an accent that marked him as British. Actually he was Anglo-Irish and he had been knighted for his services to the British Empire in its diplomatic corps, but his former allegiance to the British Crown had now been replaced by allegiance to the militant Irish nationalist movement. He was engaged in a desperate attempt to fan the long-smoldering resentment of the Irish into the fire of open rebellion against England.
If he succeeded, Britain would have to divert soldiers from the war against Germany and send them to put down Irish nationalists.
The bearded man was Sir Roger Casement, and the U-boat took him to a place off the coast of Ireland where, presumably at night, he was landed ashore in a small boat. Not long after his landing he was apprehended and executed by the British, to become a martyr in the Irish cause. An officer on the submarine that took the somber and rather foreboding figure to his Irish rendezvous with death remembered afterward that Casement had accurately prophesied: "I will be hanged."
By the end of 1916, even with the restrictive rules governing U-boats in their action against merchant ships still in effect, submarines had sunk almost 4 million tons of Allied and neutral shipping in two and a half years of war — a not-inconsiderable fraction of the entire world's tonnage. In order for any British merchant ships to go to sea at all, it was necessary for the British government to set up a state-supported insurance program because the losses were so great that no private firm could dream of underwriting the risk.
At the very end of the year, on December 30, 1916, the British liner SS Persia was steaming in the Mediterranean en route from London to Bombay, India. On board was the new United States consul for Aden. At 1:05 in the afternoon the Persia was torpedoed without warning and sank with 335 of the 500 on board, with the American consul among those lost. Germany and Austria both denied that their submarines were responsible for the sinking, and it is possible that the submarine might have been Turkish. To American newspaper readers the distinction made little difference. War was coming closer.
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