My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. I hope you find these bits of history as interesting as I do.
Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States in 1913, after serving as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and as Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. Despite being a politician from the Mid-Atlantic states, Wilson was born and spent his early years in Virginia and Georgia, during the time of slavery and The Civil War. The dreadful war that tore the United States asunder had a huge influence on Wilson’s reluctance to commit an American army to fight on foreign soil, even for their closest allies. Nevertheless, by 1916, the USA was neutral in name only.
The war was fought not just with guns and bullets, but with food, clothing and other supplies. Barbed-wire, for instance, had been invented as a means of corralling the huge herds of cattle in the American West. Now it was being used as an obstacle to the soldiers trying to cross the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the trenches on the Western Front. These goods had to be brought in by ship from noncombatant nations willing to supply either side.
From the outset of hostilities, the British had squeezed German supply lines with a naval blockade. The Germans responded with their own lethal weapon – the U-Boat, a shortening of ‘unterseeboot‘, literally ‘undersea boat’. This terrifying weapon would have shifted the balance to a greater degree except for one factor: America. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, had condemned the use of the U-boat against neutral nations and civilian vessels. Fearing American entry into the war, the German government complied. Unrestricted submarine warfare was off the table. When German military commanders reviewed the situation, they realized adhering to these demands was the only thing saving the British from disaster.
The German U-boats patrolling the trade routes found targets in civilian ships despite the rules to stay away. The merchant ships of Britain and France often disguised their ships with flags of neutral countries but often didn’t fool the U-boat commanders stalking them. In those days, submarine captains only had the use of the periscope to decide whether a ship could be targeted or not. There was no sonar, no radar; all information was gathered by eyesight. It could be very easy to make a mistake and the captains tended to err on the side of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. As a result, passenger liners like the Lusitania had been sunk in 1915 to enormous outcry in the United States. The American President threatened but still kept the nation out of the war.
By 1916, the British blockade was beginning to deeply impact Germany’s ability to wage war and to feed and care for its citizens back home. The potentially game-changing U-boats were being held in check and only at the behest of the United States. German leaders were finding this policy more and more incomprehensible. What did the Germans have to fear from America, after all?
At the time of The Spanish-American War, American military strength peaked at 210,000 men. This was in 1898. By 1907, it had dwindled to a mere 64,000 men. The British had that many casualties on the first day of fighting in The Somme. By 1914, the U.S. army had swelled to 98,000 men with another 10,000 added by 1916. The Germans were not intimidated by a 110,000 man army, deficient in experience and in both weapons and material for fighting a modern war. Militarily, the Germans ranked the United States with Denmark, Chile and Holland.
So it was on January 31, 1917 that Germany decided they would be hamstrung no longer. The Imperial German Government notified the American President that they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.
Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wired.