Since replacing Falkenhayn, Hindenburg and Ludendorff have been pondering what strategic direction to take in 1917. To minimise Germany’s losses they are determined to remain on the defensive on the Western Front: there will be no repeat of the long battle of Verdun.
However, wars cannot be won by sitting on the defensive. Ludendorff is acutely aware that Germany cannot keep the war going indefinitely, so there must be some way of bringing it to a victorious end. One option remains a renewed U-boat campaign. At the moment, U-boats are fighting according to rules that prevent them from attacking merchant ships without warning or allowing them to evacuate before being sunk. This minimises civilian casualties but severely limits their effectiveness.
Senior figures in the German navy argue that if the U-boats are allowed to attack enemy shipping at will then the enemy will rapidly be brought to their knees. Britain is dependent on its overseas trade for not merely its prosperity but for the food its industrial workers eat. Now Henning von Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, issues a memorandum arguing that unrestricted U-boat warfare would starve Britain into submission by autumn 1917.
To Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, such thinking is madness. He fears that U-boat warfare will bring the United States into the war against Germany, making the war unwinnable. But to Ludendorff, Holtzendorff’s memorandum is appealing, as it offers the prospect of victory without having to throw away the lives of soldiers on the battlefield. A final decision has yet to be made, but the tide is moving towards the U-boats.