31/1/1917 On the eve of the U-boat war

Germany has decided on a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. From tomorrow its U-boats will be allowed to sink enemy merchant ships without warning. They will also be able to attack neutral ships suspected of carrying war materials (broadly defined) to Germany’s enemies. This is likely to bring the United States into the war against Germany. However the U-boat campaign is expected to bring the war to a victorious end in five months or so, long before the Americans will be able to recruit and train an army.

Since October the U-boats have already been operating an escalated campaign against enemy shipping. This has been run according to traditional prize rules, whereby enemy ships are stopped and searched; if they are then sunk, their crew and passengers are allowed to abandon ship first. Enemy shipping losses have amounted to an impressive 360,000 tons a month since October, without antagonising the Americans. German leaders are confident that even more losses will be inflicted once the U-boats are able to strike without warning. These losses will devastate the British economy and starve its people into submission.

image source (Wikipedia)

25/1/1917 East Africa: the rains bring an end to the British advance

The British Empire continues its efforts to conquer German East Africa. Some successes have been achieved, with territory overrun and German units forced to retreat. But the main German force under Lettow-Vorbeck remains intact. The Germans have a lot of space to retreat into and winkling them out is not going to be easy.

Now the rains arrive, making it more or less impossible to move large bodies of troops through the colony. The British advance grinds to a halt as the trails turn to mud. As they shelter from the rain, Lettow-Vorbeck and his lieutenants take satisfaction from the knowledge that they remain undefeated, ready to fight on against the enemy once the weather improves.

23/1/1917 The fall of Wajh and the advance of the Arab Revolt

Britain is supplying the Arab rebels through the Red Sea port of Yanbu. However the sea route there from Suez is long. If the rebels were to establish themselves in the port of Wajh, further north, it would be much easier to supply them. Wajh is also well situated to launch further attacks on the railway line to Medina, where a strong Turkish force remains in place.

The rebels and the British decide to launch a combined attack on Wajh. Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, rebel leader and self-styled King of the Arabs, will attack by land. The British navy supports his advance by placing water tanks south of the town to slake the thirst of Faisal’s army. The British will also land a small force of Arabs and British marines to the north of Wajh, to block any Turkish reinforcements.

Today is the agreed date for the attack on Wajh. The British ships arrive and land their men to the north of the town. There is no sign of Faisal, but the small advance party of rebels attack the town anyway. The Arabs are lucky: most of the Turkish garrison has already been withdrawn. Those that remain either surrender or retreat into the town’s mosque and fort, but they are soon dislodged by British naval artillery. Wajh is now in rebel hands.

And where is Faisal? The emir has been using his march to impress tribal leaders with the size of his army, thereby encouraging them to join his rebellion. When news of Wajh’s fall begins to circulate, the tribesmen flock to offer Faisal their allegiance.

22/1/1917 “Peace Without Victory” – Wilson addresses the Senate

President Wilson is not giving up in his efforts to bring the war to a peaceful end. Before Christmas he asked the belligerents to state the terms on which they would agree to end the war, hoping that this would help to kick-start negotiations to an end. But their response was non-committal. The Central Powers did not state terms but merely expressed a willingness to negotiate, while the Allies set forth general terms that made clear their intent to prosecute the war until victory.

Now Wilson addresses the US Senate. Once more he talks about the need to bring the catastrophic war to an end, to achieve a “peace without victory”. And he looks beyond the immediate end of the current conflict. Steps need to be taken to ensure that a war like this never happens again. He talks of a post-war “concert of power”, some kind of combination of the nations that will prevent future conflicts, and an end to the entangling alliances that preceded the outbreak of violence in 1914. Furthermore he proposes universal democracy, the freedom of countries to order their own affairs without external interference and a general adherence to liberal values.

The belligerents appear to be intent on continuing the war until they can impose a peace on their enemies. Wilson’s vision therefore appears rather utopian. But it serves as a useful corrective in a world that appears to have taken leave of its senses.

Full text of Wilson’s speech

image source:

Woodrow Wilson (First World War.com – A Multimedia History of World War One)

20/1/1917 Smuts leaves East Africa for London

South Africa’s General Smuts has been commanding British Empire forces invading German East Africa. At one level the campaign has gone well, with the invaders making great advances and overrunning large swathes of territory, particularly the area around the coast. But in other regards the invasion has proved less successful. A decisive defeat has not been inflicted on the Germans, whose forces in the colony remain largely intact. The British Empire forces have suffered relatively few casualties in combat but are experiencing a steady attrition from disease. Their press-ganged African bearers are experiencing an even higher attrition rate.

Now that the rains have begun, the invasion’s progress comes to a halt, giving the Germans a much needed respite. Still, with the coast overrun and the Germans confined to the interior, the process of mopping up enemy resistance should not take too long.

Smuts will not be around to see the final victory in East Africa. He is now on his way to London, to represent South Africa at the newly formed imperial war cabinet, where he intends to claim the benefits due to his countrymen for their successful invasion of German East Africa.

image source:

Captured German Askaris, December 1916 (Africans And West Indians At War)

19/1/1917 The Zimmermann telegram: Germany proposes an anti-US alliance to Mexico

Germany will soon be commencing a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. German leaders know that there is a high likelihood of this bringing the United States of America into the war against them. They are confident however that the U-boats will defeat Britain before the Americans can raise an army to fight in Europe. And in any case, the U-boats should be able to disrupt the transport of any US troops across the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, the Germans are thinking of other ways of dealing with the American threat. Attention turns to Mexico, America’s southern neighbour, with whom the United States has a troubled relationship. Could Mexico be enlisted as an ally of Germany, thereby drawing American attentions away from Europe?

Arthur Zimmermann is Germany’s deputy foreign minister. He sends a telegram to the Heinrich von Eckardt, Germany’s ambassador to Mexico. Eckardt is to propose an alliance to Mexico, offering Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, territory they lost to the USA in the 19th Century. The Mexicans are also to be furnished with generous financial support.

A quirk of the current diplomatic arrangements is that German communications to its overseas embassies run through Britain. The Germans are no fools and are aware that the British are monitoring their communications. Zimmermann’s telegram is a sensitive one, so it is despatched in an encrypted form.

Unfortunately for the Germans, the British have cracked their diplomatic cyphers. Now Room 40, the secret British signal intelligence unit, sets to work on the telegram. Soon they will reveal its explosive secrets.

image source:

The Zimmermann Telegram (Wikipedia)

17/1/1917 U-boats begin to sail through the Channel

Germany has decided to begin a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. Its U-boats will be ordered to attack enemy merchant ships on sight, without stopping them to check their cargos or to give their crews time to abandon ship safely. To prevent Allied ships avoiding interception by flying neutral flags, the U-boats will also be allowed to attack neutral ships at will.

The new policy does not come into effect until February. However the U-boat campaign is already beginning to increase in intensity. Previously U-boats sailing to the Atlantic would sail around the north of Scotland. Now though they begin to make the more risky passage directly through the narrow seas of the English Channel. This will give them more time on patrol to attack enemy ships.

16/1/1917 Richthofen becomes the Red Baron

The war above the trenches has a high attrition rate among the men flying the aeroplanes for each side. As a result, promotions come fast, with simple survival often being sufficient grounds for achieving a position of authority.

One flier who perhaps deserves his promotion more than others is the new commander of Jagdstaffel 11, the number 11 fighter squadron of the German air force. The new commander of Jasta 11 is Captain Manfred von Richthofen. This 25 year old aristocrat has already claimed 16 victories since his first kill in the autumn of 1916. Now having been awarded Germany’s highest honour, the Pour le Merite he takes command of this squadron.

Aeroplanes flying over the Western Front are normally painted in drab colours, to make it harder for the enemy to spot them. Richthofen however decides to throw caution to the wind. He has his aeroplane, an Albatross D.III painted red. Let his enemies know who they are facing, he thinks. Back in Germany, newspapers start referring to Richthofen as Der Rote Kampfflieger (the Red Fighter Pilot). The Allies give him a variety of names: Le Petit Rouge, the Red Devil and the Red Baron.

image sources:

Manfred von Richthofen (The Aerodrome: Aces and Aircraft of World War I)

Richthofen (in cockpit) and his Jasta 11 comrades (Wikipedia)

see also: Richthofen describes painting his aeroplane red, in his autobiography.

Note: Richthofen may not have had his aeroplane painted red on his first day as commander of Jasta 11. He may also not have acquired the Red Baron nickname until after the end of the war.

11/1/1917 The Kinglsand Explosion: a New Jersey armaments factory mysteriously erupts

The United States is not party to the war between the European powers. However, despite its neutrality, American industry is happy to sell war materiel to anyone who will pay for it. The British blockade prevents the Germans from importing arms from the USA, so in practice it is only the Allies who are able to supply themselves with American arms.

It irks the Germans and Austro-Hungarians that the United States is arming their enemies. Their U-boats are intercepting some of the ships carrying war goods and perhaps will catch more once unrestricted submarine warfare commences.

To disrupt America’s arming of the Allies, the Central Powers have also resorted to more underhand efforts. Saboteurs are operating in the United States, trying to start fires in American munitions factories and storage depots.

Today a fire erupts in a munitions factory in Kingsland, New Jersey. The plant is destroyed, together with as many as half a million artillery shells. The cause of the fire is not conclusively established and may conceivably be accidental (explosives are prone to explode, after all). As with the Black Tom explosion however, suspicions fall upon the agents of the Kaiser.

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inspecting the damage (Wikipedia)