Germany is suffering from great hardships in this third winter of the war. Food shortages mean that many are reduced to eating turnips, normally used only for animal feed. German leaders fear that another repeat of this “Turnip Winter” would lead to a collapse in the country’s social cohesion. They are desperately looking for a way to bring the war to a satisfactory end this year.
Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg has proposed peace negotiations to the Allies. However their response has been dismissive. The war will have to be prosecuted until it ends in victory for one side or another. But military victory appears elusive. To the Germans, Russia appears to be able to take any level of losses and continue fighting (though to Russian leaders the situation might look different). Meanwhile the attempt last year to win the war by smashing France at Verdun turned into an attritional bloodbath that Hindenburg and Ludendorff have no desire to repeat. The Germans also have no appetite for a repeat of the Somme.
Is there any way that Germany can win the war? The navy say yes. Admiral Holtzendorff, the nayy’s chief of staff, has produced a memorandum analysing Britain’s dependence on foreign trade. The country can only be fed by importing considerable quantities of food. Holtzendorff argues that if Germany’s U-boats are allowed to attack shipping at will without warning then the British can be starved into submission in a matter of months.
Bethmann Hollweg is adamantly opposed to this kind of unrestricted submarine warfare. He fears that this breach of international law will bring the United States of America into the conflict against Germany. He has successfully opposed this policy before but now the tides have turned against him. Hindenburg and Ludendorff have changed their minds, mesmerised by Holtzendorff’s promise of a quick and easy victory against the Allies that would not require the expenditure of vast amounts of soldiers’ blood.
Bethmann Hollweg tries to resist but is finally vanquished by the revelation that the Kaiser too has decided in favour of U-boat war. The submarines will be set free, with the campaign to begin at the start of February.
The U-boat advocates are not blind to the likelihood that unrestricted submarine warfare will bring the United States into the war. However, they discount the seriousness of the problem. The USA has a small army. By the time it has built up sizeable land forces the U-boats will have forced Britain’s surrender. If America tries to transport an army to Europe, it will be destroyed by the U-boats before it arrives.
And in truth, many of the German leaders relish the prospect of having a crack at the Americans. President Wilson gives lofty speeches about peace and international law, but the country’s industries are supplying and arming the Allies. As far as the Germans are concerned, they are already in conflict with the Americans. Unleashing the U-boats will allow them to take the gloves off.