30/6/1917 Germany’s dawning realisation that the U-boat war has failed

Germany is trying to win the war with its escalated U-boat campaign. The U-boats have been given carte blanche to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. They are also authorised to attack ships flying neutral flags but suspected of carrying supplies to Allied countries. The Germans hope that the submarine war will reduce Britain to poverty and starvation, forcing it to make peace with Germany

Since the beginning of the escalated campaign in February the Germans have sunk an astonishing 3,844,000 tons of Allied shipping. Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, has calculated that sinking 600,000 tons a month would be enough to cripple British trade. The U-boats have achieved these targets, sinking 670,000 tons in June alone, so surely this means that the British will soon be forced to make peace?

Yet the British do not appear to be on the brink of collapse. Holtzendorff appears to have miscalculated. The British have been able to increase domestic food production and through effective rationing are spreading food supplies relatively fairly (far more successfully than is the case in Germany). The U-boat campaign has not scared neutral shipping from the seas. Instead it has reduced the amount imported into the likes of Holland and Denmark for resale to Germany.

Allied countermeasures against the submarines are becoming more effective, with merchant ships increasingly sailing under protection in convoys and US and British destroyers patrolling more aggressively against the U-boats. It is starting to look as though the U-boat campaign is not going to end the war in the next few months. Tacitly recognising that the war will continue, the German navy now orders the construction of more U-boats, which will not be available for use until 1919.


A merchant ship torpedoed (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

A U-boat surfaces (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

30/4/1917 Outlandish reports of the German Corpse Factory continue to cause a sensation

Fanciful reports that the Germans are rendering corpses as sources for scarce war materials have caused a sensation in Britain. Despite having no basis in reality, rumours of the Corpse Factory have led to lurid reporting in the British press and are presented as further evidence that there are no depths to which the Hun will not sink.

Not everyone is taken in by this nonsense. Speaking in parliament, the Irish politician John Dillon suggests that allowing these patently false stories to gain credence the British government is undermining its own credibility. But in reply Lord Cecil, the junior foreign minister, declines to discount reports of the Corpse Factory, arguing that such reports are not incredible in light of previous actions by the Germans. His statement stops short of anything that could later be used to accuse him of lying to parliament.

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“And don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead.” (Wikipedia, originally from Punch 25 April 1917)

17/4/1917 The German Corpse Factory

Readers of The Times and The Daily Mail today find themselves confronted with a bizarre and distasteful story. Supposedly based on a report in a German publication, both newspapers carry articles on a secret German factory where dead human bodies are taken for rendering, with the factory extracting all kinds of useful material from the cadavers. A tallow is produced from the body fats and made into soap, which is in short supply in Germany thanks to the British blockade. The ground down corpses are also used to make fertiliser. The workers in this grim factory are kept as prisoners, lest they reveal its terrible secret.

This shocking story is complete nonsense. There is no corpse factory but that does not stop two supposedly respectable British newspapers presenting its fictional existence as the truth. The origin of this story is however not entirely clear, though it has been circulating as a rumour for some time. Is it a piece of propaganda, prepared by the British intelligence services to discredit the Germans? Or have the imaginations of the journalists so run away with themselves that they are now willing to print any unsubstantiated nonsense that conforms to their stereotypes regarding German beastliness?

See also: Spartacus Educational has an interesting discussion on this topic, with the text of original newspaper articles and diary entries on the matter here.

images from: BBC News: The corpse factory and the birth of fake news

7/12/1916 Lloyd George becomes Britain’s Prime Minister

Britain’s political turmoil has come to an end. Asquith may have thought that by resigning as Prime Minister he would reveal the weakness of his opponents. If so he was mistaken. Admittedly Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, was unable to attract the support of enough Liberals to form a government. David Lloyd George however has better luck. He rustles up the support of enough of his fellow Liberals to form a stable coalition government with the Conservatives.

Asquith remains leader of the Liberal party. Most prominent Liberals follow him out of government. However the party is now split into factions supporting either Lloyd George or Asquith.

Lloyd George’s appointment is bad news for both Haig, the Western Front commander, and Robertson, the chief of staff of the British army. Lloyd George is unimpressed with how they have been conducting the war. However he does not have any obvious alternative to Haig and Robertson’s approach. In any case, for the moment he feels too insecure in office to move against these powerful figures.

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David Lloyd George (Wikipedia)

5/12/1916 Political crisis in Britain

British politics is in a ferment. Prime Minister Asquith’s handling of the war is attracting much criticism from the press, who are arguing that the country needs more vigorous leadership. Asquith is also facing challenges from within the coalition government, with his Liberal colleague, David Lloyd George, the War Minister, and Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative leader and Minister for the Colonies, plotting against the prime minister.

In an increasingly excited atmosphere, Asquith attempts to sack Lloyd George and reconstitute his government, but then realises that this would lose him the support of the Conservatives and Lloyd George’s allies within the Liberals. So now he tenders his own resignation to the King. He is not quite giving up yet: the Liberal leader hopes that no one else will be able to form a government, which would see him recalled to the premiership.

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Herbert Henry Asquith (Miranda’s Space)

11/11/1916 Britain’s street-side shrines to the fallen

The destructiveness of the war means that all across Europe there are few families who have not lost a loved one. In a spontaneous public commemoration of the fallen has begun. Roadside shrines have begun to appear, bedecked with flags and flowers, bearing the names of men from the area who have died and others who are still serving in the armed forces.

The shrines become a focus for communal mourning of the dead, an unusual religious commemoration that unites people of different faiths in a country where sectarian differences are still important. At the dedication of a shine in Bethnal Green, an Anglican bishop notes the presence of Jewish people from the area and delivers a blessing in Hebrew. Catholics too mix with their Protestant and Jewish neighbours at these shrines to their shared lost loved ones.

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Street shrine in East London (Friends of North Stoneham Park)

Street shrine in Hackney (Picturing the Great War: The First World War Blog from Mary Evans Picture Library)

21/8/1916 “The Battle of the Somme” on general release: the war comes home to Britain and Ireland

In France the Battle of the Somme rages on. In Britain The Battle of the Somme is now appearing on cinema screens across the country. Shot by Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell and edited by Malins and Charles Urban, this film purports to present the real experience of men at the Front to those left behind at home.

Most of footage in the film was taken at the Front in late June and early July, but some images (notably men leaving their trenches to advance towards the enemy) were shot well away from the front line. The footage is edited to present the battle in as positive a light as possible, with plenty of German prisoners and cheerful Tommies shown. However the film-makers cannot hide the less appealing aspects of the battle from their viewers, with some distressing images appearing of injured men and unburied corpses.

The film received its première on the 2nd and now it goes on general release. In a country where everyone has a close friend or family member at the front, interest in the film is tremendous. Box office records are quickly broken as people rush to the cinemas to get a sense of what their soldiers are going through. People are encouraged to keep an eye out for their enlisted loved ones, as they might see them in one of the film’s many scenes of men marching to the Front.

Yet not everyone is so supportive of the film. Because the footage was shot before the battle started and in its early stages, many of the soldiers seen in the film will now have been killed in the fighting. Some worry that viewers will be distressed should they catch a glimpse of a deceased loved one. But the cinema-going public do not heed the sceptics, flocking to the cinema in unprecedented numbers.

Note: after six weeks on release, twenty million people are believed to have seen this film in Britain and Ireland, which I think makes it the most popular film ever shown in these islands.

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Staged scene of soldiers advancing (Wikipedia)

Advertisement (Wikipedia)