6/7/1917 The U-boat war denounced in the Reichstag #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a swift end. Instead it has brought the USA into the war against Germany and shows no sign of starving Britain into submission. Now there is increasing disquiet and a sense that the U-boat campaign has been a terrible mistake. This disquiet has penetrated to the ranks of parliamentarians who had previously been supportive of the government. Speaking before the Reichstag’s Steering Committee, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party today argues that the navy and the government sold the country a pup with the U-boat campaign, underestimating Britain’s resilience in the face of submarine warfare and peddling the false notion that the U-boats could force Britain out of the war in six months.

Erzberger’s U-boat scepticism is significant. His party, which represents Catholic interests, had backed the U-boat war on the strength of the navy’s assurances. With the Centre Party swinging against the U-boats the government of Bethmann Hollweg is now in trouble. To make matters worse, the Centre Party is now lending its support to those parties calling for a compromise peace to end the war.

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Matthias Erzberger (Spartacus International)

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)

31/5/1917 Another good month for the U-boats

Germany’s U-boats have had another good month, sinking some 670,000 tons of merchant shipping (a total including both Allied ships and neutral ships trading with the Allies). This is a good bit less than was achieved in April but is still very impressive.

Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, has calculated that monthly shipping losses of 600,000 tons will force Britain out of the war. If his calculations are correct and these losses can be maintained then autumn should see Britain starved out of the war. With Russia in chaos and Italy not up to much that would effectively leave France to face the might of Germany alone.

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A U-boat puts to sea, garlanded with flowers (WW2 Weapons: Diary February 1, 1917)

10/5/1917 Convoys against U-boats

The Germans are hoping that their U-boats will force Britain out of the war by the autumn. Last month the submarines sunk a record quantity of Allied shipping. As a trading nation, Britain needs its merchant fleet to survive. If the Germans can continue to destroy its ships faster than they can be rebuilt then Britain will be reduced to poverty and starvation.

The British are trying various measures to counter the U-boat threat. Food production at home is being increased and ship building is being accelerated. And now they try a novel tactic to protect the ships while they are at sea. Instead of having merchantmen sail individually, easy targets for the German submarines, today the first convoy of 17 ships, escorted by warships of the British navy, sets sail for Britain from Gibraltar. Some fear that having all these ships sail together presents the Germans with too tempting a target, but the hope is that they will be protected from the U-boats’ depredations by their escorts.

30/4/1917 Great successes for Germany’s U-boats

Germany has let loose its U-boats to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. The U-boat campaign has brought the USA into the war against Germany, but this is considered to be a price worth paying. Before the commencement of the campaign, Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, projected that the U-boats would be able to sink enough ships to force Britain out of the war by the autumn of 1917. That would mean the end of the war as the Allies could not continue the struggle without Britain.

Holtzendorff had predicted that the U-boats would need to sink 600,000 tons of shipping a month to cripple Britain. Until now they have not met this target, but in April they greatly exceed it, sinking some 840,000 tons of shipping. This success appears more to have been achieved by increasing the numbers of U-boats on patrol than by the new tactics. As well as the increased number of U-boats, the submariners are being pushed to spend more time at sea, meaning they have more opportunities to hit the enemy.

The British are responding to the U-boat threat in a number of ways. They are attempting to increase domestic food production and to stretch flour stocks by mixing barley in with wheat. They have also increased production of new ships to replace the ones lost, as have their American allies. The British have also pressured neutral countries into keeping their ships at sea, so that they can also be used for British trade. The British are also considering the introduction of convoys, so that merchant ships will sail under naval protection.

Although Allied shipping losses this month are very high, there is no sign as yet that the U-boat campaign is leading to real hardship in Britain. Bread remains un-rationed and food is still relatively abundant. Despite their successes, some senior figures in the German navy begin to wonder if the U-boats will not actually end the war by August.

images source (Canadian War Museum)

5/4/1917 Brazil’s “Paraná” sunk by U-boat

Germany hopes that its U-boat war will force Britain to make peace. However the U-boats attacks on Allied and neutral shipping are making new enemies for Germany. The USA is already on the brink of war with Germany, but it is not the only neutral whose ships are being sunk by the Germans. Today the UB-32 torpedoes the Paraná, a Brazilian merchant ship carrying a cargo of coffee. This could now mean that Germany will be acquiring a new South American enemy for itself.

31/3/1917 The U-boat war’s progress

The second full month of Germany’s unrestricted U-boat war draws to a close. Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, had predicted that if 600,000 tons of British shipping were sunk by the U-boats per month then after five months their total merchant fleet would be reduced by 39%. Facing starvation and financial ruin the British would then be forced to make peace.

Allied shipping losses this month come to some 555,000 tons. This is short of Holtzendorff’s target but is still very impressive. Germany’s leaders hope that if maintained they will force Britain out of the war. With the recent revolution in Russia suggesting that its commitment to the war may now be wavering, it looks as though 1917 might well turn out to be the year of German victory.

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U-Boot versenkt Truppentransporter (Wikipedia; painting by Willy Stower, 1917)