Dead Wake

Dead Wake by Erik Larson Read Free Book Online

Book: Dead Wake by Erik Larson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Erik Larson
island nation that imported two-thirds of its food, was utterly dependent on seaborne trade. Neutral ships were at risk also, Germany cautioned, because Britain’s willingness to fly false flags had made it impossible for U-boat commanders to rely on a ship’s markings to determine whether it truly was neutral. Germany justified the new campaign as a response to a blockade begun previously by Britain, in which the British navy sought to intercept all cargoes headed to Germany. (Britain had more than twice as many submarines as Germany but used them mainly for coastal defense, not to stop merchant ships.) German officials complained that Britain made no attempt to distinguish whether the cargoes were meant for hostile or peaceful use and charged that Britain’s true goal was to starve civilians and thereby “doom the entire population of Germany to destruction.”
    What Germany never acknowledged was that Britain merely confiscated cargoes, whereas U-boats sank ships and killed men. German commanders seemed blind to the distinction. Germany’s Admiral Scheer wrote, “Does it really make any difference, purely from the humane point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?”
    Germany’s proclamation outraged President Wilson; on February 10, 1915, he cabled his formal response, in which he expressed incredulity that Germany would even think to use submarines against neutral merchant ships and warned that he would hold Germany “to a strict accountability” for any incident in which an American ship was sunk or Americans were injured or killed. He stated, further, that America would “take any steps it might benecessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas.”
    The force of his prose took German leaders by surprise. Outwardly, Germany seemed a fierce monolith, united in carrying out its war against merchant ships. But in fact, the new submarine campaign had caused a rift at the highest levels of Germany’s military and civilian leadership. Its most ardent supporters were senior naval officials; its opponents included the commander of Germany’s military forces in Europe, Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn, and the nation’s top political leader,Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. Moral scruple had nothing to do with their opposition. Both men feared that Germany’s undersea war could only lead to disaster by driving America to shed its neutrality and side with Britain.
    Wilson’s protest, however, did not impress Germany’s submarine zealots. They argued that if anything Germany should intensify its campaign and destroy
all
shipping in the war zone. They promised to bring Britain to heel well before America could mobilize an army and transport it to the battlefield.
    Both camps maneuvered to win the endorsement of Kaiser Wilhelm, who, as the nation’s supreme military leader, had the final say. He authorized U-boat commanders to sink any ship, regardless of flag or markings, if they had reason to believe it was British or French. More importantly, he gave the captains permission to do so while submerged, without warning.
    The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination as to which ships were to be spared, which to be sunk, to the discretion of individual U-boat commanders. Thus a lone submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now held the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war. As Chancellor Bethmann would later put it,

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