February 18, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The first days of the German submarine blockade appeared to be anticlimactic from the day’s headlines:

FIRST DAY OF BLOCKADE IS VERY QUIET
English Mariners Are Not Affected By Submarine Menace
CHANNEL SHIPPING REMAINS UNMOLESTED
Rotterdam Feels Effect of Ruling But Many Ships Are Leaving

London, Feb. 18. -The day set by Germany for the opening of its submarine blockade of the British isles and its war on British merchantmen dawned cold, wet and gloomy throughout England. A driving rain swept all British harbors but neither it nor the threat of the kaiser served to halt shipping.

British mariners apparently were not greatly affected by the submarine menace and everywhere in England supreme confidence in Great Britain’s navy was expressed.

REPLY TO GERMAN NOTE IS RECEIVED AND MADE PUBLIC
Tone of Note Is Friendly To United States Says Officials
ACTION NOT DIRECTED AT NEUTRAL COMMERCE
German Government Is Incensed At Traffic In Arms With Neutrals and Allies

Berlin, via Amsterdam, Feb. 18. – The text of the German reply to the protest of the United States regarding Germany’s proposed war on British merchantmen was made public today. In it, Germany firmly reiterates her determination to con tune to the end her submarine blockade of the British coast.

The tone of the note is especially friendly to the United States, but it declares Germany took this step only after mature deliberation and only “because the measure adopted by the English are in violation of the accepted principles of international law.”

A reader, following the news, would think from the headlines that vessels flying the American flag would be respected by German submarines. The reality was more equivocal:

The German note declares that all submarine commanders have been instructed to guard neutral vessels and especially not to attack American steamers. It declares, however, that since England has ordered its merchantmen to utilize neutral colors, the best method of assuring safety to American ships would be for warships of the United States to escort such vessels through the war zone. Germany offers to negotiate further with the United States in an effort to decide the best way such a plan can be carried out.

* * * *

German newspapers characterize the reply as eminently satisfactory. Count Von Reventlow, the famous naval expert and critic, says if anything, the note is too conciliatory. He declares the shipment of weapons to Germany’s enemies has filled public opinion of the empire with indignation and bitterness towards the United States.

* * * *

He declares that unless American merchantmen are escorted through the new German war zone by warships of the United States, German submarine commanders cannot be made responsible for their safety.

German frustration with the trade in arms by neutrals, especially the United States is clear in the note:

“The German government feels obliged to point out with emphasis that traffic in arms, estimated at many hundred millions, is being carried on between American firms and Germany’s enemies. Germany comprehends that the practice of the right and toleration of the wrong on the part of neutrals involve no informal violation of neutrality.”

The note declares that this is point out because Germany feels that her commerce rights have been prejudiced by the fact that neutrals “in safe-guarding their rights in legitimate commerce with Germany have, up to the present, achieved no results, or only insignificant results, while making unlimited use of their right to carry on a contraband traffic with England other enemies.”

The foreign office points out that neutrals have the right, which they should exercise, of forcing a cessation of trade in contraband, and especially arms, with Germany’s enemies.

The note concludes with the German observation that “after six months of patient waiting, [Germany] sees herself obliged to answer England’s murderous method of naval warfare with sharp counter measures. If England summons hunger as her ally, for the purpose of imposing upon seventy million civilized people the choice between destitution and starvation or submission to England’s commercial will, then Germany is determined to take up the gauntlet and appear to similar allies.”

The effects of the British blockade and the problems Germany was facing in feeding its population is apparent from this front page article:

Thousands Stand In Raid Waiting for Potato Bargains

Serious riots were reported today at Schoneberg, a suburb of Berlin, as a result of a shortage of potatoes. Thousands of women and children, according to reports, stood in the rain for hours when the municipality announced a sale of potatoes at reduced prices. The demand, however, was greater than the supply, and the women and children attacked municipal officials when told that certain formalities were necessary. The municipal building was partly wrecked before the police dispersed the crowd.

The futility of Germany’s blockade is clear from the headline that states “Fifty German Submarines to Attempt Blockade of England:”

Fifty German submarines, at the most, will begin the impossible task of trying to blockade the coast of the British isles, which measures about 2000 miles. This gives a maximum of one submarine for every 40 miles, but then only for a brief time, since submarines must return to their bases frequently for fuel and more torpedoes.

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About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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