Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/May 2015/Op-ed

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Ignition (or the Unexpected Virtue of Having Sparks in a Powder Keg)

By TomStar81 and Simon Harley
Walter Schwieger, c. 1917. Commander of the Imperial German Navy submarine U-20, Schwieger was responsible for firing the torpedo that sank RMS Lusitania, which inadvertently set into motion the series of event that would culminate with the United States entering World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917.

Friday, 7 May 1915. In the Atlantic Ocean the passenger liner Lusitania, William Thomas Turner commanding, sails for England. A Royal Mail Ship, Lusitania carries the prefix RMS to designate her status as a ship officially charged with carrying mail under Royal Contract. Rounding the southern coast of Ireland in anticipation of arriving home, the ship was spotted by U-20, Captain Walther Schwieger commanding. With the declaration by the Imperial German Government that a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was being pursued to halt the British Empire's war efforts, Schwieger moves to sink what his crew has identified as a legitimate enemy ship in accordance with his mandate as an Imperial German Navy officer. Bringing his submarine to battle stations, Schwieger orders his torpedoes loaded in the forward section of his submarine. The range to Lusitania is measured, taking into account the speeds for the weaponry and the passenger ship, which must be calculated on an X and Y graph to determine where the torpedo and the ship will meet. In a time before the advent of guided weaponry, there can be no room for error in determining the speed, time and distance of the ship, the sub, and the torpedo to be fired. A firing solution is reached, the order to fire is given, and the weapon leaves the submarine. Seconds later, it impacts and detonates against the hull of Lusitania, resulting in her sinking and the deaths of 1,198 passengers in just 18 minutes. While Schwoeger had followed his unrestricted submarine warfare orders to the letter, he had no way of knowing that by firing on and subsequently sinking Lusitania he had inadvertently and decisively lost the propaganda war for the German Empire abroad, and more ominously, had caused an irreversible shift in mentality in one nation that at the time had a battle tested military force but neutral mindset: the United States of America.

President Theodore Roosevelt addresses crewmen aboard the battleship Connecticut upon their return to the United States. Connecticut, flagship of the Great White Fleet, led 15 other U.S. Battleships in a circumnavigation of the globe from 1907 to 1909, a tour de force for a young nation. Unlike the disastrous odyssey of the Imperial Russian Fleet during the Russo-Japanese War, the U.S. Navy had completed its voyage without incident and demonstrated its growing blue-water capability despite the fact that the battleships selected had been rendered obsolete with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.

The early 20th century United States was rather like the People's Republic of China today: a global power, but not a superpower, and the U.S. endeavored to stay out of European affairs as much as possible. This of course was not to say that the U.S. did not agree with certain European ideals, merely that it did not feel a need to interfere in other peoples' business as easily as the U.S. of today does. Despite its declaration of neutrality at the time, the U.S. had a battle-hardened population, with most of the mature-aged men having seen service of some kind during the Civil War. In 1898, after the mysterious loss of the Maine was laid at the feet of Spain, the U.S. had gone to war and wiped out the Spanish fleet sent to fight in Cuba and the Philippines. In the aftermath of the war, and seeking to demonstrate the growing power of the U.S. to the world, President Theodore Roosevelt had sent 16 white hulled pre-dreadnought battleships on a circumnavigation of the globe in 1907. Over the next 14 months, the voyage of this so called "Great White Fleet" had demonstrated the up-and-coming U.S. influence to the world. At the time of the outbreak of World War I and the commencement of unrestricted submarine warfare, the growing importance of the U.S. was not lost on the Allied and Central powers that were at war in Europe. Many in the British Empire believed that if the German Empire issued a declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare the only nation that would be able to keep the home island supplied would be the U.S., while in Germany Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg had long objected to issuing a declaration for unrestricted submarine warfare for fear of drawing the ire of the U.S. or other armed and at the time neutral nations into the war against the German Empire. Overruled in March of 1915 by Admiral Hugo von Pohl, the Chancellor approved the declaration but likely understood that doing so was tantamount to playing Russian Roulette: sooner or later, someone was going to find the real bullet, it was just a matter of which nation and how bad the backlash would be.

As it turned out, the nation most directly impacted by the proverbial real bullet was in fact the United States, the best/worst case depending on which side was looking at the issue. Acutely aware of the inherent danger that a U.S. intervention on the Allied powers side would be, the German Empire tried to justify the sinking by claiming that the ship was armed with guns for self-defense, which under the rules of war in effect at the time made the vessel a legitimate target for a military attack. Additionally, the Germans claimed that Lusitania had been packed with war material, and subsequently tried to unload some of the blame at the feet of British Empire for attempting to use passenger ships to move explosives, artillery shells, and other weapons of war across the ocean in its passenger liners to reduce the impact of losses of such material due to the ongoing submarine warfare campaign. These later statements stemmed from a second, much more powerful explosion that occurred after the torpedo fired from U-20 hit the hull; at the time, it was believed that the second explosion may have been a result of a weapons cache detonating (although more modern investigations have ruled out any heavy ordinance of the type claimed by the German Empire being present on the ship at the time). Regardless of its attempts to justify, explain, or downplay the incident, Germany's use of submarines in this way was condemned internationally. Worse still for the Germans was Schwieger's apparent violation of the so-called "prize rules", which stipulated that passenger ships may not be sunk, crews of merchant ships had to be placed in safety before their ships were sunk (life boats were at the time not considered a place of safety unless close to land), and only warships and merchant ships that were a threat to the attacker could be sunk without warning. Collectively, these factors combined to create enough international backlash that the Imperial German government would be forced to suspend its unrestricted submarine warfare program not long after sinking Lusitania.

Take Up the Sword of Justice, a UK propaganda poster with Lusitania in the background. Many British citizens were of the mind that the United States should take up the Sword of Justice to avenge the lives lost when Lusitania sank, and the apparent unwillingness of the U.S. to do so initially let down many in the British Empire.

In the British Empire, the general mood of the populace was that of tragedy with a silver lining: while they had suffered the loss of one passenger ship with great loss of civilian life, the death of the U.S. passengers and the corresponding outrage against the German Empire among the U.S. citizens led to a belief that the U.S. would soon enter the war as an Allied Power with a declaration of war against the German Empire (and by extension, perhaps other nations in the Central Powers alliance). It therefore must have come as a stunning development when the U.S. defied all British expectations by electing to remain neutral even in the face of such loss. The enormity of this declaration must have been akin to the so-called stab-in-the-back myth in post-World War I Germany: that the British Empire had been sorely let down by their comrades from across the Atlantic Ocean. The backlash against the U.S. in the British Empire was such that the U.S. was accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy, while artillery shells that did not explode on the front lines were thereafter derogatorily referred to as "Wilsons". While such a response from the British was to have been expected to some extent, what the British had not fully understood that the measures taken by the U.S. in the aftermath of the loss of Lusitania reflected the prevailing mood among the citizens of the U.S. at the time. Regardless of the response (or lack of) from the U.S., the Germans had succeeded in sticking the key of intervention into the U.S. engine of war and turning that key forward by one notch. While such an action does not start a car, it does turn on certain battery-dependent systems, and in this case while the engine of war in the U.S. remained off ranking government and military officials no doubt began to draft preliminary plans for intervention in Europe and likely increased intelligence and training operations stateside in the event that the Wilson Administration and U.S. Congress wished to entertain any ideas concerning intervention.

Cartoon depicting Uncle Sam delivering of a note from U.S. President Wilson to Germany protesting at the sinking by U-Boat of ships carrying American passengers. The decision to protest through diplomatic channels rather than declare war upset many in the British Empire, but reflected the prevail mood in the U.S. that a European war was for the Europeans to fight, and therefore not something that the U.S. should get involved with if possible.

In the German Empire, the fallout from this international incident resulted in a re-examination of the U-Boat campaign, which would eventually lead to a decision to scale it back in September of 1915 in an effort to avoid upsetting any other armed and at-the-time neutral nations. However, the shift in perception within the U.S. had already occurred, and no words or actions made by the Imperial German Government could salvage the situation. This was made abundantly clear with a series of notes issued to the Imperial German government by the Wilson administration. The first note affirmed the right of Americans to travel as passengers on merchant ships, and called for the German Empire to abandon submarine warfare against commercial vessels, whatever flag they sailed under. In the second note, Wilson rejected Imperial Germany's arguments that the British Empire's blockade was illegal and a cruel and deadly attack on innocent civilians. Furthermore, the U.S. rejected Imperial Germany's charge that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions. The third note, of 21 July, issued an ultimatum, to the effect that the U.S. would regard any subsequent sinkings as "deliberately unfriendly".

Militarily, the loss of Lusitania underscored the urgency of naval powers to develop and implement anti-submarine warfare tactics. The enormity of submarine warfare had not been lost on the British, but in the aftermath of the sinking of Lusitania the recommendations made in a 1914 report originating from the Royal Navy became even more vital to British. The Royal Navy had long been the standard by which the rest of the world's navies were judged, and as such the so-called "Senior Service" had devoted considerable attention to the submarine menace before the war in the form of a high-level Submarine Committee which sat continually from 1910 until 1914. In its penultimate report, while it admitted that "no system capable of general application has so far been evolved", it recommended patrol by aircraft in order to direct friendly submarines to attack enemy submarines; patrols by fast vessels by night and day to force submarines to submerge; fitting ships with the much-tested Modified Sweep, an explosive towed charge; organizing fleets at sea so that as many guns could be brought to bear on sighted enemy periscopes; offensive and defensive mining; and eventually using aircraft accompanying the fleet to patrol ahead "so to harry Submarines that the latter will never attack, but this is a degree of perfection still very far from attainment". This report was dated 5 May 1914, but grew more important in the aftermath of the loss of Lusitania and the apparent reluctance of the U.S. to join to the war.

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