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Monday, January 30, 2006

Germany Resumes Unrestricted Naval Warfare, January 31, 1917

Today in 1917, the German government announced that its U-Boats would once again be allowed to practice unrestricted warfare against all allied shipping and any neutral ships that crossed into the waters around the British Isles. This announcement was the first in a series of events which lead to the entry of the United States into the First World War.

Submarines had been in use for more than a century by the time World War One began in 1914, but the German Navy utilized them in a new way and, in the process, introduced the world to a new concept: unrestricted submarine warfare. This policy stated that any vessel entering a pre-announced area would be subject to attack with no prior warning. Early in the war, Germany sought to quarantine the British Isles in an attempt to force an early end to the war. Their announcement of unrestricted warfare in February, 1915 was part of this plan. Little more than five weeks later, a German surface ship sank a privately-owned American vessel in British waters. President Wilson demanded and received an apology from the German government.

Another incident involving Americans occurred in May, 1915 when the British ocean liner Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a U-boat. 1,200 passengers died; among them were 128 Americans. The United States demanded an end to unrestricted warfare anywhere in the Atlantic, a demand to which the German government agreed in August. Instead of sinking vessels without warning, the U-boats were to stop the ship, see to the safe evacuation of the crew and passengers, and then sink the ship. As one can imagine, this was not a very practical solution. Tensions flared once again in November, 1915 when an Italian liner was sunk without warning, killing 272 people.

Even though unrestricted warfare on the high seas never came to a complete end, Germany at least claimed compliance until January 31, 1917. When the German announcement of a return to the previous rules of engagement was released to the Allies, the United States broke off relations with Germany and began to get ready for war.

War may still have been avoided had it not been for two incidents. The first was the infamous “Zimmermann Note”, which will be covered with its own podcast in February. The second incident was the sinking of four US merchant ships at the end of March, 1917. A few days later, President Woodrow Wilson asked for and was given a declaration of war by Congress. That June, the first American troops landed in France. Over 2 million Americans served in Europe during World War One; 50,000 of them never came home.

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