Unrestricted submarine warfare is a type of naval warfare in which submarines sink vessels such as freighters and tankers without warning, as opposed to attacks per prize rules (also known as “cruiser rules”).

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare: The Germans strike back

On February 4, 1915, the German government announced that it would retaliate against the illegal British blockade:


All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without it always being possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers. Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone, as, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered on January 31 by the British Government, and owing to unforeseen incidents to which naval warfare is liable, it is impossible to avoid attacks being made on neutral ships in mistake for those of the enemy.

The reference to “the misuse of neutral flags” recalled the occasional British practice of decorating their ships with the flags of neutral countries to shield them from attack. By early 1915 Churchill was encouraging such a policy, and crews were being urged to don civilian clothing in order to lure German subs to the surface—where they would then be destroyed. For that reason, and because of the general danger that always exists during wartime, even neutral ships could not be assured of their safety when traveling through the war zone. Thus both the British and, in retaliation, the Germans, were guilty of violating the rights of neutral nations.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare: Wilson’s response to German submarine warfare

Woodrow Wilson refused to draw any connection between the German warning of submarine warfare and the British hunger blockade of Germany. His sympathies were always with the British. British violations of international law were met with little more than a slap on the wrist. So pro-British was the American administration that on one occasion, American ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page read an American dispatch to British officials and then sat down to help them devise a reply to his own government! German misdeeds on the high seas, on the other hand, received immediate condemnation from Washington. As soon as the German policy on submarine warfare was announced, Wilson replied that the German government would be held strictly accountable for the loss of American vessels or lives on the high seas.

The realities of submarine warfare became particularly evident on March 29, 1915, when the British steamship Falaba was sunk by the Germans. According to British propaganda, the German U-boat captain had fired without warning, killing some 110 people, including one American. It was later discovered that the German captain had given the Falaba three warnings, and had fired only after a British warship had appeared on the horizon. The Falaba was also carrying some thirteen tons of ammunition, which helped to account for the severity of the disaster. Nevertheless, Wilson sent a note to the German government spelling out his policy that the United States had the duty to protect American citizens sailing on ships flying belligerent flags.

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