Unrestricted submarine warfare in WW1 is the practice of using submarines to attack and sink all forms of enemy shipping, whether they are military or civilian.
Unrestricted Submarine Warfare WW1
The fact that British merchant ships were increasingly armed and prepared to take offensive action against German submarines put America in an awkward position. From early on, British ship captains had been warned by the admiralty that they would be prosecuted if they quietly surrendered their ships to the enemy. Submarines, which were notoriously frail, should be rammed or fired upon when possible. And since Churchill had said that the survivors of British attacks on German submarines would be treated as felons rather than as prisoners of war, U-boat captains understood very well that they could face death even if they managed to survive an attack.
Even Secretary of State Lansing could perceive the absurdity of the situation. The fact that British merchant ships were armed and capable of destroying submarines made it “difficult to demand that a submarine shall give a warning and expose itself to the heavy guns carried by some of the British passenger vessels.” Traditional “cruiser rules,” now being applied to submarines, required them to give fair warning to an unarmed merchant vessel in their sights. The submarine could require that the ship submits to a search; if it turned out to be a belligerent merchant ship, the people on board became hostages and the ship itself, along with its cargo, could be confiscated or sunk.
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