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The Kaiser's U-Boat Assault on America (Hardback)

Germany's Great War Gamble in the First World War

WWI Submarines American History Colour Books Military

By Hans Joachim Koerver
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 360
Illustrations: 80 colour & black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526773869
Published: 15th September 2020

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Why did a long time reluctant US President Wilson finally enter World War I on the side of the Allies in April 1917?

In retaliation of the British naval blockade of Germany since August 1914, the German Admirals determined at the beginning of 1915 to create a counter-blockade of the British Isles with their submarines. The U-boat commanders got – without knowledge of the government - a secret order to sink Allied passenger liners. The British Admiralty discovered the hunt for passenger liners by deciphering W/T messages to the U-boats. The sinking of the Lusitania on May, 6th, 1915, was no coincidence – the Royal Navy knew about the intentions of the U-boats and, after doing everything to protect the passenger liners in the beginning, they simply left the Lusitania alone in in the first week of May, to create frictions between America and the German Empire. A diplomatic quarrel between US President Wilson and Germany about U-boat warfare commenced.

In spring of 1916 the German Navy acted again against the instructions of the Kaiser and ordered secretly the sinking of allied and neutral vessels in the British Channel, thereby opening an unrestricted U-boat war. When the channel ferry Sussex was attacked, Wilson threatened to break off of diplomatic relations with Germany. Under massive diplomatic pressure the German government had to give in. Further on, their U-boats only conducted a “soft”, restricted warfare, following the internationally agreed maritime rules and tolerated by Wilson.

In Germany a heated debate set in after the Sussex case. The Navy promised the quick defeat of England by unrestricted U-boat war, and the Army joined this campaign end of 1916. The intention of the “war party” was to rule out any possibility of a negotiated peace and to set the German Empire on a – risky - course for definitive victory. But the government doubted the Navy’s capability for all-out U-boat warfare and argued that the only definitive result would be an America siding the Allies, leading to ultimate defeat. In the last months of 1916 it sent out peace feelers to Wilson, warning him, that in the case of a failure of his peace mediation they would get under unbearable pressure of the “military opposition” to begin unrestricted U-boat war again.

At this time Britain was – like Germany – economically with its back against the wall: it suffered terribly by the sinking of its merchant ships, the moral of its Admiralty in Anti-Submarine-Warfare had completely broken down. Collapse was threatening.

But the British government got wind of the conflicts inside Germany by the deciphering of the diplomatic cables between Wilson and the Germans. The new Prime Minster, David Lloyd George, chose a risky strategy – by rebuffing all American peace efforts he wanted to encourage the radical party in Germany to enforce total U-boat war.

Finally this British strategy payed out: German Navy and Army pressed the Kaiser to declare unrestricted U-boat war from 1st of February 1917 on, and Wilson broke off diplomatic relations. But he still bristled to enter the war on Allied side – as long as American ships would be treated correctly by the Germans, he wouldn’t come in, not even after the publication of the Zimmermann-telegram.

The tipping point came in the middle of March, when U-boats torpedoed American vessels without warning. This forced the American Declaration of War against the German Empire on April 6, 1917.

This is a well-written, fully researched and accessible account of the German gamble that brought the USA into the First World War and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all interested in naval history.

World Ship Society - Marine News, February 2021

This book is recommended to members with an interest in World War One without qualification. It is in fact, essential reading.

Mariners Mirror

… must be read by anyone interested in understanding the First World War at sea. It is a truly great book worth every penny of its price.

Navy News

Review by Keith Taylor

Highly recommended as a refreshing slant on naval warfare in WWI. Thanks to Pen and Sword for this review sample.

Cher Ami from the International Plastic Modellers Society

This is a fascinating, well researched and well documented look at the First Battle of the Atlantic, painting a very different picture to the view from Britain.

Read the full review here

History of War

'The Kaisers U-boat assault on America', describes the US president Woodrow Wilsons dilemma in 1916. Despite his protests to the German Ambassador in Washington, German strategy to allow its U-boats to sink all ships' included passenger liners trading with Britain was unchanged. American lives were lost when the SS Lusitania,]was torpedoed of Cork with loss of more than 130 lives, men, women, and children included American passengers. This was followed but other 'big fat ships., Liners SS Laconia, and Sussex noted in the U-boats log as armed cruisers. Although more American lives were lost Woodrow Wilson policy was only to act against Germany if it carried out overt action against the USA.

Another point which didn't escape him was he war in Europe generated an economic boom with full employment and a positive US trade balance while Britian's gold reserves and foreign was falling away and there was a growing possibility that Britain's inability to pay its debts was a growing possibility. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer tone was more positive. By June 1917 Britain would be bankrupt! If that happened world trade would collapse followed by the whole of European finance.

In those critical early months of 1917 three American ships in ballast, fell victim to U-boat attacks. On March 16 SS Illinois was stopped, shelled, and sunk. On the same day, the American City of Memphis was stopped of the Irish coast and sunk by gunfire. The American SS Vigilancia, flying the American flag was torpedoed off the Irish coast on March 17 and sank in ten minutes. With headlines in all American newspapers, the German overt act forced Woodrow Wilson to declare a state of war with Germany.

Hans Joachim Koerver's 'The U-boat Assault on America' is a deeply researched and absorbing account of the use of U-boats during World War l and explains the diplomatic quandary, strategy and economic aspects which eventually forced President Wilson to join Britain's side in the awesome European war.

Richard Gough, Military author and historian

If Germany's Great War gamble... is the subtitle of this fascinating piece of military history - only it backfired, and caused President Wilson to declare war on the Germans and turned the tide in favour of the allied forces. Terrific.

Books Monthly

This book is a fine assessment of German actions in progressively increasing the role of submarines. One is taken by the difficulty of the situation pressing the Germans. The USA was acting as lender in chief (and arguably asset stripper in chief) to Great Britain and wore the badge of neutrality with some discomfort. Germany had sustained significant losses on the Somme that predicated the retreat to the Hindenburg Line and prepared an understanding that the German Imperial Armies could not sustain another Somme.

So, what was Germany to do? The allied disinterest in a half-hearted peace initiative by Germany reduced further the German options so that the decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare became a necessity. In short it was a gamble that the British could be either bankrupted or starved of resources before the Americans could become effective combatants in the land war. Such are the gambles of total war. This book is a full assessment of the naval context although it could have given more weight to the problems on land that made the decision inevitable. That said it is otherwise a comprehensive and very worthy addition

Michael McCarthy. Battlefield Guide

Michael McCarthy

About Hans Joachim Koerver

Hans Joachim Koerver is an accomplished historian in the field of naval history and has researched exhaustively at the British National Archives. He’s written several books on naval warfare.

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