The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 166th installment in the series.
February 4, 1915: Germans Declare Unrestricted U-boat Warfare
After implementing a naval blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1914, as the war dragged on the British Admiralty added more and more products to the list of items considered “war contraband,” and hugely expanded the scope of the blockade by introducing the controversial doctrine of “continuous voyage,” allowing the Royal Navy to interdict neutral shipping headed for neutral countries (for example Holland or Denmark) if the cargo was eventually destined for the Central Powers. Meanwhile the British and French seized thousands of tons of German and Austro-Hungarian shipping, and many German ships were interned in neutral ports for the duration of the war.
In November 1914 the Admiralty declared the North Sea a war zone, and by February 1915 German civilians were starting to feel the effects of blockade, although some trade continued and the blockade still wasn’t seriously impeding Germany’s war effort. Nonetheless the tightening British blockade prompted calls in Germany for retaliation against the enemy’s home front. U-boat warfare against British merchant shipping was a logical response, but on January 31, 1915 the Admiralty responded by instructing British ships to fly neutral flags in the war zone.
In addition to angering neutral countries like the U.S., who objected to the British using their flags as a war gambit, this move obviously presented the German high command with a dilemma: they could either call off the U-boat attacks, allowing British trade to proceed as before, or escalate the attacks to include all vessels flying neutral flags—inevitably sending a good number of neutral ships to the bottom and risking a major rupture with the U.S. and others.
Despite warnings from the foreign ministry the German high command made the momentous decision to escalate, publishing the following decree on February 4, 1915:
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.
Mindful of the need to keep Dutch trade routes open for its own supplies, the German admiralty created a safe zone for shipping to Holland: “Navigation to the north of the Shetlands, in the eastern parts of the North Sea and through a zone at least thirty nautical miles wide along the Dutch coast is not exposed to danger.”
For their part the British responded by immediately declaring all grain and flour war contraband, meaning basic food supplies were now subject to interdiction as well—another step towards what became known as the “starvation blockade,” which ended up killing somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 German civilians by the end of the war.
However the most intense period of the British blockade and retaliatory German U-boat warfare lay in the future. In 1915 the British blockade remained fairly inefficient, enforced by a handful of outdated cruisers patrolling between Scotland and Norway, and the British were still leery of offending neutral opinion, especially in the U.S., by seizing large numbers of their merchant ships. For their part the Germans’ first experiment with unrestricted U-boat warfare came to an end following diplomatic protests by the U.S. after the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. It wouldn’t resume again until 1917, when the German U-boat fleet had tripled in size.
Turks Defeated at Suez Canal
Following the debacle at Sarikamish in January 1915, on February 3-4 the Ottoman Empire’s second major offensive also ended in defeat with the failure of the Fourth Army’s assault on the Suez Canal.
To be fair it is pretty remarkable this ambitious plan got as far as it did. Under pressure from their German allies, who hoped to cut Britain’s lifeline to India through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal (or at least distract the British with this threat), from November 1914 to January 1915 the Turks assembled the new army in Syria and then marched south to Palestine, with propaganda proclaiming the imminent liberation of Egypt (Egypt had technically been an Ottoman province under British protection until December 1914, when the British finally annexed it).
Considering the logistical difficulties presented by Palestine, at that time a backwards backwater of the Ottoman Empire with bad roads and almost no rail links, Fourth Army commander Djemal Pasha and his German “colleague” Kress von Kressenstein (“boss” might have been more accurate) were quite successful in marshaling their forces (above, Turkish troops marshaling for the advance). A fair amount of chaos still prevailed, according to Alexander Aaronsohn, a Jewish Zionist settler who witnessed the Turkish preparations in southern Palestine:
Beersheba was swarming with troops. They filled the town and overflowed on to the sands outside, where a great tent-city grew up… From all over the country the finest camels had been “requisitioned” and sent down to Beersheba until, at the time I was there, thousands and thousands of them were collected in the neighborhood… no adequate provision was made for feeding them, and incredible numbers succumbed to starvation and neglect. Their great carcasses dotted the sand in all directions… The soldiers themselves suffered much hardship. The crowding in the tents was unspeakable… All things considered, it is wonderful that the Turkish demonstration against the canal came as near to fulfillment as it did.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement was the crossing of the Sinai Peninsula, with 20,000 Turkish troops advancing west across the desert in two main columns in just six days—a feat comparable with Alexander the Great’s crossing from Gaza to Pelusium in seven days, but with more heavy equipment, including artillery and pontoons to cross the canal. Unfortunately this rapid crossing failed to preserve the element of surprise, as the British were aware of Turkish preparations thanks to spies, and moonlight betrayed the final approach of the advance guard Turkish troops carrying pontoons on the night of February 3, 1915.
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Meanwhile the British had reinforced their army in Egypt to a strength of 70,000 with troops from India, Australia, and New Zealand, including 30,000 guarding the 100-mile canal; even worse for the Turks, they had quietly moved a number of battleships into the canal to serve as ersatz artillery. In the early morning hours the British troops opened fire, repelling most of the attacking Turkish units. One squadron managed to deploy its pontoons and succeeded in crossing the canal, but the infantry were simply mowed down by machine guns and rifle fire on the far bank. An Armenian soldier who was present later confided in a Spanish diplomat in Jerusalem, Conde de Ballobar, that “he didn’t even shoot his rifle, since he did not know where he should shoot since he did not see a single Englishman. There were only warships, airplanes, and heavy caliber batteries, and at a range much greater than their cannons.”
By February 4, 1915 the main Turkish force was in retreat, having suffered relatively modest casualties of around 1,500 killed and taken prisoner out of the total force of 20,000. More important than the casualty count, however, was the total failure of the Egyptian Muslim population to rise up in rebellion against the British occupation forces, as the Ottomans had confidently predicted. The “jihad” declared by the Ottoman Sultan in November 1914 had failed to materialize.