July 21, 1915: U.S. Rejects German Stance on U-boat Warfare
The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, triggered a diplomatic crisis that brought the U.S. to the edge of war, as President Woodrow Wilson demanded the end of Germany’s submarine campaign against neutral shipping while the Germans refused. Tensions mounted with the exchange of a series of “notes” throughout the summer of 1915 – always delivered in unfailingly polite Victorian language, even when the threat of war loomed in the background.
After Britain declared the North Sea a war zone and implemented a blockade of Germany in November 1914, the Germans responded by proclaiming a counter-blockade of the British Isles by U-boats, a novel weapon never used on a large scale in war before. Because the British Admiralty had authorized British merchant vessels to fly neutral flags – a traditional ruse on the high seas in wartime – the Germans warned that neutral vessels would also be subject to sinking. The Germans also published warnings in U.S. newspapers warning Americans not to travel aboard British ships, including the Lusitania.
None of this served to mollify American public opinion following the loss of the Lusitania, which resulted in the deaths of 118 U.S. citizens, including a number of children. But in the note delivered by the German ambassador, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff of July 8, 1915, German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow refused to apologize, pay reparations, or halt U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, arguing that “Germany merely followed England’s example when she declared part of the high seas an area of war.” Furthermore “Germany’s adversaries, by completely paralyzing peaceable traffic between Germany and neutral countries, have aimed from the very beginning… at the destruction not so much of the armed forces as the life of the German nation” – justifying an equally brutal response.
Jagow offered limited concessions, including a proposal for a handful of designated safe ships identified by special markings to carry U.S. citizens across the Atlantic (in fact in early June Berlin had secretly ordered U-boat commanders to no longer sink passenger without notice) but added that anyone traveling aboard other merchant ships would remain in peril, as “the Imperial Government is unable to admit that American citizens can protect an enemy ship through the mere fact of their presence on board.” This impractical suggestion indicated, as the U.S. ambassador to Berlin James Gerard put it, that the Germans were just playing for time, hoping to “to keep the matter ‘jollied along’ until the American people get excited about baseball or a new scandal and forget.”
However Wilson rejected Jagow’s attempt to equate the British blockade with German submarine warfare, distinguishing between harm to American business caused by the blockade and the loss of American lives due to deliberate attacks. In fact his focus on German wrongdoings, coupled with his apparent reluctance to confront Britain for interfering with American commerce, had prompted the pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to resign on June 9, 1915, protesting that the U.S. was not pursuing a truly neutral policy. Wilson’s new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, was much more closely aligned with the president’s views, as reflected in the response to the German note of July 8, dispatched on July 21, 1915.
Washington Times via Chronicling America
In the July 21 note Lansing came right to the point with the strongest statement yet: “The note of the Imperial German Government, dated July 8, 1915, has received the careful consideration of the Government of the United States, and it regrets to be obliged to say that it has found it very unsatisfactory, because it fails to meet the real differences between the two Governments…” He added that the United States was “keenly disappointed” at Germany’s determination to continue violating universal principles by threatening the lives of civilians on neutral vessels.
Turning to Jagow’s argument that Germany’s U-boat campaign was justified by the British blockade, Lansing countered that Britain’s actions were irrelevant, as one crime couldn’t justify another: “Illegal and inhuman acts, however justifiable they may be thought to be against an enemy who is believed to have acted in contravention of law and humanity, are manifestly indefensible when they deprive neutrals of their acknowledged rights, particularly when they violate the right to life itself.” On that note Lansing also rejected the proposal for designated safe ships, because agreeing would mean accepting that other neutral vessels were legitimate targets.
Lansing then repeated the previous demands that Germany disavow the sinking of the Lusitania, apologize, pay reparations to the families of American victims, and above all desist from unrestricted U-boat warfare against neutral vessels. These demands were accompanied with a series of dire warnings: “If persisted in, it would in such circumstances constitute an unpardonable offense against the sovereignty of the neutral nation affected.” Therefore Germany should understand that, “The Government of the United States will continue to contend for that freedom, from whatever quarter violated, without compromise and at any cost.” Lansing concluded with the clearest allusion to war so far, writing that further sinkings of neutral ships that resulted in the deaths of U.S. citizens would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly.”
The sudden sharpening of the U.S. attitude caused consternation in Berlin, but German officials were also under domestic political pressure to keep up the U-boat campaign as retaliation for the British “hunger blockade” (which the British defended again in a note to Washington, D.C. delivered on July 24). It would take one more incident – the sinking of the British liner Arabic on August 19, 1915, resulting in the deaths of three Americans – to bring matters to a head.
Russians Decide to Evacuate Poland
By mid-July 1915 the continuing success of the Austro-German offensive on the Eastern Front left the Russian high command, Stavka, with a difficult choice: make a last-ditch attempt to hold on to Poland, at the risk of the total envelopment of four Russian armies, or abandon the Polish salient (and huge amounts of weapons and supplies stockpiled in fortresses there) and withdraw to a new defensive line hundreds of miles to the rear. On July 22 General Mikhail Alekseyev, commander of the Russian Northwestern Front, decided to cut his losses and ordered the evacuation of the western portion of the Polish front – a preamble to the total evacuation of the salient, initiating the next phase of the Great Retreat.
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As fighting continued all along the front, Russian troops withdrew from Lublin on July 30, followed by Warsaw on August 4 and the fortress town of Ivangorod on August 5; further north the German Niemen Army was advancing along the Baltic coast, capturing the town of Mitau on August 1, while the German Tenth Army prepared to advance east towards Vilna, now the capital of Lithuania.
Considering that millions of Russian troops were mixed up with huge columns of Polish peasants fleeing the enemy, the Great Retreat had for the most part been remarkably orderly, but inevitably there were mistakes – some of them quite damaging. The decision of Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian commander-in-chief, to hold the obsolete fortress of Novogeorgievsk led to the loss of 92,000 Russian troops, taken prisoner when the fortress fell to the Germans on August 20, 1915, along with thousands of artillery pieces and guns. The Germans also picked up hundreds of thousands of tons of oil stockpiled in Galicia (home to several oil fields) – a huge win for the oil-strapped Central Powers.
These big errors were accompanied by countless smaller oversights and plain negligence. A British military observer, Alfred Knox, recalled one officer’s outrage at receiving belated orders to retreat in the middle of the night: “He was in a towering rage, and cursed the Chief of Staff freely, saying that things were going on in the Guard Corps that were a disgrace to the Russian army.” Not long afterwards Knox observed the haphazard implementation of the scorched earth policy:
As usual, there was everywhere evidence of misdirected or undirected effort. The gendarmes, without an officer to direct them, ran about setting fire to piles of dry straw, but leaving the crops untouched. Eight large barrels of copper parts from the machinery of a local factory had been collected with infinite trouble, but they were characteristically left behind owing to a doubt as to whose duty it was to remove them.