Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 230th installment in the series.
March 24-25, 1916: Sussex Torpedoed, Rasputin’s Influence Grows
After Germany resumed its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare against Allied and neutral shipping in a war zone around the British Isles at the beginning of March, it was only a matter of time before the simmering diplomatic conflict between Germany and America threatened to boil over again too. In fact the flashpoint came even sooner than most people expected.
At 2:50 p.m. on March 24, 1916 the French steamer Sussex, an unarmed ferry carrying civilian passengers and mail across the English Channel, was torpedoed without warning by the German U-boat U-29, fresh from sinking four British, French, and neutral merchant ships over the previous five days. Although the explosion split the ship in half and the bow sank, the rest of the Sussex didn’t sink, and was later towed to safety and repaired.
A number of passengers provided eyewitness testimony about the torpedo attack. Two passengers, Edward Huxley and Francis Drake, stated in their affidavit:
Without the slightest warning there occurred a loud, roaring explosion. Wreckage and tons of water were thrown into the air higher than the masts, and the water came down on the boat as far back as the stern. We went forward and saw the entire forward part of the ship, including part of the bridge and the forward mast, gone. Some men and women jumped overboard at once, and we threw over rafts and seats to them… After 10 minutes of watching we decided that as the ship was apparently not sinking, we would stay with her.
Of her roughly 380 passengers and crew, around 50 died in the attack or drowned afterwards, partly due to mishaps when deploying the lifeboats; the rest were rescued after drifting in one of the watertight hulks for nine hours (above, a photo taken on board the Sussex after it was torpedoed). Another passenger, Edward Marshall, recalled the hours of waiting for rescue before a French fishing trawler, British torpedo boat, and British destroyer finally arrived to rescue them:
I went among the wounded. Their injuries were freakish. Both of one man’s legs were twisted till his feet pointed backward. Another’s face had been blown in by the explosion and presented an extraordinary spectacle. He was unconscious… I went below, having done all that I could, and having fallen once or twice on the slippery decks. There, in which I think must be the steerage of the ship, we huddled, shivering, some women sobbing, one or two, definitely crazed, shrieking constantly, a few children crying, by now weakly, and moans coming from the lightly injured.
At first glance there was no cause for a diplomatic falling out between Washington and Berlin, as no U.S. citizens had been killed – but several Americans were injured, and U.S. public opinion, guided as always by outraged newspaper reports, focused on the fact that the attack could easily have resulted in American fatalities. Following Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s strong protest against the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare when it was first announced in February, President Woodrow Wilson had no choice but to launch a new round of diplomatic brinksmanship with Germany.
As in previous conflicts over the sinking of the Gulflight, Lusitania, Falaba, and Arabic, the situation was complicated by the fact that the German U-boat in question was still at sea and incommunicado, and the Germans contended the Sussex may have hit a British mine in the channel. Nonetheless, scores of witnesses reported seeing the torpedo trail, and after several weeks spent trying to deny involvement the German foreign office finally admitted responsibility in early April.
In a letter delivered to German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow on April 18, 1916, Secretary of State Lansing warned his counterpart that Berlin was once again playing with fire, noting that the sinking violated Germany’s own pledges not to sink passenger ships. Lansing advised that,
… the Imperial Government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation which has resulted, not alone from the attack on the Sussex, but from the whole method and character of submarine warfare… Again and again the Imperial Government has given its solemn assurances to the Government of the United States that at least passenger ships would not be thus dealt with, and yet it has repeatedly permitted its undersea commanders to disregard those assurances with entire impunity.
The letter went on to issue an ominous threat, after condemning these methods as
… utterly incompatible with the principles of humanity, the long-established and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the sacred immunities of non-combatants… Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.
As before, the threat to break off diplomatic relations was understood as an immediate preamble to the opening of hostilities. Less than two months into the new unrestricted U-boat campaign, by mid-April Berlin would once again find itself facing war with the world’s most powerful neutral nation.
Rasputin’s Influence Grows
One sign of Russia’s growing instability was the constant changing of the Tsar’s cabinet, with four different prime ministers serving from 1915-1916 alone, and dozens of other ministers coming and going in a revolving door government. Following the failed attack at Lake Naroch in mid-March, Tsar Nicholas II shuffled his cabinet yet again, dismissing Minister of War Alexei Polivanov, a respected administrator, and replacing him with Dmitry Shuvaev, previously the quartermaster general, on March 25, 1916.
Although Polivanov was supposedly relieved because of the repeated defeats suffered by the Russian Army on the Eastern Front, his real offense was crossing the Tsarina Alexandra and her court favorite, the malign holy man Rasputin, who objected to Polivanov’s liberal views and personal dislike of Rasputin. His replacement was a sign of Rasputin’s growing power, as he waged proxy wars against his opponents in the cabinet and the Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Shuvaev was by all accounts a “non-entity,” as even the Tsar himself seems to have admitted. Sir John Hanbury Williams, the chief of the British military mission to Russia, recorded Nicholas’ remark about the new Minister of War in his diary on March 25, 1916: “In conversation with him on appointments, he said he would much prefer a level-headed man who was a good judge of men and knew how to work a good staff to a very brilliant man who centred too much in himself.”
The French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, was much more blunt, writing in his diary on April 2, 1916:
General Polivanov, the War Minister, has been relieved of his functions and replaced by General Shuvaïev, a man of mean intelligence. General Polivanov’s dismissal is a serious loss to the Alliance… He was not only an excellent administrator, as methodical and ingenious as upright and vigilant, but possessed the strategic sense in a very high degree… He seemed to be a last line of defence of the existing regime, capable of protecting it both against the extravagances of absolutism and the excesses of revolution.
Rasputin’s influence on the court was common knowledge at all levels of Russian society. On March 23, 1916, Paleologue recorded a conversation with an unnamed aristocratic woman about the precarious situation of Foreign Minister Sazonov, in which she stated her own disgust at the growing power of the Siberian peasant:
“Yes, but how much longer will he be in power? What's going on behind his back? Is there anything brewing that he knows nothing of? No doubt you know that the Empress hates him, because he has always refused to bow the knee to the abject scoundrel who is bringing Russia to shame. I won't tell you who the ruffian is; I couldn't pronounce his name without being sick.”
On March 29, 1916 he recorded another alarming conversation with Vladimir Kokovtsov, the former prime minister, who warned that Rasputin – notorious for his late-night partying and frequent visits to prostitutes – was bringing the church into fatal disrepute:
“The religious forces of this country will not be able to withstand the abominable strain upon them much longer. The Episcopate and high ecclesiastical offices are now completely under the heel of the Rasputin clique. It’s like an unclean disease, a gangrene which will soon have devoured all the higher ranks of the Church. I could shed tears of shame when I think of the ignoble traffic that goes on in the offices of the Holy Synod on certain days.”
While most of Rasputin’s opponents were whispering these sentiments behind closed doors, some were willing to risk the Tsarina’s wrath with open denunciations. The liberal Russian newspaper New Times stated the case against Rasputin in dramatic terms, and hinted at the extreme measures already under contemplation in some quarters:
How has an abject adventurer like this been able to mock Russia for so long? Is it not astounding that the Church, the Holy Synod, the aristocracy, ministers, the Senate, and many members of the State Council and Duma have degraded themselves before this low hound? The Rasputin scandals seemed perfectly natural [before but] today Russia means to put an end to all this.