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Blockades, u-boats and sinking of the Lusitania

KC‑7.3.II.A (KC)
Unit 7: Learning Objective F
WOR (Theme)

Video transcript

Entering into World War I, the British had the world's dominant navy. And they use it immediately to their advantage. You might remember from previous videos, Britain declared war on Germany because of their invasion into Belgium in early August of 1914. And it was in November of 1914 that the British declared the entire North Sea area a war zone. Which essentially is telling any ship, come here at your own risk. You might be destroyed, and especially you're not allowed to carry any contraband. But they included food as a contraband. So this essentially began the blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary. So this is the blockade of the Central Powers. And this had major implications for the war. It continued throughout the entire war. It essentially caused the Germans, or the Central Powers, especially the Germans and the Austrians to have to ration food. We're talking about 1,000 calories a day. You could look at the number of calories in your average Big Mac and think about how little food that was. And there's many estimates of what that caused. That obviously made it hard for the Central Powers to get war munitions and things like that. But it also made it very difficult for them to get food. And there are estimates that this rationing, this inability to get food, lead to malnutrition, even led to starvation. And there's estimates that this might have led to in excess of 400,000 civilian deaths either directly or indirectly due to malnutrition or starvation amongst the Central Powers. So this was a pretty serious tactic that was undertaken. Now, the Germans did not have as dominant of a Navy. Most of their Navy was actually focused right off of the coast of Germany, right around there, in the North Sea. But they also wanted to disrupt trade with the British. They recognized the British Isles, they're islands. They're dependent on trade for food and for supplies. So in 1915 in February, the Germans declared the seas around the British Isles, they declared this whole area, a war zone. Similarly, they declared that a war zone as well. And because their surface fleet was concentrated right over here, the way that they would enforce that, they would essentially try to keep people from trading with the British Isles is through submarine warfare. And World War I is the first time that submarine warfare becomes a significant factor. We're talking about very primitive submarines. But we are talking about these vessels that could go underwater and essentially send torpedoes into boats. Now, thinking about that as a backdrop, we now forward to May of 1915. So let's go to May of 1915. You have the passenger liner, the RMS Lusitania. And RMS literally stands for Royal Mail Ship because it carried some mail. It's a big ship. If you've ever seen the movie Titanic, think of a ship like that. And it was setting sail from New York to Liverpool, England. And it was apparently a passenger ship, but it was also carrying cargo. But the Germans, they said, look, this could be fair game for us, especially if it's carrying munitions, especially if it's a British ship. And in the advertisement that was in New York for the Lusitania that was going to leave on May 1, 1915, the German embassy actually placed an advertisement. And this is worth reading. They wrote, "Notice, travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies. That the zone of war includes the water adjacent to the British Isles. That in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters. And that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. From the Imperial German embassy." And this is dated April 1915. So that's the backdrop. The Lusitania sets sail May 1, 1915. On May 7, 1915-- the number 15 keeps jumping into my brain-- on May 7, 1915, it's almost reached its destination of Liverpool. That's Liverpool right over here. It's around 10 or 15 miles off the coast of Ireland. And right there it encounters a German U boat. So this right over here is a German U boat. And that German U boat sends a torpedo into the Lusitania. Now the torpedo, as you could imagine, rams into the ship. And then shortly after the torpedo hits, you have this huge explosion. And the huge explosion is actually one of those question marks of history. Now, the ship goes down, taking down with it most of its passengers. So there were 1,959 total passengers and crew. And 1,195 of them actually died. Now there were other ships that went down due to German U boats, but what was famous about this one, at least from an American history point of view, is that there were 128 Americans who also died on board. And so you could imagine, this led to a lot of people were concerned on the American side. Why did this happen? These were American civilians. And it essentially led to a harsh reprimand from Woodrow Wilson. And just as a little bit of context, once war broke out-- and war had broken not even a year before the sinking of the Lusitania-- the Americans' position was to be neutral. It did not want to enter into this European conflict. With that said, the Americans were disproportionately trading with the Allies not the Central Power. They were providing supplies, at a minimum, at a trading level. And they were providing monetary support. They were providing loans to the Allies disproportional to the Central Powers. So even though there was this formal neutrality, there was more implicit connection to the Allies. So Woodrow Wilson, he still wants to keep America out of the war at this point. So we're talking about May 1915. And so he essentially just sends a stern warning to the German empire. Says, you must apologize. You must take action to prevent this type of thing happening in the future. And the German empire actually complies. On September 9-- let me write this on the timeline. So right over here. So in May, you have the Lusitania sunk. And then in September, the Germans agree to not attack passenger ships. And so even though the sinking of the Lusitania, especially in a lot of American history classes, is often given as a trigger for America entrance into war, this whole thing happened and America stayed neutral throughout this entire period. And America wouldn't actually enter the war until April 1917. So the Lusitania was just one of many things that happened in the years running up to the war. And if we fast forward a little bit, in 1916 the next presidential election where Wilson won re-election, he ran on a platform of, he kept us out of war. So the sinking of the Lusitania was a significant event. One could argue because the Germans did not want the US to enter on the side of the Allies, it was why the Germans agreed to loosen up, at least for a couple of years, on their U boat campaigns. As we'll see, once we get into 1917, the Germans, out of desperation, start to become more aggressive on their U boat attacks again, which is one of the catalysts that the US claims drove them into World War I. But with that said, just as a little bit of context-- and oftentimes when we look back at history, it seems very cut and dry. It seems obvious. Oh yes, we had to go to war, et cetera, et cetera. I have a few quotes here from William Jennings Bryan, who was Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. And a few of these are pretty telling. So this first one is September 1914. This was before any of the stuff happened with Lusitania, but war had broken out in Europe. And he had this message that he wrote to Woodrow Wilson to essentially advocate why we should stay out of the war and why there should be some type of mediation to try to get the war to end as opposed to just letting it run its course. And he wrote to Wilson, "it is not likely that either side will win so complete a victory as to be able to dictate terms. And if either"-- and this is interesting and strangely foreshadowing-- "and if either side does win such a victory, it'll probably mean preparation for another war. It would seem better to look for a more rational basis for peace." Now, the other quotes here-- and this is the question mark around that second explosion-- William Jennings Bryan wrote, "ships carrying contraband should be prohibited from carrying passengers. It would be like putting women and children in front of an army." And so this is one of those big questions of history. It was known that the Lusitania was carrying light ammunition. So it was carrying a light munitions. Now, the Germans claimed that it was actually carrying heavy munitions. And to some degree, that second explosion tends to back that up. And there was all sorts of shady things about a lot of the cargo that the Lusitania was carrying, even though they claimed that it was these perishable goods. It wasn't being stored in a refrigerated part of the ship. And so there was reason to believe that it was carrying actually heavy munitions. And that second explosion seems to point in that direction as well. And then even after World War I, the British Navy actually spent multiple times trying to destroy the wreck of the Lusitania. And some people say in order to maybe get rid of some evidence that it was actually carrying far more munitions and maybe was, from the Germans' point of view, a fairer target than was actually made out. So regardless, it's a very interesting incident, not necessarily directly tied to America's entrance into World War I. But it is one of many events. And this whole idea of blockades and German U boats against civilians, this was something that was a cause of repeated concern for the Americans.