When Germany Was Winning
The Submarines Nearly Beat Us In 1917
THAT in the early part of 1917, the Allies were actually anticipating defeat as a result of the submarine campaign is stated very emphatically by Rear Admiral W. S. Sims, the commander of the American Navy in European waters, in. the course of a series of articles that he is writing in World’s Work. He tells of the tremendous inroads that the undersea pirates were making on allied shipping and of the inability of the Admiralty to check, owing to the tremendous load that Britain was bearing almost unaided. It was feared at the time, he declares, that the fall of 1917 would see the end. Many of the British leaders feared it— practically all, in fact, with the exception of Lloyd George, who remained optimistic and cheerful.
The story that Admiral Sims tells, bears out the articles that were published at the time in MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE and the Finomcial Post. He writes in part:
Physically Admiral Jellicoe is a small man, but as powerful in frame as he is in mind, and there are few men in the navy who can stand up against him in tennis. His smooth-shaven face, when I met him that morning in April, 1917, was, as usual, calm, smiling, and imperturbable. One could never guess what was going on in his head by any outward display of emotion. At this time it is not too much to say that the responsibility for the safety of the British Empire rested upon Admiral Jellicoe’s shoulders. I find the absurd notion prevalent in this country that his change from Commander of the Grand Fleet to First Sea Lord was something in the nature of a demotion; nothing could be farther from the truth. As First Sea Lord, Jellicoe controlled the operations, not only of the Grand Fleet, but also of the entire British navy; he had no superior officer, for the First Lord of the Admiralty, the position in England that corresponds to our Secretary of the Navy, has no power to give the slightest legal order to the fleet—a power which our Secretary possesses. Thus the defeat of the German submarines was Jellicoe’s direct responsibility. Great as this duty was, and appalling as was the submarine situation at the time of this interview, there was nothing about the Admiral’s bearing which betrayed any depression of spirits. He did manifest great seriousness, possibly apprehension, but British stoicism and the usual British refusal to say die, were keeping him tenaciously at his job. ’
After the usual greetings, Admiral Jellicoe took a paper out of his drawer and handed it to me. It was a record of tonnage losses for the last few months. This showed that the total sinkings, British and neutral, had reached 536,000 tons in February, 603,000 in March, and that sinkings were taking place in April which indicated the destruction of nearly 900,000 tons. These figures showed losses which were three and four times as large as those indicated by the intentionally inconclusive statements which were then being published in the press.
To say that I was surprised by this disclosure is expressing it mildly. I was fairly astounded; I had never imagined anything so terrible and I expressed my consternation to Admiral * Jellicoe.
“Yes,” he said, as quietly as though he were discussing the weather and not the future of the British Empire. “It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.”
“What are you doing about it?” I asked.
“Everything that we can. We are increasing our anti-submarine forces in every possible way. We are using
every possible craft we can find with which to fight submarines. We are building destroyers, trawlers, and other like craft as fast as we can. But the situation is very serious and we shall need all of the assistance we can get.”
“It looks as though the Germans were winning the war,” I remarked.
“They wiil win, unless we can stop these losses—and stop them soon,” the Admiral replied.
“Is there r.o solution for the problem?” I asked.
“Absolutely none that we can see now,” Jellicoe announced. He described the work of destroyers and other antisubmarine craft, but he showed no optimism over their ability to control the depredations of the U-boats. The stories that were being published concerning the numerous sinkings of German submarines I now found to be untrue. Since the beginning of the war, only fifty-four German submarines were positively known to have been sunk, and Admiral Jellicoe now told me that the German shipyards were turning out new submarines at the rate of three a week. Stories had recently found their way into print about the voluntary surrender of German U-boats; no such surrender had taken place; the stories had been circulated merely to depreciate enemy morale. I even found that members of the Government who should have been well informed, and also British naval officers, actually believed that many captured German submarines were carefully stowed away at the Portsmouth and Plymouth navy yards. The fact was that the supplies and communications of the forces on all fronts were threatened, that German submarines were constantly extending their operations farther and farther out into the Atlantic, that German raiders were escaping, that three years’ constant operations had seriously threatened the strength of the British navy, and that Great Britain’s control of the sea was actually at stake. Bad as the situation then was,. Admiral Jellicoe had every expectation that it would get worse. The German submarines would soon have the long daylight of the British summer for their operations, and they believed that the submarine would force a decision in their favor in that period. So far as I could learn there was a general belief in British naval circles that this plan would succeed. With losses approaching a million tons a month it was a matter of very simple arithmetic to figure how long the Allies could stand the strain. The best authorities calculated that the limit of endurance would be reached about November 1, 1917 ; in other words, that, unless some method of successfully fighting submarines could be discovered almost immediately. Great Britain would have to lay down her arms befoi*e a victorious Germany.
“What we are facing is the defeat of Great Britain,” said an American diplomat, then in London, after the situation had been explained to him.
In the next few weeks I had many interviews with Admiral Jellicoe and other members of the Admiralty. I sat in conference with them every morning, and, for all practical purposes, became a member of their organization. There were no secrets of the British navy to which, as an American, I did not have complete access. All members of the Government desired that the United States should understand the situation completely, so from the beginning they discussed mattei-s with the utmost frankness. They deprecated the generally prevailing impression that any new invention could control the submarine in time to be effective. Those were the days when the American press was constantly calling upon Edison and other great American inventors to solve this problem. In fact, inventors in every part of two hemispheres were turning out devices by the thousands. A regular department of the Admiralty, headed by Admiral Fisher, had charge of investigating their product; in a few months it had received and examined not far from 40,000 inventions, none of which answered the purpose, though ¡ many of them were exceedingly ingenious. British naval officers were not hostile to such projects; they declared, however, that it would be absurd to depend upon new devices for defeating the German campaign. The time element was the important consideration; unless the U-boats were checked m two or three months, the Germans would have won the war; should Mr. Edison ox* any other great genius invent an anti-submarine device, it would not serve their purposes, because, long before it could be perfected and installed, the shipping situation would have forced an Allied surrender.
I discussed the situation with members of the Cabinet, such as Mr. Balfour, Lord Robert Cecil, and Sir Edward Carson. Their attitude to me was very different from the attitude which they were taking publicly, for in their speeches these men naturally would say nothing that would improve the enemy morale; but in their talks with me they repeated practically everything that Jellicoe had said. It was the seriousness of this situation, of course, that sent Mr. Balfour and the British Commission to the United States. What a dark moment that was in the history of the Allied cause! Not only were the German submarines sweeping British commerce from the seas, hut the Germans were also defeating the British and Fx*ench armies in France. When we recall that the high peak of success with the U-boats was achieved at the very moment that General Nivelle’s offensive failed on the Western front, we can get some idea of the real tragedy of the Allied situation in the spring of 1917.
“Things were dark when I took that trip to America,” Mr. Balfour said to me afterward. “The submarines were constantly on my mind. I could think of nothing but the number of ships they were sinking. At that time it certainly looked as though we were going to lose the wax*.”
Of all the influential men in the British Government there was only one who took an optimistic attitude. This was Mr. Lloyd George. I met the Prime Minister frequently at dinners, at his own countx'y place, and elsewhere; and the most lasting impression which I retain of this wonderful man was his irrepressible gaiety of spirits. I think of the Prime Minister of Great Britain as a great, big, exuberant hoy, always laughing and joking, constantly indulging in repax*tee and by-play, and even in this, perhaps the darkest crisis of British history, showing no signs of depression. His face, which was clear in its complexion as a girl’s, never betrayed the slightest anxiety, and his eyes always sparkling, never disclosed the faixxtest shadow. It is a picture which I shall never forget—that of this man upon whose shoulders the destiny of the Empire chiefly rested, apparently refusing to admit, even to himself, the dangers that were seemingly crushing it to extinctioix, heroically devoting all his energies to uplifting the spirits of his countrymen, and in his private intercourse with his associates, even in the most fateful moments, finding time to tell funny stories, recall entertaining aixecdotes of his own political cax’eer, poke fun at the mistakes of his oppoixents, and turn the general conversation a thousand miles away from the Western front and the German submarines. It was the most inspiring instance of self-control that I have ever known; only one other case iix history can be compared with it, for Lloyd George’s attitude at this period constantly reminded me of Lincoln in the darkest hours of the Civil War, when, on news of such calamities as Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville, he would entertain his cabinet by x*eading selections from Artemus Ward, interlarded with humorous sayings and anecdotes of his own. Perhaps Lloyd George’s cheerfulness is explained by another trait which he similarly had in common with Lincoln ; there is a Welsh mysticism in his nature which, I am told, sometimes takes the form of religious exaltation. Lloyd George’s faith in God and in a divine ordering of history is evidently so profound that the idea of German victory probably never seized his mind as a reality; we all know that Lincoln’s absolute confidence in the triumph of the North rested upon a similar basis. Certainly only some such deep-set conviction as this could explain Lloyd George’s serenity and optimism in the face of the most frightful calamities. I attended a small dinner at which the Premier was present four days after the Germans made their terrible attack in March, 1918. Even on this occasion he showed no evidence of strain; as usual his animated spirits held the upper hand; he was talking incessantly, but he never even mentioned the subject that was absorbing the thoughts of the rest of the world at that moment.
Like this I always saw the head of the British Government; never did I meet him when he was fagged or discouraged, or when he saw anything but a favorable end to the war.
On several occasions I attempted to impress Lloyd George with the gravity of the situation ; he always refused to see it that way.
“Oh yes, things are bad,” he would say with a smile and a sweep of his hand. “But we shall get the best of the submarines—never fear!”
But the cheerfulness of the Prime Minister was exceptional; all his associates hardly concealed their apprehension. On the other hand, a wave of enthusiasm was sweeping over Germany. Americans still have an idea that the German Government adopted the submarine campaign as the last despairing gambler’s choice, only half believing in its success themselves. There is an impression here that the Germans never would have staked their Empire on this desperate final throw had they foreseen that the United States would have mobilized all its men and resources against them. This conviction is entirely wrong. The Germans did not think they were taking any chances at all; the ultimate result seemed to them a certainty. They calculated the available shipping of the Allies and the neutral nations; they knew just how much their submarines could sink each month; and from these statistics they mathematically deducted the time when the war would end. They did not like adding the United States to their enemies, but this was because they were thinking of conditions after the war; for they would have liked to have had American friendship in the period of readjustment. But they did not fear that we could do them much injury in the course of the war itself. This again was not because they really despised our fighting power; they knew that we would prove a formidable enemy on the battlefield; but the obvious fact, to their eyes, was that our armies could never get to the front in time. The submarine campaign, they said, would finish the thing in three or four months; certainly in that period the Unprepared United States could never summon any military power that could affect the result. Thus from a purely military standpoint the entrance of 100,000,000 Americans affected them about as much as would a declaration of war from the planet Mars.
We confirmed this point of view from the commanders of the occasionally captured submarines. These men would be brought to London and questioned; they showed the utmost confidence in the result.
“Yes, you've got us,” they would say, “but what difference does that make? There are plenty more submarines coming out. Y ou will get a few, but we can build a dozen for every one that you can capture or sink. Anyway, the war will i all be over in two or three months and we shall be sent back home.”
All these captives laughed at the suggestion of German defeat; their attitude was not that of prisoners, but of conquerors.
Admiral Sims then proceeded to show that the difficulty lay in the shortage of destroyers. The British navy L had only 200 ships of this class and at least half of these had to be kept with the fleet for emergencies. The bulk of j the remainder had to be kept in the i channel for the convoying of troops and j supplies to France. Not more than j fifteen at any one time were on guard i around the coast of Ireland where the undersea boats lurked!