January 31, 1917: Germany Announces the Resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare


In a letter dated January 31, 1917 the German ambassador to the United States,  Count Johann von Bernstorff, informed Robert Lansing, the US Secretary of State, that Germany was resuming unrestricted submarine warfare:

Washington D.C., 31 January 1917

Mr. Secretary of State:

Your Excellency was good enough to transmit to the Imperial Government a copy of the message which the President of the United States of America addressed to the Senate on the 22nd inst.  The Imperial Government has given it the earnest consideration which the President’s statements deserve, inspired, as they are, by a deep sentiment of responsibility.

It is highly gratifying to the Imperial Government to ascertain that the main tendencies of this important statement correspond largely to the desires and principles professed by Germany.  These principles especially include self-government and equality of rights for all nations.  Germany would be sincerely glad if, in recognition of this principle, countries like Ireland and India, which do not enjoy the benefits of political independence, should now obtain their freedom.

The German people also repudiate all alliances which serve to force the countries into a competition for might and to involve them in a net of selfish intrigues.  On the other hand, Germany will gladly cooperate in all efforts to prevent future wars.

The freedom of the seas, being a preliminary condition of the free existence of nations and the peaceful intercourse between them, as well as the open door for the commerce of all nations, has always formed part of the leading principles of Germany’s political program.  All the more the Imperial Government regrets that the attitude of her enemies, who are so entirely opposed to peace, makes it impossible for the world at present to bring about the realization of these lofty ideals.

Germany and her allies were ready to enter now into a discussion of peace, and had set down as basis the guarantee of existence, honour, and free development of their peoples.  Their aims, as has been expressly stated in the note of December 12, 1916, were not directed toward the destruction or annihilation of their enemies and were, according to their conviction, perfectly compatible with the rights of the other nations.

As to Belgium, for which such warm and cordial sympathy is felt in the United States, the Chancellor had declared only a few weeks previously that its annexation had never formed part of Germany’s intentions.  The peace to be signed with Belgium was to provide for such conditions in that country, with which Germany desires to maintain friendly neighbourly relations, that Belgium should not be used again by Germany’s enemies for the purpose of instigating continuous hostile intrigues.

Such precautionary measures are all the more necessary, as Germany’s enemies have repeatedly stated, not only in speeches delivered by their leading men, but also in the statutes of the Economical Conference in Paris, that it is their intention not to treat Germany as an equal, even after peace has been restored, but to continue their hostile attitude, and especially to wage a systematical economic war against her.

The attempt of the four allied powers to bring about peace has failed, owing to the lust of conquest of their enemies, who desired to dictate the conditions of peace.  Under the pretence of following the principle of nationality, our enemies have disclosed their real aims in this way, viz., to dismember and dishonour Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria.  To the wish of reconciliation they oppose the will of destruction.  They desire a fight to the bitter end.

A new situation has thus been created which forces Germany to new decisions.  Since two years and a half England is using her naval power for a criminal attempt to force Germany into submission by starvation.  In brutal contempt of international law, the group of powers led by England not only curtail the legitimate trade of their opponents, but they also, by ruthless pressure, compel neutral countries either to altogether forego every trade not agreeable to the Entente Powers, or to limit it according to their arbitrary decrees.

The American Government knows the steps which have been taken to cause England and her allies to return to the rules of international law and to respect the freedom of the seas.  The English Government, however, insists upon continuing its war of starvation, which does not at all affect the military power of its opponents, but compels women and children, the sick and the aged, to suffer for their country pains and privations which endanger the vitality of the nation.

Thus British tyranny mercilessly increases the sufferings of the world, indifferent to the laws of humanity, indifferent to the protests of the neutrals whom they severely harm, indifferent even to the silent longing for peace among England’s own allies.

Each day of the terrible struggle causes new destruction, new sufferings.  Each day shortening the war will, on both sides, preserve the lives of thousands of brave soldiers and be a benefit to mankind.

The Imperial Government could not justify before its own conscience, before the German people, and before history the neglect of any means destined to bring about the end of the war.  Like the President of the United States, the Imperial Government had hoped to reach this goal by negotiations.

Since the attempts to come to an understanding with the Entente Powers have been answered by the latter with the announcement of an intensified continuation of the war, the Imperial Government – in order to serve the welfare of mankind in a higher sense and not to wrong its own people – is now compelled to continue the fight for existence, again forced upon it, with the full employment of all the weapons which are at its disposal.

Sincerely trusting that the people and the Government of the United States will understand the motives for this decision and its necessity, the Imperial Government hopes that the United States may view the new situation from the lofty heights of impartiality, and assist, on their part, to prevent further misery and unavoidable sacrifice of human life.

Inclosing two memoranda regarding the details of the contemplated military measures at sea, I remain, etc.

Memoranda Enclosed with Count Bernstorff’s Note

From February 1, 1917, sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice in the following blockade zones around Great Britain, France, Italy and in the Eastern Mediterranean:

In the North: The zone is confined by a line at a distance of twenty sea miles along the Dutch coast to Terschelling Lightship, the meridian of longitude from Terschelling Lightship to Udsire; a line from there across the point 62 degrees north, 0 degrees longitude, to 62 degrees north, 5 degrees west; further to a point three sea miles south of the southern point of the Faroe Islands; from there across a point 62 degrees north, 10 degrees west, to 61 degrees north, 15 degrees west; then 57 degrees north, 20 degrees west, to 47 degrees north, 20 degrees west; further, to 43 degrees north, 15 degrees west; then along the parallel of latitude 43 degrees north to twenty sea miles from Cape Finisterre, and at a distance of twenty sea miles along the north coast of Spain to the French boundary.

In the South – The Mediterranean: For neutral ships, remains open the sea west of the line Pt. Des Espiquettes to 38 degrees 20 minutes north and 6 degrees east; also north and west of a zone sixty sea miles wide along the North African coast, beginning at 2 degrees longitude west.  For the connection of this sea zone with Greece there is provided a zone of a width of twenty sea miles north and east of the following line: 38 degrees north and 6 degrees east to 38 degrees north and 10 degrees west, to 37 degrees north and 11 degrees 30 minutes east, to 34 degrees north and 22 degrees 30 minutes east.  From there leads a zone twenty sea miles wide, west of 22 degrees 30 minutes eastern longitude, into Greek territorial waters.

Neutral ships navigating these blockade zones do so at their own risk.  Although care has been taken that neutral ships which are on their way toward ports of the blockade zones on February 1, 1917, and have come in the vicinity of the latter, will be spared during a sufficiently long period, it is strongly advised to warn them with all available means in order to cause their return.

Neutral ships which on February 1st are in ports of the blockade zones can with the same safety leave them.

The instructions given to the commanders of German submarines provide for a sufficiently long period during which the safety of passengers on unarmed enemy passenger ships is guaranteed.

Americans en route to the blockade zone on enemy freight steamers are not endangered, as the enemy shipping firms can prevent such ships in time from entering the zone.

Sailing of regular American passenger steamers may continue undisturbed after February 1, 1917, if:

(A) The port of destination is Falmouth.

(B) Sailing to or coming from that port course is taken via the Scilly Islands and a point 50 degrees north, 20 degrees west.

(C) The steamers are marked in the following way, which must not be allowed to other vessels in American ports: On ship’s hull and superstructure three vertical stripes one metre wide, each to be painted alternately white and red.  Each mast should show a large flag checkered white and red, and the stern the American national flag.  Care should be taken that, during dark, national flag and painted marks are easily recognizable from a distance, and that the boats are well lighted throughout.

(D) One steamer a week sails in each direction with arrival at Falmouth on Sunday and departure from Falmouth on Wednesday.

(E) United States Government guarantees that no contraband (according to German contraband list) is carried by those steamers.

The policy was quite foolish.  Allied naval power was overwhelming, the German u-boats were too few, and the technology of the u-boats too primitive for this move to prove decisive.  The Allies successfully countered it by adopting a convoy system in April 1917, the same month when the US entered the War.

Published in: on January 31, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. I wrote what follows about the Zimmerman Telegram (why did Germany do something so stupid?), but it is relevant here too.

    At the head of German thinking, such as it was, there was, I believe, an understanding that Germany’s own actions would soon make war with America inevitable. Germany was slowly being strangled by the Allied blockade, and did not have the naval strength to break it. Pound for pound, German ships were better than British ones, as they showed at the Jutland, but the British, French, Italians, Russians, and Japanese, together, made up a naval force that simply could not be broken by anything the Germans and their Austrian allies could do. So the Germans had opted for submarine warfare, something that, to contemporaries, had seemed just as bad and criminal as the invasion of Belgium. They had already abandoned it once under American pressure, but by 1917, and in spite of the land advance into Russia, they were out of options. I don’t think it is often appreciated just how bad the German situation was already by mid-1917: the country was short of every kind of resource – the winter of of 1917 was long remembered as “turnip winter”, because the citizenry could eat nothing else – and was being outproduced by Allied heavy industry, which also had brought in that new nightmare, the tank, whose still undefined potential already kept German generals awake at night. Austria was at its last gasp; in September they informed Berlin that another Italian push would finish them. And Russia, in spite of its near-collapse, still kept huge German armies tied down merely by refusing to accept that it was beaten. The Russian republican government had been heard to say that they would fight all the way to the Urals.

    The logic of returning to unlimited submarine warfare was that the economic prevalence of the Allies had to be broken, and that the only way to do so was to make the sea inaccessible to them. But that is feeble at best, since the main sources of coal, steel and foodstuffs for the Allies were on the homeland territories. What I really read there is the increasingly irrational product of baffled rage, of a sense that blow after blow only seemed to make the enemy stronger, that their sense of national and indeed racial superiority did not correspond with the fact, that a motley coalition of lesser nations was bringing the great Reich down. It was, I think, an excuse for a desire to destroy, to smash, to spread grief and horror in every way possible – no longer war, but terrorism. Only they knew, even then, that to do so would bring the last and already the greatest of great powers crashing and raging in.

    I do not see this as a rational decision, but rather as the by-product of delusion and despair. The Germans could not contemplate being defeated. If America came in, then what was already menacing would become inevitable. So something had to be done to distract America and tie her down. In reality this was impossible, because no power in the world had the interest, let alone the power, to attack America. The only powerful and traditional enemy was the British Empire, and German actions had managed to bring these two frowning giants almost to each other’s arms. So German fantasy seized on Mexico, not because it was likely, but because the alternative was to accept despair; just as in the second frolic they seized on the death of Roosevelt.

    • Ironically 1917 was going to be a good year for the Germans with the toppling of Russia by the Bolsheviks bringing the Germans relief on their Eastern Front and the Germans holding their own on the Western Front. This was the time for the Germans to offer a status quo ante peace on the Western and Italian Fronts with territorial gains against Russia, while Serbia would be restored to its territory. Mighty tempting for the war weary populations of France, Italy and Great Britain. The Germans did well militarily in both world wars, while their diplomacy, with rare exceptions, was consummate folly.

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