Authors: Erik Larson
Hook sprinted to the deck, and watched the
begin to list. Within minutes the ship heeled and disappeared. It was, he wrote, “
my first sight of men struggling for their lives.”
His ship and the other intact cruiser, the
, maneuvered to rescue the sailors in the water, each coming to a dead stop a few hundred yards away to launch boats. Hook and his fellow crewmen were ordered to throw overboard anything that could float to help the men in the water. Moments later, two torpedoes struck his own ship, the
, and in six or seven minutes “she was quite out of sight,” he wrote. He was pulled into one of the
’s previously launched lifeboats. After picking up more survivors, the lifeboat began making its way toward the third cruiser, the
. But another torpedo was now tearing through the water. The torpedo struck the
on its starboard side. Like the two other cruisers, the
immediately began to list. Unlike the others, however, the list halted, and the ship seemed as if it might stay afloat. But then a second torpedo struck and hit the magazine that stored ammunition for the ship’s heavy guns. The
exploded and sank. Where just an hour earlier there had been three large cruisers, there were now only men, a few small boats, and wreckage. A single German submarine, Unterseeboot-9—U-9, for short—commanded by Kptlt. Otto Weddigen, had sunk all three ships, killing 1,459 British sailors, many of them young men in their teens.
Weddigen and his U-boat were of course to blame, but the design of the ships—their longitudinal coal bunkers—contributed greatly to the speed with which they sank and thus the number of lives lost. Once ruptured, the bunkers caused one side of each ship’s hull to fill quickly, creating a catastrophic imbalance.
The disaster had an important secondary effect: because two of the cruisers had stopped to help survivors of the initial attack and thus made themselves easy targets, the Admiralty issued orders forbidding large British warships from going to the aid of U-boat victims.
fall and winter of 1914, Germany’s submarines came to occupy more and more of Wilson’s attention, owing to a new shift in German naval strategy that brought with it the steadily worsening threat of entanglement. The
incident, and other successful attacks against British ships, caused German strategists to view submarines in a new light. The boats had proved to be hardier and deadlier than expected, well suited to Germany’s guerrilla effort to abrade the strength of Britain’s Grand Fleet. But their performance also suggested another use. By year’s end, Germany had made the interception of merchant shipping an increasingly important role for the navy, to stanch the flow of munitions and supplies to Allied forces. This task originally had fallen to the navy’s big auxiliary cruisers—former ocean liners converted to warships—but these cruisers had been largely swept from the seas by Britain’s powerful navy. Submarines by their nature offered an effective means of continuing the campaign.
They also raised the risk that an American ship might be sunk
by accident, or that U.S. citizens traveling on Allied vessels might be harmed. Early in 1915, this risk seemed to increase sharply. On February 4, Germany issued a proclamation designating the waters around the British Isles an “area of war” in which all enemy ships would be subject to attack without warning.
This posed a particularly acute threat to Britain, which, as an island nation that imported two-thirds of its food, was utterly dependent on seaborne trade. Neutral ships were at risk also, Germany cautioned, because Britain’s willingness to fly false flags had made it impossible for U-boat commanders to rely on a ship’s markings to determine whether it truly was neutral. Germany justified the new campaign as a response to a blockade begun previously by Britain, in which the British navy sought to intercept all cargoes headed to Germany. (Britain had more than twice as many submarines as Germany but used them mainly for coastal defense, not to stop merchant ships.) German officials complained that Britain made no attempt to distinguish whether the cargoes were meant for hostile or peaceful use and charged that Britain’s true goal was to starve civilians and thereby “
doom the entire population of Germany to destruction.”
What Germany never acknowledged was that Britain merely confiscated cargoes, whereas U-boats sank ships and killed men. German commanders seemed blind to the distinction. Germany’s Admiral Scheer wrote, “
Does it really make any difference, purely from the humane point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?”
Germany’s proclamation outraged President Wilson; on February 10, 1915, he cabled his formal response, in which he expressed incredulity that Germany would even think to use submarines against neutral merchant ships and warned that he would hold Germany “
to a strict accountability” for any incident in which an American ship was sunk or Americans were injured or killed. He stated, further, that America would “take any steps it might be
necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas.”
The force of his prose took German leaders by surprise. Outwardly, Germany seemed a fierce monolith, united in carrying out its war against merchant ships. But in fact, the new submarine campaign had caused a rift at the highest levels of Germany’s military and civilian leadership. Its most ardent supporters were senior naval officials; its opponents included the commander of Germany’s military forces in Europe, Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn, and the nation’s top political leader,
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. Moral scruple had nothing to do with their opposition. Both men feared that Germany’s undersea war could only lead to disaster by driving America to shed its neutrality and side with Britain.
Wilson’s protest, however, did not impress Germany’s submarine zealots. They argued that if anything Germany should intensify its campaign and destroy
shipping in the war zone. They promised to bring Britain to heel well before America could mobilize an army and transport it to the battlefield.
Both camps maneuvered to win the endorsement of Kaiser Wilhelm, who, as the nation’s supreme military leader, had the final say. He authorized U-boat commanders to sink any ship, regardless of flag or markings, if they had reason to believe it was British or French. More importantly, he gave the captains permission to do so while submerged, without warning.
The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination as to which ships were to be spared, which to be sunk, to the discretion of individual U-boat commanders. Thus a lone submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now held the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war. As Chancellor Bethmann would later put it, “
Unhappily, it depends upon the attitude of a
single submarine commander whether America will or will not declare war.”
No one had any illusions. Mistakes would happen. One of Kaiser Wilhelm’s orders included an acknowledgment of the risk: “
If in spite of the exercise of great care mistakes should be made, the commander will not be made responsible.”
and loneliness persisted into the new year, but in March 1915 a chance encounter caused that curtain of gray to part.
His cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones, lived in the White House, where she served as a proxy First Lady. Often, she went walking with a good friend, Edith Bolling Galt, forty-three years old, who happened also to be a friend of Wilson’s physician, Dr. Grayson. At five feet nine inches tall, with a full and shapely figure and a taste for fine clothes, including those designed in the Paris fashion house of Charles Frederick Worth, she was a striking woman, with a complexion and manner said to gleam, and eyes of a violet blue. One day while riding in a limousine with Wilson, Dr. Grayson spotted Galt and bowed toward her, at which point the president exclaimed, “Who is that beautiful lady?”
Born in October 1872 as the seventh of eleven siblings, Edith claimed family roots that dated back to Pocahontas and Capt. John Rolfe. She grew up in a small Virginia town, Wytheville, in a landscape still warm with residual passions of the Civil War. While a teenager, she began making periodic visits to Washington, D.C., to visit her eldest sister, who had married into a family that owned one of Washington’s finest jewelry stores, Galt & Bro. Jewelers, situated near the White House. (The store was repairing Abraham Lincoln’s watch at the time the Civil War began.) On one visit, when Edith was in her twenties, she met Norman Galt—a cousin of her sister’s husband—who shared management of the store with other members of the family. They married in 1896.
Eventually Norman bought out his relatives to become sole owner of the business. Edith bore a son in 1903, but the baby died
within days. Five years later, Norman died as well, suddenly, leaving substantial debts from his acquisition of the store. It was a difficult time, Edith wrote. “
I had no experience in business affairs and hardly knew an asset from a liability.” She placed the store’s day-to-day operations in the care of a seasoned employee, and with his help the business began again to prosper so that Edith, while retaining ownership, was able to withdraw from daily management. She became a skilled golfer and was the first woman in Washington to acquire a driver’s license. She tooled around the city in an electric car.
Her walks with Helen Bones usually began with Edith driving herself and Helen to Rock Creek Park in her car. Afterward, they invariably returned to Edith’s house in Dupont Circle for tea. But one afternoon in March 1915, Helen arrived at Edith’s home in a White House car, which took them to the park. At the end of the walk, Helen suggested that this time they have tea at her place, the White House.
Edith resisted. The walk had been a messy one. Her shoes were muddy, and she did not want to be seen by the president of the United States in this condition. As she told Helen, she feared being “
taken for a tramp.” In fact, shoes aside, she looked pretty good, as she herself later noted, with “a smart black tailored suit which Worth had made for me in Paris, and a tricot hat which I thought completed a very-good-looking ensemble.”
“There is not a soul there,” she told Edith. “Cousin Woodrow is playing golf with Dr. Grayson and we will go right upstairs in the elevator and you shall see no one.”
They rode to the second floor. As they emerged, they ran headlong into the president and Grayson, both of whom were in their golf clothes. Grayson and Wilson joined the women for tea.
Edith wrote later, “
This was the accidental meeting which carried out the old adage of ‘turn a corner and meet your fate.’ ” She noted, however, that the golf clothes Wilson had been wearing “were not smart.”
Soon afterward Helen invited Edith to a dinner at the White House, set for March 23. Wilson sent his Pierce-Arrow to pick her
up and to collect Dr. Grayson as well. Edith wore a purple orchid and sat at Wilson’s right. “
He is perfectly charming,” she wrote later, “and one of the easiest and most delightful hosts I have ever known.”
After dinner, the group went upstairs to the second-floor Oval Room for coffee and a fire, “
and all sorts of interesting conversation.” Wilson read three poems by English authors, prompting Edith to observe that “as a reader he is unequalled.”
The evening had a profound effect on Wilson. He was entranced. Edith, sixteen years his junior, was an attractive and compelling woman. White House usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover called her an “
impressive widow.” That evening, Wilson’s spirits soared.
He had little time to dwell in this new hopeful state, however. Five days later, on March 28, 1915, a British merchant ship, the
, encountered a U-boat commanded by Georg-Günther Freiherr von Forstner, one of Germany’s submarine aces. The ship was small, less than five thousand tons, and carried cargo and passengers bound for Africa. A sharp-eyed lookout first saw the submarine when it was three miles off and alerted the
’s captain, Frederick Davies, who turned his ship full away and ordered maximum speed, just over thirteen knots.
Forstner gave chase. He ordered his gun crew to fire a warning shot.
kept running. Now Forstner, using flags, signaled, “Stop or I fire.”
stopped. The U-boat approached, and Forstner, shouting through a megaphone, notified Captain Davies that he planned to sink the vessel. He ordered Davies and all aboard—242 souls—to abandon ship. He gave them five minutes.
Forstner maneuvered to within one hundred yards. The last lifeboat was still being lowered when he fired a torpedo. The
sank in eight minutes, killing 104 people including Captain Davies. A passenger by the name of Leon C. Thrasher was believed among the lost, though his body was not recovered. Thrasher was a citizen of the United States.
The incident, condemned as the latest example of German
frightfulness, was exactly the kind of thing Wilson had feared, for it held the potential to raise a cry for war. “
I do not like this case,” he told his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan. “It is full of disturbing possibilities.”
Wilson’s first instinct was to issue an immediate denunciation of the attack, in sharp language, but subsequent discussion with his cabinet and with Secretary Bryan caused him to hold off. Bryan, a staunch pacifist, proposed that the death of an American who knowingly traveled aboard a British ship through a declared war zone might not even merit protest. To him it seemed the equivalent of an American taking a stroll across the battlefield in France.