Diary of the War: February 1917

The Resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On January 31, 1917,  the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany was announced to the Reichstag, to come into effect the following day. It was a policy summarised by the Daily Telegraph as ‘sink on sight’. (1)

As on the previous occasion in 1915, the seas around Britain were declared a war zone by Germany, and vessels of any nationality, not just British, were liable to be attacked: in effect it was a submarine blockade of Britain. The lifeline of the seas was envisaged as a noose with which to strangle the British Isles, preventing food and other imports from coming in, exports sustaining the economy getting out, and disrupting vital supplies, such as coal, which were circulated domestically by sea. .

Sepia-toned poster with German text "Der Magische Gurtel" at the top in black overlying a map of Britain, with surrounding U-boat silhouettes forming the sea. Two larger U-boats in black occupy the lower third of the image, with white superimposed text, "Deutsche U-boote Wider England"
Advertising poster for a German film depicting U30. The title, “Der magische Gürtel” (The Enchanted Girdle) is illustrated by a surrounding sea composed of nothing but U-boats around the English coast. Hans Rudi Ernst, 1917, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 7268)

Wartime censorship has been a leitmotif throughout this War Diary strand, in contrast with the pre-war situation..It seems appropriate to discuss it further here in the context of unrestricted submarine warfare. Prior to the war shipping news was a major staple of the national and regional press, in which shipping movements appeared in their own dedicated columns. During the war these were no longer circulated, while reports of ships sunk were in the main were reduced to a few brief lines which gave away no detail as to the shipping routes involved. Even to state the cargoes suggested particular routes, so this, too was avoided.

The British public were therefore not exposed to the full impact of the existing submarine campaign and were ill-prepared for the onslaught that was to follow.

An editorial for the Telegraph contrasted the state of knowledge in Britain and in Germany: ‘The Germans receive full reports from their submarine commanders of every vessel torpedoed, its name, tonnage, and cargo; they are informed of the date and longitude and latitude of attack. Month by month they issue for the encouragement of the civil population a very full summary. I have seen that for December – the latest. It occupies two columns of a German newspaper, and is very specific.’ (2)

From this source the Telegraph quotes 419,166 lost tons of British shipping. An official British source shows that 114,508 tons of British shipping were lost in December 1916 for 40 ships, while the overall total of mercantile shipping of all nationalities lost that month to all causes (mine, submarine torpedo, and surface ships) was 357,420 tons. (3). In fact, the 419,166 tons figure was probably misunderstood or used for dramatic effect: it is close to a modern tally that quotes 413,428 tons for ships of all nationalities worldwide December 1916, which included over 66,000 tons of ships damaged but not sunk. (4)

January 1917 saw a similar figure of 408,806 tons worldwide for 211 ships sunk and 11 damaged, but following the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, that total climbed to 651,995 tons for 301 ships sunk and 27 damaged, and the death toll also rose accordingly. (5)

The Telegraph could see this coming, and spelt out the consequences for its readers in stark terms:

‘It is peculiarly necessary that the facts should be known to the British people, because only thus can they understand that they must economise in everything. Why? Because they live on an island, and nearly all they need must come in ships, of which the number is declining. It may seem smart to dodge the Food Controller’s regulations, yet such an action is unpatriotic . . . ‘

Among those 651,995 tons of shipping sunk in February 1917 was the 539-ton Essonite, the first British victim of the new policy in English waters. She was torpedoed without warning on 1 February 1917, while bound from Caernarfon for Rochester with stone. Under the heading ‘German Piracy’, newspapers stated the bare facts: ‘Lloyd’s Agency reports the trawler Violet, the Briitish steamer Essonite, and the Spanish steamer Algorta have been sunk.’. (6)

Although Lloyd’s War Losses shows that the Essonite was sunk by submarine 3 miles NNW of Trevose Head, Cornwall it is to the official loss report that we must turn to find out more about what happened. The torpedo struck at 1.10pm and within 9 minutes the vessel had sunk. The himan impact is of torpedoing a vessel without warning is powerfully illustrated by what happened next: ‘The master got hold of a lifebuoy as the ship sank under him and was picked [up] about half an hour afterwards by the ship’s boat in which were two of the crew. The remainder of the crew were lost.’ (7)

On the SS Essonite of Glasgow ten men lost their lives that day. They were: Arthur Altoft, mate, 22; John Dempsey, fireman, 47; David Lynn Dunlop, 1st engineer, 36; John Kenneway, trimmer, 19; James Letson, 2nd engineer, 22; John MacArthur, steward, 64; Allan McFadyen, able seaman, 39; John McPhedran, ordinary seaman, 16; Nevin McVicar, boatswain, 54; and Harry Williams, fireman, 35. (8)

Black and white photo of a wrecked submarine, which bisects the photograph longitudinally. In the foreground dark rocks and an inlet, in which the white sail of a dinghy can be seen. The background grey, featureless sea and sky.
A wrecked U-boat: UB 112 was among the U-boats surrendered to Britain in November 1918 at Harwich. Here she is seen in on the rocks at Falmouth in 1921, one of six U-boats which broke tow in a gale en route to disposal as gunnery targets. A party of visitors have used the dinghy in the foreground to access and inspect the wreck, led by Captain Jack Casement RN, based at Falmouth. © Historic England/ Patrick Casement jxc01_01_011

 

(1) The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 25 January 1917, No.19,279, p7

(2) ibid.

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-1918, p80, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd. 1980

(4) uboat.net statistics for December 1916

(5) uboat.net statistics for January 1917;  uboat.net statistics for February 1917

(6) e.g. Leeds Mercury, 3 February 1917, p3

(7) ADM 137/2961, The National Archives, Kew

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission