Authors: Erik Larson
The war began with the geopolitical equivalent of a brush fire. In late June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian army, traveled to Bosnia, which Austria had annexed in 1908. While driving through Sarajevo, he was shot dead by an assassin sponsored by the Black Hand, a group devoted
to unifying Serbia and Bosnia. On July 28, Austria stunned the world by declaring war on Serbia.
It’s incredible—incredible,” Wilson said, during lunch with his daughter, Nell, and her husband, William McAdoo, secretary of the Treasury. Wilson could give the incident only scant attention, however. At the time, his wife lay gravely ill, and this alone consumed his heart and mind. He cautioned his daughter, “Don’t tell your mother anything about it.”
The dispute between Austria and Serbia could have ended there: a small war against a disruptive Balkan country. But within a week, the brush fire gusted into a firestorm, spiking fears, resurrecting animosities, triggering alliances and understandings, and setting long-laid plans in motion. On Tuesday, August 4, following the Schlieffen plan, German forces entered Belgium, dragging behind them giant fortress-busting guns capable of launching shells weighing 2,000 pounds apiece. Britain declared war, siding with Russia and France, the “Allies”; Germany and Austria-Hungary linked arms as the “Central Powers.” That same day, Wilson declared America to be neutral in an executive proclamation that barred the warships of Germany and Britain and all other belligerents from entering U.S. ports. Later, a week after his wife’s funeral, struggling against his personal grief to address the larger trauma of the world, Wilson told the nation, “
We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”
He had the full support of the American public. A British journalist, Sydney Brooks, writing in the
North American Review
, gauged America to be just as isolationist as ever. And why not, he asked? “
The United States is remote, unconquerable, huge, without hostile neighbors or any neighbors at all of anything like her own strength, and lives exempt in an almost unvexed tranquility from the contentions and animosities and the ceaseless pressure and counter-pressure that distract the close-packed older world.”
While easy in concept, neutrality in practice was a fragile thing. As the fire grew, other alliances were forged. Turkey joined the
Central Powers; Japan the Allies. Soon fighting was under way in far-flung corners of the world, on land, in the air, and on the sea, and even under the sea, with German submarines ranging as far as the waters off Britain’s western shores. An isolated dispute over a murder in the Balkans had become a world conflagration.
The main arena, however, was Europe, and there Germany made clear that this would be a war like no other, in which no party would be spared. As Wilson mourned his wife, German forces in Belgium entered quiet towns and villages, took civilian hostages, and executed them to discourage resistance. In the town of Dinant, German soldiers shot 612 men, women, and children. The American press called such atrocities acts of “frightfulness,” the word then used to describe what later generations would call terrorism. On August 25, German forces began an assault on the Belgian city of
Louvain, the “Oxford of Belgium,” a university town that was home to an important library. Three days of shelling and murder left 209 civilians dead, 1,100 buildings incinerated, and the library destroyed, along with its 230,000 books, priceless manuscripts, and artifacts. The assault was deemed an affront not just to Belgium but to the world. Wilson, a past president of Princeton University, “
felt deeply the destruction of Louvain,” according to his friend Colonel House; the president feared “the war would throw the world back three or four centuries.”
Each side had been confident of a victory within months, but by the end of 1914 the war had turned into a macabre stalemate marked by battles in which tens of thousands of men died and neither side gained ground. The first of the great named battles were fought that autumn and winter—the Frontiers, Mons, Marne, and the First Battle of Ypres. By the end of November, after four months of fighting, the French army had suffered 306,000 fatalities, roughly equivalent to the 1910 population of Washington, D.C.
The German toll was 241,000.
By year’s end a line of parallel trenches, constituting the western front, ran nearly five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, separated in places by a no-man’s-land of as little as 25 yards.
For Wilson, already suffering depression, it was all deeply troubling. He wrote to Colonel House, “
I feel the burden of the thing almost intolerably from day to day.” He expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to his ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page. “
The whole thing is very vivid in my mind, painfully vivid, and has been almost ever since the struggle began,” he wrote. “I think my thought and imagination contain the picture and perceive its significance from every point of view. I have to force myself not to dwell upon it to avoid the sort of numbness that comes from deep apprehension and dwelling upon elements too vast to be yet comprehended or in any way controlled by counsel.”
There was at least one moment, however, when his grief seemed to lessen. In November 1914, he traveled to Manhattan to visit Colonel House. That evening, at about nine o’clock, the two men set out for a walk from House’s apartment, not in disguise, but also not advertising the fact that the president of the United States was now strolling the streets of Manhattan. They walked along Fifty-third Street, to Seventh Avenue, to Broadway, somehow managing not to draw the attention of passersby. They stopped to listen to a couple of sidewalk orators, but here Wilson was recognized, and a crowd gathered. Wilson and Colonel House moved on, now followed by a trailing sea of New Yorkers. The two men entered the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, stepped up to the elevator, and directed the startled operator to stop at a high floor. They got off, walked to the opposite end of the hotel, found another bank of elevators, and returned to the lobby, then exited through a side door.
After a brief walk along Fifth Avenue, they caught a city bus and rode it uptown to House’s building. As exhilarating as this escape may have been, it was no cure for Wilson’s malaise. On their return, Wilson confessed to House that as they were out walking he had found himself wishing that someone would kill him.
In the midst of this darkness, Wilson still managed to see America as the world’s last great hope. “
We are at peace with all the world,” he said in December 1914 in his annual address to Congress. In January, he dispatched Colonel House on an unofficial
mission to Europe to attempt to discover the conditions under which the Allies and the Central Powers might be willing to begin peace negotiations.
House booked passage on the largest, fastest passenger ship then in service, the
, and traveled under a false name.
On entering waters off Ireland, the ship’s then-captain, Daniel Dow, following a tradition accepted in times of war, raised an American flag as a
ruse de guerre
to protect the ship from attack by German submarines. The act startled House and caused a sensation aboard, but as a means of disguise it had questionable value: America did not operate any liners of that size, with that distinctive four-funnel silhouette.
The incident highlighted the press of forces threatening to undermine American neutrality. The battles in Europe posed no great worry, with the United States so distant and secure within its oceanic moat. It was Germany’s new and aggressive submarine war that posed the greatest danger.
beginning of the war, neither Germany nor Britain understood the true nature of the submarine or realized that it might produce what Churchill called “
this strange form of warfare hitherto unknown to human experience.”
Only a few prescient souls seemed to grasp that the design of the submarine would force a transformation in naval strategy. One of these was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, a year and a half before the war, wrote a short story (not published until July 1914) in which he envisioned a conflict between England and a fictional country, Norland, “one of the smallest Powers in Europe.” In the story, entitled “Danger!,” Norland at first seems hopelessly overmatched, but the little country has a secret weapon—a fleet of eight submarines, which it deploys off the coast of England to attack incoming merchant ships, both cargo and passenger. At the time Doyle conceived his plot, submarines did exist, but British and German naval commanders saw them as having little value.
Norland’s submarines, however, bring England to the verge of starvation. At one point, without warning, the commander of the submarine fleet, Capt. John Sirius, uses a single torpedo to sink a White Star passenger liner, the
. England eventually surrenders. Readers found that last attack particularly shocking because the
was a real ship. Its twin had been the
, lost well before Doyle wrote his story.
Intended to sound the alarm and raise England’s level of naval preparedness, the story was entertaining, and frightening, but was widely deemed too far-fetched to be believable, for Captain Sirius’s behavior would have breached a fundamental maritime code, the cruiser rules, or prize law, established in the nineteenth century to govern warfare against civilian shipping. Obeyed ever since by all seagoing powers, the rules held that a warship could stop a merchant vessel and search it but had to keep its crew safe and bring the ship to a nearby port, where a “prize court” would determine its fate. The rules forbade attacks against passenger vessels.
In the story, Doyle’s narrator dismisses as a delusion England’s belief that no nation would stoop to such levels. “Common sense,” Captain Sirius says, “should have told her that her enemy will play the game that suits them best—that they will not inquire what they may do, but they will do it first and talk about it afterwards.”
Doyle’s forecast was dismissed as too fantastic to contemplate.
But Britain’s own Adm. Jacky Fisher, credited with reforming and modernizing the British navy—it was he who had conceived the first
—had also become concerned about how submarines might transfigure naval warfare. In a memorandum composed seven months before the war, Fisher forecast that Germany would deploy submarines to sink unarmed merchant ships and would make no effort to save the ships’ crews. The strengths and limitations of the submarine made this outcome inescapable, he argued. A submarine had no room to bring aboard the crew of a merchant ship and did not have enough men of its own to put a prize crew aboard.
What’s more, Fisher wrote, the logic of war required that if
such a strategy were adopted it would have to be pursued to the fullest extent possible. “
The essence of war is violence,” he wrote, “and moderation in war is imbecility.”
Churchill rejected Fisher’s vision. The use of submarines to attack unarmed merchant ships without warning, he wrote, would be “
abhorrent to the immemorial law and practice of the sea.”
Even he acknowledged, however, that such tactics when deployed against
targets constituted “fair war,” but early on neither he nor his German counterparts expected the submarine to play much of a role in deep-ocean battle. The strategic thinking of both sides centered on their main fleets, the British “Grand Fleet” and the German “High Seas Fleet,” and both anticipated an all-or-nothing, Trafalgar-esque naval duel using their big battleships. But neither side was willing to be the first to come out in direct challenge of the other. Britain had more firepower—twenty-seven
-class battleships to Germany’s sixteen—but Churchill recognized that chance events could nullify that advantage “
if some ghastly novelty or blunder supervened.” For added safety, the Admiralty based the fleet in Scapa Flow, a kind of island fortress formed by the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. Churchill expected Germany to make the first move, early and in full strength, for the German fleet would never be stronger than at the war’s beginning.
German strategists, on the other hand, recognized Britain’s superiority and crafted a plan whereby German ships would make limited raids against the British fleet to gradually erode its power, a campaign that Germany’s Adm. Reinhard Scheer called “guerrilla warfare,” borrowing a Spanish term for small-scale warfare in use since the early nineteenth century. Once the British fleet was pared down, Scheer wrote, the German fleet would seek a “favorable” opportunity for the climactic battle.
So we waited,” wrote Churchill; “and nothing happened. No great event immediately occurred. No battle was fought.”
At the start of the war, the submarine barely figured in the strategic planning of either side. “
In those early days,” wrote Hereward Hook, a young British sailor, “I do not think that anyone
realized that a submarine could do any damage.”
He was soon to learn otherwise, in an incident that demonstrated in vivid fashion the true destructive power of submarines and revealed a grave flaw in the design of Britain’s big warships.
At dawn, on the morning of Tuesday, September 22, 1914, three large British cruisers, HMS
, were patrolling a swath of the North Sea off Holland known as the “Broad Fourteens,” moving at eight knots, a leisurely and, as it happened, foolhardy pace. The ships were full of cadets. Hook, one of them, was fifteen years old and assigned to the
. The ships were old and slow, and so clearly at risk that within Britain’s Grand Fleet they bore the nickname “
the live-bait squadron.” Hook—who in later life would indeed be promoted to
Hook—was in his bunk, asleep, when at 6:20
. he was awakened by “a violent shaking” of his hammock. A midshipman was trying to wake him and other cadets, to alert them to the fact that one of the big cruisers, the
, had been torpedoed and was sinking.