Germans Declare Unrestricted U-boat Warfare

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 166th installment in the series. 

February 4, 1915: Germans Declare Unrestricted U-boat Warfare 

After implementing a naval blockade of Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1914, as the war dragged on the British Admiralty added more and more products to the list of items considered “war contraband,” and hugely expanded the scope of the blockade by introducing the controversial doctrine of “continuous voyage,” allowing the Royal Navy to interdict neutral shipping headed for neutral countries (for example Holland or Denmark) if the cargo was eventually destined for the Central Powers. Meanwhile the British and French seized thousands of tons of German and Austro-Hungarian shipping, and many German ships were interned in neutral ports for the duration of the war. 

In November 1914 the Admiralty declared the North Sea a war zone, and by February 1915 German civilians were starting to feel the effects of blockade, although some trade continued and the blockade still wasn’t seriously impeding Germany’s war effort. Nonetheless the tightening British blockade prompted calls in Germany for retaliation against the enemy’s home front. U-boat warfare against British merchant shipping was a logical response, but on January 31, 1915 the Admiralty responded by instructing British ships to fly neutral flags in the war zone.

In addition to angering neutral countries like the U.S., who objected to the British using their flags as a war gambit, this move obviously presented the German high command with a dilemma: they could either call off the U-boat attacks, allowing British trade to proceed as before, or escalate the attacks to include all vessels flying neutral flags—inevitably sending a good number of neutral ships to the bottom and risking a major rupture with the U.S. and others. 

Despite warnings from the foreign ministry the German high command made the momentous decision to escalate, publishing the following decree on February 4, 1915: 

All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without it always being possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers. Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone, as, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered on January 31 by the British Government, and owing to unforeseen incidents to which naval warfare is liable, it is impossible to avoid attacks being made on neutral ships in mistake for those of the enemy. 

Mindful of the need to keep Dutch trade routes open for its own supplies, the German admiralty created a safe zone for shipping to Holland: “Navigation to the north of the Shetlands, in the eastern parts of the North Sea and through a zone at least thirty nautical miles wide along the Dutch coast is not exposed to danger.” 

For their part the British responded by immediately declaring all grain and flour war contraband, meaning basic food supplies were now subject to interdiction as wellanother step towards what became known as the “starvation blockade,” which ended up killing somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 German civilians by the end of the war.

However the most intense period of the British blockade and retaliatory German U-boat warfare lay in the future. In 1915 the British blockade remained fairly inefficient, enforced by a handful of outdated cruisers patrolling between Scotland and Norway, and the British were still leery of offending neutral opinion, especially in the U.S., by seizing large numbers of their merchant ships. For their part the Germans’ first experiment with unrestricted U-boat warfare came to an end following diplomatic protests by the U.S. after the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. It wouldn’t resume again until 1917, when the German U-boat fleet had tripled in size. 

Turks Defeated at Suez Canal

Following the debacle at Sarikamish in January 1915, on February 3-4 the Ottoman Empire’s second major offensive also ended in defeat with the failure of the Fourth Army’s assault on the Suez Canal. 

To be fair it is pretty remarkable this ambitious plan got as far as it did. Under pressure from their German allies, who hoped to cut Britain’s lifeline to India through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal (or at least distract the British with this threat), from November 1914 to January 1915 the Turks assembled the new army in Syria and then marched south to Palestine, with propaganda proclaiming the imminent liberation of Egypt (Egypt had technically been an Ottoman province under British protection until December 1914, when the British finally annexed it). 

Considering the logistical difficulties presented by Palestine, at that time a backwards backwater of the Ottoman Empire with bad roads and almost no rail links, Fourth Army commander Djemal Pasha and his German “colleague” Kress von Kressenstein (“boss” might have been more accurate) were quite successful in marshaling their forces (above, Turkish troops marshaling for the advance). A fair amount of chaos still prevailed, according to Alexander Aaronsohn, a Jewish Zionist settler who witnessed the Turkish preparations in southern Palestine:

Beersheba was swarming with troops. They filled the town and overflowed on to the sands outside, where a great tent-city grew up… From all over the country the finest camels had been “requisitioned” and sent down to Beersheba until, at the time I was there, thousands and thousands of them were collected in the neighborhood… no adequate provision was made for feeding them, and incredible numbers succumbed to starvation and neglect. Their great carcasses dotted the sand in all directions… The soldiers themselves suffered much hardship. The crowding in the tents was unspeakable… All things considered, it is wonderful that the Turkish demonstration against the canal came as near to fulfillment as it did.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement was the crossing of the Sinai Peninsula, with 20,000 Turkish troops advancing west across the desert in two main columns in just six daysa feat comparable with Alexander the Great’s crossing from Gaza to Pelusium in seven days, but with more heavy equipment, including artillery and pontoons to cross the canal. Unfortunately this rapid crossing failed to preserve the element of surprise, as the British were aware of Turkish preparations thanks to spies, and moonlight betrayed the final approach of the advance guard Turkish troops carrying pontoons on the night of February 3, 1915.    

Click to enlarge 

Meanwhile the British had reinforced their army in Egypt to a strength of 70,000 with troops from India, Australia, and New Zealand, including 30,000 guarding the 100-mile canal; even worse for the Turks, they had quietly moved a number of battleships into the canal to serve as ersatz artillery. In the early morning hours the British troops opened fire, repelling most of the attacking Turkish units. One squadron managed to deploy its pontoons and succeeded in crossing the canal, but the infantry were simply mowed down by machine guns and rifle fire on the far bank. An Armenian soldier who was present later confided in a Spanish diplomat in Jerusalem, Conde de Ballobar, that “he didn’t even shoot his rifle, since he did not know where he should shoot since he did not see a single Englishman. There were only warships, airplanes, and heavy caliber batteries, and at a range much greater than their cannons.”

By February 4, 1915 the main Turkish force was in retreat, having suffered relatively modest casualties of around 1,500 killed and taken prisoner out of the total force of 20,000. More important than the casualty count, however, was the total failure of the Egyptian Muslim population to rise up in rebellion against the British occupation forces, as the Ottomans had confidently predicted. The “jihad” declared by the Ottoman Sultan in November 1914 had failed to materialize.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught's to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught's to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: his nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: she has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, he engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
9 Things You Might Not Know About National Treasure
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Released in 2004 to mixed critical reviews but a positive audience response, director Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure has grown into a perfect rainy-day film. Stumble upon it on a streaming service or a cable channel and the fable about historian-slash-codebreaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) excavating the truth about a reputed treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence will suck you in. Check out some facts about the movie’s development, its approach to historical accuracy, and why we haven't seen a third film.


Originally planned for a summer 2000 release, National Treasure—based on a concept by Disney marketing head Oren Aviv and DreamWorks television executive Charles Segars—had a Byzantine plot that kept it in a prolonged pre-production period. Nine writers were hired between 1999 and 2003 in an attempt to streamline the story, which sees code-breaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) pursuing the stash of riches squirreled away by Benjamin Franklin and his Freemason cohorts. Filming finally began in summer 2003 when Marianne and Cormac Wibberley got the script finalized. Turteltaub, who spent three years in development before finally starting production, told Variety that “getting Cage was worth [the wait].”


Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fact and fiction blur considerably in National Treasure, which uses history as a jumping-off point for some major jumps in logic. While it’s not likely the Declaration of Independence has a secret treasure map written on it, Franklin and other Founding Fathers were actually Freemasons. Of the 55 men who signed the document, nine or more belonged to the society.


It can be tricky to secure permission to film on government property, which is why producers of National Treasure probably considered themselves fortunate when they discovered that Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame had built a perfect replica of Independence Hall on his land in Buena Park, California back in the 1960s. The production used it for a scene requiring Cage to run on the Hall's roof, a stunt that was not likely to have been approved by caretakers of the real thing.


One of Cage’s cryptic clues in the film is reading a time of 2:22 on the clock depicted on the image of Independence Hall on the $100 bill. Bills in circulation at that time really did have an illustration that pointed to that exact hour and minute, although it was changed to 10:30 for the 2009 redesign. There’s no given reason for why those times were picked by the Treasury Department, leaving conspiracy theorists plenty to chew on.


Speaking with The Washington Post in 2012, guards and escorts for the National Archives reported that the National Treasure films have led visitors to ask questions that could only have been motivated by seeing the series. One common query: whether or not there really is a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. “I call it ‘that’ movie,” guard Robert Pringle told the paper. “We get a lot of questions about the filming.”


Both Cage and director Jon Turteltaub attended Beverly Hills High School in the late 1970s and shared a drama class together. While promoting a later film collaboration, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage revealed that Turteltaub had actually beat him out for the lead in a stage production of Our Town. Cage was relegated to two lines of dialogue in a bit part.


Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

On a press tour for the film, Cage told reporters that he and co-star Diane Kruger bonded by going out at night and singing karaoke. “We’d go and karaoke from time to time and sort of blow it out and be completely ridiculous, which helped, I think,” he said. “I think it was some Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC and some Sex Pistols.”


Popular films often have the residual effect of drawing interest to the real-life locations or subject matter incorporated into their plots. Mackinac Island, site of the 1982 romance Somewhere in Time, has become a perennial tourist spot. The same influence was true of National Treasure and its 2007 sequel, both of which apparently contributed to an uptick in attendance at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


It’s been over a decade since National Treasure: Book of Secrets hit theaters, but Cage is still optimistic fans of the series could see another installment. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, the actor said a third film was in development, with the convoluted writing process slowing things down.

“I do know that those scripts are very difficult to write, because there has to be some credibility in terms of the facts and fact-checking, because it was relying on historical events,” Cage said. “And then you have to make it entertaining. I know that it’s been a challenge to get the script where it needs to be. That’s as much as I’ve heard. But they’re still working on it.”


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