WWI Centennial: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 262nd installment in the series. 

January 9, 1917: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

The most fateful decision of the First World War was made on January 9, 1917, at a top-secret meeting of Germany’s civil and military leaders at Pless Castle in Silesia in Eastern Germany. Here, at the urging of chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, first quartermaster Erich Ludendorff, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg reluctantly agreed to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare – a gamble that would decide the outcome of the war.

As 1917 began, Germany’s strategic options were narrowing. The plan of the previous chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to bleed France white at Verdun had succeeded in causing massive casualties but failed to split the Allies or knock France out of the war, as hoped. Germany’s main allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both on the defensive, requiring more and more assistance to simply survive, and the simultaneous Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia had sorely taxed German manpower and material.

Meanwhile Germany’s vast industrial machine was gradually being stretched to the limit, while shortages of food and fuel stirred growing discontent in the civilian population. The indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916 left the Allied naval blockade undisturbed, and Britain’s adoption of conscription was putting several million new soldiers in the field. 

But Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that victory was still within reach, provided Germany acted boldly and swiftly. Indeed the Allies also found themselves overstretched, as France reached the limits of her own manpower following Verdun and the Russians suddenly found themselves responsible for shoring up Romania, or what was left of it. Further, as before Germany enjoyed the advantage of a central position, allowing it to move forces between various fronts and perhaps defeat its enemies “in detail,” or one at a time.

In order to exploit these opportunities, in 1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff contemplated yet another shift in focus, this time from west to east (reversing Falkhenhayn’s earlier switch from east to west). On the Western Front, they planned a surprise withdrawal from the Somme to massive, newly constructed fortifications at the Siegfried Line – known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line – shortening the front by around 25 miles and freeing up two whole armies for service elsewhere. 

By going on the defensive on the Western Front, they hoped, Germany would be able to deliver a knockout blow to Italy, Russia, or both; Russia in particular was already teetering on the edge of revolution, and the incompetent tsarist regime just needed a final push before it collapsed.

However Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that simply shortening the Western Front and digging in wouldn’t be enough: they also had to ratchet up the pressure on Britain in order to keep the British from launching a new offensive like the Somme, and maybe even knock them out of the war. To accomplish this they pinned their hopes on a new (but no longer secret) weapon: the submarine.

“Germany Is Playing Her Last Card” 

Germany had already tried unrestricted U-boat warfare twice, unleashing a growing fleet of submarines on Allied and neutral shipping, with permission to sink unarmed merchant ships without warning. But on both occasions these campaigns were eventually suspended (first in the summer of 1915, then again in the spring of 1916) in the face of protests from neutral countries, especially the United States of America, over civilian casualties. 

The threat of war with the U.S. had forced Berlin to back down twice, but by early 1917 Germany’s leaders were willing to take the risk. A number of factors contributed to this shift, including the general sense that time was working against Germany, as well as public demands for retaliation in kind against the “Starvation Blockade” maintained by the British Royal Navy. The steady growth of Germany’s U-boat fleet also held out the promise of a decisive result. 

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Most important, however, were Britain’s growing dependence on U.S. imports to sustain its war effort, a vulnerability which could be exploited by attacks on shipping, and the resulting enmity of Germany’s new military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, towards the U.S.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was on the record as stating that “he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she had done if the countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.” With the ascendancy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff over Germany’s civilian government – in effect a bloodless military coup countenanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the balance of political power in Berlin shifted towards open confrontation.

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The minutes of the meeting on January 9, 1917, make clear that Bethmann-Hollweg was now playing second fiddle to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, public heroes who enjoyed the backing of the fickle monarch. Germany’s leaders also allowed themselves to be swayed by optimistic thinking, in the form of cheery projections from the Admiralty about how quickly British morale and war-making capacity could be destroyed through unrestricted sinkings. 

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Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, who headed the Admiralty’s analytical division, calculated that Germany’s growing U-boat fleet could sink 500,000-600,000 tons of British shipping per month at first – a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. However Holtzendorff erred in his assumptions about the impact that this would have on Britain’s total available shipping, as the British could requisition neutral shipping and order more replacements from American shipyards. The German Admiralty also failed to anticipate Allied tactics for convoying merchant ships (they believed convoys were ineffective, and if anything would make it easier for submarines to find targets). Finally, the German high command underestimated Britain’s ability to increase domestic production by finding manufacturing substitutes, implement rationing, and bring new farmland under cultivation; although ordinary British people certainly suffered from shortages and chaffed at rationing, the U-boat campaign fell far short of “starving Britain to her knees.”

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Equally important to the German (mis)calculations was the belief that America, as a mercantile but not mercenary nation, was basically unwilling to fight, due both to her traditional isolation and what they viewed as the social and cultural incoherence of the American population, resulting from the large proportion of immigrants (including millions of German descent, whom they assumed would not be loyal to their adopted land).

In short they predicted that the undisciplined, polyglot American rabble would resist conscription and European-style mass mobilization. Instead, any declaration of war would be mostly symbolic, or as Bethmann-Hollweg summarized the military leaders’ argument: “America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And its armed forces were so pathetically small that even if America did fight, Hindenburg and Ludendorff assured the civilians, Germany could win the war before it had a chance to mobilize enough men to make a difference in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that even at this critical stage, not everyone was convinced. Indeed Bethmann-Hollweg sounded a skeptical note during the meeting, observing, “Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest… Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.” Nevertheless he bowed to the general’s convictions, thus completing the submission of Germany’s civilian government to its military.

When the decision was publicized at the end of the month, everyone understood that Germany’s fate was riding on the outcome. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, confided in her diary: “We all know and feel that Germany is playing her last card; with what results, no one can possibly foretell.” Unrestricted U-boat warfare would resume on February 1, 1917.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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