RISK WAS THE LEAST FAVORITE CONCEPT of the British Admiralty in 1914. Her fleet was Britain’s most prized possession. It was not, as Churchill had woundingly said of the Germany Navy in 1912, a “luxury fleet”; it was a vital necessity in the exact sense of the word “vital.” The British Empire could not survive naval defeat or even loss of naval supremacy through individual ship losses. Its tasks were enormous. It had to prevent invasion of the British Isles; it had to escort the BEF safely to the Continent; it had to bring home troops from India to add to the Regular Army and replace them with Territorials; above all, it had to safeguard seaborne commerce over all the oceans of the world.
Not invasion which had been declared “impracticable” by the Committee of Imperial Defence, but “the interruption of our trade and destruction of merchant shipping” was recognized by the Admiralty as the principal danger. Two-thirds of all Britain’s food was imported. Her livelihood depended on a foreign commerce carried in British bottoms that represented 43 per cent of the world’s total merchant tonnage and carried more than half of the world’s total seaborne trade, as much as carried by all the other nations put together. A besetting fear that fast German steamers would be converted into commerce destroyers haunted the British before the war. At least forty such vessels were expected to be let loose to supplement German cruisers in preying on the precious stream of maritime trade. British fleet units had to be spread out to protect the Suez route to Persia, India, and the Far East, the Cape route around Africa, the North Atlantic route to the United States and Canada, the Caribbean route to the West Indies, the South Atlantic and South Pacific routes to South America and Australia. The ocean crossroads where shipping lanes converged and enemy raiders were most likely to attack were the points of control.
“The whole principle of naval fighting,” Fisher said in the naval equivalent of a papal bull, “is to be free to go anywhere with every damned thing the Navy possesses.” Translated into practical terms this meant that the navy must be superior everywhere at once or wherever it was likely to encounter the enemy. With its vast commitments the British Navy had all it could do to muster superiority in home waters where a battle of equal strengths was at all costs to be avoided. The common expectation was of one great clash of capital ships in which maritime supremacy might be decided in a single action like the Russo-Japanese battle of Tsushima. Britain could not afford to risk loss of supremacy in such a battle, but the same was not true of the German Navy, which was expected to take chances. The rampant Germany of 1914 whose Kaiser had proclaimed “Germany’s future is on the water,” whose Navy Leagues had proliferated over the country and raised popular subscriptions for battleships with such slogans as “England the Foe! Perfidious Albion! The Coming War! The British Peril! England’s Plan to Fall on Us in 1911!” was credited with an aggressive spirit and a readiness to dare battle at unfavorable odds that could lead to any kind of desperate adventure.
Fear of the unknown but certainly bellicose intentions of the enemy, and particularly fear of the invisible submarine, whose lethal potential loomed more alarmingly each year, made for a highly sensitive state of British naval nerves.
Almost at the farthest point to which the Grand Fleet could sail, almost the last bleak tip of British territory, a remote outpost of the British Isles, north even of the northernmost point of the mainland, Scapa Flow, a natural shelter among the Orkney Islands, was the place belatedly chosen for the fleet’s wartime base. At latitude 59 opposite Norway, the Flow was at the top of the North Sea, 350 miles farther north than Heligoland, where the German fleet would come out if it chose to appear, and 550 miles north of the Portsmouth-Havre crossing of the BEF. It was farther away from the German place of sortie than the Germans were from the British transports, supposing they attempted to attack them. It was a position from which the Grand Fleet could guard its own and block Germany’s lanes of seaborne commerce through the North Sea and by its presence bottle up the enemy in port or, by coming between him and his base, bring him to action if he put to sea. But it was not ready for occupancy.
Each increase in the size of ships required wider docks and harbors, and the Dreadnought program had suffered from the split personality of the Liberal government. Having allowed itself to be persuaded by the passion of Fisher and enthusiasm of Churchill to adopt the building program, the Liberals compensated for this injury to their antiwar sentiments by parsimony in paying for it. As a result, in August 1914 Scapa was not yet equipped with dry docks or fixed defenses.
The fleet, so alertly mobilized by Churchill, reached there safely by August 1 while the government was still debating whether to fight. The days after the declaration of war were, in the words of the First Lord, a period of “extreme psychological tension.” As the moment approached for the crowded troop transports to depart, some action by the enemy in the form of raids on the coast to draw off the fleet or other tactics of provocation, was hourly expected, Churchill thought that “the great naval battle might begin at any moment.”
His state of mind was fully shared by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe who, traveling north by train to Scapa Flow on August 4, opened a telegram marked “Secret” and discovered himself Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet. It was not the appointment, which he had long expected, or any doubts of his own competence that weighed on Jellicoe. Since entering the navy in 1872 when he was twelve and a half years old and four and a half feet high, he had been accustomed to wide recognition of his talents. Displayed on active service and in various offices at the Admiralty, they had earned the consistent, fervent, and resonant admiration of Lord Fisher who picked Jellicoe to “be Nelson … when Armageddon comes along.” The date had come and Fisher’s candidate for Nelsonhood, from the moment he arrived, felt “the greatest anxiety constantly confronting me” over the defenseless nature of the base at Scapa. Lacking land-based guns, booms and nets and fixed mine fields, it was “open to submarine and destroyer attacks.”
Jellicoe worried when German trawlers captured on August 5 were found to have carrier pigeons aboard, suspected of being informants for submarines. Fear of mines, which the Germans announced they were sowing without regard for the limits agreed upon for such devices, increased his anxiety. When one of his light cruisers rammed and sank a submarine, the U-15, on August 9 he was more disturbed than cheered, and hurriedly sent all his capital ships out of the “infected area.” Once, when inside the Flow, a gun crew suddenly opened fire on a moving object reported to be a periscope and set off a flurry of shooting and a feverish hunt by destroyers, he ordered the entire fleet of three battle squadrons out to sea where it stayed all night in fear of what even the navy’s official historian concedes “could have been a seal.” Twice the fleet was transferred to safer bases at Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland and Loch Swilly on the north coast of Ireland, leaving the North Sea free to the Germans had they known it—and twice brought back. If the Germans had launched a naval offensive at this time, it might have obtained startling results.
Between bouts of nerves and sudden bolts like a horse that hears the rustle of a snake, the British Navy set about its business of laying down a blockade and patrolling the North Sea in a ceaseless watch for the appearance of the enemy. With a battle strength of 24 dreadnoughts and a knowledge that the Germans had 16 to 19, the British could count on a firm margin of superiority, and in the next class of battleships believed themselves “markedly superior to the next eight Germans.” But a heavy sense of all that depended on the issue hung over them.
During the week of the passage of the transports, “the Germans have the strongest incentives to action,” Churchill warned Jellicoe on August 8. Not so much as a torpedo boat was sighted. Nothing stirred. The enemy’s inactivity heightened the tension. On the far-flung oceans his individual warships still at large, the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean, the Dresden and Karlsruhe in the Atlantic, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Emden of von Spee’s squadron in the Pacific were making bold raids or bolder escapes, but the High Seas Fleet, lurking motionless behind Heligoland, seemed to presage something more sinister.
“Extraordinary silence and inertia of the enemy may be prelude to serious enterprises … possibly a landing this week on a large scale,” Churchill warned fleet commanders on August 12. He suggested that the Grand Fleet move down nearer to the “theatre of decisive action.” Jellicoe, however, continued his remote patrol in the gray waste of waters between the top of Scotland and Norway, and only once, on August 16, when the transport of the BEF was at its height, ventured below latitude 56. The transports made 137 separate crossings of the Channel from August 14 to 18, while all that time the whole of the Grand Fleet, with its attendant squadrons and flotillas, patrolled in taut expectancy, watching for the white wake of a torpedo, listening for the wireless signal that would say the German fleet had come out upon the seas.
Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, the Fisher of Germany, the father and builder and soul of the German Fleet, “eternal Tirpitz” with his forked white beard like Neptune’s who at sixty-five had served continuously as Secretary of the Navy since 1897, longer in one post than any minister since Bismarck, was not allowed to know the war plan for the weapon he had forged. It was “kept secret by the Naval Staff even from me.” On July 30 when the operational orders were shown to him he discovered the secret: there was no plan. The navy, whose existence had been a chief factor in bringing on the war, had no active role designed for it when war came.
If the Kaiser had confined his reading to The Golden Age, Kenneth Grahame’s dreamlike story of English boyhood in a world of cold adults, which he kept on the bed-table of his yacht, it is possible there might have been no world war. He was eclectic, however, and read an American book that appeared in 1890 with the same impact in its realm as the Origin of Species or Das Kapital in theirs. In The Influence of Sea Power on History Admiral Mahan demonstrated that he who controls communications by sea controls his fate; the master of the seas is master of the situation. Instantly an immense vision opened before the impressionable Wilhelm: Germany must be a major power upon the oceans as upon land. The naval building program began, and although it could not overtake England at once, pursued with German intensity it threatened to do so eventually. It challenged the maritime supremacy upon which Britain depended and knowingly created the likelihood of British enmity in war and consequently the use against Germany of Britain’s chief weapon, blockade.
As a land power Germany could have fought any possible combination of continental powers without interruption of her seaborne supplies as long as Britain, the world’s greatest merchant carrier, remained neutral. In that sense Germany would have been a stronger power without a navy than with one. Bismarck had disapproved of adulterating power on land by a maritime adventure that would add an enemy upon the sea. Wilhelm would not listen. He was bewitched by Mahan and tangled in the private jealousies of his love and hate for seafaring England which came to an annual peak during the yacht regattas of Cowes week. He saw the navy as his knife to cut through Encirclement. He insisted alternately that hostility to England was the last thing he had in mind and that “a larger fleet will bring the English to their senses through sheer fright.” They would then “submit to the inevitable and we shall become the best friends in the world.” In vain his ambassadors to England cautioned against the doubtful logic of this policy. In vain Haldane came to Berlin and Churchill warned that the fleet was an Alsace-Lorraine in Anglo-German relations. Proposals for a fixed ratio or a naval holiday were rejected.
Once the challenge had been made, British hostility could fairly be expected. There was a further cost. Built at huge expense, the navy drew money and men—enough to make two army corps—from the army. Unless it had been built to no purpose it had to perform a strategic function: either to prevent the coming of added enemy divisions against its own army or prevent blockade. As the preamble to the German Navy Law of 1900 acknowledged, “A naval war of block-ade … even if lasting only a year would destroy Germany’s trade and bring her to disaster.”
As it grew in strength and efficiency, in numbers of trained men and officers, as German designers perfected its gunnery, the armor-piercing power of its shells, its optical devices and range finders, the resistant power of its armor plate, it became too precious to lose. Although ship for ship it approached a match with the British and in gunnery was superior, the Kaiser, who could hark back to no Drakes or Nelsons, could never really believe that German ships and sailors could beat the British. He could not bear to think of his “darlings,” as Bülow called his battleships, shattered by gunfire, smeared with blood, or at last, wounded and rudderless, sinking beneath the waves. Tirpitz, whom once he had gratefully ennobled with a “von” but whose theory of a navy was to use it for fighting, began to appear as a danger, almost as an enemy, and was gradually frozen out of the inner councils. His high squeaky voice, like a child’s or a eunuch’s, that emerged as such a surprise from the giant frame and fierce demeanor was no longer heard. While he remained as administrative head, naval policy was left, under the Kaiser, to a group made up of the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral von Pohl; the chief of the Kaiser’s Marine Cabinet, Admiral von Müller; and to the Commander in Chief of the Navy, Admiral von Ingenohl. Pohl, though supporter of a fighting strategy, was a nonentity who achieved the acme of obscurity possible in Hohenzollern Germany—no mention in Bülow’s encyclopedia of gossip; Müller was one of the pederasts and sycophants who decorated the court as advisers to the sovereign; Ingenohl was an officer who “took a defensive view of operations.” “I need no Chief,” said the Kaiser; “I can do this for myself.”
When the moment of Encirclement came, the moment that had haunted his reign, the moment when the dead Edward loomed “stronger than the living I,” the Kaiser’s instructions read, “For the present I have ordered a defensive attitude on the part of the High Seas Fleet.” The strategy adopted for the sharp-edged instrument he had at hand was to exert the influence of a “fleet in being.” By staying within an impregnable fortified position, it was to act as a constant potential danger, forcing the enemy to remain on guard against a possible sortie and thereby draining the enemy’s naval resources and keeping part of his forces inactive. This was a well-recognized role for the inferior of two fleets, and approved by Mahan. He, however, had later concluded that the value of a fleet-in-being “has been much overstated,” for the influence of a navy that elects not to fight tends to become a diminishing quantity.
Even the Kaiser could not have imposed such a policy without good reasons and strong support. He had both. Many Germans, particularly Bethmann and the more cosmopolitan civilian groups could not bring themselves to believe at the start that England was a really serious belligerent. They cherished the thought that she could be bought off in a separate peace, especially after France had been knocked out. Erzberger’s careful avoidance of a grab at England’s colonies was part of this idea. The Kaiser’s maternal family, the English wives of German princes, the ancient Teutonic ties created a sense of kinship. To have battle and spilled blood and deaths between them would make an arrangement between Germany and England difficult if not impossible. (Somehow in this thinking the blood to be spilled in rounding up the BEF along with the French did not count seriously.) Besides, it was hoped to keep the German fleet intact as a bargaining factor to bring the English to terms, a theory which Bethmann strongly supported and the Kaiser was happy to embrace. As time went on and victory went glimmering, the desire to carry the fleet safe and sound through the war for bargaining purposes at the peace table became even more embedded.
In August the primary enemy seemed not England but Russia, and the primary duty of the fleet was considered to be control of the Baltic—at least by those who wished to postpone the test with England. They said the fleet was needed to guard against Russian interference with seaborne supplies from the Scandinavian countries and against a possible Russian descent upon the German coast. Action against England, it was feared, might so weaken Germany’s fleet as to lose command of the Baltic, allow a Russian landing, and lead to defeat on land.
Arguments can always be found to turn desire into policy. Above all else, what nullified the navy in August was confidence in decisive victory by the army and the general belief that the war would not last long enough to make blockade a matter for much concern. Tirpitz with a “right presentiment” had already on July 29, the same day that Churchill mobilized the fleet, requested the Kaiser to place control of the navy in the hands of one man. As he felt that “I have more in my little finger than Pohl in his whole anatomy” (a sentiment expressed privately to his wife, not to the Kaiser), he could only suggest that the proposed office be “entrusted to myself.” His proposal was rejected. Although he contemplated resigning, he refrained on the useful grounds that the Kaiser “would not have accepted my resignation.” Dragged off to Coblenz with the other ministers, he had to suffer in the triumphant aura of OHL while “the Army has all the successes and the Navy none. My position is dreadful after 20 years of effort. No one will understand.”
His High Seas Fleet with its 16 dreadnoughts, 12 older battleships, 3 battle cruisers, 17 other cruisers, 140 destroyers, and 27 submarines remained in port or in the Baltic, while offensive action against England was confined to one sweep by submarines during the first week and to mine-laying. The merchant navy also withdrew. On July 31 the German government ordered steamship lines to cancel all merchant sailings. By the end of August 670 German merchant steamers aggregating 2,750,000 tons, or more than half of Germany’s total, were holed up in neutral ports, and the rest, except for those plying the Baltic, in home ports. Only five out of the terrible forty German armed merchant raiders materialized, and the British Admiralty, looking around in dazed surprise, was able to report on August 14: “The passage across the Atlantic is safe. British trade is running as usual.” Except for the raiders Emden and Königsberg in the Indian Ocean and Admiral von Spee’s squadron in the Pacific the German Navy and German merchant shipping had retired from the surface of the oceans before August was over.
Another battle, Britain’s battle with the United States, the great neutral, had begun. The old issues that caused the war of 1812, the old phrases—freedom of the seas, the flag covers the goods—the old and inevitable conflict between the neutral’s right of commerce and the belligerent’s right of restraint was back again. In 1908, as an outgrowth of the second Hague Conference, an attempt to codify the rules had been made by a conference of all the nations who were to be belligerents in 1914 plus the United States, Holland, Italy, and Spain. Britain, as the largest carrier of seaborne trade with the greatest interest in the free flow of neutral commerce, was host nation, and Sir Edward Grey the moving spirit and sponsor, though not a delegate. Despite the vigorous presence of Admiral Mahan as chief American delegate, the resulting Declaration of London favored the neutrals’ right to trade as against the belligerents’ right to blockade. Even Mahan, the maritime Clausewitz, the Schlieffen of the sea, could not prevail against the suave workings of British influence. Everyone was for neutrals and business as usual, and Mahan’s objections were overruled by his civilian colleagues.
Goods were divided into three categories: absolute contraband, which covered articles for military use only; conditional contraband, or articles for either military or civilian use; and a free list, which included food. Only the first could be seized by a belligerent who declared a blockade; the second could be seized only if enemy destination was proved; and the third not at all. But after the Declaration had been signed and the delegates had gone home, another British interest raised its head—sea power. Admiral Mahan’s flag fluttered up the mast again. His disciples lifted their voices in horror at the betrayal of maritime supremacy, Britain’s guarantee of survival. What use was it, they asked, to deny use of the seas to the enemy if neutrals were to be allowed to supply him with all his needs? They made the Declaration of London a cause célèbre and mounted a campaign against it in press and Parliament. It would nullify the British fleet; it was a German plot; Balfour opposed it. Although the Declaration had passed the House of Commons, the Lords in a burst of energy allowed it to fail to come to a vote, perhaps their most dynamic act of the twentieth century. By this time the government, having had second thoughts, was glad enough to let the matter lapse. The Declaration of London was never ratified.
Meanwhile new realities of naval power made Britain’s traditional policy of close blockade of an enemy’s ports obsolete. Up to now the Admiralty had contemplated, in war against a continental power, a close blockade by destroyer flotillas supported by cruisers and ultimately by battleships. Development of the submarine and floating mine and refinement of the rifled cannon enforced the change to a policy of distant blockade. Adopted in the Admiralty War Orders for 1912, it plunged the whole problem once more into confusion. When a ship attempts to run a close blockade, the port she is making for is obvious and the question of destination does not arise. But when ships are intercepted miles away from their destination, as at the top of the North Sea, the legality of arrest under the rules of blockade has to be shown by proof of destination or of the contraband nature of the cargo. The problem bristled like a floating mine with spikes of trouble.
When war broke, the Declaration of London was still the collected testimony of nations on the subject, and on August 6, the second day of war, the United States formally requested the belligerents to declare their adherence to it. Germany and Austria eagerly agreed on condition that the enemy would do likewise. Britain as spokesman for the Allies on naval policy composed an affirmative reply which, by reserving certain rights “essential to the efficient conduct of their naval operations,” said Yes and meant No. She had as yet no fixed policy about contraband but only an empiric feeling that the terms of the Declaration of London required some stretching. A report of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1911–12 had already proposed that ultimate destination of the goods, not the ships, should be made the criterion of conditional contraband so that leather for saddles, rubber for tires, copper, cotton, raw textiles, and paper, all convertible to military use, could not be shipped freely merely because they were consigned to a neutral receiver. If they were then to be sent overland to Germany, no blockade would be worth the expense of maintaining it. The Committee had suggested that the doctrine of continuous voyage should be “rigorously applied.”
One of those phrases of mysterious power which appear and disappear in history, leaving nothing quite the same as before, “continuous voyage,” was a concept invented by the British in the course of an eighteenth century war with the French. It meant that the ultimate, not the initial destination of the goods was the determining factor. Prematurely buried by the Declaration of London before it was quite dead, it was now disinterred like one of Poe’s entombed cats with similar capacity for causing trouble. The War Office had been advised that foodstuffs shipped by neutrals to Holland were going to supply the German Army in Belgium. On August 20 the Cabinet issued an Order in Council declaring that henceforth Britain would regard conditional contraband as subject to capture if it was consigned to the enemy or “an agent of the enemy” or if its ultimate destination was hostile. Proof of destination was to depend not as heretofore on bills of lading but—in a phrase of matchless elasticity—on “any sufficient evidence.”
Here was the doctrine of continuous voyage, alive, spitting, and sharp of claw. The practical effect, admitted Britain’s ambassador in Washington, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, was to make everything absolute contraband.
The immense train of results, the massive difficulties of implementing the decision, the halting and boarding and examining of ships, the X-ray of cargoes, the prize courts and legal complexities, the ultimate recourse to unrestricted submarine warfare which Germany would take with its ultimate effect upon the United States were not thought of then by the authors of the Order in Council. When he decided to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII did not have in mind the Reformation. When ministers sat around the Cabinet table on August 20 they were concerned with the military necessity of stopping the flow of supplies from Rotterdam to the German Army in Belgium. The Order in Council was submitted to them on military advice and authorized after some discussion of which the only record is Asquith’s airy reference in his diary to “a long Cabinet—all sorts of odds and ends about coal and contraband.”
The Prime Minister was not the only person unconcerned with odds and ends of this kind. When a German official, foreseeing the change to a long war of attrition, presented Moltke with a memorandum on the need for an Economic General Staff, Moltke replied, “Don’t bother me with economics—I am busy conducting a war.”
By a nice coincidence the Order in Council, reviving the issue of the War of 1812, appeared exactly on the one hundredth anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British. Happily this odd chance and the Order itself were overlooked by the American public, absorbed in streaming headlines about the fall of Brussels, stranded Americans in Paris, Kaisers and Czars, fleets, Cossacks, Field Marshals, Zeppelins, Western and Eastern Fronts. The United States government, however, was shocked. The soft British preamble to the Order, which affirmed loyalty to the Declaration of London before making its delicate exceptions, failed to obscure their meaning to the lawyer’s eye of Robert Lansing, Counselor to the State Department. He drew up a firm and immediate protest which precipitated a long duel extending into months and years of letters and replies, briefs and precedents, interviews between ambassadors, volumes of documents.
To the London Daily Chronicle on August 27 there appeared to be a “very real danger” of becoming embroiled with the United States over questions of contraband and the right of search which it understood the United States “strongly resists.” This was a problem that had occurred to Sir Edward Grey, and required careful handling. In the beginning when the war was expected to be short and all that mattered was the best means of winning quickly, there seemed little likelihood of time for a serious issue with the United States to arise. After Mons and Charleroi the inescapable truth of a long war rose out of the corpse-strewn battlefields and stared the Allies in the face. In a long war they would have to draw upon the United States for food, arms, and money (no one yet thought of men) and cut Germany off from the same nourishment. Stiffening the blockade of the enemy and maintaining friendship with the great neutral became simultaneously essential—and incompatible. As every added restraint put upon the neutrals’ trade with Germany raised another majestic howl from the State Department about freedom of the seas, it became uncomfortably apparent that Britain might ultimately have to decide which of two objects was the more important. For the moment, with instinctive English dislike of absolutes, Sir Edward Grey was able to pick his way from incident to incident, avoiding large principles as a helmsman avoids rocks and being careful not to allow discussion to reach a clear-cut issue that would require either side to take a position from which it could not climb down. His aim from day to day was, he said, “to secure the maximum blockade that could be enforced without a rupture with the United States.”
He had a formidable opponent who was nothing if not a man of principle. Rigidly, puritanically attached to neutrality, Woodrow Wilson was driven to take and maintain a stand on traditional neutral rights less for their own sake than because they were part of the neutral’s role that he grasped with fierce intensity from the beginning. He had come to office strenuously dedicated to unseating the “Interests” and dollar diplomats entrenched under the portly, protective shadow of Mr. Taft and to achieving the New Freedom in domestic and Latin-American affairs. Knowing that war stifles reform, he was bent on keeping the country out of a foreign adventure that would frustrate his program. But beyond that, he had a grander and ulterior reason. He saw in the war an opportunity for greatness on the world stage. In his first utterance on the war, spoken to a press conference on August 3, he said that he wanted to have the pride of the feeling that America “stands ready to help the rest of the world” and that he believed she could “reap a great permanent glory out of doing it.” Thus early, even before the guns went off, he had formulated the role that he wanted the United States, with which he identified himself, to play; the role he clung to with increasing desperation as the hammer of events weakened his grip, that he never, even after the final involvement, abandoned in his heart.
To Wilson neutrality was the opposite of isolationism. He wanted to keep out of war in order to play a larger, not a lesser, part in world affairs. He wanted the “great permanent glory” for himself as well as for his country, and he realized he could win it only if he kept America out of the quarrel so that he could act as impartial arbiter. On August 18, in a famous statement, he commanded his countrymen to be “neutral in fact as well as in name, impartial in thought as well as in action,” and explained that the ultimate purpose of neutrality was to enable the United States “to speak the counsels of peace” and “play the part of impartial mediator.” In the European conflict he hoped to exercise the duty of “moral judgment,” as he said in a later statement. He wanted “to serve humanity,” bring to bear the force—the moral force—of the New World to save the Old World from its follies and, by applying “standards of righteousness and humanity,” bring the gifts of peace through mediation under the flag that was “the flag not only of America but of humanity.”
Once the British Navy had effectively gained control of the Atlantic by the end of August, the duel with the United States over contraband, however earnest, prolonged, and often bitter, remained a shadow duel. For Wilson freedom of the seas was never the overriding issue, and though once, when matters became particularly contentious, he was disturbed by the thought that he might become the second Princeton president after Madison to lead the country to war, he had no wish to push home the quarrel to the ultimate conclusion of 1812. In any case, leaping trade with the Allies, which was taking up more than the slack of lost trade with Germany, dulled the edge of national principle. As long as goods were being absorbed, the United States came gradually to acquiesce in the process begun by the Order in Council of August 20.
From that time on, through control of the high seas by the British fleet, American trade was perforce directed more and more toward the Allies. Trade with the Central Powers declined from $169 million in 1914 to $1 million in 1916, and during the same period trade with the Allies rose from $824 million to $3 billion. To supply the demand American business and industry produced the goods the Allies wanted. To enable them to pay for American supplies, financial credit for the Allies had to be arranged. Eventually, the United States became the larder, arsenal, and bank of the Allies and acquired a direct interest in Allied victory that was to bemuse the postwar apostles of economic determinism for a long time.
Economic ties develop where there is a basis of long-founded cultural ties, and economic interests where there is natural interest. American trade with England and France had always been greater than with Germany and Austria, and the effect of the blockade was to exaggerate an existing condition, not to create an artificial one. Trade follows not only a nation’s flag but its natural sympathies.
“A government can be neutral,” said Walter Hines Page, the American ambassador in London, “but no man can be.” As a wholehearted adherent of the Allies, to whom the concept of neutrality was despicable, he spoke feelingly and wrote feelingly in vivid, persuasive letters to Wilson. Although Page’s outspoken identification with the Allies estranged the President to the point of turning his back on the man who had been one of his earliest supporters, even Wilson could not make himself neutral in thought as he wanted other men to be. When Grey wrote him a letter of sympathy on the death of Mrs. Wilson on August 6, Wilson, who admired Grey and felt close to him as one who had lost his own wife, replied: “My hope is that you will regard me as your friend. I feel that we are bound together by common principle and purpose.” There was no one in the German government to whom he could have said the same.
Wilson’s cultural roots and political philosophy, like that of the majority of influential people in American life, went back to English experience and the French Revolution. He tried to repress them for the sake of his ambition to be peacemaker to the world. For three years he struggled, using every means of persuasion he could wield, to bring the belligerents to a negotiated peace, a “peace without victory.” Neutrality, on which his efforts depended, was helped by a strong current of Irish or what might be called anti-George III sentiment and by the vociferous pro-German groups from Professor Hugo Münsterberg of Harvard down to the beerhalls of Milwaukee. It might have prevailed had it not been for a factor before which Wilson was helpless, which in shaping American sentiment was the greatest Allied asset—not the British fleet but German folly.
At the outbreak on August 4 the President, writing to a friend, expressed only “utter condemnation” for the conflict across the seas, and made no attempt to distinguish between the belligerents. On August 30, after a month of the war in Belgium, Colonel House recorded that the President “felt deeply the destruction of Louvain .… He goes even further than I in his condemnation of Germany’s part in this war and almost allows his feeling to include the German people as a whole rather than the leaders alone .… He expressed the opinion that if Germany won it would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a military nation.” A few days later Spring-Rice reported that Wilson had said to him “in the most solemn way that if the German cause succeeds in the present struggle the United States would have to give up its present ideals and devote all its energies to defense which would mean the end of its present system of government.”
Holding these views, Wilson nevertheless stood to the last, a Casabianca on the burning deck of neutrality. But it was on the planks of a legal, not a felt, neutrality. He could never regard the prospect of an Allied victory as a threat to the principles on which the United States was founded, whereas the prospect of a German victory, especially after Belgium clarified the issues, could not be regarded as anything else. If Wilson, who of all his countrymen had the greatest stake in neutrality, was alienated by German actions, how much more so the average man. The sentiments aroused by Louvain muffled the resentment of Britain’s blockade procedures. Each time a British search or seizure or addition to the contraband list aroused new gusts of American wrath, they would be diverted by some convenient act of German frightfulness. Just when Lansing’s stiff rebuke of the Order in Council was about to ripen into major controversy, German Zeppelins on August 25 bombed the residential area of Antwerp, killing civilians and narrowly missing the Palace where the Belgian Queen had just moved with her children. As a result Lansing found himself framing a protest against “this outrage upon humanity” instead of a protest against continuous voyage.
In a moment of painful foresight Wilson confided to his brother-in-law, Dr. Axon, who remembered the date as shortly after Mrs. Wilson’s funeral on August 12, “I am afraid something will happen on the high seas that will make it impossible for us to keep out of war.” It was not what happened on the high seas but what did not happen that became the deciding factor. When Sherlock Holmes called Inspector Gregory’s attention “to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” the puzzled Inspector replied, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Holmes.
The German Navy was the dog in the night. It did not fight. Chained up by the fleet-in-being theory and by German belief in an early victory on land, it was not allowed to risk itself in the performance of a navy’s function—keeping the sea lanes open to the commerce of its country. Although German industry depended on imported raw materials and German agriculture on imported fertilizer, although German dairy cattle chewed all winter on imported fodder, the Navy made no attempt to protect the flow of supplies. The only battle it fought in August was inadvertent and merely served to confirm the Kaiser’s reluctance to risk his “darlings.”
This was the Battle of Heligoland Bight on August 28. In a sudden challenge meant to divert German attention from the landing of marines at Ostend, submarine and destroyer flotillas of the British Channel fleet, with battle cruisers in support, steamed into the Bight, home base of the German Navy. Taken by surprise, German light cruisers were ordered out without support of heavier warships. “With all the enthusiasm of the first fight,” in Tirpitz’s words, they rushed about recklessly in the mist and confusion. In a tangled, dispersed, and haphazard series of combats that lasted all day, British units mistook each other for the enemy and were only saved from what Churchill delicately called “awkward embarrassments” by pure luck. The Germans, who failed to respond to the challenge by ordering the whole fleet to sea, were outnumbered and outgunned. The advantage of the day went to the British. Three German light cruisers, the Köln, Mainz, and Ariadne, and a destroyer were shot to pieces and sunk, three others badly damaged, and more than 1,000 men, including an Admiral and a Commodore, were killed under fire or drowned, and over 200, including Wolf Tirpitz, son of the Grand Admiral, were picked from the water and taken prisoner. The British lost no ships and suffered some 75 casualties.
Horrified at his losses and confirmed in his fear of a test with the British, the Kaiser gave orders that risks were not again to be taken, “the loss of ships was to be avoided,” the initiative of the Commander of the North Sea Fleet was to be further restricted, and major movements were not to be undertaken without His Majesty’s approval in advance.
Thereafter, while the British Navy built up the blockade walls around Germany, the German Navy watched passively. Straining against his chains the unhappy Tirpitz wrote in mid-September, “Our best opportunity for a successful battle was in the first two or three weeks after the declaration of war.” “As time goes on,” he predicted, “our chance of success will grow worse, not better.” It was the English fleet that was “achieving the full effect of a ‘fleet-in-being’: extraordinary and increasing pressure on the neutrals, complete destruction of German sea-borne trade, the fullest practical blockade.”
Eventually forced to combat the situation it had allowed to develop, German naval policy went underwater. In belated effort to break the blockade it took to the U-boats. Spawned in default of the surface navy, the U-boats ultimately fulfilled the condition on the high seas that Wilson had fearfully glimpsed during the first days of the war in August.