In August of 1914, the world exploded.

The two sides had already been preparing for war by calling up all of the conscripts that would be needed for a massive land war in Europe. Before it was over, the losses on both sides would be staggering. By wars end, a combined total of twenty million people would be dead as a result of the conflict.

But food and basic necessities were also problems. From the Imperial War Museum:

“Hunger stalked the civilian populations of all the combatant nations. Agriculture and food distribution suffered from strains imposed by the war and naval blockades reduced food imports. Some countries met this threat more successfully than others.

“The war took men and horses away from farm work. Imports of nitrate fertilizers were hit. Reduced agricultural output forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Governments responded by putting price controls on staple foodstuffs. Food queues formed of women and children became a common sight in cities across Europe.

“In Russia and Turkey the distribution of food broke down. The Russian revolution had its origins in urban food riots. In Turkey many starved. Austria-Hungary eventually succumbed to the same calamity.

“Germany introduced numerous government controls on food production and sale, but these proved to be badly thought out and worsened the effects of the British naval blockade. Substitute foodstuffs were produced from a variety of unappetizing ingredients, but their nutritional value was negligible and Germans became increasingly malnourished from 1916 onwards.”

The free flow of goods and commerce on the open seas was restricted by the ships and submarines of the belligerents. The small submarine force was eventually repurposed from attacking the enemy’s war ships to raiding commerce on the high seas.

But in the beginning of the war, there were still questions about how the submarines would be used if at all.


“Of all the modern war engines now being tried out in the present European conflict, the submarine is the most enigmatical. The rapid-fire gun, the aeroplane, the dirigible have all, to a great extent, been practically tested in times of peace under conditions closely simulating war and the effect of their action, both upon themselves and an enemy, in great measure foretold. The submarine alone remains a riddle.

“No practical experiments approaching actual war conditions have ever been made with the submarine, because, for reasons wherein it is impossible to go into in detail, it has been found impossible to reproduce those conditions, as to the war action of the submarine in time of peace,” said an officer of the American navy, whose name, for obvious reasons, is not given. “And so this new vessel, perhaps the most dangerous, yet perhaps the most harmless to the enemy, goes into the fight as an utterly untried factor. No battles of recent years give us the slightest hint of its action. The only two naval battles of recent times, the battle of Santiago, between the American and the Spanish ships, and the battle of Ten Straits, between the fleets of Russia and Japan, were both straight, standup fights, differing in no manner save In the greater size of ships and guns from the battles of Trafalgar and Mobile Bay. Never yet in naval combat has anything even approaching the action of a submarine been tried.

* * * *

“As to the part the submarine will play in naval fights of the future, and especially in the present war, naval experts are divided into two camps as far apart as the poles. Only on one point do they agree – that is, that the submarine will not play any intermediate or auxiliary part. It will either be utterly worthless, or worse, or it will be supreme over every other form of sea-fighting craft.

“The latter party, who hold that the most powerful dreadnought will be at the mercy of the submarine, base their opinion upon the fact that the latter, approaching, concealed beneath the surface, can silently approach its bulky enemy within striking distance, whence, launching its deadly torpedo. It can sink it with one blow. Then, turning within a few minutes to another monster battleship, it can- with a like blow send it to the bottom. Still, again, it can direct another torpedo against any surviving enemy and so on until all the enemy’s ships are sunk or the submarine exhausts its torpedoes. In short, each torpedo in the submarine’s magazine will be equivalent to the destruction of one battleship. Just as the bowmen of Edward III, each of whom carried twelve arrows, boasted that they each carried twelve Scotch lives in their quivers.

“On the other hand, however, a very formidable number of naval experts claim that, while the submarine is deadly, it is deadly only to its own crew. Its limited range, of vision, its action, carried on in almost complete darkness, render it as impotent and as dangerous to itself as a man stumbling along a pitch-dark road with a load of dynamite. Furthermore, the delicate mechanism of the submarine and its uncertain equipoise beneath the waves render it peculiarly liable to be thrown out of working order by the slightest disturbance, and when that happens the crew are lucky if they escape with their lives, especially in the heat of battle.

“And these experts further hold that no submarines can possibly survive the effect of the explosions of its own torpedoes; rather that It cannot survive the explosion of a single one, but that like the bee, which dies after it has struck a blow with its sting, it is destroy ed by its own act. That the submarines are thus as deadly to themselves as to the enemy is one view taken a party of English experts as a result of some experiments bearing upon the question recently made near Portsmouth, England.

* * *

“According to them, the shock of a torpedo exploding against a ship’s side will be sufficient even to cave in the side of the submarine delivering the blow. This presumes, of course, that the submarine is in the vicinity of the stricken ship, but it is necessary for it to approach within a reasonably close distance in order to inflict its blow. In the experiments at Portsmouth it was determined that a charge of thirty pounds of guncotton exploded under water exerted sufficient pressure to cave in a submarine at a distance of 200 feet from the point of explosion. Of course, any such effect as that would render the submarine nothing but a mass of junk. These experts further concluded that a shock far less than one sufficient to cave in the submarine’s shell would render it useless and practically works its destruction. A shock merely sufficient to disarrange the delicate mechanism of the craft would render it unmanageable. Its crew would be imprisoned under water, utterly helpless, and only by the rarest chance could escape death.

“It was further determined that the explosion of a torpedo within six or seven hundred feet of a submerged submarine would give it such a shock as in all probability would disturb its mechanism to such an extent that it would be helpless. Yet a submarine, owing to its limited vision, must approach as closely as possible to the target vessel if it would deliver an effective blow. Of course, this di stance would vary under the circumstances of wave and tide, but certainly it would have to approach, under ordinary conditions, within a very few hundred feet. The chances, therefore, would be in favor of the self-destruction of the submarine.

* * *

“And the submarine is wholly dependent for its action, whether in maneuvering or in attacking, upon a variety of delicate mechanical forms. It is as sensitive as a Geneva watch. Should any of these be thrown out of gear or operation by virtue of a shock it cannot limp into port, as a surface vessel may. It is doomed. Some of the English experts, who are skeptical about the practical war value of the submarine, have dubbed that corps the ‘suicide club.”

“Yet the highest authorities In the British navy, while admitting the self-danger of the submarine, have reasoned that it is still an effective war engine. The cost of a single battleship, they figure, would build very many submarines, and it would take a hundredfold as many men to man one. Accordingly, though the crew of the submarine is doomed to certain destruction, men are the cheapest things in war, and though a dozen submarines were destroyed in compassing the ruin of a single battleship of the enemy, the net result would be in favor of the submarines.”

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 06 Sept. 1914. 


The SM U9 U boat delivered the first wakeup call of the war for the Admiralties

On 16 July 1914, the crew of U-9 reloaded her torpedo tubes while submerged, the first time any submarine had succeeded in doing so. On 1 August 1914, Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen took command.


On 22 September, while patrolling the Broad Fourteens, a region of the southern North Sea, U-9 found a squadron of three obsolescent British Cressy-class armored cruisers (HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy, sardonically nicknamed the “Live Bait Squadron”), which had been assigned to prevent German surface vessels from entering the eastern end of the English Channel. She fired four of her torpedoes, reloading while submerged, and sank all three in less than an hour. 1,459 British sailors died. It was one of the most notable submarine actions of all time.

Members of the Admiralty who had considered submarines mere toys no longer expressed that opinion after this event.

On 15 October, U-9 sank the protected cruiser HMS Hawke.

On 12 January 1915, Johannes Spieß relieved Weddigen, and commanded U-9 until 19 April 1916. During this period, she sank 13 ships totalling 8,635 GRT: 10 small fishing vessels and three British steamers (Don, Queen Wilhelmina and Serbino).

By October 1914, the United States was beginning to understand the magnitude of the war that was unfolding. The submarine was beginning to be considered instrumental to the defense of our own country in the face of open sea warfare.

Submarine Needs

 United States Experts Discussed

Sensational feats accomplished by German submarines since the commencement of hostilities have moved the American Government’s naval chiefs to give serious consideration to the necessity of increasing the strength of the submarine flotilla.

With this country’s long coast lines on two oceans to protect, and the impossibility of adequately protecting them with coast fortifications, the submarine, since the lesson the Germans have taught by its use in the North Sea, has loomed up as the solution of the problem.

Submarine experts of the navy declare that with a fleet of 200 submarines, 100 on each coast, the United States could withstand any naval attack. There are at present fifty-one submarines, built or building in the navy, and bids for eight more are to be advertised for in December.

Secretary of the Navy Daniels declares that the general board of the navy has purposely delayed its recommendations of the naval program for next year, because its members “wished to study the lessons of the European war.” Mr Daniels said he would be guided also in his recommendations to Congress by these lessons.

That one of the chief lessons thus far learned has been that demonstrating the utility of the submarine is made plain by consideration given this war craft.

Place For Submarines.

The general board of the navy, now in session and the general staff of the army have had before them specific recommendations for use of the submarine in coast defense. Before giving up the post of chief of staff of the army, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood declared that Puget Sound, Long Island Sound, San Francisco harbor and the entrance to Chesapeake Bay cannot be mined because of strength of current and other untoward conditions. He recommended that submarines be stationed at these points as a part of their defenses.

Admiral Dewey went further and pointed out a number of locations along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts where submarines should be stationed. He mentioned the following places: New York, the entrances to Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles, and Cape Henry. New Orleans, Galveston, San Francisco, the entrance to Puget Sound, Wilmington, Savannah, and Key West.

“With two submarines at Galveston.” Admiral Dewey said, “all the navies of the world could not blockade that port.”

Members of Congress from the Pacific coast have been working for years for more submarines to supplement the coast fortifications and the battleship fleet in protecting the coast cities from attack. The Pacific coast was given four of the eight submarines appropriated for in the last naval bill.

May Ask For Twelve.

Friends of the submarine in Congress indicate that Congress may be asked to appropriate for twelve of this type of war craft this year, instead of eight as last year, and four the preceding year.

So rapidly are other countries increasing their submarine strength that Secretary Daniels believes this Government should “keep up and increase our submarine strength.’ The Secretary added that “with the Navy Department and Congress both working toward an adequate submarine fleet, it is believed that our concurrent progress with foreign countries is fairly assured.”

“Considering the number of submarines in our navy and the principal foreign navies,” Secretary Daniels declared, “we find that England has a fleet of about seventy-five in service and probably nine building; Germany twenty-four in service and seven or more building; France sixty-seven in service and nine or more building; Japan fifteen in service and two, and possibly more, building, while in the United States we have thirty-six in service, fourteen building, and eight about to be contracted for.

“These figures may be modified somewhat at present, for in some of these countries submarines were building for other powers at the commencement of the war and these vessels have undoubtedly been taken over as a part of the respective navies. Further, since submarine matters are considered secret, the figures of vessel building are guarded, and may not be exactly correct. However, looking over the above figures we find that, roughly, there are built or building for the various navies: England. 84; France. 76; United States, 51; Germany. 31; Japan. 17.

Relative Naval Strength.

“When the relative sizes of the fleets of the great nations enumerated above are considered, it will be seen that the United States possesses a submarine flotilla relatively and actually very powerful. England’s fleet is more than twice as great as that of this country, yet she has but little more than half as many more submarines. France has a considerably larger submarine fleet than ours, with a smaller navy, but she has in the past taken the lead in submarine building, and this lead England has overcome, and we are on that road. Germany, with a more powerful fleet than ours, has many less submarines, and Japan, with a fleet approaching ours in strength, has only half as many submarines.

But as an indication that he is fully alive to the needs of increasing the size of the submarine flotilla. Secretary Daniels added:

“Harbors and coasts to be defended must be considered, and the United States, with long coast lines and many harbors, may need rather more than a proportional number of submarines.”

Naval experts refuse to make public just what plans the Government would follow in utilizing submarines for guarding the entire nation’s coast lines. But, in explanation of the estimate given by one official of the need of 100 submarines on the Atlantic and 100 on the Pacific. It is said that there are already available on the coasts protected harbors for these small craft.

The use of submarines could, they say, prevent any hostile landing force from attacking the land fortifications from the rear, one of the dangers to which army experts have admitted the few coast defenses have been exposed.

Sea Going Type.

One of the submarines which will be contracted for this winter is of the larger type designed to accompany the fleet. The others are of the smaller, coast defense type, whoso utility at sea was proved a few years ago by an 800-mi- le trial trip to the Bermuda’s, made by one of the little boats. This demonstration of distance-covering powers is advanced as an illustration of what a fleet of 100 such boats could do if stationed along the Atlantic coast.

The comparatively small initial cost and the low cost of maintenance of a submarine as compared with the new superdreadnoughts is advanced as another argument. Secretary Daniels recently reported the complete cost of a beat of the new superdreadnought type to be from $14,000,000 to $16,000,000. Such a boat as the Pennsylvania, with sixty-five officers and a crew of 972 men costs about $1,000,000 a year for maintenance. The initial cost of the coast defense typo of submarine is about $300,000 and the annual cost of maintenance about $25,000. The sea-going type of submarine cost about $1,200,000, and the cost of maintenance is relatively larger.

The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 21 Oct. 1914.


The naval leadership wasn’t ready to completely give in to this new desire on the part of Congress and Secretary Daniels to diversify. There was already enough friction between the parties in Washington, but the leaders of the navy were convinced that they had more subject matter knowledge that a former newspaper editor from North Carolina and his progressive friends. Articles were floated in the national papers to try and get their message directly to the American people.

Washington; Nov., 3.—Ever since the sinking of the British cruiser Hawke by the German, submarine U9 in the North sea, the navy department has been deluged with letters containing suggestions from individuals all over the country for the improvement of’ the submarine and for a great extension of its usefulness. Satisfied that most of the writers of these communications have acquired an exaggerated idea of the fighting abilities of the submarine and that there was very present danger of a serious interference with this naval building program and perhaps an almost total suspension of the construction of additional battleships if erroneous ideas obtain common credence, the naval officials have been trying to correct this impression. They have made it a point to reply to each of the letter writers getting out in detail the reasons why in the judgment of the department officials it would be disastrous to abandon other naval construction entirely in favor of the submarine, and pointing the limitations which surround these little boats.

“These arguments-have been reduced to form in the following statement which it may be said accurately represents the views of the technical officers of the navy in regard to the merits of the submarine:

“The land, operations of the war have been so overwhelming, and the naval conflicts so comparatively few that the importance of the sea operations of the various nations is apt to be lost sight of. It is the brilliant feats which strike the eye, the dash of the, British against Helgoland, the destruction of three cruisers by a German submarine, rather than the slow bearing down by sheer weight of the allied fleet against the whole German coast line.

“So far, the submarine has carried off the honors, and at the same time has greatly disappointed its admirers in that it has not done more. It was freely predicted before the war that the day of the dreadnought was passed; that, the submarine would drive it from the seas.

“The destruction of the three British cruisers, Hogue, Cressy and Aboukir, by the German submarine U9 and later the sinking of the Hawke by the same submarine was taken as proof of the impotence of surface craft.

“Nevertheless, the advocates of submarines are beginning to evidence signs of impatience at the paucity of results. They realize that there are over two hundred submarines in the navies of the warring nations and so far only one has done anything. Not a dreadnought has even been menaced. The cruisers which were struck were old, hastily commissioned with naval reserve crews, two of them were engaged in lowering boats and picking up the-survivors of the first when they too were torpedoed.

“The loss of these vessels has no more effect on the result of the war than the reported capture of a German aeroplane by a British submarine. No one would seriously advocate submarines as proper weapons to use against aeroplanes, but it is nevertheless reported that an aeroplane, which had alighted on the water was captured by a submarine which emerged close at hand.

“The ideal conditions for a submarine attack consist in finding the enemy motionless in the water; then and only then can the submarine hope for success.

“But even so the odds are against the submarine if proper precautions are taken, as shown by the actions of the allied sea forces which have been shelling the German flank for several days. These vessels have been operating in a very restricted area for some time, certainly sufficiently long for a group of submarines to proceed against, them from any German port. Their position has been known to everybody and it would appear an ideal chance for a few submarines to either destroy them or to drive them off. But nothing of the sort has happened. These ships have been left unmolested to harass the German flank, to prevent their approach to the coast, and to enfilade their trenches for several miles inland. They ar. small vessels of such low speed that they could not escape from a submarine if attacked.

“If the submarine is all that its admirers believe, it is inconceivable why these vessels have been left to interfere so seriously with the major operations of the German army. The fact that they have been so unmolested on an open roast, ‘testifies to the power of the British fleet to” protect itself against all forms of attack.

“The war is only at its beginning yet, and many lessons may be learned before its finish, but so far nothing has occurred to encourage the belief that the submarine Is supreme; on the contrary it is losing prestige dally. Many factors tend to make the submarine popular as a means of defense —the silence and mystery of Its movements, the tremendous power of its blows, the almost limited field for imagination among those who know least of its powers and shortcomings, the always human sympathy for the ‘little fellow,’ the David against Goliath—all touch a chord in the popular fancy. But the hard facts demonstrated by three months of war show that out of two hundred submarines operating in waters of very restricted extent, the results accomplished have been practically nil. It will behooves our navy department to go slow about deciding to increase the number of submarines at the expense of a reduced number of battleships. The possibility of finding a cheap means of making a war has a strong fascination, but the teaching of history show that the pursuit of such ideas have always resulted in increased expense in the end.”

Grand Forks daily herald. (Grand Forks, N.D.), 03 Nov. 1914.


What was the ultimate impact of the German submarine fleet?

In the end the German submarines had an enormous impact on the war. Over the course of the war German submarines sank 6,394 ships displacing a combined total of 11,948,702 tons. They were decisive though; by bringing the world’s most powerful neutral into the war they sealed Germany’s defeat.

Mister Mac

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