16 March 1916 – Deck Shuffle

We can blame the British for some measure of confusion over the dating of events during the Great War. Because London considers itself the center of the world a century ago, no event is deemed to have truly happened until it is recorded there, but that formal recording sometimes takes place on the day after the event actually happened. Truth being first casualty in war, Britain effectively declared war on August 3rd, 1914, yet officially was at peace until the 4th, and the pattern has held true throughout. Today is another instance of this phenomenon, for we are still told online that Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz resigned a century ago on this date, but this is false.

In fact, Tirpitz tendered his resignation on the 12th expecting that Kaiser Wilhelm II would once again decline it, but the monarch unexpectedly accepted it instead. The world only becomes aware of Tirpitz’s resignation today because of the announcement that Admiral Eduard von Cappelle has been recalled from retirement to take his place as Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office.

Above is a prewar photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II conferring with Admiral Tirpitz (center) and Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff (right), who was also recalled from retirement last September to head the Admiralty. There, Tirpitz persuaded him that a campaign of unrestricted u-boat warfare could bring Britain to its knees in a matter of five to eight months. By the end of the year, Holtzendorff will be one of the most important advocates of the strategy, and heedless as Tirpitz was that such actions will undoubtedly bring the United States into the war against Germany. Like his colleague, Holtzendorf thinks that a merciless u-boat campaign will succeed before the Americans can mobilize and alter the balance of power in France.

Public support for submarine warfare has grown considerably, too. Incidents such as the Baralong affair, in which a British Q-ship massacred German submariners who were trying to surrender after their vessel was stricken, or the Taranaki deception in which a German submarine was lured to destruction, have led to calls in the Reichstag for tougher action at sea. Which is to say that Bethmann-Hollweg is almost a lone voice against unrestricted u-boat warfare left in the Kaiser’s circle of trust, and one of few voices without it who express any opposition. Unrestricted u-boat warfare is a popular idea in 1916.


Like Tirpitz, Admiral von Capelle advocates total war with u-boats

The emperor’s break with Tirpitz began with his testimony before the Bundesrat on March 3rd. The fork-bearded Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) falsely testified that 203 submarines were already at sea taking the war to England; in fact, Tirpitz had just twenty blue water vessels capable of operating in the Atlantic, and five are currently in the Mediterranean. His Navy press bureau has been reporting hulls planned for the shipyard as already built. Exposed by the hearing, Tirpitz was conspicuously uninvited the next day when Wilhelm held a conference with his advisers in Charleville, occupied France. Tirpitz pointedly reported himself sick, eventually offering his resignation in expectation that the Kaiser would once again keep the man who built his expensive High Seas Fleet.

The grave anxiety at seeing the life work of Your Majesty and the national future of Germany on the path to ruin makes me realize that my services can be of no further use to Your Majesty.

Seeing an opening, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, an opponent of unrestricted u-boat war who is already outnumbered by its advocates, prevailed upon the Kaiser to accept. According to the diary of Evelyn Fürstin Blücher von Wahlstatt, Tirpitz’s anger was “indescribable. “

They gave out as reason for his retirement that he had broken down and needed rest. So he walked with his wife up and down the Wilhelmstrasse for two hours to prove to the crowd that it was not true and that he was in the best of health. Next day, he took off his uniform and appeared in tall hat and frock coat to show that he had been ‘deprived of his uniform’ and talked to his wife in a loud voice so that the crowd would be able to hear.

His petulance will be rewarded by never seeing the Kaiser again. His eighteen year career creating the German Navy ends with a whimper instead of a great battle. Yet Tirpitz has only been one voice calling for unrestricted u-boat warfare; Bethmann-Hollweg’s opportunism has not prevailed over the Admiralty. Instead, his Foreign Office headaches are about to get worse.

A postcard of the Tubantia

A postcard of the Tubantia. At 13,911 tons, she is the largest neutral ship to be sunk during the war

Even as Tirpitz declined into public self-martyrdom, new rules of engagement were being issued to u-boat captains. Within the war zone previously declared around Britain, they are now authorized to sink merchant ships, i.e. cargo vessels, without warning, i.e. with torpedoes while submerged. Passenger ships are supposed to remain off-limits, but today that stricture is tested just after 2 AM when the coastal submarine UB-13 sinks the Royal Holland Lloyd passenger liner Tubantia bound for Amsterdam from Buenos Aires — a Latin American neutral, to make diplomatic matters worse — and although the 80 passengers and 294 crew are rescued, German denialism will not be well-received in the neutral Netherlands.

Bethmann-Hollweg cannot shuffle the deck chairs on a sinking ship of state fast enough to stop its slide towards war with the New World. The Americans will quickly realize what is happening, and they will not like it at all.


The SM U-55 is an example of an ocean-going submarine put to sea this year. Note the radio antenna and two deck guns