German U-boat Attacks Spread;

An Ultimatum from the American President

Special to The Great War Project

(15-18 April) The American President, Woodrow Wilson is running for reelection, and the war is concerning him greatly.

Since the war began, Wilson pursues a policy of neutrality. There is pressure in the United States to join the Allies in the fighting, but Wilson wants to keep the U.S. out of the war. In fact that will become his main campaign slogan:

“He kept us out of the war.”

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

Still, it’s not been easy. Some German leaders want to pursue a policy on the high seas of unrestricted submarine warfare. “The German High Command,” writes historian Gary Mead, “was preoccupied throughout 1916 by internal wrangling over whether or not to use its submarine weapon in an unrestricted fashion.”

Those in favor are carrying the day. They wish to see “an urgent resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in the belief that this would more quickly bring Britain to starvation and surrender.”

In late March and early April a century ago, a spate of submarine attacks on American ships or ships carrying Americans angers Washington. One, the German attack on a French passenger ship, the Sussex, leaves eight dead, several Americans among them.

The Sussex torpedoed, April 1916.

The Sussex torpedoed, April 1916.

“Amid this welter of torpedoings, sinkings, anxiety and death, Wilson felt he must act more firmly,” writes Mead. “He pinned his next rebuke, sent to Berlin on 18 April, on the most serious and flagrant recent attack, that on the French ship, the Sussex.”

The Germans claim the ship is sunk by a British mine. In fact the ship is holed by a submarine torpedo. Mead writes, “Wilson had no time for this squirming.”

Wilson’s note to the Germans is a sharp ultimatum. “Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no other choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.”

This provokes a crisis within the German High Command in Berlin. The Germans react slowly and cautiously. And eventually they are conciliatory. They are willing to suspend some U-bout attacks, “but only on condition that America would press Britain to lift its blockade, and then it would be able to show some results on this matter within two months, Mead reports….

“This demand was doomed from the outset, as Britain by now understandably felt America to be an ally in all but name.”

Nonetheless, Wilson’s campaign slogan will remain, “He kept us out of the war.”

How Wilson reconciles America’s contradictory stance will become a key factor as his reelection campaign unfolds.




  1. David Norton
    April 18, 2016 at 9:46 AM

    An important casualty on the “SUSSEX”: The internationally known Spanish composer Enrique Granados, and his wife. They were returning to Europe after a series of concerts in the USA. When Granados saw his wife flailing in the water, he jumped out of the lifeboat to try to save her. Both were drowned, leaving six children.

    Thanks again for this great ongoing narrative of WWI history.

  2. April 20, 2016 at 10:05 AM

    Your post inspired me to look through my archives and find the letter my great aunt Marion Mitchell wrote to her family after sitting in the gallery and listening to Wilson’s speech on April 19, 1916. You can read it here: http://mitchellsisters.com/blog/

    • Christopher Daly
      April 22, 2016 at 11:29 AM

      Alexa, what a great letter, written by your great-aunt. her comments about Alice Longworth Roosevelt don’t surprise me much, and the comments about members of Congress, “whereas any number of the Senators and Congressmen look as if they had just stepped off the farm, hair waving on their coat collars and regular “store clothes.”” – priceless. thanks for sharing.

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