British Operations in U.S. Spend Millions Each Week

The German Response: Sabotage

Special to The Great War Project

(18-21 May) By this time in the war a century ago, the United States is supplying the Allies – Britain, France, and Russia – with an estimated forty percent of the weaponry they need to fight the war effectively.

Britain is paying for everything, writes historian Thomas Fleming. “Of the five million pounds England spent on the war each day, two million pounds or $70 million – were spent in the United States.

Shell preparation in British munitions factory.

Shell preparation in British munitions factory.

According to Fleming, the British purchases in Washington, D.C. are substantial. There are three British operations underway.

One, under the control of the British Ministry of Munitions, “had a staff of 1,600,” Fleming reports, “and bought weapons and ammunition for both Britain and [bankrupt] France.”

“Ministry agents were in hundreds of U.S. factories where orders were being filled. British agents even rode the freight trains and supervised loading at U.S. docks to prevent sabotage.”

Two other British operations are extremely active in the U.S. The Board of Trade and the Wheat Export Company “were also hard at work buying immense amounts of civilian goods, cotton, and grain.”

It’s not surprising then that the German leadership wants to mount unlimited submarine warfare against American as well British ships, carrying military or civilian goods.

“Simultaneously,” reports Fleming, “the United States did little while the British navy slowly but steadily extended the meaning of the word contraband (of war) until the definition included almost every imaginable article produce by farmers or industrialists.”

The Wilson administration’s policy of neutrality allows both sides in the war to purchase American supplies. But the U.S. implementation of this policy clearly favors the allies. What’s more, the Americans give the British license to inspect for contraband nearly everything on American docks bound for Germany.

“Cotton shipped to Germany,” reports Fleming, “had to be unloaded in New York and x-rayed, bale by bale, at the shippers’ expense to make sure it did not carry concealed contraband.”

Soon cotton itself becomes contraband. By these days a century ago, the British release a list of 87 American and 350 South American companies trading with Germany and Austria.

Women workers in British munitions factory.

Women workers in British munitions factory.

Wilson does not always look favorably on the implementation of the neutrality policy. At one point, he tells Colonel Edward House, his closest confidante, that he is quite “at the end of my patience with Great Britain and the Allies”

In response, Wilson’s Secretary of Commerce, William Redfield, an unapologetic anglophile, “warns the president that implementing an embargo on further business with England would be more injurious to the United States than to the countries at war.”

Redfield tells the president that it will cost the good will of Berlin and Vienna, “which the United States would need badly when the war ended.”

“This reasoning,” observes historian Fleming, “was based on the virtually invulnerable American assumption that an Allied victory was inevitable.

“Wilson, sharing the assumption, retreated into silence on the blacklist.”

This policy, however, is hardly effective in maintaining much goodwill for the U.S. in Germany. This becomes quite evident when the Germans learn of an American machine tool company that can produce a lathe with poison shells “filled with two acids that would explode and cause death in terrible agony within four hours.”

British soldier, victim of gas attack, date uncertain.

British soldier, victim of gas attack, date uncertain.

In Berlin every member of the Reichstag, the German parliament, receives a copy of the advertisement for this weapon. It causes a firestorm of anger against the United States.

Some in the German embassy in Washington conclude that they must do something to disrupt the flow of weapons to the Allies.

A new wave of German sabotage in America is about to begin.