Monday, May 07, 2007

Today In History: Modern Times.

The inaccurately-named "Thirty Years' War" left a smoking crater where the center of Europe had been. What had begun as a game of slap-tickle between the Most Catholic Habsburgs and uppity Protestant Czechs quickly spun out of control into a fratricidal conflict that sucked in most of Europe from Stockholm to Madrid. When all was said and done, the largest army on the field in Western Europe was that of the corpse-eating rats, and Europe as a whole had developed a revulsion towards war that largely reduced the activity to Kabuki-like theater for the next several centuries.

From the late 17th Century to the early 20th, 'war' to the average European was something that groups of uniformed men would engage in at agreed upon times in open fields or sunny hilltops far away from un-uniformed noncombatants. (This didn't apply to shooting up Wogs, of course.) Even the revolution-era Frogs' introduction of the concept of The Nation In Arms only widened the potential pool of casualties, and not the potential theaters of war.

19th Century warning signs that war between white folk was returning to its old haunts and habits, like Vicksburg and the Prussian siege of Paris, were ignored and the conscript levees of 1914 marched towards the sound of the guns with cheery leftover Mauve Decade bonhomie. This was quickly blown apart on the fields of Ypres and Neuve Chapelle. The Germans, meanwhile, had been harassed on their march through Belgium by civilian tiralleurs and had, in their frustration, gotten a bit frisky with reprisals; from their point of view the Belgian civilians had violated the long-standing Western code of war by taking shots at the Jerries despite being dressed in mufti (we call these "illegal combatants" nowadays). Handed a propaganda victory like this, the Brits felt all the more justified in blockading German ports.

Faced with the overwhelming superiority of the Royal Navy, the Germans had only one card to play: Their U-Boat fleet. Lacking the dreadnoughts to play tit-for-tat with the RN blockade, they declared the waters around the British Isles to be a fair hunting ground for unrestricted submarine warfare. On the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, a British passenger steamer, the Lusitania, crossed the path of the U-20; the German skipper pulled the trigger on one torpedo, and the giant, almost 800-ft long, fast-moving liner settled at the bow and plowed into the ocean bottom some 300 feet below. She was carrying a bazillion rounds of .303 ammunition in her holds, which was definitely contraband and marked her as a target (although international law and convention at the time required her passengers and crew to be warned to disembark and given time to do so before she was sunk), but more importantly she was carrying 197 American passengers, of which 128 died in the wreck. The USA, possessed of a large German minority and proudly neutral until this point in what was widely seen as a European dynastic squabble, was shoved towards the Allies by what in future days would become an all too common feature of modern war: What Kapitan Schwieger did to the Lusitania, many Americans would be decorated for doing to ships with the last name "Maru" just thirty years later.

9 comments:

Tower Tales said...

wow! Thanks Tam...

Gregg said...

Just off the southern coast of Ireland. Rescue parties hauled the survivors, as well as the recoverable dead, into Cobh (pronounced cove) which at the time was a Royal Navy port. I have been to the church where they laid out the dead, and have seen the monument to that loss of life which stands in Cobh square. Interestingly, Cobh was one of the main jumping off points for the 'coffin ships' of the famine years, as well as the last port of call of the SS Titanic.

Interestingly, the propaganda has all but inserted itself in the historical record. While the U-boat skipper ought to have announced himself and given the passengers time to abandon ship, according to the rules of war in force at the time, to do so would have been tantamount to suicide due to the proximity of the English Navy Base. Also, please recall that British skippers were a bit sensitive about German vessels around the coast of Ireland due to the gun-running going on whereby the Germans were helping to arm the then current crop of Irish rebels.

Most definitely interesting times.

staghounds said...

And, thoygh unknown to Scweiger, the Lusitania was carrying rifle ammunition and shrapnel shells. The Lusitania was also subject to government requisition as an auxiliary cruiser, so the ship he let pass today might be hunting him next month.

None of which excuses the fact that he violated the then existing laws of war.

Oleg said...

The use of Q-ships made warnings rather impractical for the U-boats.

Ulises from CA said...

Perhaps the Infidel Muslims need a dose of 30 Years' War themselves?

Infidel, because not only are they blowing up their fellow Muslims, they're doing so in DIRECT contradiction to their "cherished" Q'ran.

Anonymous said...

The German consul had run ads in American newspapers warning passengers that the ship was known to be carrying contraband and would therefore be a target. I don't know if this information was conveyed to U-boat captains, considering that it was rather unlikely that the German Naval HQ would be able to guess when and where a U-boat might intercept the ship, nor that a U-boat captain would actually be able to ID the ship before it passed out of torpedo range. (The maximum speed of a submarine of that time running underwater on batteries was 1/2 to 1/3 of the normal running speed of a liner, so the sub couldn't do much more than try to ID the ship as it approached and take one shot as it passed.)

The other issue was that, through the limited view of a periscope, it was rather difficult for submarine captains to tell a liner from a cruiser. They were of similar size, moving much faster than most merchant ships, and to warn such a ship before firing one would have to make the decision to surface in front of the ship based only on a glimpse of the ship from nearly head-on at a long distance. This of course would be suicidal if the ship did turn out to be a warship - not to mention that many liners were converted to "auxiliary cruisers", not armed well enough to take on a surface warship, but with enough firepower to sink a tiny submarine. Beyond that, even unarmed fast ships might ram and sink a surfaced sub if the merchant captain was willing to take the risk.

So, it's likely that the U-boat captain was operating under rules like, "if it looks like it might be a warship, take your best shot from underwater, without warning." That was the only way a U-boat was ever going to bag a warship. Wait to be sure, and the chance to fire would be lost. Surface, and if it is a warship, most of the sub crew wouldn't even get a chance to surrender.

Anonymous said...

The Consulate placed AN ad the day before the ship sailed.

Also, the captain recorded recognizing the ship as being a passenger steamer before he fired in the ship's war diary.

Anonymous said...

TESTING- OHHH Bugger almost all upper case - how rude.Love your work.

Anonymous said...

Righto, now I know how this thing works I shall be paying attention. Cheers
Frank in NZ