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Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (December 22, 1916)

This document from Admiral von Holtzendorff (1853-1919) reveals the calculations behind the decision for unrestricted submarine warfare. Above all, the precarious state of world grain markets and England’s dependence on food imports underlay his assumption that the country could be forced to sue for peace. The German leadership reckoned with American entry but calculated that this assistance would come too late.

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Top Secret
Berlin, December 22, 1916

I have the most humble honor of sending Your Excellency the enclosed memorandum concerning the necessity of beginning unlimited submarine warfare as soon as possible. This memorandum essentially develops the ideas already expressed in the memorandum “Shipping Capacity and the Provisioning of England in 1916” (with B. No. 22 247 I of August 27, 1916), which was also sent to Your Excellency.

Based on the detailed arguments in the enclosed document, I would ask Your Excellency to follow the train of thought expressed below. I hope that we will reach a complete agreement concerning the fact that it is absolutely necessary to increase our activity against England’s maritime traffic to the greatest possible extent, and as soon as possible, in order to take advantage of the favorable conditions and to secure a quick victory.

If the war is not to end in the general exhaustion of all parties, and thus disastrously for us, we need a decision before autumn 1917. Among our enemies, Italy’s and France’s economies have been shaken so badly that they are only being kept alive by England’s energy and enterprise. If we were to break England’s backbone, then the war would immediately be decided in our favor. England’s backbone is its shipping, which brings to the islands of Great Britain the imports necessary to maintain daily life and the war industries, and which ensures its solvency abroad.

The present state of their shipping capacity, which was described in detail in the previously mentioned letter of August 27, is described again in the enclosed document. In short, it is as follows:

The amount of freight being transported has increased enormously in a whole series of important areas, in some areas it is ten times more than what it was before. From numerous other sorts of evidence we also know with certainty that there is a lack of freight capacity everywhere.

The amount of English tonnage still available can be assumed, correctly, to be about 20 million gross register tons. Of these, at least 8.6 million tons are requisitioned for military purposes, and half a million tons are employed in coastal shipping. It is estimated that one million tons are being repaired or are temporarily out of commission. Approximately two million tons have to be made available to the Allies for transport, so that there are at most eight million tons of English tonnage available. A calculation of the maritime traffic in English ports produces an even smaller number. According to this, from July to September 1916 only around 6 ¾ million gross register tons of English shipping space were in transport to or from England. Alongside this, non-English shipping space in transport to or from England can be calculated to be about 900,000 tons of enemy tonnage (non-English) and more than 3 million tons of neutral tonnage. All total, England is supplied by only around 10 ¾ million gross register tons.

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