passenger vessel

Wilson Arms Merchant Vessels and Authorizes Them to Fire on U-Boats

An American passenger vessel with dazzle paint and a deck gun, pictured in November 1917.

March 13 1917, Washington–Wilson was very disappointed by the failure of the Armed Ships Bill in the Senate to a last-minute filibuster.  He was determined to go forward with the policy of armed neutrality regardless, as the best course to maintain peace with Germany.  Having decided that Congressional approval was not strictly necessary, he implemented most of the provisions of the Armed Ships Bill by executive order.

Any American-flagged vessel which desired them could request a naval gun, which would be manned by trained officers and sailors of the US Navy.  On March 13, these crews were authorized to fire upon any U-boats in range if deemed necessary.  Given the German government’s announcement that U-boats would be attacking neutral shipping without warning, any U-boat in torpedo range could be deemed an immediate threat; the Americans would not have to wait for the Germans to fire first.  The decision to fire would rest entirely upon the gun crews, absolving the civilian captains of any responsibility.

Wilson hoped that this measure would deter attacks on American ships and prevent loss of American life.  This was becoming increasingly important; the cargo ship Algonquin had been torpedoed without warning in the approaches to the English Channel just the day before, although without loss of life.  How effective this measure would be was unclear; it seems unlikely that it would do anything to prevent the sorts of attacks that sank the Algonquin.  If there were an engagement on the surface between a German U-boat and a US Navy crew, would that be tantamount to war?  What if the American crew were captured after such an engagement; many worried that they would be considered illegal combatants and would be executed like Captain Fryatt.

Today in 1916: New U-Boat Campaign Begins
Today in 1915: British Attempt Minesweeping in Dardanelles

Sources include: Michael Kazin, War Against War; Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram.

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