German war planners kept a close watch on the southern border of the U.S. Since German activities in the United States took on a distinctly more violent character in 1915, Mexico presented both a military target and a distinct opportunity to create more troubles for the United States. The military target was the oil-producing region around Tampico. Most of the wells belonged to British and U.S. interests and, to a large degree, fueled the sizeable British fleet in Atlantic waters. The Admiralty also ordered the Secret War Council to disrupt the oil production there upon getting the authorization to commence sabotage against U.S. munitions production.

Franz von Papen, German Military Attache in the United States in 1915

Franz von Papen, German Military Attache in the United States in 1915

The newly appointed German minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, had supported the viewpoint of German businessman Eugen Motz in early January 1915, that “the Tampico oil fields could and actually should be almost completely in German hands…” The German envoy seemed to endorse a more peaceful approach to keeping Mexican oil from the British fleet, namely financing a clandestine takeover by German capital, and interrupting supplies through strikes. However, war planners in Berlin, who probably realized that there was no chance of acquiring the Mexican oil wells in a short period of time, ordered them dynamited instead. Von Eckardt had arrived in Mexico City from Havana in the beginning of February. He left the Mexican capital to meet with “representatives” of the naval and military attachés, Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed, in Galveston and New Orleans on February 22nd and 24th 1915 respectively.

The sabotage campaign against the Mexican oil wells in Tampico was at issue. One of the identities of the mysterious “representatives” seems to have been Military Attaché Franz von Papen’s designated sabotage agent for Mexico, Carlos von Petersdorff. Von Papen had promised the German General Staff “to create the greatest possible damage through extensive sabotage of tanks and pipelines.” Added von Papen, “given the current situation in Mexico, I am expecting large successes from relatively little resources.” Sommerfeld likely represented the other, in charge of Karl Boy-Ed’s interests. If von Eckardt took the opportunity to meet with Villa while at the Mexican-American border, Felix Sommerfeld would have accompanied him to the general’s headquarters. However, the German envoy did not file a report about meeting Villa, which favors the conclusion that the encounter never took place.

German records indicate that von Eckardt and the German “middlemen” who represented attachés von Papen and Boy-Ed met to finalize the sabotage plans against Tampico. However, the German Admiralty instructed Captain Boy-Ed to call off the action on March 11th in a nebulous communication that read: “Significant military damage to England through closing of Mexican oil resources not possible. Thus no money for such action available.” Apparently, the German Admiralty was expecting the Standard Oil Company, which had strong financial ties to the Mexican Petroleum Company, “to show itself favorable” to the German Government. As a result, no noteworthy acts of sabotage occurred in Tampico during 1915-1916, perhaps due to Standard Oil’s intentions, or perhaps due to miscalculation by the German Admiralty. The next German attack on Tampico almost came to fruition in 1917.

 Read more in Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War