Germany Orders War between the U.S. and Mexico 100 Years Ago

 Former Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg, who headed the German propaganda team within the Secret War Council in the United States between 1914 and 1915

Former Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg, who headed the German propaganda team within the Secret War Council in the United States between 1914 and 1915

Sommerfeld’s efforts to enlist German support behind the Villa faction continued as the northern military chieftain ran out of funds and military successes. Intensive meetings with Bernhard Dernburg, the former German colonial minister and highest ranking German official in the U.S. at the time, led to an astonishing communication from his “friend, Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld” with the German War Office which would have grave consequences: The Sommerfeld-Dernburg memorandum went to Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff on May 15, 1915 (to shortly become the head of the admiralty), and made the rounds in the German government, including Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and members of the German Admiralty. Next to the sabotage order from January 1915, this document is perhaps the most remarkable piece of evidence regarding German strategy towards the U.S. in the neutrality period between 1914 and 1917. Historian Friedrich Katz first discovered its existence in the 1970s.


Because of my friend, Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld, German citizen, did I gain knowledge of the different [munitions] contracts [of the Allies in the U.S.] in the beginning of the war… Felix A. Sommerfeld proposed to have the infantry cartridge 7mm… manufactured. The infantry cartridge Mauser 7mm could then be sold off to South American countries and Spain, which are all using this make, and that profitably… Felix A. Sommerfeld is intimately familiar with Mexican politics for the last four years, was adviser and confidential agent of President Madero in all diplomatic missions and currently holds the same position with General Villa and had since been commissioned to procure munitions and war supplies here in the United States [for him]. As a result, he knows all factories and their capacities. Ever since Sommerfeld, who is an excellent patriot, has been trying his best to find out what can be done to support Germany.

All contracts of the arms manufacturers contain a clause, which relegates the agreement null and void in the event of the United States entering into a war. The policies of the United States towards Mexico are widely known and one can be completely sure that the government of the United States will do whatever it can to prevent an intervention in Mexico. The military leadership of the United States, however, is very much in favor of an intervention, as well as the state governments of Texas and Arizona, that are bordering on Mexico. A few months ago an incident occurred at the Mexican border in Arizona [Naco] that almost resulted in an intervention. At this time the chief of the General Staff [Hugh Lenox Scott] at the insistence of Secretary of War Garrison was sent to the border to negotiate with General Villa. These negotiations took place through the mediation of Felix A. Sommerfeld, and at that time, as he told me multiple times, it would have been easy to provoke an intervention. Such an event at this time would mean the following for Germany:

An embargo on all munitions for the Allies, and since everyone knows that the Allies are completely dependent on American munitions and war supplies, [it would mean] a quick success for Germany, credits for the Allies would be restricted and, additionally, the policies of the United States would be distracted, another fact that would be to Germany’s advantage.

…Felix A. Sommerfeld had misgivings at the time to force an intervention through General Villa since he did not know the intentions of Germany towards the United States…

This issue seems to become relevant again in the near term and Felix A. Sommerfeld discussed it with me. He is completely convinced that an intervention in Mexico by the United States can be provoked…

After acknowledgement of this report I request that through any means at your disposal or through me Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld be given a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ [for his proposal to provoke an intervention]…


The answer arrived a few days later, after the Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow saw the report:


In my opinion, the answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ Even if the shipments of munitions cannot be stopped, and I am not sure they can, it would be highly desirable for America to become involved in a war and be diverted from Europe… an intervention made necessary by the developments in Mexico would be the only [emphasis added] possible diversion for the American government. Moreover, since we can at this time do nothing in the Mexican situation, an American intervention would also be the best thing possible for our interests there.


Sommerfeld had presented a plan that the German Imperial Foreign Secretary and, most likely as a result of the importance of the proposal, the German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg personally had signed off on. The answer from Henning von Holtzendorff underlines the timing of Sommerfeld’s proposal. The Imperial German cabinet was mired in discussions on how or if – to proceed with the commerce war using the submarine. Hardline proponents guaranteed a victory over England within six months, while the moderate wing of the cabinet, including Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, doubted that the submarine fleet even had enough boats to effectively blockade England. The logical consequence of an American declaration of war in case of unrestricted submarine warfare seemed too risky to the moderates, given the uncertainties of the strategy’s effectiveness.

The debate raged even louder in May as a result of the sinking of the Lusitania. The hardline group saw the Lusitania sinking as Abschreckung, a means to scare commerce traffic away from British harbors. The subsequent guarantees of the German government to President Wilson that submarines would, henceforth, observe cruiser rules and not sink passenger ships, led to a rift in the cabinet. Chief of the Admiralty Bachmann and Grand Admiral von Tirpitz openly opposed von Bethmann Hollweg and the Emperor and offered their resignations, which the Kaiser did not grant, initially. He was fired in August when Admiral Bachmann opposed the moderates again, while von Tirpitz was put on ice. The new Chief of the Admiralty was Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff.

Just as tempers flared in Berlin, Sommerfeld proposed a way out of the dilemma. Rather than having to decide now whether to risk a war with the United States or give up the unrestricted submarine war the navy demanded, he sought to create certain conditions in the United States that would end the threat of an effective American impact on the European war. Dernburg chose von Holtzendorff, who was then still retired, because his views regarding the submarine fleet were moderate and acceptable to Wilhelm II and von Bethmann Hollweg. Von Holtzendorff explained to the chancellor and the foreign secretary that if Sommerfeld’s proposal worked, American attention would be diverted and munitions kept from the Allies at the same time, while unrestricted submarine warfare could be re-launched. He wrote that an American intervention in Mexico would have an added benefit of also reestablishing order of whatever definition. The appointment of von Holtzendorff in August insured that Sommerfeld’s plan would be enacted. The Secret War Council was to create a strategic window in which unrestricted submarine warfare could be enacted and the war brought to a favorable conclusion.

Read the whole story in my new book Felix A.Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War!




The Sinking of the Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania 100 Years ago

Germany fired the first shot in the new battle against America on February 4th 1915, when she announced a “blockade” against England to begin on February 18.

"The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the English Channel, are hereby proclaimed a war region. On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening. Neutral ships will also incur danger in the war region, where, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the British Government, and incidents inevitable in sea warfare, attacks intended for hostile ships may affect neutral ships also. The sea passage to the north of the Shetland Islands, and the eastern region of the North Sea in a zone of at least 30 miles along the Netherlands coast, are not menaced by any danger.

(Signed) Berlin, February 4th,
Chief of Marine Staff"

The first submarine to patrol the newly declared war zone left Ems on February 11, 1915. U-30 under Lieutenant Commander von Rosenberg-Gruszczynski crossed the Channel at Dover and reached the patrol area on the 17th. Another gas-powered sub, the U-16 under Captain Claus Hansen, had taken position in the Channel on February 1. On February 16 U-16 torpedoed the British Collier Dulwich off the coast of France, giving the crew time to launch lifeboats. Hansen blew up the small French steamer, Ville de Lille, a day later. The German commander meticulously followed search and seizure procedures as mandated by international law, even towing the lifeboats with the crew to the coast. Another French steamer, the Dinorah, suffered damages from a torpedo on February 18. This time, in accordance with the new orders, the U-16 attacked without warning.

The campaign proceeded full steam in April 1915. Thirty-seven ships – seventeen British, three French, three Russian, and eight neutrals (no American) – with absolute or conditional contraband sank after U-boat attacks. Two freighters, one French and one British, suffered damages but could be hauled into safety. One British and three neutral freighters were captured and hauled into German harbors for prize court proceedings, in which a panel of judges decided on the distribution of the captured ships and property. The submarine campaign thus destroyed 62,000 GRT and damaged 11,000 GRT in April, using fifteen submarines, of which thirteen were equipped with oceangoing diesel engines and tanks. The rapid increase of diesel-powered boats particularly alarmed the British war planners. Despite the raw number showing less than one percent of shipping vessels in and out of England being physically attacked, the psychological effects on sailors and neutral shippers began to show. A growing number of ocean carriers refused to take on freight destined for the war zone. Seamen, as well, rather switched to shipping lines not involved European trade.

German agents had carefully observed the comings and goings of British passenger liners from New York since the onset of the war. German secret agent Paul Koenig issued regular lists provided by informants in the New York customs department, among others, of contraband freight loaded on passenger ships. German spymaster in New York Heinrich Albert noted in his diary in February, “Shurz ./. Lusit. Armed – Malone.”  It is unknown whether the cryptic notation meant that Albert had received information as to armaments on the Lusitania from Dudley Field Malone, the Collector of the Port of New York whom Albert considered pro-German, or whether he intended to approach him with that information to take action against the ocean liner. The second possibility seems more likely since Malone later testified that there were no gun emplacements on the ship. However, as the RMS Lusitania readied herself for a return voyage to the United States, German agents might have suspected that she would be converted to an auxiliary cruiser while in port in Britain. The importance of this notation is the fact that the day before the official start of the German submarine campaign, Albert and his agents eyed the RMS Lusitania, the largest and one of five four-funneled British ocean liners in service at the time, with more than casual interest. Just a week prior, American newspapers had reported on a false flagging incident witnessed by Edward House. A British liner having carried contraband on many of her recent voyages, and listed in British naval registers as a potential auxiliary cruiser, she was a target for the German navy. Indeed, she represented a prize of highest significance, one that would show the world that the German submarine fleet had the means and resolve to stop traffic to the British Isles. The May 12, 1915 issue of the New York weekly Fatherland voiced the German desire to see the large passenger liner sunk. “Before long, a large passenger ship like the Lusitania, carrying implements of murder to Great Britain, will meet with a similar fate [as the Gulflight]…” When the paper went on sale in the newsstands, the dire forecast had already become reality.

On May 1, the same day U-30 torpedoed the American tanker Gulflight, the Cunard passenger liner, RMS Lusitania, readied herself in New York for the 202nd transatlantic crossing. She was the largest and fastest ship on the transatlantic circuit at the time, crossing the great divide between the United States and Europe in slightly less than five days. Ostensibly believing that the “American Government… still underestimated the dangers of the situation, and failed to take any measure of precaution,” German Ambassador Count Bernstorff is credited with issuing a stern warning to potential passengers traveling on British ocean liners, which appeared in the New York Times on May 1. 

Confronted with the warning, the Cunard Line press agent, Charles Sumner, tried his best to dispel the fear. “No passenger is permitted aboard them [Cunard Line ships] unless he can identify himself... Every passenger must identify his baggage before it is placed aboard. There are no German cruisers in the Atlantic, and the ‘danger zone’ does not begin until we reach the British Channel and the Irish Sea. Then one may say there is a general system of convoying British ships. The British Navy is responsible for all British ships, and especially for Cunarders.” The journalist then asked: “Your speed, too, is a safeguard, is it not?”…”Yes [Sumner answered]; as for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.” The Lusitania would neither travel at her full speed of twenty-five knots nor would she receive a British naval escort in the danger zone. She cleared pier 54 in New York on May 1st around noon with 1,257 passengers and 702 crew members on board. Only a handful of passengers had opted out of the voyage as a result of the published warning and sailed with slower and less luxurious neutral passenger ships. The Lusitania carried over 4,200 cases of small arms munitions, 1,000 rounds each, and 1,250 cases of empty shrapnel casings in her hold, considered absolute contraband by all warring parties.

 Captain Walter Schwieger

Captain Walter Schwieger

Whether to save money (Cunard’s explanation) or because the naval war caused a shortage of willing trimmers and firemen (Naval Attache Karl Boy-Ed’s explanation), the Lusitania only fired three of her four boilers. The German submarine U-20 under the command of the thirty year old Walter Schwieger cruised near the Old Head of Kinsale on May 6 heading to a station off Liverpool with orders to “sink troop transporters.” He sank the British steamers, Centurion and Candidate, two cargo ships, without warning. Two other submarines, the U-30 and the U-27 had orders to the same effect with stations hundreds of miles away off Dartmouth and the Bristol Channel, respectively. Despite specific warnings sent to the Lusitania after the U-20 attacks on May 6 to watch for submarines off the Old Head of Kinsale, her Captain, Bill Turner, steered the Cunarder straight into the channel at reduced speed. He did not follow his orders for evasive measures, such as zigzagging and using speed as the most effective means to lose a stalking submarine traveling at fifteen knots. Additionally, the thick fog on the morning of May 7 caused the Lusitania to sound her fog horns “once every minute,” broadcasting her approach for miles. A chain of unfortunate events unfolded that, in combination, brought the Lusitania into the fateful contact with Schwieger’s U-20. Around 1:40 pm on May 7, Schwieger launched a torpedo from 700 meters (2,100 feet) distance at the ocean liner. The impact under the bridge on starboard created an explosion, followed by another even more massive than the first. The forward movement of the ship caused an almost immediate list and submersion. Captain Schwieger described the scene in his war diary:

"Clear bow shot at 700 [meters]… Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder?)… The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time. Great confusion arose on the ship; some of the boats were swung clear and lowered into the water… Many people must have lost their heads; several boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern first and filled at once… The ship blew off steam; at the bow the name Lusitania in golden letters was visible. The funnels were painted black; stern flag not in place. It was running 20 nautical miles. Since it seemed as if the steamer could only remain above water for a short time, went to 24 m. [meters] and ran toward the Sea. Nor could I have fired a second torpedo into this swarm of people who were trying to save themselves."

 The torpedoed  RMS Lusitania

The torpedoed RMS Lusitania

The mortally wounded super liner disappeared below the waves of the Atlantic Ocean after only eighteen minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew on board, 1,198 perished in the ice-cold Irish Sea. One hundred twenty-eight of the victims were Americans. The international outrage over the senseless killing of civilians, many of them women and children, overshadowed any previous disagreements with the German conduct of the war. Spontaneous demonstrations against Germany broke out in New York and other large cities. The newspapers, filled with pictures of scores of caskets and eyewitness accounts, decried the barbarity of the German action. The large secondary explosion that hastened the demise of the ocean liner remains one of the hotly debated topics of the sinking. German propaganda immediately alleged that munitions and explosives aboard the ship caused the explosion. British propaganda alleged that multiple torpedoes were fired while passengers were trying to save themselves. Neither allegation was true. Scientists have inspected the wreckage in recent years and documented that a large boiler explosion or the combustion of coal dust in a forward compartment completed the destruction of the ship.

The circumstantial evidence supporting a concerted navy effort to sink the Lusitania on her 202nd voyage is overwhelming: The Lusitania represented a target that German officials publicly talked about. U-27 actively tried to sink the liner a month earlier. U-20 was sent into the shipping lane of the Lusitania in the week she was to cross with orders to sink “troop transporters,” which included large liners. The German propaganda office in New York, filled with supporters of the unrestricted submarine campaign, not the German embassy, initiated the publication of a warning to appear only on May 1, 1915, the departure day of the Lusitania, and only in New York papers. The American press also interpreted the warning as being directed specifically to Lusitania passengers. The Washington Times wrote prophetically on May 1: “Lusitania’s Passengers Warned of Ship’s Doom.” The counter argument, namely that the sinking occurred as the result of a host of circumstances that could not have been planned, is weak. Any such project requires luck. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the tremendous loss of life caused by the rapid sinking of the ship had not been intended. Sabotage agent Franz Rintelen told a B.I. agent in New York what many German officials likely believed, “…it was never intended that those on board the Lusitania should have been drowned as they believed under any conditions that the Lusitania would stay afloat for four or five hours at the least, and that all of these people would be rescued.”

Still, it would be presumptuous for a historian to conclude that the German naval leaders had thus presided over a disastrous and ineffective strategy. Clearly, the German admiralty knew that they had only a handful of U-boats in service, which they rather would have saved from likely destruction instead of trying to destroy the global merchant marine. In his memoirs, the commander of the submarine forces, Hermann Bauer, quoted his top-secret plan for a sea blockade of England dated December 27, 1914. The plan listed the strategic goals of Germany’s commerce war using four U-boats on patrol on average per day: “…Deterrence and as a result reduction [of the merchant traffic to and from England] and... increased cost through forcing uneconomical routes and high insurance premiums.”

The German supporters of unrestricted submarine warfare certainly took into account the possibility of losing the battle for public sympathy in the United States. They did not care. Frederico Stallforth explained the general feeling of Germany’s public opinion about the sinking of the Lusitania: “…the German Admiralty thought that the greatest demonstration of the efficiency of the U-boat as a weapon of war could be the sinking of the Lusitania, but the English claimed it could not be sunk by a submarine due to its speed, and that Captain Turner of the Lusitania had boasted before he left New York that his boat could not be destroyed in that way. There were warnings sent out from some source … it was likely that the boat was going to be sunk… the truth was that the U-boats were looking out for it [the Lusitania]. A service clerk who worked in the Hotel Astor at the time testified, “Summerfeld [sic] appeared very elated and expressed the hope that Germany would win…” Heinrich Albert wrote to his direct superior, Secretary of the Interior Clemens von Delbrück, on May 10, 1915: “…the Lusitania case is from a military- naval perspective one of the most significant victories we have achieved. Despite the hostile atmosphere I can currently conduct my work with a lightened heart.” A potential entry of the United States into the war as a result of the submarine campaign not only factored into the calculation but was considered desirable and purposefully provoked. Bauer wrote in his top-secret plan for a blockade under the heading “Amerika,” “An unbearable economic crisis which our U-boat blockade will cause with certainty could drive America into an intervention against us. This intervention…. would… be without deciding military influence on the war.” He was wrong.

If you want the whole story of Germany's secret war on the United States in 1915, check out the new book.



The Huerta-Orozco-Mondragón Plot in 1915

Almost exactly 100 years ago, a German naval intelligence agent named Franz Rintelen arrived in the United States. He had orders to prevent American shipment of arms and munitions to the enemies of the Empire by all means. Creating trouble for the U.S. military at the Mexican-American border was one of his devious projects. Little over one week after the arrival of Franz Rintelen, on April 12th 1915, ex- Mexican president Victoriano Huerta, former secretary of war Manuel Mondragón, Enrique Creel, the former governor of Chihuahua, and Huerta’s secretary General José Delgado stepped off the steamer Antonio Lopez in New York. Enrique Llorente, Villa’s representative in Washington who reported to Sommerfeld, filed a protest with the Wilson administration before the ship had even docked in the harbor. He alleged what most believed to be true at the time: that the former dictator of Mexico came to insert himself in Mexican affairs once again. Before letting Huerta enter the United States, immigration officials made the exiled dictator give an oath to the effect that he would stay out of Mexican affairs. 

 Victoriano Huerta (middle) with Abraham Z. Ratner (right) and Jose Delgado (left) in New York in 1915

Victoriano Huerta (middle) with Abraham Z. Ratner (right) and Jose Delgado (left) in New York in 1915

Despite the oath and public pronouncements, New York’s newspapers continued to speculate about the true purpose of Huerta’s trip. The general informed reporters smilingly that he was on a “pleasure trip” and had no intention of mingling in Mexican affairs. He settled in a suite on the fifth floor of the Hotel Ansonia, on Broadway and 73rd Street, in New York. Reporters watched closely as Huerta received hundreds of visitors, generals of the Porfirio Díaz era, former governors, and exiled politicians, all hoping to join the new movement. Most suspiciously, Huerta also secretly met with Pascual Orozco, a general who like Huerta first fought for President Madero then helped overthrow him. Huerta basked in the attention, freely granted interviews with journalists, and pleasantly ignored direct questions regarding his purpose in New York. Claiming that he had “fallen in love with this country,” Huerta rented a large villa on Long Island in the beginning of May. His wife and children and servants joined him in the new home, a household of thirty-five.

Evidence that Felix Sommerfeld (and by extension, Pancho Villa) did not support the Huerta-Orozco-Mondragón plot surfaced in El Paso in the first week of May 1915. Sommerfeld had traveled to the border in secrecy where he still operated Villa’s secret service on the American side. It is unknown whether Sommerfeld had come to confer with Villa, but he certainly came to focus his secret service organization on sabotaging the “Científico” plot. Sommerfeld's men ratted out arms depots and munitions dumps, as well as meetings and other preparations to cross recruits into Mexico. American agents of the Bureau of Investigations reported on May 3 “… Felix Sommerfeld and [illegible], both very active heretofore in revolutionary matters, had been seen a few days ago, just about daylight, coming from the direction of the foothills north of El Paso.”

According to British intelligence, intensive meetings occurred in and around Huerta that involved German naval intelligence agent Franz Rintelen, Military Attache Franz von Papen, and Naval Attache Karl Boy-Ed. Boy-Ed, who claimed steadfastly never to have met Huerta other than in Mexico in 1914, might not have been involved but still professed his sympathies with the exiled dictator in his memoirs. “His forced removal by the Americans I always thought it [the ousting of Huerta] to be a calamity for Mexico,” he wrote in 1920. The German agents certainly had an interest in helping create the trouble about to commence all along the border. And Huerta certainly would have been happy for any material or financial support. Other than talk, not much happened.

While Mondragón got cold feet and left for France,  Huerta and Orozco kept pushing their plot. Significant amounts of supplies poured into the border region throughout May and June, consigned to small dealers in and around Texas. The sudden influx, evidenced by Sommerfeld’s activities and enlistment of his friend, the U.S. Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison, combined with the rampant rumors that a conspiracy was afoot, caused great alarm with both the American officials and the Villista secret service. It was very difficult to separate these shipments from deliveries to Villa and Obregón, who imported millions of cartridges for over 60,000 soldiers in active duty. Historians have alleged that Huerta received German financial aid for his munitions. As it turns out, it was Villa who received the funds, while Huerta used his own from the loot he took with him into exile in 1914.

U.S. authorities and Sommerfeld’s organization tried their best to stop the conspiracy. Despite their efforts and the lack of support from the other Mexican factions, Victoriano Huerta and his immediate followers decided on June 24 to go ahead with their plan. The exiled general and a group of his closest advisers took a train to San Francisco on that day, ostensibly to visit the World Fair exhibition. However, in Chicago they switched to a train to Kansas City, where they changed destinations again and headed for El Paso. The train stopped in the early morning hours of June 27, right across the Texas border near Newman, New Mexico, a small hamlet between New Mexico and Texas and only twenty miles from El Paso. Pascual Orozco and a small group of Huertistas had waited at the station with two cars to take their leader across the Mexican border. Customs Collector Zach Lamar Cobb and a detail of soldiers from Fort Bliss arrested Orozco and his men. As the train stopped on the Texas side of the border Huerta greeted Orozco before U.S. authorities arrested him, as well. Huerta seemed completely surprised. Not so surprised was the American public. Even before agents arrested Huerta, New York papers had reported that the general was on a train bound for El Paso to start a new revolution.

He and Orozco posted bail within hours and remained in El Paso, freely continuing to plot their insurgency. Orozco escaped from house arrest on July 3, 1915. Reports indicated that he entered Mexico where three hundred of his followers awaited him. It turned out he went into hiding on the American side of the border, without men or equipment or money. An American posse hunted him and four companions down, shot and killed them on August 30. Huerta, who had been re-arrested after Orozco’s escape, remained incarcerated at Fort Bliss. A lifelong alcoholic, the death of Orozco caused him once more to seek solace in Cognac and other spirits. After falling ill, being released, rearrested, and falling ill again, he died on January 13, 1916. The official cause of death read cirrhosis of the liver, an entirely reasonable explanation. However, reports of two botched medical operations leading to his final decline fueled conspiracy theories ever since that someone, maybe even the American government, had murdered him. The border remained unsettled for months to come. Felix Díaz tried his own insurrection from New Orleans in the coming months. The Bureau of Investigations uncovered several small filibustering operations in August. About $10,000 worth of arms and ammunition fell into the hands of American officials. However, the plot of the “Científicos” under the leadership of Huerta and Orozco had been ended effectively with the arrests near Newman, New Mexico. 

Interested how Sommerfeld eliminated his fellow agent Rintelen? Check out the new book The Secret War on the United States in 1915. For the real back story of Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, NM in 1916, read Felix A Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War



Leon Thrasher, the first American submarine casualty


The German High Seas Fleet sortied into the middle of the North Sea on January 23rd to challenge the British fleet in an area called Dogger Bank. The engagement resulted in the loss of a German dreadnought and the near loss of a second. The British warships had proven to be better armed, better coordinated, and faster than the German squadron. The loss of the SMS Bluecher caused Wilhelm II to dismiss Admiral Ingenohl and appoint Admiral von Pohl to take command of the High Seas Fleet. While von Pohl ordered periodic sorties from Kiel, the German admiralty refused to risk a direct confrontation with the numerically superior British Grand Fleet. Thus, the blockade of England, which the admiralty estimated would take 220 submarines to enforce, was taken up by twenty-five U-boats, only five or six of which patrolled the ocean at any given time. The German blockade was illegal by the standard of the Declaration of London, as was the English counterpart.

Two days before the German Empire announced its war on commerce, Colonel Edward House, President Wilson’s friend and confidante, left New York on the Lusitania for Britain on January 30th 1915. The president had sent him on a diplomatic mission to the warring nations of Europe hoping to get both sides to accept a mediation offer from the United States. As the ship neared the Irish Coast, the captain of the large passenger liner gave orders to hoist the American flag. Colonel House, who witnessed the ruse, was furious. He filed a report to the State Department and denounced the abuse of neutral flags on British ships. The affair caused a raucous in the House of Representatives and in the American press, yet without any tangible consequences for Britain. The German claim that Britain had ordered her merchant marine to use neutral flags in the war zone had become fact, certified by one of the highest officials of the U.S. government. The first submarine to patrol the newly declared war zone left Ems on February 11th 1915. U-30 under Lieutenant Commander von Rosenberg-Gruszczynski crossed the Channel at Dover and reached the patrol area on the 17th. Another gas-powered sub, the U-16 under Captain Claus Hansen, had taken position in the Channel on February 1st. On the February 16th U-16 torpedoed the British Collier Dulwich off the coast of France, giving the crew time to launch lifeboats. Hansen blew up the small French steamer, Ville de Lille, a day later. The German commander meticulously followed search and seizure procedures as mandated by international law, even towing the lifeboats with the crew to the coast. Another French steamer, the Dinorah, suffered damages from a torpedo on the 18th. This time, in accordance with the new orders, the U-16 attacked without warning.

The first potentially serious mistake occurred on the following day, when Captain Hansen failed to properly identify his target and torpedoed the 9,000-ton Norwegian steamer Belridge. The Standard Oil Corporation tanker transported oil from the United States to the Netherlands. Luckily for Germany, no one was injured in the attack and the steamer beached itself before it could sink. However, the impracticality of the German admiralty’s orders not to harm neutral ships now showed the first result. Germany quickly admitted to the mistake and committed to paying for the damages to the ship in order to quell public attention. A mistake it was! According to the files of Heinrich Albert, the Belridge served as a blockade-runner for his office since the fall of 1914 and carried benzene (gas) for the German government.

U-30 also scored hits on February 20th, sinking two English freighters without warning. U-8, under Lieutenant Commander Stoss, which left on February 16th, destroyed five steamers in the shipping lanes between Dover and Calais. It sank on that voyage after hitting a mine. U-6, another gas-powered boat returned home after it suffered damage from a ramming by a freighter it had attacked. Despite the bad winter weather, which forced U-30, in particular, to abandon targets and submerge for the rough sea to pass, the four submarines scored one sinking per day since the campaign began.

The German submarine fleet, consisting of fourteen boats, entered the theater of war full force in the month of March. U-12 sank after the British cruiser HMS Ariel rammed it. U-17 suffered mechanical damage from a wave and had to return to port. U-37 disappeared without a trace after damaging one steamer and sinking two others. U-29 sank on March 26th without survivors after the British armored cruiser HMS Dreadnought rammed it. The British media noted with enthusiasm that justice had been done, since the commander of the U -29 was Otto Weddingen, who had sunk three British cruisers in the beginning of the war with 1,200 sailors dying in the incident. U-33 barely escaped a ramming attempt after it stopped a British freighter under observance of ‘cruiser rules.’

 U-28, the submarine that sank the SS Falaba

U-28, the submarine that sank the SS Falaba

U-28 sank the British cargo-passenger steamer SS Falaba on March 28th, causing the first American submarine casualty of the war, the thirty-one year-old mining engineer of Massachusetts, Leon Thrasher. One hundred-four of the 242 passengers, including Thrasher, drowned. According to the German government, the U-28 had signaled the Falaba to stop. The steamer, however, attempted to flee and signaled nearby British warships for help. The U-28 then torpedoed the ship. The cargo contained munitions, an absolute contraband. Whether or not the German version of events was true, the sinking took place well within the confines of international law. The presence of enemy warships likely caused the U-boat captain to abandon plans for time-consuming rescue operations. One of the surviving passengers shot a host of photographs documenting the tragic end of the ship. The pictures wound their way onto the front pages of American dailies, bringing home the brutality of Germany’s naval war, an ever-growing public relations fiasco. The U-boat fleet sank thirty-six ships in that month alone, amounting to 79,000 GRT with six ships damaged, amounting to 22,000 GRT. The use of neutral flags by British and French shipping, the losses, especially of the valuable diesel-powered U-29 and U-37, and the ramming attempt from a stopped freighter all contributed to snuffing out the last remaining efforts to respect cruiser rules.

The campaign proceeded full steam in April 1915. Thirty-seven ships – seventeen British, three French, three Russian, and eight neutrals (no American) – with absolute or conditional contraband sank after U-boat attacks. Two freighters, one French and one British, suffered damages but could be hauled into safety. One British and three neutral freighters were captured and hauled into German harbors for prize court proceedings, in which a panel of judges decided on the distribution of the captured ships and property. The submarine campaign thus destroyed 62,000 GRT and damaged 11,000 GRT in April, using fifteen submarines, of which thirteen were equipped with oceangoing diesel engines and tanks. The rapid increase of diesel-powered boats particularly alarmed the British war planners. Despite the raw number showing less than one percent of shipping vessels in and out of England being physically attacked, the psychological effects on seamen and neutral shippers began to show. A growing number of ocean carriers refused to take on freight destined for the war zone. Seamen, as well, rather switched to shipping lines not involved European trade.

The First Sealord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, proposed to arm the merchant marine to defend against submarine attacks in response to the German aggression. This proposal further sealed the decision of the German admiralty that traditional search and seizure procedures could not be followed in the case of a submarine. Once surfaced, these vessels had little chance of defending their vulnerable hulls against ramming, machine gun, or cannon fire. The German ‘hardliners’ in the submarine debate, especially the commander of the submarine fleet, Hermann Bauer, demanded that restrictions on targeting, such as excluding neutral vessels, would be dropped. He cited the British policies of ramming, false flagging, and now arming of merchant vessels as the justification.

Read more in The Secret War on the United States in 1915.


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Why we should care what happened 100 years ago...

For years I have blogged on the Mexican Revolution and the First World War. Between 60,000 and 140,000 of you are reading these little articles every week. I thank you for the interest and for buying my books. Yet, I ask myself, why are so many of you interested in this? Here is my interpretation - and you are welcome to add to or dispute it:

 Francisco I. Madero

Francisco I. Madero

The Mexican Revolution is incredibly timely compared to what is happening all around us. The parallels are uncanny, and we are all looking for answers about where the world is going, what the role of my country in this world is, how the world affects me, my job, my family, my future, the future of my kids? Since we cannot look into the future, and the present is riddled with propaganda and subjectivity, studying the past might provide the best answers. I am with you!

In 1910, seemingly out of the blue, the Mexican Revolution sprung up in a movement for democracy and economic justice. It was not meant to last for ten years or cost one million lives. But it did. Ripping the existing power structure apart creates a vacuum. There is no security in an outcome because whoever fills this vacuum is not pre-described in a revolution. 

A few years ago, the world watched in amazement as the Arab Spring tore down dictators in several countries. Immediately new governments took the place of the old (compare to De La Barra/Madero). In the west, we heralded these governments, as imperfect as they may have been, as standard bearers of liberal democracy, economic justice, and a predictable and fair justice system. Syria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan remained dictatorships. Assad in Syria became a criminal in the western press. He fought the "democratic" opposition and killed civilians. And, by the way, Syria traditionally had sided with the Soviet sphere. That is bad. Iran also remained a villain, since they had a successful revolution (in the sense that the revolutionaries captured power, solidified it, and are still there after 35 years), which we do not like the outcome of. In fact, in our western view of how things should develop, we wish a Persian Spring on them and tried to help create it. The other four dictatorships support "western democracy," just not in their own countries (in the sense of shipping oil and providing limited support for Israel). These are the "good" dictators.

Now comes ISIL, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Assyrian defense force, and a few more. For months we heard suppressed calls from Syrian President Bashar Al'Assad, that he was in fact fighting large terrorist (whatever that means) rebels within Syria. He compared them to Al Quaeda to see if someone would call off the western "regime change" forces. He was ridiculed. We know now, he was right. Suddenly, out of the blue (except for some analysts somewhere deep in the cellars of western clandestine services) the carefully trained and armed Iraqi army dropped its weapons, including heavy armaments and munitions depots, and ran. ISIL suddenly dominated half of Iraq and half of Syria. The only viable force to stand up against them initially were the Kurdish Peshmerga.

The course of the Mexican Revolution has incredible parallels to what is happening right now. When Madero overthrew Diaz, Mexico was the largest oil producing country in the world. Ships, trains, automobiles sprung up everywhere and formed the basis of the modern economies. England, Germany, and France (the "superpowers" of the time) clung to the old regime, supported the Cientificos, and made no effort to financially support Madero's movement. The United States as well, not a "superpower," but close enough to Mexico to have huge economic and financial interests, supported the anti-Madero forces. In part because of the lack of support, in part because of his inability to consolidate power and maintain broad based popular support, the first democratically elected president of Mexico died in a coup. Here is the vacuum.

For a little over one year the putschists under Huerta filled it but, but in reality new forces with broad popular support (within their regions) filled the power vacuum. With every defeat of the "federals," revolutionaries gained supplies, ability, and ground. Pancho Villa might represent the Kurdish Peshmerga. Who would have thought in the spring of 1913, when he crossed into Mexico with a handful of fighters, that one year later he commanded the largest army in Mexico and controlled half of the country. He had some support from the U.S., he had regional popular support, he was able to finance his movement. Carranza had no fighting force, but led the publicity campaign to get support. In the Arab revolution, Carranza seems to be missing. However, Obregon, with regional support from Sonora, might be found in the Sunni leadership in Iraq. The United States occupied Veracruz (air strikes to support the Kurds) to influence the outcome, created munitions import embargoes but did not enforce them against the factions of Villa, Zapata, and Carranza. We do not understand, how all these heavy weapons get into the region, but Turkey's borders and places with U.S. presence (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan) are all candidates. In the 1910s one could only use rail, horse and ship to transport. Today, the air transport is the main means of transportation.

 Execution of Villistas in Cd. Juarez in 1916

Execution of Villistas in Cd. Juarez in 1916

Thousands of federal officers, captured opposition fighters, and civilians died at the hands of these revolutionary factions. Just like today, when we gasp with horror as ISIL fighters execute "enemies," Villa, Obregon, Zapata all lined up hundreds of captured enemies after every battle and executed them, often in front of American reporters. The purpose might have been slightly different, but one aspect certainly was to create horror among the civilian population, recruit, and draw larger powers into the conflict. This is also not to say, that the federals did not execute their captured. Assad (the "federals") certainly is not a nice guy, neither was Huerta.

So, can we can accept that the Arab region represents Mexico in the early 1900s? Mexico was then the largest oil producer. Regional revolutionary chieftains  in Mexico now stand for the radical Islamists, as well as powerful regional tribes and factions. Western powers had a hand in creating the huge unemployment, political disenfranchisement, and economic suffering of large Arab populations. In Mexico the rallying cry was land reform. What is it in Arabia? A share in the oil wealth? Jobs? Liberty? Indeginismo and Islamist fundamentalism are both ideologies that search for a new social contract in a glorious, "better" past. Make no mistake, the Arab Spring is a social revolution just like the French, Mexican, and Russian revolutions.  

Arms and supplies for the old regimes (then the Cientificos, today the "friendly" Arab dictators that control oil) exacerbated the initial, limited reform movement, and created revolutions all over the Arab world. Support from powerful defense lobbies in the western world for this or that faction then and now kept both sides well equipped, making money for the arms producers and dealers, while extending the conflict. The success of ISIL, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Assyrian defense, and tribal opposition rests on popular support that the other factions fighting them, such as the Iraqi army, do not have. If we accept all that, where are we in this conflict? Can we predict or influence the next phase in the Arab revolution? Do we really have to go through a ten year period of violence, an attack on the United States (Columbus 1916)? I predict, that a successful Kurdish Peshmerga will claim a democratic Kurdish republic in most of the area now controlled by ISIL. In return for recognition, they will stop the secession in Turkish Kurdistan. 

The worst parallel of all, if we accept that the Arab revolution is now where the Mexican Revolution was in 1914, are we sliding towards another world conflict? In a world as tense and unpredictable as we have today, where is the spark that sets it on fire? Ukraine? I believe, reading up on what happened 100 years ago might be something we all, but especially our leaders should do. Join me in preventing the mistakes of the future from duplicating the one's of our past!

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Germany's Sabotage Campaign in the U.S. started 100 Years Ago

On February 19th 1915, one-and-a-half months before war bonds hit the market and three weeks before the Foreign Office approved the sabotage campaign in the United States, the Deutsche Bank deposited $210,000 ($4.4 Million in today’s value) with G. Amsinck and Co. One week later another $790,000 ($16.6 Million in today’s value) appeared as a deposit for the Deutsche Bank. The director of the Deutsche Bank in the United States was Hugo Schmidt. He proved to be an expert in finding ways around the tight control of financial transactions through Britain. Virtually all international financial transactions in one way or another passed through London. British authorities made sure that German transactions did not make it any further. Through dummy accounts, fake bank connections, straw men from neutral countries, especially those in Latin America, Schmidt became the essential lifeline to the German officials in the United States. An assistant, Frederico Stallforth, who had lots of international connections and plenty of financial savvy worked at his side. 

 Heinrich F. Albert in his office in New York in 1915

Heinrich F. Albert in his office in New York in 1915

The one million dollars that Albert received in February 1915 were not coded in his ledgers as credits for shipping supplies to Germany as part of the blockade running operation.  These million dollars came from the Imperial War Department with the express purpose of financing the sabotage order that the New York team had received on January 24th. Proceeds from the sale of war bonds further filled the coffers in April 1915. Within weeks of receiving the revenue from the war bonds, Albert and German Ambassador in the U.S., Count Bernstorff, opened dozens of new accounts all over the country, ostensibly to have funds where after nine months the bonds would eventually be redeemed. Rather than cashing the coupons, these regionally distributed bond proceeds actually funded clandestine operations. 

 Franz von Papen in 1915 on his way home after he had been expelled from the U.S.

Franz von Papen in 1915 on his way home after he had been expelled from the U.S.

The collection and dissemination of intelligence as well as the dispatch and payment of secret agents occurred at the War Intelligence Office at 60 Wall Street, the office of Franz von Papen and his assistant Wolf von Igel in New York. Every day, German sympathizers and agents sent reports to von Papen’s office. This raw intelligence detailed factories involved in producing supplies for the Allies, named sympathizers who could be approached inside those businesses, as well as all kinds of plans, from inventions to bomb designs, to setting fires, to sabotaging manufacturing facilities. The acting German Military Attaché Wolf von Igel and other officials had destroyed many of these telegrams and letters as American investigators tried to search the premises of the German operation in New York between 1915 and 1917. However, some examples have been preserved that show the amount of intelligence von Papen had at his disposal to decide what to attack, how, and when. For example, he filed one of his bi-weekly intelligence reports copied to his superiors in Berlin, as well as those of Boy-Ed and Albert on February 11th 1915. The New York team was then still planning to corner the munitions market in the U.S. However, in view of the earlier sabotage order, which might or might not have arrived in the U.S. by the second week of February, von Papen seems to allude to potential sabotage targets using words like “there come into consideration...”

  … Bethlehem Steel Works are shipping on the steamer Transylvania 2 heavy naval guns, 16” caliber, which are said to represent a part of a large order… The entire order is estimated at 200 guns. The Savage Arms Co. delivers weekly about 50 Lewis machine guns… Westinghouse Electric Co. … got contracts for 125,000 shrapnel, the J.W. Bill Co. Projectile Works (shrapnel), the Western Cartridge Co., Alton, Ill. (cartridge shells) and the Bridgeport Brass Co. (cartridge shells). Machines for making shrapnel are furnished… by Gisholt Machine Co. and the Steinle Turret Co… For infantry ammunition there come into consideration [underline by author], besides those already reported, the Western Cartridge Co., Alton, Ill (caliber 30-20 and 7m.m. cartridge shells) and the Bridgeport Brass Co. (cartridges, shells and 50 million copper bullets for French machine guns [)]. The Curtis Flying Machine Co. is supplying 400 flying machines to England… These machines are equipped… with the only recently invented gyroscope of the Sperry Gyroscope Co… The well-known parts are produced by the Union Twist Drill Co. and the Union Twist Reel Co…It is rumored that the allies are ready to take as many as 1,000,000 daily.
The shipments of horses and war automobiles continue in increased degree. The Ford Mfg. Co. has received an order for 40,000 vehicles… the factory can produce about 1,000 a day.
The Locomobile Co. of America makes heavy freight automobiles and even sends its trained chauffeurs along to France with the autos… 35 heavy guns were sent by the Bethlehem Co. to Vancouver, to be shipped from there on the steamer Tambov of the Russian volunteer fleet to Vladivostok… The same factory furnished also the ammunition for this gun, and a report is before me that one train took 15 car loads of this. The steamer Tambov is said also to be taking powder from the DuPont Powder Co., also dynamite…
The Baldwin Locomotive Works shipped on the steamer Indradeo twenty-five locomotives to Vladivostoc.
Automobiles are shipped on every steamer leaving Vancouver for Vladivostok, and the Case Automobile Co. is specially to be mentioned here… Signed Papen


The financial control of the intelligence operation rested with Heinrich Albert’s office around the corner in the Hamburg-America building on 45 Broadway. Any sum over $10,000 had to be approved by Albert. The German agent and creator of the fire bombs that destroyed American factories and Allied ships, Walter Scheele, told investigators in March 1918, “In all matters of policy, it is stated that Dr. Albert ranked Bernstorff, Von Papen [sic] and Boy-Ed by many points. They all had to go to him. There was no plot or scheme which was unknown to him. As a result, literally nothing of import went on without Albert’s approval or at least his knowledge.”

La Touraine Fire

Four weeks after Albert received the first funds to start the sabotage campaign, on March 17th, von Papen reported in code to his superiors in Germany, “Regrettably steamer [SS La] Touraine has arrived unharmed with ammunition and 335 machine guns.” Von Papen was being facetious. She had indeed sailed on February 27th from New York to Le Havre, France, and caught on fire five hundred miles off the coast of Ireland on March 6th. The New York Times reported the next day, “only the barest facts of the disaster on the Touraine are known, and there is no hint of the cause of the fire on board the vessel… A message from Queenstown said that the fire on the Touraine was ‘fierce.’” The fire had broken out in two separate cargo areas. French authorities immediately suspected foul play. After a thorough investigation authorities identified a suspect who, as it turned out, had not caused the fire. Either way, von Papen’s superiors now had evidence that the sabotage campaign they had ordered was in full swing. If it had been Scheele’s work, the bomb maker had scored a first, documented success. Of the eighty-four passengers nobody was hurt. However, the cargo was ruined. The Touraine was the first casualty of what would become a staggering crisis for the U.S.: Over fifty freighters damaged or destroyed, three U.S. warships destroyed in dry dock, sky rocketing insurance premiums, billions of dollars in losses from factory fires, labor strikes across the rust belt, and hundreds of casualties not the least 128 American passengers on the Lusitania. Except for the Lusitania sinking, Heinrich Albert financed every aspect of the sabotage campaign that year.



Orders to blow up the Tampico Oil Wells 100 Years Ago

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



The Infamous Sabotage Order against the U.S. in 1915

On January 6, 1915 the Imperial German Admiralty requested that the military and naval attachés in Washington, Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed respectively, initiate sabotage in the United States and Canada. This request only surfaced as a memorandum in the Imperial Foreign Office. Initially, the Admiralty envisioned the Irish nationalists to conduct sabotage operations in the U.S. This understanding resulted from an agreement between Sir Roger Casement and the German government. Berlin had agreed to support an Irish uprising against England with funding, arms, and ammunition. In addition, Germany had agreed to recognize an Irish state after the war. Casement in return committed to support German efforts of stopping munitions production and shipments in the United States. The Foreign Office subsequently sent a formal sabotage order to the Chief of the Political Section of the Imperial General Staff, Section IIIB, Rudolf Nadolny, for transmission to the United States on January 23.

This order specified three members of the Irish resistance movement in the United States as resources for contracting sabotage agents. The order reached Franz von Papen, the German military attaché in the United States, on January 24. This document, which surfaced after the war, would have grave consequences for Germany. In a mixed claims commission, that Germany and the United States set up after the war to settle claims resulting from Germany’s actions between 1914 and 1919, German lawyers desperately tried to deny the existence of a clandestine war before the American entry into the conflict. Nadolny, himself a lawyer and reserve officer who became German ambassador to Persia later in the war, would join his superiors as well as Franz von Papen for decades in the categorical denial that this directive dated January 24, 1915 was binding or had had any impact.

From the Acting General Staff of the Army, Section IIIB      Berlin, January 24, 1915
– Secret
To the Foreign Office, Berlin.
It is humbly requested that the following telegram is transmitted in code to the Imperial Embassy in Washington:
‘For military attaché. To find suitable personnel for sabotage in the United States and Canada inquire with the following persons:
1)    Joseph Mac Garrity [sic], 5412 Springfield Philadelphia, Pa.,
2)    John P. Keating, Maryland Avenue Chicago,
3)    Jeremia [sic] O’Leary, Park row [sic], New York. No. 1 and 2 completely reliable and discreet, No. 3 reliable, not always discreet. Persons have been named by Sir Roger Casement.
In the United States sabotage can cover all kinds of factories for military supplies; railroads, dams, bridges there cannot be touched. Embassy can under no circumstances be compromised, neither can Irish-German propaganda.
Assistant chief of the General Staff

If there were any doubts as to the authenticity and meaning of the directive, these can quickly be dispelled with periodic reports from von Papen back to Nadolny. Bearing Nadolny’s signature as the recipient the military attaché provided updates to his efforts. Von Papen wrote in a secret telegram on March 17, 1915, “Sabotage against factories over here is making little progress, since all factories are guarded by hundreds of secret agents and all German-American and Irish workers have been fired… Steamer Touraine has regrettably arrived with munitions and 335 machine guns. Signed Papen” The head of the American section of the Imperial Foreign Office, Adolf Count Montgelas, scribbled on the telegram document numbers of three other related reports. Heinrich Albert, the chief of the Secret War Council in New York, transmitted a cable to Secretary of the Interior Clemens von Delbrück on April 20 1915, in which he clearly referred to the implementation of the sabotage order:

As your Excellency knows, I have supported the military attaché, Mr. von Papen, in the handling of munitions questions. Upon submitting our last proposal via telegraph (cable No. 479) we received the order to proceed with respect to preventing or restricting of the exportation of munitions from the United States. The order said: ‘Fully agree with your proposal’ and has been interpreted by us [the Secret War Council], that we are not only to tie up production through contracts in a specific sense, but also take all other [emphasis by author] necessary measures to reach the envisioned goal. With respect to the latter I have undertaken a series of steps under the guidance of Exzellenz [Excellency] Dernburg, which for understandable reasons I cannot put into writing.

Thus the sabotage order was neither a loose directive nor anything that the officials in New York simply ignored, as Nadolny and von Papen’s testimony before the Mixed Claims Commission wanted to spin it in later years. At least three departments, War (where the order originated), Interior (where it was funded in the United States), and the Foreign Office (as Count Montgelas’ signature documents) had knowledge of the order. In extension, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg and the Kaiser must have known about it, even if they did not specifically approve it. Ringing the bell for a new round of relations between the United States and Germany, the order was immediately implemented, funded, and acted upon. Different from orders to injure Canada from U.S. soil or to supply the German fleet from U.S. harbors under false manifests, by all international standards, the sabotage order of January 24 constituted the authorization of deliberate acts of war against the United States.



A Decision with Grave Consequences: Arnold Krumm-Heller and the Demise of Pancho Villa

In early January 1915, one hundred years ago almost to the day, the German minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, dispatched the secret agent Arnold Krumm-Heller to Pancho Villa. The Imperial German government had decided to offer military advisers to the two revolutionary factions, and supplying them with arms and munitions from the U.S., while at the same time supporting Venustiano Carranza in his quest to consolidate his steady march to supremacy in Mexico. Fanning the flames of the revolution was supposed to keep the United States government focused on Mexico rather than Europe where Germany fought a desperate war on two fronts. 

 Arnold Krumm-Heller: Medical Doctor, Revolutionary, German Spy

Arnold Krumm-Heller: Medical Doctor, Revolutionary, German Spy

Villa knew Krumm-Heller, who had been President Francisco Madero's personal doctor and spiritual adviser in 1911 and 1912. After Madero's demise in the Decena Tragica, Krumm-Heller joined the Carranza camp, which at that time included Villa's faction. However, in the spring of 1915 serious rifts had developed between Carranza and Villa. As a result, Villa saw Krumm-Heller's entreaty with more than just casual suspicion. Had Carranza dispatched Krumm-Heller as a military spy? Villa not only rejected him, but asked the messenger who submitted Krumm-Heller’s offer to tell him, “I give him [Krumm-Heller] 24 hours to get out of my country. If he is found here after that I will have him shot.”

The German agent took his military advisers and joined the forces of Alvaro Obregon, a loyal Carranza general. Within months, the German instructors taught Obregon the newest techniques from the European war. Frontal attack, being the mainstay of Villa's military tactics, could be stopped with elaborate trenches, the use of barbed wire and carefully placed machine gun positions. The first major encounter between Villa and Obregon's forces occurred at Celaya in April 1915. Obregon and his advisers had carefully chosen the battlefield and constructed an impenetrable bulwark against frontal cavalry assaults. Against the advice of Felipe Angeles, his most important military strategist and general, Villa sent wave after wave of cavalry against the entrenched forces of Obregon. After brutal fighting and heavy casualties, running low on ammunition, Villa retreated. Two weeks later, after resupplying and regrouping, the two armies clashed again. In desperate fighting, Obregon's forces managed to hold back the attaching Villistas.

Throughout both battles, Krumm-Heller and his German military staff observed the battlefield from a tent on high ground and gave Obregon tactical advice. However, early in the second battle artillery shrapnel severed Obregon's right arm. Laying in a tent in agony with his staff desperately trying to prevent their commander from committing suicide, Obregon's injury threatened to unravel the Constitutionalist lines. A few days after the battle, a reporter of the Hearst newspaper empire handed a report from Captain Juan Rosales, a Carranzista living in El Paso, to the Bureau of Investigation:

General Obregón had his arm shot off early in the fifth, and then Krum [sic] Heller took charge. He had five German officers with him. None of them went into the field, but as every Mexican officer had been instructed by Obregón to obey Heller, he and his Germans sat in a little tent away from the firing line and made maps. On several occasions they rode out to hills and looked at everything through their field glasses. Then they would return to their tent. I was attached to Col. Heller’s staff. Late that night Col. Heller sent for every Carranzista officer. Some of them regarded them as foolish and threatened to disobey, but Heller again produced an order signed by General Obregón commanding every Carranzista officer to obey him (Heller) [.] That settled the matter and the fight soon began. It did not last long. Villa was whipped and then retreated. Heller gave more instructions and our army advanced. Villas [sic] was whipped again and retreated. Heller again followed him and whipped him again. This was the end if Villa’s army.
 Alvaro Obregon after the Second Battle of Celaya

Alvaro Obregon after the Second Battle of Celaya

Krumm-Heller remained with Carranza in Mexico until 1916, then became military attache for Mexico in Berlin. After Celaya, Villa's chief military adviser Felipe Angeles left for the United States. Felix Sommerfeld, a German naval intelligence agent on Villa's staff funneled German funds to Villa to purchase more arms and munitions though 1915. By the fall, Villa's army, battered and decimated, fought a last stand in Sonora which it lost. Villa took to the hills in December 1915. The proud Division of the North, at one time counting over 40,000 men, disbanded.  

More on the career of Arnold Krumm-Heller at the 2015 Conference on Mariano Azuela and the Novel of the Mexican Revolution at California State University May 15 to May 16.



Christmas Get Away: The Extraction of Eduardo Iturbide 100 Years Ago

A sensitive diplomatic situation developed in the Mexican capital in December 1914. It greatly affected the future of Pancho Villa’s productive relationship with the United States and the Department of State in particular. The main cause of consternation was Colonel Eduardo Iturbide, a distant relation of the first Mexican emperor, Agustin de Iturbide. He had been police chief of Mexico City, as well as governor of the Federal District. After President Victoriano Huerta chose to go into exile in July 1914, Iturbide stayed behind to maintain order in the capital. His efforts enjoyed widespread admiration among the foreign colony. A very wealthy socialite and accredited “nobleman,” Iturbide was handsome, charming, a member of all the right clubs, and a successful polo player. The American government especially appreciated Iturbide’s courage to stay behind as a Huerta official and wait for the forces of Alvaro Obregón rather than Emiliano Zapata to take control of the capital. American officials and the large colony of foreign businessmen shuddered at the thought, albeit irrational, of Zapata’s “wild hordes” ransacking the city and murdering foreigners for entertainment. 

 Eduardo N. Iturbide

Eduardo N. Iturbide

Iturbide kept his commitment. The capital remained calm.  In order to keep order Iturbide moved police and federal army units to the outskirts of Mexico City to check the advance of the encroaching Zapatistas. According to press reports, fifty Zapatistas died in the clashes. When General Obregón finally entered the capital in the middle of August, the American colony demanded that Iturbide remain unmolested. Under pressure from the American embassy, Obregón had to guarantee the police chief’s security. A week later, Carranza seconded the decision, deferring a “trial” of Iturbide for serving under Huerta and killing Constitutionalist soldiers to a later, unspecified date.

However, all that changed in November, the moment Obregón left the city and allowed the Zapatistas to take over. The colonel’s fate threatened to parallel that of his famous ancestor, Emperor Iturbide of Mexico: Execution. Fearing for his life, he went underground, protected by the American diplomats John Silliman and Leon Canova. He hid in the residence of H. Cunard Cummins, the British charge d’affairs. As the new government under Eulalio Gutiérrez settled in, both the Villa and Zapata factions began rounding up former federals, members of the Huerta government, supporters of the Carranza government, and a whole host of people noted on wanted lists as “enemies of the state.” According to American reports, 155 men had been executed in the week after Christmas alone. Without question, Iturbide featured prominently on Zapata’s blacklist. President Gutiérrez did not support the wonton acts of violence Villa and Zapata’s henchmen were committing. However, he had little sway over the likes of Villa’s notorious executor, Rodolfo Fierro, settling old debts. “Representations were made to the authorities in Mexico City by both the American and British government, asking that he [Iturbide] be given passports to leave the country. These were granted by provisional president Gutiérrez and immediately resulted in a vigorous protest from Gen. Palafox, the Zapata leader in Mexico City.”

 Special Envoy to Mexico, Leon L. Canova

Special Envoy to Mexico, Leon L. Canova

On December 21st, American special envoy Leon L. Canova with the help of American consul John R. Silliman convinced Mexican President Gutiérrez to issue a safe conduct pass for Iturbide. Both diplomats acted on orders of the State Department. In the previous week, on December 13th, Secretary of State Bryan had instructed Silliman: “Do everything in your power to save Iturbide. He acted for Carvajal [sic] and turned the city over to the Constitutionalists thus saving much loss of life as well as preventing disorder. It would be most unfortunate if he were dealt with harshly.” Accordingly, Silliman created a passport for “a citizen of Mexico sojourning in the United States.” With Zapata hot on Iturbide’s heals, Silliman and Canova decided to smuggle him out.

Canova had scheduled a trip back to Texas in order to be home for Christmas. He decided to hide Iturbide in his special railcar, in which he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. None other than Pancho Villa himself saw Canova, and even briefly chatted with him, at the train station in Mexico City on December 22nd. It is unclear why Villa was at the station. Most likely, he arrived from a trip. Severe fighting had erupted in Guadalajara, Veracruz, Saltillo, and the area around Tampico. This was a very busy time for Villa, the de-facto master over much of Mexico. The rebel leader who had entered Mexico with a handful of men less than two years ago now had reached the zenith of his military and political power. After the train left, Villa’s secret service reported to him that Iturbide had been observed with Canova and that he had disappeared.

 General Francisco "Pancho" Villa

General Francisco "Pancho" Villa

Villa put together what had occurred and, after throwing one of his well-known fits, issued a call for Iturbide’s arrest. Cables went out to garrisons all along the rail line to stop Canova and search his compartment. The situation grew tense. Villa had ransacked a British consulate to get Luis Terrazas Jr. three years earlier. Certainly, he was capable of extracting Iturbide from Canova’s railcar. In fact, he vowed to get Canova and Iturbide himself if his commanders would not dare to. Villa’s secret service agents boarded the train in Aguascalientes. Canova refused to allow a search and managed to fend off the Villistas. A few hours later, the train stopped again, this time in Zacatecas. The next day at Torreon, Canova intimidated a whole company of troops and demanded to complain directly to Pancho Villa. Not knowing what to do the officer in command permitted the train to continue. In Chihuahua City, the Villistas evacuated the whole train, claiming a defective car. A search party finally entered the compartment when Canova exited his railcar. Iturbide was gone! He had exited the train just south of Aguascalientes hours before the first attempt to search the compartment, and was making his way up to the American border on foot. Canova had so misled Iturbide’s pursuers by refusing a search, that they lost his trail. As the train with the American consul arrived in El Paso on Christmas day 1914, Iturbide relied on his skills and sheer luck to make it across the border to safety. “I rode on that train… just one day for I realized that the secret service men were trailing me and that an order for my arrest would come at any minute. I wrote my will and gave it to Mr. Canova and slipped off the train just south of Aguascalientes. I walked around aimlessly for sixty miles and finally got a horse on a ranch. For fifteen days I rode, disguised as a rancher and made my way to the American border, eluding troops and police by traveling mostly at night and sleeping by day.” 

Villa was furious. He declared Canova a persona-non-grata. The new president, Eulalio Gutiérrez, had locked horns with both Villa and Zapata over the widespread persecution and execution of public and personal enemies. This episode brought the tensions to a boil. Villa accused Gutiérrez of corruption and treachery; Gutiérrez leveled charges of insubordination on the northern general. The split between Gutiérrez and his two main rebel leaders was by no means a surprise. However, the Iturbide affair certainly added fuel to the fire. The embattled Mexican president sent his wife to safety on the 9th of January, before he evacuated the capital for San Luis Potosi. Canova’s expulsion from Villa’s territory prompted Secretary of State Bryan to reinstate George C. Carothers as the personal envoy to Villa. Carothers had resigned in early December as a result of disagreements over policy with the State Department. Consistent rumors of corruption, coming from State Department sources, that have never been proven or litigated, implanted themselves in the historical portrait of the special envoy. Undoubtedly, Villa’s already shaky relationship with William Jennings Bryan also deteriorated as a result of this episode. Rather than ruining Canova’s diplomatic career, Villa’s refusal to let him come back to Mexico got the native Floridian a huge promotion: Secretary Bryan decided to appoint Canova to head the Latin American desk of the State Department. Canova thus became one of Villa's most powerful enemies. 



Germany's Effort to Stop Canada's Expeditionary Forces in 1914

In the end of August 1914 Canada mobilized the largest expeditionary force in her history. On August 4, the day of the declaration of war, the Canadian armed forces numbered 3,110 men with 684 horses. In the third week of September, the Canadian ranks had swelled to 83,000 men, which shipped to Europe on October 3 and 24. The first contingent consisted of 31,200 men with arms, trucks, horses, and supplies. “It took three hours for the line of ships, more than twenty-one miles long, to steam through the harbour's narrow exit into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Once in the open the great armada reformed in fleet formation-three lines ahead, fifteen cables (3,000 yards) apart, each led by a cruiser, the fourth cruiser bringing up the rear.”

 The Valcartier Camp in the end of August 1914

The Valcartier Camp in the end of August 1914

With orders to prevent Canadian forces from shipping out to Europe, the German Military Attaché in the U.S. Franz von Papen and Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed got to work. As soon as von Papen had hired Paul Koenig and his “detective agency,” he sent the secret service man to canvass the East Coast of Canada. The intelligence mission consisted of estimating exactly the extent of the Canadian mobilization, as well as identifying possible targets that would interrupt or sabotage the effort. For a period of five weeks, Koenig and his agents traveled to Canada on reconnaissance missions. Laureat Jean J. Leclerc, a garage owner in Quebec, rented cars to the German agents. He also repeatedly served as Koenig’s driver on the spying forays. In 1915, after Koenig’s activities came to light, Leclerc testified against the German agent. According to the garage owner, Koenig and his associate Siegfried H. Mundheim canvassed the waterfront of Quebec “on several night trips.” “At first…I thought well of Koenig. I drove him around the Valcartier camp, about the wharves, along the water front, but one thing struck me – his trips were made mostly at night.” The majority of Canada’s expeditionary forces converged on the Valcartier military camp starting in the beginning of September 1914.

On September 15, Paul Koenig, Frederick Metzler, and Edmund Justice left for Burlington, Vermont. On the same day, Alfred Fritzen, Frederick Busse, Costante Covani, Franz Wachendorf alias Horst von der Goltz, and Charles Tuchendler left for Buffalo, New York. Koenig’s mission is not specifically documented. However, it clearly targeted the troop camp at Valcartier and the harbor of Quebec, where Canada’s expeditionary troops made last preparations for shipping to Europe. As to the second team that included Wachendorf, the mission was to sabotage the Welland Canal, thereby creating a diversion while the primary team under Koenig sank a barge or blew up a bridge to block the shipping channel. Both groups were armed and equipped, although the extent of preparations is only known about Wachendorf’s team. Von Papen testified in 1932 that half of Wachendorf’s dynamite remained in another German safe house, the apartment of “Martha Heldt, at No. 123 West 15th Street” in lower Manhattan. Wachendorf wrote that he left “two suit-cases” at the Heldt apartment. Originally, the two hundred pounds of explosives had been packed into two suitcases.

The coordinated attack on Canada never occurred. Curiously, von Papen had cancelled the mission one week before the shipment of Canadian troops to England. The “great armada” sailed on October 3, not on September 24 as Wachendorf claimed in his memoirs. The German agent also claimed that he laid off Busse and Fritzen while still in Buffalo, because of lack of funding. However, both men continued to work for the German secret service, which is widely documented in von Papen and Albert’s accounts. So what might really have happened? If the bombs had gone off at Welland in the last week of September, they would have generated the most impact and quite possibly jeopardized the assemblage of the troop ships. The glitch in the plan must have been a completely different one: The Canadian military knew that the Welland Canal was a prime target for terrorists. In the period leading up to the troop transports to England, “Canada formed a security service consisting of telegraph operators, customs and immigration officers, local and special police, military guards, private detectives and watchmen. This protective service was under the authority of Lt. Col. Percy Sherwood, Chief Commissioner of the Dominion Police. For the Canadian authorities the most important public utility that needed protection was the canal systems of Ontario and Quebec. The largest force used, one thousand, was deployed to protect the Welland Canal.” One convincing theory explaining the abandonment of the mission is that the Welland Canal team simply got cold feet. 

If the Welland Canal was well protected one can only imagine the security around the British fleet that was about to carry a whole army to Europe. Without the diversion Wachendorf’s team planned to execute, Koenig and his associates had no chance to get even close to the harbor of Quebec or the military camp of Valcartier in these last days of September. The same is true for any German raider that might have been dispatched to the Canadian coast. Steaming into the St. Lawrence or laying in wait at its mouth would have been sheer suicide. After Wachendorf and his men bailed, Koenig realized the futility of his mission and returned to New York around the same time.

On October 3 1914, with both sabotage teams back in New York, “… the entire Armada, containing the largest military force which had ever crossed the Atlantic at one time, set sail for England. In three long parallel lines of about a dozen ships each, with flags flying and signals twinkling, it made an imposing sight for the handful of people who saw it off. On October 6, the convoy was joined at sea by a ship carrying the Newfoundland Regiment. Before and during the crossing there had been much talk about the threat of German submarines but this threat never materialized.” The Commander of Germany’s submarine fleet, Admiral Hermann Bauer did claim in his memoirs that U-20, a German long distance submarine, indeed had gone to Canada to intercept the Canadian troop transports. “U-20 …came back from its mission against the large Canadian transport near the Hebrides…” Luckily, the convoy had escaped the underwater predator. A little over seven months later, the Lusitania was not so lucky and received a deadly torpedo from the same submarine. By the end of the war, 65,000 Canadian soldiers had succumbed in the trenches of Europe.



Imperial German Intelligence Chiefs Meet in New York

A most interesting meeting of a group of high level German secret service chiefs and diplomats took place on the evening of September 22, 1914 on the roof garden of the Ritz-Carlton in New York. German Ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff and the the commercial agent and spymaster in New York, Heinrich F. Albert met with Count Arthur von Rex, the returning German ambassador to Japan, and Colonel Alexander von Falkenhausen, the German military attaché in Tokyo. Von Falkenhausen's wife also attended. Japan had declared war on Germany on August 23, prompting the German ambassador’s return from Tokyo. The outbreak of hostilities with Japan also precipitated the assignment to China of an experienced diplomat, personal friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II, minister to Mexico, and naval intelligence officer in the person of Rear Admiral Paul von Hintze.

 Rear Admiral Paul von Hintze

Rear Admiral Paul von Hintze

Much has been made of this secret trip, Admiral Paul von Hintze made from Mexico City to Beijing in the fall of 1914. The German diplomat never revealed exactly where and when he went. However, archival sources that contain Heinrich Albert's wartime diary now document that in the middle of September, von Hintze was traveling through New York and San Francisco to his new post in the Far East. While Albert did not mention the rear admiral as a member of this dinner in the end of September, it is certain that he was there. Around the time of the dinner, von Hintze was in New York, had meetings with von Falkenhausen, and turned over his naval intelligence responsibilities for the American theater to the Imperial naval attaché in New York, Captain (of the Navy) Karl Boy-Ed. It would be more than logical that he timed his secret trip to meet his retiring colleague from Tokyo and receive briefings on navy intelligence activities in the Far East, now the essence of von Hintze’s wartime assignment. From New York von Hintze traveled to San Francisco where he met Kurt Jahnke, a notorious sabotage agent who has been alleged to be behind the explosion on Black Tom Island in New York harbor in the summer of 1916. There is no mention of Karl Boy-Ed at the dinner. While he certainly had meetings with von Hintze, Boy-Ed might not have felt too social that day. His younger brother Walter, a captain in the German artillery, had been badly injured and died around the day of the meeting.

 Alexander Freiherr von Falkenhausen

Alexander Freiherr von Falkenhausen

Von Hintze took his assignment in the Far East in October 1914. Under his auspices, Germany waged a secret war against the Entente powers in the Far East which included a sabotage campaign not too different of what Karl Boy Ed and his colleague, Military Attache Franz von Papen conducted in the United States at the same time. The similarities of the sabotage campaigns and their coordination through the members of the secret dinner meeting in New York are striking. In the end of 1915 von Hintze once more traveled through the United States in disguise to take his assignment as ambassador to Norway. On July 9, 1918 von Hintze became Imperial German foreign minister. As the German empire collapsed under the weight of a combined Entente and American military on the eastern front and internal turmoil, the imperial cabinet decided to send none other than the dashing diplomat and admiral von Hintze to ask the Kaiser for his resignation. Von Hintze retired after the war. Alexander von Falkenhausen became a general and returned to the Far East in the 1930s to become a close adviser of Chiang Kai-Shek. After becoming a major conspirator in the coup d'etat against Hitler in 1944, General von Falkenhausen spent the last year of the war in concentration camps but survived. 



The Hindu-German Conspiracy and Mexico

On October 11, 1914 the Imperial German Foreign Office sent a telegram asking Ambassador von Bernstorff in Washington to purchase and ship arms and munitions for the resistance movements in British and French colonies. The group used this request as their chance to try out their plan and prove its feasibility to the German government. Germany had maintained close contacts with several resistance groups fighting their colonial masters in Ireland, Palestine, India, Afghanistan, Persia, Indonesia, and North Africa. These groups realistically only had one thing in common: Defeat England and France. That desire made them natural allies in Germany’s efforts to “hurt the enemy.” One of the most active and effective groups, an organization of Punjab Indians (Sikh not Hindu) was located in the United States. In 1913, the group had formed the Ghadr party under the leadership of Har Dayal, headquartered in San Francisco. The party grew quickly mainly as a result of its leader’s captivating personality. To his followers, Har Dayal incorporated the highest traits of wisdom and spiritualism. However, his success made him a target for the American authorities. They accused him of radical leanings and involvement with anarchist and socialist circles. Dayal’s weekly paper, the Hindustan Gadhar promoted martyrdom, and recruited volunteers to fight against British rule. English, Canadian, and U.S. authorities tried their best to disperse and prosecute the Indian resistance leaders. After a brief arrest in April 1914 for “speeches so villainously offensive to common decency and order” Har Dayal decided to jump bail and move to Germany. When the war started, he organized in the “Indian Independence Committee” in the German capital. In the first months of the war the German government actively supported several Ghadr operations in the Islamist areas of India, as well as in Afghanistan, and Singapore with money, transportation, and weapons.

The German military attache in Washington Franz von Papen eagerly accepted the responsibility to organize the proposed military support of the Ghadr efforts. Not only could von Papen now buy military supplies in the U.S. market, he could also experiment with the logistics of selling arms and ammunition from the United States to third parties. Through Felix A. Sommerfeld and the pro-German envoy of the Constitutionalists in Washington, Rafael Zubaran Capmany, the German embassy had close contacts to both the Villa and Carranza factions in Mexico. On September 26, 1914 someone of the Carranza camp petitioned the German embassy for a supply of munitions. The petitioner appears in the German correspondence log as “R. O. Fabricius, Progreso.” Whether the reference meant to describe the German businessman Adolfo Fabricius who indeed lived in Progreso, Yucatan, is not clear. Fabricius most likely was the German merchant to handle the order for Carranza’s U.S. envoy Rafael Zubaran Capmany. The request was approved on October 7 with the notation “Forwarded to Tauscher. Not more than 100,000. Delivery in three months.” The German commercial agent in New York and paymaster for all German clandestine missions Heinrich F. Albert noted in his diary on October 22, 1914, “…give (Papen) check for $100,000 for arms Tauscher.” Military Attaché von Papen, who was in charge of what the embassy correspondence log categorized as “Munitions Business,” tasked Kruup repersentative in the U.S. and German agent Hans Tauscher to procure the required arms and ammunition for both the Indian resistance movement and the Mexican revolutionary forces. The plan was to buy a large cache of rifles with corresponding cartridges. Von Papen made his first mistake of many in the execution of the operation in not telling Tauscher where the arms were destined. On October 26 Tauscher submitted his invoice for the order. He had found 10,890 rifles and 3.9 million cartridges through Robert vom Cleff, a small time New York arms dealer and friend of Tauscher. The rifles consisted mostly of Springfield 45/70 that had been designed in 1873 and not been used in the active U.S. military since 1897. The American government had been working on selling these weapons as surplus for a decade.

On October 27 the rifles and ammunition from the Kansas army surplus went to a storage facility at 521 West 20th Street in New York, a recently completed nine story building in lower Manhattan. The project now became more complex. The arms had to be delivered to San Diego where the German admiralty meanwhile was to organize the transportation to Mexico and to a meeting point with Indian resistance fighters. For the move to San Diego, Heinrich Albert booked space on the SS Nueces, a Mallory Line steamer, to take the shipment to Galveston, Texas. The Nueces was one of the ships Albert had leased for cotton shipments. From Galveston, the arms would then be transferred onto rail and taken to San Diego, California. On January 9, 1915 the Nueces left New York with 561 cases of rifles (20 per case), 3,759 cases of cartridges (1,000 per case), and 10 bales of munitions belts. The shipment had been fully insured and consigned to Walter C. Hughes in San Diego. He was Tauscher’s freight forwarder in New York with corresponding offices in Galveston and Los Angeles. However, the real consignee of course was the German consulate in San Francisco. The shipment arrived in Galveston ten days later. Even for the standards of the times when huge transfers of weapons from the United States to Mexico occurred almost daily, this was a large order. It took eleven freight cars to transport the shipment to San Diego.

On the January 19, 1915, a front woman in San Francisco, probably employed by the Jebsen Shipping Line, sent a $14,000 payment to a lawyer in San Diego to lease the three-mast, 326-ton Annie Larsen. The schooner’s monthly lease was an additional $1,250. The sail ship had seen better days. It was built in 1881 and had been used in the lumber trade along the West Coast. The Annie Larson set sail in San Francisco on January 24 and took on the weapons in San Diego on February 3. The large amount of arms raised eyebrows with American customs officials in San Diego. The consignee of the shipment was “Juan Bernardo Bowen” in Topolobamba, Mexico. Topolobamba, Sinaloa, half way between Guaymas and Mazatlan on the Gulf of Mexico, was under the control of Villistas at the time but hotly contested. Indications are that the shipment of arms indeed was destined for Villa’s troops. The New York Times reported on February 19, “Villa, who has just captured Guadalajara, is centring [sic] his attention now on his west coast campaign, and is doing so because he wants to make doubly sure of receiving a shipment of 9,000 rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition now being sent on a schooner from San Diego, Cal., to the Mexican west coast…” In the meantime, Frederick Jebsen, Karl Boy-Ed’s agent in charge of supplying the German Pacific fleet, rigged an old oil tanker, the SS Maverick, to meet the Annie Larsen and take on the arms shipment for transfer to the Far East.

After spending one month in dry dock in the port of San Pedro outside of Los Angeles, the tanker took on a new crew. American-born John B. Starr-Hunt boarded the Maverick as Germany’s super-cargo to direct the American captain. Ram Chandra and his people also sent a group of five Indian resistance fighters with propaganda literature and orders on how to get the shipment to the revolutionaries in India. Finally, with eight thousand barrels of fuel oil in the hold (not for own consumption) she headed to the coast of Mexico as well. Her papers listed the final destination as “Anjer, Java.” According to the pro-English account of the affair by French Strother, who quoted the testimony of supercargo John B. Starr-Hunt, the Maverick had been scheduled to meet the Annie Larsen in San José del Cabo at the very tip of Baja California. Once the weapons would be transferred, Starr-Hunt had orders to return to the U.S. with the schooner.

 John B. Starr-Hunt

John B. Starr-Hunt

Two months meanwhile had passed since the Annie Larsen had arrived in San José del Cabo. When the Maverick was finally cleared to sail in the end of April 1915, British intelligence services were watching the movements of the old oil tanker. The British agents suspected the identity of the Maverick’s owners, the American-Asiatic Oil Company to be a cover. At the insistence of British intelligence, American customs officials boarded and searched the Maverick while still in harbor. However, her hold was empty. Still suspecting a German covert operation the British cruiser HMS Newcastle shadowed the oil tanker when she finally sailed. With the British cruiser tailing, the Maverick decided to make a run to Socorro Island, about four hundred miles off the Mexican shore. The Island was the agreed to alternative meeting point with the weapons laden schooner. The oil tanker shook the British cruiser but did not find the Anne Larsen at the island. 

The Annie Larsen had indeed sailed from the tip of the Baja California to Socorro Island, the secondary meeting point. However, the crew waited for one month, after which food and fresh water ran low. In need of provisions the Annie Larsen sailed southeast to Acapulco to re-supply. Acapulco is one thousand miles south of the tip of Baja California and completely out of the way of her presumed final destination. However, the prevailing winds in the region did not allow the sail ship to go due east back to the Baja California. Instead, she had to tack south. It is not known, if the Annie Larsen cleared any of her cargo while in San José del Cabo. If she did, it would have been the shipment Pancho Villa had been expecting. When she arrived in Acapulco, which was in Carrancista territory, she cleared the majority of her load. Numerous accounts detailed how the Carrancista port authorities refused to let the weapons laden ship continue on her voyage. According to author David Wilma, “Only through the intervention by U.S. Navy officers from the cruiser U.S.S. Yorktown, also at Acapulco at the time, was the Annie Larsen released.”

After re-supplying in Acapulco, the Annie Larsen supposedly tried to return to Socorro Island. She never made it on account of “bad weather.” Indeed, it would be a tough trip to make against the strong headwinds, which prevail between the southern coast of Mexico and Socorro Island. Instead of heading out into the Pacific, the schooner headed up the U.S. coast to Washington State, her home base. Finally, on June 29, 1915 the five-month odyssey of the Annie Larsen ended at Gray’s Harbor in Hoquiam, Washington. The U.S. local customs collector impounded the ship including what remained in her hold. He found 4,000 rifles and one million cartridges worth $25,000. The German agent on board who had directed the captain’s movements escaped. In a landmark trial in 1917 and 1918, German Consul General Bopp, his attachés von Schack and von Brincken, as well as two-dozen German and Indian conspirators involved in the plot were tried and convicted to hard time. Hans Tauscher was indicted but remained free for lack of evidence. In the sensational end of the trial one of the Indian conspirators shot the leader of the Indian resistance movement, Ram Chandra. The U.S. marshal in the courtroom in turn killed the attacker. 



October 1914 -The U.S. and Mexico on Edge

On September 23, 1914, Pancho Villa declared war against Venustiano Carranza. Disagreements over the leadership of Mexico after the ouster of Victoriano Huerta in July precipitated the third, most violent phase of the Mexican Revolution.

A major front in this renewed civil war opened on the border between Arizona and Sonora in the tiny hamlet of Naco. The Villista governor Jose Maria Maytorena had pushed the forces of Carranza against the international border and besieged the town. The Carranzista commanders Benjamin Hill and Plutarco Elias Calles dug in as they were able to receive supplies from the American side of the border. Heavy fighting on the Mexican side caused stray bullets to pound the American side of the town.  As a result, the 10th U.S. Cavalry with reinforcements from the 9th took up positions on October 7. The 12th Infantry from Nogales, Arizona joined the cavalry units that had been dispatched from Fort Huachuca near Tucson and Fort Douglas. The commander of the Southern Department of the U.S. army at Fort Sam Houston, Brigadier General Tasker Howard Bliss, had overall command. The American units dug in and observed the fighting. Stray bullets - some were occasionally not so stray - pounded the American positions and American onlookers, some of whom came from as far as Bisbee to see the fighting. Naco, Arizona sustained heavy damages as a result of the continued shelling. “From their trenches and rifle pits, the men of the 10th and their comrades from the 9th Cavalry watched the fighting. It was a dangerous business; the Buffalo Soldier regiment [10th Cavalry] had eight men wounded while the Ninth ‘had some killed and wounded.’ They also lost a number of horses and mules from gunfire straying across the border.” Unlike the previous battles in Sonora, in which Maytorena consistently defeated the Constitutionalist opposition, Naco did not turn into a rout. In fierce combat General Benjamin Hill dug in along the border and supplied his troops from the American side. “Three lines of formidable trenches and earthen breastworks interspaced about 200 yards apart were thrown up around the entire perimeter to the border. Barbed wire and whatever other obstacles could be found were erected to impede the expected attack…the town [of Naco, Sonora] was transformed into a virtual fortress…”

 Courtesy of the Journal of the West

Courtesy of the Journal of the West

The American troops were under orders not to return fire. As the siege dragged on, the restraint of the U.S. army turned into admirable acts of self-discipline. Colonel William C. Brown of the 10th Cavalry confided in a letter to a friend in October of 1914,

About 12:25 a.m., on the 17th [Maytorena] made the most determined attack yet made [sic]---first from the west, then from the east and lastly from the south, the direction which would send the high shots into our camp and of which he had previously been warned. On the night of the 10th four shots hit the little R.R. station where I had my headquarters; on the night of the 16th-17th, 14 shots hit the same building and I should say that the shots (probably several hundred) dropped in our camp in about the same proportion. Fortunately nearly all men and animals had been moved out for safety but notwithstanding this our casualty list was as follows: Four troopers wounded, one will probably die, and another lose his eye-sight [sic]. One horse and one mule killed one horse wounded besides at least two natives shot on the U.S. side of the line. It is a surprise here that the U.S. takes no notice of such an outrageous proceeding. Does the U.S. Government propose to sit complacently by and allow such deliberate firing perpendicular to the boundary that our soldiers are shot in their own camps? This after repeated warnings of the effect of such firing. If this be true I am having my eyes opened, and getting an entirely new idea of the protection afforded by the U.S. flag.

On December 11, General Tasker H. Bliss inspected the situation in Naco. According to the New York Times, Mexican rebels took potshots at the American general. “…Two bullets fired from the Mexican side of the boundary passed perilously near the General and his staff as he was examining a bomb-proof [shelter] near the immigration station, about 100 feet north of the international line. Soldiers guarding the immigration station are protected by three bomb proofs and by a line of loaded coal cars drawn before the American town and the border, but a break in the line of coal cars had been left to permit access to the border. Gen. Bliss was near this break when the bullets whistled.” Whether Mexican snipers targeted General Bliss on purpose or the incident was accidental, the Wilson administration’s decision to dispatch a larger military force was affirmed. The next day, the U.S. military moved heavy artillery from Fort Bliss, Texas into Naco.

On December 15, the entire 6th Brigade, with 4,750 soldiers headed from Galveston, Texas to Naco, bringing the total American troop strength there to 6,215 men. The American army had assembled a full invasion force, larger and with more firepower than the troops dispatched to Veracruz in April, complete with cavalry, infantry, and heavy artillery. With the blessing of the War Department General Bliss issued an ultimatum on December 16: “If for any reason a single shot falls on American soil after this ultimatum has reached you and has been translated, I will be forced to use extreme measures to end this useless danger to innocent lives in a neutral and well-intentioned country.” 

Villa as Commander-in-Chief of the Convention government not only rejected the ultimatum but also, to the alarm of President Wilson and his cabinet, proceeded to give U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Hugh Lenox Scott a taste of old fashioned Mexican machismo. He answered through Felix Sommerfeld: “I have mobilized eight thousand cavalrymen and they left yesterday under the command of General Cabral who will be in Casas Grandes within two days and they will proceed to Naco immediately period…if he [Scott] will permit us the time of eight hours Naco will be taken and the situation will be concluded…the assault will be rapid, uniform and effective period. Please cause General Scott to know this and ask him to have patience for four days…” While Villa’s chest thumping might appear just to be that, the situation could not have grown tenser. Villa threatened war! Moving eight thousand troops to northern Sonora, which was almost completely in the hands of his forces, clearly aimed at the American army, assembled on the other side of the line. The combined forces of Maytorena and Villa numbering approximately 9,500 would trump the assembled American army units.  

 Generals Mitchie, Scott and Pancho Villa in a meeting in El Paso organized by Felix A. Sommerfeld

Generals Mitchie, Scott and Pancho Villa in a meeting in El Paso organized by Felix A. Sommerfeld

General Scott took Villa’s threat at face value and cabled to the Secretary of War Lindlay M. Garrison for permission to “…stop movement of Villa’s troops in this direction before leaving the railroad or failing this that all Americans be brought out of Mexico and General Bliss be instructed to protect the town of Naco by repelling the attack by force of arms. General Bliss desires that he receive his instructions in time to bring field hospital from San Antonio and make other necessary dispositions.” As between six and seven thousand American troops readied themselves for a military expedition into Mexico, Villa assembled two full cavalry brigades to assault the border town of Naco. Acting Secretary of War Breckenridge approved the field hospital to be moved in place on January 2, 1915. On January 9, Sommerfeld, who had the ungrateful task of shuttling between Villa and Maytorena, received the long awaited signature from the Sonoran strongman, in which he agreed to give up the siege. Already on the previous day General Hill had left Naco by train for Galveston, Texas to join up with Carrancista forces fighting in Veracruz. The situation was diffused. For now. Within a year the border erupted in violence again, causing virtually the entire regular U.S. army to be stationed in defense of the homeland. 



Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff - Wartime Ambassador

Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States from 1908 to 1914 remains a controversial historical figure. Widely admired before the war, he received several honorary doctorates, graced the Washington and New York social scene with his charm, intelligence, perfect command of the English language, and his American wife. After the World War, Count Bernstorff became a political force in Germany, co-founder of the German Democratic Party, parliamentarian from 1921 to 1928, and a strong voice for Democracy. He supported the League of Nations and global disarmament. He ran afoul with the Nazi government as a result of his convictions and went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1939 at the eve of World War II. He is remembered and revered as a moderate voice in Germany, a man of principle, who dared to stand up to the fascist dictator.

Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff

The controversy about Count Bernstorff has to do with his role as ambassador in the United States in the Great War. Publicly and as a diplomat, he adamantly opposed the German submarine war and instead pursued mediation between Germany and the United States to a point of total frustration. He wrote in his war time memoirs: “Every time a diplomatic success was in view, an [submarine attack] incident occurred, which made it necessary to start one’s labours all over again." Despite his moderate stance, or "defeatism" as the Nazis later accused him, he did have knowledge of German clandestine operations in the United States. He also had, at least nominally, command and control over these operations. What was his involvement in German clandestine missions, especially the deadly sabotage campaign of 1915 and 1916? 

Count Bernstorff's primary biographer, Reinhard Doerries, documented meticulously the ambassador's opposition to the German strategy of aggression against the United States. Looking at his life before and after the war, it is hard to fathom that this man indeed knew and condoned the fire bombings, ship sinkings, contraband smuggling, labor unrest, and misinformation that German agents undertook between 1914 and 1917. A historian can easily argue that the ambassador knew nothing, saw nothing, and did nothing. As is the case in any secret service operation, the very least a diplomatic representative can expect is plausible deniability. The German government destroyed Bernstorff's wartime instructions for when he came back to the U.S. in the end of August 1914. No incriminating documents have surfaced bearing his signature.

That is until now. The ambassador was a leading member of the command and control of German clandestine activities in the U.S. He met regularly and corresponded with Heinrich Albert, the man in charge of financing all secret service activities in the U.S. Together, Albert and Bernstorff opened bank accounts in dozens of cities through which funds flowed to German agents. In particular, Felix Sommerfeld used one of those accounts to finance munitions purchased for Pancho Villa. When Albert lost his briefcase and its contents graced the headlines of American dailies, the ambassador quickly promoted him to Commercial Attache. He thus prevented legal action against the paymaster of the German secret mission.

Bernstorff also attended the meetings of the German propaganda team in New York, gave suggestions, reprimanded Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed when they wrote letters to editors that sounded too belligerent. The ambassador suggested the purchase of a large American newspaper, which happened in the spring of 1915. That in itself might not be illegal, but the same propaganda team also bribed editors of major newspapers, spread purposely misleading information, and provided target lists for German sabotage agents. The ambassador authorized the construction of a German owned munitions factory in 1915. This ruse locked up the American market for hydraulic presses, smokeless powder, and picric acid. Most significantly, there was a clear connection between the most notorious German sabotage agent, Franz Rintelen, and the German ambassador. Rintelen met Bernstorff in the spring of 1915, shortly after his arrival. Supposedly, the meeting was contentious. The source for this is Bernstorff's own account in his memoirs. Those, of course, were written after Rintelen was discovered and sitting in an Atlanta penitentiary for fire bombing thirty-five ships. Rintelen's main mission was to create labor unrest. Strikes in the American war industry greatly benefited Germany. The most important labor leader in 1915 was Samuel Gompers. Rintelen tried to enlist his support for a worker peace movement but the AFL leader would not budge. Bernstorff is documented of initiating several meetings with Gompers in that time. He could not change Gompers' mind either but certainly tried. Rintelen's efforts led to the great Bridgeport strike in the summer of 1915, settled only when employers extended the forty-hour work week to their workers. 

Count Bernstorff clearly knew what was going on, mingled in parts of the clandestine efforts that he considered at least borderline legal, and knew the people involved. The distribution of funds for clandestine missions, the support of German sabotage agents, the knowledge of who engaged in illegal activities definitely link the ambassador to acts of war. Had he been ethically opposed, he could have resigned. It was war, the United States was the de-facto supplier of Germany's enemies, and certainly people like Franz von Papen, Karl Boy-Ed, and Heinrich Albert justified their involvement in actions to stop American arms from reaching the European battlefields, no matter the official neutrality of the United States. Would a reevaluation of the ambassador's actions and a documentation of his depth of knowledge in the clandestine war against the United States between 1914 and 1917 fundamentally change his stature in the Weimar Republic and beyond? This historian thinks not.



New York's Hotel Astor - Hangout for German Spies in World War I

One of the great hotels in New York at the turn of the century was the Hotel Astor on Times Square. The establishment was owned and operated by William C. Muschenheim, a German immigrant who lived the American dream to the fullest. With the backing of the prominent German-American Waldorf-Astor family, Muschenheim had built and expanded this landmark hotel on Times Square between 1904 and 1910. A room cost between $4 and $5 per night. $20 per night would get you one of the lavish suites on the forth floor. One of the great features of the Astor was the terrace roof garden, a large restaurant and bar on top of the hotel with great views of the Manhattan's skyline.

Hotel Astor

On August 13, 1914, as World War I took shape in Europe, Felix A. Sommerfeld, a German Naval Intelligence agent and official representative and arms buyer for Pancho Villa rented a three-room suite on the forth floor of the Muschenheim establishment. He lived there for the duration of the war. Many times in the months after Sommerfeld settled in New York, journalists loitered in the lavishly decorated reception hall of the Astor Hotel hoping to catch the German agent for a comment as he was checking for messages and telegrams at the front desk. Although most of Sommerfeld’s telegrams were coded, the receptionists knew from the newspapers that their wealthy guest worked for Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican revolutionary whose exploits excited the movie goers of the day. 

On September 16, 1914, the former Imperial Secretary of Colonies Bernhard Dernburg gave a speech to several hundred German-Americans invited to the roof garden by the German University League. In attendance were the German Ambassador Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the second counselor of the German embassy, Hermann Prince von Hatzfeld zu Trachenberg, and the German purchasing agent and paymaster of German clandestine missions in the U.S., Heinrich F. Albert. Dernburg, who defended the German invasion of Belgium, had charge of fund raising for German operations in the U.S., clearly the chief purpose of the event.  

 The Astor roof garden

The Astor roof garden

Almost exactly a year later, Heinrich Albert himself took a suite in the Astor. American agents had stolen his briefcase and published the contents in New York's largest papers. The scandal made the nondescript and shy German agent into an overnight celebrity. Reporters, investigators, and secret agents beleaguered Albert's office in the Hamburg-America building on 45 Broadway. Every move he made was recorded and reported. He moved his office to the Astor as a consequence. 

On the morning of October 28, 1915, New York police rushed into the hotel, went to the forth floor and pounded on the door to Felix Sommefeld's suite. They arrested the German agent on a warrant that dated back to 1898. Handcuffed and visibly shaken, Sommerfeld was paraded through the reception hall of the Astor, causing a sensation in the evening papers. The German agent beat the charges but not before agents of the Bureau of Investigations had searched his rooms. A few years later, on June 21, 1918, agents of the U.S. Secret Service came for the German agent. Again he was paraded through the hotel in handcuffs and again the front pages of the New York papers reported on the scandal. After three days of debriefing, he was interned at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia as a dangerous enemy alien. Unlike the time before, Sommerfeld would not return to the hotel for over a year. 

 The ballroom of the Astor

The ballroom of the Astor

There are no records that indicate whether William Muschenheim had any idea that German agents used his establishment to plot their campaigns against America. However, he did particularly like Felix Sommerfeld, to whom, while in internment, he wrote a note in May 1919 wishing him Happy Birthday. After his release in the summer of 1919, Sommerfeld returned to the Astor where American agents noted that he again entertained all kinds of folk, plotting revolutions in Mexico. The Astor Hotel changed owners in the 1950s, and finally went out of business in 1967. In 1968, the hotel was demolished and made space for a fifty-four story skyscraper.


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August 4th 1914: The Secret War on the United States Began...

On August 4th 1914, fifty-four German merchant ships and passenger liners interned themselves in U.S. harbors to escape marauding British warships. Among the liners was the queen of transatlantic travel, the SS Vaterland. Albert Ballin, founder, chairman and CEO of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Paketdienst Gesellschaft had personally overseen her construction. She not only represented the might of German engineering and ship construction, she was the largest ocean liner in the world, larger than the Lusitania, Mauretania, and Titanic. The Vaterland not only eclipsed the British liners in terms of size and power, but also in terms of design and luxury. While larger and wider, she approximately matched Lusitania and Mauretania’s speed.

 The  SS Vaterland , after World War I renamed  SS Leviathan  under the American flag. Technical data: Length: 950 feet (Titanic 882 feet, Lusitania 787 feet); Width: 100 feet (Titanic 92 feet, Lusitania 87 feet); Draught: 36 feet (Titanic 35 feet, Lusitania 34 feet); Gross Registered Tons: 54,282 (Titanic 46,328, Lusitania 31,550); Crew: 1,234 (Titanic 885, Lusitania 850); Passengers: 3,909 (Titanic 3,547, Lusitania 2,198); Engines: 4 Blohm and Voss Steam Turbines, 100,000 hp (Titanic 59,000 hp, Lusitania 76,000 hp); Max Speed 26.3 Knots (Titanic 23 Knots, Lusitania 26.7 Knots)

The SS Vaterland, after World War I renamed SS Leviathan under the American flag. Technical data: Length: 950 feet (Titanic 882 feet, Lusitania 787 feet); Width: 100 feet (Titanic 92 feet, Lusitania 87 feet); Draught: 36 feet (Titanic 35 feet, Lusitania 34 feet); Gross Registered Tons: 54,282 (Titanic 46,328, Lusitania 31,550); Crew: 1,234 (Titanic 885, Lusitania 850); Passengers: 3,909 (Titanic 3,547, Lusitania 2,198); Engines: 4 Blohm and Voss Steam Turbines, 100,000 hp (Titanic 59,000 hp, Lusitania 76,000 hp); Max Speed 26.3 Knots (Titanic 23 Knots, Lusitania 26.7 Knots)

The German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff commented after traveling on the mighty ship in 1914, “Germans who live at home can hardly imagine with what love and what pride we foreign ambassadors and exiled Germans regarded the German shipping-lines.” To Count Bernstorff and many others, the Vaterland was an ambassador in itself. After the war she would sail again, however under a different name and a different flag.

In the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newport News, where the German merchant ships and ocean liners crowded the piers, thousands of German naval reservists stood ready to serve the Fatherland. The German sailors became a deadly resource for German Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed. Boy-Ed started clandestine operations immediately at the outbreak of the war. His first task was to supply Germany’s remaining naval assets in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with coal, food, and supplies. Boy-Ed also selected groups of agents for the German naval intelligence in the U.S. from the crews of the moored German ships. Within days of German ships interning themselves in U.S. harbors on August 4th 1914, critical funding came to Boy-Ed from the German Admiralty through German businesses with offices in the U.S. such as the Bayer Chemical Company and Wessels, Kuhlenkampf, and Co. 

 Naval Commander Karl Boy-Ed

Naval Commander Karl Boy-Ed

Bayer, a chemical company not only known for the development of Aspirin but also with a veritable world monopoly on dye stuffs, had large currency reserves in the United States. When the war began, the chemical concern transferred these funds to the German embassy. The German government reimbursed the company in Germany, thereby successfully masking the money trail. The coordinator for requisitioning, organizing, and distributing these funds was a relatively nondescript administrator in the German Reichsmarineamt (Department of the Navy), Department B.I.2., Lieutenant Commander Franz Rintelen. Rintelen would become the most daring of the German sabotage agents in the United States in 1915. On August 5th 1914, the Bayer Chemical Company transferred $300,000 to Boy-Ed’s accounts via the Warburg Bank. American citizens viewed the European war with curiosity, some even with dread. Few realized the fact that within days of the beginning of hostilities in Europe, the Unites States had become a battlefield in this war.

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Who can forget this day of infamy 100 years ago?

For a whole month since the assassination of Austria's crown prince and his wife, the German Emperor Wilhelm II and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had done their very best to entice the Austro-Hungarian Empire to attack Serbia in retaliation. Both knew that this would produce a general war, one, that the Emperor believed he could win. Germany would finally have dominance over the continent and room to expand eastward into a weak and defeated Russia. However, as the plan came to fruition and as the European nations marched towards the abyss, Wilhelm II suddenly had second thoughts. Serbia had basically agreed to most of Austria's demands. On July 28th, in a handwritten note to German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, Emperor Wilhelm II admitted: “I am convinced that on the whole the wishes of the Danube Monarchy have been acceded to. The few reservations that Serbia makes in regard to individual points could, according to my opinion, be settled by negotiation.” The grandson of Queen Victoria, the cousin of Czar Nicholas, the man who had fired Chancellor Prince Bismarck, had set Europe on fire and now, as the flames shot up into the sky, he began to see the inevitable existence of his imperial fingerprints on the criminal diplomacy of July 1914. Although it took historical forensics until the 1960s to fully understand the detailed circumstances of the outbreak of the Great War, British, Italian, French, and American diplomats knew the truth. The guilt for the world war lay squarely in the lap of the Austrian and German governments.

                                                                              Emperor Wilhelm II of Preussen

                                                                             Emperor Wilhelm II of Preussen

On that day, July 28th 1914, the massive armies that had assembled all across Europe took on an unstoppable dynamic. Austria invaded Serbian territory in the morning of that fateful day. Russia mobilized its armies on the next day, two days later full mobilization orders swept through German barracks. On August 1st, Germany declared war against Russia. The ball so aptly described by the Saxonian official barely a month ago now started rolling. France and England joined the war within a week in order to support Russia. Wilhelm’s misgivings had come too late. Still holding out for England’s neutrality Emperor Wilhelm II tried to modify the war planning. He ordered troop deployment on the western front to be halted and to only proceed on the Russian front. Professor Hans Delbrueck, an influential politician, military historian, imperial tutor, and fierce critic of Germany’s war strategy, encapsulated the dynamic of what the emperor had set in motion: The final war plan … could not be altered... Deployment could not be stopped for technical reasons.” Independent of the diplomatic situation leading up to mobilization, once set in motion, Germany had to attack France first, then Russia. On August 4th, German troops marched through neutral Belgium in order to circumvent the significant French fortifications along the German-French border. The attack plan unreeled statically.

The Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s war plan that formed the basis for a European war scenario with two fronts, proved to be fatally flawed. General Field Marshall Count Alfred von Schlieffen had developed his plan in 1905 as Chief of the General Staff. In its basic outline, von Schlieffen constructed a scenario in which Germany defeated France in a “Blitzkrieg” by outflanking her defending army along the Rhine. The plan called for the violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality. The German forces were to march through Belgium into northern France and cut the critical supply lines to the North Sea ports. At the same time, a smaller portion of the German army would secure the eastern front while Russia mobilized.

                                                                  Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg

                                                                 Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg

The two main prerequisites for this war plan to work were British neutrality and the element of surprise that was to prevent France from stopping the German advance while Russia took her time to mobilize. Neither of these prerequisites fell into place. As a result of the Austro-Hungarian squabbles with Serbia, Russia partially mobilized on the 28th of July, three days before German mobilization. On August 4th, England declared war against Germany as a result of Germany’s violation of Belgium’s borders. Von Schlieffen, who had died in 1913, must have turned in his grave. The diplomatic work to prepare his war scenario had utterly failed. Wilhelm II and his military advisers received bogus information from Albert Ballin, Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, and Foreign Secretary von Jagow with respect to England’s resolve to not let Germany conquer Central Europe. Britain did join the Entente powers France and Russia, while an important German ally, Italy, bailed, and declared neutrality. Belgium offered serious resistance and slowed the German advance to a crawl. On the Russian front, Germany scored impressive victories in the first weeks of the war but none of the battles were decisive. The Russian armies kept up the pressure on Germany. The worst-case scenario, a two-frontal war with stagnant lines, had become a reality within weeks of Germany’s declarations of war against both France and Russia.



A Scandal Bigger than the Murders at Sarajewo

On Sunday, June 28th 1914, an exposé with wide ranging consequences exploded on the first page of the New York Herald. As unbelievable as it sounds today, this second volley by the Carranza people against U.S. lobbyists and Villa supporters was so significant that the details of the scandal competed for first page headlines with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on the same day. Although we know now that the death of Franz Ferdinand precipitated the outbreak of one of the worst wars this earth ever had to endure, American papers were actually preoccupied with a Watergate-like scandal of 1914. The story involved Sherburne G. Hopkins, the American lawyer and lobbyist who represented the interests of Mexican revolutionaries in Washington and at the same time promoted the interests of his main clients, Henry Clay Pierce and Charles Flint. Both Pierce and Flint owned large interests in railroads, rubber plantations and oil in Mexico and had actively mingled in the Mexican Revolution for years. 


The scandal had its origin just around the beginning of May, the time when Sommerfeld and Hopkins shuttled between New York and Washington, trying to sideline Carranza, and arranging the finance for the final push against Huerta. According to Sherburne Hopkins, burglars entered his Washington D.C. offices at the Hibbs building on 725 15th Street, NW in the middle of the night and “stole a mass of correspondence from his desk.” He suspected the burglars to be “Cientificos,” people who wanted to turn the clock back to Porfirio Diaz’ times.   Hopkins naturally lumped all supporters of Huerta and any enemy of the Constitutionalist cause together under the “Cientifico” label. The Washington lawyer denied knowing who in particular was to blame for the heist, but “had certain parties under suspicion.”  Clearly, he was implicating Huerta agents in the crime. Most astonishing is the fact that, despite the break-in and removal of not a few but hundreds of files from his office, Hopkins did not file a police report. At least such a report cannot be found. This is surprising since an earlier calamity concerning the prominent lawyer found its way into the local press on February 6th 1914, namely the apparent house fire in the Hopkins Residence caused by sparks from a fireplace.  On November 18th 1914, the Washington Herald reported the theft of Hopkins’ coat and trousers in an apparent robbery.  No further detail was given leaving the reader with the impression of a hapless Washington lawyer making his way home in his skivvies. Considering that the theft of Hopkins’ trousers made it into the paper, the burglary of his office most certainly had not been reported.

Sommerfeld had his own suspicions as to the identity of the thieves and implied the Huerta faction.  Certainly, Huertistas would have been the obvious choice. Huerta’s grip on power in May was fading quickly. Money from Pierce and Flint flowed in dazzling amounts to his enemies. The attempt to rally his enemies to the flag and against the Americans had failed, mainly as a result of Hopkins and Sommerfeld’s efforts. The last chance to either achieve an orderly retreat from power, or cling to it for another few months, presented itself in the Niagara Conference. However, without Carranza taking part and without a cease-fire the chances of any tangible results coming from the conference were slim. A scandal was needed. An issue needed to boil to the surface that would deeply divide the American government and the Constitutionalist coalition. If the Mexican public and the revolutionary soldiers would lose their faith in the cause, if it seemed that their idealism had been corrupted by big business and foreign interests, then Huerta and the remaining conservative forces in Mexico had a chance to reverse their fortunes.

That exact possibility became reality the night a burglar rifled through Hopkins’ desk. Hundreds of letters between Hopkins, Carranza, Flint, and Pierce told a story of foreign interests using the Constitutionalists as puppets for their greedy ends. When reading the letters it seemed that the whole revolution had become a competition between Lord Cowdray and Henry Clay Pierce. When the loot appeared on the first page of the New York Herald on June 28th, Huerta had his scandal. Whether a diversion or lame excuse, Huerta’s delegates in Niagara immediately rejected any involvement and even asserted that the questionable correspondence had been offered to them for $100,000. Naturally, they claimed that they did not take the offer for ethical reasons. They also refused to disclose who offered the papers to them.

The Hopkins papers revealed the extent to which American investors fronted by Pierce and Flint had been involved in the Mexican Revolution. Not much of the overall story should have been a surprise. For years American newspapers had reported on the financial dealings of the Maderos with Wall Street. When after President Madero’s murder the rest of the family fled to the U.S., their support for Carranza was public knowledge. However, what made the Hopkins papers so combustible was the undeniable link between major parts of the U.S. government, oil and railroad interests headed by Flint and Pierce, and certain factions within the Constitutionalists headed by Pancho Villa. Sommerfeld defended the content and wrote that the letters told “the naked truth” and showed “ardent and intelligent support for the Constitutionalist cause.”

However, the appearance of impropriety was undeniable. While John Lind, President Wilson's special envoy to Mexico, officially negotiated in April 1914 with Carranza to bring about the Niagara Falls conference, he simultaneously represented the U.S. oil and railroad interests. The revelation of Hopkins' papers thus seriously undermined the Wilson administration’s attempt to be an "honest broker" on behalf of Mexico.  The exposé suggested also a second, less favorable picture of the Carranza government. The mere fact of Carranza corresponding freely with Hopkins and Pierce seemed to suggest that Carranza was willing to sell Mexico’s infrastructure and natural resources to American finance if they helped him win the revolution. In a sense, these revelations threatened to reduce Carranza to the level of Porfirio Diaz whose sell-out had precipitated the revolution. Carranza would not let this stand and quickly issued a categorical denial of his government ever having accepted any financing from U.S. interests.

Like a pack of rats scurrying for cover, Hopkins, Pierce, Flint, Carranza, Cabrera, Vasconselos, Lind, Garrison, and Bryan all voiced public denials of ever having known anyone or dealt with anyone of the group. Only two parties smiled through the show: Senators Smith and Fall who loved to see the Wilson administration tumble, and Huerta’s representatives in Niagara who only had to gain from the revelations. The scandal effectively eliminated the easy access Hopkins had had to cabinet members of the Wilson administration. From now on, he had to work more in the background and send his confidante Felix Sommerfeld to be the public face of Mexican revolutionaries in the United States. This fit perfectly into Sommerfeld's plans. Within a month, the German naval attache in the United States, Karl Boy-Ed asked Sommerfeld to work for him and put him in charge of Germany's clandestine missions concerning Mexico in World War I.



How the World tumbled into the Abyss 100 Years ago

The outline for this immense crime has its beginnings in the days after the assassination of the Austrian crown prince and his wife, exactly 100 years ago, on the 28th of June, 1914. Austria immediately accused Bosnia’s neighboring government of Serbia of having planned the killing. Since tensions between Serbia and Austria had been running high, the international community accepted this accusation as a likely possibility. The remedy the major European governments - France, Great Britain, and Russia - openly supported was for Serbia to apologize and accommodate Austria with whatever reasonable reparations it demanded. Clearly, Serbia had financed nationalistic societies in Bosnia-Herzegovina to fuel a popular uprising against the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s occupation. The crisis seemed minor and its diplomatic resolution easy. Nobody in the days after the double murder envisioned anything but a quick conclusion to the issues at stake. Except one government: The German Empire saw her chance to make strategic use of this crisis. With her allies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Germany wanted to advance her drive to control the Balkans, have access to the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Dardanelles, and the important trade routes to Egypt, India, and China. That desire put the German Empire squarely into Russia’s sphere of interest. The Czar had long supported Serbia against German and Austrian attempts to take over the Balkans.

On the day after the attack in Sarajevo, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchthold, met with Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff. Von Hoetzendorf advocated a preemptive war against Serbia and painted the scenario of a quick demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through revolution if Serbia was not subdued.[1] Von Berchthold rejected the idea. He wanted to find a diplomatic solution, whereby Serbia would give in to strict Austrian demands that would effectively end subversion in Bosnia. On the next day, 30th of June 1914, German Ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky reported von Berchthold’s attitude towards Serbia to German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. In the margins of the report Emperor Wilhelm II noted ominous comments:

Tschirschky: “I frequently hear expressed here, even among serious people, the wish that at last a final and fundamental reckoning should be had with the Serbs.” William’s comment: “Now or never.”[2] Tschirschky: “I take opportunity of every such occasion to advise quietly but very impressively and seriously against too hasty steps.” William’s comment: “Let Tschirschky be good enough to drop this nonsense! The Serbs must be disposed of, and that right soon!”[3]

On the 2nd of July, Saxony’s envoy in Berlin updated his superior on the diplomatic developments in Berlin. He reported that, according to the German Foreign Office,

 “…a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia will consequently be avoided. Should it break out nonetheless, Bulgaria would immediately declare war on Greece…Russia would mobilize and world war could no longer be prevented. There is renewed pressure from the military for allowing things to drift towards war while Russia is still unprepared, but I don’t think that His Majesty the Kaiser will allow himself to be induced to do this.”[4]

The Saxonian diplomat outlined exactly what happened a month hence! While the German government tried its best to hide the conversations that took place in the halls of its chambers in the beginning of July, this lower level Saxonian official very accurately recorded the echoes of the unspeakable nonchalance with which Germany’s rulers set the world on fire. German historian Immanuel Geiss wrote:

 “After the Kaiser had come down on the side of the General Staff, the political leaders fell in with the Monarch’s commands, in accordance with time-honoured German tradition, and, contrary to their earlier and better judgment, assumed responsibility for the diplomatic implementation of the new line… On 4 July in Berlin all confusion and divergencies [sic] over the course of Imperial policy in the July crisis which was now unfolding were henceforth put aside. The Kaiser had decided on war against Serbia even before he knew whether that was what the Austrians really desired…”[5]

On July 5th, Emperor Wilhelm II sent a message to the Austrian government via her ambassador that in case of war with Russia, Germany would lend full support to her ally.[6] The Austrian ambassador reported to Berchthold on July 6th,

 “With regard to our relations towards Serbia the German Government is of [the] opinion that we must judge what is to be done to clear the course [towards war]; whatever we may decide, we may always be certain that we will find Germany at our side…In the further course of conversation I ascertained that the Imperial Chancellor like his Imperial master considers immediate action on our part as the best solution for our difficulties in the Balkans. From an international point of view he considers the present moment as more favorable than some later time[7]

However, the Austrians had more scruples than her German ally would have wished for. The German Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn confided to the Chief of the General Staff Helmut von Moltke on July 5th that he had little faith in Austria’s willingness to jump off the cliff. “The Chancellor [von Bethmann Hollweg]…appears to have as little faith as I [Falkenhayn] do that the Austrian Government is really in earnest…[8] The biggest stepping stone in Germany’s efforts to coax her ally into a world war was Count von Tisza, the Hungarian prime minister. He refused to have Austria-Hungary be pushed into war and insisted that a list of demands be drafted to the Serbian government. Only if these demands were not met, would he agree to further escalation of the crisis.[9] The German emperor commented on Count von Tisza’s attitude with a quote taken from his most famous ancestor, Frederick the Great: “I am against all councils of war and conferences, since the more timid party always has the upper hand.”[10] Worse for the German urgency, Austria-Hungary required a minimum of sixteen days to mobilize.[11]

If there were any doubts as to what would happen in case of a war with Russia, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey dispersed those on July 9th. He told the German ambassador to Great Britain in no uncertain terms that England would not “be found on the side of the aggressors in the event of continental complications.”[12] Secretary Grey’s statement was ambivalent. Would England join the continental powers in a war against Germany? The German government interpreted the comment as England’s intention to remain neutral in case of a continental war. Albert Ballin, the director of the HAPAG (Hamburg-Amerikanische-Paketfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft), tried to clarify the British attitude in case of war for the German government. Between July 23rd and 27th, Ballin attended meetings with Secretary Grey and Winston Churchill among others and reported back to his friend, Emperor Wilhelm II, “Britain has no reason and the highest circles in Britain, it is certain, see no reason for currently preparing for the event that Britain has to take part actively in an armed conflict.”[13] As a result Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg and Foreign Secretary von Jagow actively pursued “localization” as a course of action. Localization was the insane belief that, since Britain would be neutral and France “burdened at the present time with all sorts of troubles,” the intended strike against Serbia would remain a bilateral conflict.[14] Russia, von Bethmann Hollweg believed, would not risk a war with Germany if the other great powers of Europe remained on the sidelines. The utter misinterpretation of the international situation, unless wonton, allows only one conclusion: von Bethmann Hollweg, the chain-smoking head of the German government in those hot days of the Berlin summer, seemingly suffered from delusions. Emperor Wilhelm II astutely remarked in the margins of an Austrian telegram to Foreign Secretary von Jagow, “Austria must become preponderant in the Balkans as compared with the little ones, and at Russia’s expense…”[15] On July 24th, Sir Edward Grey told the German ambassador in no uncertain terms “that a war between Austria and Serbia cannot be localized.”[16]

On the afternoon of July 23rd, timed so that French President Raymond Poincaré and his Prime Minister René Viviani were on the way back from a state visit to Russia, the Austrian ambassador submitted an ultimatum to the Serbian government. [17] The ultimatum had been drafted with input and agreement from Berlin. Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, Secretary von Jagow and his aides pushed Austrian officials to design the wording so that it would be unacceptable to Serbia.[18] The Hungarian prime minister and last voice of reason in the Austro-Hungarian cabinet meetings, Count von Tisza, had caved under pressure. The final version submitted to Serbia demanded a cessation of Pan-Slav propaganda, including the shutting down of any publication and organization that promoted such. Specifically Austria wanted the “Narodna Odbrana” (National Defense) outlawed. This Serbian organization operated in Bosnia spreading anti-Austrian propaganda. Its paramilitary wing, the “Black Hand,” also engaged in terrorism and was thought to have planned and executed the assassination. Serbia was to dismiss any personnel, military or civilian, involved in subversion against Austria. Any propaganda in Serbian school curricula and textbooks had to disappear. Serbia should initiate a judicial inquiry against anyone who participated in the assassination plot. The Austro-Hungarian Empire would send prosecutors to participate in the legal proceedings. Austria also demanded the arrest of two Serbian officials who were allegedly implicated. Serb officials should further prevent the smuggling of arms and explosives across its borders to Bosnia. Specific border officials that had been implicated should be dismissed and tried. Serbia had forty-eight hours to respond.[19]

Serbia, after an initial shock, surprised the world when she responded to the ultimatum in a spirit of cooperation. Under diplomatic pressure from France, England, and Russia, Serbia agreed to all Austrian demands except for two, which flagrantly violated Serbian sovereignty.

 “As far as the cooperation in this investigation of specially delegated officials of the I. and R. Government is concerned, this cannot be accepted, as this is a violation of the constitution and of criminal procedure. Yet in some cases the result of the investigation might be communicated to the Austro-Hungarian officials The Royal Government confesses that it is not clear about the sense and the scope of that demand of the I. and R. Government which concerns the obligation on the part of the Royal Serbian Government to permit the cooperation of officials of the I. and R. Government on Serbian territory, but it declares that it is willing to accept every cooperation which does not run counter to international law and criminal law, as well as to the friendly and neighbourly relations.”[20]

Sir Edward Grey as well as other European leaders expected the Serbian response to satisfy Austria. Serbia even signaled the day after her response that certain points in the response to Austria could be modified to further accommodate the complete acceptance of the demands.

 Sir Edward Grey to the German Ambassador.

July 25, 1914.

Dear Prince Lichnowsky

I enclose a forecast that I have just received of the Servian reply. (1) It seems to me that it ought to produce a favourable impression at Vienna, but it is difficult for anybody but an ally to suggest to the Austrian Government what view they should take of it.

I hope that if the Servian reply when received in Vienna corresponds to this forecast, the German Government may feel able to influence the Austrian Government to take a favourable view of it.

Yours sincerely,


An Austrian rejection of the Serbian reply signaled to the rest of Europe what indeed was the case: The whole crisis had been a pretext and, as Sir Edward Grey told the German ambassador on the 27th of July, “Austria was only seeking an excuse for crushing Serbia. And thus that Russia and Russian influences in the Balkans were to be struck at through Serbia.”[22]

Austria not only rejected the reply, but did so without even reading it. Scanning the document, Austrian ambassador to Belgrade, Giesl, without further consultation broke off diplomatic relations, got on the train, and entered Austrian territory that same evening.[23] Already that afternoon, the Serbian army had mobilized along the Austro-Hungarian border and begun to evacuate Belgrade, which was in shooting range from across the border. Austria mobilized the next day, egged on by the German emperor who wanted hostilities to begin immediately. Great Britain, however, did not give up on her efforts to save the world from plunging into war. Not realizing the extent to which Germany was pushing the war, Sir Edward Grey asked Wilhelm II to intervene with Austria in order to win participation in an international mediation process. Germany submitted the request to Vienna, however, included was a commentary asking Austria not to react.[24]

While the British foreign secretary tried his best to prevent the imminent “conflagration,” the last real chance to maintain peace came from an unlikely quarter. The man who had directed his cabinet to create a world war, who had pushed the Austrian emperor to be decisive and unyielding, now got cold feet. On July 28th, in a handwritten note to Foreign Secretary von Jagow, Emperor Wilhelm II admitted: “I am convinced that on the whole the wishes of the Danube Monarchy have been acceded to. The few reservations that Serbia makes in regard to individual points could, according to my opinion, be settled by negotiation.”[25] The grandson of Queen Victoria, the cousin of Czar Nicholas, the man who had fired Chancellor Prince Bismarck, had set Europe on fire and now, as the flames shot up into the sky, he began to see the inevitable existence of his imperial fingerprints on the criminal diplomacy of July 1914. Although it took historical forensics until the 1960s to fully understand the detailed circumstances of the outbreak of the Great War, British, Italian, French, and American diplomats knew the truth. The guilt for the world war lay squarely in the lap of the Austrian and German governments.

On that day, July 28th 1914, the massive armies that had assembled all across Europe took on an unstoppable dynamic. Austria invaded Serbian territory in the morning of that fateful day. Russia mobilized its armies on the next day, two days later full mobilization orders swept through German barracks. On August 1st, Germany declared war against Russia. The ball so aptly described by the Saxonian official barely a month ago now started rolling. France and England joined the war within a week in order to support Russia. Wilhelm’s misgivings had come too late. Still holding out for England’s neutrality Emperor Wilhelm II tried to modify the war planning. He ordered troop deployment on the western front to be halted and to only proceed on the Russian front. Professor Hans Delbrueck, an influential politician, military historian, imperial tutor, and fierce critic of Germany’s war strategy, encapsulated the dynamic of what the emperor had set in motion: The final war plan … could not be altered... Deployment could not be stopped for technical reasons.”[27] Independent of the diplomatic situation leading up to mobilization, once set in motion, Germany had to attack France first, then Russia. On August 4th, German troops marched through neutral Belgium in order to circumvent the significant French fortifications along the German-French border. The attack plan unreeled statically.

The Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s war plan that formed the basis for a European war scenario with two fronts, proved to be fatally flawed. General Field Marshall Count Alfred von Schlieffen had developed his plan in 1905 as Chief of the General Staff. In its basic outline, von Schlieffen constructed a scenario in which Germany defeated France in a “Blitzkrieg” by outflanking her defending army along the Rhine. The plan called for the violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality. The German forces were to march through Belgium into northern France and cut the critical supply lines to the North Sea ports. At the same time, a smaller portion of the German army would secure the eastern front while Russia mobilized.

The two main prerequisites for this war plan to work were British neutrality and the element of surprise that was to prevent France from stopping the German advance while Russia took her time to mobilize. Neither of these prerequisites fell into place. As a result of the Austro-Hungarian squabbles with Serbia, Russia partially mobilized on the 28th of July, three days before German mobilization. On August 4th, England declared war against Germany as a result of Germany’s violation of Belgium’s borders. Von Schlieffen, who had died in 1913, must have turned in his grave. The diplomatic work to prepare his war scenario had utterly failed. Wilhelm II and his military advisers received bogus information from Albert Ballin, Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, and Foreign Secretary von Jagow with respect to England’s resolve to not let Germany conquer Central Europe. Britain did join the Entente powers France and Russia, while an important German ally, Italy, bailed, and declared neutrality. Belgium offered serious resistance and slowed the German advance to a crawl. On the Russian front, Germany scored impressive victories in the first weeks of the war but none of the battles were decisive. The Russian armies kept up the pressure on Germany. The worst-case scenario, a two-frontal war with stagnant lines, had become a reality within weeks of Germany’s declarations of war against both France and Russia.

This is not the only interpretation of how the world plunged into war. Some have argued that all nations simply "stumbled" into war. Others have blamed the Russian Empire for having mobilized its armies, thus forcing the hands of Germany. Maybe we will never know for sure how it happened, which, in itself opens the possibility that we might once more "stumble." Whether the German Emperor and his chancellor precipitated the tragic turn of events, or whether recklessness, stupidity, arrogance, or greed characterized the leaders of the great powers in July 1914, which made it possible that a world indeed stumbled into the abyss, it does not really matter. What matters is that at the very least we all, responsible citizens of the world try to understand what happened, and make sure when leaders are elected, that the tragedy of July 1914 will never be allowed to repeat itself. 


[1] Geiss, July 1914, p. 64 as quoted from Conrad von Hoetzendorf’s Memoires, Vol. IV, pp. 33.

[2] Geiss, July 1914, p. 64, Tschirschky to Bethmann Hollweg, Report 212, June 30, 1914.

[3] Geiss, July 1914, p. 65, Tschirschky to Bethmann Hollweg, Report 212, June 30, 1914.

[4] Geiss, July 1914, p. 68, Lichtenau to Vitzthum, Report 1045, July 2, 1914. The attitude of the military is documented in entry from the diary of Georg Alexander von Müller (December 8, 1912). Bundesarchiv fuer Militaergeschichte, Freiburg, Barch N 159/4 Fol. 169-171. In this meeting Tirpitz, Moltke, and Heeringen discussed the inevitability of a two frontal war against France-England in the west and Russia in the east.

[5] Geiss, July 1914, pp. 62-63.

[6] The so-called blank check. See Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, hrsg. vom Staatsamt für Äußeres in Wien,  National-Verlag, Berlin, 1923, Telegram 237, Count Szögyény to Count Berchtold, July 5, 1914.

[7]{C} Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Count Szögyény to Count Berchtold, July 6, 1914.

[8] Geiss, July 1914, p. 78, Falkenhayn to Moltke, July 5, 1914.

[9]{C} Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Ministerrat für gemeinsame Angelegenheiten, July 7, 1914.

[10] Geiss, July 1914, p. 108, Tschirschky to Jagow, July 10, 1914.

[11] Geiss, July 1914, p. 103, Tschirschky to Jagow, July 8, 1914.

[12] Geiss, July 1914, p. 104, Lichnowsky to Bethmann Hollweg, July 9, 1914.

[13] As quoted in Johannes Gerhardt, Albert Ballin, Hamburg University Press, Hamburg, 2010.

[14] Geiss, July 1914, p. 118, Bethmann Hollweg to Roedern, July 16, 1914.

[15] Geiss, July 1914, p. 181, Tschirschky to Jagow, #101, July 24, 1914.

[16] Geiss, July 1914, p. 216, Minutes of Clerk, Crowe, Nicolson and Grey on the German note of 21/24 July, July 25, 1914.

[17] The return trip via Sea route took the two most important members of the French government out of communication until July 29th, the day after the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia. Only on July 25th at a brief stop in Sweden was Poincare able to give more detailed instructions to his cabinet.

[18] Geiss, July 1914, p. 134.

[19] Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Count Berchtold to Freiherrn von Giesl in Belgrad, July 20, 1914.

[20] Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Note der königlich serbischen Regierung vom 12./25. Juli 1914, July 25, 1914.

[21] G.P. Gooch, D. Litt, and Harold Temperley, editors, British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914, Vol. XI: The Outbreak of War: Foreign Office Documents, June 28th-August 4th, 1914, His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1926, Grey to Lichnowsky, July 25, 1914.

[22] Geiss, July 1914, p. 238, Lichnowsky to Jagow, Telegram #164, July 27, 1914.

[23] Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Freiherr von Giesl to Count Berchtold, July 25, 1914.

[24] Die Österreichisch-Ungarischen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch, Count Szögyény to Count Berchtold, July 27, 1914.

[25] Geiss, July 1914, p. 256, Wilhelm II to Jagow, July 28, 1914.

[26] Dr. Delbrueck tutored to the son of the Prussian crown prince, Prince Waldemar from 1874 to 1879.

[27] Hans Delbrück, Arden Bucholz ed., Delbrück's modern military history, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1997, pp. 25-26.