Primary Documents - British Reply to Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg's Note on the Prospect of War with the U.S., April 1917

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg Reproduced below is the text of the British government's response - authored by Lord Robert Cecil - to an earlier note by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

In this von Bethmann-Hollweg regretted the possibility of war with the U.S. but stated that if such a war was occasioned by Germany's renewal of a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, Britain should be assigned responsibility.

The German Chancellor argued that Germany's submarine policy was brought about only as a reluctant reaction to Britain's continued implementation of a naval blockade of Germany, which he characterised as "illegal and indefensible".

In reply the British government dismissed Germany's "hypocritical" and "false" argument, citing speeches by Bethmann-Hollweg himself and the former German Naval Minister Alfred von Tirpitz in which both suggested that the u-boat policy would be implemented as soon as there were sufficient numbers of submarines available.

British Government Response (by Lord Robert Cecil) to Bethmann-Hollweg's Note of April 1917

The German Chancellor claims that Germany in the past renounced the unrestricted use of her submarine weapon in the expectation that Great Britain could be made to observe in her blockade policy the laws of humanity and international agreements.

It is difficult to say whether this statement is the more remarkable for its hypocrisy or for its falseness.

It would hardly seem that Germany is in a position to speak of humanity or international agreements, since she began this war by deliberately violating the international agreement guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, and has continued it by violating all the dictates of humanity.

Has the Chancellor forgotten that the German forces have been guilty of excesses in Belgium, unparalleled in history, culminating in the attempted enslavement of a dauntless people, of poisoning wells, of bombarding open towns, torpedoing hospital ships and sinking other vessels with total disregard for the safety of non-combatants on board, with the result that many hundreds of innocent victims, including both women and children, have lost their lives?

The latest manifestation of this policy is to be seen in the devastation and deportations carried out by the Germans in their forced retreat on the Western front.

The Chancellor states that it is because the Allies have not abandoned their blockade and have refused the so-called peace offer of Germany that unrestricted submarine warfare is now decided on.  As to this I will do no more than quote what the Chancellor himself said in the Reichstag, in announcing the adoption of unrestricted submarine war.

He said that as soon as he himself, in agreement with the supreme army command, reached the conviction that ruthless U-boat warfare would bring Germany nearer to a victorious peace, then the U-boat warfare would be started.  He continued:

This moment has now arrived.  Last autumn the time was not ripe, but today the moment has come when, with the greatest prospect of success, we can undertake this enterprise.

We must not wait any longer.  Where has there been a change?  In the first place, the most important fact of all is that the number of our submarines has been very considerably increased as compared with last spring, and thereby a firm basis has been created for success.

Does not this prove conclusively that it was not any scruple or any respect for international law or neutral rights that prevented unrestricted warfare from being adopted earlier, but merely a lack of means to carry it out?

I think it may be useful once again to point out that the illegal and inhuman attack on shipping by the Germans cannot be justified as a reprisal for the action of Great Britain in attempting to cut off from Germany all imports.

The submarine campaign was clearly contemplated as far back as December 1914, when Admiral von Tirpitz gave an indication to an American correspondent in Berlin of the projected plan.

As for the plea that the Allies are aiming at the annihilation of Germany and her allies and that ruthless warfare is, therefore, justified, it is sufficient in order to refute this to quote the following passage from the Allies' reply of January 10, 1917, to President Wilson's note:

There is no need to say that if the Allies desire to liberate Europe from the brutal covetousness of Prussian militarism, the extermination and political disappearance of the German people have never, as has been pretended, formed a part of their design.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Both British and German fleets had around 45 submarines available at the time of the Battle of Jutland, but none were put to use.

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