Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.
January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram
Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.
The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff).
In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeateddepredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.
But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home.
The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:
We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance…
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 260th installment in the series.
“The third war-time Christmas … No one talks about peace any more,” wrote Piete Kuhr, a German teenager living in East Prussia, in her diary entry on December 23, 1916. Kuhr gave voice to a bleak realization shared across Europe, as the wracked and bleeding continent limped to the end of one dismal year, and fearfully contemplated another promising to be even worse—although no one could predict just what it held in store.
A few months before, in September 1916, Alois Schnelldorfer, a Bavarian soldier, warned his parents: “I am certain that we have not gone through the worst yet; things will still get worse. Unfortunately, once war has started, it cannot easily be stopped … the war will not end any time soon. It is inevitable that we will have [another] Christmas at war.” On the other side of the battle lines, Hazur Singh, an Indian soldier serving with the British Army in France, prophesied in a letter to his mother dated November 30, 1916: “The war will not be finished for a very long time. It will certainly not be finished before 1918. My regiment will certainly not return.”
These grim predictions were confirmed in mid-December 1916, when Germany made a public offer to begin peace negotiations with the Allies, only to have it dismissed out of hand. In fact, Germany had no real intention of following through: the bogus peace proposal was simply meant to sway public opinion at home and abroad, especially in neutral countries, by shifting the blame for continuing hostilities on to the Allies. In truth it was merely a preamble to a brutal new intensification of the German war effort.
The offer of unconditional peace negotiations, sent to the Allies via neutral intermediaries December 12, 1916, was intended in large part for domestic consumption in Germany. After the German Social Democratic Party broke into two factions over the issue of whether to vote the government more war credits in late 1915, the moderate wing (which continued voting credits for the war effort, in contrast to the radical wing led by Karl Liebknecht) demanded evidence that Germany’s leaders were actively working for peace as the price of their continued support.
While hoping to placate the moderate socialists, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was coming under mounting pressure from the new military high command, led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his quartermaster general (in fact a close advisor on strategy) Erich Ludendorff, to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, most recently halted following American diplomatic protests prompted by the sinking of the Sussex in March 1916. Encouraged by Admiral von Tirpitz, the creator of Germany’s prewar navy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that the growing fleet of German U-boats could bring Britain to its knees by cutting off access to weapons, food, fuel, and other supplies crucial to the war effort imported from overseas—especially the United States.
To achieve this, however, they demanded that German submarine commanders once again be allowed to sink any and all ships, including unarmed merchantmen carrying neutral flags, without warning. Of course this would once again put Germany on a collision course with the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations (a thinly veiled threat of war) over unrestricted submarine warfare.
The peace offer of December 1916 was Bethmann Hollweg’s last, vain attempt to square the circle. By publicly offering to begin peace negotiations with the Allies—which he knew they would almost certainly refuse—the chancellor hoped to cast the blame for the continuation of the war on the Allies in the eyes of the American public and other neutral nations. Then Germany could claim it had no choice but to resort to extreme measures, including unrestricted submarine warfare, to subdue the warmongers. In other words, the sinking of neutral vessels by German U-boats would really be the fault of the Allies, prompted by their rejection of the German olive branch.
Unfortunately for Germany nobody bought this version of events. The German offer to begin peace negotiations was “unconditional,” meaning that the Central Powers would continue to occupy Belgium, northern France, Poland, and most of the Balkans while the two sides discussed peace terms. As the German leadership well knew, this was a non-starter for the Allies, who stipulated that the Central Powers must withdraw to pre-war borders before peace negotiations could begin (this is to say nothing of conflicting demands by the Allies and Central Powers for reparations and indemnities, which only made a real negotiated peace more improbable).
Following the Allies’ swift rejection of the bogus peace offer, the stage was set for Germany’s ill-fated resumption of U-boat warfare—and with it, America’s entry into the First World War.
The close of 1916 also brought the end of two of the bloodiest battles in history: Verdun and the Somme. Both battles had been intended to finish the war, or at least set in motion the events that would do so, but both fell tragically short of this goal. What they accomplished, rather, was simply death on a scale defying comprehension.
At Verdun, Germany’s fruitless attempt to deliver a knockout blow to France, the French suffered 337,231 casualties, including 162,308 dead and missing (with most of the missing also dead, blown out of existence). For their part the Germans counted 337,000 casualties, including 100,000 dead and missing.
The almost even number of casualties is testimony to the abject failure of the plan formulated by the former German chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to lure the French into a battle of attrition—a failure which finally led to his dismissal and replacement by Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg. Indeed, one of the first actions taken by Hindenburg and Ludendorff on assuming the high command in September 1916 was the canceling of the Verdun offensive. But they couldn’t prevent the French from launching their own bloody counter-attack, which pushed the Germans back close to their starting positions by December 18, considered the official end of the battle.
Verdun is forever paired with the Somme, the Allied “Big Push” intended to break through the German defensive line in northern France and reopen the war of movement, setting the stage for Germany’s final defeat. The original plan for a massive Anglo-French joint offensive was derailed by the German onslaught at Verdun, which forced the French to withdraw many of their troops to defend the symbolic fortress city. The British bravely carried on with the Somme offensive at the request of the French, desperate to take the pressure off Verdun, but multiple failures in planning and execution resulted in disaster.
After the opening horror of July 1, the Somme quickly devolved into another brutal slugging match in the mud, with tens of thousands of lives sacrificed for gains rarely exceeding a few kilometers at a time. Each subsequent “Big Push” at the Somme was an epic battle in its own right, burning the names of tiny villages into the memory of the British public forever, including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, Morval and…