In 1915, with Great Britain characteristically violating recognised treaty agreements upon the high seas and generally acting with impunity in direct contravention of international law, the Kaiser's Government retaliated by declaring the English Channel to be a war zone.
Liable to DestructionBecause First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (pictured) had issued instructions to the Royal Navy to mine the North Sea and also impose a "right of search" upon merchant ships carrying cargo to German Ports. Not only was Churchill seeking to starve the Central Powers into submission, he was also intent upon embroiling the United States in a war with Germany.
Recognising this danger, his counterpart the US Secretary of the Navy William Jennings Bryan issued an alert that British vessels were "liable to destruction", cautioning American civilians sailing into the war zone that they were travelling "on ships of Great Britain and her allies do so at their own risk". The warning was prescient because less than six weeks later, German submarine captain Georg-Günther Freiherr von Forstner of the Kaiserliche Marine fired a torpedo from the SM-U28 which sunk a West African steamship, the RMS Falaba.
Intense media scrutiny and public pressure mounted, demanding an American response after the sinking of the Falaba, which was widely and inaccurately reported as nothing short of a massacre of innocent civilians without warning. In fact, one hundred and four people were killed, including one American passenger - Leon Chester Thrasher, a 31-year-old mining engineer from Massachusetts.
Despite the cynical British attempts to maximise the impact of their propoganda, an investigation by the US Government soon determined that the German captain had given the Falaba three warnings, and only opened fire when a British warship appeared on the horizon. The Chief Magistrate John Bassett Moore would later note in his diary that "what most decisively risked the involvement of the United States in the recent war would have been the assertion of a right to protect belligerent ships on which Americans saw fit to travel and the treatment of armed belligerent merchantmen as peaceful vessels. Both assumptions were contrary to reason, and no other neutral advanced them".