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The U-Boat War, 1914-1918 - Edwyn A. Gray Many years ago, I bought this book both because of the subject matter and the fact that the bookstore was offering it for sale at a major discount. Plenty of books are to be found on the use of U-Boats in the Second World War. But, by way of contrast, there are few books on the market about the role U-Boats played on the high seas during the First World War.

The book begins by providing a short history of the submarine’s development and the earliest U-boats used by the Germans upon the outbreak of war. The U-boat in 1914 was a flimsy vessel, more suited to operating in coastal areas than in deep water. But the sinking within the space of an hour of the British warships Hogue, Aboukir, and Cressy by U-9 (under the command of Otto Weddigen) on September 22, 1914 provided ample proof of the submarine’s potential as a lethal weapon.

As the British tightened their naval blockade of Germany (which largely neutralized the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet), work proceeded apace on the development and deployment of more U-boats in the waters around Britain and in the Atlantic (later extended to the Mediterranean and the waters around Russia and Turkey).

The U-boats began their activities in earnest in October 1914.
U-boats were first used as commerce raiders, which took pains to avoid attacks on neutral shipping while engaging in attacks on Allied merchant shipping subject to the existing “prize rules”, which were a set of rules observed by warring nations for the treatment at sea of enemy civilian crews and their passengers. However, it soon became clear to the Germans that strict adherence to these rules negated the effectiveness of the U-boat. (The British were also beginning to arm many of their merchant ships, so when an unsuspecting U-boat would surface to warn the enemy merchant ship it had stalked underwater that it would be subject to attack and to evacuate its crew within a proscribed time period, the U-boat, as the hunter, would suddenly find itself as the hunted when the merchant ship would unmask its guns and promptly open fire upon it.) Consequently, before the end of 1915, the Germans came to rely increasingly on stealth in its use of U-boats.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was adopted in 1916, then suspended for a short time after U.S. complaints to Germany about U-boat attacks on its shipping in Allied waters. But by February 1917, in light of the disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram to the U.S. by British naval intelligence (the telegram detailed an offer by Germany to Mexico to enter the war against the U.S., in exchange for, with German help, regaining Arizona and New Mexico), Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare.

This book does a splendid job in detailing the first submarine war. What I found remarkable was the achievement of Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, the top U-boat ace of the war, who was credited with sinking 194 Allied ships. (Most of the sinkings were achieved with the 8.8cm deck gun that de la Perière used in surface actions.)