The British and the legacy of unrestricted submarine warfare

The A14 and A11 are dual carriageways now, designed to speed motorists across the Cambridgeshire fens.

The British and the legacy of unrestricted submarine warfare

Even if a motorist had time to take the local roads through villages such as Burwell and Fordham, the chances are that Swaffham Prior would not be seen, except as a sign as the car passed along on the B road that now bypasses the village to the south.

Swaffham Prior is a small, peaceful village in the Fens, distinguished only by two churches set within one churchyard, one of which — St Cyriac’s — possesses a remarkable set of three stained-glass windows which form the village’s war memorial.

Two of the windows depict scenes from the Great War — including trenches, tanks, aircraft, zeppelins and field hospitals — while the last window represents peace, and the opportunity for man to enjoy the fruits of his labours. The experience of modern total war, even for an isolated village like Swaffham Prior, was shocking, as shown by the images in these windows.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

In amongst the 18 images of war and the nine images of peace that make up the memorial, the treatment of naval warfare is of particular interest.

Not one of the three images of the Great War at sea relates to the clash of dreadnoughts at Jutland, an omission that is all the more striking considering the British pre-war emphasis on the battleship and battlefleet. The absence of any images of dreadnoughts, either in battleship or battlecruiser form, may reflect a deep disappointment with the way the surface war at sea had failed to present the public with a second Trafalgar.

That the only maritime images in the memorial consist of submarines and the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the most notorious episodes of the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, must be considered to be of great significance.

In addition, the driving force behind the memorial, the local squire, was an enthusiastic advocate of new technology, so he might well have chosen to portray the contemporary pinnacle of naval technology, the dreadnought, in one of the scenes. Yet all three images of naval warfare are centred on the submarine.

At the very top of the window is an image that the church guide says is a representation of a British E class submarine, while the image below left is of a German mine-laying submarine caught in anti-submarine nets.

The last image is of mines, with a sinking ship representing the Cunard liner Lusitania, which was sunk with heavy loss of life, without warning, by a German submarine in 1915.

The depiction of the Lusitania resembles a German medal struck in 1915 to commemorate the sinking, an event exploited by British propaganda and familiar to many in the immediate aftermath of the war.

As the subject matter depicted in the Swaffham Prior memorial indicates, submarines, and especially unrestricted submarine warfare, were a new and horrifying development, even for the inhabitants of a remote inland village.

That unrestricted submarine warfare was a shock can be seen not just from an isolated and unusual war memorial, but also through the language used by the British to describe being on the receiving end of such a mode of warfare as well as their post-war responses to it.

The language associated with unrestricted submarine warfare was highly emotive and heavily charged with very negative imagery.

The bulk of the language about unrestricted warfare concentrates on images of piracy.

The Illustrated London News, as early as April, 1915, even before the sinking of the Lusitania, was using headlines such as ‘Germany’s Worst Piracy. The Torpedoing Of The Liner Falaba.’

In his 1918 tribute to the British Navy, the journalist Archibald Hurd made much use of the piracy metaphor in describing the menace of the submarine, mentioning it seven times in as many pages, together with a sprinkling of ‘inhumanity’, ‘barbarity’, ‘barbarism’, ‘callous indifference’, and ‘disregarded the laws of nations.’

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill described the events of the unrestricted submarine campaign: ‘To sink her [a merchant ship] incontinently was odious; to sink her without providing for the safety of the crew, to leave that crew to perish in open boats or drown amid the waves was, in the eyes of all seafaring peoples, a grisly act, which hitherto had never been practised deliberately except by pirates.’

Churchill seems to have regarded the Germans as landlubbers rather than seafarers, possibly explaining their piratical behaviour. Even the official history of the war on seaborne trade used highly emotive language to describe the German use of unrestricted submarine warfare, calling it ‘repugnant alike to the spirit of humanity and to international law…’ together with references to ‘inhumanity’ and ‘odium’ and ‘indifference alike to law and humanity…’

In the 100 years prior to the use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the British had come to understand the world through the medium of free trade and capture at sea, both of which emphasised the preservation of private property.

The submarine, through unrestricted warfare, directly attacked these ideals and involved the civil populace in a mode of warfare that was totally unfamiliar to them.

The way unrestricted submarine warfare was understood was as an attack on the conventions, economic and legal, of the Victorian and Edwardian period.

The British, thanks to free trade and their experience of capturing vessels, had a very strong view of how maritime war should be conducted regarding private property and the need to protect non-combatants.

In short, the British understood their world in such a way that unrestricted submarine warfare could not fail to be abhorrent to them.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

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