Over here – An Irishman’s Diary on the US navy’s ‘Irish Command’ in the first World War
US sailors in Cobh
As the foreign and military policies of the Trump administration evolve and harden, it is worth recalling the recent centenary of US intervention in the first World War.
Prompted by President Woodrow Wilson, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917. American belligerence occurred against the backdrop of “unconditional” submarine warfare and the crisis period of the war at sea.
In the spring of 1917, German U-boats sank over two million tons of enemy and neutral shipping. For the most part, this rampage occurred in the sea lanes around Ireland, while the inevitable loss of American lives and ships made war between the United States and Germany unavoidable.
The Germans fully expected this development, but believed that American mobilisation would be too slow to prevent the throttling of Great Britain by the U-boats. Equally, Berlin felt emboldened by the pending collapse of Britain’s ally Russia, which was then lumbering toward the Bolshevik Revolution and a humiliating peace with Germany.
To an extent, German incaution appeared vindicated, for American ground forces only became a serious factor on the Western Front from mid-1918. The US navy, however, made an instant impact in terms of winning the war at sea. Crucially, American pressure led to the belated introduction of transatlantic convoys, thereby making it more difficult for the Germans to locate and destroy merchant shipping.
So too did the large-scale deployment of American battleships, destroyers, and patrol aircraft to the European theatre. Most of the American hardware operated from Queenstown (Cobh) and other Irish bases that guarded the Western Approaches.
Indeed, the American build-up allowed the British to effectively withdraw from Queenstown, and to redeploy their vessels to North Sea anchorages. This changing of the guard was appreciated by the townspeople, who, as noted by the Americans, demonstrated increasing hostility to British personnel in the wake of the 1916 Rising and its aftermath.
Local attitudes to the Americans, meanwhile, were less abrasive if somewhat more complex. While home rule and unionist dignitaries jointly welcomed the new arrivals, clashes between republicans and off-duty sailors frequently occurred.
Contemporary sources suggest that these disturbances centred on the ladies of Cork, who apparently preferred socialising with US sailors rather than the less prosperous and exotic menfolk of the city. True or not, the fighting prompted the head of the US navy’s Irish command, Admiral William Sims, to denounce Sinn Féin supporters as “louts” who gave a bad name to the “decent Irish”.
Ultimately, the authorities banned American leave-taking in Cork, which in turn troubled the city’s dollar-conscious shopkeepers, who lobbied unsuccessfully to have the stricture lifted.
When not prompting analogies between the women of Cork and the sirens of antiquity, American sailors hunted the Teutonic heirs to Scylla and Charybdis. The sector between the Daunt Rock Lightship and the Fastnet Rock was especially treacherous, and was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of destroyed shipping.
But for all of the constant patrolling of the American destroyers, sightings of submarines were a rare and generally fruitless occurrence. Nevertheless, the American presence forced the Germans to remain submerged for prolonged periods, thus increasing the survival chances of Allied cargo ships.
The United States Naval Air Service likewise helped to disrupt U-boat surface operations.
From 1918, the Americans kept a constant watch over Irish coastal waters, with airbases at Killybegs, Whiddy Island, Brerehaven and Wexford housing long-range Curtis H.16 flying boats, which were among the largest aircraft of their day and the forerunners of the transatlantic commercial aircraft developed during the inter-war period.
U-boat activity along the Wexford, Wicklow, and Dublin coastlines spiked dramatically toward the end of the war, nonetheless.
Ships destroyed in the Irish Sea included the Holyhead-bound RMS Leinster, which went to the bottom on October 10th, 1918. Not unlike the torpedoing of the Lusitania, which sank within sight of the Irish coast in 1915, the Leinster disaster led to large-scale loss of life, with an estimated 700 people drowning in a rough sea that hampered rescue efforts.
While the Lusitania sinking is commonly acknowledged as a key milestone on the road to US intervention and therefore the Allied victory of 1918, it is less well known that the attack on the Leinster hastened the speed of Germany’s downfall. Responding to events in the Irish Sea, President Wilson, who was then facilitating clandestine peace talks with the Germans, made the recall of the U-boat fleet a precondition to formal armistice talks. In complying with this demand, the kaiser signalled his country’s pending defeat, thus triggering the final collapse of German military morale.