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WWI Series - A Hundred Years Ago - August 16-26, 1915

Updated on August 25, 2015

The Great War memorial

A WWI monument located in Greeley, Colorado
A WWI monument located in Greeley, Colorado

Under the Surface

Susan wakes up early on the last Saturday in August, 1915. She wakes to the sound of fighting in the street beneath her bedroom window. She groans, knowing the fighters, knowing their words without needing to hear them. Her husband of one year, a young man who works at the Ford Motor Company, belongs to a newly formed political group called Democratic Socialist. Her husband is arguing with her father who is neither democratic nor socialist. Her father is referred to as a company man, a shift foreman at a Detroit steel producer.

Susan groans, wishing as she did every day that she and her husband had a place of their own. They don't and can't have a house because single family housing is impossible to find. Too much work and too few workers means the city is bulging with fresh faced farm boys come to work at the factories. She shuts out the raised voices.

Frightening things lurk beneath the surface outside her home and inside. Invisible submarines that sink ships is the topic of the newspapers. But inside her home politics rears to the surface and lashes at family relationships. Her husband feels that socialism will work and her father scorns such belief. No one in the house knows what socialism means. But the words: To each according to their contribution. From each according to their ability. To each according to need. Are to her husband what bible verses are to her father. Her husband has said that his new political party should take possession of the steel mill and operate the mill in the interest of society. To Susan his talk is all show and no go. Her father has only recently come to accept Labor Unions as a reality. To him the owners need to make money and the workers need to be happy to help the owners do so.

Susan is dimly aware that one cause of the fighting below her bedroom window is the war far away in Europe. The fighting now is stagnant and stalemated. Still the armies of the world are building, demanding more weapons, more vehicles, more, more, more. The war in Europe is also beneath the surface of every day life. The war is political. Susan feels the war lurking, building in power, preparing to strike. She does not believe that her father and her husband will come to blows. If they do come to blows neither of them can win.

First Terror Tactics

U-boat sinking troop transport by Willy Stower
U-boat sinking troop transport by Willy Stower


Even on dry land in mid-America submarines frighten us. It is the lying-in-wait, invisible and malicious, element of the attack that frightens people. The devastation of the well publicized sinkings creat an element of terror well beyond the reality. In proportion to the total loss of life or property in all battles of the war, the submarine is small potatoes. However, in the impact on the conduct of the war, the submarine has tremendous influence.

In August, 1914, all of the combatant navies had small submarine forces. Germany developed the submarine into a force to be reckoned with. By August, 1915, the focus of the submarine was primarily to sink enemy warships. Early German successes in dramatic sinking of surface warships inspired a lasting fear in surface commanders of sailing in enemy waters. However, the campaign for submarines also included the sinking of merchant shipping. The primary examples are the Lusitania and the Arabic. However there are more. The loss of civilian lives shocks Americans and war protests mount. In terms of actual losses the submarine has little impact on major naval forces.

On August 26, 1915, German authorities announce that merchant ships will not be attacked without warning. However this moratorium on merchant vessels and ocean lines lasts only months. Unrestricted submarine warfare becomes the worlds first terror tactics.

Cover to The Popular Magazine, April 7, 1915. Cover art by N. C. Wyeth Published by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. of New York, NY.
Cover to The Popular Magazine, April 7, 1915. Cover art by N. C. Wyeth Published by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. of New York, NY.


Susan remembers a game she played as a child on the playground. The children stand in a circle and the first player whispers a secret to his neighbor. The secret moves around the circle until the words return to the original player unrecognizable. What began as Mrs. Brown, you have a lovely daughter returned as brown is a lonely color. The more players the more resulting confusion. The generals of war with many thousands of lives at stake have little better system for strategy of war.

With the massive increase in the size of armies, the problem of communication between headquarters and frontlines become disastrous, especially as orders have to go through several layers of command. Communications tend to be one-way, from top to bottom, and tske a long time. There can be no immediate response to fluid situations.

In August, 1915, the commanders send their orders to the ranks and presume the result. The ranks receive the orders which may or may not reflect the conditions before them. The return messages, if received by command, are often ignored or altered to fit expectations. Command is not in touch with reality.

The technology consists of landlines. As the frontlines approach the telephone lines are often cut. Once an offensive begins, advancing units can not stay in touch with commanders or other units such as artillery. The advancing units have to resort to pigeons, flares or runners. Since the object of the war is to win, these problems will be resolved. For now the soldiers in the trenches respond to what is before them. The days of stalemate and stagnation, sniper fire and no-mans-land, battle without resolve or in many cases hope drag through August, 1915.

Communication problems result from three basic issues: the size of the armies and layers of command, the technology available to them, and the incomprehension by top level command of the needs of modern war.

Three Communication Challenges

The size of the armies are unprecedented as well as the resulting layers of command.

The technology available is land line telephone. Near the frontlines in time of attack when the situation is fluid and the need for command the most urgent, the lines are often cut due to the maneuvers of battle.

The incomprehension by top level command of the needs of modern war. The communication is one-way, top to bottom.

German Submarine

German submarine U-9 (1910).
German submarine U-9 (1910).

The Russian Czar and his family

Americans loved pictures of royalty while maintaining pride in their democracy
Americans loved pictures of royalty while maintaining pride in their democracy | Source

America in August, 1915

Susan knows who are the big players. She knows the names Czar Nicholas and Alexandria, the royal children, and Rasputin. She reads the newspaper and the magazines such as Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post. She knows Kaiser Wilhelm, General Haig, President Wilson. Susan knows that Russia, Germany, and England have monarchs whether the name be Czar or Kaiser or Queen. Her own country, America, and the country of her heritage, France, have presidents. Susan takes tremendous pride in her country's freedom.

Because she stands in the midst of change, she does not know that the political system of the Czar, or the Kaiser or even the Queen can not stand against the rising and over-whelming tide of industry and individual rights. The monumental cost of change is unknown, not just to Susan but to everyone living through the time of change.

Susan hears the arguments of the men. Socialism is a new and attractive idea to those who feel the economy is not fair. While output is the point of industry and output is based on profit. Going to war is not a consideration. President Wilson says America will stay neutral. For today she must see to the laundry and pray under her breath that her father returns from the factory in good spirits and her husband returns from his meeting more thoughtful than angry.

The Great War Blog

20 June 1915 – Detroit Underground
20 June 1915 – Detroit Underground | Source


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