World War I on the homefront

By Casey MacLean

May 2018

One hundred years ago, German U-boats lurked beneath the waves off the coast of North Carolina, bringing World War I home to the United States. Few Americans believed that German Unterseeboots would be able to traverse the Atlantic to reach our shores – but they were wrong. By the end of World War I, German submarines known as U-boats had managed to sink 10 vessels off North Carolina alone, and 200 American ships in total. This summer, North Carolina will remember the 100th anniversary of these historic attacks.

illustration showing a german submarine attacking an american merchant ship
This illustration from 1916 depicts a German submarine attacking an American merchant ship. Image: Willy Stower/Library of Congress

Since World War I, nautical technology has evolved at a rapid rate, but in 1914 U-boats were considered quite advanced. These vessels could reach maximum depths of 50 meters or 165 feet, achieve speeds of 16 knots at the surface and eight knots underwater, and had a range of up to 25,000 miles. They were armed with deck-mounted guns and up to 16 self-propelled torpedoes. Since torpedoes of this period could be unreliable, surface attacks were quite common; this tactic also allowed U-boat crews to seize supplies and valuables from merchant ships before they sunk. Furthermore, some U-boats were equipped to transport and deploy naval mines.

Submarine warfare played an integral role in the mounting international pressures of World War I. After the war broke out in 1914, Great Britain used its powerful navy to blockade German ports to limit food, supplies, and war materials from reaching the German military and people. Great Britain declared German waters a war zone and seized cargoes bound for the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria). Germany then retaliated by creating its own blockade around the British Isles and English Channel and began using a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, destroying all Allied and neutral party ships.

poster asking men to remember the sinking of the lusitania and enlist in the navy
This poster from 1915 calls on men to enlist in the Navy following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

On May 7, 1915, the German U-20 sank the passenger liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, horrifically killing 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans. This tragedy heightened tensions between the United States and Germany, causing the Germans to temporarily back down on their use of unrestricted submarine warfare. However, in an attempt to quickly end the war by cutting off British supplies, the aggressive U-boat attacks resumed at the beginning of 1917, sinking both military and civilian vessels. In response to this threat, the United States joined the Allies (France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan) and entered the war on April 6, 1917.

After this declaration of war, the United States devoted manpower, supplies, and naval forces to help the Allies in Europe. This left merchant and naval shipping along the East Coast exposed to German U-boats. From April 1917 until November 1918, four German U-boats visited the East Coast of the United States and sank 10 vessels off North Carolina's coast and 200 U.S. vessels in total. One of these U-boats, U-140, was particularly notable for sinking the Diamond Shoals Lightship, LV-71, in August 1918. LV-71 was one of only two U.S. government ships to be sunk by a U-boat during World War I. This wreck is now managed by Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and the U.S. Coast Guard. During the same event, U-140 also sunk the USS Merak. Another U-boat, U-117, sank the British tanker SS Mirlo in a well-known attack off the coast of North Carolina, but this shipwreck remains undiscovered.

a german submarine
U-140 was one of four German U-boats that patrolled the East Coast of the United States. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

The damage inflicted by U-boats during World War I was powerful. Their ability to submerge and to surprise enemies led to massive casualties: Germany and Austria-Hungary sank almost 5,000 merchant ships during World War I, killing approximately 15,000 Allied sailors. The Treaty of Versailles required the Germans to surrender and break up their U-boat fleet, but German naval commanders had learned the value of submarine warfare and continued to improve this technology in peacetime years. German U-boats returned to North Carolina during World War II with a vengeance, leaving even more wrecks off the coast.

Although most of World War I took place in Europe, German U-boats brought the war home to the United States. Many shipwrecks of U-boat victims can be found off the coast of North Carolina in the popular shipping area that known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

a submersible shines a light on a sunken uboat
Archaeologists from Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and partners located and explored the German U-576 in 2016. Photo: John McCord, UNC Coastal Studies Institute - Battle of the Atlantic Expedition

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, first established in 1975, protects and honors the wreck of the USS Monitor, which sank in 1862 during the Civil War after battling the Confederate CSS Virginia. In addition to the USS Monitor, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has researched and documented many shipwreck sites and seeks to honor World War I's history off the coast of North Carolina. The proposed boundary expansion of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary could encompass shipwrecks of World War I and World War II, which would ensure the preservation of our nation's maritime heritage for years to come.

Casey MacLean is a constituent and legislative affairs volunteer intern at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.