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Italy brought another issue sharply to the fore in the early days of March. A few of her passenger vessels running to America and other countries had been armed previous to that time. It was done quietly, and commanders found many reasons for the presence of guns on their vessels. Of a sudden all Italian passenger craft sailed with 3-inch pieces fore and aft.
Berlin announced that on the first day of March, 1916, German submarines had sunk two French auxiliaries off Havre, and a British patrol vessel near the mouth of the Thames. Paris promptly denied the statement, and London was noncommittal. No other particulars were made public. Russian troops landed on the Black Sea coast on March 6, 1916, under the gung of a Russian naval division and took Atina, seventy-five miles east of Trebizond, the objective of the Grand Duke Constantine's army. Thirty Turkish vessels, mostly sailing ships loaded with war supplies, were sunk along the shore within a few days.
Winston Spencer Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty, on March 7, 1916, delivered a warning in the House of Commons against what he believed to be inadequate naval preparations. He challenged statements made by Arthur J. Balfour, his successor, on the navy's readiness. Mr. Balfour had just presented naval estimates to the House, and among other things set forth that Britain had increased her navy by 1,000,000 tons and more than doubled its personnel since hostilities began. This encouraging assurance impressed the world, but Colonel Churchill demanded that Sir John Fisher, who had resigned as First Sea Lord, be recalled to his post.
An announcement from Tokyo, March 8, 1916, served to show the new friendship between Russia and Japan. Three warships captured by the Japanese in the conflict with Russia were purchased by the czar and added to Russian naval forces. They were the Soya, the Tango and the Sagami, formerly the Variag, Poltava and Peresviet, all small but useful ships. Following the capture of Atina, the Russians took Rizeh on March 9, 1916, a city thirty-five miles east of Trebizond, an advance of forty miles in three days toward that important port. The fleet co
operated, and it was announced that the defenses of Trebizond itself were under fire and fast crumbling away.
On March 16, 1916, the Holland-Lloyd passenger steamer Tubantia, a vessel of 15,000 tons, was sunk near the Dutch coast by a mine or torpedo. She was commonly believed to have been the victim of a submarine. Her eighty-odd passengers and 300 men reached shore. Several Americans were aboard. Statements by some of the crew that four persons lost their lives could not be verified, but several of the Tubantia's officers made affidavit that the vessel was torpedoed.
The incident aroused public feeling in Holland to fever pitch, and there were threats of war. Germany hastened to deny that a submarine attacked the ship, and made overtures to the Dutch Government, offering reparation if it could be established that a German torpedo sank the steamer. This was never proved, and nothing came of the matter. But it cost Germany many friends in Holland and intensified the fear and hatred entertained toward their neighbor by the majority of Hollanders. It served to keep Dutch troops, already mobilized, under arms, and gave Berlin a bad quarter hour.
Fast on the heels of this incident came the sinking of another Dutch steamer, the Palembang, which was torpedoed and went down March 18, 1916, near Galloper Lights in a Thames estuary. Three torpedoes struck the vessel and nine of her crew were injured. This second attack in three days upon Dutch vessels wrought indignation in Holland to the breaking point. The Hague sent a strong protest to Berlin, which again replied in a conciliatory tone, hinting that an English submarine had fired on the Palembang in the hope of embroiling Holland with Germany. This suggestion was instantly rejected by the Dutch press and people. Negotiations failed to produce any definite result, save to prolong the matter until tension had been somewhat relieved. The French destroyer Renaudin fell prey to a submarine in the Adriatic on the same day. Three officers, including the commander, and forty-four of her crew, were drowned. Vienna also announced the loss in the Adriatic of the hospital ship Elektra on March 18, 1916. She was said to have
been torpedoed, although properly marked. One sailor was killed and two nuns serving as nurses received wounds.
German submarine activity in the vicinity of the Thames was emphasized March 22, 1916, when the Galloper Lightship, well known to all seafaring men, went to the bottom after being torpedoed. The vessel was stationed off dangerous shoals near the mouth of the river. The Germans suffered the loss of a 7,000-ton steamship on this day, when the Esparanza was sunk by a Russian warship in the Black Sea. She had taken refuge in the Bulgarian port of Varna at the outbreak of the conflict and attempted to reach Constantinople with a cargo of foodstuffs, but a Russian patrol vessel ended her career.
Another tragedy of the sea came at a moment when strained relations between Germany and the United States made almost anything probable. The Sussex, a Channel steamer plying between Folkestone and Dieppe, was hit by a torpedo March 24, 1916, when about three hours' sail from the former port, and some fifty persons lost their lives. A moment after the missile struck there was an explosion in the engine room that spread panic among her 386 passengers, many of whom were Belgian women and children refugees bound for England. One or two boats overturned, and a number of frightened women jumped into the water without obtaining life preservers. Others strapped on the cork jackets and were rescued hours later. Some of the victims were killed outright by the impact of the torpedo and the second explosion. Fortunately the vessel remained afloat and her wireless brought rescue craft from both sides of the Channel.
The rescuers picked up practically all of those in the water who had donned life belts and took aboard those in the boats. Many of the passengers, including several Americans, saw the torpedo's wake. It was stated that the undersea craft approached the Sussex under the lee of a captured Belgian vessel, and when within easy target distance fired the torpedo. According to this version, the Belgian ship then was compelled to put about and leave the stricken steamer's passengers and crew to what seemed certain destruction. The presence of
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this third craft never was definitely established, although vouched for by a number of those on the Sussex.
Of thirty American passengers five or six sustained painful injuries. The victims included several prominent persons, one of whom was Enrique Granados, the Spanish composer, and his wife. They had just returned from the United States where they had witnessed the presentation of his opera “Goyescas."
The Sussex, which flew the French flag, although owned by a British company, had no guns aboard and was in no wise an auxiliary craft. She reached Boulogne in tow, and the American consul there reported that undoubtedly she had been torpedoed. (For an account of the negotiations between the United States and Germany in relation to this affair see United States and the Belligerents, Vol. V, Part X.) Ambassador Gerard, in Berlin, was instructed to ask the German Government for any particulars of the incident in its possession, so as to aid the United States in reaching a conclusion. Berlin, after much evasion, admitted that a submarine had sunk a vessel near the spot where the Sussex was lost, but gave it an entirely different description.
The British converted liner Minneapolis, used as a transport, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean with a loss of eleven lives, although this vessel also stayed afloat, according to a statement issued in London, March 26, 1916. She was a ship of 15,543 tons and formerly ran in the New York-Liverpool service. In a brush between German and British forces near
German coast, March 25, 1916, a British light cruiser, the Cleopatra, rammed and sunk a German destroyer. The British destroyer Medusa also was sunk, but her crew escaped to other vessels. In addition the Germans lost two of their armed fishing craft.
Fourteen nuns and 101 other persons were killed or drowned March 30, 1916, when the Russian hospital ship Portugal was sunk in the Black Sea between Batum and Rizeh on the Anatolian coast by a torpedo. The Portugal had stopped and was preparing to take aboard wounded men on shore. Several of those on the vessel saw the periscope of a submarine appear above the waves, but had no fear of an attack, as the Portugal was plainly marked with the Red Cross insignia and was flying a Red Cross flag from her peak.
The submarine circled about the ships twice and then, to the horror of those who were watching, fired a torpedo. The missile went astray, but another followed and found its mark. Although the ship was at anchor, with the shore near by, it was impossible to get all of her crew and wounded to safety.
This attack greatly incensed Russia. She sent protests to all of the neutral powers, calling attention to the deed perpetrated against her. The flame of national anger was fanned higher when Constantinople issued a statement saying that a Turkish submarine had sunk the Portugal, claiming that she flew the Russian merchant flag without any of the usual Red Cross markings upon her hull. It was said that the explosion which shattered the vessel was caused by the presence of ammunition.
On the morning of March 30, 1916, the steamship Matoppo, a British freighter, put into Lewes, Delaware, with her master and his crew of fifty men held prisoners by a single individual. Ernest Schiller, as he called himself, had gone aboard the Matoppo.in New York, March 29, 1916, and hid himself away until the vessel passed Sandy Hook, bound for Vladiovstok. Then he came out and with the aid of two weapons which the captain described as horse pistols, proceeded to cow the master and crew. Schiller announced that the Matoppo was a German prize of war and that he would shoot the first man who moved a hostile hand. The crew believed him. They also had an uneasy fear that certain bombs which Schiller mentioned would be set off unless they obeyed.
With Schiller in command the Matoppo headed down the coast, her captor keeping vigil. Off Delaware he ordered the captain to make port. The latter obeyed, but also signaled to shore that a pirate was aboard. Port authorities then sent a boat alongside, and Schiller was arrested. He admitted under examination that he and three other men had plotted to blow up the Cunard liner Pannonia. They bought the dynamite and made the bombs, but his companions' courage failed, and the plan was