Most people believe that the United States entered the First World War because of the sinking of the Lusitania. But in reality, several other passenger ships were also sunk by German U-boats, killing American passengers and eventually prompting the US to enter the war. And one of these was the Arabic.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the British Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world, and the German High Seas Fleet stood little chance against it. It was, however, at sea that Britain was the most vulnerable—as an island, the British had to import nearly everything they used, and the majority of their supplies came across the Atlantic from the US. A successful campaign against British merchant shipping, therefore, would choke off Britain’s vital supplies and starve her into submission.
When it became apparent that the war would be a long one, therefore, German U-boats were turned loose against British merchant shipping. The Germans announced a policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare”; they declared the seas around England to be a war zone, and announced that any ship suspected of delivering war materials to British ports—including ships sailing under a neutral flag—would be torpedoed without warning by submerged U-boats.
It was a controversial policy, especially in the United States. The US had declared its neutrality in the war, but President Woodrow Wilson was horrified by the German policy of attacking ships without warning, considering it an infringement of the rights of neutral nations to free passage on the seas. The most severe blow came on May 7, 1915, when the submarine U-20 torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 1200 people, 128 of which were Americans. The Germans pointed out that the Lusitania was registered with the Royal Navy as an auxiliary cruiser and that she was carrying a load of military ammunition, and was therefore a legitimate military target. President Wilson issued severe diplomatic warnings, but, faced with American isolationism, did little else. It would take another sinking before diplomatic action would be taken. This would be RMS Arabic.
In 1901, work was begun at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Ireland on a new ship for the Atlantic Transport Line. Named Minnewaska, she was intended as a packet ship to carry both passengers and cargo. Shortly later, however, her construction was paused after the Transport Line was purchased by International Mercantile Marine Inc, the enormous holding company controlled by American financier JP Morgan. Among IMM’s holdings was the White Star passenger line, and the half-finished Minnewaska was now re-designed to carry more passengers (up to 1,400), assigned to White Star, and renamed Arabic. She was launched in 1902 and a year later began regular passenger runs on trans-Atlantic routes between Liverpool and New York or Boston. For the next ten years, Arabic’s only claim to fame was ferrying some of the dead bodies from the Titanic disaster back to England.
When the War broke out in 1914, the Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of civilian ships for military duty as troop transports or hospital ships, but the Arabic continued as a passenger liner. By March 1915, Arabic encountered a German U-boat in the English channel and had successfully outrun the slower warship.
On August 19, 1915, the Arabic was once again off the coast of Ireland after having left the port of Queenstown bound for New York. The Lusitania disaster had happened only three months earlier, and many travelers had canceled their plans. There were only 424 passengers and crew aboard the Arabic.
But unknown to anyone, there was a submarine lurking nearby. The German submarine U-24 had already sunk the British battleship Formidable in December 1914. Now, the sub was patrolling an area about 50 miles away from the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse on the south Irish coast—not far from where the Lusitania had been torpedoed. U-24 had already attacked the Dunsley, a British-registered 5,000-ton cargo ship, with her deck gun. It was the third cargo ship sunk by the sub that day. Now, however, as the Dunsley was still sinking, the Arabic approached from the horizon.
According to the official German reports, the Arabic was zig-zagging through the water, a standard procedure for avoiding submarines, but when the ship apparently sighted the submarine on the surface it turned towards it in an attempt to ram. (The British Admiralty had in fact issued orders to all merchant ships to try to ram surfaced German U-boats whenever possible.)
In response, the U-24 fired one torpedo, which hit the Arabic just forward of the starboard stern. Mortally wounded, the ship sank in less than ten minutes. Of the 424 people aboard, 44 died, including 2 Americans. (Many of the deaths happened when a lifeboat that had been filled but not released from the davits was pulled under by the sinking ship.)
When word reached President Woodrow Wilson, he was livid, and angrily confronted the German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff. Bernstorff in turn informed Berlin that there was a serious chance that the US would now enter the war against Germany.
The crisis went to the top levels of the German Government. The Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow asked Kaiser Wilhelm to declare a policy in which civilian merchant ships would no longer be torpedoed without warning, and passenger ships would be declared off-limits for attack. This brought a sharp protest from Navy commander Alfred von Tirpitz, who threatened to resign. The Kaiser, however, recognized the political reality that he must at all costs prevent the US from entering the war, and he agreed to publicly announce a set of conditions that became known as “The Arabic Pledge”–Germany halted its unrestricted submarine warfare, and ordered its U-boat commanders not to sink any civilian ships without stopping them first and disembarking the passengers and crew.
The Pledge lasted until 1917. By then, the Germans were desperate to find some way to lift the strangling British naval blockade against them, and the German navy proposed resuming unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping as a way to bring England to its knees. With the land war going against him, the Kaiser—though he knew that it would probably provoke the United States to enter the war—agreed. After several civilian ships were sunk by U-boats, President Wilson asked for a declaration of war in April 1917. His speech did not mention either the Lusitania or the Arabic by name.
After the war ended, Germany was forced to turn over a large portion of its merchant fleet to the British as war reparations. One of these was the ocean liner Berlin, which was given to the White Star Line and renamed RMS Arabic.