Within five hours of England’s declaration of war on August 14th, 1914, the British cable ship Teleconia dragged its grappling hooks across the sea bottom at a strategic point in the North Sea, raising then cutting Germany’s deep sea cable running from Borkum to Spanish Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The order had come directly from First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, and was destined to begin a chain of events which could not have been foreseen at that moment.
On the 26th of that same August, the German cruiser Magdeburg ran aground off the Estonian coast where it was seized by the Russians. Several copies of a book containing the German Naval codes were also seized, and two of these books were shared with the British. Those books found their way to the Admiralty’s intelligence service, where they were quickly relayed to “Room 40”, an actual office address which would ultimately become a euphemism for the top secret group of cryptographers whose job was decoding enemy messages – an operation which presaged the “ULTRA” system which helped to win WW II for the Allies. The occupants of “Room 40” already possessed a copy of Germany’s “Office Codes”, lifted from a sunken U-boat early in the war which, when linked with Russia’s contribution to their “library of secrets” – would bring about a revelation of historic consequence.
The occupants of “Room 40” consisted of an unusual blend of wizards, from mathematicians to linguists, who – together – represented the world’s first glimpse of what would grow into computer science. In 1914-17 they were a mere handful, unlike the hundreds like them who in World War II would occupy a former girls’ school at England’s Bletchley Park.
In the United States, public sympathies lay largely with the “Allied Nations” in their expanding war with Germany and the “Central Powers”. Despite the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, and the loss of 128 American lives in May, 1915, and the infamous “Black Tom” sabotage incident of July 30, 1916 (*), the mood across the U.S. did not favor involvement in what was viewed as “Europe’s War”. Although Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat “Progressive”- held different views, he was locked in a tight campaign for the presidency with Supreme Court Justice John Evans Hughes, and ran on an anti-war platform. Wilson won the presidency by an extremely slender margin in November, 1916, by promising American mothers their sons would not be drawn into a foreign war.
As Germany prepared to move toward a more aggressive use of submarine warfare in its blockade of aid shipments to England, American intervention seemed more and more likely to the Kaiser’s military planners. So in January, 1917, the Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann authored a secret document suggesting that Mexico declare its alliance with the Central Powers in the event the U.S. entered the war. It was further suggested, that in return for this action, a victorious Germany would see to it that the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona would be returned to Mexico. Because Germany’s undersea cables had been cut early in the war, it was necessary for Zimmermann’s coded message to be sent in the form of a telegram. The telegram was intercepted by British Intelligence where the missile was promptly turned over to the occupants of “Room 40”. Because the German Office and Naval codes had been “broken” by England’s cryptologists, the contents of the message were quickly translated and forwarded to U.S. authorities.
On March 1st, 1917, the “Zimmermann telegram” became national headlines, infuriating the American public. On top of Lusitania, and the “Black Tom” incident, it became the “straw that broke the camel’s back” (and played right into Woodrow Wilson’s hand).
On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war, and American “doughboys” would soon be on their way to the trenches of France.
(*) “Black Tom” was the name of an island in New York Harbor, associated with Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1916-17 the built-up island and its mile-long pier became a loading platform for munitions ready for shipment across the Atlantic. In the early morning hours of July 30th, 1916, a tremendous explosion measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale shook the eastern seaboard, breaking windows 40 miles away, and imbedding shrapnel in the nearby Statue of Liberty, so damaging the structure that to this day, it is unsafe to enter the monument’s raised arm. The “Black Tom” explosion killed at least seven, injured many others, and did millions of dollars in damage. It was deemed to be the work of a small group of German saboteurs, and stirred strong anti-German sentiment.
Interestingly, an international commission eventually assigned a penalty of $50 million 1953 dollars, the final payment of which was paid to the U.S. by Germany in 1979.