Reported in Scientific American, this Week in World War I: January 15, 1916.
The image on the cover of the January 15, 1916, issue of Scientific American (below) is full of violent drama: a huge steamship sinking, as boatloads of desperate survivors try to pull away from the burning wreck. The caption reads, “The War on Private Citizens.”
Apart from that one caption, the issue has no other information about the image (not unusual for the time). But which ship was depicted? And what was the purpose of publishing such a provocative caption? My best guess is that the magazine reflected the general mood in the United States about German submarine attacks on civilian liners in general, and perhaps specifically the sinking of the S.S. Ancona only two months previously (which was itself a stark reminder of the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania in May 1915).
The Ancona was en route from Messina, Italy, to New York, filled mostly with Italian emigrants, when it was torpedoed in the Mediterranean by a German submarine acting on behalf of the Austrian navy and flying the Austrian flag. Nine Americans perished, which brought severe condemnation from the U.S. government. Scientific American, in a sternly worded editorial on November 27, 1915, only 19 days after the event, had said:
“The ruthless sinking of the ‘Ancona’ and the terrible loss of life which has followed brings once more before our people the great problem of what our Government may do, not only for the protection of our own people, but in the cause of humanity, during the terrible struggle which is going on in Europe. The lull in submarine warfare since President Wilson's diplomatic correspondence with Germany, and the apparently successful issue of the demands of our Government, received a rude shock when the news of the disaster in the Mediterranean reached this country. It matters very little to our people whether the ‘Ancona’ was destroyed by a German or an Austrian submarine. The odium which attaches to this crime is so great and the temper of our people is such that they care very little to which of the Central Powers this attack is to be attributed.”
The Ancona was a single-funnel 8,000-ton passenger liner. The ship depicted has two funnels. It is possible the artist was depicting a generic civilian liner and was more concerned with evoking a sense of outrage over the German campaign than depicting a specific ship and specific event.
Germany had been using its submarines in an attempt to fight back against a crippling naval blockade imposed since the beginning of the war. Yet when confronted internationally with images and captions such as these shown, it became clear that the German course of action gained little militarily and risked much diplomatically. The German government announced it was suspending unrestricted warfare in April 1916.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on naval warfare, the economics of the naval blockade and various diplomatic views on the First World War. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/