Leeds nostalgia: How Britain alienated US during 1915, thanks to German plot

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Dateline: September 7, 1918: Details of an intricate and intriguing plot surfaced in the Yorkshire Evening Post on this day a century ago, after it was disclosed that Britain almost fell out with the US in 1915 after the former seized two vessels nominally owned by the Transatlantic Trading Co.

Britain took control of the ships after finding they had been trading with Germany. The incident prompted one of the sharpest diplomatic missives from the US to the UK in living memory.

In May 1916, after considerable correspondence between Washington and London, Mr Lanning wrote to Sir Cecil Spring Rice: “These vessels are owned by an American corporation. These vessels were recognised under the American flag. The American Transatlantic Corporation is regarded as a citizen of the US.”

However, it soon transpired, upon investigation, that said corporation was founded by one Richard Wagner, who claimed to be an American by right of birth. In spite of German heritage, he offered his support for the Allies and was seen as a good American.

Later though, it emerged his company had been financed by Count Bernstorff, of the German Government and that the seizing of the two vessels had been a deliberate ploy in an attempt to set the two allies of the UK and US against one another. The article reads: “The scene to organise the American shipping company... originated with the German interests...

“Moreover, there was the possibility the British Government would seize these ‘American’ ships and that thus the relations between England and the US would become strained.” It adds: This part of the plot almost succeeded.”