The Zimmermann Telegram – Part One

well_chuffed, Going Postal

The Zimmerman telegram was instrumental in moving the USA towards war with Germany. There are allegations that it was a forgery , concocted by the British but it really was sent from Germany to Mexico. It was of course in code but Room 40 in the Admiralty had the German codebook and could read it. They passed it across to the Americans who were a bit suspicious but when an American was allowed access to the telegram and the code book and deciphered it himself , they were convinced.

This is the story of the telegram , how the British got the German codebook and their post public revelation antics. It is from an account of what he called the Ether War from 1914 to 1945 written by Wilhelm F Flicke in 1945.

On 16 January 1917 the British Intercept Service intercepted a telegram from Nauen , just outside Berlin , to Sayville on Long Island in the USA. It was for the German Ambassador in the USA with a request for it to be passed on to the German Ambassador in Mexico. This is the first garbled version picked up by the British.

To the Imperial German Ambassador in Washington.
Count Bernstorff,
For the Imperial German  Ambassador in Mexico, von Eckhardt.
Strictly secret, intended only for the personal information
of Your Excellency and. to be forwarded to the Imperial
Ambassador in Mexico, by means of … by a secure route.
We are planning to start unrestricted submarine warfare
beginning 1 February. Nevertheless, we are very anxious
to keep the United States neutral … If that is not
successful, we propose to Mexico an alliance on the following
basis: … warfare … conclusion of peace. Your Excellency
will, for the time being, inform the President … war
with USA … President … , that our submarines will force
England to make peace within a few months. Confirmation

The dots are the garbled parts. Arthur Zimmerman was the German Foreign Secretary. The British Secret Service was immediately told to purchase in Mexico City a copy of the telegram forwarded from von Bernstorff to von Eckhart. Before they could do this another copy of the telegram arrived in Room 40 without the garble and allowed the complete telegram to be deciphered.

There are stories that this telegram was sent to Mexico by three different means , the Wikipedia article says this is not true , Herr Flicke says it is. The first route was wireless transmission from Nauen to Sayville. The second route was via Sweden , from Stockholm to Buenos Aires and then to Washington. The third way was to append it to a telegram being sent by the US Ambassador in Berlin (yes , the US Ambassador) to his government in Washington. This strange state of affairs arose because the Americans agreed to send telegrams they were shown in plain text to Washington for the German Ambassador. Ambassador Gerard was shown the plain text of an innocuous telegram to which was appended the encrypted Zimmermann telegram. Rather like a footballer diving and getting a penalty , the Germans though they had pulled a fast one on the Americans. What they forgot to take into account was the route this telegram would take. Berlin by wire to Copenhagen , from there by cable to London and from there by cable to New York.

The British had “kindly” offered to allow encrypted messages between neutral countries and the German government to be sent via London. Convinced their encryption was unbreakable , the Germans did this.

The British got four versions of this telegram

  1. Interception of the Nauen to Sayville radiogram
  2. Interception of the Stockholm to Buenos Aires radiogram
  3. Reading the cablegram from Copenhagen to London
  4. By purchasing from a Mexican telegraph official the morse tape preserved in Mexico of the telegram

On the evening of the 23rd February 1917 the US Ambassador in London got a phone call from the British Foreign Minister , Balfour , who requested him to call at the Foreign Office that day. He went immediately to Downing Street where he was greeted and immediately handed a copy of the telegram. The following night a very urgent cablegram went from London to Washington saying , In about three hours I shall dispatch to the President and the Secretary of State a telegram of the greatest importance. After 3 hours a full copy of the telegram was sent , encrypted , to Washington.

The Germans were worried about the amount of Materiel being shipped to the UK by the Americans and saw this almost as an act of belligerence. They desperately wanted to keep the USA out of the war but in the event this did not work , they wanted the Mexicans to stir up trouble on the border as a distraction. Using impeccable Teutonic logic , they decided to try and keep the Americans out of the war , and as an insurance , to stir up trouble if they didn’t. It didn’t quite work out the way they hoped. The Mexican President , Carranza , and The US President Wilson did not get on at all so it would not have been difficult to encourage the Mexicans to indulge in a little mischief.

The Germans were prepared to supply arms and money and promised to support the Mexican claim for the return of 3 states of the USA the Mexicans considered the USA had stolen from them.  The money and arms were handed over but the Mexicans never did get round to using the arms against the USA and the 3 states are still part of the Union.

When the contents of the telegram were made public on the 1st March , the brown stuff hit the whirling blades. The “war party” in the USA were ecstatic and in Berlin there was an excited session of the Reichstag where Zimmermann was forced to admit that the telegram was genuine. The Germans could not understand how a foreign power could have divined the contents of their encoded and encrypted telegram. It must have been a spy or a traitor. The British were not about to let them know that they had the German code and keys so the British press was given articles written by the Secret Service complaining about how useless the British were and it was the Americans who had found and decrypted the telegram.

The threat against 3 of their States was not viewed very well in Washington , it was an attack on their territorial integrity. It was only 50 years since the Civil War over the right of States to secede from the Union , the abolition of slavery was a sort of secondary consideration or by-product.

So far , this part of the story is pretty well known ; in Part 2 , details of how the British acquired the codes and keys the Germans were using , this is not so well known and in Part 3 , more about the German machinations around the sending of the telegram.

© well_chuffed 2018

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