Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, With the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 6, 1904
Mr. Eddy to Mr. Hay.
St. Petersburg , November 5, 1904 .
Sir: I am now transmitting to you the translation of an article from the Novoe Vremya of this morning, which article is written by an eyewitness of the North Sea incident, a Russian correspondent, who was with the Russian ships. I send this in order that you may have the point of view of a Russian who was with the Russian forces at the time.
Novoe Vremya, 23/5 November, 1904—Story of an eyewitness of the incident in the North Sea.
I hasten to give the details of the incident with the Hull fishermen, which has been given in the most distorted manner in the foreign press.
While in Russia we had the most detailed information with regard to the preparations of the Japanese to do everything in their power to prevent our squadron from reaching its destination. Reports had been received that Japanese torpedo boats had sought shelter in Norwegian fiords. Then the Japanese hired fishing boats at Hamburg, Hull, Southampton, Christiania. The Russians also had a whole system of agents, both for our protection and to watch the Japanese. The Russian agents also hired a great many small steamers and fishing boats. We reported these Japanese intentions to the Governments of those countries, but only the Governments of Denmark and Germany evinced a willingness to prevent the Japanese machinations.
The Danes were especially courteous. While we were passing through their waters, which are very narrow and dangerous for large ships and convenient for attacking us, we were accompanied the whole time by small Danish ships and steamers, which patrolled the shore, drove away fishermen, anchored in shallow places, and served as special light-ships, etc. In this manner we safely reached Cape Skagen, where we had before us the North Sea, filled with fishermen of all nations. To our right we had, at no great distance, a long series of Norwegian fiords. Before entering the North Sea we received a great many warnings from our agents. All the news received pointed to the fact that in one of the fiords, one much closed in by land, four torpedo boats of unknwn nationality had been seen, accompanied by a steamer, and which were loading coal. Then these torpedo boats were noticed not far to the south of Cape Skagen.
We left Skagen in the morning, so that of course the Japanese had to follow us and await the night.
We started in groups. All the torpedo boats started ahead, in two separate groups, going to Cherbourg. Then, separately, came Admiral Felkerzam with four of the older battle ships, with Tangier as his destination. These need be no longer kept a secret, because when you receive this letter they will already have arrived there and everybody will know about it.
The smaller cruisers under the command of Captain Shein went to Aroso (a bay 40 miles north of Vigo), where they were awaited by German coal steamers, and the large cruisers with the transport Kamchatka (repair transport), with Admiral Enkwist, also intended to go to Tangier. We were the last of all, and started, with four of the best battle ships: Suvoroff, Alexander III, Borodino, and Orel, and one collier, the Anadir. We were to call at Brest and there complete our coaling. So you will observe that with us there was not one small ship and not one torpedo boat. They were all far ahead of us.
The first night, still not far from the Danish shore, passed quietly.
The following day, the 8th (21st) October, at 8 o’clock in the evening, when it was already quite dark, we received by wireless telegraph the information that behind us at a distance of 30 miles was the transport Kamchatka, which, owing to some trouble with her machines, had fallen behind her detachment [Page 798] (the cruisers Dmitri Donskoi and Aurora), and that she was being followed by several torpedo boats, which were not, however, attacking.
The order was at once given by wireless to Admiral Enkwist, who was ahead with the two cruisers Donskoi and Aurora, to slow down and await the Kamchatka or to steam ahead and not show themselves to the torpedo boats, which, of course, were also reading our telegrams, but did not know whence they came. But the Japanese all the same made an attempt to find out our whereabouts. While we were exchanging messages with the Kamchatka, we suddenly began to receive a series of telegrams: “Where is the squadron?” “Indicate your width and length,” “which place is the Suvoroff in, “in pure Russian and with the signature Kamchatka. These telegrams appeared suspicious to us, and to make sure that it was really the Kamchatka who was sending them, instead of replying we ordered them to give us the Christian name and patronymic of one of the officers of the Kamchatka. This was received with complete silence. The questions ceased, but the conversation with the Kamchatka continued regarding the cause of her falling back, etc., but in cipher, so that the Japanese were unable to understand anything. It was evident that the questions which were telegraphed were made by Japanese, taking advantage of our telegraphing the Kamchatka, and that they wanted to find out where we were, that is, the battle ships, which they were trying to get at.
They evidently decided not to touch the Kamchatka, in order not to waste their torpedo on a transport and not force us, by their attack on the Kamchatka, of which the latter would at once have informed us, to fire on every small ship.
Probably they decided, all the same, that we were in advance and increased their speed in order to catch up with us. We even calculated the approximate time necessary for them to reach us if they went at 15 knots (we were going 9), and if they left the Kamchatka at that time. We figured out that it might be between 12 and 1 o’clock in the night. At 12.55 we saw ahead of us, appearing and disappearing in the rather heavy sea which was running, two long dark shapes throwing out thick smoke, which showed that they were going very fast. At this moment we saw a green and red rocket, which is usually sent up by ships in distress. In another second we were lit up by the ray of an electric light ahead of us.
It was clear to us that the signal of distress was to lure us to a certain point and that it was hoped we would stop. The rays of the electric light, probably from a steamer accompanying the torpedo boats, or from one of them to one side, were intended to show our whereabouts to the attacking torpedo boats and blind the eyes of our gunners.
The plan was a very clever one.
We at once turned our searchlights on the torpedo boats and opened fire on them. As soon as they saw that they were discovered they swerved aside, but came under the fire of the Alexander III, Borodino, and Orel, which were following us.
Already, at this time, small steamers, evidently fishing boats, began from time to time to show themselves in the rays of our searchlights. But they also acted very suspiciously; there were no lights on them; not a man was to be seen on their decks, no flags, no signals; and they persisted in coming under the bows of our ships, intercepting their course. In this way they might have thrown out floating mines.
In spite of this, the admiral, on seeing them ordered the rays of the electric searchlights to be thrown upward, which is a signal that the firing should cease.
To have remained on the spot after the torpedo boats disappeared and assist the fishermen would have been extremely incautious. We would have risked the very strongest part of our squadron, and as there were several fishing boats they could assist one another.
As far as it was possible to observe, one of the enemy’s torpedo boats sank. In this attack one of two things was certain: Either these fishing steamers were in an agreement, or the Japanese torpedo boats sought cover near them without their knowledge. The former supposition is also quite probable. Probably the Japanese had several such groups of fishing steamers at various places on the route and near which they could seek shelter. They had hoped for a lack of attention on our part, and in the case of failure that public opinion in Europe might be raised against us for firing upon peaceful steamers, and especially English. They have but one object—not to allow the squadron to reach its destination, and they are not scrupulous as to their means. They well understand that this squadron is their most formidable opponent—far more [Page 799] formidable than all our land army. The question arises, Why were the English fishermen from Hull so far from England, almost on the Danish coast? The incident took place 55° 18′ north latitude and 5° 42′ west longitude from Greenwich.
If the fishermen were not in accord with the Japanese, then not we, but the Japanese, are to blame for their having been fired upon, the latter having abused their helplessness and sought cover under the lee of the first group of fishing steamers they came upon. The latter might not have seen them at all, since they have no electric lights, and when the firing began they hid themselves in fright.
When we arrived in Vigo we learned that English public opinion and the press were not so much excited about our firing on the fishing vessels as by the statements of the fishermen that when the dawn came a Russian torpedo boat was seen on the spot, which quickly disappeared, not wishing to give help to the unfortunate fishermen.
However, there was not one torpedo boat with us, and not even one small cruiser which might have been taken by the fishermen for a torpedo boat, and this declaration of the fishermen only confirms the presence of Japanese torpedo boats. Evidently we sank one of the torpedo boats or it got away, while the other was damaged in some way, which was repaired by morning, and it went away. This declaration of the fishermen is our best justification, for all of our torpedo boats were already far in advancee, since they left Skagen several hours before us and steamed at a high speed. This is all that it is necessary to state in the press.
You now ask why we went to Vigo instead of to Brest. The thing is simple. After the night above described the weather became perfect, but without a moon, and we steamed faster than we had expected and used up less coal. Finally, when we were nearing Brest, a thick fog came up, while the sea was calm. We could not have entered anyhow and would have had to wait, while fine weather at this place is rare and the stormy Bay of Biscay lay before us. So we took advantage of the fine weather and left the Bay of Biscay behind us. * * *