File No. 763.72111/87

The British Chargé d’Affaires (Barclay) to the Secretary of State

No. 259]

Sir: With reference to my note No 252 of the 4th instant,2 I have the honour to inform you that I have now received instructions from. Sir Edward Grey to make a further communication to you in explanation of the position taken by His Majesty’s Government in regard to the question of armed merchantmen.

As you are no doubt aware, a certain number of British merchant vessels are armed, but this is a precautionary measure adopted solely for the purpose of defence, which, under existing rules of international law, is the right of all merchant vessels when attacked.

According to the British rule, British merchant vessels can not be converted into men-of-war in any foreign port, for the reason that Great Britain does not admit the right of any power to do this on the high seas. The duty of a neutral to intern or order the immediate departure of belligerent vessels is limited to actual and potential men-of-war, and, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, there can therefore be no right on the part of neutral Governments to intern British armed merchant vessels, which can not be converted into men-of-war on the high seas, nor to require them to land their guns before proceeding to sea.

On the other hand, the German Government have consistently claimed the right of conversion on the high seas, and His Majesty’s Government therefore maintain their claim that vessels which are adapted for conversion and under German rules may be converted into men-of-war on the high seas should be interned in the absence of binding assurances, the responsibility for which must be assumed by the neutral Government concerned, that they shall not be so converted.

I have [etc.]

Colville Barclay
  1. Ante, p. 593.