File No. 811.0151/33
The Ambassador in Great Britain (Page) to the Secretary of State
[Received 7.30 p. m.]
1611. The following announcement appears in the morning papers as from the Foreign Office who confirm its accuracy, although they have not communicated it to me officially:
The use of the neutral flag is with certain limitations well established in practice as a ruse de guerre. The only effect in the case of a merchantman wearing a flag other than her national flag is to compel the enemy to follow the ordinary obligations of naval warfare and to satisfy himself as to the nationality of the vessel and of the character of her cargo by examination before capturing her and taking her into a prize court for adjudication.
The British Government have always considered the use of British colours by a foreign vessel legitimate for the purpose of escaping capture. Such a practice not only involves no breach of international law, but is specifically recognized by the law of this country.
In the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 it is enacted (Section 691) as follows:
If a person uses the British flag and assumes the British national character on board a ship owned in whole or in part by any persons not qualified to own a British ship for the purpose of making the ship appear to be a British ship, the ship shall be subject to forfeiture under this Act, unless the assumption has been made for the purpose of escaping capture by an enemy or by a foreign ship of war in the exercise of some belligerent right.
And in the instructions to British Consuls 1914 it is stated: “A ship is liable to capture if British character is improperly assumed except for the purpose of escaping capture.” As we have in practice not objected to foreign merchant vessels using the British merchant flag as a ruse for the purpose of evading capture at sea at the hands of a belligerent so we should maintain in the converse case a British merchant vessel committed no breach of international law in assuming neutral colours for similar purpose if she thought fit to do so.
By the rules of international law, the customs of war, and the dictates of humanity, it is obligatory upon a belligerent to ascertain the character of a merchant vessel and of her cargo before capture. Germany has no right to disregard this obligation. To destroy ship, non-combatant crew, and cargo, as Germany has announced her intention of doing, is nothing less than an act of piracy on the high seas.