File No. 763.72/1507

The Ambassador in Italy (Page) to the Secretary of State


201. Your February 23, 5 p. m.2 Following memoranda confidential have not been published.

Following sent to Germany:

By its memorandum of February 4 and by the annexed notification of which Minister for Foreign Affairs has just received text the Imperial Government has deemed it proper to notify the neutral powers of its intention to exercise certain measures of reprisal against certain procedure of naval warfare contrary to the rights of the people which it charges the British Government with having employed against Germany. The note handed to the Ministry by the Imperial Ambassador under date 14th instant only serves to confirm this intention detailing the circumstances which would justify the rigor of the ordinances adopted.

These communications should enable the neutral powers to take in their turn the necessary precautions to save their ships and their subjects from the regrettable consequences with which the application of the said measures might threaten all sorts of navigation in British waters beginning the 18th February. The Royal Government does not consider it its business to examine the character of the measures under discussion between the belligerents but it does not feel able to abstain from making certain remarks in this connection with regard to so much as concerns the relations between belligerents and neutrals.

In consequence of the measures which the Imperial Government has thought fit to adopt against its adversary, the lives and merchandise of neutrals on board British vessels in the waters indicated will run risks far greater than those to which the ordinary conduct and rules of naval warfare would expose them. Their ability to make use of these ships in conformity with the law of the rights of nations suffers in consequence a limitation much greater than that which one could have been led to expect through the ordinarily accepted application of these rules.

[Page 124]

The Government of Germany does not ignore the fact that it is particularly in view of the rights and the interest of neutrals that the power to destroy hostile merchant vessels has been the object of very serious discussion in the domain alike of theory and practice of the laws of naval warfare. The Royal Government does not think in any case that a previous warning would be sufficient to free the belligerent from the responsibilities that this destruction might impose upon him in the eyes of neutrals for the damage which they might have suffered eventually in their persons and their goods.

It would not be able, moreover, to admit that a danger of this kind can threaten the ships which carry in good faith their national flag. The power that the right of nations recognizes as belonging to belligerents as regards neutral ships is rigorously defined in the rules concerning blockades, contraband, and assistance to the enemy. No curtailment of the liberty of these ships on the high seas would be tolerated beyond those which result from the application of these rules.

The Royal Government has not failed to take the steps which it considers necessary and will not fail now to take them with the British Government to safeguard its interests and its rights, but it could not admit that the conduct of a belligerent can authorize its adversary to throw upon neutrals the unhappy consequences of the struggle whatever could be the motive which could justify a rigorous application of its means, defensive and offensive, and the nature of the interests which it attaches to their application.

However, if it happens that the lives and property of Italian citizens protected by the Italian flag flown in good faith should be jeopardized by the conduct of the German naval authorities in a manner not conforming to the recognized rules of rights, the responsibility of the Germany Government would not be limited to simple pecuniary recompense for the losses caused by an accident of such a nature.

And since the official declaration on the part of the German Government that such a danger exists has sufficed, naturally this will cause serious trouble to the maritime and commercial interests of the Kingdom. The Royal Government would be obliged to the Imperial Government if they would give them assurance that no measures would be adopted by their naval authorities against Italian vessels beyond the cases and the conditions generally recognized by the rules of international law and that the necessary instructions be given in order that no hostile act may be committed against a ship flying the Italian flag before the real nationality of the ship had been previously and regularly ascertained.

The Imperial Government should certainly not see in this step anything but the firm desire to prevent any unhappy incident between the two countries as well as to safeguard the strictest respect for the proper rules of international maritime law touching relations between belligerents and neutrals.

Following to Great Britain:

It is known to the Government of Great Britain what considerations and what circumstances, real or supposed, have induced the German Government to warn neutral powers of the dangers which the next step in the war on the part of their naval authorities will imply for navigation in British waters.

While abstaining from all criticism of the measures under consideration so far as may concern the relations between belligerents, the Royal Government cannot naturally feel disinterested in the consequences which may result therefrom so far as concerns the relations between belligerents and neutrals.

To safeguard, therefore, the rights and interests of its own people, as it has not failed to take those steps with the German Government which in consequence of the communication received it has considered more important concerning the responsibilities Inherent in the measures to which they related, so it believes it opportune to make certain declarations to the British Government relative to these circumstances to which the said measures refer.

The Royal Government is disposed to admit in accordance with a regulation, which is indeed included in the mercantile marine code, that a foreign ship belonging to the merchant marine of a belligerent state can, to escape from the enemy, hoist the Italian flag without infringing by that act any regular right under law, international or internal. It does not believe, however, that such a use tolerated by law under exceptional conditions particularly urgent, although normally condemned under severe penalties, could be adopted [Page 125] almost as a rule without there ensuing from it inconveniences and perils of various kinds to the national marine.

The Royal Government would be pleased accordingly to receive from the Government of His Britannic Majesty some assurance that its merchant marine will avoid using, because of what depends thereon, the Italian flag during the present war.

Nelson Page
  1. Not printed.↩