File No. 763.72/1551

The British Ambassador (Spring Rice) to the Secretary of State 1

[Note verbale]

Germany has declared that the English Channel, the north and west coasts of France, and the waters around the British Isles are a war area and has officially notified that all enemy ships found in that area will be destroyed and that neutral vessels may be exposed to danger. This is in effect a claim to torpedo at sight, without regard to the safety of the crew or passengers, any merchant vessel under any flag. As it is not in the power of the German Admiralty to maintain any surface craft in these waters, this attack can only be delivered by submarine agency.

The law and custom of nations in regard to attacks on commerce have always presumed that the first duty of the captor of a merchant vessel is to bring it before a prize court where it may be tried, where the regularity of the capture may be challenged and where neutrals may recover their cargoes. The sinking of prizes is in itself a questionable act to be resorted to only in extraordinary circumstances and after provision has been made for the safety of all the crew or passengers, if there are passengers on board. The responsibility for discriminating between neutral and enemy vessels, and between neutral and enemy cargo obviously rests with the attacking ship, whose duty it is to verify the status and character of the vessel and cargo and to preserve all papers before sinking or even capturing it. So also is the humane duty of providing for the safety of the crews of merchant vessels, whether neutral or enemy, an obligation upon every belligerent.

It is upon this basis that all previous discussions of the law for regulating warfare at sea have proceeded. A German submarine, however, fulfils none of these obligations; she enjoys no local command of the waters in which she operates; she does not take her captures within the jurisdiction of a prize court; she carries no prize crew which she can put on board a prize; she uses no effective means of discriminating between a neutral and an enemy vessel; she does not receive on board for safety the crew and passengers of the vessel she sinks; her methods of warfare are therefore entirely outside [Page 128] the scope of any of the international instruments regulating operations against commerce in time of war. The German declaration substitutes indiscriminate destruction for regulated capture. Germany is adopting these methods against peaceful traders and non-combatant crews with the avowed object of preventing commodities of all kinds, including food for the civil population, from reaching or leaving the British Isles or northern France.

Her opponents are therefore driven to frame retaliatory measures in order in their turn to prevent commodities of any kind from reaching or leaving Germany. These measures will, however, be enforced by the British and French Governments without risk to neutral ships or to neutral or non-combatant life and in strict observance of the dictates of humanity. The British and French Governments will therefore hold themselves free to detain and take into port ships carrying goods of presumed enemy destination, ownership, or origin. It is not intended to confiscate such vessels or cargoes unless they would otherwise be liable to condemnation. The treatment of vessels and cargoes which have sailed before this date will not be affected.

Cecil Spring Rice

  1. A declaration in practically identical language was presented at the same time by the French Ambassador (File No. 763.72/1550).