File No. 763.72/1588

The Ambassador in Great Britain (Page) to the Secretary of State


1795. Following is the full text of a memorandum dated March 13, which Grey handed me to-day:1

On the 22d of February last I received a communication from your excellency of the identic note addressed to His Majesty’s Government and to Germany, respecting an agreement on certain points as to the conduct of the war at sea. The reply of the German Government to this note has been published And it is not understood from the reply that the German Government are prepared to abandon the practice of sinking British merchant vessels by submarines, and it is evident from their reply that they will not abandon the use of mines for [Page 141] offensive purposes on the high seas as contrasted with the use of mines for defensive purposes only within cannon range of their own harbours as suggested by the Government of the United States. This being so, it might appear unnecessary for the British Government to make any further reply than to take note of the German answer. We desire, however, to take the opportunity of making a fuller statement of the whole position and of our feeling with regard to it. We recognize with sympathy the desire of the Government of the United States to see the European war conducted in accordance with the previously recognized rules of international law and the dictates of humanity. It is thus that the British forces have conducted the war, and we are not aware that these forces, either naval or military, can have laid to their charge any improper proceedings, either in the conduct of hostilities or in the treatment of prisoners or wounded. On the German side it has been very different.

1. The treatment of civilian inhabitants in Be gium and the north of France has been made public by the Belgian and French Governments and by those who have had experience of it at first hand. Modern history affords no precedent for the sufferings that have been inflicted on the defenceless and non-combatant population in the territory that has been in German military occupation. Even the food of the population was confiscated until in Belgium an international commission, largely influenced by American generosity and conducted under American auspices, came to the relief of the population and secured from the German Government a promise to spare what food was still left in the country though the Germans still continue to make levies in money upon the defenceless population for the support of the German Army.

2. We have from time to time received most terrible accounts of the barbarous treatment to which British officers and soldiers have been exposed after they have been taken prisoner while being conveyed to German prison camps; one or two instances have already been given to the United States Government founded upon authentic and first-hand evidence which is beyond doubt. Some evidence has been received of the hardships to which British prisoners of war are subjected in the prison camps contrasting, we believe, most unfavourably with the treatment of German prisoners in this country. We have proposed, with the consent of the United States Government, that a commission of United States officers should be permitted in each country to inspect the treatment of prisoners of war. The United States Government have been unable to obtain any reply from the German Government to this proposal and we remain in continuing anxiety and apprehension as to the treatment of British prisoners of war in Germany.

3. At the very outset of the war a German mine layer was discovered laying a mine field on the high seas. Further mine fields have been laid from time to time without warning and so far as we know are still being laid on the high seas, and many neutral as well as British vessels have been sunk by them.

4. At various times during the war German submarines have stopped and sunk British merchant vessels, thus making the sinking of merchant vessels a general practice, though it was admitted previously, if at all, only as an exception, the general rule to which the British Government have adhered being that merchant vessels, if captured, must be taken before a prize court. In one case already quoted in a note to the United States Government, a neutral vessel carrying foodstuffs to an unfortified town in Great Britain has been sunk. Another case is now reported in which a German armed cruiser has sunk an American vessel, the William P. Frye , carrying a cargo of wheat from Seattle to Queenstown. In both cases the cargoes were presumably destined for the civil population. Even the cargoes in such circumstances should not have been condemned without the decision of a prize court, much less should the vessels have been sunk. It is to be noted that both these cases occurred before the detention by the British authorit es of the Wilhelmina and her cargo of foodstuffs, which the German Government allege is the justification for their own action. The Germans have announced their intention of sinking British merchant vessels by torpedo without notice and without any provision for the safety of the crew. They have already carried out this intention in the case of neutral as well as of British vessels, and a number of non-combatant and innocent lives on British vessels, unarmed and defenceless, have been destroyed in this way.

5. Unfortified, open, and defenceless towns, such as Scarborough, Yarmouth, and Whitby, have been deliberately and wantonly bombarded by German ships of war, causing in some cases considerable loss of civilian life, including women and children.

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6. German aircraft have dropped bombs on the east coast of England where there were no military or strategic points to be attacked, On the other hand, I am aware of but two criticisms that have been made on British action in all these respects: (1) It is said that the British naval authorities also have laid some anchored mines on the high seas. They have done so, but the mines were anchored and so constructed that they would be harmless if they went adrift, and no mines whatever were laid by the British naval authorities till many weeks after the Germans had made a regular practice of laying mines on the high seas. (2) It is said that the British Government have departed from the view of international law which they had previously maintained that foodstuffs destined for the civil population should never be interfered with, this charge being founded on the submission to a prize court of the cargo of the Wilhelmina . The special considerations affecting this cargo have already been presented in a memorandum to the United States Government, and I need not repeat them here. Inasmuch as the stoppage of all foodstuffs is an admitted consequence of blockade, it is obvious that there can be no universal rule based on considerations of morality and humanity which is contrary to this practice. The right to stop foodstuffs destined for the civil population must therefore in any case be admitted if an effective “cordon” controlling intercourse with the enemy is drawn, announced, and maintained. Moreover, independently of rights arising from belligerent action in the nature of blockade, some other nations, differing from the opinion of the Governments of the United States and Great Britain, have held that to stop the food of the civil population is a natural and legitimate method of bringing pressure to bear on an enemy country, as it is upon the defence of a besieged town. It is also upheld on the authority of both Prince Bismarck and Count Caprivi, and therefore presumably is not repugnant to German morality. The following are the quotations from Prince Bismarck and Count Caprivi on this point. Prince Bismarck, in answering in 1885 an application from the Kiel Chamber of Commerce for a statement of the view of the German Government on the question of the right to declare as contraband foodstuffs that were not intended for military forces, said:

I reply to the chamber of commerce that any disadvantage our commercial and carrying interests may suffer by the treatment of rice as contraband of war does not justify our opposing a measure which it has been thought fit to take in carrying on a foreign war. Every war is a calamity which entails evil consequences, not only on the combatants but also on neutrals. These evils may easily be increased by the interference of a neutral power with the way in which a third carries on the war to the disadvantage of the subjects of the interfering power, and by this means German commerce might be weighted with far heavier losses than a transitory prohibition of the rice trade in Chinese waters. The measure in question has for its object the shortening of the war by increasing the difficulties of the enemy, and is a justifiable step in war if impartially enforced against all neutral ships.

Count Caprivi, during a discussion in the German Reichstag on the 4th of March, 1892, on the subject of the importance of international protection for private property at sea, made the following statements:

A country may be dependent for her food or for her raw produce upon her trade. In fact, it may be absolutely necessary to destroy the enemy’s trade.... The private introduction of provisions into Paris was prohibited during the siege, and in the same way a nation would be justified in preventing the import of food and raw produce.

The Government of Great Britain have frankly declared, in concert with the Government of France, their intention to meet the German attempt to stop all supplies of every kind from leaving or entering British or French ports by themselves stopping supplies going to or from Germany for this end. The British fleet has instituted a blockade, effectively controlling by cruiser “cordon” all passage to and from Germany by sea. The difference between the two policies as however, that while our object is the same as that of Germany, we propose to attain it without sacrificing neutral ships or non-combatant lives or inflicting upon neutrals the damage that must be entailed when a vessel and its cargo are sunk without notice, examination, or trial. I must emphasize again that this measure is a natural and necessary consequence of the unprecedented methods, repugnant to all law and morality, which have been described [Page 143] above, which Germany began to adopt at the very outset of the war, and the effects of which have been constantly accumulating.

American Ambassador
  1. See identical note No. 1169 of February 20, ante, p. 119.