File No. 341.115G82/9

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


1672. Your 1134, 15th.1 Sir Edward Grey has just handed me the following memorandum. Since your telegram to him was given to the press in Washington, I consented to his proposal to give this memorandum out for publication in Saturday (to-morrow) morning’s newspapers:


The communication made by the United States Ambassador in his note to Sir Edward Grey of the 16th instant has been carefully considered and the following observations are offered in reply:

At the time when His Majesty’s Government gave directions for the seizure of the cargo of the steamship Wilhelmina as contraband they had before them the text of the decree made by the German Federal Council on the 25th January, under Article 45 of which all grain and flour imported into Germany after the 31st January was declared deliverable only to certain organizations under direct government control or to municipal authorities. The vessel was bound for Hamburg, one of the free cities of the German Empire, the government of which is vested in the municipality. This was one of the reasons actuating His Majesty’s Government in deciding to bring the cargo of the Wilhelmina before the prize court.
Information has only now reached them that by a subsequent decree, dated the 6th February, the above provision in Article 45 of the previous decree was repealed, it would appear for the express purpose of rendering difficult the anticipated proceedings against the Wilhelmina . The repeal was not known to His Majesty’s Government at the time of detention of the cargo, or, indeed, until now.
How far the ostensible exception of imported supplies from the general Government monopoly of all grain and flour set up by the German Government may affect the question of the contraband nature of the shipment seized is a matter which will most suitably be investigated by the prize court.
It is, however, necessary to state that the German decree is not the only ground on which the submission of the cargo of the Wilhelmina to a prize court is justified. The German Government have in public announcements claimed to treat practically every town or port on the English east coast as a fortified place and base of operations. On the strength of this contention, they have subjected to bombardment the open towns of Yarmouth, Scarborough, and Whitby, among others. On the same ground, a number of neutral vessels sailing for English ports on the east coast with cargoes of goods on the German list of conditional contraband have been seized by German cruisers and brought before the German prize court. Again, the Dutch vessel Maria, having sailed from California with a cargo of grain consigned to Dublin and Belfast, was sunk in September last by the German cruiser Karlsruhe. This could only have been justified if, among other things, the cargo could have been proved to be destined for the British Government or armed forces and if a presumption to this effect had been established owing to Dublin or Belfast being considered a fortified place or a base for the armed forces.
The German Government can not have it both ways. If they consider themselves justified in destroying by bombardment the lives and property of peaceful civil inhabitants of English open towns and watering places, and in seizing and sinking ships and cargoes of conditional contraband on the way thither, on the ground that they were consigned to a fortified place or base, a fortiori His Majesty’s Government must be at liberty to treat Hamburg, which is in part protected by the fortifications at the mouth of the Elbe, as a fortified town, and a base of operations and supply for the purposes of Article 34 of the Declaration of London. If the owners of the cargo of the Wilhelmina desire to question the validity in international law of the action taken by order of His Majesty’s Government they will have every opportunity of establishing their case in due course before the prize court, and His Majesty’s Government would, in this connection, recall the attention of the United States Government to the considerations put forward in Sir Edward Grey’s note to Mr. Page of the 10th instant as to the propriety of awaiting the result of prize-court proceedings before diplomatic action is initiated. It will be remembered that they have from the outset given a definite assurance that the owners of the Wilhelmina , as well as the owners of her cargo if found to be contraband, would be equitably indemnified.
There is one further observation to which His Majesty’s Government think it right, and appropriate in the present connection, to give expression. They have not, so far, declared foodstuffs to be absolute contraband. They have not interfered with any neutral vessels on account of their carrying foodstuffs, except on the basis of such foodstuffs being liable to capture if destined for the enemy forces or governments. In so acting, they have been guided by the general principle, of late universally upheld by civilized nations, and observed in practice, that the civil populations of countries at war are not to be exposed to the treatment rightly reserved for combatants. This distinction has to all intents and purposes been swept away by the novel doctrines proclaimed and acted upon by the German Government.
It is unnecessary here to dwell upon the treatment that has been meted out to the civil population of Belgium, and those parts of France which are in German occupation. When Germany, long before any mines had been laid by British authorities, proceeded to sow mines upon the high seas, and, by this means, sunk a considerable number not only of British but also of neutral, merchantmen with their unoffending crews, it was, so His Majesty’s Government hold, open to them to take retaliatory measures, even if such measures were of a kind to involve pressure of the civil population―not indeed of neutral states―but of their enemies. They refrained from doing so.
When subsequently, English towns and defenceless British subjects, including women and children, were deliberately and systematically fired upon and killed by ships flying the flag of the Imperial German Navy, when quiet country towns and villages, void of defences and possessing no military or naval importance, were bombarded by German airships, His Majesty’s Government still abstained from drawing the logical consequences from this form of attack on defenceless citizens. Further steps in the same direction are now announced, and in fact have already been taken by Germany. British merchant vessels have been torpedoed at sight without any attempt being made to give warning to the crew or any opportunity being given to save their lives; a torpedo has [Page 337] been fired against a British hospital ship in daylight; and similar treatment is threatened to all British merchant vessels in future as well as to any neutral ships that may happen to be found in the neighbourhood of the British Isles.
Faced with this situation, His Majesty’s Government consider it would be altogether unreasonable that Great Britain and her allies should be expected to remain indefinitely bound, to their grave detriment, by rules and principles of which they recognize the justice if impartially observed as between belligerents, but which are at the present moment openly set at defiance by their enemy.
If, therefore, His Majesty’s Government should hereafter feel constrained to declare foodstuffs absolute contraband, or to take other measures for interfering with German trade, by way of reprisals, they confidently expect that such action will not be challenged on the part of neutral states by appeals to laws and usages of war whose validity rests on their forming an integral part of that system of international doctrine which as a whole their enemy frankly boasts the liberty and intention to disregard, so long as such neutral states can not compel the German Government to abandon methods of warfare which have not in recent history been regarded as having the sanction of either law or humanity.

American Ambassador
  1. Ante, p. 105.