File No. 763.72/1864
The Ambassador in Germany ( Gerard ) to the Secretary of State
[Received June 14.]
Sir: I have the honor to transmit herewith a memorandum of a conversation which I had on May 29, 1915, with Admiral Behncke, Acting Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, at his request; Commander [Page 440] Gherardi, naval attaché of this Embassy, was present during the conversation.
The conversation touched on many points besides the ones mentioned. Admiral Behncke spoke with great earnestness and with apparent conviction that the German attitude was a correct one. The tone of the conversation was in no sense provocative or unpleasant.
The German submarine which torpedoed the Gulflight sighted the ship approaching accompanied by two vessels of the trawler type. One of these vessels had a very wireless installation [sic]. The trawlers occupied positions a little ahead of and on the bows of the steamer, which positions are the best for attacking a submarine attempting to torpedo the ship. The flag of the ship was not visible, nor any distinguishing mark up to the time that the torpedo was fired. At that moment the flag on the staff on the poop came in sight but too late to stop the firing of the torpedo. The nearest trawler turned toward the submarine and attempted to ram her. Under the circumstances Admiral Behncke considers the captain of the submarine not liable to disciplinary measures, as he made a mistake which considering the circumstances was unavoidable. Of course full recompense would be made for damage. He hoped that our Government would consider it as an unintentional mistake which he considered that it was.
In this case the officer of the hydroaeroplane recognized no marks showing the ship to be a neutral and it was very much regretted that the attack had been made but it was hoped that it would be regarded as an unfortunate, unintentional accident. No damage had been made.
On the subject of the Lusitania the staff considered that they had acted within their rights and that while they deplored the loss of life which could not be foreseen, they considered that they had complied with international law when they had published warnings in regard to the steamer. However, the subject was so bound up with other subjects that the reply to be given in the answer to the American note must be consulted before judging the whole matter.
This reply is to be submitted May 29 to our Embassy and will appear in the German newspapers of Monday, May 31.
Admiral Behncke called attention to the propositions made earlier in the war to insure safety of neutral passengers—that of convoy and of securing a “free port” in England to which no reply had been given. Admiral Behncke spoke of the misuse of the neutral flag, especially the Scandinavian flags, and of the painting which he claimed was still done. I asked him if he had any evidence to show that such had occurred with the American flag, as no information had been given us of such misuse. He said he had no direct evidence but there had been some reports which he would send to the Embassy. He thought they had come from a Spanish port where English steamers had arrived.
I asked Admiral Behncke if any of the neutral ships torpedoed had been found to be English ships under false colors as I had never seen any reports to show that such was the case. He replied that he thought there had not been such a case.
Admiral Behncke and the Ambassador each stated their positions in regard to the American delivery of ammunition which has been one of the great factors in the intense dislike of the German people for America. Afterwards Admiral Behncke spoke about the growing power of submarine warfare about as follows:
With the increasing efficiency of the German submarine fleet due to the numbers now under construction and to the greatly increased efficiency of the units, it is certain that we can blockade England absolutely so that not a single ship can get in or out. If we surrender our rights to conduct the warfare of the sea with the submarine, we bar ourselves forever for securing our rights under international law for the free navigation of the ocean for our merchant [Page 441] marine. We can therefore make no concessions which will lead to the abandonment of the submarine blockade. The captains of our submarines have orders to be most careful in their regard for neutral ships and they report having had opportunity to torpedo in one case as many as nineteen ships before a ship flying the British flag came along.
Admiral Behncke said that to finish the submarine fleet to the proportions proposed would take four to five years.
I have [etc.]