File No. 763.72/2609

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

No. 2392]

Sir: With reference to your telegram No. 2297, October 18, 6 p. m.,2 I have the honor to report as follows, and respectfully to ask for further instructions:

The telegram takes up three subjects: (1) the use by a British naval patrol boat of the American flag and affidavits of American witnesses to such use; (2) the carrying by British merchantmen of one defense gun each astern, not larger than a specified size; and [Page 605] (3) the alleged arming by the British Admiralty of merchantmen to attack German submarines.

1

The wording of your telegram implies (I append a copy of it for your convenience in referring to it) that you have received these affidavits from some source other than this Embassy. I fear, therefore, that the affidavits which I sent you August 26, 29 (first in brief by telegraph and then in full by mail), covering this same matter, have not been called to your personal attention. I append a copy of these telegrams and affidavits made by (1) Herbert Young, (2) Henry Christy, and (3) William Roberts.1

These affidavits are of course authentic; in all essential points they agree; they were made by American citizens before our Consul at Liverpool, Mr. Washington; and I assume that they are such conclusive evidence of what happened that any representations that you may wish to make regarding the use of our flag may be made without asking Sir Edward Grey to verify or to deny the fact of its use. That fact is established.

With regard to naval patrol ships taking the disguise of merchantmen, that is freely admitted. I recall that, in an informal conversation one day about the submarine warfare, Sir Edward Grey spoke of such a disguise as a legitimate and even usual ruse de guerre.

2

Concerning the carrying by merchant ships each of one gun astern, not larger than a specified size for defensive purposes, Sir Edward Grey had an informal conversation with me just after the gun had been removed from the Waimana at Norfolk. The Department had given me no information about this and I knew only what Sir Edward chose to tell me. I shall not undertake to quote him verbally, but the impression he left on my mind was this: that since the Admiralty wanted guns of that particular size, he was quite willing to have the Waimana’s gun dismounted and conveyed home as freight, provided it was removed without prejudice to the principle involved. Then he went on, in an informal way, to say that the principle was an important one, well-recognized and well-established in naval usage and respected by all nations, and that the United States had early in this war recognized it. Since the United States had vigorously taken Germany to task in order to prevent a change in well-recognized and well-established naval laws and customs, it would indeed be a strange inconsistency if the United States should insist on a change by England to her disadvantage of a well-recognized and well-established custom, in the middle of this war, which the United States itself had agreed to after the war had begun. He spoke with a good deal of earnestness and expressed himself pleased that the Waimana case had been adjusted as it was; and he hoped that the principle would not be questioned. He did not say in so many words that he suspected that this incident arose because of German suggestion, but he made the impression on my mind that this is what [Page 606] he thought. This conversation affords the cue, I think, to his answer in case the question of principle should be raised. It does not seem to me that he would be likely to yield it, and a controversy on this point, especially since the submarine war seems ended, might bring only embarrassment and no practical result.

3

Returning to the first paragraph of your telegram (No. 2297), the Department asked me by telegram (No. 1182, February 24) substantially the same question and I replied (No. 1762, March 10), both telegrams hereto attached.1

This first paragraph of your telegram has appeared several times, almost in these words, in English newspapers, translated from German newspapers, and this has been one of the stock German complaints. This morning’s newspapers contain the following variation of this complaint—that the German Government has protested to the Italian Government against the use of nets to catch submarines and also against the use of large ships to attack them.

One coastwise merchant ship or a fishing ship (I have forgotten which) rammed and sunk a submarine several months ago, and a money prize (not given by the Government, but by private subscription) was awarded to her captain. This case was widely reported in the British press. The merchant ship or fishing boat simply took her chance of sinking the submarine or of being sunk. Perhaps the general German newspaper protest was suggested by this incident.

There is no evidence procurable that the Government has armed merchant ships, but British naval patrol ships have disguised themselves as merchant ships, as the Emden was reported to have put up a false funnel on several occasions to appear as a merchant ship at a distance. The ships armed by the Government to attack submarines thereby become warships, whatever their disguises. Real merchantmen which go to neutral ports have been armed only as international law and custom permit—this is the information that my inquiries elicited in March, and I have heard nothing to the contrary. I could then find no evidence that a defensive gun on any merchantmen had been offensively used.

To ask the British Government whether it had violated the regulation that a merchant ship should carry only a defensive gun, without any evidence in any particular case to support the suspicion, would be to invite a rebuff. It would be assuming on our part that the often-published general German accusation had received our endorsement without our knowledge of any fact to support it. I do not see how we can without discourtesy make any such direct inquiry unless we have some specific case to base it on, and not merely the general accusation which the German newspapers are continually making, without (so far as I know) giving any particular ship, time, or place. For instance, we should hardly protest against the use of our flag unless we could cite some particular ship that had on some particular occasion used it—as the Lusitania and as the disguised patrol ship that came up to the Nicosian.

Awaiting further instructions,

I have [etc.]

Walter Hines Page
  1. Ante, p. 576.
  2. Telegrams printed ante, pp. 527 & 528.
  3. Ante, pp. 122 & 137.