File No. 462.11 H21/10

The Ambassador in Germany ( Gerard ) to the Secretary of State

No. 1672]

Sir: With reference to the Department’s telegram No. 2022, dated July 31, 1915, 3 p. m.,1 and to my telegram of even date, No. 3023,2 I have the honor to transmit herewith a translation of a note received to-day from the Imperial Foreign Office, dated October 16, 1915, relating the facts of the sinking of the American steamer Leelanaw by a German submarine on July 25, 1915.

I have [etc.]

J. W. Gerard
No. IIIa. 17397/153453]

Note Verbale

The Foreign Office has the honor to make the following reply to the note verbale of the Embassy of the United States of America, dated August 2, 1915, F. O. No. 4536, relative to the sinking of the American steamer Leelanaw.

The steamer mentioned was stopped by a German submarine at 2.10 o’clock on the afternoon of July 25, 1915, in 59° 55’ latitude north, and 4° 22’ longitude west. According to the ship’s papers, she was on a voyage from Archangel to Belfast; the cargo consisted of flax. The commander of the submarine considered the cargo contraband and decided accordingly to sink the vessel and cargo. He saw to it that the crew of the vessel was safely taken ashore and took the ship’s papers of the steamer Leelanaw on board the submarine.

Under Article 21, number 22, of the German prize ordinance as amended by the ordinance of April 18, 1915 (Reichs-Gesetzblatt, p. 227), flax is to be considered absolute contraband. The ordinance of April 18, 1915, was communicated [Page 608] to the Embassy of the United States of America by note verbale of April 22, 1915 (IIIa. 8434), with the request that the contents be brought to the knowledge of the American Government. It was possible therefore for the shippers and captain of the steamer Leelanaw to have knowledge of the German contraband regulations. The goods were destined for an English port; thus the contraband was liable to seizure without further formality (vide Article 30 of the German prize ordinance; Article 31 of the Declaration of London). According to value and bulk, the contraband formed more than half the whole cargo; consequently the vessel herself was liable to confiscation (vide Article 41, paragraph 2 of the German prize ordinance; Article 40 of the Declaration of London). Since the German commander was unable to take the steamer into a German port without exposing the submarine to danger or impairing the success of the operations in which it was engaged, he was justified in destroying the vessel (Article 113 of the German prize ordinance; Article 49 of the Declaration of London). He fulfilled his obligation of placing all persons on board and the ship’s papers in safety (Article 116 of the German prize ordinance; Article 50 of the Declaration of London).

The commander therefore acted in conformity with the principles of international law. The legality of the measures taken by him is examinable by German prize jurisdiction according to Article 1, number 2, of the German prize ordinance (Article 51 of the Declaration of London). The ship’s papers have already been sent to the prize court at Hamburg. This court will have to decide the questions whether the destruction of the vessel and cargo was legal, whether the property sunk was liable to confiscation, and to whom and in what amount indemnity is to be awarded, provided any claim therefor is before it. It is true that in the present case, as in the case of the William P. Frye , the special provisions of Article 13 of the Prussian–American treaty of July 11, 1799, are to be considered, pursuant to which the property belonging to citizens of the United States of America may only be confiscated when its value is restored.

It appears from information received from the prize court that the American shipping interests have already entrusted a Hamburg attorney with the representation of their rights before the prize court. The Foreign Office begs to reserve a note concerning the outcome of the prize proceedings.

  1. Ante, p. 492.
  2. Not printed.