File No. 763.72/6211

The Italian, Russian, and British Ambassadors, the British Commercial Delegate, and the French High Commissioner to the Secretary of State

[Free translation]1

Mr. Secretary of State: The tonnage question, which is daily becoming more grave, is occupying, as you are already aware, the serious consideration of the powers which we have the honour to represent.

Ever since the beginning of the war Great Britain has been obliged to diminish more and more her building of merchant ships; from 2,000,000 tons a year her production fell in 1916 to 700,000 tons. In France the building of merchant ships has practically ceased altogether. This has also been the case in Italy and Russia, where the shortage of primary materials and the needs of the war have brought the work of the shipyards to a standstill.

On the other hand a large number of ships have been withdrawn from the mercantile marine and requisitioned by the naval authorities to carry supplies for the fleet and for the expeditionary forces, to transport troops, and to guard territorial waters, etc.

Lastly the campaign waged by the submarines has inflicted most serious losses and up to the present time no infallible and decisive means have been discovered for combating them. Since the beginning of the war more than 7,000,000 gross tons have been sunk, and of this figure 3,000,000 tons were sunk during the five months which have passed since the recrudescence of submarine warfare, that is since February 1, 1917.

Meanwhile neutral shipowners have become so greatly alarmed by these results that they have progressively restricted the assistance which they had hitherto lent to the carrying trade of the Allies and even of their own countries. Many ships, which would be invaluable to us if running, are laid up in Spanish and Dutch ports and even in those of Norway and they refuse all offers of freight.

To sum up. The salient facts are as follows. Construction is insufficient, part of the Allies’ merchant marine has been immobilised, services rendered by neutral vessels are reduced and destruction by submarines continues. The Allies’ needs are increasing, they are coming to depend more and more in their struggle against the Central Empires on oversea transport for the feeding of their populations and the supply of their munitions factories, and their tonnage requirements continue to grow; and the anxiety inspired by this situation becomes more and more acute in direct proportion.

[Page 611]

You are no doubt aware of the strenuous measures which the powers have adopted in order to remedy as far as possible increasing reduction in tonnage. You are no doubt also aware that Great Britain alone who before the war imported 50,000,000 tons a year for the needs of her civilian population has reduced her annual imports to 30,000,000 tons including supplies for her munition factories. Similar restrictions have been put in force in France, Italy and Russia. Moreover in all the Allied countries the threat of requisition or the exercise of the right combined with export and import prohibitions except under license have enabled the authorities to exercise a strict control over overseas trade and to limit the use of merchant vessels to services directly connected with the needs of national defense. Great Britain, thanks to restrictive measures applied to her own trade, has been able to place 500 ships of large tonnage, and a great number of smaller ones, at the disposal of her Allies. Finally an Inter-Allied organization sitting in London regulates the exchange of commodities with a view to the common resources of the Allies in essential articles and ships being utilised to the best advantage; it also settles freight rates for neutral vessels and supervises contracts in order to prevent undue inflation of prices.

These measures supplemented by the purchase or the placing of contracts for ships abroad, especially in the United States, no longer suffice. Great Britain who has lost more than 600 large ships has been forced to demand the return of a considerable number of those which she had placed at the disposal of her Allies and is contemplating further action in this direction. In spite of all this the situation in the Allied countries is daily becoming graver. In Italy and in France there is a shortage of coal; last winter saw cruel suffering stoically borne; the reserve supplies of steel indispensable for the manufacture of munitions are giving out while there is a growing accumulation in the United States of supplies ordered for the execution of a carefully thought out military programme. France has nearly 700,000 tons awaiting shipment in this country and Russia more than 400,000.*

We consider it our duty to call the most serious attention of the United States Government to this situation. We realise that they desire to co-operate as closely as possible with the Allied Governments in the conduct of the war which is theirs no less than ours. In no question is the necessity of co-operation and of a close identity of aim more essential than in this question of oversea transport. We are aware that your Government has broad schemes under consideration [Page 612] in this connection. We feel that their detailed execution will be made more easy if, on all points at issue, you were in full possession of information on the needs of the Allies, the necessities of the situation, and the remedial measures already taken; so that your plans may be carried out in complete accord with those of the Allies.

We realise from your previous communications how on all matters relating to the war you wish to secure in the highest degree a unity of purpose among the Allies. This unity has already been attained on questions of shipping, and the existence of the above-mentioned Inter-Allied Council is a proof of this. We believe we do no more than interpret the sentiment expressed in your letter of July 181 when instead of approaching you separately and individually with parallel representations we address you this collective note—a sign of the close solidarity and accord existing between us.

At a moment when the United States Government has just reorganized the Shipping Board and has entrusted its control to men of energy, well known alike for their high character and their professional experience, and has thus given proof of an intention to push forward energetically the execution of their naval programme, we would highly appreciate the opportunity of collective conferences with the new president of the Shipping Board; we could there discuss the various questions incidental to such relief to the Allied cause as you consider the United States merchant marine should afford.

We would prefer that these conferences should take place under your auspices, as a proof that the United States Government desire to promote this close co-operation. Moreover, we should be greatly pleased were a representative of the Department of State to take part in the discussions.

For while the programme of construction, the right of requisitioning, and the exercise of this right in such a manner as to secure the best possible use of the ships themselves, fall within the purview of the Shipping Board, it is within the province of the State Department to decide on questions of policy affecting neutral merchant fleets which in our opinion must equally form the subject of these discussions.

Hoping to be favoured with your reply, to which we attach the highest importance, at your earliest convenience, we beg you, Mr. Secretary of State, to receive the assurance of our high consideration.

  • Macchi di Cellere
  • Boris A. Bakhmeteff
  • Cecil Spring Rice
  • Northcliffe
  • André Tardieu
  1. Submitted with the note, which is in French.
  2. If Italy has less stock on hand it is only because, since a few months, she has been obliged to place less orders, and this in a way most injuring to her military interests. [Footnote in the original.]
  3. See ante, p. 546.