Problems with Britain and the Wilhelmina Case
In mid-February 1915 it appeared to many Americans
Not only had London issued a decree on January 31, 1915, authorizing the use of neutral flags aboard its merchant ships, but word had it that the captain of the Lusitania was actually doing this. Bryan wrote to U.S. Ambassador to London Page on February 10 to express his opposition. He said such a step was unacceptable and reminded him to inform the British Government of the serious consequences to American shipping that would ensue. He pointed out that the use of neutral flags under stress of an enemy pursuit was very different from sanction by a belligerent government for its ships to fly those flags as general practice. Bryan reminded Page that such a practice would afford little protection to British ships, while at the same time it would create a constant menace to American ones because the Germans would likely launch a campaign against all ships flying the American flag.1
Later that day Ambassador to Berlin Gerard sent a cable to Bryan pointing out that the Lusitania problem was fueling Anti-American sentiment in Germany, a feeling that was reaching grave proportions. He hoped Washington would authorize him to deny any U.S. government support for British use of the U.S. flag, for he felt inaction on this issue would only increase the bitterness.2
Even more ominous was the prospect of the German Government allowing newspapers to publish anti-American tirades. Gerard sent another cable message on February 11 saying that without government permission a conservative newspaper like the Cologne Gazette would never have dared to suggest hostility against the United States. The Lokal Anzeiger of Berlin, a paper with a wide circulation, owned by a syndicate closely linked to the German Government, had also printed many articles hostile to the United States.
Gerard reported that German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Gottlieb E. G. von Jagow had told an American correspondent that American ships in the German-proclaimed war zone would run the same risks as American citizens under fire on a battleship. Bryan believed Berlin was tired of British flag deception and serious in its stated intention to sink any such ships without examination of papers.3
As if the neutral flag issue was not enough, there were other events that led the German Government and people to believe the United States was siding with the British. On February 14 Ambassador Gerard related a German official communique to the effect that elements of the German Army on the Western Front had captured stocks of artillery ammunition from the British that they believed came from factories in the United States. Gerard said there were rumors of the distinct possibility of war with the U.S. To the Germans, U.S. violations of its stated neutrality were prolonging the war. Gerard reported that some German officials were confident that Germans in the United States, organized by German diplomats would rise and destroy bridges, arsenals, and factories.4 Gerard at least believed the situation was not serious. Washington needed to prove to the Germans that it neither condoned British deception nor supported their blockade.
In his memoirs Gerard explained how Berlin was hardly innocent of the claims it was making against the United States. When the U.S. was having problems with General Huerta, arms and ammunition for Huerta's forces were landed in Mexico from German ships. And during the Boer War Germany supplied British forces with arms. For instance, the firm of Eberhardt in Dusseldorf furnished cannon, wagons, caissons, and ammunition for use against the Boers. Gerard even mentioned a passage in former Ambassador Andrew White's autobiography that referred to the alleged stoppage in a German port of a ship loaded with arms for use against American forces in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.5
Gerard believed the German Government sought to stir up hatred against the United States. He believed that Berlin hoped to intimidate Washington into embargoing all supplies going to the Allies. This means Gerard probably considered the German newspaper articles and government threats to be idle. He wrote that he even obtained a State Department official statement certifying that, up to that time, the U.S. had not furnished the French with any artillery shells. Unfortunately no American promises would satisfy Berlin.6
London partially solved this dilemma for Washington when the Royal Navy seized the American merchantman Wilhelmina in the North Sea and took her before the British prize court. She was carrying corn and flour to the W.L. Green Commission Company in Hamburg, Germany. This seizure prompted an immediate reaction from the U.S. Government.
On February 15 Bryan wired Page regarding the Wilhelmina. He told Page that while Washington had no intention of interfering with the proper course of judicial procedure in British prize courts, he should inform London of the character and destination of the cargo and explain how this seizure was not justified.
Bryan began by noting that the W. L. Green Commission Company, an American corporation, was the sole owner of the cargo aboard the Wilhelmina. This company had made extensive shipments to Germany in the past. Her cargo consisted entirely of foodstuffs destined for the company's Hamburg branch, which had specific instructions to sell the food only to civilians.7
Bryan assured Page that all food products imported into Germany after January 31 were protected from German Government seizure. The British, however, expressed concerns about a recent German Government order requiring delivery of all such articles to it. Bryan said the only foodstuffs aboard the Wilhelmina that fell under the order were wheat and bran, which together only made up about 15 percent of the total cargo. The other 85 percent consisted of meat, vegetables, and fruit, which could easily spoil while the case was being settled.
Bryan concluded his message by telling Page to point out to the British Government that foodstuffs sent to Germany were to be distributed to individuals through municipalities, which were not agents of the German Government. The purpose of this practice was to conserve the food supply and see that it did not go to waste and to prevent speculation and inflation of prices.8
Bryan sent another note to Page the next day. While this covered the same points as the note of the 15th, this time Bryan warned Page that halting the shipment of foodstuffs into Germany would harden American opinion against Great Britain. He said it had already resulted in "strong revulsion" to the current British policy.9
A State Department-prepared letter to the German Embassy went out on February 16. It informed the Germans that the U.S. Government supported the idea of its own distribution of foodstuffs to German civilians. It also assured Berlin that efforts were being made to secure the release of the Wilhelmina so that it might sail to Hamburg as originally planned.10
Ambassador Gerard wrote Bryan on the same day offering a solution. First, he stressed that the obvious answer was for Britain to allow foodstuffs to enter Germany. Since there were no signs that this might be forthcoming, Gerard recommended that American warships remain in Bantry Bay on the southern tip of Ireland, coming out only on wireless notice to escort American merchant vessels into British ports. He felt that such a step would remedy both the mine and submarine questions.
Gerard also made mention of a discussion he had held with German Naval Chief of Staff Admiral Paul Behncke who had suggested Cardiff as the British port to which American ships might be convoyed. Behncke also suggested
Walter Hines Page cabled
Page asked Bryan and the United States Government to consider whether it was prepared to undertake distribution of foodstuffs in Germany. He pointed out that this would be a major undertaking requiring a great many men. He wanted them also to consider whether this would be a truly neutral act. Finally, Page warned Bryan that London may resist coming to an agreement, because it was well aware of the German requests that Washington compel London to allow the import of foodstuffs into Germany. Pushing too hard for this agreement, he warned, might make the U.S. Government appear to be sympathizing with the Germans.12
On February 18 Berlin made another gesture of good faith. Gerard wrote to Bryan with the news that Admiral Behncke had stated that Germany was willing to grant the river Tyne and fifteen miles on each side as a proposed port free of mines and submarines. Neutral vessels could use this waterway provided they were guaranteed not to contain contraband. Also Britain would have to agree that no ships other than those guaranteed as neutral could enter or leave the river. Although small, it was progress.13
There was little progress on the British side, however. On the 19th British Ambassador to the United States Spring Rice sent a memo to Bryan in which he defended the Wilhelmina detention. He also took up a German statement released the same day to the American press, which asserted that submarine attacks and mine warfare were measures of self-defense and a response to British refusal to allow food to enter Germany, as evidenced in the case of the Wilhelmina.
Spring Rice refuted the German argument, noting that the Wilhelmina had been placed in detention on February 9; but unarmed British shipping, including hospital ships, had been sunk as early as January 30. Spring Rice accused German agents in the U.S. of having cognizance of the voyage of the Wilhelmina and not waiting for its detention to commence war zone activities.
Finally, Spring Rice stated that the Germans justified their new method of warfare by British arming of merchant vessels. For this very reason, anticipated attacks on these vessels would in effect force London to arm merchant ships.14 Here again the British were shifting the blame instead of offering a solution. The maritime negotiations had hit a new low.
Page followed up Spring Rice's letter with an even more discouraging cable to Bryan on February 20:
I am sorry to report
that I do not see a ray of hope for any agreement between Germany and England
permit food to enter Germany under any condition. Since Germany has declared her intention to prevent anything from
entering England, it is practically certain that England will prevent anything from entering Germany . . . . Early in the war,
Germany destroyed a ship bound for Ireland. That fact, together with the declared German policy of a blockade, I fear
absolutely cuts off any chance of such an arrangement as you hope for.
I am to spend Sunday with the Prime Minister in the country and I will follow the subject up. The Germans have so
bungled the matter that I have little hope. The English will show the greatest courtesy to us, but none henceforth
to the Germans.15
This was serious. Bryan immediately prepared
a cable to the U.S. ambassadors in London and Berlin, which was to be shared
with those two governments. This message began by politely expressing the
hope that Great Britain and Germany would come to an agreement through
reciprocal concessions in order to relieve neutral shipping engaged in peaceful
Bryan offered a formal proposal with several suggestions to the belligerents as follows:
(1) That they not sow any more floating mines
on the high seas, or in territorial waters;
(2) To place their government's stamp upon such mines;
(3) To keep mines within artillery range of harbors; (for defensive purposes only);
(4) To limit submarines to visit and search of merchant vessels. Attacks on merchantmen would be prohibited;
(5) That their respective merchant vessels refrain from use of neutral flags for disguise.16
Bryan also included specifics for each belligerent
government. Germany was to agree that all imports of foodstuffs from the
United States be consigned to agencies designated by Washington. These
agencies would have complete control over the imports with no interference from
the German government. Berlin would have to license the retail dealers
that would distribute the goods so that none of the foodstuffs would go to
military or government personnel. Any violation of these terms would
result in a forfeiture of the right to receive food.
The specifics to Great Britain included the removal of foodstuffs from the absolute contraband list. The British were also asked to halt interference with food shipments to Germany, since the food would be destined for American distribution agencies.17
Bryan was not endeavoring to deny the belligerent powers their rights. But it was clear from the recent communication that little progress had been made and little was apparently forthcoming. The United States was going to have to take an active role in this conflict if it was to continue trading with the warring nations.
On February 19 German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff sent a note to his own foreign office. He expressed his concern that it was not likely that the Washington would attempt diplomatic steps against Great Britain to improve the situation. The U.S. had always desired to avoid entanglements. He also warned Berlin that the loss of an American merchant ship to a mine or submarine would "create an extraordinarily serious commotion, which could have the worst consequences."18 This was as serious a warning as any thus far.
In response to Bryan's note, as well as that from Bernstorff, the German government began to work toward safeguarding American merchant shipping from submarine attacks. Gerard cabled Bryan on the 20th to request details about American merchantmen sailing to Great Britain to include photographs, ports of departure and arrival, and routes. He at least wanted silhouettes of the ships.19 In this way, the German admiralty might avoid attacking them.
On the 27th Ambassador Page cabled Bryan reiterating the British contention that the measures adopted for British merchant vessels were a consequence of the new German submarine warfare. Page reported that he had spoken to Sir Edward Grey regarding foodstuffs entering Germany. He told Grey that denying entry of such goods could embarrass the U.S. government. Grey replied by making reference to the Wilhelmina detention and that it too was a consequence, and like all other detentions, fully justified.20
On March 1 Ambassador Spring Rice cabled Bryan. He began by reminding the secretary of state that the German declaration of a war zone around Great Britain was, in effect, a claim to torpedo merchant vessels under any flag on sight. He said that according to the law and customs of nations the first duty of the captor of merchant ships was to bring them before a prize court. There the crews could be tried, the regularity of the capture could be challenged, and neutral authorities might recover the cargo. But the Germans chose instead to sink merchant ships upon sight. He called this a questionable act, justified only in extraordinary circumstances and after provisions had been made for the safety of crews and passengers. It was the captor's duty to determine the status and character of the vessels and cargoes, and to determine whether they were of neutral or enemy origin. The captors needed to preserve all ship papers prior to sinking or capturing the vessel.
Spring Rice pointed out that German submarine crews did none of the above. They did not command the waters in which they operated; they did not take their captives vessels to prize court; they carried no prize crews to board seized vessels; they did not discriminate between neutral and enemy; and they did not take crews of captured ships into safe custody. For these reasons the German style of sea warfare was outside the scope of international regulations of war against commerce. Germany's adversaries, he claimed, were thus forced to retaliate, with a view to preventing commodities from leaving or reaching Germany. Spring Rice did promise that such retaliatory measures as the British were forced to adopt would be done without risk to neutral shipping or non-combatant lives.21
The British sought to appear interested in the welfare of neutral crews. While not promising the passage of American ships to Germany they were seeking to insure safety for the personnel and a chance for neutrals to retrieve their cargoes. The Germans, on the other hand, had shown good faith through suggestions of routes and destinations. But a close observation of the cable correspondence up to March of 1915 shows that Berlin never promised safety for the crews. The German Government never promised only to "visit and search."
On March 5 Bryan cabled London pointing out a flaw in the British blockade. He agreed that the German use of submarines would force some deviations from traditional blockade methods, but only up to a point. He suggested that a "radius of activity" be established for ships participating in the blockade, while at the same time reminded Page of the serious state of affairs that might otherwise arise. For example he said a vessel laden with cargo of German origin might escape British patrols in European waters only to be held up by a cruiser off New York and taken to Halifax. This was a potential diplomatic problem for Great Britain and the United States.22
Page cabled Bryan on March 15, transmitting the text of a March 13 memorandum from Sir Edward Grey. The memorandum was a list of major German breaches of international law including poor treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, mine laying on the high seas, submarine attacks on merchant vessels, attacks on defenseless towns, and bombing attacks on unfortified areas of Great Britain.
Grey felt his examples more than justified a blockade to match the German effort to stop supplies from reaching Britain or France. Finally, he pointed out that the methods of the two belligerents differed. London proposed to halt commerce to and from Germany without sacrificing neutral ships or non-combatant lives. The British blockade was a necessary consequence of the German methods that Grey called "repugnant to all law and morality."23
Bryan responded to Grey's memorandum with a cable to Page on March 30. He began by saying that the blockade signified unlimited belligerent rights over neutral commerce in the European area and to a denial of sovereign rights of nations at peace. A neutral nation's sovereignty over its own ships and citizens should be unlimited. To place any limitations, risks, or liabilities on a neutral, aside from visit and search and stopping of contraband traffic, would be an invasion of its sovereign rights.
Bryan recognized that in modern warfare it might be necessary to extend blockades into neutral ports. Should this situation arise, the blockading power had to make every effort to let lawful neutral shipping enter the neutral port. He reminded Page of a British declaration:
The instructions to
be issued by his Majesty's Government to the fleet and to the custom's
officials and executive
committees concerned will impress upon them the duty of acting with the utmost dispatch consistent with the object in view,
and of showing in every case such consideration for neutrals as may be compatible with that object, which is, succinctly
stated, to establish a blockade to prevent vessels from carrying goods for or coming from Germany.
Bryan stated that Washington expected London to enforce
this declaration. American merchantmen had to be left alone, provided
they were not carrying contraband to or from belligerent ports. He asked
Page to remind London that these views of the U.S. Government were made in the
friendly spirit that had been the foundation for peace and amity between the
United States and Great Britain for a full century.24
Good news reached Washington on April 7. Page cabled Bryan with a report that practically all newspaper comments about the March 30 note were friendly and appreciative of the American position. Every indication showed the note had been well received by the British press and public.25
London went a step further. Page cabled Bryan again on April 8 regarding a note from Prime Minister David Lloyd George. This note expressed London's desire to bring about a hasty settlement of the Wilhelmina case.
Lloyd George began by stating that even if the ship's cargo was declared contraband and taken into prize court, the owners of the cargo would be compensated. Compensation would cover losses sustained when the ship was stopped and lossesdue to proceedings against the cargo.
London originally considered the Wilhelmina case a test case, the resolution of which would govern treatment of further supply shipments to Germany. This was no longer necessary as London would not allow any supplies, contraband or not, to pass their blockade. Under these circumstances, Lloyd George felt the Wilhelmina case could be closed.
The owners of the cargo would be treated as if their claim was valid even if it was not. They would be compensated for the full amount that they would have received had the ship reached Hamburg and they would be paid for the delay so far as it was caused by British authorities. Page asked Bryan to inform the claimants as soon as possible and cable back the response.26
These were not the exact settlements that Washington wanted, but they at least represented London's desire for good relations. Furthermore, it was discovered that the Wilhelmina was being used by a group of German-Americans cooperating with Dr. Heinrich Albert, head of the German Purchasing Commission in New York, to gain the Wilson Administration's support against the British policy of stopping foodstuffs from reaching Germany.27 Bryan had now had his hands full dealing with Berlin. A German submarine had torpedoed the British vessel Falaba on March 28, killing an American citizen. This of course made the dealings with London seem very amicable.
Bryan cabled Page on April 12 in response to Lloyd George's message. He said that the attorneys handling the Wilhelmina case had cabled their representative in London authorizing acceptance of the substance of Lloyd George's proposal. The attorneys requested that the proceedings be expedited and Bryan authorized Page to render assistance.28 The Wilhelmina case was no longer a major diplomatic issue.
1. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the
United States, 1915 Supplement (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1928), File No. 811.0151/33, p. 100.
2. Ibid., File No. 811.0151/41, p. 101.
3. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1450, p. 103.
4. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1453, p. 104.
5. James W. Gerard, My Four Years in Germany (New York: George H. Doran, 1917), pp. 223-24.
6. Ibid., p. 225.
7. Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 300.115/2357, p. 105.
8. Ibid., p. 106.
9. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1457a, p. 107.
10. Ibid., File No. 763.72112/706, p. 108.
11. Ibid., File No. 763.72.1470, p. 110.
12. Ibid., File No. 763.72112/1386.5, p. 111.
13. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1480, p. 115.
14. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1579, pp. 116-17.
15. Ibid., File No. 763.72112/1386.25, pp. 118-19.
16. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1498a, p. 119.
17. Ibid., p. 120.
18. Arthur S. Link ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979),
19. Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1487, p. 121.
20. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1514, p. 125.
21. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1551, pp. 127-28.
22. Ibid., pp. 132-33.
23. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1588, pp. 140-43.
25. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1659, pp. 158-59.
26. Ibid., File No. 341.115G82/37, pp. 363-64.
27. Paolo E. Coletta, William Jennings Bryan Vol. II - Progressive Politician and Moral Statesman (Lincoln,
Nebraska: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1969), p. 287.
28. Ibid., File No. 441.11B74/1, p. 359.