Chapter 7
The United States, Germany, and the Falaba Case

     Neutral nations attempting trade with Germany and Great Britain were bound to suffer in the Spring of 1915.  By March the Germans were angry over British stoppages of foodstuffs bound for Germany and the British were angry about the German war zone.  The question was which side's activity would harm neutrals more.  The British were conducting a blockade and starving civilians in Germany, an unfortunate propaganda negative for them.  However, the British, while taking captured neutral shipping into prize courts, were buying their cargoes at war price.  Not a single citizen of a neutral nation had lost his or her life to British blockade activity.
     The Germans could not claim this record.  They had not taken the same precautions for the safety of captured crews.  Indeed, they completely ignored the possibility of neutral citizens being aboard any British vessels their submarines might torpedo.  Yet they carried on their submarine campaign.  Not surprisingly, this led to a major problem later.
     On March 28, 1915 German submarine, U-28 sank the small British Elder Dempster liner Falaba, in the Irish Sea.  The ship was outward bound from Liverpool to West Africa through Saint George's Channel.  An American citizen, Leon Chester Thrasher, was aboard the Falaba when she went down.  Thrasher, returning to his post as a mining engineer in the Gold Coast, drowned before he could reach the life boats.  Accounts of the sinking differed, but all were clear on one point.  The U-28's commander fired his torpedo knowing that it would cause loss of life among the crew and passengers of the Falaba.1
     The Wilson Administration's reaction was immediate.  While Secretary of State Bryan believed Thrasher's death was a mere symptom of the destruction of the Falaba, Wilson insisted this was a flagrant violation of international law.  He was so adamant on the issue that he wanted the United States Government to ask the Germans to disavow the crime, punish the U-28's commander, and pay reparations.2  If the reaction to this incident was any indication, a larger sinking with greater loss of American life would be more than sufficient to put the U.S. on a war footing.
     Bryan first received word of the sinking on March 31 through a cable message from Ambassador Page in London.  The report stated that Thrasher, the only known American aboard the Falaba, was missing.3
     Two days later Bryan wrote to President Wilson asking him to consider the situation carefully.  He wanted to know if the United States really had a case against the Germans.  Bryan referred to the doctrine of contributory negligence and its bearing on the Thrasher case.  Bryan held that an American who took passage aboard a British vessel knowing about the German war zone was clearly different than a person who suffered by no fault of his own.
     Bryan asked the President what sort of demands should be made of the Germans, if indeed any were to be made at all.  He believed the United States could hardly insist that an American aboard a British vessel should prevent an attack.  The only demand Bryan proposed was for an indemnity for loss of life.  He professed confusion on the matter and asked Wilson for his input.4
     Wilson wrote back on the same day.  He said if the destruction of the Falaba had resulted from an attempt of the vessel to resist or escape when ordered to lay to by the German submarine crew, then the Americans would not have a case.  But these circumstances were different; the crew of the Falaba had not attempted to resist or escape.  Wilson said that Washington ought to hold Berlin responsible for the death of an American through an action by the German Navy.  He felt the Germans had operated outside the rules of naval warfare.
     He went on to say that an American taking passage on a merchant ship had every right to rely on the enemy crew's adherence to the rules of visit and search as well as those of non-combatant safety.  He was, however, cautious about registering complaints to the German government.  If the United States accused Germany of acting outside the rules of international law, it would amount to a denunciation of the war zone plan altogether.  And he did not feel the United States was quite ready to make these allegations.5
     Wilson sent yet another letter to Bryan on April 3.  Clearly he had been pondering the Falaba case throughout the day.  He wrote, "I do not like this case.  It is full of disturbing possibilities."  Wilson went on to argue his position.
     Wilson said it was clear that Thrasher had died as a result of conscious acts by German naval officers.  Their behavior violated international law concerning unarmed vessels.  He believed that it was the duty of the U.S. government to make it clear to the German Government that American lives could not be put in danger by acts without sanction in the accepted law of nations.6
     In compliance with Wilson's letter to Bryan, Counselor to the State Department Robert Lansing drafted a memorandum of instruction for Gerard and on April 5 sent it to Bryan with a letter.  In this he admitted the memorandum's tone would border on harshness because he felt this was not the time to be conciliatory.
     Lansing began by saying if the U.S. was going to denounce the Falaba sinking, the government would have to do it directly.  There would be no method in calling German attention to its legal and moral indefensibility while at the same time stating this in a pleasant manner.  He called the event a tragedy and said that the U.S. Government needed to assert its rights, condemn the violation, and state the expected remedy.  The United States would have to show its determination or the Germans would not take Washington seriously.  He also believed the American public would not stand for timidity in dealing with this crime.  Lansing closed by stating that the consequences of harsh diplomatic language might be momentous, but he did not see any other alternative.  The U.S. could not afford to let the matter pass without protest.7

     The following is the memorandum of instruction to the U.S. ambassador in Berlin:

          THRASHER CASE.  The Government of the United States has received a report, confirmed by substantial evidence,
    that Leon C. Thrasher, a native born American citizen, came to his death by reason of the act of the German naval
    authorities in sinking the British passenger steamer Falaba on the high seas on the 28th of March, 1915, outward bound
    from Liverpool, and the failure of the commander of the German submarine U-28 to give ample time for the crew and
    passengers of the Falaba to leave the vessel before sinking her by means of torpedoes.  It is further reported that, at the time
    when the Falaba was torpedoed and sunk, she was lying to, making no attempt to escape and offering no resistance.
          The circumstances of the sinking of the Falaba, by which Thrasher with scores of other non-combatants, irrespective of
    age and sex, met their death, indicate a wantonness and indifference to the rules of civilized warfare by the German naval
    officer responsible for the deed, which are without palliation or excuse.  This is aggravated by the fact that the vessel was
    departing from and not approaching British territory.  So flagrant a violation of international law and international morality
    requires from a neutral government, whose citizen has been a victim of the outrage, an unequivocal expression of its views as
    to such conduct and as to the duty of the belligerent government, whose officers are guilty of the violation.
          The Government of the United States considers that a United States citizen is entitled to rely upon the practice,
    heretofore universally observed by belligerent warships, of visiting and searching merchant vessels of enemy as well as of
    neutral nationality and of protecting the lives of their crews and passengers whatever disposition may be made of the vessels
    and their cargoes.  No notice by a belligerent government that it intends to depart from this practice within a certain area of
    the high seas can deprive justly a neutral of his rights or relieve the government disregarding those rights from full
    responsibility for the acts of its naval authorities performed in accordance with such notice.
          The Government of the United States is loth to believe  that the German Imperial Government authorized, much less
    directed, the officers of the Imperial Navy to perpetrate acts as ruthless and brutal as the sinking of the Falaba before her
    helpless crew and passengers had been removed, or that that Government will pass over the offense without condemnation
    and permit the offenders to remain unpunished.
          The Government of the United States, in view of the death of a United States citizen through the wanton act of an officer
    of the German Imperial Navy, which was in direct violation of the principles of humanity as well as of the law of nations,
    appeals earnestly to the Imperial Government to disavow the act, to punish the perpetrator, and to make just reparation for
    the death of Leon C. Thrasher.
          It is with extreme reluctance and with a full appreciation of the exceptional conditions, in which Germany is placed in the
    present war, that the Government of the United States makes these representations and presents this appeal to the justice
    and humanity of the Imperial Government.  The Government owes a duty to itself, to its citizens, and to civilization, which is
    imperative and which it cannot as a sovereign power ignore.  No other course, consonant with its dignity, is open to it.
    Were the rights at stake those which relate to property, it might continue to show that patience and forbearance which it has
    so often during the progress of this deplorable conflict, but when a United States citizen is killed through an act of
    lawlessness and cruelty, committed under the orders of a commissioned officer of the German Imperial Navy, and other
    citizens are threatened with a like fate if they continue to exercise their just rights, this Government can not remain silent.  It
    sincerely hopes that the Imperial Government, recognizing the justice of these representations, will promptly disavow the act
    complained of and take the steps necessary to prevent its repetition.
                                                                                                                      Robert Lansing8

     Lansing was not concerned with offending Berlin.  In his memoirs he explained how affected he was by the German actions.  He wrote that the conduct of Berlin's submarine campaign had removed any doubts in his mind that the United States would be forced to enter the war on the Allied side.  Although he would have preferred an immediate declaration of war, he felt it unwise to ask Congress for one until the American public was united in its desire for war against Germany.
     Lansing knew Americans would take his point of view.  He felt anyone who followed events after August 1914, and was impartial in their judgment of Berlin's actions and purposes, would not doubt that the United States would eventually fight the Germans.9
     At Bryan's request, Lansing's memorandum was not sent, pending the arrival of further information about the Falaba sinking.  To begin with the United States Government was unaware about whether the Falaba carried any armament.  Even if she was not armed, Washington needed to know if the German submarine commander knew the ship was unarmed.
     This was a delicate situation, for as Bryan had put it in a letter to Wilson on April 7 it involved loss of human life.  Also, the U.S. Government was dealing with a nation whose people were sensitive about the American export of arms.  Bryan felt this practice was inconsistent with total neutrality.10
    The facts about the Falaba incident began to reach Bryan on April 9.  United States Consul General in London Robert P. Skinner cabled him that day with information about the submarine commander's halt orders.  According to the Falaba's chief officer, the submarine commander first signaled to "stop and abandon ship," but the Falaba continued, whereupon the signal was sent, "stop or will fire."  It was then that the Falaba stopped.11
     Skinner cabled Bryan again the next day regarding the possible arming of the Falaba.  He said that the ship's third officer had signed an affidavit that there were no guns aboard the ship, mounted nor unmounted, as well as no ammunition for the ship's purposes.  Skinner did note that the consul in Liverpool reported that the Falaba carried thirteen tons of parcel ammunition consisting of fuses and cartridges in cargo hold No. 3.  This ammunition was destined for the West Coast of Africa.12

     Gerard cabled Bryan on April 14 with an official statement on the Falaba sinking.  The message gave a full account of the incident, as follows:

          The submarine signaled to the steamer Falaba, "Lay to immediately or I will shoot."  Without heeding this, the steamer
    ran away and even made rocket signals calling for help and could not be rejoined until after a chase lasting a quarter of an
    hour.  Although the submarine was in danger of being shot at by the steamer or attacked by approaching vessels, it
    nevertheless did not shoot immediately but when it had come within five-hundred meters of the steamer megaphoned the
    order to leave the ship within ten minutes.  This order was likewise signaled.  The lowering of the boats had already begun
    on the steamer.  While this took place in an unseamanlike manner in part so that several boats were damaged in the attempt,
    some of the crew of the vessel quickly saved themselves in boats and remained in the neighborhood without, however,
    lending assistance of any kind to the passengers struggling in the water although it would have been possible for them to do
    so.  From the time of the command to leave the ship to the firing of the torpedo twenty-three minutes elapsed, not ten as first
    allowed, and preceding this the chase had taken place which could have been utilized to clear the boats.  The assertion that
    the time allowed was only five or even three minutes is untrue.
          The torpedo was not discharged until the approach of suspicious vessels from which attacks had to be expected
    forced the commander to act more quickly . . . .  During the whole occurrence the submarine displayed as much
    consideration as was at all compatible with its safety.  It is regrettable that human lives were lost but the responsibility falls
    on England who arms her merchant vessels and makes them participate in operations of war and attacks on submarines.


     Bryan's beliefs on this matter were not as clear as those of Lansing.  He was not sure if Great Britain was acting with any more decency than Germany.  While he did agree that German submarine policy was inhuman, he wondered if London was any less guilty in stopping foodstuffs from reaching women and children or in using the American flag to protect her shipping.  After all, were not the policies of both belligerents bringing death to non-combatants?
     In a letter to President Wilson dated April 19 Bryan asked, "Why do Americans continue to take the risk?"  Berlin had warned Washington about allowing American citizens to travel aboard British ships.  Furthermore, he wondered why so many professed shock at the drowning of American passengers if there was no objection to the starving of a nation.  He felt one dead American who could have avoided his fate was nothing in comparison with the tens of thousands of Germans who were "dying daily" in that "causeless war."  He asked if it was not better to try to bring peace than to risk provoking war on account of one man.14
     Bryan's memoirs contain another letter to President Wilson, dated April 23.  In it Bryan said he had been unable to reach the same conclusion in this case as had Wilson.  He feared Lansing's note would inflame the hostile attitude against the United States already existing in Germany.  He said it would be a protest against Berlin's policy that would contrast with Washington's attitude toward the Allied powers.  Protesting the German submarine campaign would amount to laying down laws for Germany as well as for the United States.  It would embarrass the United States as it had not created similar laws regarding British blockade policy.15
     On April 27 Wilson admitted to Bryan that he was unsure that Lansing's protest was the right course of action.  He said Bryan's letters had made a deep impression on him and he even mentioned the possibility that no formal protests would be necessary.  As a result of Bryan's influence, Washington did not send any communication to Berlin in the matter of the Falaba.  But Wilson never embraced Bryan's suggestion that Washington issue a public call to the belligerents to end the war.16


1.    Arthur S. Link, ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 32 (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1979),
       p. 464.
2.    Robert Leckie, The Wars of America, Volume 2 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 615.
3.    Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1915 Supplement (Washington D.C.:  U.S. Government
       Printing Office), File No. 763112T41/2, p. 358.
4.    Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, p. 464.
5.    Ibid., p. 465.
6.    Ibid., pp. 468-69.
7.    Ibid., pp. 483-84.
8.    Ibid., pp. 484-86.
9.    Robert Lansing, War Memoirs of Robert Lansing (New York: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1935), p. 18.
10.  Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 763112T41/2, pp. 488-89.
11.  Ibid., File No. 362.112T41/7, p. 362.
12.  Ibid., File No. F.W. 462.11T41, p. 364.
13.  Ibid., p. 370.
14.  Merle Eugene Curti, Bryan and World Peace (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), pp. 198-99.
15.  William Jennings Bryan and Mary Baird, Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan (Chicago, Illinois:  John C. Winston Co.,
       1925), pp. 395-96.
16.  Curti, Bryan and World Peace, p. 199.

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