The German Sinking of the William P. Frye
On March 10 Arthur Sewall and Company, managing
owners of the American merchant ship William P. Frye, sent a telegram to
Secretary of State Bryan to report that earlier that morning the German auxiliary
cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich had entered
On March 12 British Ambassador to Washington Cecil Arthur Spring Rice sent an official letter to the State Department treating the Prinz Eitel Friedrich. He called the State Department's attention to the fact that the German cruiser was carrying upwards of 300 prisoners when it entered Newport News. His point was that to carry American prisoners aboard a cruiser was to expose them to unnecessary dangers.2
Danger to the prisoners failed to become an issue in the William P. Frye case. After all, the men had been kept alive aboard the German cruiser rather than killed. Furthermore, the German warship was armed and the fact remained that any ship was at risk during this war. The prisoners had arrived safely in Virginia so there was not going to be a diplomatic issue made of this subject thereafter.
There was, however, going to be an issue made of the sinking of the William P. Frye herself and the nature of her cargo. The first task was to determine what purpose the cargo would serve once it had reached Great Britain on March 23. Bryan cabled Consul General Robert Skinner in London requesting information on the cargo's planned change of ownership from American to British agencies. He actually wanted to know whether the wheat was destined for the British Government or military.3
Skinner cabled back the next day with the information Bryan requested. There was, he said, no evidence of the cargo belonging directly or indirectly to the British Government. London purchased flour, but not wheat. Skinner provided the names of the firms through which the wheat would change hands, but the final destinations of grain cargoes were usually determined after the ships reached port. He also said the director of army contracts informed him privately of the extreme unlikelihood that wheat would have been bought or contracted for army accounts.4
Bryan cabled Gerard in Berlin on March 31 with a claim to be given to the German Foreign Office immediately. This was a total claim amount for the following losses:
(1) The value of the ship, equipment, and outfit;
(2) The total value of the cargo;
(3) Traveling and other expenses of the ship's captain;
(4) The expenses of Arthur Sewall and Company in connection with making and filing claim affidavits;
(5) The personal effects of the ship's captain;.
(6) Losses due to deprivation of use of the William P. Frye.
The total amount was set at $228,059.54 and Bryan
requested that the German Government pay this sum in full at the earliest
possible date. He instructed Gerard to cable back upon delivering the
On April 5 Gerard cabled Bryan with Berlin's reply, written by German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Gottlieb E. G. von Jagow. He held that the captain of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich had acted well within the principles of international law. Von Jagow began his arguments by stating that the William P. Frye was bound for the ports of Queenstown, Falmouth, and Plymouth. All three ports were heavily fortified and served as Royal Navy bases. Therefore Berlin believed the cargo of wheat, which of course fell under the category of foodstuffs, was destined for the British armed forces.6
The captain of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, however, could not determine the final destination of the cargo as only a ship's manifest and initial destination were found aboard the William P. Frye. He had decided that sinking the William P. Frye was the best course of action, because he lacked sufficient manpower and storage space to bring the wheat aboard his own vessel. Also, he would be compromising the security and success of her operations if she were to carry possible contraband.
Von Jagow stated that Berlin wanted to bring these proceedings before the German prize court in Hamburg. There they would determine whether the William P. Frye and her cargo were liable to capture and whether the owners would be indemnified. He said if no proof was forthcoming, Berlin would not be liable for compensation.
In closing, von Jagow intimated that this legal situation was special in light of the July 11, 1799 Prussian-American Treaty of Friendship and Commerce. Article 13 of this treaty, taken in connection with Article 12 of the May 1, 1828 Prussian-American Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, stated that "contraband belonging to the subjects or citizens of either party cannot be confiscated by the other in any case but only detained or used in consideration of payment of the full value of the same." In other words, this meant the American owners of both ship and cargo would receive compensation even if the German prize court declared the wheat to be contraband. However, there still had to be a hearing to examine the legality of the sinking and to declare an amount of indemnity.7
The William P. Frye case had already become a secondary diplomatic problem. Von Jagow's note reached Washington only on April 7 well after the Falaba was sunk (on March 28). That event involved the loss of a U.S. citizen and obviously overshadowed the William P. Frye case.
On April 28 Bryan cabled Gerard with a note for the German Foreign Office. Bryan no longer felt it was necessary to tie up cable correspondence with discussion on the William P. Frye case, so he offered his advice.
Bryan began by stating that Washington did not see the necessity for a prize court hearing. The sinking of the William P. Frye was a violation of the obligations imposed upon Berlin in the aforementioned treaties between the United States and Prussia. Therefore, the United States possessed a valid claim for indemnity and Bryan felt the question of the need for one had already been settled.
He concluded the note by promising that any additional information Berlin requested would be provided. However, virtually all information regarding this case was available only in the United States. The owners and captain of the William P. Frye, other witnesses, and documentary records were all there. Thus, Bryan asked that the negotiations be transferred to the Imperial German Embassy in Washington.8 This would free up the cables and expedite the settlement process.
The loss of the William P. Frye was no longer a major diplomatic problem. Not only had the Falaba case become the most significant issue in German-American relations, but only a week later, on May 7, the Lusitania was sunk, and the loss of American lives was staggering when compared to any previous case.
1. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the
United States, 1915 Supplement (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1928), File No. 462.11Se8/1, p. 41.
2. Ibid., File No. 763.72/1592, p. 341.
3. Ibid., File No. 462.11Se8/12a, p. 355.
4. Ibid., File No. 462.11Se8/12, p. 355.
5. Ibid., File No. 46211Se8/6, p. 357.
6. Ibid., File No. 462.11Se8/16, pp. 360-61.