(Memorandum of the Imperial German Government on the treatment of armed merchantmen, 8 February 1916)
The following is translation of memorandum of the Imperial German Government on the treatment of armed merchantmen:
Berlin, February 10, 1916
1. Even before the outbreak of the present war the British Government had given English shipping companies the opportunity to arm their merchant vessels with guns. On March 26, 1913, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, made the declaration in the British Parliament … that the Admiralty had called upon the ship-owners to arm a number of first-class liners for protection against danger menaced in certain cases by fast auxiliary cruisers of other powers; the liners were not, however, to assume the character of auxiliary cruisers themselves. The Government desired to place at the disposal of the ship-owners the necessary guns, sufficient ammunition, and suitable personnel for the training of the gun crews.
2. The English ship-owners have readily responded to the call of the Admiralty. Thus Sir Owen Philipps, president of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, was able to inform the stockholders of his company in May 1913, that the larger steamers of the company were equipped with guns; furthermore, the British Admiralty published in January 1914 a list according to which 29 steamers of various English lines carried guns aft….
1. With regard to the legal character of armed merchantmen in international law, the British Government has taken the position in respect of its own merchantmen that such vessels retain the character of peaceable merchant vessels as long as they carry arms for defensive purposes only. In accordance with this, the British Ambassador at Washington in a note dated August 25, 1914 … gave the American Government the fullest assurances that British merchant vessels were never armed for purposes of attack, but solely for defense, and that they consequently never fire unless first fired upon. On the other hand, the British Government set up the principle for armed vessels of other flags that they are to be treated as war vessels. No. 1 of Order 1 of the prize court rules, promulgated by the order in council of August 5, 1914, expressly provides ‘ship of war shall include armed ship.’
2. The German Government has no doubt that a merchantman assumes a warlike character by armament with guns, regardless of whether the guns are intended to serve for defense or attack. It considers any warlike activity of an enemy merchantman contrary to international law, although it accords consideration to the opposite view by treating the crew of such a vessel not as pirates but as belligerents.
The details of its position are set forth in the memorandum on the treatment of armed merchantmen in neutral ports … communicated to the American Government in October 1914, the contents of which were likewise communicated to other neutral powers.
3. Some of the neutral powers have accepted the position of the British Government and therefore permitted armed merchantmen of the belligerent powers to stay in their ports and shipyards without the restrictions which they had imposed on ships of war through their neutrality regulations. Some, however, have taken the contrary view and subjected armed merchantmen of belligerents to the neutrality rules applicable to ships of war.
1. During the course of the war the armament of English merchantmen has been more and more generally carried out. From reports of the German naval forces numerous cases became known in which English merchantmen not only offered armed resistance to the German war vessels, but proceeded to attack them on their own initiative, and in so doing they frequently even made use of false flags. A list of such cases is found in Exhibit 4, which from the nature of the matter can include only a part of the attacks which were actually made. It is also shown by this list that the practice described is not limited to English merchantmen, but is imitated by the merchantmen of England’s allies.
2. The explanation of the action of the armed English merchantmen described is contained in Exhibits 5 to 12, which are photographic reproductions of confidential instructions of the British Admiralty found by German naval forces on captured ships. These instructions regulate in detail artillery attack by English merchantmen on German submarines. They contain exact regulations touching the reception, treatment activity, and control of the British gun crews taken on board merchantmen; for example, they are not to wear uniform in neutral ports and thus plainly belong to the British navy. Above all, it is shown by these instructions that these armed vessels are not to await any action of maritime war on the part of the German submarines, but are to attack them forthwith. In this respect the following regulations are particularly instructive:
(a) The instructions for guidance in the use, care, and maintenance of armament in defensively armed merchant ships … provide in the section headed ‘Action,’ in paragraph 4: ‘It is not advisable to open fire at a range greater than 800 yards unless the enemy has already opened fire.’ From this it is the duty of the merchantman in principle to open fire without regard to the attitude of the submarine.
(b) The instructions regarding submarines applicable to vessels carrying a defensive armament … prescribe under No. 3: ‘If a submarine is obviously pursuing a ship by day and it is evident to the master that she has hostile intentions, the ship pursued should open fire in self-defense, notwithstanding the submarine may not have committed a definite hostile act such as firing a gun or torpedo.’ From this also the mere appearance of a submarine in the wake of the merchantman affords sufficient occasion for an armed attack.
In all these orders, which do not apply merely to the zone of maritime war around England, but are unrestricted as regards their validity … the greatest emphasis is laid on secrecy, plainly in order that the action of merchantmen, in absolute contradiction of international law and the British assurances … might remain concealed from the enemy as well as the neutrals.
3. It is thus made plain that the armed English merchantmen have official instructions to attack the German submarines treacherously wherever they come near them; that is, orders to conduct relentless warfare against them. Since England’s rules of maritime war are adopted by her allies without question, the proof must be taken as demonstrated in respect of the armed merchantmen of the other enemy countries also.
In the circumstances set forth above, enemy merchantmen armed with guns no longer have any right to be considered as peaceable vessels of commerce. Therefore the German naval forces will receive orders, within a short period, paying consideration to the interests of the neutrals, to treat such vessels as belligerents. The German Government brings this state of things to the knowledge of the neutral powers in order that they may warn their nationals against continuing to entrust their persons or property to armed merchantmen of the powers at war with the German Empire.