Primary Documents - Official Allied Protest to U.S. Regarding Status of Submarines, July 1916

German submarine "Deutschland" On 9 July 1916 the captain of the German submarine Deutschland, Paul Koenig, docked in the U.S.  A merchantmen, and therefore carrying no munitions, the newfound ability of the Germans to despatch submarines across the Atlantic was duly acknowledged by the governments of all belligerent nations as significant.

While the U.S. government allowed merchant vessels from all warring nations to dock at U.S. ports and to freely trade, in practice Britain's dominance of the seas ensured that Germany was effectively excluded from the U.S. market.  Thus the arrival of the Deutschland threatened to challenge Britain's naval blockade, at least so far as trade with the U.S. was concerned.

Britain, in a joint statement with the other Allied governments, promptly despatched a note of protest to the U.S. government arguing that submarines should not be regarded as merchant vessels.  In support of this argument the Allies suggested that as a submarine could not be stopped and inspected for munitions in the same manner as other vessels, her real intentions could not be verified.

The U.S. government - under constant pressure from the German government on account of suspected favouritism granted to the Allied nations - responded at the close of August 1916 with a rejection of the Allies' arguments; unarmed submarines, from whatever nation, were to be regarded as merchant vessels and accordingly permitted to trade.

Click here to read Captain Koenig's initial announcement upon arrival in the U.S. with the Deutschland on 9 July 1916.

Reproduced below is the text of the Allies' official protest to the U.S. government in July 1916.  Click here to read the reply of the U.S., written by Secretary of State Robert Lansing.

Official Protest of the Allies to the U.S. Protesting Treatment of Submarines as Merchant Vessels, July 1916

In view of the development of submarine navigation and by reason of acts which in the present circumstances may be unfortunately expected from enemy submarines, the allied Governments consider it necessary, in order not only to safeguard their belligerent rights and liberty of commercial navigation, but to avoid risks of dispute, to urge neutral Governments to take effective measures, if they have not already done so, with a view to preventing belligerent submarine vessels, whatever the purpose to which they are put, from making use of neutral waters, roadsteads, and ports.

In the case of submarine vessels, the application of the principles of the law of nations is affected by special and novel conditions: First, by the fact that these vessels can navigate and remain at sea submerged, and can thus escape all control and observation; second, by the fact that it is impossible to identify them and establish their national character, whether neutral or belligerent, combatant or non-combatant, and to remove the capacity for harm inherent in the nature of such vessels.

It may further be said that any place which provides a submarine warship far from its base with an opportunity for rest and replenishment of its supplies thereby furnishes such addition to its powers that the place becomes in fact, through the advantages which it gives, a base of naval operations.

In view of the state of affairs thus existing, the Allied Governments are of the opinion that submarine vessels should be excluded from the benefit of the rules hitherto recognized by the law of nations regarding the admission of vessels of war or merchant vessels into neutral waters, roadsteads, or ports, and their sojourn in them.  Any belligerent submarine entering a neutral port should be detained there.

The allied Governments take this opportunity to point out to the neutral powers the grave danger incurred by neutral submarines in the navigation of regions frequented by belligerent submarines.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A 'Gearsman' was a tank crew member responsible for managing the gears.

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