Primary Documents - French Statement on the Blockade of Neutral Commerce to Germany, 1917

Reproduced below is the text of the official statement issued by the French government outlining steps taken by the Allied nations to ensure an effective blockade of commerce from neutral powers to Germany in 1917.

Published in 1917 the statement argued that some neutral nations had abused their right to trade with the warring nations beyond the minimum necessary to sustain their own pre-war economies.  The Allies consequently took the view that action had to be taken to limit increasing commercial traffic from neutral nations to Germany, thereby sustaining the latter in her war effort.

Fortunately, with the entry of America into the war in April 1917, a major barrier had been removed in the way of implementing such action (since much commercial traffic had been brought into Germany under the American flag).

Official Announcement by the French Government
by M. Saint-Brice

England and France decided on October 18, 1917, to place an embargo on commerce destined for the neutral kingdoms of Northern Europe - in other words, to forbid all exports except those specially authorized.  A similar step had been taken by President Wilson on July 9th with regard to all neutrals.  That was a final step, and a decisive date in the evolution of the economic war.

Many persons imagine that the infinitely complex mechanism intended to strangle our enemies was invented at a single stroke and that it remains, with the perfection of a few details, practically the same as it was in the beginning.

On the contrary, few instruments of war have been transformed more radically or by a more continuous progression than the affair of wheels within wheels which we call, for lack of a better name, the blockade.  The blockade of 1917 no more resembles that of 1914 than the battle of Flanders resembles the battle of the Marne.  In the one realm, as in the other, the Allies have been wise enough to profit from the teachings of half successes and even of reverses.

At first the lists of contraband articles were lengthened.  Remember that in the beginning these lists neglected articles as interesting as rubber, lubricating oil, and fodder.  I will merely mention cotton, which waited nearly two years for the order forbidding its export - out of consideration for American interests.  Direct shipments to Germany were stopped promptly enough.

On the other hand, exportations out of Germany, bolstering her credit and increasing her war fund, might have continued freely for a long time if she had not committed the imprudence of tearing international law to shreds and proclaiming ruthless submarine war in British waters (February 3, 1915).  The Allies replied on March 1, 1915, by interdicting all traffic either going to or coming from the enemy countries.

Finally, on July 7, 1916, France and England formally freed themselves from the provisions of the London Convention, which had arranged for lists of absolute and conditional contraband, and had even sought to free a certain number of articles entirely from war risks.  Thenceforth, it was admitted that all trade would be held under suspicion, except when proofs of its innocence were forthcoming.

Thus the burden of proof was reversed.  Until then it was up to the captor to establish the validity of the seizure by proving the enemy destination of the cargo.  Since July 7, 1916, it is the seized cargo that has to establish its innocence as to destination.

As to putting a stop to enemy trading by firms in belligerent countries, it was thought at first that a few simple measures would be sufficient, such as prohibiting the departure of goods from port and laying heavy penalties on suspected traffic.  Soon it was realized that even this aspect of the problem was not simple.

The idea of nationality varies enormously in the laws of different nations.  Strange as it may seem, the English law did not permit Germans and Austrians in neutral countries to be treated as enemies.  To this was added the incredible confusion of interests in great international enterprises.  The Allies found themselves compelled on February 25, 1916, to resort to blacklists formally proscribing houses connected more or less closely with the enemy.

It remained to hinder supplies from reaching the enemy through neutrals.  That was the stumbling block.  It was difficult to stop the transit of shipments often seemingly honest; still more difficult was it to keep non-belligerents from furnishing the products of their soil and industry impartially to both sides.

For indirect commerce the Allies still had one means of action, since they controlled the ways of access.  Besides, they possessed a basis of computation in the statistics of before-the-war trade.  Thus they could, almost mathematically, fix the necessary allowance of each commodity for each neutral country, as based on production and imports.

But all this was purely theoretical.  Practically, nothing is more unreliable than figures.  It would have been necessary to know the existing stocks of each commodity, and the changes of demand caused by the war.  Let us not forget the consideration which the western powers tried to show, as far as possible, toward trusted nations, up to the time when German methods compelled them to push things to extremes.

Very rapidly the principles of the solution took shape.  In November, 1914, there was organized in Holland the Netherlands Overseas Trust, a group destined to become a permanent intermediary between Dutch commerce and the blockade authorities.  In October, 1915, the Swiss Surveillance Society was established on similar lines.  In Norway and Denmark another system was followed, that of private agreements with commercial houses.  Sweden alone resisted all arrangements.

The basis of the agreement in every case was to fix upon the amount of contingent importations and to obtain guarantees against re-exportation.  On the latter point the results have been most satisfactory.  Errors in statistics have been more frequent.

When all is said, the machine would have been very effective if the neutral countries had not disposed freely of their own products.  The word freely is, perhaps, out of place when one knows the war methods used by Germany to impose her will upon her smaller neighbours.

Her principal argument is not force of arms.  Our enemies, who alone are in position to furnish the neutrals with certain essential articles - such as coal and iron - did not have to resort to that method of blackmail.  The world knows the methods used by Berlin to compel Switzerland to furnish supplies of cattle and metals in return for bank credits.  Holland has found her potatoes and fish in a sense requisitioned; Denmark her farm products.

To combat this intensive drain the Allies long were without other resource than that of competition.  To buy up all the supplies in neutral markets is expensive.  It is a burdensome method and one that cannot always be pushed to its logical end.

There is only one way to stop this enemy traffic, and that is to place the neutrals face to face with a situation in which they will no longer be able to pass along their own products - to kill speculation with want.

All the small neutral States are dependent upon foreign trade; their food supply, therefore, depends upon the masters of the sea.  But it depends still more upon the United States, the only great country outside of Europe committed to the arbitrament of arms.  That is why the American flag was almost like an enemy flag as long as the great transatlantic Republic remained in the neutral camp.  From the day America entered the war it became wholly one of the Allies.

The Americans, with their business lucidity and the light of two years' experience, perceived the gap in the blockade.  That is why President Wilson did not rest until he had all exports under his control.

Henceforth the neutrals will have their food imports strictly controlled.  They will receive only what is truly required for their needs after their stocks have been greatly reduced and after they have proved the exhaustion of their resources.  Under these conditions it becomes practically impossible for them to share their supplies with their neighbours.

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

Shrapnel comprised steel balls ejected from shells upon detonation.

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