10 February 1916
Treatment of Armed Merchantmen

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 shipowners 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 shipowners the necessary guns, sufficient ammunition, and suitable personnel for the training of the gun crews.

2. The English shipowners 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 it 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 carry ing 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.

BERLIN, February 8, 1916.

Secretary of State of the Imperial Marine Service v. Tirpitz
to Imperial Chancelor v. Bethmann-Hollweg:

Berlin, February 13, 1916.

I have the honor to submit to your Excellency in all respect, the enclosed memorial. It includes in the form of a general survey the answers submitted by me to the latest inquiries of your Excellency

v. Tirpitz.


Can England be forced to sue for peace by means of a U-boat war?

I. The most important and surest means which can be adopted to bring England to her knees is the use of our U-boats at the present time. We shall not be able to defeat England by a war on land alone. The unrestricted carrying out of the U-boat war, supported by our other naval craft and by our air fleet -- all under a unified and determined leadership -- is of the most decisive importance in obtaining the desired result England will be cut to the heart by the destruction by U-boats of every ship which approaches the English coast. The ocean's commerce is the very elixir of life for England, its interruption for any length of time a deadly danger, its permanent interruption absolutely fatal within a short time. Every attack upon England's transoceanic communication is therefore a blow in the direction of the termination of the war. The more the losses take place with merciless regularity at the very gates of the island kingdom, the more powerful will be the material and moral effect on th e English people. In spite of its former resources, England will not be able to make a successful defense against the attacks of submarines directed against its transoceanic commerce, provided they are well planned. That is precisely why a timely U-boat war is the most dangerous and, if vigorously carried on, the form of warfare which will unconditionally decide the war to England's disadvantage.

II. The prerequisites of a successful carrying out of an unrestricted U-boat war are military and economic In both respects they are noticeably more favorable than in February, 1915....

III. In order to get the correct view of America's attitude in the U-boat question, it is necessary to go back over its development during the course of the war.

From the very beginning, the attitude of the United States toward us has not been a friendly one. The close racial feeling which bound the greater part of the population to England, together with the combinations of English and American economic forces which have constantly resulted in more and more intimate relations in this direction, necessarily resulted in the antagonism referred to. In spite of this, there existed in the beginning, at least so far as the government was concerned, a certain objection against openly taking sides with either party. If from the date of the February note onward, we could have afforded to pay no attention at all to the objections urged by the United States against the U-boat war, the unrestricted conduct of this war would not, in my opinion, have led to a break with the United States. In view of the restrictions imposed upon the conduct of the U-boat war and of the enormous deliveries of ammunition and war material of every kind which was made possible thereby, the whole economic life of the United States, and the American policy as well, came to be connected with the British cause in a manner quite different from that existing at the beginning of the war. America is directly interested in the fate of England's economic existence, and, as a logical consequence, in England's intention to crush Germany. As a result, the conviction on the part of Americans of the growing dangers involved in Japan's hostile attitude, and that sooner or later differences with Japan will be bound to ensue, has become stronger as the war has run its course. Understandings unquestionably exist today, if not between the two governments, at least, in any case, between the leaders of the trusts in England and America, whose purpose is to give Japan a very definite setback by means of the combined forces of England and the United States after the war. But this is possible only if England can be absolutely secured against any danger emanating from Europe, that is, if Germany is overpowered. It follows that the United States, whether they desire to be so or not, are directly interested in our defeat, and have become a direct enemy of Germany.

If the United States intends to push this position to its logical conclusion and to let matters come to a break with us, the resulting circumstances would suffer no material change, provided this break were limited to a refusal to maintain diplomatic relations. But if the United States should go as far as to declare war against us, then the problem of shipping space would occupy a prominent place among those questions on which we would have to pass in connection with the then newly created situation. The assistance in men and material with which the United States would then be in a position to provide England and our other opponents would, as a practical proposition, be measured by the amount of tonnage for commercial purposes actually at their disposal.

The attempt on the part of the United States to increase this tonnage to any appreciable extent through a retaliatory seizure of the German commercial tonnage within their reach would, in the first place, be confronted with quite substantial obstacles and, in the second place, be useless in any case.

The gross tonnage of German steamers now in the United States [interned by the war] amounts to 440,000 tons, according to my estimate. There are about 116,850 gross tons in the American colonies...

But assuming that, in spite of all this, the United States should succeed in placing the German merchant ships in their service, the personal interests of the country would make it necessary for these ships to be held for their own purposes. So that an advantage to England or a lightening of England's burdens would not result from this situation.

Were America, after a break with us, to provide financial support in ever-increasing volume to England and our opponents, the only result for the latter would be that they would become more and more dependent upon the United States. And moreover, the practical effect of such financial support would, for the most part, take the form of possibly providing them with increased shipments of war material of all kinds which were not obtainable in their own country, and of supplying them with those articles essential to their economic life. But this possibility can only become an established fact if the shipments in question can actually be delivered. For instance, an increase in Italy s financial resources for the purpose of obtaining coal does not actually bring coal to the country. And so a n increased financial support of our opponents by America would, in the last analysis, for its effective working out, be inseparably and mainly dependent upon the problem of tonnage. . . .

V. With regard to supplementing the tremendous results of the war on land, we have the following:

1. The entrance of America into the list of our opponents would be of no definite assistance to England.

2. It is only by making the fullest use of all of our instrumentalities adapted to warfare on the sea, amongst which the U-boats will play an important part by shutting England off from all intercourse by sea, that it will be possible to bring about England's defeat.

Berlin, February 8, 1916.

Memorial of Imperial Chancelor v. Bethmann-Hollweg:

BERLIN, February 29, 1916.

The announcement of the U-boat war carried on in conformity with the desires of the Admiralty Staff, that is, torpedoing freight steamers and passenger steamers without distinction and without warning, whether sailing under a neutral or hostile flag, would certainly result in the entrance of the United States into the war on the side of our enemies. . . . the navy expects that, as the result of its policy, England will be eliminated as a belligerent within a period of from six to eight months. The Supreme High Command has announced its opinion to the effect that, since Austria-Hungary's power of endurance will hardly extend beyond the year 1916, every available means ought to be used to bring the war to an end before that time.

Assuming that these premises are correct, the issue to be decided is whether or not we should adopt the policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare; and hence the following questions must be considered:

1. Is it certain that the new U-boat war will bring about a shrinkage in the cargo capacity of the English fleet as it now exists, by approximating 4 million tons, within the period set out above . . . ?

2. Can we assume with certainty that the hoped-for losses to the English merchant marine will force England to sue for peace?

3. What results will the expected entrance of the neutrals, and in particular that of the United States, have upon the war? . . .

That the break with America will come if we announce and carry on the U-boat war in accordance with the plans now under consideration, is beyond question, in view of the attitude which the Union has maintained up to this time and the stand that she takes on the question of armed merchant ships. Negotiations with the United States with regard to the details of carrying on such a war by us are out of the question because no decision would be reached concerning them, if at all, until months would have passed. We would have to reject the protests which we have every reason to expect from America as the result of our announcement. The moment that we rejected them would be the moment of the break.

The break with America will have the following results:

1. The cause of our enemies will receive a new and enormous moral support through America's public entrance into the enemy's camp. The confidence in a victorious termination of the war would be revived, and the will to endure would be strengthened. Strong points of difference existing in inner circles of the Entente, as is now publicly known, would vanish in a flash, and the hope that even now predominates with regard to the attitude of France and Russia -- that a war of exhaustion will be carried through, will be realized almost to the point of certainty if the one existing world Power that still remains neutral unites its interests with theirs.

2. The irritation of the neutral States against the arbitrary attitude of England is on the constant increase, but it will be dissipated at that moment when England, certain of American support, needs no longer exercise restraint in applying its oppressive measures.

3. The impression which the entrance of the United States into the war would be bound to make upon our allies is a matter entitled to the most earnest consideration. Baron Burian has stated again and again that we should not so conduct the U-boat war in the Mediterranean as to bring about a break with the United States. He has now even gone so far as to postpone the war against armed enemy merchant vessels as the result of American protests. Unless we can prove to the exclusion of all doubt on the part of the Vienna Cabinet that we can look forward to the overthrow of England, we shall have to consider as an element of our calculations the fact that they will object to the resumption of a U-boat war of such a nature as to bring about a break with the United States -- a war which we as faithful allies would have to announce previously to Vienna. At the very least, Austria's war spirit, which is beginning to be sated after the overthrow of Serbia and Montenegro, and which even today gives evidence of a strong pro-English feeling, will not be heightened as the result of a break with the United States.

The Turkish Minister, too, has already expressed his earnest solicitude about the possible results of a break with the United States.

These objections naturally apply to Bulgaria as well.

Even the moral effects of the break with the United States upon our allies, and our opponents the neutrals must not be underestimated. The longer the war lasts, so much clearer does it become that he will win the war who keeps his nerves under best control. History teaches us that in coalition wars which can not be brought to a termination by dec isive strokes of the military arm, the end is usually brought about by differences between the allies themselves. It is a dangerous gamble to disregard these differences if one is not assured of success

Then, again, the morale in Germany is not to be judged merely by the articles of the pan-German press. The overwhelming preponderance of our enemies has prevented us up to the present time from bringing the war to a triumphant termination. People will ask whether the increase of the number of our enemies could not have been avoided, and the entrance of the United States into the war will have a discouraging and depressing effect in broad circles of the German people.

The break with America will have the following practical consequences:

1. The attempts made by the Allies up to the present time to obtain money from the United States have only had a very mediocre result. If America breaks with us, then, driven on as a matter of prestige and in deference to its own material interests, it will exert all of its resources to the end that the war shall be rapidly terminated in favor of the Entente. All of its financial resources will be put at the disposal of the Entente, and England will gladly include in the bargain the results of its financial dependence on the United States which, as it is, has already come to pass, if she can only succeed in cementing together the entire Anglo-Saxon world in one military brotherhood, united for the purpose of our destruction. Even if money alone can not determine the outcome of the war, the financial aidproffered by the United States will constitute a very material increase of our opponents' resources.

The assertion which is made so often, that financial assistance afforded by America will avail England nothing if England is cut off from the outer world through the U-boat war, and as a result would be unable to make any use of American gold, is based upon the premise that England will be separated from the rest of the world as if by an iron curtain as the result of the U-boat war. This assumption is inaccurate and is not entertained by the Admiralty Staff....

3. Military assistance on the part of the United States gives our military authorities very little concern; but it can scarcely be doubted that participation by the United States in this war would necessarily bring about the supplying of our opponents with further war material, particularly of such a kind as that on which the United States, at least outwardly up to this time and on grounds of international law, has imposed limitations, such, for instance, as the direct delivery of U-boats. Moreover, no one who is acquainted with American conditions will entertain any doubt that the American sporting spirit, based upon its English prototype, would result in bringing over to our opponents volunteer contingents which one can surely venture to estimate at a few hundred thousands.

4. [Comments about the European neutrals follow]....

So the question comes down to this, whether our position is so desperate that we are bound to play a win-all lose-all game in which our existence as a world Power and our whole future as a nation would be at stake, whereas the chances of winning, that is, the prospect of crushing England by next fall, are uncertain. This question is to be answered unqualifiedly in the negative.

The Supreme High Command of the Army denies the possibility of bringing the war to an end through crushing blows delivered by our land forces. That body entertains the belief that a termination of the war is in any event only possible after England or we ourselves have been crushed to the ground. No human being can state with absolute certainty that this point of view is erroneous.... But just as impossible is it for us to deny, with the certainty of being correct, the possibility of ending the war even without the application of the unrestricted U-boat warfare in the course of the year 1916. It is certainly reasonable to argue that our military successes in the west, the failure of the great and long-heralded enemy offensives in the spring, the increasing financial straits of the Entente, and the absence of all prospects of starving us out in the current year, will so increase the general recognition of the fact in England that the prolongation of the war is a bad business, even from the standpoint of British interests, as to make England desist from attempting to carry on the war to the point of our exhaustion. We are cutting ourselves off from the benefits of all these possibilities if, through the adoption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, we drive the United States, and with the United States still other neutral Powers, into making war upon us. Only then will a state of affairs come into being, for which we alone are responsible, on account of which there will be no alternative but to fight the war through to the bitter end, come what may. Therefore there devolves upon us the task of carrying on the U-boat war in such a way as to make it possible to avoid the break with the United States. In this case, we shall be able to list as pure profit all the injuries which we inflict upon England. That these injuries are not inconsiderable is evidenced by the results of the restricted U-boat war carried on since the summer of 1915. The increased number of U-boats which are now at our disposal would increase results many times over....

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Created: 21 April 1996, 11:19:22 Last Updated: 21 April 1996, 11:19:22