Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations

April 30th. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

          After a couple of tentative appointments for the Council to meet in Paris, we finally went down on the 25th. and had our meetings on the 26th. and 27th.1

          The only important item on the agenda was the question of the cooperation of the Italian fleet with that of the British and French in the Mediterranean. As soon as the agenda reached us, I assumed that diplomatic pressure had been brought to bear on Italy to decide this matter, and this proved to be the case. The proposition put before the Council was first, that the Italian Fleet is to join the Allied Fleet at Corfu, and second, that this is to be accomplished as soon as possible.

          The idea is of course to be able to counteract the additional force that the Germans might put into the Mediterranean if they take over and can make serviceable, the Russian vessels now in the Black Sea.2 The object of the allied commanders was to be able to send a sufficient force to the Eastern Mediterranean to take care of the Russian vessels manned by Germans, and to leave a sufficient force at Corfu to be sure to hold the Austrian fleet in check.

          The principle was accepted unanimously. Admiral di Revel3 voted with the rest of us and then proceeded in a very long prepared argument to explain why he did not think this was necessary, why he thought it was not in the interests of Italy, and why he thought it would be very difficult to accomplish it.

          There would be no use repeating his arguments; they were entirely without weight or cohesion. It appears he represents in the Italian Navy, the party that is committed to the getting through of the war without loss of any of the Italian Naval power. While Admiral di Revel agreed in principle, he put up many objections to try and show that it should not or could not be carried out. Admiral de Bon and the Minister of Marine4 were with him for an hour or two on two separate days outside of the Council but he was entirely unreconcilable and finally voted against the method of co-ordination which the Allies advocated; all other members voted in favor of it.5 There can be no doubt that the trouble is that the Italians distrust both the French and British very seriously, particularly in reference to what may be expected after the war. I think it is very difficult for anyone who has not seen the clash of national interests continuously over here to realise how much the things that are done in this war are influenced by what the various nations expect will be done after the war. This not only in reference to military power and prestige, but also in reference to commercial interests.

          Of course we are not free from the suspicion of acting in the same way. It is almost inevitable that we should be. There can be no doubt that many of the nations on this side are, to say the least, jealous of the advantages of a nation situated as we are. There is not only envy of our usual prosperity, but just now there is particular envy over the position which it is likely that we will occupy after this war is over. This feeling was very greatly accentuated by our commandeering all of the merchant vessels that were building on our slips for belligerent and neutral countries. I have heard of its being said by very intelligent people that the real object of this measure was to get as many ships into our hands as possible in order to seize the trade of the world when hostilities are ended.

          Of course, in so far as regards the moral effect of this, it does not make the slightest difference whether it is true or not. If it is believed to be true it has just as detrimental a moral effect on our relations with the allies as though it were actually true. From this it is quite apparent that, if there are no objections, it would improve our situation very greatly if it could be announced that these vessels would be returned to the people who contracted for them, after the war at the original stipulated price. –or would be replaced if lost.6

          The only other question of any importance that was taken up was the question of the holding of Mourmansk and Archangel and the securing or destroying of the stores at the latter place. You know of course the decision reached by the last Council, that the situation was not such that an expedition of any considerable force could be sent and maintained at the present time. The only new feature of the discussion which took place at Paris was a second communication from the diplomatic branches of the Government again pointing out how very desirable it would be for the allies to maintain the means of communication from the west into Russia, so as to show the Russian people that they still had the sympathy of the Allies, and also be able to help them if Russia should succeed in coming to her senses to the extent of understanding what the German invasion will ultimately mean for them.

          The discussion before the Council showed that the opinion was that just as soon as Germany reached the conclusion that it would be beneficial for her to hold Mourmansk she could easily take it in the absence of a sufficient land force to hold the line of railways south of the harbor. As the sending of such a force was considered impracticable during the present crisis and until the tonnage situation is relieved, it was the opinion that there would be no use in sending a smaller force, but that they might send some small addition of a naval force of vessels of a certain draft so as to be able to take advantage of any opportunity that might offer to come to terms with the local authorities in reference to the stores at Archangel. It was agreed that the port of Mourmansk could not be held by ships alone if the Germans were willing to send a sufficient force of infantry to reach the town and of artillery to drive the vessels off.7

          We understand that the Supreme War Council, or rather the military representatives of the SuprememWar Council, will give us an opportunity for a consultation with them at an early date. In any case the Council will come together again in about a month, though we may be called together on special subjects at any time before then. Though it was agreed when the Council was constituted that the ordinary meeting place would be London, I think it may be assumed that it will usually be in Paris as this place involves a much less aggregate amount of travel. The place of meeting for the next conference has not yet been fixed.

          Concerning the question of the suspicion that exists as to the sincerity of Allies with each other, it goes without saying that this is never given an official expression. You hear of it only as individual remarks made by people not having a part in governmental affairs. I have never heard of any of the government or military officials making such remarks.

          It is therefore with extreme regret that I have to inform you that official expression of such suspicion has been made through our Navy Department to our Naval Attache in Paris.8 This was in the form of an official letter from the Office of Naval Intelligence warning the Naval Attache that he must distrust the Allies in certain respects, particularly as to measures that will be taken to benefit one or the other after the war. I leave you to imagine what would be the result if it should become known among the Allies that this official warning was in existence.9 I cannot understand why such a document should have been issued. In all the time that I have been over here I have never seen the slightest evidence of any desire on the part of any of the persons concerned to keep anything from us. On the contrary they seem to have done everything that they could to inform us. I do not know whether you have personal knowledge of what is going through from the Admiralty to our departments now, but if you enquire you will find that it has everything that is being asked for.

          The great danger of such an official communication is that it may become known. It would certainly have a very serious effect upon my position here. I do not know that this letter has been sent to any other attaches in Europe, but I assume that it has, as I can see no reason for its being sent to one country and not to another. I may say however, that it has not been sent to me.

          I have been somewhat puzzled to know what to do with Commander Berry.10 His court martial has been finished and he was sentenced to a loss of 15 numbers. In view of the recommendation of clemency of the court, signed by all members but one, I reduced this number to ten. Berry has been very considerably shaken by the disaster and he is manifestly not in proper condition to take over a command at this time. Naturally he does not think so, but one can easily see that he has been considerably shaken and therefore ought to have a let up. He wants of course come back into the game and rehabilitate himself. As far as he personally is concerned I am in sympathy with his ambition, but rather fear the effect on the Flotilla. He wants to go home and bring out another boat. I pointed out to him that it would hardly be fair for him to do so in advance of those officers now waiting to go home for this purpose, and who have borne the labor and heat of the day. I have therefore decided to order him home to report to the Navy Dept. for such duty as it may wish to assign him, but I wish to make it clear that if after the lapse of a reasonable time, the Department considers him in proper condition to take a new command, that I would have no objection to his being sent back here. I think he should be sent back to be assigned to a command and not be assigned to a new destroyer over there.

          I am sorry to say that Berry seems to think that he has been badly used in connection with the accident to the MANLEY. I think this is largely due to his present mental state. He goes so far as to say that he thinks the flotilla has it in for him; that the Court of Inquiry was packed against him; that the Court did not sufficiently consider how much the other vessels contributed to the collision. In fact he seems to think that he should have been quite acquitted of the charge of negligence or bad seamanship which caused the accident. You have doubtless known cases like this before. They cannot be explained except upon the assumption that the officer has taken an obsession and nothing will get it out of his mind.

          I have no doubt he will make all possible efforts to have the proceedings of the court martial quashed. It is very regrettable that the accident occurred but it is equally regrettable that he should have taken this attitude about it.

          One of the peculiar ideas he has is that a purely personal letter of sympathy which I wrote him when I signed the specification, justified him in making a less vigorous defence than he otherwise would have done. I enclose a copy of this letter herewith, so that you may see that it was only a letter of sympathy to a man who was in trouble in my force.11

          Since writing my last letter,12 I have been informed that the criticisms that were made against me and the Navy Dept. over the manner in which the work of the force over here has been co-ordinated with our allies, was inspired by a Mr.James Conolly. He is the well known writer of the “Out of Glouscester’ stories.13 I am informed that he has become in the last few years a general all round kicker and pessimist. He came over here in a highly excited stated of mind and promptly got into a row with all hands at Queenstown. He behaved in such a manner that I consider it proper for me to write to the Secretary of the Navy14 and explain that it was undesirable that men of his character should be sent over here. I pointed out in this connection how very desirable it was that these men should be of the type of Mr.Ralph Paine and Mr.Sheehan, and Mr.Macfarlane and Mr.Whitaker and admirable correspondents of that stamp.15 I have written a personal and confidential letter to both the editor of the ARMY AND NAVY REGISTER, and the editor of THE NEW YORK TRIBUNE pointing out to them how damaging such criticisms are to the Navy and to me personally and explaining that their statements are wholly in error both in actual statement and in implication.16 I hope that these letters will have the effect of stopping this campaign.

          The fine correspondents above referred to, can as they return to the United States, give you the true state of affairs in question. Mr.Ralph Paine has already returned and is writing a series of articles for, I believe, the “SATURDAY EVENING POST”. If you have seen any of these articles, you will see what desirable accounts they are.17

          I have noticed recently a number of accounts in the papers over here of ceremonies carried out in France in which a number of our Army officers and enlisted men have received decorations for various actions in which they have been engaged. I do not understand why if this can be done for the army something of a similar nature cannot be done for the Navy. I do not offer this in criticism at all, because I do not know what reasons the Department has for not allowing the Navy to receive the D.S.O. and so forth, for which they have been recommended, but I simply mention it in order to invite attention to the above facts.18

Later.

          Since writing the above, I have learned that Commander Berry is probably in a worse condition than I thought. He has been talking a great deal about his grievances and at Liverpool the other day he told a certain officer that when he went home he expected either to come back inside of three weeks with a new destroyer or else have himself made Chief of Bureau of Navigation. I think it is useful that you should know the condition of mind in which he leaves here.

          As you know, I believe most of this is due to mental excitement caused by the disaster to the MANLEY, and I hope he will have recovered his poise by the time he gets to the other side.

Very sincerely yours,        

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department./Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: On these meetings, also see: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 30 April 1918.

Footnote 2: The Germans and Turks were unable to convert the Russian Black Seas Fleet, which was dilapidated, into a fighting fleet. Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: 333.

Footnote 3: Italian Chief of Naval Staff and fleet commander, VAdm. Paolo Thaon di Revel.

Footnote 4: The Chief of Staff of the French Navy Adm. Ferdinand-Jean-Jacques de Bon and the French Minister of Marine Georges Leygues.

Footnote 5: For more on this “method of co-ordination,” see: Sims to Daniels, 30 April 1918.

Footnote 6: In his book The Bridge to France, Edward N. Hurley, chairman of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, discussed American actions and decisions in great detail. See Hurley, Bridge to France: 31-38.

Footnote 7: Later, the Allies did decide to send an expedition to Murmansk, Russia.

Footnote 8: Cmdr. William R. Sayles.

Footnote 9: This letter has not been found.

Footnote 10: For a detailed discussion of the court martial and situation of Cmdr. Robert L. Berry, see: Sims to Leigh C. Palmer, 29 April 1918; and Sims to William V. Pratt, 29 April 1918.

Footnote 11: Sims’ letter to Berry is no longer with this letter to Benson.

Footnote 13: James B. Connolly; Out of Gloucester was a collection of six stores dealing with Gloucester fishermen published in 1902.

Footnote 14: This letter to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels has not been found.

Footnote 15: These were: Ralph D. Paine, who worked for the Committee on Public Information and the U.S. Navy; Henry Sheehan, Atlantic Monthly; Peter Clarke MacFarlane, Saturday Evening Post; and Herman Whitaker, Oakland Tribune.

Footnote 16: For the former, see: Sims to John E. Jenks, 8 April 1918; Sims’ letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune, Ogden Mills Reid, has not been found.

Footnote 17: Ralph Delahaye Paine.

Footnote 18: The “DSO” was the Distinguished Service Order, a British military decoration awarded for meritorious or distinguished service. In 1918, the United States Navy did not allow its officers to accept foreign decorations.