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 Anne Hitchcock Sims

[Extract]

London, August 15, 1918.

My dear Anne,

          . . . . We have been trying to arrange our work so as to get a little time off in the afternoon to play tennis, but it has not been very successful. We could arrange the work alright, if it were not for the procession of people that come through London and who bring letters of introduction and who have to be received and for whom we have to do this, that and the other. It is constant interruptions of this kind that keep me from establishing any regular system of exercise.

          . . . . I understand what you say about getting mental rest. I thoroughly approve of your going up for a recreation, and all I am trying to say is that I would like to know that you had succeeded in so ordering your daily life that you will not get either physically or mentally very tired. This I believe to be very important as a mode of life. I realise it very particularly in my present position. You could imagine that I could not carry on this job if I should break down, even to the extent of upsetting my digestion, much less having an attack of nerves. . . . I am helped in this very materially by having a placid temperament. All the same there have been occasions in the past, as you know, when I was in danger of a bit of over-strain, notably at the time of the controversy with the Senate Committee.1 I do not propose to let anything like that happen. As far as I can make out, nerves are upset by not a very severe, but a very continuous mental over-taxing. I have seen this in a number of cases with my subordinates, who have had, for example, to compose a great many letters in a day. Though the mental effort is not a severe one, the amount and the continuity of the effort gradually gets on the nerves and this manifests itself in the usual way. I avoid this as much as possible by delegating such work to others. For the same reason I find it entirely essential to avoid things which bore me. You know my antipathy to clubs. Of course it would be a good thing if I did not have this antipathy. I might force myself to go to the clubs, but I feel it would not be good business. For the same reason I avoid all purely social affairs that are gotten up for the entertainment of idle and almost entirely useless people.

          . . . . I was rather surprised at what you had to say concerning the probability of increased air raids over London. I have not seen anything about this in the press or heard anybody mention this possibility. I do not see why they should be expected, as the Huns will certainly need every possible plane they can muster on the Western Front.2 As for precautions against air raids, I have always taken reasonable ones. When I first came here I noted that recent arrivals in London would always go on the street when an air raid is on, in the hope of seeing a plane or Zeppelin. This is of course to take an undesirable risk of being injured or killed by falling pieces of shrapnel, and is wholely unjustifiable. I believe a person is reasonably safe in any of the lower stories of heavy buildings. Of course it is always possible for a large bomb to come down through a house in your particular locality but the chances are millions and millions to one against this.

          Referring to the clipping you sent me from the “New York Times” about the JUSTICIA.3 This was replied to immediately by my friend Grasty.4 The same remark applies to this as to all other similar criticisms, that is, the points which the Editor finds so very obvious must be equally obvious to the responsible military officers. The only other conclusion is that the latter are unusually dull asses. If I can find time, I will write a confidential letter to the Editor of the “Times” and, in my well-known diplomatic manner explain to him just how much damage I think such articles are likely to do. There was a lot of rot published about the JUSTICIA. She was under escort when she was attacked. There is no system of escort or no density of escort that can insure absolutely a vessel against being torpedoed, because the submarine, while still so far away that his periscope is wholely invisible, can take a “Browning shot” at a convoy with a certain chance of hitting. Unfortunately the JUSTICIA was hit in the Engine Room and her motive power destroyed. This left her in the same condition as would be a vessel anchored in the open sea. Under those conditions it was practically impossible to protect her against attack of any submarines that might be in the neighbourhood. One of the submarines that attacked her was destroyed and a number of the crew captured.

          I am amused by the excessive secrecy observed in the United States, according to the Government rules. It is hard to see just what advantage it would be to the enemy for any young fellow to inform his people that he had arrived at a certain port and expected to sail on a certain day. In the first place, this information could be of no possible value to the enemy and in the second place it could not possibly reach the enemy in time for him to make any use of it, if it was any good. And in the third place, if full information were telegraphed to Berlin each time a transport left the United States it could do no possible harm to us as long as you did not tell the port at which she arrives, and the course which she takes across the ocean. The Germans already know that troops are arriving in Europe. They know they are arriving at the rate of about 300,000 a month and they know the ports that are used for debarkation, and that is all the information that they need except the course across the ocean. However, if this secrecy conveys an impression of efficiency, if can do no harm.

          . . . . A few days ago Congressman Sherley arrived here.5 He is the Chairman of the great committee of appropriation, and has come over to take a talk with the principal financial dignitaries of Great Britain and France. You may be sure that I am doing everything I can to render his stay profitable and pleasant. He asked me particularly and repeated his request two or three times, that I should give his best regards to you. He tells me that he was present at our wedding, and also at that of General Pershing.6 He is a very attractive man and a very able one. Moreover, I believe him to be an entirely reliable and honest gentleman. . . .

August, 18th.

          . . . . I think you give yourself rather undue concern about the possibility of some people talking too much. Really, the principal dignitaries have carried this business of secrecy too a rather absurd degree. It is difficult to see how any information in the possession of an individual soldier could be utilized by the enemy in any way. If information concerning strategical or tactical action we intend to take against the enemy should be divulged this would be of use to him, even if he did not get it for a month, but I cannot see that it would do the slightest harm if we telegraphed him the time of departure of every troop convoy that left the United States.

          Of course rules have to be given that will prevent the enemy getting useful information and when these rules are applied they must necessarily place restrictions to a certain extent on perfectly innocent information – hence the usual annoyance caused by the censorship.

          . . . . I am glad you have the same idea as I have in regard to the importance of paying attention to the attitude of the public mind and the public idea regarding the conduct of the commander of their forces abroad. I can hardly conceive anyone recommending that I should make a liaison trip to the United States any more than they could recommend General Pershing leaving his command to run over to Washington. It is afact that the great majority of the human race do not do any thinking at all. The confidence of the public is of very serious military importance in a billet like this and I am very glad for that reason that I have it to a certain extent.

          With regard to the criticisms in the NEW YORK TIMES about the escorts, Grasty cabled an article immediately which would counteract that. I think I will write a letter to the Editor and point out to him how damaging such articles as that are likely to be. I can invite his attention to the fact that practically all of his article is based upon wholly false information.

          . . . . With regard to your hope that the visit of the Assistant Secretary7 will be of benefit to me, I am afraid that is not likely to be realized. Unfortunately the [Assistant] Secretary has always been at loggerheads with the Department. He told me himself that he was not popular with the administration. I do not know just what the trouble has been, but there has been considerable controversy in the Department itself, and the Assistant Secretary has not been getting along very well with Mr.Daniels.8 It is for this reason that I have written the letter to Benson, of which I gave you a copy.9 This was for the purpose of notifying him that I would make no recommendations of any kind except through him.

          . . . . With regard to Captain Willoughby.10 It seems to me that it would be rather absurd to allow a man of his age to go into the active work of the flying corps. All experience shows that only young men can stand this work. One cause of dis-satisfaction on the part of Captain Willoughby is that he is very earnestly recommending a certain measure to the Department which is intensely inadvisable at the present time. It is one of those things which, as Cone says, “talks well”, that is, seems very reasonable to a civilian mind. But our experience has shown that it would be extremely inadvisable. It is a question of the amalgamation of the Army and Navy air services right now in the midst of a war. This has been done by the British but it has caused endless trouble and considerable detriment to the progress of the war. For some reason the British Army is directly interested in getting the American Navy and Army air services amalgamated with each other. Not long ago a British general went to America for the special purpose of accomplishing this.11 I had a long interview with him and he pronounced himself persuaded that it should not be done. However, when he went to America he not only advocated it, but he gave out something in the public press on the subject. The result was that he was promptly invited to return to England and the authorities were notified that they would like to have him kept out of the country.

          . . . . I knew you would be interested in a letter I wrote to the President.12 I intentionally confined it to general topics, practically not much more than the atmosphere over here. To tell the truth it never occured to me to comment upon his role in all this war business. If it had occured to me I would have been embarrassed as to just what to say. My letter was only an acknowledgement of a letter of introduction. I make a practice always of acknowledging such letters. I receive a very considerable number from the Secretary and from Benson and others. I did the same with the President and then rambled on a bit about the general situation. Of course I expected no reply. You will be interested in the letter I have just received from the President. You will note in the last paragraph that he distinctly invites me to write to him whenever I want to. For fear this might be known at the Navy Department and raise a suspicion that I was going to work something behind their backs, I have sent a copy to Benson, with a letter explaining the circumstances. I enclose you also a copy of this letter to Benson. . . .13

Your devoted            

Will          

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 10.

Footnote 1:Sims is likely referring to his efforts in 1907 to bring about substantial reforms in the Navy, including plans to shift away from promotion by seniority to promotion by merit, reshape the organization of the Navy Department, and press for the building of bigger warships. In this, he and his allies faced fierce opposition from the chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, Eugene Hale of Maine. Morison, Admiral Sims: 180-182.

Footnote 2: Over the course of the war, German air raids on London killed 835 people, mostly civilians, and injured another 1,990. The last of these raids, however, took place on 19 May 1918, and Sims was correct in believing that another was unlikely. Encyclopedia of World War I: London, Bombings of; “Rare Charts show WW1 German air raids on Britain” The Telegraph (7 November 2013), accessed 13 August 2018.

Footnote 3: For more on the New York Times’ comments on the sinking of the Justicia, and a copy of Sims’ letter, see: Sims to Benson 21 August 1918.

Footnote 4: Charles H. Grasty, an American correspondent who reported for the New York Times.

Footnote 5: J. Swagar Sherley (Democrat), a member of the House of Representatives from Kentucky.

Footnote 6: Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, U.S.A., Commander-in-Chief, American Expeditionary Force.

Footnote 7: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Footnote 8: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. As for the relationship between the top two men at the Navy Department, Daniels’ biographer characterizes FDR’s attitude toward his boss as one of condescension and occasional undermining, but Daniels supported his assistant and valued his significant contributions to the Navy Department. Craig, Josephus Daniels: 250-252. While there was never an open break between the two men, Sims may be basing his judgment on an incident in 1914, when Roosevelt testified before Congress just after Daniels on the United States’ readiness in the event it was drawn into the war. Daniels insisted that naval construction and preparation was perfectly adequate, while Roosevelt – although he did not contradict Daniels openly – strongly implied that the Navy was ill-prepared for war and needed to expand. H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Doubleday, 2008): 96-98.

Footnote 9: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations. See: Sims to Benson, 10 August 1918.

Footnote 10: This officer has not been further identified.

Footnote 11: A separate United States Air Force was not created until 1947. William Sefton Brancker, Controller-General of Equipment and Master-General of Personnel, Royal Air Force. Currently holding his rank as a member of the British Army, on 23 August 1918, Brancker resigned his commission in the Army and granted a permanent commission as a Major General in the R.A.F. See: Sims to Hutchinson I. Cone, 18 August 1918.

Footnote 12: Woodrow Wilson. See: Sims to Wilson, 13 July 1918. For Wilson’s reply, see, Wilson to Sims, 2 August 1918, Woodrow Wilson Papers, 49: 158.

Footnote 13: Sims’ letter to Benson regarding the President has not been found.