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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Anne Hitchcock Sims

30, Grosvenor Gardens,  

London. S.W.       

August 3rd. 1918.

My dear Anne,

          In my recent letters I have explained to you that I suspected that there was a sort of a mix up in this matter of decorations.1 We have been asking only for the purely military decorations for our officers that are serving alongside of the allied officers and there was no mention made at all of honorary decorations and distinctions.

          Briefly, the history of the whole business is this. More than a year ago I recommended to the Department that the personnel of our torpedo destroyers be allowed to receive the same decorations as the British or French upon the recommendation of the allied commanders under whom they were serving.2 This was formally rejected by the Department with the usual statement that it was contrary to our policy, and so forth, and so forth.3

          Subsequently, I have noticed that our Press has been insisting upon our Navy allowing decorations to be received. In all these Press comments the only mention made was that of military decorations. So when the authorization came in a telegram from the Department there would have been some doubt as to what was actually meant if it had not been for the very explicit language of the law.4 The Department’s cable informed me that the Army Bill had been approved on July 9th. and that it specified that any officers or enlisted men of the military forces of the United States, were authorized to accept and wear any medals or decorations tendered by any nations concurrently engaged with the United States in the present war.

          Shortly after I received this the King paid a visit to our battleships in the Grand Fleet and I received a telegram from Admiral Rodman asking whether he was authorized to receive the decoration that it was proposed to give him upon that occasion.5 Having received the above telegram from the Department, I authorized him to receive it. Some time before this it was announced in the papers that Generals Pershing, Marsh and Bliss6 had been accorded certain decorations by the British Government. Not long afterwards it was announced in the Press that the British Government was to give me the G.C.M.G., that is, the Grand Cross of the Order of St.Michael and St.George.

          A little while afterwards I received a notification from the Admiralty that the King would receive Lieut.Commander Carpender who was recommended by the Admiralty for the D.S.O. on account of his capture of the submarine while in command of the FANNING.7 The King received him in the Palace and gave him the decoration and he sailed for home to bring out a new destroyer.

          I received no information concerning this <(decoration of mine)> at all, either officially or unofficially. Some time later, when the Naval Committee of the House came here, they had an appointment to see the King at 3.00 p.m. on a certain day. On the morning of that day I received a note from an official of the Palace saying the King wished to see me at 2.30 if my duties would permit. I had been asked before this to prepare a statement explaining who the Congressmen were and what was the function of their Committee. I assumed that it was something in connection with this; that the King wanted to be very explicitly informed about these gentlemen before he received them. It was not for this purpose. The King received me in the Palace privately, and presented me with the decoration above mentioned. He kept me for perhaps twenty minutes talking about naval affairs in general, and explained that he had wanted to give me this decoration before, but was waiting information as to the action of our Government. He explained that he had received this information through Lord Reading8 in Washington to the effect that our Government had authorised the acceptance of a decoration.

          When I got back to the office I found that a telegram had just been received cancelling the one in which we were authorized to receive decorations and explaining that the State Department had been ordered to notify all the countries concerned that our Government did not wish their officers to receive decorations.9

          As you can imagine, this is a pretty kettle of fish. I see by this morning’s papers that the French Government has presented General Pershing with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.10 In doing so, Clemenceau11 stated that he wished to express the gratitude of the French Republic for the assistance given by the American troops at a critical stageof the battle. When the King gave me the decoration mentioned, he explicitly stated that it was his desire to express the appreciation of the British Government for what the Navy of the United States had been able to do in this war. As a matter of fact these decorations are not, in any true sense, personal. They are regarded as a complimentary tribute from one country to another, expressed through the heads of various forces with whom they are cooperating.

          It seems to me that something will have to be done in America to straighten this out. What our Government does will necessarily depend to a large extent on public opinion. I do not know what that opinion is at present and will be curious to see the next bunch of press clippings that arrive.

          I have sent a cablegram to the Department giving as clearly as I can the above explanation, and I have concluded this by asking whether or not the Government wishes that under the circumstances, the above medals be returned to the King!

          You can guess as well as I can what may be the result of this. In the meantime I will hold on to the decoration until I hear something further from the Government. I enclose a copy of the cablegram herewith.

This letter is continued on Aug 7th.12

     Your devoted




CABLEGRAM SENT – August 3rd.1918.

          Your 9273 and 9275 received.13 The following will show my extremely embarrassing position. Having received your 872214 authorizing any officers or enlisted men of the military forces of the United States to accept and wear any medal or decoration tendered by any nations concurrently engaged with the United States in the present war, I informed Rodman in answer to his inquiry that he was authorized to receive a decoration from the King upon the latter’s visit to the Grand Fleet and Rodman accordingly received it.

          I also authorized Lieut.Commander Carpender to receive the D.S.O. The King presented it in person and several days ago Carpender sailed for home.

          In reply to the Admiralty’s inquiry I have stated that I would receive the similar decorations for absent officers and men of the destroyers.

          I received no official or unofficial notice of the British Government’s intention to give me a decoration. There was a notice in the papers about two weeks ago. Yesterday I received a note from an official of the Palace stating that the King wished to see me at two-thirty if my duties would permit. He was to receive the Naval Committee at three and I supposed it was concerning them, as I had prepared for him a memorandum defining their functions. Instead he presented me with the G.C.M.G. stating that he would have done so before but was awaiting information from Lord Reading that our Government had authorized our officers to receive decorations, which information he had received. Subsequently, I received the Department’s cables 9273 and 9275 which was my first knowledge that our Government had disavowed the authorization approved with the Army Bill July 9th.

          The present position is that the officers mentioned and I have accepted the decorations in question in the full belief that we were carrying out our Government’s wishes assuming that the personal refusal of a medal authorized by one’s Government would be an offence to the Government offering it.

          The fact of these medals having been presented by the King in person has been published in the Press.

          The Department is mistaken in assuming that I declined the decoration.15 I could not have done so as it was not offered to me until it was handed to me by the King himself who stated that he desired to show the appreciation of the British Government for the services rendered by our naval forces.

          Is it the Government’s wishes that under the circumstances described above the medals be returned to the King?

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

Footnote 1: See, for example the two letters Sims sent to his wife on 22 July 1918.

Footnote 5: RAdm. Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine. Rodman’s telegram to Sims has not been located. King George V presented Rodman with the Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George.

Footnote 6: Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces, Maj. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, American Permanent Military Representative, Supreme War Council, and Maj. Gen. Peyton C. March, Army Chief of Staff.

Footnote 7: Arthur S. Carpender. For more on the sinking of U-58 (the action for which the Admiralty recommended Carpender an award of the Distinguished Service Order), see: Carpender to Sims, 18 November 1917.

Footnote 8: British Ambassador to the United States Rufus Isaacs, 1st Earl of Reading.

Footnote 9: The Navy did ultimately reverse this policy, allowing Sims et al. to receive awards and decorations.

Footnote 10: In the margin next to this sentence Sims later wrote, “It will be interesting to see what is done about this.”

Footnote 11: Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau.

Footnote 12: The second portion of this letter has not been selected for printing.

Footnote 13: Neither of these cables have been located.

Footnote 14: See: Palmer to Sims, 18 July 1918.