Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Commander Charles R. Belknap, Jr.
February 18th. 1918.
My dear Charles,
Your letter of February 2nd.1 just received. I am highly amused at your indignation over criticisms of Department, and the failure of the people over here to understand that some of your fellows over there have some sense.
The reason I am amused is because now you know how it is to be considered in this same light. How long ago is it
before <since> you wrote to me and uttered similar criticisms of the whole European outfit and wondered why it was we did not get busy and dig the rats out of their holes, or words to that effect. I think I replied to the effect that if certain operations which seem to you fellows perfectly easy were not carried out, it would be reasonable for you to conclude that there must be some good reason for it of which you were not informed. However, you are quite mistaken in supposing that we over here do not most thoroughly appreciate the job you fellows have and that we do not sympathize with you in having to carry it on under the discouraging conditions which you mention. The job of you fellows in the Navy Department and of us over here would be much simpler if it were not for the obstacles in our way. One of these obstacles is the Germans and their submarines. Others are obstacles which you know about and some of which you have indicated in your letter. We realize perfectly well that you fellows are doing splendid stunts in overcoming these obstacles and in accomplishing all that you have accomplished.
Personally, I seem to remember that from the beginning of April when I arrived here to sometime in August I was unable to persuade the Navy Department to give any assistance beyond the one man – Babcock.2 I have no idea to this day what was the explanation of this extraordinary decision or what was the reluctance to sending over all the forces that were available at that time.
However, we thoroughly appreciate now that everybody in the Department is doing everything they can to push along the war. The sooner you people over there realize one invariable obstacle the better it will be for the continuation of good understanding, and that is, that mistakes are absolutely bound to be made on both sides. Perhaps I had better say misunderstandings than mistakes. We try to express what we mean, but do not always succeed. We ask occasionally for certain things and give an explanation which we consider reasonable and sufficient. If you people do not always believe the explanation to be sufficient, it would make for efficiency to assume that we have given the subject very careful consideration and that there are doubtless other reasons, which for the sake of brevity, are not given, which are all sufficient.
Of course the general principle is that the job should be put up to the man on the spot, that his recommendations should be adopted when it is materially possible, or when there are not considerations that he does not know about on the other side which render it inadvisable.
What you say about Christopher Columbus Babcock bursting into the Navy Dept. and discovering that the organization does not seem to be working harmoniously, I think I understand just what you mean and I am correspondingly amused. You know as well as I do that Babby is constitutionally a pessimist and it is more or less natural that when all hands have been pitching into him and asking him why the hell you did not do so and so, and so and so, and when the subjects discussed are thoroughly explained in the correspondence, and when it becomes apparent that the man who gets after him does not know about it, you can imagine that it is liable to cause an impression that things are not very well co-ordinated.
However, as you say, you have to carry on your work there in the face of conditions which are unavoidable. All I want to make sureof here is, that you are quite mistaken in supposing that all hands over here are cussing out the Department and do not appreciate all the Department has to do and has done to help the forces over here. We realize that the game must go on in spite of the handicaps you mention. We are trying to do the same thing here in spite of very numerous handicaps which I have not bothered the Department about. You have certainly put across an enormous lot of work , and have done very well indeed in comparison to many of our Government activities.
As to your remark about some of your sayings travelling back and being distorted, I think you are mistaken in this respect. They may have been similar sayings to those you uttered but I can assure you that I have received both by correspondence and verbally a great many remarks which are similar to those contained in your letter. It may therefore have been some of these that have travelled back. You know how gossip has a way of getting around. You would be surprised to know how many times it has come to my ears over here that the gang in Washington, particularly earlier in the war, regarded me as so hopelessly pro-British that there was no possibility of getting any independent information from me.
Of course this was to be expected under the circumstances, because when I came over here I immediately had access to the right dope on a great many subjects which had never at that time reached America, because the censor would not allow them to be published. However, I accepted all this as one of the obstacles of the game, and it has been a more serious obstacle than you can possible understand over where you are. I could not tell you all about it because a lot of it is of an extremely confidential nature but I can assure you that it blocked the game to such an extent at times that I did not see any way out. It looked upon certain occasions as if there would be nothing else to do but for me to jump on a steamer without saying anything to anybody and turn up in Washington and try and straighten it out. It was at least seven months after the war started before this condition began to mend.
As to any trouble over here, there has been no friction to speak of in any part of our organization. There is not the slightest friction of any kind between Wilson and Cone.3 I believe it is true that the former does not like the latter, but there has been not the slightest friction or lack of co-ordination. I can assure you that if there should be any it would not continue one minute longer after the information comes to me for I will remove one of the causes of friction by the very first steamer leaving for America. I have knowledge of so much damage being caused by personal frictions during this war that I made up my mind early in the game that there should be none of it. I do not permit any criticism whatever, particularly of our allies. Everybody concerned knows perfectly well that any case of this kind will be handled in the most drastic manner. I must say however, that everything has been working so harmoniously between us and our allies that there has been practically no indications of this at all.
What you say about the C-in-C is interesting.4 It would be more interesting if I did not have equally direct information that the contrary is his attitude. I have understood for a long time that it was his declared intention to come over here and take charge. If that should ever come about of course it would mean that I would have to move on. Whatever decision the department makes in such matters is entirely up to them.
You may be sure that if I get down St.Nazaire way again, I will dig out your brother and give you an estimate of the situation on him.5
Please give my regards to old man Pratt.|6| Tell him also that all hands over here appreciate the work that he has done and is doing very highly indeed. I do not know whether he is irritated with me or not but he has not written me a letter in a coon’s age.
Very sincerely yours,
Source Note: TCy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims, Papers, Box 48. Addressed below close: “Commander Charles Belknap, U.S.Navy./c/o Navy Department,/Washington. D.C.” Belknap was an aide on the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff.
Footnote 1: See: Belknap to Sims, 2 February 1918.
Footnote 2: Cmdr. John V. Babcock, Sims’ personal aide.
Footnote 3: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces Based in France, and Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone, United States Staff Representative, Paris.
Footnote 4: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander, American Fleet. See, also: Sims to William S. Benson, 15 February 1918.
Footnote 5: Civil Engineer Francis W. Belknap.
Footnote 6: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations, and a close friend of Sims’.