Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Anne Hitchcock Sims
30, Grosvenor Gardens, London,
Saturday, June 1, 1918
My precious Wife:
This is the end of another week, and the enemy is driving down against Soissons and Rheims.1 The military experts claim they will be stopped, and I hope it may be true. As you may imagine, we are all very anxious, as I have no doubt your are.
Yesterday we received the sad news of the torpedoing of the fine big transport President Lincoln.2 She was returning from France, so had no troops on board, but doubtless had a number of passengers. She had a crew of nearly 700, and was commanded by our fried Foote3 who used to be on the Nevada. We have no details as yet. All hands should have been saved unless the weather was bad.4 I enclose a letter from Foote written just before he sailed from France.5 He was very proud of his ship. She used to be a German liner and was about 20,000 tons6. . . .
In the early part of this week B[abcock] and I had the two leading American correspondents to dinner. One of them (Wile) was in Berlin until we came into the war, and he had many very interesting things to tell us.7 On another day I went to dinner with Mr. Pallen, a distinguished naval critic. He recently spent six months in America lecturing.8 We dined at the famous and very exclusive Brooks Club— so exclusive that Sir Eric Geddes failed of election a little while ago.9
Another night of this week, I went to an entertainment at the American Officers Inn.10 This is three large private houses fitted up as a sort of hotel for army and navy officers. This was on the night of the 30th and the Consul General (Skinner)11 delivered an address. There was also singing and music. Most of this did not appeal to me, as you may imagine, but there was one “stunt” that was most amusing. A catholic priest about 5 feet tall, quite globular, and with a face entirely round, played the piano, sang songs, made bits of speeches in between. I have never seen a more accomplished comedian. I am sure he could make a great fortune on the stage. His merriment was contagious. He has a very poor parish, and entertains people to make a bit of money for his poor. I wish you could have heard him play Tipperary as he conceives the various great composers would have played it.
I received a surprise at this entertainment by hearing played the records I sent you – Pershing, Joffre’s, etc and mine.12 The latter was well received [but?] nobody recognized my voice. It appears that I have not the kind of a voice that is reproduced accurately on the machine. However, it doesn’t much matter.
There is a very scandalous trial now going on in London. I assume that much of the press accounts will be telegraphed to America. It is apparently an attempt to show that the German agents made a list of all the sexual perverts they could find and tried to bring them under their influence for political purposes. A witness testified that Mr. Asquith’s and Mrs A’s names are on the list. This witness is a Capt Spencer of the British Army. They say he was once at our Naval Academy. He claims to have seen the book containing the names while he was in Albania. Also that he knew of the German plot and gave the information to our embassy at Rome—doing so because he feared he might be assassinated. Also that, as a further precaution, he told his story to “the Intelligence Department of the U.S. Naval Headquarters in London”, adding that “Admiral Mayo and his secretary came to him and got the whole statement”.13
Of course, I investigated this at once, tho I knew the former statement was not true, and at once telegraphed the department, quoting the two statements underlined above, and stating that my intelligence department knew nothing about it and that I had not even heard of the matter until I saw it in the press.
I am informed that this man, Spencer, saw Pye frequently and gave him the yarn. But you know that when the Mayo party was over here they carried out their investigation quite secretly and told me little or nothing of what they were doing.14 It is a sad piece of business. I wonder how much there is about it in our press. . . .
Monday, June 3, 1918.
Yesterday morning I went to the Admiralty as usual to see if there was any news of the President Lincoln – Foote’s ship. You have seen all about her in the papers. She was torpedoed away out at sea and sank in 18 minutes. I enclose you an account in one of the big envelopes. Nearly all the people were picked up, after being in the boats about 12 hours – an excellent piece of seamanship on the part of Foote. It is a pity the Dept. announces such affairs before they know the names of the officers and men missing. In the British Navy they make no announcement in the press until after all the “next of kin” have been informed. . . .
During the day we all often spoke of the great offensive toward Paris. It is in everybody’s mind. I think of it many times a day. . . .
I was notified that Yarnell15 would be ordered home for duty in the Bureau of Navigation because an officer now in the bureau wants to go to sea. The notification came from Palmer.16 I at once wrote a vigorous protest to Palmer and a similar one to Benson. Such changes of officers doing important duty is not “getting on with the war”, and I don’t think my protest will be disregarded.17 Yarnell does not want to be detached from his present duty, tho of course he would like to see his family. He has been away from them for two years. . . .
I am finishing this on Monday evening, June 3rd. The mail does not close until Friday, but I must close this evening, as I am leaving tomorrow for the north of Scotland to visit our battleship squadron in the Grand Fleet, and also one of our bases at Invergordon, where I will probably see Belknap.18 I am also to visit a fine hospital of 500 beds that we have established up there.19 It is “up to the minute” in all respects. I will be back here Saturday morning. . . . your devoted Will.
Source Note: ALS, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 10.
Footnote 1: Soissons fell to a German advance on 29 May; although heavily threatened, Rheims/Reims was not captured. With our Backs to the Wall: 84-88. According to one historian, the German Aisne offensive, which had begun on 27 May, ended on 4 June. Ibid., xxiv-xxv, 87.
Footnote 2: On the sinking of the troop transport President Lincoln, see: Sims to J.R. Poinsett Pringle, 3 June 1918.
Footnote 3: Cmdr. Percy W. Foote.
Footnote 4: Three officers and twenty-three sailors aboard President Lincoln were killed. Ibid.
Footnote 5: Foote’s letter has not been found.
Footnote 6: President Lincoln was formerly owned by the Hamburg-American line and was named Berlin. It was 32,500 tons. DANFS.
Footnote 7: Frederic W. Wile. From 1906 to 1918 Wile was a correspondent for the London Daily Mail specializing in German affairs. Also, in 1917-18 he worked for the Intelligence Section of the American Expeditionary Force as a specialist in German affairs.
Footnote 8: Arthur J.H. Pollen was a British naval contractor turned journalist for the influential magazine Land and Water, who was known for his critical appraisal of the British effort to combat German submarines and his intricate knowledge of the British Admiralty. Barry D. Hunt, Sailor-Scholar: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, 1871-1946 (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982), 60.
Footnote 9: Geddes was First Lord of the Admiralty.
Footnote 10: The Washington Inn was opened by the YMCA to provide American officers with a place to stay. New York Times. 25 June 1918.
Footnote 11: Robert P. Skinner.
Footnote 12: For more on these records, see: Sims to Sims, 18 May 1918.
Footnote 13: Harold S. Spencer was born in the United States to a British family. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy and then travelled widely, occasionally serving as a war correspondent. He volunteered to serve in the British army during World War I, was commissioned in the artillery corps, and achieved the rank of captain. He became involved with the British Secret Service. However, his increasing obsession with the idea that the Germans were conspiring to sexually corrupt British civilians led to his being invalided out of the army in 1917 on grounds of mental instability. In 1918 he wrote an article claiming that 47,000 Britons were being blackmailed by the Germans to "propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia". The names, Spencer alledged, were listed in the "Berlin Black Book" of the "Mbret of Albania". A second article attacking a prominent actress for being associated with the conspiracy, led to a sensational libel case, which Sims refers to in his letter. Philip Hoare, Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998), 57-59, 118. Mr. Asquith was the former Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith and his second wife, Margot Tennant Asquith. There is no evidence that they were involved in anything unseemly.
Footnote 14: Cmdr. William S. Pye was on VAdm. Henry T. Mayo’s staff when Mayo led a mission to England in September and October 1917.
Footnote 15: Capt. Harry E. Yarnell, a member of Sims’ staff.
Footnote 16: RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Footnote 17: Yarnell remained with Sims in Europe.
Footnote 18: Cmdr. Reginald R. Belknap. He commanded Mine Squadron One, which was laying the North Sea mine barrage. Still, Crisis at Sea: 439.
Footnote 19: Base Hospital No. 2 at Strathpeffer, Scotland.w Supplement to the Navy List: 42.