Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations
March 25th. 1918.
My dear Admiral,
I quite intended to write you a letter for this mail, but I was unexpectedly obliged to leave for Paris to attend a joint conference of the Naval and Military Councils at Versailles upon the subject of the proposed expedition to Archangel. The official opinion arrived at will be forwarded to you as soon as received, but I may say now that the decision was that it would be extremely inadvisable from both a naval and military point of view to attempt to take and hold Archangel.1
The Inter-Allied Political Council decided, very naturally that it would be very advantageous if the Allies could hold this port and could keep the stores that have accumulated there from falling into the hands of the enemy. The question was therefore referred to the Allied Naval Council and the Military representatives of the Supreme War Council for a military opinion and it was suggested that this should be a joint opinion. The matter was discussed here at a conference in London in which were present representatives of the various nations concerned. This was sent to the Versailles Council and late on Thursday evening the 21st.inst. we were informed that a meeting would take place at Versailles on the following Saturday. This necessitated leaving here Friday morning. We arrived in Paris early Saturday, attended a conference at the Ministry of Marine in the forenoon, went to Versailles for the combined conference in the afternoon and left the same evening for London, arriving here Sunday night at 10 o’clock. On account of the offensive on the Western Front we were thirteen hours in getting from Paris to Boulogne where we had to wait four hours before starting across. The train was held up frequently to allow troop trains to pass. At Amiens werwere [i.e., we were] detained three hours while forty troop trains went by, and in the meantime a bombing raid at that place was going on.2
This particular conference brought out the fact, which must be apparent to any one, that it is not good business to call upon different inter-allied councils for opinions without the opportunity of joint discussion. For example, the question as to whether Archangel should be held or not concerns the Political Council, the Naval Council, the Military Council and the Maritime Transport Council. It is easy for the Political Council to decide that for various reasons it is very desirable to hold Archangel. The Military Council might readily decide that they could easily afford the five or six thousand troops that would be necessary. The Naval Council might decide that the expedition was not a difficult one to carry out provided the transport service could be supplied, and then the Maritime Transport Council might decide that this could not be done without dangerously diminishing supplies that are wholly necessary to the maintenance of the Armies.
I do not know that anything can be done about it, particularly at this time, when the attention of everybody is engrossed by the great danger on the Western Front, but it does seem as though some means should be devised that would make it practicable to get together the naval and military men at least, and to remain together until the questions at issue have been discussed.
For example, the discussion of the Adriatic situation was very unsatisfactory. The naval council met here in London on the 12th. and 13th. March and readily arrived at a decision as to the extreme desirability of offensive action in the Adriatic. There were certain oppositions of course on the part of the Italian representative, but all of the rest were unanimous in adopting aggression as a principle. The matter was referred to the military members of the Supreme War Council for an opinion as to the number of troops that would be necessary. I took the ground that if it were materially possible the Military Council should be asked to meet us in order that we might explain to them how important such an aggression was in our opinion, from a naval point of view. This was accordingly done , and we managed to have the meeting by getting together shortly after nine o’clock in the morning for less than an hour. Since this we have been awaiting the opinion of the military authorities. Thishas not yet been forthcoming. Of course their pre-occupation of the problem of the Western Front may account for the delay, but the point is that no provision was made to take advantage of the presence of both councils in London to get together. Perhaps this will be corrected in the future. I sincerely hope so.3
At this writing there is no reliable news as to the meaning of the advance that has taken place within the last few days on the Western Front. All we know is that the British troops have been pushed back to a certain line, but we do not know yet what are the chances of their holding this line or of the Germans eventually breaking through and to what extent they may break through. There is undoubtedly a feeling of great anxiety here in London.4
At the headquarters of the Supreme War Council at Versailles they showed me the position on the chart and explained the manner in which the reinforcements were being sent in accordance with the plan that had been adopted by the Council. Roughly speaking, as you doubtless know, this was the establishment of certain bodies of troops so placed in positions in rear of the line that they could be transported to whatever point the Germans might attack. The Senior Officer expressed considerable relief that the development of the German attack showed that it was to be a real attack driven home, and the British and the French therefore knew that they could safely make their dispositions to oppose them. They pointed out that twelve divisions of French troops were being sent north to reinforce the right flank of the British and to enable the British to strengthen the part of their line being heavily attacked further north. They also said that all troops that could safely be sent from England would be transported at once. When we came across the Channel yesterday afternoon, Sunday, we passed four large transports proceeding to the southward.
There are no other items of very particular interest, but a number that I would have included had I not been delayed until so near mailtime.
Very sincerely yours,
Admiral W.S.Benson. U.S.Navy.
Chief of Naval Operations,
In accordance with your request I cabled you yesterday such news as was available concerning the situation on the Western Front. I am sending you another cable today on the same subject. You will understand of course that these cables can only give such information as is available here, and that these may be at any time very considerably in error. What we can give you however, is the feeling that there is here in England as to the situation. For example, we have described it as depression but not despair.
My sudden departure for Paris caused me to miss seeing Secretary Baker when he arrived.5 As a matter of fact when I passed through Boulogne on the way down from Calais to Paris he was then in Boulogne unable to cross because of the dense fog on the English coast, and he was held there for 24 hours.
However, upon returning to London on Sunday night I found him still here. I took lunch with him on Monday and that evening dined at the Ambassador's were Mr.Lloyd George, Mr.Balfour and Lord Derby had been invited to meet him.6 General Biddle7 and a British general were also there. Of course the talk turned to a considerable extent on the war. There was manifest anxiety as to the result of the present drive, but there seemed to be little doubt as to the final outcome. This of course does not mean very much as information from the Front under the present more or less confused conditions cannot be reliable.
One interesting feature of the conversation was that Mr.Lloyd George asked Mr.Baker what in his opinion would be the effect in America if conscription should be applied to Ireland
and with the result of local disorders which might be expected under the circumstances. The Secretary replied to the effect that in his opinion there would not be anything like universal disapproval on the part of the Irish in America. He said he could not speak with any confidence about any locality except Cleveland;8 he stated that he had a letter from one of his friends there giving the names of ten Irishmen whom he knew and who could probably not be changed in their attitude toward the Allied cause , but that he believed that the great majority of the Irish in Cleveland would stand by the Allied Cause even though conscription were applied to Ireland.9
The Secretary talked with me and the Ambassador upon the advisability of his going to Italy. He said that he did not want to go if by so doing he would decrease in any degree whatever the ability of the French and Italian railroads to handle the troops and supplies necessary at present; that he would not consent to immobilizing of any locomotive or car for this purpose. He left for Paris early this morning and I believe he had definitely decided that he would not go to Italy.10 He did not want to wait any longer than necessary to transact his business with General Pershing in France. He therefore proposed to return by the HENDERSON about the last of this month. I accordingly cabled you this information today and stated that the PUEBLO would meet the HENDERSON outside the zone and escort her home.11
It is becoming increasingly apparent that in so far as concerns naval actions the prime necessity of the immediate future is the organization and operation of efficient hunting squadrons. I believe that the American appliances that have been sent over are more efficient than any they have over here. I hope therefore that every practicable effort will be made to send over these appliances as fast as they can be manufactured, and above all, that everything possible be done to get the 110 ft. chasers on this side at the earliest practicable moment. I believe that anything in reason that can be done in expediting the arrival of these boats should be done. The season is now coming on when they can be used most effectively. As it looks now this season will be largely passed before they can be placed in effective operation. It would seem to me that if there are any vessels, tugs or otherwise, that can be commandeered or hired to assist these boats to get across in the greatest possible numbers from Bermuda to the Azores it should be done, even to the extent of using second class battleships or any other vessels. The application of the listening devices by hunting squadrons is absolutely, in my opinion, the only hope of putting down the submarine definitely and finally.12
Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49.
Footnote 1: For the joint report on the meeting by the military and naval representatives, dated 23 March 1918, see, DNA, Records of the Supreme War Council, War Department Archives.
Footnote 2: In a letter to his wife of this date, Sims wrote that he slept through this bombing raid. Ibid., Box 9.
Footnote 3: In this account, Sims downplays the amount of opposition that the American plan encountered. In both the Naval Council and during the joint meeting with the Supreme War Council, the Italian representatives questioned the American assertion that this operation would require only 10,000 troops. They argued that it would need 25,000. The generals also questioned the dispersion of forces that would be required. In the end, the Supreme War Council agreed only to “consider the project carefully and to report back their ultimate conclusions, a highly unsatisfactory result from the naval point of view.” Trask, Captains & Cabinets: 246-47.
Footnote 4: On the German “Michael” offensive, see Hart, The Great War: 415-25.
Footnote 5: Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.
Footnote 6: United States Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour, and Secretary of State for War Edward Stanley.
Footnote 7: Gen. John Biddle, Army Chief of Staff.
Footnote 8: Before becoming Secretary of War, Baker served as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.
Footnote 9: Lloyd George’s focus during this meeting was pressing Baker for a commitment that more American troops would be sent to assist the British army in Flanders. Daniel R. Beaver, Newton D. Baker and the American War Effort, 1917-1919 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 130-32.
Footnote 10: As Sims anticipated, Baker did not visit Italy.
Footnote 11: Henderson was a Navy transport ship, and Pueblo, formerly Colorado, was an armored cruiser. DANFS.
Footnote 12: There were a number of proposals at this time concerning where the submarine chasers should be based and what their role should be. See, for example: Newton M. McCully to Henry B. Wilson, 19 March 1918, and Oswyn A. R. Murray to Sims, 10 March 1918. Despite what Sims wrote here, listening devices were never effective and hunting squadrons never enjoyed much success. See, Still, Crisis at Sea: 447-51. Nevertheless, the Navy did get the submarine chasers across the Atlantic. By the end of June, 36 submarine chasers had arrived at Corfu in the Mediterranean and 18 at Plymouth, England. By war’s end, 170 submarine chasers were based in European waters. Still, Crisis at Sea: 447-51, 496-97.