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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. 1.         

November 12th.1918.

My darling Anne,

          No mail has been received since my last letter to you.1 In the intervening days a great many things have happened. Perhaps these happenings will prove to be the most important that have ever taken place in the history of the world. Perhaps they will mean the end of all autocratic and irresponsible rule of civilized people. At all events they mean that such rule has received such a check that it can probably never raise its head again in the west –

          It seems incredible considering the long period of anxiety that we have been through that we should now be enjoying success and victory much more complete than we really could have hoped for. It is so complete and so humiliating for the enemy that one cannot prevent a certain feeling of sympathy for those people in Germany who have been so cruelly and so bitterly deceived as to the truth about all this wretched affair. However, I am not one of those who believe that the German nation as a whole has not been responsible for this war. They have doubtless been educated through years of skilful propaganda to really believe that it was their mission on earth to conquer their neighboring and as they thought less civilized nations and impose their culture on the world.

          By the last mail I received a small pamphlet from you entitled: “KNOW YOUR ENEMIES”. I have been reading this and it is really astonishing to read the quotations from the writings and sayings of such a great number of prominent people of all occupations in Germany. One could certainly not believe such things on any ordinary testimony – hardly on anything except the published opinions of these men. This war may not have the effect of changing the opinions of the men in question, but before they are ever able to make war again, these men will have passed away, and in the meantime the younger generation coming up will have learned through free intercourse with the rest of the world just how mistaken their fathers were.

          There is of course nothing in the armistice that has not been immediately flashed across to America. It is a pity that a false alarm got abroad and caused a premature celebration.2

          I wish you could have been here yesterday and seen the enthusiasm caused by the announcement at 11 a.m. that the armistice had been signed. I did not believe that old London could have bubbled over to such an extent. Even during the last three months when the Western armies have been winning victory after victory you never would have known it in London without reading the papers. There never was an extra flag out or bell rung, but when this armistice was signed London really cut loose. Practically all work stopped. Employees in all kinds of business left their work and went out into the streets[.] The block of buildings which we and the Embassy are now occupying had every window filled, and a great part of the people went outdoors. All the omnibuses that went by had the amperile filled with people and most of them had small flags which blossomed out suddenly. Our sailormen, stenographers, messengers, marines, etc. all joined in. They commandeered one of our biggest 3-ton trucks which made tours around the neighborhood cheering all hands. Three or four dozen of the sailors formed in line ahead with their hand on each others shoulders and marched through the neighborhood bearing an American flag and were followed by a couple of dozen of our messenger boys carrying a flag stretched out between them. The latter were dressed in a naval uniform which is about the same as our sailors except the braid on the collar is red instead of white. I heard later that they marched around in front of Buckingham Palace and were invited by the Guards to march in on the parade. They attracted the attention of the King who came out and made a few remarks to them.

          Last night I had nine fellows to dinner including Pringle, Buchannan, Sexton, Twining, Babby and Danny3 and after dinner we went to hear the revue “Hullo, America,” of which the principal character is the famous Elsie Janis.4 The price for our seats was ordinarily about 13 francs but as soon as the news of the armistice being signed had gotten about the price of tickets jumped to two guineas and in some cases to four. Fortunately we had engaged half our seats before the armistice was signed. However, expense does not count on a night like that. You can imagine that the audience was bubbling over with enthusiasm. When I came in they promptly gave three cheers. It has gotten to be so that many people recognise me from the pictures they have seen in the papers. After the theatre was over and we were coming out somebody proposed three cheers again.

          But I must tell you about the function at the Lord Mayor’s. He gave a great dinner of nearly eight hundred covers at the Guildhall. This was the first function in which a diplomatic representatives and officers of the Government put on their court uniforms and decorations. This did not apply to any military or naval men in active service.

          The reception of the guests at one of these functions is most impressive. The Lord Mayor receives at one end of the great library of the Guildhall. This hall must be quite a hundred feet in length with a lofty peak ceiling. The guests that he personally invites and who come there earlier than the principal dignitaries are arranged on two sides of the hall – probably five or six hundred people. Between these two ranks of people is a wide red carpet leading up to the stand where the Lord mayor receives. Each guest is received before he enters the hall by two heralds who make sure of his name and titles. Then he is brought into the hall at the head of it and the word is passed half way down the hall to another herald who announces his name and titles in a very loud and very distinct voice. Then the guest is conducted down by the two heralds to the Lord Mayor who introduces him to the Lady Mayoress, the retiring Mayor and his wife.5 When my name was announced I received the surprise of my life. The entire audience on both sides both men and women all rose and clapped their hands and cheered. I was told by some of the people that were there that the reception I received as the representative of America was not surpassed by that of any of the representatives except those to Mr.Lloyd George, Mr.Balfour and the French Ambassador.6 After all the guests had arrived they marched in to the great Guidhall- the hall in which I made the undiplomatic speech in 1910.7 I was at the principal table and not very far away from the Lord Mayor who had the Prime Minister on his right, the French Ambassador on his left, and all the rest of the dignitaries in their proper order.

          This was probably the most important and historic gathering that the Guildhall has ever seen in all its five hundred years of existence. Mr.Lloyd George’s speech you have doubtless read in the papers as it must have been telegraphed in extenso to the TIMES. It was most impressive but unfortunately it was considerably marred by the length of the speeches that preceded it. Each one of the speakers seemed to think that it was up to him to make the historic speech of the occasion. They should all have been strictly limited as to time. The dinner lasted until 11.30.

          I need not say I am sure how often I thought of you and how much I wished that you could have been present on this great occasion. You may be sure that it brought back moving associations to me, because it was from the same spot as that occupied by Mr.Lloyd George that I made my undiplomatic speech in 1910. Who could have supposed that I would have been here in my present capacity, and that my predictions at that time should have been so completely fulfilled. Of course we cannot help but regret that it was not fulfilled more promptly and more energetically and more successfully. Had it been so there would be over a million men’s lives today who are now dead. The history of these times will not be very pleasant reading for our children.

          This forenoon I went to a Thanksgiving Service that was held in St.Pauls Cathedral. All Government officials of a diplomatic character and all important people in the city were there. It was attended of course by the King and Queen. You can imagine how impressive it was and how much I wished that you could have seen it. Not the least interesting sight was the dense crowds of people that lined the streets on both sides all the way from Buckingham Palace to the Cathedral. We guests went down these streets before the King and Queen8 came back immediately after them. Tomorrow, at the invitation of the pastor of a church which is close alongside of headquarters, all the personnel of headquarters of both the Army and Navy are going to attend a special American Thanksgiving Service. I am asking every single officer, all of our enlisted men, all of the stenographers, all the messenger boys and all the rest of the personnel except the guards at the doors, to be in attendance. We will probably afterwards, or on some similar occasion, get an outdoor photograph of the whole personnel of headquarters. This will be an interesting souvenir of these years over here.

          I forgot to say that last night when we came out of the theatre the streets were so filled with people in Piccadilly and the Haymarket and Trafalgar Square and such like localities that all traffic by buses and motor cars was stopped. The streets were literally packed with people, mostly all carrying flags and many of them singing and not a few dancing. I am quite sure that stolid old London has surprised itself within the last two or three days. After my guests had gone home I went off by myself through Trafalgar Square and into the Strand just to look at the crowds. The whole attitude of the people seemed to express the immense relief from all the anxieties of these last four years. . . .

          I really hope that in the enthusiasm caused by the end of the war you have not decided in your mind anything about the probable time of my being able to get home or of your being able to come over here. It is too soon to form any opinion on that subject at all. The problem of demobilization is a very important and a very complicated one. In the first place, we have to take our part in the carrying out of the terms of the armistice. This will all be under supervision of the forces of the Allies and the United States and both our Navy and Army must take its part. We have to see that the German Fleet is demobilized. We also have to take charge of the vessels that will be turned over to the Allies and the United States for internment in a neutral port or in one of our ports.9 We expect to have a meeting today of the Allied Naval Council to determine the main lines of this work. After that the details will have to be settled. We also have the whole staff in conference as to our methods of demobilization, both of our forces and of the Army, because this will be largely up to the Navy as soon as and as fast as the soldiers are ready to leave.

          Of course everybody over here is anxious to get back home. For the efficiency of the services indicated above it will be necessary for those officers who command the various bases on the sea from which our vessels will take their departure must remain at their posts to see that this very important work goes along smoothly. I think you will recognise that under these circumstances it would not be well for me to skip off to America. It is perfectly true that once this work is organized it will doubtless come along satisfactorily. If, however, I should go to America it would probably be necessary for me to turn over the direction of all this work to the next senior officer. This officer has been exclusively occupied with the work at his own base and is not informed as to the general policies or methods of headquarters. Moreover, he is not in sympathy with them. I may even say that he has always been opposed to me and all my methods.10

          As for you coming over here, I do not think that would be desirable at the present time. It may be that when things have cleared up a bit and are going along more smoothly it might be possible for you to come over. That would depend upon about how soon developments prove that I can be detached and come homefor good. I really do not know now what to say about this. It may be that within a very few months, after the bulk of the naval personnel has returned, and after the machinery of the demobilization of the Army (in so far as it concerns the Navy) is working smoothly I might be no longer required here, and the rest of the work could be turned over to a subordinate officer. In that case it would not be worth while for you to go to the trouble and expense of closing up one house and opening another in London.

          Apropos of expense, of course you know that that would be very considerable, because everything is exceedingly high on this side. Moreover, there is to be considered the fact that many more or less essential supplies are now lacking and will be lacking doubtless for a couple of years. Butter is obtainable only in very small quantities. The milk supply of London is notoriously bad. I do not remember whether I sent you a clipping giving an account of a report made by a Sanitary Commissioner to the effect that an examination of the milk of twentyeight of the principal dairies of London showed the presence of microbes of manure. This may be remedied in time, but there is not a single dairy on this side which makes a specialty of handling milk in anything like the way we consider necessary with us.

          The point I wish to make in all this business is that it is not possible at the present time to make any decision. Things are moving so fast and are changing so that any decision that one makes now will run a very great risk of being wrong. So let us wait with patience and see what turns up as the situation develops. I need not, I am sure, attempt to describe how much I want to get home and see you all. I am not the least bit tired or run down but I do feel an immense relief over the letting up of the constant strain and over the lifting of the burden of responsibility from military action. I have had quite enough of that to do me for the rest of my life. I want to return to the family and stay there, and I want no more public life and will resist anything of that kind. I do not however, think it at all probable that any of the principal dignitaries of our Navy Department will want me working with them. You know enough about them and about me to know that that combination would probably not be successful. . . .

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

Footnote 1: See: Sims to Sims, 5 November 1918.

Footnote 2: On 7 November, inaccurate reports that an armistice had been signed sparked celebrations across the Allied world. See: Josephus Daniels to Sims, 7 November 1918.

Footnote 3: Capt. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle, Chief of Staff, Destroyer Flotillas; Lt. Cmdr. Allen Buchannan, commander, Downes; Capt. Walton R. Sexton, Sims’ assistant chief of staff; Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ chief of staff; Cmdr. John V. Babcock, Sims’ personal aide; and Cmdr. Joseph F. Daniels, another aide on Sims’ staff.

Footnote 4: Elsie Janis was the stage name of Elsie Jane Bierbower, one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation. Janis was dubbed “Sweetheart of the AEF for her many performances in France for American soldiers. While she performed in official venues like the one Sims visited, she was also famous for finding makeshift stages in boxing rings, airplane hangars, and trucks in the midst of American camps. After the war she continued on vaudeville and eventually transitioned to writing and radio announcing.;, accessed 7 November 1918.

Footnote 5: The outgoing Lord Mayor was Horace Brooks Marshall, 1st Baron Marshall of Chipstead. He was succeeded by Sir Edward Cooper.

Footnote 6: David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister; British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour; and Paul Cambon.

Footnote 7: In 1910, while in Europe, Sims had given a speech in Guildhall in which he assured the British audience that “if the time ever comes when the British Empire is seriously menaced by an external enemy, it is my opinion that you may count upon every man, every dollar, every drop of blood of your kindred across the sea.” His comments infuriated many in Washington, and then-President William Taft officially reprimanded him. Still, Crisis at Sea: 21.

Footnote 8: George V and Mary.

Footnote 9: When no neutral country agreed to accept the German fleet, it was interned at Scapa Flow, off Scotland’s Orkney Islands in the North Sea.

Footnote 10: Sims is referring here to RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France. Sims and Wilson were already hostile towards each other when the war started, their enmity dating back to Sims’ efforts to reform gunnery. Wilson had also outranked Sims at one time, when he was a captain, but then Sims was promoted to rear admiral ahead of him. Although they seemed to have a good working relationship when Wilson assumed command, Sims quickly came to suspect Wilson of disloyalty, and accused him of undermining his authority to other officers. Wilson denied the accusations. Sims even went so far as to try and have Wilson relieved of command, but the latter enjoyed considerable support from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, so there was never any real possibility of him being replaced. Still, Crisis at Sea: 56; 534.

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