Skip to main content
Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain Harry E. Yarnell, Staff, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations





Op-61-HJB                                      14 December 1918.

My dear Admiral Benson:

          I am forwarding herewith for your consideration, certain notes which have been written by Captain Yarnell, in the line of a suggested plan for the actual foundation of a League Navy, in accordance with the principles drawn by Professor George G. Wilson of Harvard University.1These notes have been made after careful consideration of the subject by Captain Yarnell, but there has been no opportunity to have them handled by the Planning Committee in general, owing to the fact that all hands are everlastingly busy. . . .


Very respectfully,           

R.E. Coontz   

Rear Admiral, USN.2

Admiral W. S. Benson, USN.,

& Naval Attache,

Paris, France.  

M E M O R A N D U M._

December 9, 1918.

For Chief of Naval Operations.

     The following notes have been written to sketch a suggested plan for the actual foundation of a League Navy in accordance with the principles drawn by Professor George G. Wilson of Harvard University, which have been tentatively agreed upon by the Navy Department.

     It is assumed that a League of Nations will be eventually established. Our naval representative at the Conference will have a great advantage if he is able to present a definite, practical plan for the establishment of a League navy, and it is believed to be of importance that our naval representative be designated at once and that he begin the study of the problems involved.3


     Assuming, as has been stated, that a League of Nations has been decided upon at the Peace Conference, and that the general principles upon which the League Army and Navy are to be established are in accordance with those tentatively agreed upon by the U. S. Navy Department, the problem resolves itself in one of framing the definite recommendations of the steps that are necessary in order to establish and place inworking order a League Navy.4

     In the organization of such a force we cannot expect to depart to any extent from the methods and procedure that have been found necessary by nations as a result of years of experience.

     We must expect that the League Navy will require about the same machinery as is now required by any first class power.

     On the other hand, the establishment of a League Navy affords a unique opportunity to incorporate the best features of existing organizations, and to eliminate conditions that are a result of custom and tradition, but which play no efficient part, and are maintained by inertia and conservatism.

     Naturally the maintenance of a high state of discipline in such a Navy is of major importance. An inefficient Army or Navy would practically ensure the destruction of the League, if not by direct attack, by the refusal of Nations to entrust their safety to an organization, the strength of whose military sanctions was in doubt.

     The existence of a League Navy involves the existence of a Navy Department, Admiralty, Ministry of Marine, or whatever it may be called.


     The location of the Navy Department should comply with the following requirements:-

1.   It should be in the same place as the other Executive and Judiciary establishments of the League.

2.   It should be in thorough touch with the rest of the world by mail and telegraph.

3.   It should be in a healthy spot.

4.   It is desirable that it be within a short distance of the principal naval base and schools of the League Navy.

5.   As the League Army will desire to have its Administrative Office near the principal part of its force, the suitability of the nearby territory as a drill and barrack ground for a large force should be considered.

6.   Also as such a League Army should be available for overseas work, it is necessary that such a force should be based near a port having excellent rail and embarkation facilities.

     From the above arise two questions which will be considered later:-

(a)  The desirability of uniting the Administrative Department of the Army and Navy under one head.

(b)  The question of transport vessels.

     In a consideration of place suitable for such an international capital, we may exclude Asia, Africa, and South America as being too far from the center of world affairs. The choice is necessarily limited to Europe, the United States and Canada.

     In view, however, of the number of nationalities involved and the interest at stake, it is reasonable to assume that the location of the center of gravity of the League of Nations will be centered in Europe for many years to come, and for this reason any consideration of an international capital in the United States or Canada is not discussed. As far as the European area is concerned, we may exclude ports in Scandinavia and the Baltic as being too eccentric and too poorly provided with rail communication to serve as an international capital.

     This leaves an area from which a choice may be made to comprise the British Isles, the Atlantic coast of France, and the northern coast of the Mediterranean.

     Political considerations may require the elimination of the British Isles, further narrowing the choice of location.

     On the Atlantic coast of France, Brest is the only harbor having the natural qualifications of a great naval base. It is doubtful, however, if France would consent to the use of this harbor as a League base, since it is their intention to develop it as a future commercial port.

     In the Mediterranean, the following places may be mentioned as suitable for main naval bases:-






     Without a discussion in detail of these bases, it may be stated that Toulon and Pola are the most suitable as far as location is concerned.

     It is not probable that either England or France will consent to give up any of their naval bases at the present time, which would leave Pola and Constantinople as the two places which could most likely be obtained as naval bases.

     Pola already has a well equipped dock yard, and its ownership may be open to settlement by the Peace Conference. It is nearer the larger European nations than Constantinople.

     The latter port will, however, undoubtedly be internationalized as a result of the Peace Conference, and there should be no questions of conflicting interests as to the desirability of making it the main League Naval base.

     We may conclude then that the choices of the main naval base near which the shore administrative offices will be established will be either Pola or Constantinople.

     The above discussion is with reference to the main naval base; other naval bases that will be necessary or desirable when the League is fully established will be considered later.


     The organization of a League Navy D epartment will necessarily be along lines that have been found necessary or desirable in existing navies.

     Owing to the close co-operation that will be necessary with the League Army, the question arises whether it would not be conductive to economy and efficiency to have one Department handle the shore administrative details of the Army and Navy. Such an arrangement will permit of the consolidation of several bureaus which are now duplicated in each branch of the service.

     It would seem that the following bureaus which now exist in the Navy Department of the United States could be consolidated in an organization to handle the administrative details of both the Army and Navy:

Bureau of Supplies and Accounts

Bureau of Ordnance

Bureau of Navigation

Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

Bureau of Yards and Docks.

     In the present duties of Supplies and Accounts, many of the articles purchased by each department are similar and can be used by either service.

     The establishment of one Bureau of Ordnance would result in a greater standardization of Army and Naval ordnance material.

     Questions of personnel relating to both services can be handled by one department. This would result in a greater flexibility and would permit of the exchange of personnel between the two services to an extent which cannot be done under such an organization as now exists in our Navy today. There is no reason why certain branches of commissioned personnel such as medical officers and chaplains should not perform duty in either the Army or Navy. It is to be understood, of course, that the technical details pertaining to each service would be handled by such in each bureau or department. The proposed general organization of such a combined Army and Navy Department would be:-

One Minister of Army and Navy, a civilian of high standing, and immediately under him a chief of Army operations and a chief of Naval operations.

Under these two would come the Personnel and Material Bureaus, as now organized.


     The efficiency of any service depends on the efficiency of its personnel. As stated before, the existence of a League would be seriously imperilled by an inefficient League Army and Navy. Hence the commissioned and enlisted personnel which is entered into the service of the League at the beginning must be of the highest obtainable standard.

     It may be assumed that all such service will be voluntary. Hence to secure and hold a high class of men, the rewards with regard to pay and retirement must be adequate. Those in existence in the United States Navy are greater than in any other country and it is recommended that they be adopted. It will probably be necessary to raise the pay of the lower enlisted ratings in order to secure a high grade of men.

     The officers and men for the League Navy from the beginning and for a number of years until a training system can be established, will necessarily be officers and men from the existing navies who volunteer for League service.

     Upon entering the service of the League they should be released from the oath of allegiance to their native country and should take the oath of allegiance to the League.

     It is considered that officers and men should have the privilege of resigning from the League navy after a certain length of service, - say, four years.

     The “Articles of War” and Regulations for the government of the League navy would necessarily have to be drawn by a Board representing the nations forming the League.

     Also the ration of commissioned to enlisted personnel, the proportion of officers in grades, and the rules for strict retirement should be decided upon by such a board.

     The present law in existence for the U. S. Navy is considered a good model, being flexible with regard to increase or decrease of personnel and material.

     Our method of graded pay on the retired list depending on length of service is also considered excellent.

     It is considered, however, that upon retirement, a lump sum would be better than annual pay, and that the officer or man should be free to resume his nationality if he so desires. 


     The growth of a League Navy should be gradual. It is manifestly impossible to take over immediately the number of vessels that would compose such a navy as provided for in the proposed articles regarding this subject. The recruiting of personnel, the organization of the fleet and shore stations are matters that require time. Also it is too much to expect that the great nations will voluntarily relinquish control of all or part of their present fleets for a number of years after the close of the present war. . . .

     The ports of all nations that subscribe to the League should be open to vessels of the League navy for repairs and supplies.

     The above mentioned ports under the control of the League will represent a development extending over a number of years, and cannot be counted upon unless the League in its infancy justifies the hopes of its founders.


Source Note: DS, DLC, William S. Benson Papers, Box 36.

Footnote 1: Wilson was one of the founding members of the American Society of International Law. In addition to his appointment at Harvard, he taught for several years at the Naval War College, and was a prominent advisor to the U.S. government on international law at sea. He later took part in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. Denys P. Myers, “In Memorium,” American Journal of International Law 45 no. 3 (July 1951), 549-552. Accessed 17 September 2019. 

Footnote 2: At this time, Coontz was head of the Demobilization Board at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He would go on to succeed Benson as Chief of Naval Operations in November 1919.

Footnote 3: There was no U.S. naval representative at the Peace Conference, but the Navy did have extensive opportunity to present its views to the American delegation. Benson in particular had a substantial influence during the negotiations. Still, Victory Without Peace, 18-22.

Footnote 4: Although a League of Nations was created (without American participation), no League Navy was ever created. Still, Victory Without Peace, 39.  

Related Content