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Part II: The Rationing System   (cont'd.)

Chapter 17: Supplementary Measures, Bunker Control, and the Inspection of Neutral Mails

Early attempts to control the export of coal. – Enquiries into the state of foreign trade in coal and the policy provisionally adopted. – The Admiralty's suggestions. – British predominance at all the transatlantic coaling depots. – The control of coal exports to neutral countries. – The policy of the coal committee. – The consequences of reducing British exports of coal to Sweden. – The inspection of neutral mails. – Postal services become the subject of international conventions during the nineteenth century. – The first censorship of neutral mails. – Proposals for making the censorship more uniform; the British cabinet's reluctance. – The letter mail still untouched; representations from the censor's department. – The naval authorities act independently; the discoveries made when neutral mails are examined.

The great rationing agreements, which have been described in the preceding chapters, may be called the economic plan finally pursued; for nearly all subsequent additions were agreements for bringing particular commodities, or groups of commodities, within the operation of the system. There are, however, two great exceptions to this; for two measures  - which persons competent to decide consider to have been the most powerful engines of the entire machinery - were in no way affiliated to the rationing system, but were reinforcements to the whole operation, or general securities for enforcing any agreement concluded. The first of these measures was bunker control, the second was called navicerting. Bunker control was elaborated and put into operation during the year 1915, concurrently with the rationing agreements: navicerting was only elaborated during the following year. At this point, therefore, we are only concerned with the first.

i) Early attempts to control the export of coal

As coal was in the contraband lists of the declaration of London, its export was forbidden in one of the earliest proclamations issued. This prohibition caused the greatest anxiety to shipowners, and to all those British coal jobbers who have set up depots in foreign countries, Messrs. Cory, Wilson & Sons, Blandy and the rest; the proclamation was, therefore, revoked soon afterwards. Our representatives abroad, on the other hand, perceived, from an early date, that the withholding of coal exports might be a powerful coercive weapon. Suggestions were frequently made: our consul at Stavanger, for instance, reported that the Norwegian exports of tinned fish and groceries might be severely curtailed, by restricting the coal supplies of the canning factories. Mr. Findlay was of the same opinion; early in April he advised keeping down Norwegian imports of British coal, which, he said, could be used as a most powerful lever in case of crisis. Later, when asked to give his opinion on a French proposal for pressing the Norwegian government to prohibit the export of pyrites, Mr. Findlay reported, that it would be inadvisable to ask the Norwegian government to prohibit the export of a domestic product, but that the desired result might be obtained by exercising supreme pressure, such as a threat to refuse coal to Norwegian ships throughout British and allied possessions. Mr. Findlay was careful to temper this by adding, that, if it was ever decided to refuse coal supplies, in order to coerce the Norwegians, the matter would have to be most carefully considered: the Norwegian state railways held a six, and the retailers and jobbers a three, months' stock of coal; hasty ill-conceived coercion would, therefore, only make the Norwegians bestir themselves to secure a [346] supply of German or American coal. Similar suggestions and cautions are to be found in the telegrams sent from Scandinavia during the first part of the year; but the export of coal was again forbidden, for an entirely different reason.

Among the anxieties that beset the government few were, perhaps, so pressing as the rising price of domestic coal, and the steady rumble of discontent and turbulence that came from the coalfields. The following dates and facts should be remembered. On 20th January, 1915, the price of coal rose by two shillings a ton; by the middle of February, it was nine shillings above its pre-war price, notwithstanding that more coal was raised during that quarter than had been raised since war began. Early in April, the Welsh miners gave three months' notice on their agreements; this synchronized, roughly, with a demand from the miners federation that wages should be increased twenty per cent., and with threats of an early strike from the leader, Mr. Smillie. In March, however, a committee convened by the Board of Trade presented their report: they recommended, amongst other things, that the export of coal should be controlled, in order to ensure an adequate supply to the war industries and the people; and that licences for export should be granted by a special committee. The export of coal was therefore regulated by a new decree, issued on 13th May, whereby export was forbidden to all foreign countries, but allowed to countries in the British empire. This decree, which was issued for reasons purely domestic, was the starting point of a great coercive system.

ii) Enquiries into the state of foreign trade in coal and the policy provisionally adopted

The Foreign Office were not concerned with the domestic problem, but our representatives in Scandinavia were at once instructed to report how licences should be granted. The point to be ascertained was whether the Germans would be able to make good any reductions that we might order. Ostensibly, our predominance was so great that the Germans would have little chance of doing so; for, in normal times, their coal exports followed the line of the Rhine, and it was only in the two countries at each end of the river line, that the German supplies exceeded the British. In all countries whose coal imports were sea-borne, our predominance was overwhelming.

Coal imported
from Great Britain
Coal imported
from Germany
2,018,401 tons     Netherlands     7,217,606 tons
3,034,240 tons     Denmark 316,069 tons
2,298,345 tons     Norway Insignificant
4,563,076 tons     Sweden 184,707 tons
Insignificant Switzerland 2,290,854 tons
727,899 tons     Greece Insignificant

Our ministers were, however, persuaded that these statistics of normal distribution gave no guidance on the point at issue. It certainly seemed, at first sight, as though the German government could not increase the country's exports; for German production had fallen by thirty per cent., and all exports were prohibited by decree. Even the Netherlands imports of German coal, which were carried along the easiest line of supply, had fallen sharply. Nevertheless, our ministers and their expert advisers were not satisfied that these facts, alone, proved that the Germans were unable to increase their exports. On the contrary, it seemed as though the restraints upon German exports of coal had not been imposed for the sole purpose of securing domestic supplies; for there were indications that the Germans were collecting stocks, which were to be used for driving bargains with neutrals. According to Mr. Findlay's information, the German authorities had recently made a substantial offer of coal [347] and coke supplies to a firm with whom they were in treaty. From Denmark, Sir H. Lowther reported, that the Germans could export more coal to that country if they chose to do so; and that the probable consequence of severely curtailing British exports would be that the Danes would, thereby, be driven further into the orbit of the German exchange system. There were equally good reasons for not curtailing the exports of coal to the Netherlands, for the available statistics proved, that, in this market, we were gaining on the Germans.

The proper treatment of Sweden was the most difficult matter to decide, for expert opinion was divided. Captain Consett, the naval attaché, was convinced that the Swedes could not replace British by German coal. Mr. Phillpotts, on the other hand, was by no means persuaded, as he had collected information about prospective offers of large deliveries. The question was not, however, one which could be settled by passing judgment on these balanced probabilities. It was very important that there should be no falling off in the deliveries of Swedish ore and Swedish pit props: and the coal exports committee were satisfied, that these two industries were largely dependent upon British coal. Apart from this, as thirty-three large firms in Sweden were in contract with the munition makers at Sheffield, it was of the last importance to ensure that these Swedish houses should receive as much British coal as they wanted.

The enquiry thus proved that nothing should be done hastily; and a temporary policy was decided upon. It was that licences should be freely granted for export to Holland; that Danish imports should be kept to the normal figure of 3,200,000 tons per annum; and that the exports to Norway should be so controlled, that the stocks in the country should be kept down. With regard to Sweden, it was decided that licences to export coal should only be granted, if the director, or manager, of the ship that carried the coal gave an undertaking that the ship would bring back one ton of iron ore, and two tons of pit props, for every three tons of coal granted. Beyond this, it was ruled that licences should be severely scrutinized, and granted sparingly, unless the consignees were a Swedish government authority, or the Swedish state railways. The practical effect of this was that coal exports to Sweden were more severely restricted than the exports to any other northern neutral; the consequences will be described later.

iii) The Admiralty's suggestions

An elaboration of the system was now suggested from another quarter, the trade division of the Admiralty. Since the beginning of the year, Admiral de Chair had maintained four patrol lines across the main stream of traffic between America and northern Europe; and had maintained another patrol off the Lofoten islands, to intercept vessels running in the ore trade between Narvik and Rotterdam. Two things were now established by his observations; the first was that the number of vessels that evaded his patrols was rising; the second was that although ships carrying ore from Narvik were occasionally arrested, the traffic as a whole could not be stopped, as the ships engaged in it could keep within Norwegian territorial waters by day, and clear the patrols by night. The trade division of the Admiralty therefore conceived a plan for ensuring a better control over neutral traffic, and this plan was the beginning of bunker control, which all expert observers believe to have been the most powerful coercive machinery in the whole blockade system. Our consul at Stavanger reported that vessels in the Narvik ore trade, and many vessels that carried herrings to Germany bunkered at the Tyne, or in Sunderland. Orders were therefore given, that these vessels should be refused bunkers. This was the first step actually taken.

[348] The trade division now prepared a plan for elaborating the system, and the Foreign Office strongly supported it. After several joint conferences therefore a memorandum on bunker control was issued to the customs, the licencing, and the coal committees, and to the consul at any foreign port, where British coal was stored for bunkers.

The contents of this famous memorandum were as follows:

  1. That no coal would be supplied to any vessel trading with a German port, or to any vessel carrying goods of enemy destination or origin.
  2. That no coal would be supplied to a vessel chartered to an enemy subject or a blacklisted firm.
  3. That, in order the better to perform the conditions imposed, all vessels supplied with British bunker coal were to call voluntarily at a British port; all vessels supplied with British bunker coal were to receive approval for the cargoes carried from a neutral to a neutral port; all vessels supplied with British bunker coal were to secure certificates of origin for all cargoes exported from Scandinavian countries; all vessels supplied with British bunker coal were to refuse cargo space to goods consigned to order.

The conditions were, therefore, that British coal would only be supplied to companies and shipowners, who bound themselves to observe, and execute, the existing orders in council. As has been said, those officials who administered the blockade have always considered that the imposing of these conditions was one of the great strokes in the economic campaign. It will therefore be profitable to assemble a few facts and figures, which illustrate the magnitude of the success, and the importance of the points secured.

iv) British predominance at all the transatlantic coaling depôts

The long investigations that had been undertaken, while this order was incubating, served to shew that our power to enforce it was irresistible; for, whereas in northern Europe, Germany might become an alternative source of coal supply, in the Atlantic, our predominance was not to be taken from us. The countries and islands that lie on the great trade route, or at their terminals, received their coal supplies exclusively from Great Britain; the figures were these:

Coal imported
from Great Britain
Coal imported
from other sources
22,608 tons       Azores Negligible.
131,751 tons       Madeira "
1,114,629 tons       Canary islands "
1,886,871 tons       Brazil "
723,926 tons       Uruguay "
3,693,752 tons       Argentine "

In each case, at least two thirds of these coal supplies consisted of steam coal, for steamers that bunkered in mid Atlantic, or at the grain and meat ports further south. The United States were, it is true, a possible rival, but it must be remembered that the vast bunkering plant at the Canary islands, Pernambuco, Rio, and the Plate; the coal lighters, the tugs, the tips and so on, were all in the hands of such British firms as Cory, or Wilson & Wilson. A mere increase of American exports would not, therefore, have ousted us from the position we held. Apart from this, the calorific value of American bunker coal is far lower than that of the British. It was, just possible for a vessel to take in enough American coal for a round trip to Europe and back, but no shipowner desired to do so, as the bulk of the coal thus [349] carried enormously reduced the cargo space. In point of fact, nearly all the vessels on the north Atlantic, and all the vessels on the south Atlantic routes bunkered from British firms. It is therefore very little exaggeration to say, that the conditions imposed in October 1915 closed the holds of all neutral shipping in the Atlantic against goods of German origin or destination. As the British holds were already closed, very little carrying power can have been left for the German trade.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to make an exact, quantitative estimate of the restraints imposed: but the following facts and figures are a guide. It cannot be said that those Scandinavian shipping companies who agreed to carry out the March order signed the agreements solely to secure bunker coal; for Captain Cold, M. Anderson, and M. Mygdal bound themselves to our conditions before bunker control was so much as thought of. But a list of the dates on which the other agreements were signed shews that our bunker conditions were a strong incentive; in any case, bunker control soon became the safeguard, or guarantee, that the agreements could be enforced. Now if total number of ships, and the total tonnage, of all the companies that were bound to us by formal agreements are added up from Lloyds List, it will be found that the totals come to about seven-tenths of all Scandinavian shipping; it may be assumed that most of the remaining three-tenths was engaged in the coastal and Baltic trade. This calculation therefore confirms the general inference that most of the holds in the transatlantic trade were closed against German goods, after the bunkering conditions were imposed.

Other figures are available, which show how powerful was the coercion imposed. In October, 1915, when the system first began to be operated, rather less than two hundred vessels were passing the northern patrol, east bound and west bound. Of these about one-third called voluntarily for examination, about a half were intercepted and examined, and rather less than a quarter escaped successfully. During the following year, when the system was in full operation, the proportion of the traffic that called voluntarily rose steadily, until it reached three-quarters of the total; the proportion of vessels that evaded the patrols fell to between two and five per cent. of the whole.

v) The control of coal exports to neutral countries

A few words should be added about the subsequent fortunes of that more general plan of coercion from which bunker control was derived. With regard to the Netherlands and Denmark, little or nothing was attempted; for our coal exports to those countries were not substantially reduced. In Norway, where Mr. Findlay had for long been considering how British coal supplies might be made an instrument of coercion, something was accomplished. After long enquiries, Mr. Findlay prepared a list of genuine coal dealers, and to these firms, and these firms only, he allowed coal to be supplied on condition that they would not permit it: To be re-exported, nor delivered, directly or indirectly, to enemy ships, or to enterprizes which are controlled by enemy subjects, or which send their products to such countries. This guarantee proved, later, to be a great coercive force, which put a large section of the Norwegian industries at our discretion, and considerably reduced the trade in foodstuffs between Norway and Germany, for this could not be carried on without the assistance of British coal. Mr. Findlay was careful, however, that this system of control, when operated, should give the Norwegian dealers and traders more favourable conditions than were granted to the Swedes; for it appeared to him to be of the last importance, that no Norwegian should be able to argue, that the Swedish government, by being stiff and obstinate, had secured more advantages for their traders than the Norwegian government had secured for theirs. In particular, Mr. Findlay was anxious that no restraints should be exercised against the fishing people, by refusing coal for their trawlers. These fishing folk did, it is true, carry their catches to firms and canneries that were [350] engaged in the German trade. This however, was, their traditional method of earning a livelihood, and for some peculiar reason, which is difficult to explain, the allied cause was nowhere so staunchly befriended in neutral Europe as it was in the fishing villages and the fiords of Norway.1

vi) The policy of the coal committee

Mr. Findlay's policy was only executed in part; for the coal committee's practice was not in harmony with it. They, being much concerned with domestic problems, were anxious that nothing should be done to stimulate the discontent and turbulence of the Northumberland miners; and, as the coal imported by Scandinavian countries is mostly raised in Northumberland and Durham, so, licences to export were granted, more in order to keep certain pits at work, than to deprive Norwegians engaged in the German trade of British coal. In August, for instance, licences were granted to Messrs. Hansvikthrow, who shipped sardines for Germany, and to M. Alfred Johansen, who was on the black list. A week later, the Ariadne left Blyth with a cargo of coal for M. Stensrud of Skien, who was shipping canned fish and preserves to Germany. The cargo was, moreover, sold on the open market, and without guarantees, by Messrs. Proesch, who were also on the black list. Examples could be multiplied.

The conflicting purposes of the coal committee and of Mr. Findlay were thus another repetition of the recurrent conflict between those officials who endorsed the Board of Trade's view, that maintaining British exports must be made a cardinal point in our economic policy, and those other officials, who desired to subordinate every commercial advantage to the prosecuting of the economic campaign. The two policies were never put into harmony; but Mr. Findlay's plan was not completely thwarted by the coal committee; for it is unquestionable that, by prosecuting it as far as he was able, he brought a large number of firms and industries within the orbit of the British system.2 On the other hand, the coal committee, in the interests of the coal industry, certainly allowed substantial quantities of British coal to be supplied to firms engaged in the German trade. Mr. Findlay's major contention that Norway, as a whole, should be less rigorously treated than Sweden, was, however, acceded to in practice, for our coal exports to Norway were kept roughly at the normal figure during the year: those to Sweden were much reduced.

vii) The consequences of reducing British exports of coal to Sweden

It is somewhat curious, that although expert opinion was so very divided on the question whether Sweden could, or could not, be severely coerced by reducing British coal supplies to the country, the policy adopted was a policy of drastic reduction. Normally, Sweden imported about four and a half million tons of British coal in a year; in the year 1915, about two and three quarter million tons were imported. The explanation is that we were severely restricting all exports to Sweden during the summer and autumn of 1915, and that this sharp reduction in the coal exports was part of the general policy.

[351] As has been said, Captain Consett, the naval attaché, had reported that these reductions could safely be made, as the Germans had not the labour necessary for increasing their output. According to his observations, moreover, there was a shortage of coal in Berlin; and Captain Consett was satisfied that German coal could not replace British, as it was of a poor quality: he did not explain why this bad coal was yet good enough for the enormous industries of the Rhineland, for the German railway system, and for the German fleet. In any case Captain Consett was very much deceived. By the middle of August, Mr. Howard reported indications that large deliveries of German coal might be expected during the coming weeks; nor was he mistaken, for, by October, it was apparent that the German authorities were making a great and successful effort to replace British coal by German. By the end of November, Mr. Phillpots was able to collect figures, which proved that about 200,000 tons of German coal were then being sent to Sweden every month; this was more than Germany sent into the country in a normal year. By the end of the year, therefore, this attempt at coercion had been tried and had failed, and must be counted among the set-backs of the campaign.

viii) The inspection of neutral mails

The order to search neutral mail bags, and the information collected from them, must be reckoned as another supplement to the general system; but whereas bunker control, though an auxiliary to the system, was yet a coercion of commerce, which would have reduced German trade, if it had stood by itself, the inspection of neutral mails was merely an aid to our system of discriminating between enemy and neutral trade. The order to open neutral mail bags was, however, of peculiar interest in that it was an order to return to an older custom. It will therefore be instructive to discover what were the older practices, and why it proved so difficult, and yet so essential, to revive them.

The first point to be remembered is that the older generation of international lawyers do not mention postal correspondence in their books, notwithstanding that post offices were then established in all the big towns of Europe, and that a considerable volume of postal correspondence was being carried by sea. The explanation of this is that the governments of Europe did not at first concern themselves with postal services for the motives which now influence them: postal services are now regarded as a social service, which governments perform, in order to promote the welfare of their subjects; but they were not so regarded by the governments that instituted them. The act establishing a general post office in London is explicit as to motive; the office to be set up was: The best means of discovering, and preventing, many dangerous and wicked designs, which have been, and are daily, contrived against the peace and welfare of this commonwealth, the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated but by letter of escript.3 As originally constituted the post office was thus an intelligence service, comparable to department MI 5 of the War Office. Presumably foreign governments took the same view of the matter: it is known, at all events, that Mazarin's intelligence service was very good, and that he made use of intercepted letters and despatches during the negotiations for the Westphalian treaty.4 For these reasons it was natural, that the first generation of international lawyers should have regarded postal services, and the treatment to be given to them, as a matter as much outside their subject as military tactics, or strategy, to which, indeed, they were closely connected.

The first general post office proved to be a very efficient organ of intelligence; for Thurloe's state papers are filled with intercepted letters. Indeed if anybody only turns over the pages of that great collection he will soon see that, in those days, very few letters escaped censorship. The privileges of foreign ambassadors were [352] not respected; for the collection is packed with despatches from the French, Spanish and Dutch ambassadors to their governments abroad. After the restoration, the efficiency of the post office was as high as it had been during the commonwealth;5 for it is as certain as anything can be, that the Rye House plot was discovered from intercepted letters. It was, presumably, because the governments of those days regarded postal correspondence as a fountain of essential intelligence, that they generally continued postal services to countries with which they were at war: the packets, as they were called, ran without interruption to Holland, during the Dutch wars, and to France, during the first part of the war of the league of Augsburg.6 After restraints had been imposed, great care was still taken that some of the mid-European mail should be carried through Falmouth. Foreign governments kept pace with us in ransacking mails, wherever, and whenever, they could be found; the imperial postmasters searched all mails at the frontier; and the French government offered a bounty to any privateer, who should intercept the packets running between Falmouth and northern Spain.7

Up to the beginning of the eighteenth century, it is tolerably certain, that, although mails were inspected whenever they could be found, mail bags entering or leaving the country, or mail bags passing through it, were our principal sources of information. During the following period, it would seem as though our system of inspection was made far more embracing, and that arrangements were made with foreign postmasters. Chesterfield states, unequivocally, that a large part of the Jacobite correspondence was intercepted,8 which could not have been done unless the mail bags of central Europe had been inspected by agents in our pay; and it is on record that the postmaster at Brussels forwarded letters, or copies of them, to Walpole, in return for a large sum. Again, Bishop Atterbury's conviction must surely have been secured from evidence that was collected, in part, from foreign mail bags.9 Indications of our practices during the latter part of the century are not so good: it is known, however, that the Spanish ambassador's despatches were regularly copied and deciphered during the seven years war; and research would presumably show a continuous, and steadily perfected, system of interception up to the close of the French wars.10 For the evidence placed before the Admiralty court, when Lord Stowell stated the law relating to official despatches, could only have been collected, if all mails discovered on the high seas were then being opened, as the despatches upon which judgement was given were always disguised as neutral correspondence.11

It was not until the long struggle with France was finished that there were any legal rules on the matter at all; and, even then, the rules related to despatches, and not to ordinary letters. Despatches that related to the official business of a country at war were deemed contraband, and a neutral carrying them exposed his whole ship and cargo to condemnation: exception was made in favour of the official and diplomatic correspondence between a belligerent and a neutral; but the judgements given state only that this correspondence involved the carrier in no penalty: it is nowhere suggested that the correspondence itself was not confiscable.12

[353] This, then, was the state of the law, and the actual practice, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Close and accurate research would probably reveal much that is here left blank; but the inference to be drawn, from the known facts, can hardly be in doubt: it is, that for at least a century and a half, postal correspondence was regarded as a source of military and political intelligence; as such, it was probably less immune from inspection and confiscation than ordinary commercial goods.

ix) Postal services become the subject of international conventions during the nineteenth century

Now, although the law remained unchanged during the nineteenth century, postal correspondence became a subject upon which governments signed conventions with each other; and in 1874, it became an international concern, inasmuch as a number of states then bound themselves to administer postal services on a uniform system, and to impose uniform charges. This convention, and all subsequent ones, regulated administration only, but as so many states were thenceforward bound to facilitate, and expedite, the postal correspondence of foreign countries, it followed, naturally, that mails began to be regarded as more privileged than ordinary goods, which are transported and delivered by individual merchants, and commercial associations. Even before the first universal convention was signed, the American secretary of state endeavoured in a vague, inconsequent manner, to give mails and mail boats special treatment.13 He did not, however, introduce anything new in the point of practice; nor can the writings of nineteenth century jurists be regarded as anything but illustrations of a growing tendency: a tendency to make distinctions unknown to the age preceding, and to regard postal correspondence as a privileged traffic. It was, however, a long time before the tendency was strong enough to introduce a substantial change into practice; for, in 1900 the American supreme court reviewed the whole state of the law, and decided that: No provision for the immunity of mail ships had yet been adopted with the consent of civilised nations.14

The tendency was, however, so much strengthened by the interests of a commercial age, that the project presented to the second Hague conference is as much to be attributed to general circumstances, as to the German government, whose representative introduced it. During the previous century, jurists were inclined to claim privileges for postal correspondence, by urging that special immunities should be given to mail boats. The German delegate, Herr Kriege, realising that this was quite impracticable, proposed only that:

      The postal correspondence of neutrals or belligerents, whether its character be official or private, shall be inviolable if it is found on a neutral vessel; if the vessel is seized it shall be forwarded by the captor with as little delay as possible. Exception is made in the case of violation of blockade, if the correspondence is destined to, or starts from a blockaded port.
      The rules in the preceding paragraph are applicable to postal correspondence found in an enemy vessel.

Although endorsed by the sentiment and tendencies of the day, this project was, nevertheless, an abrupt innovation: it cancelled and overrode the older law relating to enemy despatches, and it made postal correspondence a sacrosanct traffic. It is therefore curious, that the naval and military advisers to the conference uttered no syllable of warning against thus hastily abandoning a practice that had, hitherto, been considered essential to the conduct of war. As nothing resembling a caution was so much as whispered, the project was passed unanimously by the sub-committee to which it was referred; the Russian naval delegate certainly doubted whether it would be wise to grant such wide exemptions to [354] an enemy vessel, but his doubts were not elaborated into a formal objection. A warning was also issued by Monsieur Fromageot, who, as reporter, stated most emphatically that the project was not sanctioned by custom or precedent, and that it was a pure innovation. Dans l'état actuel du droit international le transport de la correspondence postale sur mer n'est assuré en temps de guerre d'aucune garantie sérieuse. On fait bien une distinction selon le caractère officiel ou privé de la correspondence, selon la personalité des expéditeurs et destinataires...... Le résultat n'est pas moins que, au fait, la saisie, l'ouverture de sacs, le dépouillement, au besoin, la confiscation, dans tous les cas le retard et même la perte, sont le sort ordinairement réservé aux sacs de depêches voyageant par mer en temps de guerre.15 This warning was, however, issued after the draft articles had been accepted. When the German project was finally examined, Herr Kriege urged in support of it: That postal correspondence might be proclaimed inviolable, without danger, in view of the great advantages that belligerents would draw from telegraphic correspondence;16 and this statement was not challenged by any of the naval and military advisers present. An ancient rule of war was thus formally renounced, and, what is more, a great obstacle was erected against reviving it; for the eleventh convention, in which this new rule was embodied, was signed by every power represented at the conference, except Russia: this meant, that although, on a strict interpretation of the law, the instrument was not binding upon the powers at war in 1914, it yet had all the status of an international convention, in that the governments of forty independent states signed and ratified it, and were thus interested in enforcing its observance.

x) The first censorship of neutral mails

At the beginning of the war, our practice in the matter of letters was regulated by War Office requirements. During the twenty years preceding the outbreak, the governments of Europe had maintained secret agents in foreign countries, in order to collect particulars of new fortifications, coastal batteries, new ships, and such information about war plans as could be discovered. There were a number of these agents in Great Britain; and the War Office authorities thought it best not to arrest and try them, but to follow their movements, to ascertain what information they were transmitting to their employers, and, as far as possible, to leave them imagining that they were unobserved and secure. This had been effected by an arrangement between the Post Office and the War Office, whereby certain letters were opened and photographed; and this initial system appears to have been the starting point of what followed.

The War Office war book made provision only for continuing the existing system, and, if needs be, for enlarging it slightly. The arrangement was that application was to be made to the home secretary for warrants to open the mails of such persons as the War Office might consider suspect; it was also laid down, that, if it were desired to open foreign mails, then the Foreign Office, was to be consulted beforehand. The practice foreshadowed in the war book, of deciding whether mails should be opened from what was known of the addressees, soon proved quite inadequate; for, on 27th August, the War Office asked for a warrant to open all mails from and to Holland, Denmark and Norway; thereafter countries, not individuals, were brought into the system, and Sir Eyre Crowe, deeming the censorship to be purely military, said it would be enough, if the Foreign Office were notified of any extensions thought necessary. By the end of the year 1914, warrants had been issued for opening mails to and from all neutral countries in Europe; but the inspection still appears to have been very haphazard, as the officers in charge were [355] suffering all the inconveniences of having to administer a system for which no proper provision had been made. Their staffs were untrained and inadequate, the accommodation provided for them was insufficient; in the confusion, the mails of neutral legations were often tampered with, and a large number of letters were passed on unopened.

It is difficult to say when it was first realised that the information collected from this correspondence would probably be of more use to the economic, than to the military, campaign. The censorship remained in the hands of the War Office, and all instructions issued drew attention to its military character. Nevertheless, a commercial branch of the censorship seems to have been instituted as a supplement to the war trade department; for, from February onwards, there is evidence of a continuous movement of commercial intelligence, from the censor's office to the departments administering the economic campaign.

The treatment given to the parcels mail during these first months is something of a mystery. The warrants issued by the home secretary empowered the censor to open parcels as well as letters; and, at an early date, the Foreign Office informed the customs and the post office, that parcels were protected by no international regulation, and could be put into the prize court, if needs be. Notwithstanding this, it is as certain as anything can be that a great stream of parcels from foreign countries, Germany included, passed through this country, unopened and unhindered, during the first year of the war. The explanation is, probably, that the censors, who were searching only for military intelligence, deemed letters to be of so much greater importance than parcels, that they did not attempt to bring these latter under inspection. Also, it seems certain, from what was discovered in these parcels later, that far more goods were carried from Germany by the parcel mail, than were imported into it. It will be remembered that German exports were not touched until the March order was issued, and even then, the parcels mail escaped attention; for there is no mention of it in the minute books of the enemy exports committee.

When the March order was issued, our practice was therefore highly inconsistent and irregular. The censorship was still a military department which was only roughly and informally connected to the departments that were administering the economic campaign; mails to and from the neutral countries in Europe were being inspected, if they passed through Great Britain; but such letter mails and parcels as were found on the neutral steamers that were examined at the Downs and Kirkwall were being left alone; parcels were not being opened to any great extent, as the military authorities, who alone were empowered to open them, were not interested in their contents. The inspection of neutral mails thus became a measure, which our authorities were forced to include among the other measures necessary for instituting a more rational system.

xi) Proposals for making the censorship more uniform; the British cabinet's reluctance

The French made the first move. As soon as their squadrons were instructed to enforce the March order, the Quai d'Orsay notified neutral powers, that parcels found in steamers inspected by their patrols would only be passed, if certificates of origin accompanied them. This proposal appears to have been unworkable; for, soon afterwards, the French ships in the Mediterranean sent in parcels, and the French authorities drew our attention to the enemy goods found in them. It appeared, from this first inspection, that the enemy were making use of the parcels mail for despatching light, miscellaneous, goods, such as furs, medicines, and alarm clocks.

[356] The French imagined we should at once go on a footing with them, but in this they were much deceived. The treatment of the parcel post was held to be a cabinet matter, and the cabinet hesitated to give the necessary order. They were, at all events, apprised of the matter early in June, when Lord Crewe circulated a paper to them, and many weeks went by, before their sanction was given. Their delicacy is difficult to understand. The parcel post was protected by no international convention; the British government were not even parties to the parcel post convention, which was an agreement similar to the general postal convention; indeed the German delegate at the Hague, had explicitly said his government did not desire that parcels should be differentiated from ordinary commerce. As for the censorship that we were operating, no rule of international comity debarred us from inspecting documents passing through our territory; nevertheless, letter mails were, in a sense, a protected traffic, in that they were immune in certain circumstances, whereas parcels were immune in none. Yet this protected, privileged, traffic was being opened and ransacked; the unprotected was running free, carried by British ships and railways, and the cabinet were reluctant to remedy these inconsistencies.

During the remaining months of the summer, evidence steadily accumulated that a stream of German exports was being carried through the parcel post. Sir C. Spring-Rice sent the names of about forty firms engaged in the trade; and the French sent returns of the enemy goods seized by them. Indeed, it would appear as though the French severities only deflected the stream into the British conduit; for, soon afterwards, the Brooklyn Eagle published an article for the instruction of all concerned in the trade; it was called: Furs by parcel post: Leipzig finds way to circumvent British blockade of goods. Early in September, the post authorities circulated the following figures to the interested departments:

  Parcels sent to per week.   Parcels coming from per week.
15th September,
15th September,
50 400 Sweden   5 1,000
Negligible 250 Norway Negligible   150
40 600 Denmark 30 4,500
50 80 Denmark 120   150

These figures, the growing scandal of the traffic, and presumably, also, the strong representations of Sir Eyre Crowe (who attended at the meetings of a cabinet committee on contraband and blockade) forced the ministers to a decision which they disliked. Early in September, at all events, sanction was given to the customs to open parcels entering the kingdom, under the powers conferred on them by the war powers customs act. The sanction given, however, only brought parcels in transit through Great Britain under inspection, and Monsieur Cambon represented that British practice was still behind the French, in that parcel mails were not being seized by our patrols. It was not therefore until late in September, that orders were given to inspect parcels found on neutral steamers, and Sir Edward Grey stipulated, that a French cruiser should be attached to our patrol, as a public testimony that the French government shared responsibility with us.

xii) The letter mail still untouched; representations from the censor's department

The parcels mail was quite distinct from the letter mail, yet this regulation of the parcels post inevitably introduced the bigger question of closing up every accessible avenue of trade or correspondence between the enemy and the outer world. In fact, before the decision to deal with the parcel mail was taken, the French warned neutral governments that they might be forced to declare themselves [357] free of the Hague convention; and Sir Edward Grey, foreseeing that the inspection of parcels was opening up the bigger question of mails, and being very fearful of the political consequences, added a rider in his own handwriting to the notification given to neutrals. It was: That the privileges of mails, protected by the Hague convention, will continue to be carefully observed.

It seemed, at first, as though the German naval authorities would give us a good pretext for abandoning this convention; for, early in August, the Norwegian mail steamer Haakon VII was stopped off Bergen by a German submarine, and the mails seized. Precise orders had evidently been issued to the submarine commander, for the operation was most carefully and methodically executed. Some of the allied mail was destroyed, another section of it was put aside, to be sent on to Germany; parcels to allied countries were thrown into the sea; and the officer in charge scrupulously repacked and resealed a funeral wreath with a British destination; parcels and letters to America were not tampered with at all. The German historians have not yet published the original papers about this affair; but the operation, and what followed, look very like another incident in the long struggle between the German naval and the diplomatic staffs: the order to seize neutral mails was presumably given by the naval operations division, without consulting the German Foreign Office, after which, the German diplomats probably represented, that if neutral mails were seized by German submarines, the allied patrols would also seize them; and that, as the German submarines could not possibly operate as regularly and methodically as the allied naval forces, the outcome would be that the German mail would be permanently stopped, and the allied mail raided occasionally. This is the presumption, for the experiment was not repeated, and the Norwegian government were assured that mails carried in Norwegian vessels would not be tampered with again. The allied governments were thus not given any good pretext.

It has been shown, that the older practices with regard to mails were strictly logical: it was considered axiomatic that a government at war, or a government struggling against internal sedition, must collect information from every available source; for which reason, no deposit of intelligence was immune from inspection. There is no reason for supposing that the military authorities who urged the government to return to the traditional procedure were thinking of anything but the business in hand, and certainly their contentions were so strong that they needed no support from historical precedents: yet it is curious to see how statements relating only to current business were, in effect, statements that what war and policy have demanded in one age will inevitably be demanded in another.

The French and British censors represented, that each time they enlarged the compass of their inspection, the new mails searched yielded information, for a certain period only; after which, although the mail through the inspected channel continued, letters of importance were diverted to another, uninspected, route. Hitherto, the inspection had outstripped the diversion; that is, new countries had been rapidly and abruptly brought within the system, with no notice given, and, as the correspondence running through these channels had a sort of momentum, so, a great deal of important information was collected, before the diversion could be operated. During the summer, however, the censors observed a growing diversion of mails to the one uninspected channel, the mail service between Scandinavia and America; in consequence of which, they did not think the time was far off, when all letters containing information of value would be carried by this route. The censors considered, moreover, that we could enforce this inspection gradually, and with a tolerable pretext, in that a number of neutral mail steamers called at Falmouth and Plymouth, in the ordinary course of business; we could therefore assert a right to inspect the mails they carried, as being documents brought into the country.

[358] After this representation had been considered, Sir Eyre Crowe and the contraband department were convinced. The legal advisers thought that the inspection could be ordered on good grounds, in that even the Hague convention made mails seizable if they were run in contravention of a blockade; also, they thought there could be no objection to seizing enemy correspondence; and that, if the assumptions of the censors proved well founded, it would probably be easy to show, that a great part of the correspondence inspected was enemy correspondence, which was being carried on in violation of what we claimed to be a blockade. There was, however, one great obstacle: Sir Edward Grey's implacable dislike of tampering with neutral mails. It has been shown how he endeavoured to set up a barrier against this measure, by promising neutrals, that although the parcels mail would be inspected, letters would be left alone. He adhered most firmly to this, and subsequently wrote a succession of minutes in the same sense. When the S.N.O. at Duala added his representations to the many others that were then circulating, the Foreign Office sanctioned an inspection of the Spanish parcel mail, on the west coast of Africa, but Sir Edward added in his own handwriting: In no case should ordinary mails, as distinct from parcel mails be interfered with on the high seas. Again, when our minister at the Hague was instructed to enquire whether the inspection of the Dutch mail would be dangerous, he answered it would cause friction but would not be dangerous. It would seem, indeed, as though the Netherlands foreign minister admitted that neutral mails might properly be searched, if they were carried into the territorial waters of a belligerent. Notwithstanding this, Sir Edward Grey wrote upon the papers: I do not believe that the advantages of the step proposed will compensate the disadvantages. See that no action is taken without my having referred the question to the cabinet. The whole affair was thus being discussed to an accompaniment of strong objections from high quarters.

xiii) The naval authorities act independently: the discoveries made when neutral mails are examined

It is to be assumed that the matter was examined by ministers during November and December, for a paper on the matter was circulated to them on 17th November. There is no record of their discussions; but it may be inferred, from the minutes on the departmental papers, that Sir Edward Grey opposed the proposal, and that Lord Robert Cecil supported it. Probably nothing was decided, for there is no trace of any cabinet order having been issued, when the censors and the Admiralty took the matter into their own hands, and began to remove mails from neutral steamers which called at British ports. Indeed this inspection had already begun, when Sir Edward Grey ordered that nothing should be done until the cabinet had considered the matter; for he wrote this on 6th December, and by then, three Dutch mail boats had been inspected and thirty-four mail bags taken out of them.

When the censors presented their report upon what had been discovered, even those who had been most apprehensive about the consequences of searching neutral mails must have been persuaded that the measure was necessary. The mails in the Titan and the Prinzess Juliana contained information about the trade in cocoa, wine, and miscellaneous goods, between Portugal, the Portuguese colonies, and Germany; the mails in the Frisia and the Rotterdam were choked with instructions for carrying on propaganda in neutral countries; and contained letters, which, taken as a whole, constituted a review of the commercial relations that were still being maintained between Germany and the Argentine. More important than all this, however, were a number of highly important documents, that were discovered in the Prinzess Juliana. The only inference that could be drawn was that intelligence necessary to the conduct of economic war was being carried in neutral mail bags; [359] that the censors had justified every prediction they had made; and that, if we were to persevere in the task of discriminating between enemy and neutral trade, then, we were bound to continue as we had begun. It would seem, moreover, as though even Sir Edward Grey was now persuaded; for, a few weeks after he wrote his last prohibitory minute on the departmental papers, he so answered a parliamentary question, that he virtually associated himself with what had been done.

Our official justification was, moreover, very much strengthened by the abuses that our authorities at once discovered; for it was patent that the Germans were using the letter mail as a vehicle of trade. Rubber, jewellery, violin strings, and medicines were found in the Tubantia's mail bags; rubber to the value of £400 was found in the Gelria's mail; and four hundred small packets of coffee were found in the Iris. Each containing envelope was marked: Samples of no value. This constituted a manifest abuse of the postal convention. In our circular note to neutrals, we drew attention to all this, and further excused our action by arguing, that, inasmuch as the immunity granted to mails by the convention was inviolability while they were on the high seas, so, the immunity ended when the mail carriers entered the ports and harbours, or even the territorial waters, of a foreign power. It was, however, decided to limit the inspection to the mails of vessels that voluntarily entered British territorial waters; the concession seemed safe, in that it was tolerably certain that all neutral mail steamers would then call at a British port, in obedience to the bunker regulations.

1This community, which can hardly be credited with much knowledge of international politics, had recently given an extraordinary proof of their sympathies. On 8th August, 1915, H.M.S. India was torpedoed and sunk, while she was on the Norwegian patrol. The survivors reached Narvik, where the population gave them a wonderful reception. The very poorest people brought them food and dry clothing when they came ashore. Several of the survivors died of exposure; their funeral, to quote Captain Kennedy, was most impressive; the coffins were covered with flowers, evergreens and wreaths, sent by the authorities and the inhabitants of Narvik and the surrounding districts who all attended to show their sympathy. This was the more remarkable in that the India had been endeavouring to intercept Norwegian ore, and that several vessels had actually been arrested and sent in during the previous weeks. ...back...

2See tabular digest of rationing system. Chap. XV. ...back...

3Statutes at Large 1657. ...back...

4Bougeant: Histoire du Traité de Westphalie. See also, Wicquefort: L'ambassadeur et ses fonctions. Eng. trans, p. 359. ...back...

5Bishop Sprat's Account and Declaration, etc. ...back...

6G. N. Clark: War against French trade. ...back...

7Code des Prises I, p. 238. ...back...

8Works, 1779, Edition Vol. III, p. 207. The rebels who have fled to France or elsewhere think only of their public acts of rebellion, believing that the government is not aware of their secret cabals and conspiracies, whereas on the contrary, it is fully informed of them. It sees two-thirds of their letters, and I have often had the very same man's letters in my hand at once: some try to make his peace at home, others to the Pretender to assure him that it was only a feigned reconciliation. If this was true, the mail between Rome and Paris must have been inspected for us. ...back...

9Coxe's Walpole, II, pp. 284, 492. Mahon, History of England, Vol. II, p. 53. ...back...

10Corbett, Seven Years War, Vol. II. ...back...

11Rapid I, Edwards, 228. ...back...

12Caroline 6 C.R., p. 465. Atalanta 6 C.R., p. 440. ...back...

13Moore's Digest, Vol. VII, p. 480. ...back...

14Decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court, Vol. III, p. 1994. ...back...

15Actes et Documents, Vol. I, p. 266. ...back...

16Quatrième Commission Quatrième Seance, Actes et Documents, Vol. III, p. 1121. ...back...

A History of the Blockade of Germany
and of the countries associated with her in the Great War:
Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

by A. C. Bell (Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence).