His “Joke” About France Seizing The Dacia Was Acted On
BURTON J. HENDRICKMarch151922
Page Inspired Sir Edward
His “Joke” About France Seizing The Dacia Was Acted On
BURTON J. HENDRICK
THE good sense of United States Ambassador Page and Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, working sympathetically for the same end, averted many an impending crisis, declares Burton J. Hendrick, in relating the inside story of the Dacia incident in the World's Work. The trouble caused early in 1915 by the ship Dacia and the way in which the difficulty was solved, perhaps illustrate the value of this co-operation at its best. In the early days of the war the U. S. Congress passed a bill admitting foreign ships to American registry. The wisdom and even the “neutrality” of such an act was much questioned at the time. Colonel House, in one of his early telegrams to the President, declared that this bill “is full of lurking dangers.” Colonel House was right. The trouble was that many German merchant ships were interned in American harbors, fearing to put to sea, where the watchful British warships lay waiting for them. Any attempt to place these vessels under the American flag, and to use them for trade between American and German ports, would at once cause a situation with the Allies, for such a paper change in ownership would be altogether too transparent. Great Britain viewed this legislation with disfavor, but did not think it politic to protest such transfers generally; Spring-Rice contented himself with informing the State Department that his government would not object so long as this changed status did not benefit Germany. If such German ships, after being transferred to the American flag, engaged in commerce between American ports and South American ports, or other places remotely removed from the Fatherland, Great Britain would make no difficulty. The Dacia, a merchantman of the Hamburg-American line, had been lying at her wharf in Port Arthur, Texas, since the outbreak of the war. In early January, 1915, she was purchased—or at any rate the form of a purchase was observed—by Mr. E. N. Breitung, of Marquette, Michigan, a man of German antecedents and of unconcealed German sympathies. Mr. Breitung caused great excitement in the newspapers when he announced that he had placed the Dacia under American registry, according to the terms of this new law, had put upon her an American crew, and that he proposed to load her with cotton and sail for Germany. The crisis had now arisen which the well-wishers of Great Britain and the United States had so dreaded. If Great Britain seized the Dacia then there was the likelihood that this would embroil her with the American Government—and this would serve German purposes quite as well. The German plot was not lacking in cleverness.
Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, the British Ambassador to Washington, at once notified Washington that the Dacia would be seized if she sailed for a German port. The cotton which she intended to carry was at that time not. contraband, but the vessel itself was German and was thus subject to apprehension as enemy property. The seriousness of this position was that technically the Dacia was now an American ship, for an American citizen owned her, she carried an American crew, she bore on her flagstaff the American flag and she had been admitted to American registry under a law recently passed by American Confess. How could the United States sit by quietly and permit this seizure to take place? When the Dacia sailed on January 23rd the excitement was keen; the voyage had obtained a vast amount of newspaper advertising, and the eyes of the world were fixed upon her. German sympathizers attributed the at-
titude of the American government in permitting the vessel to sail as a “dare” to Great Britain, and the fact that Great Britain had announced her intention of taking up this “dare” made the situation still more tense.
When matters had reached this pass Page one day dropped into the Foreign Office.
“Have you ever heard of the British fleet, Sir Edward?” he asked. ^
Grey admitted that he had, though the question obviously puzzled him.
“Yes,” Page went on musingly. “We’ve all heard of the British fleet.. Perhaps we have heard too much about it. Don’t you think it’s had too much advertising?” The Foreign Secretary looked at Page with an expression that implied a lack of confidence in his sanity.
“But have you ever heard of the French fleet?” the American went on. “France has a fleet too, I believe.”
Sir Edward granted that.
“Don’t you think that the French fleet ought to have a little advertising?” “What on earth are you talking about?” “Well,” said Page, “there’s the Dacia. Why not let the French fleet seize it and get some advertising?”
A gleam of understanding immediately shot across Grey’s face. The old familiar twinkle came into his eye.
“Yes,” he said, “why not let the Belgian royal yacht seize it?”
This suggestion from Page was oner of the great inspirations of the war. It amounted to little less than genius. By this time Washington was pretty wearied of the Dacia, for mature consideration had convinced the department that Great Britain had the right on her side. The transfer to American registry was only too. clearly a subterfuge to conceal German ownership, and facts were coming to light which seemed to show that the German government was financing the whole enterprise. Washington would have been only too glad to find a way out of the difficult position into which it had been forced, and this Page well understood. But the U. S. government always finds itself in an awkward plight in any controversy with Great Britain, because the hyphenates raise such a noise that it has difficulty in deciding such disputes upon their merits. To ignore the capture of this ship by the British would have brought all this hullaballo again about the ears of the administration. But the people of France are entirely different; the memories of Lafayette and Rochambeau still exercise a profound spell on the American mind; France does not suffer from the persecution of hyphenate populations, and Americans will stand even outrages from France without getting excited. Page knew that if the British seized the Dacia, the cry would go up in certain quarters for immediate war, but that if France committed the' same act the guns of the adversary would be spiked. It was purely a case of sentiment and "psychology.” And so the event proved. His suggestion was at once acted on; a French cruiser went out into the Channel, seized the offending ship, took it into port, where a French prize court promptly condemned it. The proceeding did not cause even a ripple of hostility. The Dacia was sold to Frenchmen, rechristened the Y ser and put to work in the Mediterranean trade. The episode w as closed in the latter part of 1915 when a German submarine torpedoed the vessel and sent it to the bottom.
Such was the spirit which Page and Sir Edward Grey brought to the solution of the great shipping problems of 1914-1917.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.