It seems unnecessary to say more as regards the Lusitania in particular.
In regard to the use of foreign flags by merchant vessels, the British Merchant Shipping act makes it clear that the use of the British flag by foreign merchant vessels is permitted in time of war for the purpose of escaping capture. It is believed that in the case of some other nations there is similar recognition of the same practice with regard to their flag, and that none of them has forbidden it.
It would, therefore, be unreasonable to expect his Majesty’s Government to pass legislation forbidding the use of foreign flags by British merchant vessels to avoid capture by the enemy, now that the German Government have announced their intention to sink merchant vessels at sight with their non-combatant crews, cargoes, and papers, a proceeding hitherto regarded by the opinion of the world not as war, but piracy.
It is felt that the United States Government could not fairly ask the British Government to order British merchant vessels to forgo a means, always hitherto permitted, of escaping not only capture but the much worse fate of sinking and destruction.
Great Britain always has, when a neutral, accorded to vessels of other States at war the liberty to use the British flag as a means of protection against capture, and instances are on record when United States vessels availed themselves of this facility during the American civil war. It would be contrary to fair expectation if now, when conditions are reversed, the United States and neutral nations were to grudge to British ships the liberty to take similar action.
The British Government have no intention of advising their merchant shipping to use foreign flags as a general practice or to resort to them otherwise than for escaping capture or destruction. The obligation upon a belligerent warship to ascertain definitely for itself the nationality and character of a merchant vessel before capturing it, and a fortiori before sinking and destroying it, has been universally recognized.
If that obligation is fulfilled, the hoisting of a neutral flag on board a British vessel cannot possibly endanger neutral shipping, and the British Government holds that if loss to neutrals is caused by disregard of this obligation it is upon the enemy vessel disregarding it and upon the Government giving the orders that it should be disregarded that the sole responsibility for injury to neutrals ought to rest.
LONDON, March 1.—Following is the text of the statement read by Premier Asquith in the House of Commons today and communicated at the same time to the neutral powers in their capitals as an outline of the Allies’ policy of retaliation against Germany for her “war zone” decree:
Germany has declared the English Channel, the north and west coasts of France, and the waters around the British Isles a war area, and has officially given notice that all enemy ships found in that area will be destroyed, and that neutral vessels may be exposed to danger.