Primary Documents - Arthur Balfour on the Execution of Captain Fryatt, August 1916

Arthur Balfour On 28 March 1915 Captain Charles Fryatt, a British merchant captain, attempted - but failed - to ram and sink a German submarine, U-33.  This came in the wake of repeated attempts by the German navy to sink his vessel - the Great Eastern Railway Steamer Brussels sailing the Rotterdam/British east coast route.

Hailed by the Allied nations as a hero - it was variously believed that he had succeeded in his patriotic act, Fryatt was officially rewarded by the British government for his actions.

Fryatt was however taken prisoner by the Germans on a subsequent voyage and charged with being a franc-tireur - a most serious charge and one that carried the death sentence.  So began a war of words between the German and British governments over his case.  Britain argued that Fryatt had been acting in self-defence, while Germany maintained that Fryatt's action in attempting to ram U-33 was undertaken without provocation.

In the event Fryatt was tried and convicted by a German court and executed on 27 July 1916.  The case achieved widespread notoriety in Britain and Captain Fryatt's name - and face, in newspapers, magazines and even bookmarks - was celebrated throughout Britain.

Click here to read the German government's official statement following Fryatt's execution.  Click here to read the official British government statement on the matter.  Click here to read Germany's reply.

Reproduced below is former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour's summary of the case.

Arthur Balfour on the Case of Captain Fryatt

If any desire yet further proof of the value which the Germans really attach to their "victorious" fleet I advise them to study the German policy of submarine warfare.

The advantage of submarine attacks on commerce is that they cannot be controlled by superior fleet power in the same way as attacks by cruisers.  The disadvantage is that they cannot be carried out on a large scale consistently with the laws of war or the requirements of humanity.

They make, therefore, a double appeal to German militarism; an appeal to its prudence and an appeal to its brutality.  The Germans knew their "victorious" fleet was useless; it could be kept safe in harbour while submarine warfare went on merrily outside.  They knew that submarines cannot be brought to action by battleships or battle cruisers.

They thought, therefore, that to these new commerce destroyers our merchant ships must fall an easy prey, unprotected by our ships of war and unable to protect themselves.

They are wrong in both respects; and doubtless it is their wrath at the skill and energy with which British merchant captains and British crews have defended the lives and property under their charge that has driven the German Admiralty into their latest and stupidest act of calculated ferocity - the judicial murder of Captain Fryatt.

I do not propose to argue this case; it is not worth arguing.  Why should we do the German military authorities the injustice of supposing that they were animated by any solicitude for the principles of international law, and blundered into illegality by some unhappy accident?

Their folly was of a different kind, and flowed from a different course.  They knew quite well that when Captain Fryatt's gallantry saved his ship, the Germans had sunk without warning 22 British merchant ships, and had attempted to sink many others.  They knew that in refusing tamely to submit himself to such a fate he was doing his duty as a man of courage and of honour.  They were resolved at all costs to discourage imitation!

What blunderers they are!  I doubt not their ability to manipulate machines.  But of managing men, unless it be German men, they know less than nothing.  They are always wrong; and they are wrong because they always suppose that if they behave like brutes they can cow their enemies into behaving like cowards.

Small is their knowledge of our merchant seamen.  Their trade, indeed, is not war - they live by the arts of peace.  But in no class does patriotism burn with a purer flame, or show itself in deeds of higher courage and self-devotion.

I doubt whether there is one of them to be found who is not resolved to defend himself to the last against piratical attack; but if such a one there be, depend upon it he will be cured by the last exhibition of German civilization.

And what must the neutrals think of all this?  They are constantly assured by German advocates that the Central Powers are fighting for the "freedom of the seas."  It is a phrase with different meanings in different mouths; but we have now had ample opportunities of judging what it means to the Germans.

It means that the German Navy is to behave at sea as the German Army behave on land.  It means that neither enemy civilians nor neutrals are to possess rights against militant Germany; that those who do not resist will be drowned, and those who do will be shot.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A sandbag was a sack filled with earth from which defences were built.

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