In February 1917 America broke off diplomatic relations
with the Central Powers, and it was plain that, with all the
world lined up, it would be against China's interests to continue
neutral. Thus there would be a new set of duties for the
Chinese navy, and I got busy with the matter. I took the
initiative in advising in this case; I was not asked to; but it
had become a custom that I had the right to do so. So I wrote
a memorandum for the Admiral setting forth the probable
course of events: a breach of relations followed eventually —
absurd as it might seem — by China declaring war against the
Central Powers. Judging by what had happened elsewhere in
the world it was certain that the captains of German steamers
would have instructions to sink their vessels and cause as much
inconvenience as they could in an enemy port; and they were
likely to try to follow those instructions on a breach of relations.
The Admiral must therefore be prepared, when he got instructions from Peking, to seize the vessels; and if the attempts
at destruction were to be frustrated, the seizures must be made
Sir Francis Aglen was helpfully appreciative of what I did,
kept me informed about the situation, gave me good advice
and, in general, trusted my discretion.
I do not propose to give the details of this business — though
I happen to have most of my dossiers about it — for it would take
up too much space to do so. In between the main facts as I
give them there was a continuous string of difficulties: there
was resentment at the moral pressure I had to bring to bear to
get things done; a special Admiral was detailed for the work,
and a day or two before the crisis he left, and with no arrangements for continuity; there was opposition from influential
Englishmen who considered I was alarmist in my view; and
so on. But I pushed steadily ahead, and when things were
ready I notified Sir Francis. Two days later — on the 14th
March at five o'clock in the morning — an officer brought me a
message from the Admiral that diplomatic relations would be
broken off that day at noon. Now I had made up my mind
that, if the opportunity occurred, the seizure should be effected
some hours before the diplomatic breach; but I told no one
of it — not even my chief. It was the sort of thing that would
never have been sanctioned; the sort of thing to make no one
else responsible for; it could only be justified by subsequent
proof of fell intent. There was a factor of psychology in this
decision. I felt certain that the German captains had instructions to sink their vessels; equally I felt certain that those men
— mild in their isolation and comparatively unaffected by the
German crowd hypnosis — would not be keen about the doing
of it. They would take steps to sink their ships at noon because they had to; but if we seized some hours earlier there
would be a good excuse for non-fulfilment of the orders. So
when at half-past five that morning I saw the Admiral and his
Captains, I advised that they effect the seizure at nine o'clock.
The Senior Naval Officer — the American — and Sir Everard
Fraser were informed at once of what was toward. The
German Consul-General was to be informed at nine o'clock.
Then I went down river in a motor boat to watch proceedings,
without, of course, taking any part in them. It all went like
clockwork and without a single regrettable occurrence.(1)
1 The detailed instructions to the boarding officers, which may be of
interest to some, are given in Appendix D.
Here is an extract from a leader in the local paper
` It is now evident that an act of difficult executiveness was
carried out by the Chinese navy with a degree of discipline
and courtliness that would have done credit to the naval forces
of any country. Six vessels were taken police charge of, in
circumstances where a measure of belligerent action was unquestionably intended, without — as far as we know — a single
case of any untoward incident. The action taken was prompt,
swift and effective. The need for these qualities is evidenced
by the fact that in three vessels out of six preparations had been
made for their destruction and for the consequently serious
injury to the harbour.
Taken completely by surprise, the officers of the Sikiang
were seen to throw their bombs overboard when the Chinese
naval guard boarded. This vessel had her gangways hauled
up and the boarding was effected by boarding ladders.
On the Deika Rickmers, the Captain, having been warned by
the officer of the guard of the advisableness of giving information if he had any explosives on board, decided after an interval
of consideration to act on that warning, and he showed the
officer four bombs in one of the engine cylinders, the cover of
which was removed. Unquestionably from the nature of these
bombs — which will be described presently — they were not
intended to be used in the cylinder; that was merely their
On the Albenga one bomb was found inside a boiler and
another in the double bottom. This was subsequent to the
We also understand that in each of these three cases the
bombs were of identical pattern. They were rectangular tins
containing about three pounds of dynamite fitted with a
detonator and a length of Bickford fuse — a slow match that
would burn for several minutes after ignition. Such a bomb
would, we understand, blow a very considerable hole through
a ship's bottom, or completely wreck a boiler or engines.
The fact that these bombs were of the same pattern indicates
that there was a concerted and organized official scheme to
sink the vessels, which was only forestalled by the promptness
of the Chinese naval action. We are prepared to believe,
however, that individual captains would have been but unwilling agents in the matter.'
I did the examination of the bombs myself. There was one
— a single one from a certain steamer — which was purposely
not referred to in that leader. The pattern of the case was the
same as the others; but it contained no dynamite. Instead it
was filled with signal lights, whose only effect would be to
make a smell. That captain was determined not to sink his
ship; but there were his officers to consider, and later there
might be the need to explain why his bomb had not exploded;
and those burnt-out signal lights would evidence that the
dynamite had been defective.
So that was that; we had set a good example of efficient
action, and that in particular is what I wished to do.
Four months went by with no events worth mentioning.
Then on the 14th August Sir Francis telegraphed ` Urgent.
War with Germany Austria declared ten o'clock to-day.'
There had hitherto been no breach with Austria, and she had
several liners in the harbour. On the 10th I had written to a
new Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Yeo, then at Nanking,
asking if, in what was coming, he wished for my advice.
He did, and later had the Government instructions to be
guided by it. So I had made my preparations and answered
Sir Francis' telegram: ` Preparations for seizure of Austrian
ships will be completed to-morrow.' The Austrians
took it cheerfully, gave all assistance possible, and they
had no bombs.
On the declaration of war an English-speaking official,
Mr. Sah, was appointed Taoyin — the Chinese representative
in the settlement — and at once got in touch with me; so I had
some hope of being able to guide the difficult policy that would
be needed in the settlement. I had thought of it for long, as
will be seen from the following letter to Sir Francis dated the
` When in April last, war with Germany seemed imminent I
was anxious regarding the development of the situation in
respect to the authority that would be used within the settlement for extraordinary action.
` Would the settlement authorities realize that it was not the
settlement that was at war but China, and that the only
authority within the settlement for extraordinary action in
connection with a condition of war must be China's? I felt no
considerable assurance on this point . . . .'
In view of these considerations I wrote a memorandum on
the subject and salted it down. A copy of that memorandum
is enclosed. (1)
1 — See Appendix E, which is given as an example of the sort of thing I did.
Later there came a reaction against the state of war. The
majority of Chinese officials were pro-German. They liked
the way their vanity was pandered to; they liked their birthdays to be remembered with a present; above all, they liked
the men who understood the etiquette of bribing and of the
arrangement of commissions. So what with this and that, I
dropped out of consultation with Mr. Sah.
Sir Everard Fraser knew, of course, that it was I who had
been — behind the screen — responsible for what in neutrality
affairs he had disapproved of; but that never affected our
personal relationship. I think he had a sort of doubtful regard
for me; and in spite of all, I had a very real regard for him;
liking and approval are two very different things.
In my dealings with Mr. Sah I had Sir Everard's cordial
approval, which pleased me very much in view of what had
gone before; so I was tempted to try my hand at something else.
The settlement had originally been British; it was we
ourselves who made it international. The Municipal Council
had by Mr. Alcock's introduction in 1860 been given a status
of great dignity; but, as already said, it was replaced by
subordination to the Consuls. That change, by itself, might
either be a benefit or a detriment; but, coupled with the fact
of the growing number of Consuls in the place and that the
Consul of Cuba had a vote equal in potency to that of the
British Consul-General, it indicated an anomaly at least. In
the meantime the Council remained predominantly British.
Now came the war. The enemy Consuls went away; there
were left belligerents and neutral, some of the latter pro-German, some not. The Consuls as a body thus became
So here was the opportunity — now was the time — to deal
with this question if a consideration of it pointed to a desirable
change. Tentatively I viewed with favour a reversion to the
Alcock principle: a curtailment of the power of the Consuls as
a body; a re-institution of the original status of the Council
with some provision to secure a greater efficiency in general
policy than had been exercised before; and one object of this
change would be to increase the British influence in the settlement, where British interests were so much greater than were
those of Cuba.
Now I put this matter to Sir Everard; I put it privately,
of course, tentatively and academically, as an idea that might
be worth considering in view of the great future of the place,
and the importance of the foundation of its governance, and
the opportunity that was now presented. Again was exhibited
a strong difference of judgment. He took my memorandum
very seriously and expressed the strongest condemnation of it.
It was at the end of this year of 1917 that the French Government conferred on me the Gold Medal of Honour —
` à vous
marquer la reconnaissance du gouvernement français pour
les éminents services que, depuis vingt ans que vous appartenez
à l'administration des douanes chinoises, vous avez rendu à la
Marine française, à la science et à l'humanité.'
explanation was made that, had it not been for the crowded
list for Legion of Honour consequent on the war, I would
have been given that decoration. Such a very pleasant surprise ! The more so as I knew that I could never hope to
get a British recognition.
I had asked, however, some time before, that, in view of my
position as an administrative sailor in a foreign service, I be
given suitable rank in the Naval Reserve for the use that I could
make of it; but the reply was that the regulations had no provision to meet my case.