79 Mr J. Tremoulet, French Consul-General in Australia, to Lt Col W. R. Hodgson, Secretary of Department of External Affairs

Letter SYDNEY, 21 August 1940

I am in receipt of your letter dated the 16th August [1] concerning my activities in relation to the crew of the S.S.

Commissaire Ramel. I shall not discuss the information given to the officers of the Commonwealth Government as it obviously emanates from people who have no knowledge of French maritime legislation or of the conditions in which, as you know, I can communicate with my Government, inadvertently, I am sure, referred to in your letter as the Petain Government. However, it is indeed a fact that when I went on board the S.S. Commissaire Ramel with the Captain, at his request, accompanied by Lieutenant-Commander Chesterman of Garden Island, in order to advise the crew, as I did, to agree to unload the ship, which they had previously refused to do, I told them not to sail under a British flag, which is forbidden by French law. In so doing I was not only fulfilling my duty towards my Government and towards these people themselves but also exercising a right that could be taken from me but cannot be questioned. Moreover, a cable from the General Agent of the Messageries Maritimes in Noumea [2], the contents of which are in substance what I said to the men, was received on the 6th instant and delivered to the Sydney Agent [3], the Commonwealth Authorities having obviously no objection to the said contents being known. The cable reads as follows:




May I point out that I am extremely surprised that the Commonwealth Government which, I think, is no party to the regrettable happenings concerning the S.S. Commissaire Ramel, should question my attitude in the matter as long as this attitude has not been unfriendly towards themselves. The ship was seized in Fiji after a promise given that she would not be seized, and taken by the crew to Sydney instead of to Auckland (where it was requested that they should go with the choice of being formally engaged there under British orders or repatriated) because they made it clear that they would agree to go only to a port where there was a French Consul who could tell them how they stood in regard to French law and what they should do as French citizens.

Am I to understand that it was nevertheless the intention of the English Authorities concerned that these men should not be informed by me of their position, more particularly that they should be kept unaware of the fact that for the same pay they would run greater risks than English sailors, and that the French Government had not even given a tacit consent to an action altogether forbidden by a law dated 1927? It would then seem that the offer made to them to decide whether they wanted to serve on the ship under English orders or to be repatriated did not imply any free choice.

When the ship arrived in Sydney I was told from Garden Island that the Australian Authorities had nothing to do with the matter. This and the fact, which I learned later, that the English Ministry of Shipping was to decide on the use of the ship and see to the repatriation of the men who would not stay, prevented me from lodging a formal protest against the seizure made in Fiji, as such a protest should have been made to the English Government which in the present circumstances cannot be approached. Now your letter, Sir, seems to show that the Commonwealth Government considers itself a party to the case. I must therefore formulate here an emphatic protest against the seizure of the S.S. Commissaire Ramel, reserving all rights of reparation or indemnification liable to be claimed by the French Government, the owners of the ship, the crew or any others involved, but setting aside the circumstances of the capture in which I am glad to know the Australian Authorities had no part, and the men of the 'Achilles', comparing perhaps their present task with what they had accomplished in the South Atlantic, just did what they had to do. I must also ask what steps are contemplated to provide for the prompt and safe repatriation of the men who wish to be sent back to France.

As to the position in which this incident places me, I can but leave it to the Commonwealth Government to decide, if they think fit, that I am no longer persona grata in Australia. This could be done without reasons being given either to my Government or to myself and would require only that the French Government be informed that the Commonwealth Government wishes another Consul General to be appointed in this country. Thus the relations between the two countries, which I understood from recent interviews Australia wanted maintained, might not be broken, leaving open the possibility of collaboration between the proper Authorities in the Pacific, which might prove more beneficial to all concerned than relations with self-appointed bodies whose aims, if my information is correct, may not be all that they would like the Commonwealth Government to believe, and whose activities might even lead to the very interference they were, seemingly, designed to counteract. But the withdrawal of my exequatur following any action of mine to have French law respected by French citizens would, I am sure, be considered very seriously by my Government. I have no doubt that the Commonwealth Government on its side is fully aware of the consequences that such a measure could have now, and possibly when the war is over.


1 Document 75.

2 Armand Jobard de Gapany.

3 Jean Limage.

4 Captain of the S.S. Commissaire Ramel.

5 The following translation was pencilled on the original: 'The management cables: tell S[abouret] for information of himself officers and crew that the law forbids a French citizen to serve on a ship in the position of the R[amel]. By so doing they would incur dismissal. The allotment for the current month of July still payable to families. Following months reserved. Jobard.'

[AA:A981, CONSULS 127, i]