When did the First World War end? Certainly not in that railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. There were still German troops in France. There were prisoners-of-war to exchange. The Armistice ended the fighting, but not the War. Before talking to the German government, the Allies would first have to agree amongst themselves about the terms of a Treaty. Unscrambling the War was going to take some time.

Before peace could be ratified, the Armistice had to be extended three times. The third prolongation, for another eleven months from 16th February 1919, covered a long period of inter-allied haggling and more months of German delaying tactics. There could be no more skilful time-waster than a German civil servant. When it seemed as if the USA would not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, this became an excuse for Germany not signing on the dotted line.

By such manoeuvres, the formal ratification of the peace Treaty of Versailles was dragged out into 1920. The First World War ended officially, therefore, when, along with the League of Nations covenant, the Treaty of Versailles finally took effect. It was at 04.15pm on 10th January 1920. The First World War was over.

Well not quite yet; in Shropshire there was unfinished business.

What to do with 400,000 tons of German warships?

Let us first return to the Armistice. There was a little matter of what to do with some 70 plus vessels of the Hochseeflotte [the High Seas Fleet] – the battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy. Ideally, they would have been interned, but neither Norway nor Spain as neutrals wanted such a monster cuckoo in their nest.
It fell to the British, to Scapa Flow and to the Orkneys to provide the harbour in which the enemy fleet would be interned.

The Poisoned Pawn

When the Allies decreed that the German High Seas Fleet be interned, its commander-in-chief, Admiral Franz Ritter [he had been knighted after Jutland] von Hipper, knew a poisoned pawn when it was offered him. A pawn is “poisoned” if its capture can result in a positional disadvantage or loss of material. Hipper had been keen that the Hochseeflotte go out with all guns blazing. Only a fortnight before the Armistice Hipper and Grand Admiral Scheer planned to engage the British Grand Fleet. This final death-or-glory action was planned for the end of October 1918. The Naval High Command was prepared to take the great risks involved. It preferred “an honourable defeat to a further inactive period in port and a handover of the fleet without resistance.” “It is not expected that the course of events will be materially altered, it is however a matter of honour and the very existence of the [German] navy to have done its utmost in a last battle.”

The fleet would leave Wilhelmshaven to inflict as much damage on the Royal Navy, in order to improve Germany’s bargaining position – regardless of the cost. Happily the German sailors had more sense than their obsessed Naval High Command. There were mutinies on the battleships and the operation was cancelled.

When informed, the Kaiser said “I no longer have a navy.” As his desire to match the strength of the Royal Navy had precipitated not only an arms race but the re-alignment of alliances in Europe, we had come the full circle. The mutiny spread to a more general revolt which led to the fall of the Kaiser and his exile to the Netherlands. Justice was done.

Admiral von Hipper was not having his reputation tarnished with any surrender, he insisted on steaming away. And so the burden fell on the shoulders of Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. Was he to be cast in the Alec Guinness role in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Would he be condemned to collaborate with their guards?

The morning of 21 November 1918

The German fleet was conducted to the rendezvous by the light cruiser Cardiff. Their humiliation began quite subtly; they were instructed to reset their clocks and watches to Greenwich Mean Time. Admiral Beatty had ordered that “a sufficient force will meet and escort them to the anchorage.” Over 250 Allied warships awaited them. It was the largest assembly of seapower in history.
Reuter soon had a taste of the humiliation game to be played. The German ships were escorted into the Firth of Forth, where Beatty signalled: “The German flag will be hauled down at 3.57 in the afternoon (sunset) and will not be hoisted again without permission.”

The fleet was then moved between 25 and 27 November to Scapa Flow. Eventually a total of 74 ships were interned. The ships were disarmed and carried no ammunition – emasculated. The sailors were forbidden to come ashore and were not allowed radio receivers. Inter-vessel communications were permitted by flag signals only. Mail was tossed aboard from a British motor launch, as no contact was permitted.

As the negotiations ground on, Reuter was no happier with his own government “I was most sorely wounded … as we had been led to believe the government would insist on the return of the ships; instead they had offered more ships than the Allies had demanded. I did not intend to soil my hands with this traffic … let the government send their own men, whose sense of honour might be less pronounced than ours.”

 

Part 2 with the meaning of von Reuter’s terse flag signal “To all captains. Paragraph 11. Confirm” and Shropshire’s part at the centre of world history will follow.