In a grand gesture that highlighted the reality of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the most modern ships of the High Seas Fleet, interned in the British naval base under the terms of the Armistice, were scuttled on 21st June 1919. Only one of the fifteen battleships could be saved, along with a few cruisers and destroyers. The scuttling ended the latest in a long line of challenges to British naval dominance by European continental powers. The United Kingdom (UK) had already destroyed the German U-boat fleet, and held the High Seas Fleet as a guarantee of good behaviour. Having violated the Armistice terms Germany was obliged to surrender the rest of the fleet, leaving Britain as the undisputed naval hegemon in European waters. The other European powers, distracted by revolution or economically devastated by the war, were in no position to compete. The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet also reflected a new reality: the European mainland had ceased to be the centre of the world.
Germany’s impressive fleet had failed the test of war: sea control enabled the UK to conduct a devastating attack on the German economy, isolating the Central Powers from global sources of food, fuel, raw materials and military manpower, while harnessing the same resources to the Entente war effort. Scuttling only emphasised the futility of Germany’s twenty-year challenge to British naval mastery. By building the fleet Germany forced Britain to engage with the European alliance system, although it did not accept any binding commitments to act, ending decades of ‘splendid isolation’ from the bitter rivalries of a divided continent. To block Germany’s attempt to dominate Europe, the UK had supported France and Russia, long standing imperial rivals. This was because the European balance of power was the basis of a security system that sustained British commercial, strategic and cultural interests across the globe. These connections were temporary: British policymakers looked to a global, not a European future. In 1919, UK policy looked to restore the European balance, so that it could focus on global issues.
Britain had entered the First World War to preserve its status as a seapower great power, a position intimately connected with naval dominance and the imperial possessions, formal and otherwise that both justified and funded the fleet. It was inconceivable, short of total defeat, that Britain would accept any restriction on the use of naval power. British policymakers responded to the prospect of peace in October 1918 by demanding a dramatic demonstration of their naval power. The rapid surrender and public destruction of all German U-boats was a good beginning, but the internment and ultimate self-destruction of the High Seas Fleet, the symbol of Imperial Germany’s challenge to British seapower, provided the most potent cultural symbol of total victory. Little wonder American attempts to limit UK strategy prompted a powerful response from British statesmen, admirals and intellectuals.
The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet also reflected a new reality: the European mainland had ceased to be the centre of the world.
Britain’s primary concern at the Versailles negotiations was the American attempt to end UK global hegemony. British naval dominance had sustained a system of economic warfare that prevented American business from arming, clothing and feeding Britain’s enemies, from Napoleon Bonaparte to the Kaiser. The United States (US) wanted to remain neutral in future conflicts, and trade with all belligerents. To this end it needed to cripple British sea power, by negotiation rather than battle. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson began building a ‘Navy second to none’, which could only be understood as a direct challenge to British naval dominance. Wilson’s multi-year programme had obvious echoes of the pre-1914 German Navy Laws, securing long-term funding through a single scrutiny process. Mr Wilson believed that battleships, impressive symbols of national power, would enable him to curb the global hegemony of America’s most dangerous economic rival. In 1919 the US president thought economic power and warship building capacity would enable him to bully the UK into submission. After that his League of Nations project would maintain a new American world order in perpetuity, facilitating US economic expansion.
Mr Wilson’s overtly hostile policies came as no surprise: the British government had examined his linked ‘Freedom of the Seas’ and League proposals in 1917 and 1918 and monitored America’s overtly anti-British naval expansion. Arriving at Versailles, Mr Wilson failed to understand what was at stake for Britain, and why London was never going to submit to his demands. Contemporary British culture and identity were wrapped up in the ocean, and the world, while the US was sufficiently large for much of its population to be untroubled by such alien concerns. The Royal Navy he wanted to restrict was Britain’s ‘Senior Service’, the basis of national and imperial security, and the talisman of victory. If the US became the world’s dominant naval power, as it did in 1945, Britain would no longer be a great power: its food supplies, resource flows and imperial connections now hostage to an alien fleet.
In April 1919 the Versailles negotiations came close to rupture. The British, led by Prime Minister Lloyd George, refused to join Mr Wilson’s projected League of Nations because it included the overtly anti-British ‘Freedom of the Seas’ clause in the founding charter, a clause that would outlaw the UK’s primary strategic weapon – maritime economic warfare – and America was building a battlefleet that directly challenged British naval power. Mr Lloyd George stressed that if he signed away UK seapower in Paris he would not remain in office long enough to return to London and warned Mr Wilson that Britain would be prepared to spend its last shilling [5 pence] to maintain maritime security against America.
Ultimately the UK supported Mr Wilson’s League, including a clause enshrining the Monroe Doctrine, the very antithesis of the Fourteen Points, in exchange for the Americans abandoning their massive warship building programme. Meanwhile, the US president had accepted the British argument that ‘Freedom of the Seas’ would be unnecessary if a League were created.
Mr Wilson had overplayed his hand, the reality of British power outweighed America’s obvious but untested potential. Mr Wilson’s battleships had not fired a shot in anger, his destroyers sank but a solitary U-boat, and his armies were already heading home. As the diplomats struck their bargains Britain was working on revolutionary new capital ships to maintain naval dominance and provide new icons of seapower. Ultimately, Mr Wilson knew America would not back him if he started a naval arms race with Britain or tried to drag the country into a League of Nations it did not support.
In reality, the greatest threat to British seapower in 1919 was not American naval construction, or their desire for ‘Freedom of the Seas’. Instead, it came from a profound national cultural shift.
British ministers had played for the highest stakes at Versailles, and won. America began a long retreat from the world stage, one that accelerated when Congress refused to ratify Mr Wilson’s Peace or his League. The UK would dominate the world ocean, control global trade, and resist another round of German aggression two decades later, but ended the war exhausted and economically unable to resume a global role.
The British went to Versailles in 1919 consciously attempting to repeat the Congress of Vienna of 1815, creating a stable post-war settlement that would balance Europe and reduce risk, so that defence spending could be cut, and economic recovery stimulated. When their primary naval and imperial concerns, which had not even been discussed in 1815, were raised by the Americans in 1919, they met the challenge with skill and determination. The men of 1919 preserved British power, reduced defence costs, and looked to renew the Royal Navy. They believed there was time to rebuild and reshape the Empire, under the aegis of a global navy, remodelled for the post-war world. They resisted American attempts to undermine British naval dominance, which they rightly considered an existential threat.
In reality, the greatest threat to British seapower in 1919 was not American naval construction, or their desire for ‘Freedom of the Seas’. Instead, it came from a profound national cultural shift. Five long years of large-scale military activity, and the unprecedented cost in lives and treasure, had challenged the critical cultural base of seapower. The nation chose to recall the war as one of sacrifice on land, rather than success at sea. In Trafalgar Square – the ‘pivot point’ of the British Empire – Nelson’s Column was joined by two fountains: the naval events of 1914-1918 could not compete with the older mythology. Adm Nelson’s contemporary counterpart would be an unknown soldier, one among many victims of a vast continental war; he would be buried in Westminster Abbey, at the other end of Whitehall.
In the century since the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet the UK has fought another world war, and undergone dramatic social and political transformation, but the events of 21st June 1919 are a striking reminder of an inescapable reality. Britain depends on the ability to use the sea, for trade, fishing, security, offshore wind, and much else, and does so to a far greater degree than most other countries. The maritime dimension will be critical to the UK’s future, and Britons need to re-engage with it, at all levels.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.