Postwar: Naval Terms of the Armistice and Final Treaty
On 21 June 1919, the German High Seas Fleet went to the bottom of the North Sea, not in the epic battle that so many on both sides had hoped for, but at the hands of its own crew. Determined to avoid the shame of handing the fleet over to their victorious enemies, the Germans destroyed it only hours after the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war.The sinkings marked the culmination of the war at sea, and also the end of the long and tumultuous process of settling the terms of peace. In the seven months since the Armistice, the victorious nations had bickered among themselves, often quite heatedly, over the postwar world, and several significant naval issues had been among the sources of contention. Questions over the future of German naval power, what to do with Germany’s conquered navy, and “freedom of the seas” divided former allies; bitterness over the final compromises lingered for years afterwards.
The initial terms of the Armistice were designed to insure Germany would have no chance to resume the war at sea (or on land) should its leaders refuse to sign a final treaty. Of primary concern was the submarine menace, and Allied leaders demanded an immediate end to submarine warfare and surrender of the entire German U-boat fleet. After the massive damage inflicted and lives lost to the submarines, there was little disagreement over stripping the Germans of this weapon. The High Seas Fleet proved more controversial. Britain proposed forcing Germany to surrender most of its surface vessels along with the submarines, but the other victorious nations feared the British would manage to end up taking most of the ships for themselves, and in any case no one wanted to demand too much and risk Germany backing out of the Armistice before it was signed. In the end, it was decided to intern the fleet until the victorious nations could agree on a more permanent solution.
Once the German U-boats were in Allied hands, there were calls for them to be completely destroyed at once, followed by an international ban on submarines as legitimate weapons of war. Such hopes were doomed to failure. The majority of observers understood that the submarine was not going away, and the Allies distributed the German undersea fleet among themselves for study.The United States claimed six submarines which, in addition to enabling great technical improvements in America’s existing submarine fleet, also made excellent “war trophies” as part of a Victory Loan drive.
Unlike the question of what to do with the submarines, finding a permanent solution for the German surface fleet became a major source of division between the United States and Britain, and in some ways shattered the strong feeling of unity that the two navies had enjoyed during the war. Britain wanted it destroyed, leaving the Germans with only a skeletal navy. The United States strongly objected to this. The Office of Naval Operations originally proposed handing the bulk of Germany’s ships over to a League of Nations Navy as a possible compromise, but no such force was ever created.
The root of the controversy was whether Germany could regain any kind of military power once the final peace treaty was signed. Britain and France wanted the defeated nation gutted of its military forces, with severe restrictions on military production going forward. This included the calls for eliminating the High Seas Fleet and blocking Germany from rebuilding its navy. Admiral William S. Benson, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, strongly opposed ongoing naval penalties, arguing against any restrictions on a sovereign nation once the war formally ended. Questions of national sovereignty aside, Benson doubted the Allies would be willing to do the work of enforcing any ongoing limitations. Finally, Benson understood that precedents set in the Treaty of Paris would not necessarily remain confined to Germany; this is why he staunchly opposed internationalizing the Kiel Canal, a German waterway connecting the North Sea and the Baltic. Benson feared similar proposals would later be put forward for the Panama Canal, and he vigorously defended Germany’s sovereignty over the Kiel Canal.
Britain’s differing perspective was based on more than a desire to punish or restrict Germany, however. It was based on fears about the future of global naval power. For centuries, the island-nation had based its security on overwhelming naval superiority to all potential rivals. Indeed, until Germany’s naval build-up preceding the war, Britain had held the standard that its naval power must surpass the next two largest navies combined. America, meanwhile, had just embarked on a naval building program intended to insure the United States possessed “a navy second to none.” The British Admiralty and government saw this as a direct threat, and were determined to limit any future American naval expansion, even going so far as to threaten to kill the League of Nations if Woodrow Wilson did not agree to put a stop to his country’s planned naval building program. Many in the U.S. Navy regarded Britain as a potential rival, and even favored allowing Germany to maintain a strong navy as a means of limiting British dominance on the oceans.
Finally, Woodrow Wilson wanted language in the treaty guaranteeing “freedom of the seas.” The second of his Fourteen Points, Wilson hoped for a future of free commerce on the oceans, and indeed had entered the war largely because of Germany’s attacks on neutral maritime trade. Nonetheless, Britain was absolutely determined not to yield its right to blockade enemies, including stopping and searching neutral vessels, and the two nations had to confront the possibility that the whole peace conference could end in failure unless one of them yielded on this intractable issue.
In the end, the “Naval Battle of Paris” ended with a compromise that left no one entirely satisfied. Britain conceded to a treaty that made no mention of naval limitations (though the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty actually established parity between the two navies). Initial plans to distribute the German surface vessels with an unwritten understanding that the United States and Britain would destroy their shares were rendered moot when the Germans scuttled the interned ships (despite expressions of outrage, this likely came as a relief to both Britain and America). The treaty negotiations began the gradual move towards naval equality and then naval supremacy for the United States; the era of Britannia ruling the waves was over.On the question of freedom of the seas however, Woodrow Wilson gave in, preferring to drop this point rather than watch Britain kill the League of Nations. The treaty left this issue for the League to rule on, though Wilson understood perfectly that it was a point Britain would never concede.
For all the heat it generated, much of the fight over the final treaty came to naught. America did not sign the treaty or join Wilson’s beloved League of Nations. The President embarked on a grueling national tour promoting the League, and destroyed his own health in the process, but he failed to sway Congress or the American public opinion enough to achieve American participation. As Benson predicted, the Allies eventually stopped enforcing restrictions on Germany, and it rose to become an even more fearsome power that launched an even bloodier world war. While it is largely remembered as a failure due to the onset of World War II, at the time the delegates could legitimately claim that the Peace Conference accomplished a great deal. It remade the map of Europe and dismantled the German and Ottoman Empires.From a naval perspective, the primary outcome was a strained relationship between Britain and the United States, one that would, in many ways, not fully heal until the two nations were pulled together in another global war.