A Photograph Album held in the Archives of the Royal Armouries holds a fascinating glimpse of a surrender often forgotten in the wake of the armistice. Alina Morosanu, a placement student for the First World War Archives Project, tells us more about this album and the strange naval events it chronicles.

On the 21st November 1918, 10 days after the Armistice had been declared, the German High Seas Fleet surrendered to the Allies at the Firth of Forth. The anchorage at the Firth of Forth was merely the first stop for the fleet to ensure complete disarmament; the fleet would subsequently be interned around the Scapa Flow a few days later. Nearly one hundred years ago today the crews of the British ships sent to escort the fleet would have observed the historic sight of the diminutive H.M.S Cardiff leading a convoy of 70 magnificent German battle cruisers and destroyers into Internment around the Scottish Isles.

H.M.S Cardiff leading German battle-cruisers into Rosyth ©IWM Q19288
H.M.S Cardiff leading German battle-cruisers into Rosyth ©IWM Q19288

A Bit of Historical Insight

While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was the strike that lit the match and ignited the Great War, the increasing rivalry between the great powers of Europe at the time was also a contributor to the outbreak of the wide-scale conflict. One such rivalry was the Anglo-German naval arms race, provoked by the massive expansion of the German navy during the 1900’s. The intense German naval expansion programme was a threat to British defence policy which held that the British navy should be at least the size of the next two largest navies. 1914 found Britain with forty nine battleships, compared to Germany’s twenty nine, and despite the latter’s efforts; Britain continued to maintain naval supremacy throughout the duration of the war. The battle of Jutland (or Skaggerak) in 1916 was the only full-scale clash of the British and German fleets during the war and resulted in both sides claiming victory. Despite increasing German U-boat raids from 1916 to 1917, the German Navy’s hope of defeating the British by June 1917 failed. There would be no other contact between the two fleets until the signing of the Armistice and the subsequent German surrender on 21st of November, 1918.

Photograph Album of Lieutenant-Commander Wright

The Surrender of the German High Seas Fleet is immortalized in Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Thomas Wright’s photograph album, held in the Archives of the Royal Armouries. G.T. Wright was born on 24th of July, 1886 in Hellifield, Yorkshire. He joined the navy in 1901 and subsequently worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander on 31st of December, 1916. The album holds a number of photos of the German Ships entering the Firth of Forth, many of which are captioned as having been taken from the British ship H.M.S Seymour. At the time of the surrender, Wright was serving on H.M.S Ajax so it is unclear whether he is the photographer or just a collector of these images, some of which match official photographs. A correspondent from The Times was also aboard H.M.S Seymour and described the sight of the German Ships being led into the Firth of Forth by the H.M.S. Cardiff as ‘a school of leviathans led by a minnow’.

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Photograph Album of Lieutenant Commander G.T. Wright

“Paragraph Eleven. Confirm.”

After months of internment at Scapa Flow, during which the German sailors were banned from going ashore, the situation changed dramatically. On 21st of June 1919, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the secret code word ordering all German ships at Scapa Flow to scuttle themselves. The decision taken by von Reuter led to the world’s largest naval suicide, but with growing concern that the allies would divide the fleet between themselves without ratification by the German Government; it was the only option left. The British were aware that the possibility of a scuttle was high but by the time the ships began to visibly list and start to sink, it was almost impossible to stop the events, with only a handful of the ships being successfully beached and fifty two sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Two remarkable sets of newsreel footage survive in the Pathe archive picturing both the surrender and the scuttling of the German fleet.

The upper-works of the German battle-cruiser Hindenburg after it was scuttled ©IWM SP 1635
The upper-works of the German battle-cruiser Hindenburg after it was scuttled ©IWM SP 1635

Over the next few decades many of the ships were salvaged from the sea bottom but there remain remnants of the High Seas Fleet even today, laying on the seabed at Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow has now been designated a historic wreck site and divers can admire the engine room of the SS Konig which still has most of its component parts (http://scapaflowwrecks.com/wrecks/konig/).

Thus, November marks not only the remembrance of the Armistice in 1918, but for naval enthusiasts, it also marks the beginning of one of the grandest naval defeats in history. After all, not many Admirals consider the deliberate sinking of their own fleet as a “great performance!” as von Reuter exclaims in his book ‘Scapa Flow – Das Grab der Deutscher Flotte’.