The Fleet That Lost Its Soul
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
Sailors and especially fighters on the sea have in all ages possessed
the noblest and bravest of souls and the finest morale. This is why
the British sailors have felt so bitter about the atrocities committed
by the German U-boats. In case a ship is sinking, the members of the
crew do not expect to leave her until all the passengers are in the
lifeboats, and the captain is always the last man to leave. Sometimes
refers to go down with his ship so that it may never be said that
his soul failed him. For sea fighters in U-boats to disregard this
traditional chivalry of the sea and to sink merchant ships without
warning and without assuring the passengers of their safety seemed to
the sailors of other lands like giving up the high ideals that had
grown out of their dangerous calling--like poisoning their souls with
deceit and violence.
Most naval officers would rather die than surrender. Captain Lawrence,
fighting for America in the war of 1812, wounded and dying, cried to
his men, Don't give up the ship. To fight rather than to surrender
even in the face of the greatest odds has been for centuries the idea
of sea fighters.
Admiral Cervera at Santiago in 1898 knew he was outmatched by the
American fleet waiting for him off the harbor; but he brought his ships
out and made a brave fight in trying to escape. Lieutenant Hobson knew
there were terrible odds against him when he and his little company
went in under the guns of the forts and attempted to block the channel.
In the Russo-Japanese War, the Russians in the Sea of Japan with their
ships foul and barnacled after a voyage of thousands of miles were not
afraid to face certain defeat. Brave men do not lose their souls in
the face of tremendous odds or even in the face of sure death.
Did the soul of Private George Dilboy of Somerville, Massachusetts,
faint in him when he charged alone the German machine gun? He had come
with his platoon up a little rise to a railroad track at the top, when
suddenly an enemy machine gun opened fire upon them at about one
hundred yards distance. Dilboy did not throw himself on the ground to
escape the bullets. No, he raised his rifle to his shoulder and
standing in plain sight of the German gunners, began to fire at them.
As they were partially hidden he was not sure of his aim. So he ran
down the embankment and across a wheat field towards them. The machine
gun was immediately turned upon him and before he reached it, he fell
with one leg nearly severed above the knee by the rain of lead and with
several bullets through his body. Half crouched on the only knee left
him, he aimed at the gunners one after another until he had killed or
dispersed them all, and then fainted and died. He had advanced in the
face of certain death, but had saved the lives of many of his comrades,
for the gun had to be captured to gain their objective.
The brute is usually a coward at heart. The sinking of unarmed
merchant ships and of hospital ships by the German U-boats, the bombing
of undefended towns and hospitals, and the firing upon Red Cross
workers were acts of brutes and cowards. So it is not strange that the
great German fleet which all through the war, except at the battle of
Jutland, had hidden in security behind the guns of Heligoland and the
defenses of the Kiel Canal lost its soul when, as a last hope, it was
ordered out to fight the Allied fleet. The German sailors knew the
battle would really be a gigantic sacrifice and refused to fight it for
There is always a very slight chance that through accident or some
peculiar combination of unusual circumstances, a battle even against
very great odds may be won. The German fleet had this chance--a very,
very slight one, to be sure; and did not take it. The fleet had lost
Two weeks later, after the signing of the armistice, the German fleet
surrendered to the Allies. It was the greatest, the most amazing, and
some add, the most shameful surrender in the naval history of the
world. It was also the greatest concentration of sea power and the
most magnificent spectacle old ocean has ever witnessed.
The surrender was demanded by the terms of the armistice and was made
on November 21, according to the program laid down by the commander of
the British fleet. It was not the surrender of a foe beaten in a fair
battle and yet recognized by his enemies as worthy of his steel. It
was the surrender of a foe who declined to fight with the strong and
the armed, but who had taken every opportunity to kill the weak and the
defenseless. The British sailors could not forget, and they say they
never will, the barbarous treatment of their brothers in the merchant
marine by the German U-boats. There was therefore none of the sympathy
and the fraternization that usually has accompanied a great surrender
On the afternoon of the day before the surrender the following notice
was posted on all the Allied ships:--
Let it be impressed on all--officers and men--that a state of war
exists during the armistice. Their relations with officers and men of
the German navy with whom they may now be brought in contact are to be
strictly of a formal character in dealing with the late enemy, while
It is obligatory that the methods by which they waged war must not be
forgotten. No international compliments are to be paid, and all
conversation is forbidden except in regard to the immediate business to
If it should be necessary to provide food for the German officers and
men, they should not be entertained, but it should be served to them in
a place specifically set. If it should be necessary to accept food
from the Germans, the request is made that it be similarly served.
Later, notices were posted giving the hour when they were to meet the
Germans and requiring every precaution to be taken against treachery.
At 9:40 the Battle Fleet will meet the German fleet. Immediate
readiness for action is to be assumed.
They would not trust the people to whom solemn treaties were but scraps
of paper, and whose necessity made any act however treacherous appear
to them to be a right one.
The Allied fleets were anchored on the night of November 20 in the
Firth of Forth above and below its famous bridge. The United States
was represented by the New York, the Florida, the Arkansas, and
the Wyoming, and France by a cruiser and two destroyers. Ships from
Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were also in line. There were
nearly four hundred warships in the Allied fleet, including sixty
dreadnoughts, fifty cruisers, and over two hundred destroyers.
At four o'clock on the morning of Friday, November 21, the great Battle
Fleet weighed anchor and one by one steamed out to sea. It was, even
in the darkness, a wonderful and thrilling sight, an exhibition of sea
power never before seen in the history of mankind.
Picture that scene in the gray darkness before the dawn. Mile after
mile of mighty dreadnoughts and swift cruisers and destroyers weighing
their anchors one by one until four hundred mighty engines of war
slipped almost silently from their places, each leaving a trail of
black smoke behind. As you imagine the scene as it would appear to the
eye, can you realize its significance and what it all meant? Do the
people of the United States fully understand that but for England's
magnificent fleet their great coast cities would have been bombarded or
obliged to pay a ransom; and that without the Grand Fleet the war would
have been lost to selfish autocracy? Let us never forget England's
The German line, each ship flying the German naval flag at the main
top, consisted of thirteen of the dreadnought or superdreadnought
class, seven light cruisers, and fifty destroyers, and was over twenty
miles in length. Each column of the Allied fleet was almost twice as
long as this. Over them flew a British naval airplane.
The surrendered ships, guarded on both sides, steamed on towards the
anchorage selected for them near May Island at the entrance to the
Firth of Forth; and reached there about two o'clock in the afternoon.
Admiral Beatty from his flagship, the Queen Elizabeth, issued the
following signal to the fleet: The German flag will be hauled down at
sunset today. It will not be hoisted again without permission.
A little later Admiral Beatty sent the following signal:--
It is my intention to hold a service of thanksgiving at 6 P.M. today
for the victory Almighty God has vouchsafed His Majesty's arms. Every
ship is recommended to do the same.
And to every ship he sent a message reading:--
I wish to express to the flag officers, captains, officers and men of
the Grand Fleet my congratulations on the victory which it has gained
over the sea power of the enemy. The greatness of this achievement is
no way lessened by the fact that the final episode did not take the
form of a fleet action. Although deprived of this opportunity, which
we so long eagerly awaited, and of striking the final blow for the
freedom of the world, we may derive satisfaction from the singular
tribute that the enemy has accorded the Grand Fleet. Without joining
us in action, he has given testimony to the prestige and efficiency of
the fleet which is without a parallel in history, and it is to be
remembered that this testimony has been accorded to us by those who
were in the best position to judge. I desire to express my thanks and
appreciation to all who assisted me in maintaining the fleet in instant
readiness for action and who have borne the arduous and exacting labors
which have been necessary for perfecting the efficiency which has
accomplished so much.