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

the Fatherland.

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

its soul.

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

at sea.

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

be transacted.

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.