Spoils of Victory:
France’s Coveted Prizes
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When Germany requested an Armistice in early November 1918, bringing an effective end to the First World War, the Allied powers demanded internment of the German High Seas Fleet as a condition for the cease-fire. Seventy-four of Germany’s most modern warships would steam to a neutral port to await the outcome of peace negotiations; if no neutral port was available, then they would go to an Allied port. The Allies immediately failed to find such a port and directed the fleet to the British naval base at Scapa Flow north of Scotland. By late November, the fleet was an anchor in Scapa Flow.
Even before its arrival, the maneuvering began to determine the ships’ fate. Only one thing seemed to find agreement among all of the Allies (including the United States, formally only an “Associated Power”): the High Seas Fleet would never be returned to Germany. While the British pushed for the fleet’s destruction, others wanted the ships added to their own navies. The Americans did not desire any of them ships for themselves, but smiled at the thought of British discomfort. A few dreamers thought they might serve as the League of Nations’ international peace-enforcing navy.
French leaders demanded and expected significant reparations from the Germans, and from the start of negotiations they sought one-quarter of the interned German warships. Others should be sent to French ports, where civilians could see them. France not only had suffered enormous human and material damage, they argued, she had neglected her fleet during the war years and deserved these vessels as partial compensation. Britain’s David Lloyd George allowed in public that the ships could be used to satisfy part of Germany’s obligation, but privately remained adamant that they be destroyed.
German Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter made it all of the discussions moot in June 1919. In charge of the German skeleton crews left aboard the warships, he ordered his men to scuttle the ships in response to rumors that the British planned to seize the ships. All of the heavy ships sank except one battleship and three light cruisers towed to shore by British destroyers and beached.
In the event the fleet had been taken by the British, or the unlikely event it had been peacefully handed over by the Germans, the French weren’t likely to get many of its ships. The British had already signaled their objection to the sudden strengthening of any other navies with former German warships, and they had possession of the ships. And other Allied powers, Italy in particular, wanted a share of the spoils as well.
An infusion of German battleships and battle cruisers would have completely transformed the Marine Nationale. Though the French had built dreadnoughts, they lagged far behind the other major powers in warship design. French dreadnoughts had an armament of big guns, but in many ways were simply scaled-up pre-dreadnoughts. Their main armament had very limited elevation, limiting them to the short ranges expected before the British revolutionized naval gunnery in the years just before the Great War
The “honeycomb” practice of intensive internal subdivision made German battleships very difficult to sink, though it would have made modernization exceedingly difficult (something we’ve sort of skated over in our Second Great War at Sea alternative history series). In other areas they were usually not as advanced as British practice, but enormously more advanced than that of the French. And German ships also sacrificed habitability – crews slept in barracks when not at sea.
Given the opportunity to take former German ships into service, the Marine Nationale likely would have accepted all of the latest German ships, and that’s what they get in our Victoire variant in the Gold Club’s Harvest 2015 Golden Journal.
All five of the High Seas Fleet’s operational battle cruisers have been given new flags, revised artwork and new defiantly French names, as well as the incomplete Mackensen. British naval intelligence believed Mackensen to have been commissioned in the summer of 1918, based on her April 1917 launch, but construction had been stopped well before completion to transfer workers and material to the submarine-building effort. She had been scheduled to enter service in July, but would instead to broken up after the war.
The most powerful of the new ships are the four vessels of the Baden class, each armed with eight 15-inch guns. Two were scuttled at Scapa Flow; the net two were incomplete at the time of the Armistice, having been abandoned like Mackensen to concentrate resources on more u-boats. Sachsen had been launched in November 1916 and Württemberg in June 1917; both would have been completed in mid-1918 under their original schedules. They’ve been completed in our variant, either by German workers in French pay, or in French yards, and given new proper French battleship names (for the old provinces of pre-Revolutionary France).
The German König-class battleships were the first to use turbine propulsion – the French had been ahead of the Germans in this regard, adopting turbines as early as the Danton class of semi-dreadnoughts authorized in 1906. Switching to turbines allowed a much more efficient arrangement for the main guns, all in turrets along the center line. All four ships served in the Great War and were scuttled at Scapa Flow; in the Victoire variant all four serve the Republic under proper provincial names.
Wartime experience showed the value of light cruisers for scouting ahead of the fleet and giving gunnery support to the torpedo flotillas. Only Britain entered the war with a sufficient number of these vessels, an accident of the Royal Navy’s colonial-security mission. The French realized this deficiency and planned to build light cruisers, but never completed any new ships. They did take over several former German ships, and one Austrian cruiser, after the war.
Germany laid down a class of four new cruisers in 1914 and 1915, all of which were completed, and more in 1915 and 1916 to the same design. Only two of the latter would be completed before the end of the war, both of them going to the bottom of Scapa Flow. One of prior class served the Marine Nationale as Metz after the war, and in the variant six more are added to the French fleet.
The new additions give France a much more powerful fleet, and of course we have to give players a chance to use them. The new vessels, suitably refitted and re-flagged, join the French cause in new scenarios our U.S. Navy Plan Gold game, fighting against the imperialist Americans as France overthrows the Monroe Doctrine. It’s all in the Harvest 2015 Golden Journal, available for free but only to members of the Gold Club.
Don’t miss out! Join the Gold Club and learn how to get your own spoils!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.