When the Armistice was declared in November of 1918, hostilities of the Great War were officially over and a cease fire went into effect. In the final seconds on the Western Front, there was a fury of gunfire in the final seconds before the deadline, as soldiers competed to see who could claim to have fired the last shot of the war. Different sources claim different names as the last death of the war, but since men were scattered in so many places, exactly who died last in the seconds just before the cease fire is uncertain. Some were no doubt killed hours or even days later in isolated places that didn’t get the word of the cease fire on time.
Despite this confusion, however, we can say for certain that the last combat deaths of the First World War took place on June 21, 1919…..in northern Scotland! This is the story.
When the Armistice was signed ending the First World War, the German Navy was in a difficult position. The allied powers were undecided whether to scuttle the ships, or divide them up as spoils of war among the allied nations. If they were divided up, exactly who got what and how would it affect the balance of power in Europe in the future? While the allies tried to figure this out, they decided to intern the German surface ships at Scapa Flow, the gigantic British Naval Base in the north of Scotland. A total of 72 German vessels, including several battleships, were anchored in Scapa Flow awaiting final disposition.
The German command of this dreary mission was given to Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. While the Allies negotiated the fate of the German High Seas Fleet, the ships were still under the command of von Reuter and still manned by their German crews. As may be imagined, the morale of the Germans was close to rock bottom. In addition to being defeated, they sat day after day in one of the bleakest places on earth, watching the fog and rain. They could not go ashore or even visit other ships. The food was miserable, mail was slow, and many of the men were close to mutiny. A few already had. Von Reuter found maintaining discipline increasingly difficult as they awaited a decision on their fate.
Turning their ships over to the Allies to be distributed to their former enemies was a bitter pill to swallow, and von Reuter planned to scuttle the ships if he got the chance. The British, however, were alert to such a move, and how much cooperation von Reuter might get from some of his fellow officers was uncertain, so the long wait continued. Von Reuter secretly made preparations and awaited his chance.
The months passed and most of the German crews were taken off and sent back to Germany. This actually made things easier for von Reuter, because it gave him a way to retain only officers and men he could trust. Finally, the Treaty of Versailles was scheduled to be signed at noon on June 21, 1919. This would formalize the final disposal of the ships and allow the British to take possession from their German crews. Admiral Sydney Fremantle, the British commander planned to seize the ships on June 21st. Instead of seizing the ships in the morning, however, Fremantle decided to take advantage of some rare good weather and take most of the British ships out to conduct some long-overdue torpedo drills. The seizure would take place in the afternoon upon his return.
Seizing his chance, von Reuter signaled the German ships to hoist the Imperial German flag and scuttle. Water rushed into the ships, with the smaller ones sinking first. The British, alerted to the situation, sent smaller gunboats to stop the Germans, who were by now escaping in lifeboats. At this point, several British boarding parties swarmed about several of the ships, but met resistance from the Germans. The British, considering the Germans had made themselves enemy combatants once again, opened fire on the Germans, killing 9 and wounding 16. All together, 1774 Germans were recaptured. The nine deaths were the last combat deaths of the First World War; over six months later and in the north of Scotland.
Of the 74 interned ships, 54 were sunk, including the big battleships. Some of the ships were re floated and some were salvaged. Although the British were angry that the Germans had gotten the better of them, they were relieved that the whole thorny question of who was going to get the ships was now moot. In ensuing years, more of the wrecks would be salvaged and only a few now remain as dive sites.