In 1916, German admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928) commanded state-of-the-art warships against Great Britain's Royal Navy in the Battle of Jutland, one of the most infamously inconclusive large-scale skirmishes of World War I. Military historians rate this altercation as the largest conflagration of battleships between two major naval powers ever fought on the open seas and without aerial support.
One of the few high-ranking military advisors in imperial Germany without an aristocratic “von” or “zu” attached to his surname, Reinhard Scheer was a career naval officer who became a trusted confidant to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Because of this, during the final, grim days of November 1918, he was part of a delegation sent to persuade the kaiser to abdicate. A year later, Admiral Scheer penned an account of the German navy's performance during World War I that was translated into English and widely read in both Great Britain and the United States.
Scheer was born on September 30, 1863, in Obernkirchen, a town in Germany's present-day state of Lower Saxony. His father was a Protestant cleric by training but a schoolteacher by profession, and the family later moved to the larger city of Hanau near Frankfurt am Main. They lived at Grimmestrasse 12 in the 1880s, according to letters Scheer wrote home when he entered the military branch known as the Kaiserliche Marine, or Imperial Navy, as a lowly cadet in April of 1879.
The German navy of the late 19th century was not a formidable sea power. Dwarfed in size, guns, manpower, and overall prowess by the fleets of Britain, France, Japan, and the United States, the Kaiserliche Marine had evolved from the Prussian Navy, a force dating to the early 1700s and which was now largely served defensive duties for vital North Sea and Baltic Sea commercial ports and trade routes. The mission and budget of the Kaiserliche Marine expanded after the accession of the bellicose Wilhelm II as kaiser, or emperor of Germany in 1888.
Kaiser Wilhelm II's Fleet Acts of 1898 and 1900 authorized a massive expansion and shipbuilding program with the aim of turning Germany into an intimidating force on the high seas. The firstborn grandchild of Queen Victoria's 42 grandchildren, the German emperor was fascinated by Britain's Royal Navy, whose ships and commanders had helped elite aristocratic families amass vast fortunes from maritime commerce for hundreds of years while expanding the British Empire's spheres of foreign influence around the globe. Wilhelm's zeal to build a fleet to rival that of his British cousins would have damning consequences and be a major factor in not one but two world wars.
One of the most transformative events of Scheer's early career in the Kaiserliche Marine was his service aboard the frigate Hertha, which made a tour of several major world ports between 1881 and 1882. During this passage, he saw the vessels of the Imperial Japanese navy at Yokohama, and he was on duty as the Hertha voyaged through the South Seas and other parts of French Polynesia and made port in Melbourne, Australia. The masted Hertha also visited Zanzibar and made surveys of the East African coastline during this time. In November of 1882, Scheer was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and later selected for training as an artillery officer. He completed another course at the Naval Academy in Kiel and in 1884 was assigned to the Kaiserliche Marine's East Africa Squadron, where he spent the next two years as a watch officer aboard the Mars and the Bismarck, two relatively new warships.
Scheer's career progress kept pace with advancements in naval weaponry. In the late 1880s, he trained as a torpedo specialist and returned to patrolling the East Africa coastline. His mastery of the deadly, hull-piercing art of torpedo warfare earned him a promotion to instructor at the Naval Academy during the mid-1890s. By then he had forged an important career connection with a key player in the expansion of German sea power, Alfred Tirpitz, who would also rise to a position of enormous influence during World War I. It was Tirpitz who supported Wilhelm's massive expansion of the Kaiserliche Marine and drafted the details of the kaiser's ambitious plan, which required massive commitments from steel and armament manufacturers.
Scheer advanced to the rank of Korvettenkapitän, the equivalent of lieutenant commander, and Tirpitz recommended him for positions at the Imperial Navy Office, or Reichsmarineamt. Scheer's predilection for shore duty assignments coincided with his 1899 marriage to Emillie Mohr, with whom he would have two daughters and one son.
Wilhelm's naval expansion program included the construction of new warships of the dreadnought and predreadnought class, heavily armed, ironclad steam-powered vessels that were designed for naval combat. One of these was the Elsass, which Scheer was assigned to command not long after its launch. By the onset of World War I, he was serving as a squadron commander with the rank of vice admiral with the Hochseeflotte, or High Seas Fleet, the equivalent of the British Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. When Germany declared war on France in early August of 1914, followed by Britain's declaration of war on Germany, Scheer was commanding the battleship Preussen, which was stationed in a defensive position at the basin of the Elbe River at the North Sea.
World War I quickly expanded to include the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the United States entered on the side of Great Britain and France in the final year. Scheer's role was fixed firmly on the defense of northern Germany and aggressive maneuvers of the Hochseeflotte in the North Sea against British ships and targets. In January of 1915, he took part in the Battle of Dogger Bank, a large-scale clash between German and British naval power that took place on the open sea between Scotland's Firth of Forth and Germany's vital North Sea ports of Bremenhaven and Cuxhaven.
In early 1916, Scheer was given command of the entire Hochseeflotte. He was in concordance with others at the Reichsmarineamt, believing that victory over the Allied forces was assured if only Britain's Grand Fleet and its prized ships could be sunk or maimed badly enough to require extensive repairs in drydock. The Germans had already provoked Great Britain and other enemies at sea in a few high-profile clashes: England's northeast coastline had been bombarded in raids in December of 1914, which resulted in severe civilian casualties, followed five months later by the torpedoing of the passenger ship the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner that was sunk off the coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 passengers and crew died in that maritime disaster on May 7, 1915.
The Battle of Jutland, named for the peninsula on which Denmark is situated, is the only naval battle in military history to take place on open seas between two dreadnought-class navies. The term “dreadnought” refers to the new type of Royal Marine Ship (RMS) launched in 1906, inspiring other seafaring powers to do the same. When the 36-hour-long battle began, the British Navy deployed 28 battleships and another 123 vessels; Scheer's fleet included 16 battleships and 83 smaller vessels, including the deadly torpedo boats. German guns sunk the RMS Indefatigible and Queen Mary, whose combined casualties approached 2,300 men. As the night of June 1 approached, Scheer ordered a retreat and withdrew his ships behind the mined waters off the Danish coastline. Although Germany claimed victory, Great Britain did, too, and military historians now classify the Battle of Jutland as one of the great undecided skirmishes of 20th-century warfare.
The Battle of Jutland is also known as the Battle of Skagerrak, after the straits located at the tip of Denmark that provide access to Scandinavia and the Baltic ports. It was one of the pivotal events of World War I and resulted in more than 8,000 casualties, two-thirds being British personnel. The Jutland debacle was also one of the most vulnerable moments for the Royal Navy's prized Grand Fleet. Aboard one of those British massive dreadnought-class vessels was Prince Albert, the future father of Queen Elizabeth II.
Frustrated by the battle's outcome, Scheer joined others at the Reichsmarineamt in suggesting that unrestricted submarine attacks on British shipping routes and the British coastline were the best strategy to prevent an Allied victory. The infamous Zimmerman Telegraph, which revealed this and other details of Kaiser Wilhelm's war plans, ultimately prompted the United States to enter World War I as a combatant force in the spring of 1917. Meanwhile, after the Jutland rout, Scheer was named commander of Germany's battle fleet and in August of 1918 succeeded his former boss, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, as Chief of Admiralty Staff.
Two months later, Scheer and other top-ranking officers convinced Wilhelm to once again lure the British Grand Fleet out by provocation, but a mutiny at the harbor at Wilhelmshaven prevented this action. Refusing to take part in what they believed was a suicide mission, hundreds of German sailors walked off their battleships as they passed through locks en route to the open waters of the North Sea in the last week of October of 1918. The admiral now joined other military officials in persuading the kaiser—now holed up in Castle Fraineuse in the Belgian town of Spa—that his abdication was required. A vanquished Germany surrendered on November 9, 1918, and 12 days later Scheer and other admirals handed over the entirety of the Hochseeflotte to the British, which ordered them to Scapa Flow, a point off Scotland's Orkney Islands. Scheer resigned his post at the Admiralty on January 19, 1919.
In October of 1920, Scheer's wife and daughter were shot to death during an attack on their villa in Weimar, Germany. Although the assailant then turned the weapon on himself, another man reportedly fled the crime scene. Scheer was at home during the attack, and reports of the tragedy hinted that political operatives engaged with German's extreme left were targeting the retired admiral. Earlier that year, Scheer's wartime memoir, Deutschlands Hochseeflotte Im Weltkrieg (“Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War” ) had been published in English translation. He would also produce an autobiography, Vom Segelschiff zum U-Boot (“From Sailing Ship to Submarine” ).
Scheer died of heart failure while visiting a friend in the Bavarian town of Marktredwitz on November 26, 1928. His account of the Battle of Jutland in Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War drew extensively from the official report he submitted to Kaiser Wilhelm II. “We have been able to prove to the world that the English Navy no longer possesses her boasted irresistibility,” he had boasted in that document. His memoir also described the visits made by German princes to wounded sailors in the days after Jutland. Scheer deemed these visits “clear proof that no other organisation in the Empire was so fitted to signify its unity as the Navy, which brought together in closest contact those belonging to all classes in the Fatherland and united them by common action in fortune and misfortune.”
Epkenhans, Michael, Jörg Hillmann, and Frank Nägler, editors, Jutland: World War I's Greatest Naval Battle, University of Kentucky Press, 2015.
Scheer, Admiral Reinhard, Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War, Cassel & Company, 1920, new edition, introduction by Marcus Faulkner and Andrew Lambert, Frontline Books, 2014.
Life, April 17, 1964, Edward Kern, “World War I, Part III: The War at Sea,” p. 58.
Military History, April 2007, Sharon Tosi Moore, “Long Night of the Dreadnoughts,” p. 60.
New York Times, October 11, 1920, George Renwick, “3 Slain in Home of Admiral Scheer.” □