Paris Peace Conf. 180.03401/88


Notes of a Meeting Held at President Wilson’s House in the Place des Etats-Unis, Paris, on Monday, June 23, 1919, at 5 p.m.

  • Present:
    • America, United States of
      • President Wilson.
      • Mr. J. Brown Scott.
      • Rear-Admiral H. S. Knapp.
    • British Empire
      • The Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd George, O. M., M. P.
      • The Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour, O. M., M. P.
      • Mr. C. J. B. Hurst, C. B.
      • Rear-Admiral Sir G. P. W. Hope, K. C. M. G.
    • France
      • M. Clemenceau.
      • M. Loucheur.
      • M. Fromageot.
      • M. A. Weiss.
      • Admiral Ronarc’h.
    • Italy
      • Baron Sonnino.
      • Admiral Grassi.
      • M. Crespi.
    • Japan
      • H. B. Baron Makino.
      • M. Otchiai.
      • Admiral Takeshita.
Secretaries { Sir Maurice Hankey, K. C. B.
Count Aldrovandi.
Capt. E. Abraham.
Interpreter—Prof. P. J. Mantoux.

1. M. Clemenceau requested M. Mantoux to read the following text prepared by the Legal Advisers:—

The terms of the Armistice signed by Germany on the 11th November, 1918, provided as follows:— The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow

“Article XXIII. The German surface warships which shall be specified by the Allies and the United States shall forthwith be disarmed and thereafter interned in neutral ports, or, failing them, in the Allied ports designated by the Allies and the United States. They shall there remain under the supervision of the Allies and the United States, only care and maintenance parties being left on board.”

On June 21st. the German warships which had been handed over to the Allied and Associated Powers and were at anchor in the roadstead at Scapa Flow, with the German care and maintenance parties on board as provided in the Armistice, were sunk by these parties under the orders of the German Admiral in command.

According to the information which has been collected and transmitted by the British Admiralty, the German Admiral in command of these parties of the German naval forces has alleged that he acted in the belief that the Armistice expired on June 21st. at midday, and consequently in his opinion the destruction in question was no violation of its terms.

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In law, Germany by signing the terms of Article XXIII set out above, entered into an undertaking that the ships handed over by her should remain in the ports indicated by the Allied and Associated Powers and that care and maintenance parties should be left on board with such instructions and under such orders as would ensure that the Armistice should be observed.

The destruction of these ships instead of their preservation as had been provided, constituted at once a violation of the Armistice, the destruction of the pledge handed over, and an act of insubordination towards the Allied and Associated Powers.

The Admiral in command of the care and maintenance parties belonging to the German naval forces has, while recognising that the act was a breach of the Armistice, attempted to justify it by alleging his belief that the Armistice had come to an end.

This alleged explanation is not well founded as, under the communication addressed to the German Delegation by the Allied and Associated Powers on the 16th. June, 1919,1 the Armistice would only terminate on refusal to sign the Peace or, if no answer were returned on the 23rd June at 7 o’clock.

3. According to international law, as embodied particularly in Articles 40 and 41 of the Regulations annexed to the Fourth Hague Convention in 1907, every serious violation of the Armistice by one of the parties gives the other party the right to denounce it and even in case of urgency to recommence hostilities at once. A violation of the terms of the Armistice by individuals acting on their own initiative only confers the right of demanding the punishment of the offenders and, if necessary, indemnity for the losses sustained.

4. In these circumstances and without taking account of other grounds on which responsibility might be based, the violation of the Armistice by the German naval detachments, the destruction of the pledge placed in the hands of the Allied and Associated Powers, and the act of “sabotage” committed give them a right to reparation for the loss caused and to the punishment of the offenders, and in consequence a right to proceed to such further measures as the Allied and Associated Powers may deem appropriate.

As regards the question whether and in what manner the authors of the destruction of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow are liable to prosecution and punishment, the committee of Legal Advisers are of opinion that there is justification in accordance with Article 228 of the Treaty of Peace with Germany for the prosecution of these individuals before Military Tribunals, and for the application to them of penalties legally provided for suitable to the case.

Mr. Lloyd George enquired why reference had not been made to Article 31 of the Armistice.

Mr. Hurst replied that the Legal Advisers in drawing up their note had thought it desirable to avoid the employment of any argument open to doubt. Article 31, it might be argued, did not apply to the case in question. The word “restitution” in that article appeared to refer to the terms of the immediately preceding article.

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Mr. Lloyd George said that the article appeared to him to cover all possibilities. There must be no destruction.

Mr. Hurst explained that the article forbade destruction before evacuation, surrender, or restoration. The destruction in question had not taken place before evacuation or surrender. The word “restitution” could not apply.

Mr. Lloyd George thought that the article covered everything. The Germans surrendered ships to the Allies who could either restore them or keep them. In either case the Germans were forbidden to destroy them.

President Wilson said he thought Mr. Hurst’s reasoning was quite clear. The Germans were required to refrain from any destruction before certain things happened. These things had taken place, and this destruction had occurred long afterwards. He did not think that it was necessary to invoke Article 31 as the case made out by the Legal Advisers was quite strong enough without it.

Mr. Lloyd George expressed the opinion that the word “restitution” in Article 31 related to restitution of the German ships to the Germans.

President Wilson thought that the reasoning in the legal report was quite convincing, and that it was quite unnecessary to reinforce it by quoting an article the application of which was questionable.

M. Clemenceau said he could not accept that theory. He would be asked why he had not made use of that text. He would reply that authorised international interpreters of the text had told him it did not apply. This would not satisfy his critics, who would say that it was for the Governments to decide and not for the interpreters.

Mr. Balfour enquired whether a case was made worse in law if in addition to good arguments a doubtful argument was used.

M. Sonnino pointed out that the article clearly intended to deal with the case of restitution by Germany to the Allies.

M. Clemenceau said he did not accept this interpretation. In his view the case was as follows:—German ships were sent to ports designated by the Allies. Thereafter, there were two alternatives. The ships might be surrendered or they might be returned to Germany. If the text did not mean that, he gave up all faith in texts. The interpretation of texts must be ruled by sound sense.

President Wilson said he did not know what appearance the text might present in French. The English text did not mean what M. Clemenceau said.

M. Clemenceau said that about the word “evacuation” there could be no ambiguity, either in French or in English, as it was derived from the Latin “Vaccuus”, meaning empty. Evacuation consequently meant to make empty, to quit.

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M. Sonnino again pointed out that Article 31 must be read in conjunction with Articles 29 and 30, to both of which it referred.

Mr. Balfour questioned whether it was material to settle the point. The Council desired to punish the culprits and squeeze the utmost out of Germany. It appeared that they were in a position to punish the culprits, whichever of the two interpretations (M. Clemenceau’s or President Wilson’s), was the right one. As to squeezing the Germans …

(At this point M. Dutasta, followed by Colonel Henri and Captain Portier, entered the room, with a Note from the German Delegation expressing willingness on behalf of the German Republic to sign, under compulsion, a dishonourable peace. (See Annexure “A.”)

(Orders were given for guns to be fired.

No further discussion took place.)

Annexure A to CF–88


german acceptance of peace terms

Translation From the German of Note From German Delegation

No. 88

Sir: The Minister for Foreign Affairs has instructed me to communicate to Your Excellency the following:—

“The Government of the German Republic has seen with consternation from the last communication of the Allied and Associated Governments, that the latter are resolved to wrest from Germany by sheer force even the acceptance of those conditions of peace which, though devoid of material significance, pursue the object of taking away its honour from the German people. The honour of the German people will remain untouched by any act of violence. The German people, after the frightful sufferings of the last few years, lacks all means of defending its honour by external action. Yielding to overwhelming force, but without on that account abandoning its view in regard to the unheard of injustice of the conditions of peace, the Government of the German Republic therefore declares that it is ready to accept and sign the conditions of peace imposed by the Allied and Associated Governments.”

Pray accept [etc.]

Von Haniel

His Excellency Monsieur Clemenceau,
President of the Peace Conference.

  1. Post, p. 926.