Does anybody remember the Battle of Jutland? The one and only clash of dreadnoughts in the First World War, 31 May 1916. And the last major sea battle controlled via flag signals.
Today is the 95th anniversary. I covered the drama in my book Blue Water Kiwis, a decade ago, but it deserves fresh mention. It seems to me, as a writer and historian, that certain historical truths have been lost amidst endless arguments about the tactics.
The strategic reality is clear enough. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe did not have to destroy the German High Seas Fleet. All he had to do was remain in command of the North Sea – and on 1 June, the only fleet at sea was his one. That strategic victory flowed from Jellicoe’s tactical decisions; he twice decisively out-manoeuvered the Germans, forcing Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer to turn away in confusion before his leading ships were destroyed, then put his dreadnoughts between the Germans and their base. The fact that the Germans still scuttled home, via a different route, was a consequence of British intelligence failures – the Admiralty’s ‘Room 40’ picked up where the Germans were going from wireless intercepts, but they didn’t tell Jellicoe.
Afterwards, the fact that Jutland was a crushing strategic defeat for Germany was lost amidst a good deal of British soul-searching. The problem was that although the Germans had not affected British sea superiority, the tally of ships lost was in the German favour. There was also a huge popular expectation in Britain that the clash of fleets should be a ‘second Trafalgar’ in which the losing side was annihilated. Jellicoe was castigated for his apparent caution in not pursuing the German fleet as it fled into the misty darkness. Indeed, the argument blighted his subsequent career and was still being fought out, by proxy, into the 1920s. Jellicoe himself was too gentlemanly to be closely involved; I’ve got his autobiography in my collection, along with Scheer’s – and some of the key books by Reginald Bacon and others, arguing the to-and-fro polemic. It all makes for interesting historical reading.
Yet – to run a counterfactual – had he turned towards the desperate German torpedo attack at dusk on 31 May, and lost half a dozen dreadnoughts, what then?
One other point stands out. The four largest British ships that went down – three battlecruisers and an armoured cruiser – were not battered into submission; they disappeared in cataclysmic explosions after just a few hits. That wasn’t expected – as Vice-Admiral David Beatty put it, ‘there’s something wrong with our bloody ships today’. From an engineering perspective the reasons were different – complex machinery always breaks in complex ways, and analysis has shown that thin armour was only one factor in a human mix that included faulty munitions-handling procedures, faulty anti-flash precautions – and, perhaps worst of all, munitions storage outside the magazines. That last was a consequence of early war experience in which the British ‘hail of fire’ approach to engagements quickly depleted the designed 80-round-per-gun capacity of the magazines.
It is here that we see the real historical impact of Jutland. Ships riven by magazine explosion sank in two or three minutes;and the crews of 800-1200 had no chance to escape, going down to a terrible death as the compartments around them filled. We know their names. Here are the casualty lists of HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Defence. A handful only survived – often those in the spotting tops. It was an appalling casualty rate, comparable with that of a ‘push’ on the Western Front. And it is for that reason that we need to remember the battle. The lethality of the First World War was not just restricted to land battles.
Tomorrow, of course, it’s the Glorious First of June. But that, as they say, is another story.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011