Remembering history – the battle of Jutland, 116 years on

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the First World War and produced casualties of similar scale to the disastrous ‘pushes’ on the Western Front. Over six thousand British sailors died and more than 2,550 German, all in a hectic afternoon and night. More than half of the British were lost in moments, aboard the four – and possibly five – British ships that blew up in catastrophic explosions.* It’s the 116th anniversary of this battle on 31 May, and we must remember those who lost their lives that tragic day.

The story of any battle such as this must always be one of the people involved. For me it is also a family matter: my great uncle was aboard HMS Orion in the thick of the great clash of the main battle fleets. He survived, protected both by 12 inches of Vickers-process armour and by the fact that the main British battle fleet did not come under much fire. I still have the mess-fork he had at the time. His battle was fought without seeing the enemy, deep within the hull of the battleship where he operated a Graham Navyphone, taking reports from the spotting top above and passing them to the fire-control team operating a Heath Robinson-with-bicycle-chain mechanical computer, the Dreyer Fire Control Table that told the gun-layers where to point the ship’s armament. I never really asked him how he felt, knowing all hell was breaking loose outside but unable to see anything of the drama – including not knowing when death might suddenly sweep the compartment.

My great uncle’s mess fork, which I photographed atop my original-edition copy of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s account of his work commanding Britain’s Grand Fleet at the battle.

I’ve covered the battle, and the stories of the people who fought it, in a number of my books. For the most recent and detailed account – with new eyewitness accounts and personal stories – check out my book The Battlecruiser New Zealand, where I devoted a chapter to the experiences of those aboard HMS New Zealand during the battle. Nick Jellicoe, grandson of the senior British commander at the battle, kindly agreed to write a foreword. You can buy it from any good bookstore in the US, Britain or New Zealand, or from anywhere in the world via Amazon. The cover art, incidentally, is a painting by the artist Lionel Wyllie, depicting HMS New Zealand at the battle of Jutland. Check it out.

*These ships were the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Invincible, and the armoured cruiser Defence. Historical analysis suggests that the armoured cruiser Black Prince also blew up under fire, during the night action. She was, in any event, lost with all hands.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022

3 thoughts on “Remembering history – the battle of Jutland, 116 years on

  1. Some people think the definition of courage is the image of the berserker, charging into battle in a hail of bullets. Drunk on…glory? To me, true courage is to sit and do your job without giving in to the fear that makes you want to run, even when there’s nowhere to run to. That fork is a truly touching momento of a brave man.

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    1. My great uncle was an old man when I knew him – he lived to 100, in the end. Used to make apple wine. I was too young when I knew him to think to ask what it must have felt like to be unable to see out, yet knowing a battle was raging and that death might strike at any instant. (I wrote a book about battlefield heroism, way back when – mostly exploring the psychology of it. Nobody noticed I’d done it, though.)

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      1. ‘Nobody noticed i’d done it, though’. That’s such a pity, Matthew. To me, exploring the human psyche under extreme stress is the most interesting thing of all.

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