The British Grand Fleet which engaged the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland in 1916 was the most formidable in the history of the Royal Navy. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s 151 warships included 28 battleships and nine battle cruisers, commanded by 13 admirals and 75 commodores and post captains. The Royal Navy and British public confidently expected another Trafalgar. Instead, the Grand Fleet was severely mauled by the German Navy, which did not exist when Jellicoe was born, and lost more ships and many more men. George Bonney recalls this historic naval battle fought nearly a century ago that shook the nation, navy and the empire. The defeat also highlighted fundamental shortcomings in equipment, training, command and control in a British Fleet that had once appeared invincible.
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The Battle of Jutland 1916
By George Bonney
The History PressCopyright © 2013 The Estate of George Bonney
All rights reserved.
THE GROWTH OF ANGLO-GERMAN RIVALRY
On the afternoon of Wednesday 31 May and during the night of 31 May/1 June 1916 there took place the first and last engagement between the battle fleets of Germany and Great Britain. The carnage was fearful, though the scale of the battle hardly matched that of later naval engagements in the Pacific between the Japanese and American fleets. The battle remains in the public consciousness because of its continuing relevance to current events, the continuing dispute about its significance, the remarkable personalities of many of those directly or marginally concerned and their influence on the course of events, and the persistence of professional and amateur naval historians.
The battle took place in the confined waters of the North Sea (as the Germans called it) or German Ocean (as the English called it), in an area bounded by latitudes 55 deg. and 58 deg. N and longitudes 5 deg. and 6 deg. 30' E, off the entrance to the Skagerrak and the Danish province of Jylland (Jutland, Jütland), in the area of the 'Jutland Bank'. The British array included nine Dreadnought battlecruisers and twenty-eight Dreadnought battleships, with scouting cruisers and protecting destroyers; the German, five Dreadnought battlecruisers and sixteen Dreadnought battleships, six pre-Dreadnought battleships, with scouting cruisers and torpedo-boats. By the time the fleets returned to port the British had lost three battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers and eight destroyers; the Germans, one Dreadnought battlecruiser, one pre-Dreadnought battleship, four light cruisers and five torpedo-boats. In all, 6,097 British seamen and 2,551 German seamen had lost their lives in the engagement. The Germans claimed and continue to claim the victory; the British public had early apprehensions of defeat, which were later modified by management of the news. The chief effect of the engagement on the progress of the war was to fix the thoughts of the German High Command on the destruction of supply lines by submarine warfare in preference to a challenge to the domination of the sea by surface forces. The Battle of Jutland, or Skagerrak-Schlacht, represented the culmination of the war on the surface of the sea between Britain and Germany, and of the preparations for naval combat that began in 1897.
The development of Anglo-German hostility
Until the latter part of the nineteenth century British, and before that English, sentiment was clearly favourable to the Germans. The two peoples shared a common ancestry; the languages were related; the interests of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation were only rarely in conflict with those of England, or later with those of the British Empire; no individual German state was powerful enough to interfere with the interests of either. Since the accession of George I Britain had been ruled by members of the House of Hanover, tracing their descent from King James I and VI through his daughter Elizabeth, wife of the Elector Palatine and, briefly, Queen of Bohemia. British monarchs sought their consorts from the princely houses of the German states. So profound were the destruction and disorganisation wrought by the Thirty Years' War of 1618–48 that the loose confederation of German states that existed for the next 150 years posed no threat to the nascent British Empire. Austria was busy in Italy and Hungary and constantly on the watch to the East. The rise of Prussia under the Great Elector and later Friedrich II caused no alarm; Hessian soldiers were hired to assist the British in the attempt to suppress the revolt in North America in 1776.
Napoleon I provided, perhaps, the stimulus for German unification: although his termination of the Holy Roman Empire and defeat of Prussia must at the time have seemed to do the opposite, they led to the substitution of Prussian for Austrian hegemony in the German lands and eventually to German unification under that hegemony. Certainly, Germans now look on the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 as the decisive event of the Napoleonic wars, transcending Trafalgar, Borodino and Waterloo as the principal factor in the destruction of the French Empire. Without the aid of the King's German Legion and contingents from the Netherlands and German states, and without the intervention of the Prussians, Wellington would not in 1815 have emerged victorious. On the other hand, without the aid of Britain and allies, Prussia, Austria and Russia would not have overcome the French. The rise of Prussia led to Bismarck's unification of the German nation and to its supremacy in Europe after the foundation of the Second Empire in 1871. Defeated by the French and Piedmontese at Solferino and Magenta and by the Prussians at Königgrätz, Austria was obliged to take the second place. Bavaria, having allied itself with Austria, also suffered defeat and was obliged to ally itself with Prussia in the later war and to accept its eventual hegemony. In effect, Bismarck showed Europe by his three wars against, successively, Denmark, Austria and France, that this extension of politics into warfare, to paraphrase Clausewitz, could be made to pay. The keys to success were technological superiority and more efficient organisation. 'Watch out for that man,' said Disraeli, 'he means what he says.' The compliment was returned by Bismarck in 1879: 'Der alte Jude, dass ist der Mann.'
The first stirring in Britain of apprehension about the rise of German power began, perhaps, with the defeat and humiliation of France in 1870–1. Queen Victoria, herself of German stock and married to a German, was naturally sympathetic at first to German aims, though distrustful of Bismarck and his policies. Her eldest child was married to the Crown Prince Friedrich, the heir apparent in the imperial succession. The Crown Prince himself was a soldier of distinction, who had won fame in the war against Austria and was to win more renown in the French conflict. It seems likely that the early and overwhelming success of German arms came as a surprise to Queen Victoria; the later humiliation of France and its Emperor and Empress seems to have roused in Victoria and her people a sense that the German Empire had become a force with which a reckoning might have to be made. Family feeling was in conflict with the friendly sentiments entertained by Victoria for Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie. The mind of the Prince of Wales, later to succeed as King Edward VII, a lifelong lover of France and French culture, and probably of a number of French women, may have been influenced by the spectacle of German triumph and French humiliation. The triumph had been secured by superior organisation and technology and by the bravery and discipline of the German troops, but this lesson was not fully learnt by the British. They may have forgotten Disraeli's comment; may perhaps have failed to reflect that his warning might apply not only to Bismarck but to the whole German nation.
The rise of Germany
In the last years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth the commercial and industrial development of Germany at first rivalled and later in some fields surpassed that of Great Britain. In 1900 the Daily Telegraph could comment on the advance of Germany in education, war and industry and could compare German adaptability with British rigidity. By 1914 the German mercantile marine included about 2,000 steamships out of a total tonnage of almost 3 million. Britain's steamer tonnage was about 10 million. Giant German liners competed with their British counterparts for the passenger traffic across the Atlantic (Fig 1.1). By 1903 the two largest passenger liner companies in the world were German. German steel production rose to equal and later surpass that of Britain. By the early part of the twentieth century Britain's industrial power began to decline as the sons of the original captains of industry turned away from their proper business and looked more to easy money and to the objects and people who could be bought by that money. In contrast, German industrial might and efficiency continually increased. Bismarck permitted little in the way of democratic process, but he did not trust the practitioners of private enterprise to look after those whose work provided their profits; his introduction of insurance against sickness (1883) and accidents (1884) and of old age pensions (1889) gave to German workers guarantees which were not enjoyed by their British counterparts until the early part of the twentieth century. The German workforce was not enfeebled by this solid evidence that the State cared for its welfare; rather, it exerted itself even more. As H.A.L. Fisher put it, 'The country which had been poor suddenly became rich.' Fisher points to the rapid rise in the production of coal and steel and to the development of the merchant fleet: between 1870 and 1890 its steam tonnage increased sevenfold. Electrical and chemical industries flourished alongside these basic developments. In 1882 began the colonial development that later did so much to embitter the relationship between Britain and Germany.
The theory and practice of conquest and colonisation are almost as old as the human race. The attachment to war and violence is an ineradicable component of human nature; indeed, many individuals, mostly men, actually enjoy war and take pleasure in killing human beings. The urge to subdue neighbouring peoples probably arose from an increase in population and shortage of food: families or tribes moved into new territories and drove out, subdued or killed the people they found there. Later, great movements of peoples took place, as in the periodic westward migrations of the Goths. With the establishment of states and empires, the idea of enrichment by invasion was developed: the Romans invaded Britain not only to subdue a recurrently troublesome neighbour but also to avail themselves of a rich supply of slaves and mineral resources. With the development of oceanic navigation the maritime states of Europe began that haphazard plundering of the Americas, Africa and Asia that has in so many cases left so dire a legacy. The Portuguese and Spanish were early in the field, at the end of the fifteenth century, destroying the advanced civilisations of central and south America and setting up their colonial rule. These states came to depend on the plunder of Brazil, Mexico and Peru to support their domestic economies and their struggles against rival European powers. The later justification for conquest and colonisation was the promotion of trade: raw materials were to be taken from the colony and exchanged for goods manufactured in the conquering country. A moral dimension was added by the supposed duty to spread the doctrines of Christianity; with the rise of Islam the thesis of the Holy War was advanced.
Latecomers to the scenes of plunder and exploitation were the Dutch, the English or British, and the French. All did well, but after 1815 the British came off the best, with colonies scattered all over the world. The Germans, arriving on the scene in the 1880s, found the best and most productive areas already occupied. They secured in Africa the four colonies of Togoland, Cameroon, and South West and East Africa (Fig 1.2). The possession of South West Africa was seriously marred by the fact that Walfisch Bay, its best port, and the one connected by railway to the interior, was in the hands of the British. It is doubtful if its African colonies were ever much of an advantage to the German state. The 'place in the sun' so earnestly desired by the German people and their leaders was in truth a place out of the sun, where a white race, accustomed to life in a temperate climate, could flourish. They would in fact, as was suggested by Tenniel in a Punch cartoon of 1885, have been better off in the Isle of Wight. The outlook for German colonial power and maritime strategy was, however, improved by the leasing in 1898 from the battered Chinese Empire of the Kiao-Chau enclave with its harbour of Tsingtao. That provided a base for the fleet necessary to protect the archipelago acquired by Germany in the West Pacific between 1885 and 1895, including the Carolines, the Bismarck Archipelago and the north-east part of New Guinea. Samoa too went to Germany. One of the remaining relics of the German occupation of this area is the admirable beer still produced in Tsingtao.
All these overseas possessions were a hostage to fortune while the British Fleet commanded the seas. That command, established in the latter part of the eighteenth century, had survived contests with France, Spain, Portugal and even the United States, though a temporary loss of command in Chesapeake Bay in 1781 led to the final ruin of the British cause in the War of American Independence. Since 1805 the Royal Navy had had a tradition of victory, even of victory against the odds, which had survived the setbacks of the American War of 1812–14 (Fig 1.3). Command of the seas was necessary for the protection of Britain's overseas trade and of the imports of food by which the increasing population was fed. It permitted the deployment of Britain's small army against the Russians, the insurgent Indians and Sudanese and a variety of colonial foes (Fig 1.4). Finally, to the annoyance of many Europeans and Americans and some Britons, the Army was deployed in South Africa against the Boers, an enemy of tough European stock armed with modern weapons and led by men who knew the country and were not hampered by outdated ideas about tactics. Against this enemy it was necessary to mobilise the resources of the British Empire and to adopt some of the methods of total war. It was fortunate for Britain that the Boer War taught the commanders of its armies so much about the power of the rifle when used by experts. Without that lesson the British Army might well have entered the war in 1914 quite unprepared to meet an enemy armed with modern weapons.
Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us a world of good.
(Rudyard Kipling: 'The Lesson')
It was fortunate too for the British that at the time of the Boer War the Americans were heavily engaged on the other side of the world, and that France, hobbled by the 'Dreyfus Affair', lived in fear of German aggression. Even so, the virtual guarantee of Britain's immunity in South Africa from interference by other powers largely because of the might of the Royal Navy was not lost on the Germans. Feelings ran high in Germany when German ships bringing supplies to the Boers were stopped and examined for war contraband by the Royal Navy. A particular cause for irritation was supplied by the interception of the Bundesrath, bound for Beira with a cargo intended for the Boers. The lesson was reinforced by the spectacle of the ease with which the Americans, the last imperialists, deprived Spain of her possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific by the vastly superior power of their Navy. Sadly for Europe, the greatest lesson provided by the United States was never learned. Between 1861 and 1865 the Americans shed their own blood in one of the most fearful wars of all time in order to preserve the Union and eventually to create a vast country whose inhabitants all owed allegiance to the same flag. Europe endured three destructive wars before that lesson even began to be learned.
So far as it is possible for a State to be created and developed by the will and exertions of one man, the German Second Empire was the creation of Bismarck and its development was the result of his exertions. By 1890, when Bismarck's resignation was accepted by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was the strongest military power in Europe and had the fastest-growing industrial base (Fig 1.5). Its population was hard-working and generally obedient to its laws; its scientists led the world in many fields, and its achievements in the field of culture were widely admired. Bismarck had no particular animus against the 'English', but felt inhibited in his conversations with British politicians because of a feeling that the substance would probably be reported back to Parliament. Perhaps he was right: if he was, things have evidently changed. Bismarck was certainly as much an enemy of democracy as was Lord Salisbury: it was indeed that hostility that was foremost in creating the rift between him and the Crown Prince Friedrich and his English wife. Crown Princess Victoria's liberal sentiments had influenced her husband, and Bismarck feared, with some justification, that when he became Kaiser, Friedrich would begin the process of introducing constitutional government with an effective representative assembly.
Excerpted from The Battle of Jutland 1916 by George Bonney. Copyright © 2013 The Estate of George Bonney. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface to Paperback Edition,
Introduction to the First Edition,
PART ONE: PREPARATION,
1. The Growth of Anglo-German Rivalry,
2. The German Challenge to Britain,
3. The Modernisation of the Royal Navy,
4. Winston Churchill's Contribution,
5. The German Reaction,
6. The Outbreak of War 1914,
7. The War at Sea,
8. The Sea Commanders,
9. Matériel and Methods,
PART TWO: THE ENGAGEMENT,
10. The Eve and First Phase of the Encounter,
11. The Retreat to the North,
12. The Second German Advance,
13. The Night Action,
14. The Aftermath,
15. The Debate and the Lesson,
Appendix the Opposing Fleets and Principal Commanders 31 May/1 June 1916,