Between the hazy late afternoon of 31 May 1916 and the grey dawn of 1 June, more than 100,000 British and German seamen aboard 250 warships fought a brutal naval engagement. They were battling for control of the North Sea, global oceanic trade and, ultimately, victory in the First World War. For the British it became known as the battle of Jutland. For the Germans it was the Skagerrak. By the end, 25 ships had been sunk, almost one in 10 of those sailors was dead, and Europe’s fate had been decided.
For both sides, this battle was a new experience. The British had been the undisputed masters of the seas since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, more than 100 years earlier. However, the last time the Royal Navy had fought a sea battle against an enemy fleet, it had entered the fray with wooden sailing ships armed with muzzle-loading cannon. The service now went to war in armoured, steel ships, powered by steam engines and armed with breech-loading rifled guns in revolving turrets. Uninterrupted peace in western Europe had arguably led to complacency, failure of imagination and tactical stagnation. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy was still the most powerful navy in the world.
The Kaiserliche Marine, or Imperial German Navy, had existed only since Germany unified from a multitude of kingdoms and principalities into a single, Prussian-dominated state in 1871. The German kaiser, Wilhelm II, was determined to make Germany a world power, and in 1897 he had appointed Rear (later Grand) Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as secretary of state of the Reichsmarineamt, or Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz was a compelling advocate of the need for a larger navy, and within a year he had persuaded the German parliament to pass the first of a series of naval bills calling for the construction of 19 battleships and 50 cruisers. The British responded in kind, and an expensive arms race between the two powers followed, vociferously supported on both sides of the North Sea by popular nationalist lobbying.
In 1906, the British reset the arms race. Under the dynamic leadership of the visionary First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, they emphatically replied to the German challenge by launching the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought – faster, and with better armour and more heavy guns than anything else afloat. At the same time Fisher developed a new type of ship, the battlecruiser, with heavy guns but light armour to allow exceptional speed, intended to outgun enemy cruisers but able to use its speed to escape enemy battleships. At a stroke, the existing British and German battle fleets were rendered out of date. It was a gamble, but it stemmed from absolute confidence that Britain could outbuild Germany, which was trying to maintain the largest army in Europe at the same time.
The battle of Jutland: quick facts
What? Jutland, the biggest naval battle of the First World War, was fought between the British and German fleets in the North Sea about 75 miles from the Danish coast.
Why? The Germans hoped to reduce the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy by ambushing an isolated detachment. The British had broken the German code and sailed in full strength to meet them.
When? Most of the fighting occurred on 31 May 1916. The German fleet was worsted and escaped that night, arriving in the safety of their own minefields after dawn on 1 June.
Who? It was close to being the largest naval battle ever fought. The British, under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, had 151 warships, German Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer had around 93.
A new and even costlier arms race followed, with both sides building ‘dreadnoughts’, as the new battleships became known. But the British had judged correctly. Between 1905 and 1914 Germany’s defence budget increased by a staggering 142 per cent, but when Britain declared war on 4 August 1914, the British had 28 dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers. The Germans had only 16 dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers. The battle of Jutland was essentially decided two years before the first shots had been fired.
The British war plan was to concentrate the Royal Navy’s most modern warships into a Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, from where it could maintain a close watch on the North Sea and blockade German trade. The blockade stopped vital imports of food and raw materials, including nitrates from South America, essential for producing both fertilisers and explosives. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) was essentially under house arrest, able to patrol the North Sea but unable to make a meaningful impact on the war.
The status quo favoured Britain, which really did not have to take any action at all to be assured of gradually starving its enemy, leaving the French, its continental ally, to fight the land campaign against a progressively more demoralised and weaker foe. The onus was on the Germans to defeat the far bigger Grand Fleet, unlock the door to global trade, and change the outcome of the war.
The first two years of the war at sea were characterised by confrontations that were little more than skirmishes, in the North Sea and further afield, with the Royal Navy rounding up and destroying Germany’s small overseas naval forces. The German fleet was constrained by the kaiser’s unwillingness to risk his expensive battleships.
But in January 1916, a new, more energetic officer took command of the High Seas Fleet: Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, who persuaded the kaiser to approve a more aggressive strategy. Scheer proposed a plan to give the Germans their holy grail: Kräfteausgleich – equalisation of forces, the numerical parity that was an essential prerequisite for victory. Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruisers were to threaten British trade convoys to neutral Norway, hoping to provoke a response. Scheer assumed that the British would respond in force, but he also assumed that the British battlecruiser force, under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, would reach his chosen battlefield before the Grand Fleet because the former was based in Rosyth on the Firth of Forth – closer than the Orkney Islands. Scheer was gambling that he could destroy Beatty’s squadrons, which had been reinforced by the Royal Navy’s four newest and most powerful dreadnoughts, giving him Kräfteausgleich by the time the Grand Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, arrived.
Scheer’s plan failed. Beatty and Hipper met at the Jutland Bank off the Danish coast late in the afternoon of 31 May, and Hipper dutifully turned to lead his adversary south on to Scheer’s guns. Early signs were good for the Germans: errors in signalling and gunnery by the British gave their foe a tactical advantage. Two British battlecruisers, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable, blew up and sank, thanks in part to poor ammunition-handling procedures. Queen Mary’s dramatic loss provoked Beatty’s famous outburst: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!” But as soon as Beatty sighted the main German fleet he reversed course, pulling the Germans back to Jellicoe’s far more powerful Grand Fleet. When Scheer saw his enemy at sea at full strength, he realised that his only chance for victory had passed. Though half an hour of bitter fighting saw his ships sink another British battlecruiser, Invincible, and three large but obsolete armoured cruisers, he was forced to withdraw into the mist and head for home. The British were poorly prepared for night fighting and, though the battle continued with a series of vicious skirmishes in the dark, the High Seas Fleet returned safely.
The Germans got home first, and newspapers announced a German victory. On 5 June, Kaiser Wilhelm travelled to Wilhelmshaven to proclaim that: “The English were beaten. The spell of Trafalgar has been broken. You have started a new chapter in world history.” The Grand Fleet made for home, burying its dead on the way. The British public had been conditioned for a century to expect another Trafalgar, ending with their enemy’s fleet scattered, sunk or captured, and they were bewildered and bitterly disappointed when that didn’t happen.
The Admiralty exacerbated the situation, issuing a communiqué that was achingly honest about British losses and suspiciously vague about German ones. It came out on 3 June, after rumours had already begun to spread like wildfire from the dockyards, and after publication of the German account had – unbelievably – been permitted. The communiqué began: “On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 31, a naval engagement took place off the coast of Jutland. The British ships on which the brunt of the fighting fell were the Battle Cruiser Fleet and some cruisers and light cruisers, supported by four fast battleships. Among these the losses were heavy.”
British newspapers were quick to declare the battle a disaster, and the Grand Fleet’s men met a very different welcome to that received by their German counterparts. Midshipman Henry Fancourt of the battlecruiser Princess Royal remembered going ashore in Rosyth and meeting people who asked: “What’s the navy been doing?”
It’s undoubtedly true that the British lost more ships, and many more men: 6,094 dead, compared with 2,551 Germans. But to declare the battle a defeat based on a simple comparison of losses was to oversimplify what was a complicated, subtle strategic situation. Jutland was a clumsily fought and costly battle, followed by a public-relations disaster, but it was a clear win for Britain. Jellicoe was not Nelson, and Jutland was certainly not Trafalgar. But in 1916 Britain did not need Trafalgar. Jellicoe, described by Churchill as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”, knew exactly what was required – and delivered it. Nelson may well have won a more dramatic and convincing victory, but Jellicoe still delivered a victory. More perceptive observers, such as the London newspaper The Globe, agreed: “Will the shouting flag-waving [German] people get any more of the copper, rubber and cotton their government so sorely needs? Not by a pound. Will meat and butter be cheaper in Berlin? Not by a pfennig. There is one test, and only one, of victory. Who held the field of battle at the end of the fight?”
Flight from the field
Across the North Sea, informed Germans were in no doubt about the implications of the flight of the High Seas Fleet from the ‘field’. Georg von Hase fought at Jutland aboard the battlecruiser Derfflinger and wrote afterwards that: “The English fleet… by its mere continued existence had so far… fulfilled its allotted task.” Admiral Scheer agreed, writing in a confidential report submitted on 4 July that: “The disadvantages of our military-geographical position, and the enemy’s great material superiority, cannot be compensated [for] by our fleet to the extent where we shall be able to overcome the blockade.”
The Grand Fleet was a knife permanently held to Germany’s throat, pushing steadily against the national jugular, and nothing that happened at Jutland changed this situation. The Grand Fleet was ready for action again the next day, as strong as before, and it soon increased in size thanks to a steady flow of new and refitted ships joining the fleet. The Imperial German Navy needed to take the initiative again, but many German ships took months to repair and, even when the High Sea Fleet was again battle-ready, the Germans were so badly shaken by the weight of the British response that they never staged another serious challenge. German naval building, unable to compete before the war, could not hope to do so now.
The British blockade continued unabated, eventually leading to a 50 per cent reduction in German food supplies and terrible privations for German civilians. Some areas came close to famine thanks to an unfair and inefficient rationing system: a British intelligence report on the Strasbourg region in July 1917 grimly noted that “their children are dying like flies and coal production is 30 per cent down”. After February 1917, the Germans tried to use submarines (U-boats) to starve the British into submission. At the peak of their attacks in April 1917, U-boats sank an average of 13 ships per day; at one point in early 1918, Britain was reduced to reserves equivalent to just two weeks’ food. But in the end submarine attacks on neutral ships helped bring the US into the war on the side of the Allies, hastening Germany’s defeat.
The blockade continued its remorseless erosion of the German will to fight. Many Germans became hungry, war-weary and open to communist anti-war propaganda, sparking a revolution that began on 29–30 October 1918. The uprising began, appropriately enough, among the demoralised sailors of the High Seas Fleet, who mutinied when ordered to carry out one final operation. On 21 November 1918 they steamed their ships to surrender and internment at Scapa Flow, and on 21 June 1919 the ships were scuttled in an act of defiance against their British jailers. It was the end of the kaiser’s dream of global power.
The long-term, strategic consequences of Jutland were complex and hard to explain to a British public steeped in Trafalgar lore. The debate, focused on the respective roles played by Jellicoe and Beatty, raged well into the interwar period, and still raises the hackles of historians today. It hinged on the question of whether overwhelming victory had eluded the British as a result of Jellicoe’s alleged caution, inflexibility and lack of initiative, or Beatty’s alleged impetuosity, vanity and glory-seeking.
Both admirals, to their credit, stayed largely aloof (at least publicly) from this poisonous internecine conflict, which was fought mainly through the sometimes vitriolic outpourings of their friends and supporters. Beatty’s wife was more outspoken, writing to a family friend on 10 July 1916 that: “There seems to be very little to say except to curse Jellicoe for not going at them as the B.Cs [battle cruisers] did… I hear he was frightened to death in case he might lose a B. ship. I think the real truth he was in a deadly funk.”
- Read more: Britain’s 10 most significant naval battles
There is no question that, for the Royal Navy in general and the Grand Fleet in particular, what became known as ‘The Jutland Controversy’ soon overwhelmed objective consideration of the battle, with both sides broadly accepting the myth of defeat to reinforce the case against their rivals. Perhaps inevitably, defeat slowly became the popular perception and, as decades passed, the battle was largely discarded as one of the First World War’s key symbols, engulfed by a torrent of literature, poetry and art, drawing almost exclusively from the tragedy, sacrifice and ultimate triumph of the trench war on the western front.
Rejection of the battle in Britain was perhaps encouraged by its public celebration in Germany, where the ‘victory’ of the Skagerrak was used to offset the ‘shame’ of the 1918 naval mutiny and as the foundation of a new naval tradition. Skagerraktag (Skagerrak Day) was observed in Germany until the end of the Second World War and, when German re-armament gathered pace in the 1930s, the ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer, cruiser Admiral Hipper and a number of destroyers were named after their Jutland heroes. In Britain, Jutland gradually began to be dismissed as a mere appendage to the arms race story: an inconsequential stalemate that failed to justify Britain’s huge investment in dreadnoughts before 1914.
A reappraisal of Jutland is long overdue. It is surely high time that this extraordinary encounter, arguably the greatest naval battle in history and simultaneously a triumph and a tragedy on an epic scale, was placed back at the heart of the lexicon of the First World War. It is, quite simply, the forgotten battle – the clash by which the Royal Navy won the war.
Nick Hewitt is head of heritage development at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. His books include The Kaiser’s Pirates (Pen and Sword, 2014)