Jutland 100: The Bitter Victory
In the late afternoon of May 31, 1916, one the greatest sea battles in world history commenced. As the steel titans of Britain and Germany approached one another, 18 years of preparation and planning were on the cusp of being put into deadly implementation.
As the two main fleets neared one another, British light cruiser hms Chester came into range of the German guns. Chester was met with a sudden hail of steel. Several 12-inch, 850-pound shells swept its deck, mangling steel and ravaging its crew. The cruiser was hit 17 times—most of the crew above deck was killed instantly. However, Jack Cornwell, a 16-year-old sight setter on the forecastle gun, survived. He was surrounded by dead and dying men. He himself was mortally wounded, but he refused to leave his post, waiting for orders up to his last breath. He died later under medical attention and received the Victoria Cross posthumously. The picture of Jack Cornwell dutifully standing at his post amidst destruction epitomizes the British Grand Fleet on that fateful day in the North Sea, when unmatched valor was challenged by disaster.
Today marks the 100-year anniversary of the World War i Battle of Jutland. The British Grand Fleet met the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea for the only major naval encounter of the entire war. The battle had high strategic importance, but it was fraught with controversy and underwhelming results. However, its history offers tremendous lessons for the current generation.
Before recounting the battle, a number of preliminaries must be briefly covered to fully understand the subject.
Rise of Germany
In 1871, Germany basked in the warm glow of victory. The newly unified German Empire had just handily defeated France, humiliating its old rival. The Franco-Prussian War was only the latest war fought to expand German power over the Continent, giving the young nation confidence, energy and enthusiasm. In the next 20 years, Germany became the world’s third-largest industrial economy, second only to the United States and Britain.
In 1890, the young Kaiser Wilhelm ii dismissed Otto von Bismarck, the architect of the German Empire. Bismarck had restrained the kaiser’s military ambitions. The brilliant but dangerously ambitious Wilhelm was now free to direct the destiny of the German people as he saw fit. At this time, in 1890, an important book was published: Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. This book, in part, can be credited the rise of the American superpower, but it can also take some blame in convincing Wilhelm to embark upon the path to war. Germany could not become a world power until it ruled the waves. This view was supported by Grand Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, the most influential man after Bismarck left the scene. However, mastery of the seas belonged to the British Royal Navy.
Since the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, Britain was the world’s premier power, which was largely predicated on its rulership of the seas. Its trade lifeline depended upon Britain’s control of key sea gates and the safe travel of the merchant marine. The empire flourished as long as Britannia held the trident of naval dominance.
For centuries, the Royal Navy held a reputation that was unmatched in world history. Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. There was the Glorious First of June of 1794, the Battle of the Nile under Adm. Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Copenhagen. The cannonade of Trafalgar still thundered in the ears of any European rival that challenged the Royal Navy. The legacy of victory filled every Briton with pride. Many believed the Royal Navy was invincible. John Keegan wrote in his book The Price of Admiralty:
“The English Fleet,” Adm. Reinhard Scheer, the High Seas Fleet commander at Jutland, was to say, “had the advantage of looking back on a hundred years of proud tradition, which must have given every man a sense of superiority based on the great deeds of the past.” The German novelist Theodor Fontane expressed the same idea more dramatically: “We do not have a trace of this confidence … we are not mentioned in the Old Testament. The British act as though they had the promise.”
What Old Testament promise was Fontane referring to? It is a promise that catapulted Britain into being a world power.
Britain’s rule of the seas led to the great Edwardian arms race. The “splendid isolation” of British foreign policy was replaced with a more aggressive assertion of its power. Naval dominance meant life or death for Britain. The German choice to start building a rival fleet only meant it was preparing for war. Unlike our modern tendencies, Britain refused to surrender its position, knowing that the safety of the Empire and indeed civilization was in the balance. At the same time as this arm race, there was a dramatic revolution in shipbuilding technology.
In 1906, under the inspiration of First Sea Lord Jackie Fischer, the hms Dreadnought was launched. It was the first modern battleship. This completely revolutionized naval warfare. These castles of steel were self-contained war machines, having a complement of 1,000 men or more. Each man played a role in the ship’s ability to perform: coal stokers, navigation officers, gun crews, rangefinders, medical officers, and hundreds of other positions. Naval warfare suddenly became much more complex. So did the method of producing ships.
Wooden ships are much cheaper to build than steel ones. By 1914, each dreadnought cost £3 million to construct (equivalent to $14 million). At full speed, a dreadnought consumed 500 tons of coal a day. The armament of these ships also increased dramatically; the largest guns were 15 inches, and each shell weighed over 1,900 pounds.
By the start of World War i, Britain was the world’s third-largest steel producer, behind the United States and Germany. Maintaining the world’s largest navy became an unsustainable but necessary economic policy. The Navy was the heart and soul of the nation, the product of the entire nation’s industrial capacity. Britain won the arms race but only by the narrowest of margins. By 1914, Britain had 29 dreadnoughts to Germany’s 17. However, both nations felt certain that the Royal Navy’s years of victory would overcome any material deficiency. Langhorne Gibson and John Ernest Troyte Harper wrote in their classic The Riddle of Jutland:
It was the greatest navy in the world, the oldest, the largest, with the proudest traditions. For centuries its deeds and strength had made Britain mistress of the seas; every effort to displace her had crashed upon the fleets which she had built. Here, gleaming in modernity, was the latest of her maritime fighting creations, built in answer to the new German fleet, to overawe it and render it futile. The vessels were new, but their names had been carried before them by the square-rigged ships of the line and frigates, historic, unforgotten oaken hulls of yesterday, which had never known a conqueror.
The War at Sea
On Aug. 5, 1914, Great Britain declared war against Germany and its allies. The Navy was deployed around the world. At the heart of British strategy was the economic blockade of Germany. Britain was determined to maintain control of the seas to avoid a possible invasion. Secondary was the elimination of the German High Seas Fleet. The Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet was Adm. John Jellicoe. He shouldered the immense burden of, as Churchill said, “[being] the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”
However, simple success would not be enough for Admiral Jellicoe. The British people expected another Trafalgar: an overwhelming victory where the entire German Fleet was annihilated in a single battle. This was the grand strategic thought, but it was wholly inadequate, as John Keegan explained:
War—large-scale war—when it came in August of 1914 was an eventuality for which the Royal Navy’s bare margin of material security would not compensate, for it marked lack of attention to strategic or even tactical thought. Professionally, the Royal Navy had grown complacent. For all its dedication to the Trafalgar ideal and the Nelsonian memory it had no clear-cut vision of how Trafalgar might be refought in modern conditions and no proven battle leaders.
The Royal Navy and its leaders had become complacent, relying on past victories and prestige instead of conducting a realistic appraisal of the organization. The leaders focused on the Navy’s greatness, but not how it became great. Events later proved how fatal and dangerous that overconfidence and complacency was.
World War i did not go well for the Royal Navy. Near disasters were averted, but the German Navy was sinking ship after ship, seemingly impervious to British force. The clashes at Doggers Bank and Heligoland Bight were inconclusive. The disaster of the Dardanelles further bruised the reputation of the Royal Navy. It was only a matter of time until Vice Adm. Reinhard Scheer led the German High Seas Fleet out of port to challenge Britannia for world mastery.
The Battle of Jutland
At 2:30 a.m., on May 31, 1916, Vice Adm. Scheer steamed the High Seas Fleet out of Wilhelmshaven on a northerly course. The High Seas Fleet, comprised of 16 German dreadnoughts, was under the direct command of Scheer. The battle cruiser fleet, the First Scouting Group of five ships, was commanded by Vice Adm. Franz Hipper. Battle cruisers were faster, less-armored warships with a large caliber of armament. Hipper deployed ahead of Scheer, looking to make contact with enemy vessels. Scheer did not intend to fight the Grand Fleet but looked to sink isolated squadrons.
The Admiralty in London was well acquainted with the High Seas Fleet’s movements, thanks to its ability to decode Scheer’s cyphers. Two hours before Scheer had even left port, Admiral Jellicoe dispatched Vice Adm. David Beatty, commander of the British battle cruiser squadron, into the North Sea to investigate. Beatty was a flamboyant, aggressive officer who fought like a bulldog. The Grand Fleet steamed south from its Scottish port at Scapa Flow.
For hours, both fleets steamed toward one another, unaware of the other’s positions. Then just after 3:45 p.m., the two battlecruiser fleets made contact. Beatty decided to attack Hipper’s five ships with his six. His decision had calamitous results. The two squadrons ran parallel to each other at around 15,000 yards. Hipper sought to lure Beatty toward Scheer’s heavy guns, in what became known as the run to the south.
Germany’s range-finding was more accurate than Britain’s. Although the British guns were larger, the Germans were able to lay down a more effective pattern of fire. The Indefatigable and Queen Mary were both struck in their turrets, which, due to a design flaw, caused the powder magazine to explode. These mighty ships disappeared into flames and smoke, killing over a thousand men. The same fate almost claimed Beatty and his flagship, the hms Lion. However, Maj. Francis Hervey commanded his men to flood the magazines, preventing catastrophe. Hervey gave the order with his dying breath after both his legs had been shattered. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
Beatty decided to turn his battle cruisers closer to the enemy. A man of less resolution may have wavered in this moment of decision. The terrible weapons of war, capable of such destruction that an entire ship could disappear in a matter of moments, were being unleashed. Now it was time for the British to respond.
When Beatty moved closer, the four Queen Elizabeth-class battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron (which had fallen behind due to miscommunication) also joined the action, sending their 15-inch shells toward Hipper’s fleet. Several German ships suffered extreme damage, some at the risk of sinking.
At 4:30 p.m., Adm. William Goodenough of the British light cruisers, just to the north of Beatty, spotted the High Seas Fleet. Beatty realized that he was being led into a trap and ordered all ships to turn north. This began the run to the north. As Beatty retreated, he led the entire German Navy straight into the Grand Fleet.
While Beatty was engaged to the south, Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet were steaming south in six columns. In his flagship, the hms Iron Duke, Jellicoe was attempting to determine the location of Beatty and the High Seas Fleet. Time and space were precious on the sea. Deployment of the fleet was the most critical task. Jellicoe had to ensure the Grand Fleet was in the line of battle—approaching at the proper angle made the difference between victory and defeat.
At 6:00 p.m., the two great fleets finally closed in on one another. The North Sea is a difficult battleground because its mists are always concealing the enemy, and reduced visibility can lead to fatal mistakes. As hms Defense and hms Warrior rushed to sink a struggling German ship, they both entered the range of Scheer’s guns. Twelve-inch shells ripped the Defense to pieces. The Warrior barely escaped, with the brave distraction provided by the hms Warspite. Destroyer hms Shark also sank trying to assist. Chester, ship of the boy hero Jack Cornwell, was also ravaged in this sequence.
Beatty’s Lion finally came within visible contact of Jellicoe’s Iron Duke. Jellicoe asked Beatty, “Where is the enemy’s battle fleet?” Beatty’s ambiguous answer forced Jellicoe to make a decision. He was a man of precision and processes. He could see the destruction of the Defense and Shark but still had no visual on the German fleet. Gibson and Harper illuminate the extreme gravity of Jellicoe’s decision: “In the course of minutes, indeed seconds, Jellicoe had to decide on the manner of the deployment of his vast armada into the line of battle. At that moment, the fate of the British Fleet, of the British Empire, of the Allied cause, and of civilization, depended on the clear tactical vision of this one man.”
Jellicoe decided to deploy to the port side, allowing the six columns of dreadnoughts to create one line of battle, creating the greatest concentration of firepower. This would also “cross the T.” Jellicoe’s fleet would cross in front of Scheer’s bow, giving him the tactical advantage. This maneuver would take 22 minutes to complete. While performing this order, the Invincible was struck by German guns, and the ship split into two pieces from a tremendous explosion, another victim of the British design flaw.
The Grand Fleet was deploying into a superior position, which offered a chance to annihilate the enemy if the Germans continued on their northerly course. The Grand Fleet’s broadside amounted to 400,000 tons, if all 28 dreadnoughts fired at once. The German broadside was 200,000. Despite the losses, the British still held numerical superiority. The sun was now behind the Germans, illuminating them but hiding the British. Through the smoke of the guns and turbines, the High Seas Fleet was finally visible at 12,000 yards, and the leading British ships now opened fire.
Scheer’s nerve cracked after 10 minutes of contact, and he executed a 180-degree change of course to the west. The Germans suddenly disappeared over the horizon. Jellicoe went on a southerly course, hoping to cut off their escape back to Wilhelmshaven. At 6:55 p.m., Scheer changed course to due east, trying to catch the rear of the Grand Fleet. He ran right into the middle of the Grand Fleet once again; the British ships scored 27 hits against the High Seas Fleet’s two.
Scheer simultaneously turned away and launched torpedo attacks to force Jellicoe to move away from his fleet. The Grand Fleet lost contact with the High Seas Fleet, which steamed away at top velocity, making for home. Scheer disappeared into the mist of the North Sea. At 3:30 a.m., some small British and German ships were destroyed, but the great fleets never saw each other again. Scheer and Hipper arrived safely back at port. Jellicoe returned to Scapa Flow, and Beatty to Firth of Forth. The battle of Jutland was over.
The immediate reports of the battle were of extremes. The Germans declared it a victory, saying that “Trafalgar is wiped out.” In England, it was reported as a disaster; the public reaction was similar to the sinking of the Titanic four years earlier. The magic of the Royal Navy seemed spent. Indeed, both reports were inaccurate. But who won the battle?
It is one of the costliest sea battles ever fought. The British received the most losses: Over 6,000 sailors were killed, many because their ships exploded due to the turret design flaw. The Germans lost little more than 2,500 sailors. The British also suffered more ship losses: 14 ships (three of them dreadnoughts) to Germany’s 11. Materially, the German High Seas Fleet had won the battle. Tactically, however, it was a stalemate, since both sides failed to achieve their aims. The British failed to annihilate the German fleet; the Germans failed to effectively challenge the Grand Fleet or upset the Royal Navy’s advantage. Despite the battle’s inconclusive nature, both sides fought with unmatched valor; all ships sunk with their flags flying, as the sailors braved the terrible hail of steel and the consequences of being caught in its path.
Controversy surrounded the battle in Britain. The entire nation had expected another Trafalgar, nothing less. Jellicoe was seen as cautious, and his reputation was harmed somewhat by David Beatty’s meddling with the official accounts. These criticisms were unfounded. Dreadnoughts were merely 10 years old, and Jutland was the first use of the new technology in war. Both Jellicoe and Scheer were unsure of how the battle would unfold. Jellicoe did not need to annihilate the German fleet to win the war; he only needed to avoid having the Germans sink the Grand Fleet. Robert Massie sums up the strategic outcome of Jutland:
Criticism of Jellicoe for not being another Nelson and hurling himself at the enemy is unfair. Tactics are governed by strategy and Jellicoe’s strategic purpose was to retain command of the sea. The destruction of the High Seas Fleet was a secondary objective—highly desirable but not essential. In the words of historian Cyril Falls, “He fought to make a German victory impossible rather than to make a British victory certain.” Ultimately, Jellicoe achieved both.
The Royal Navy did indeed retain command of the seas. Upon returning to Scapa Flow, Jellicoe wired the Admiralty that he would be ready for battle at four hours’ notice. Scheer would require several months to be ready for battle. The High Seas Fleet would leave port again, but it would retreat once the Grand Fleet was present. Jutland had the same strategic effect as Trafalgar had 111 years before, but lacked the “Nelson touch.” Britain was safe, and the war would be won. The German Navy was scuttled in 1918 at Scapa Flow. Jutland was a bitter victory.
Lessons of World Power
The centennial of Jutland offers powerful lessons for our present day. After centuries of victory, why did the Royal Navy lose the miraculous quality that had encompassed it in so many previous battles?
For a century, Britain was unchallenged. The empire expanded until the sun never set on the subjects of the British throne. It amassed unparalleled wealth and power. Society became prosperous and affluent. Wars were fought thousands of miles away from London. Europe was too divided to prove a threat to the island. Britain’s government, military and people became complacent.
Developments in technology and the rise of rival powers—mainly the United States and Germany—challenged the assumption of victory. The oversight and arrogance of those in charge of the Royal Navy nearly spelled disaster for the nation. In the wake of World War i, Britain made changes that did restore some of its former prowess, but it never recovered. As George Bonney wrote in The Battle of Jutland 1916:
This late but splendid flowering of the Royal Navy in the wake of Jutland enabled Britain to postpone until 1945 her inevitable decline and demise and more or less gracefully to yield to the United States the mastery of the seas. In effect, Jutland did for the Royal Navy what the Boer War did for the Army: It brought forcibly to official attention the facts that the Navy had failed to keep up to date and that, if nothing were done about it, the country would go down before a more advanced organization.
The Battle of Jutland marked two significant points of history: 1) It was the first and last time battleships fought the decisive battle in sea wars; and 2) It marked the twilight of Britain’s reign as mistress of the seas. Only 30 years later, World War ii demonstrated the supremacy of the aircraft carrier and air power, and the dominance of the U.S. Navy. America accepted the mantle of world leadership reluctantly from Great Britain.
The United States now faces the same challenges of a technological revolution and a challenge to its mastery of the oceans. New developments in armaments and strategies specifically designed to counter America’s Carrier Strike Groups are now credible threats. America’s capabilities are being compromised like never before. The more immediate threat is the rise of China in the South China Sea and the challenge of American dominance in the Pacific theater at strategic choke points. Iran is also challenging U.S. control of the Strait of Hormuz.
The Chinese and Iranian challenges to the United States mirrors that which Great Britain faced from Germany 100 years ago. These rising powers will triumph against the United States unless America acts with resolution and strength. But even that can be undermined by years of complacency. British political will in the 1910s was unable to compensate for the years lost in preparing for the challenge by Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm ii intent on making Germany a great power, systematically undermined British power until he felt certain of victory in war. All of this culminated in the Agadir Crisis, which is comparable to the Chinese agitation with the Spratly Islands.
Jutland was a battle between the old complacent superpower and the surging young rival. It is a terrible lesson for America that war becomes inevitable if rival powers are not stopped early in their challenge. American complacency now is far worse than British complacency at the beginning of the 20th century. Britain barely staved off disaster. War can be lost in a single afternoon. If America loses mastery of the seas, it will lose control of everything.
However, one lesson from Jutland supersedes all others. As quoted earlier, German novelist Theodor Fontane said that the British acted as though they had the promise from the Old Testament. The British indeed had the promise. It was the promise given to the patriarch Abraham when he dwelled in the land of Canaan. It was the promise of world power and prosperity. In 1803 God propelled Britain and America into positions where they would both reach the apex of global leadership. However, both nations forgot the God that made them great.
World War i was a terrible warning to a British Empire that no longer gave God credit for its glories. The miracles that led to its rise to power vanished quickly. The war on land and sea was a series of brutal battles. Only a month after Jutland, 20,000 young Britons died at the Battle of the Somme in the first hour of attack; 500,000 would pay with their lives to advance a couple miles. The war was eventually won, but only after a grisly slaughter. World War i exhausted the British Empire; World War ii wiped it out. Now the British Empire no longer exists—only a lonely island deciding whether it should become part of a federalized Europe. Jutland is a reminder of the glory of empire and the consequence of forgetting God. It was a bitter victory—one of the last for the Royal Navy.
The centenary of Jutland allows us to reflect on history and remember a greater generation and the deeds of the brave men on both sides. A century later, America faces the same threat Britain did before World War i, but it is not learning from the clear lessons of history. The mighty dreadnoughts unleashed their terrible power, but men like the young Jack Cornwell never flinched from the task given to them. Let it be hoped that each of us can act worthy of the boy hero of Jutland, who died doing his duty.
To learn more about the promise of national blessings given to the British and American people, and how it was foretold centuries in advance, please read our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.