A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘Nothing but a thick, black cloud of smoke remained where the ship had been’

John Lichfield on the Battle of Jutland, the great naval confrontation of the war – which both sides claimed as a victory

At about 4.25pm on 31 May 1916, the HMS Queen Mary, the most advanced battlecruiser in the Royal Navy, disintegrated under brutally accurate German gunfire.

“First of all a vivid red flame shot up from her forepart,” wrote Commander Georg von Hase, gunnery officer aboard the Derfflinger, one of two German ships which were attacking her. “Then came an explosion forward which was followed by a much heavier explosion amidships… and immediately afterwards the whole ship blew up with a terrific explosion. Finally nothing but a thick, black cloud of smoke remained where the ship had been.”

Petty Officer Ernest Francis was one of only nine members of Queen Mary’s crew of 1,275 to survive. “I struck away from the ship as hard as I could,” he recalled.  “I must have covered nearly 50 yards when there was a big smash, and stopping and looking around, the air seemed to be full of fragments and flying pieces.”

The Queen Mary was one of three British battlecruisers to blow up during the Battle of Jutland, which was fought roughly 300 miles east of Aberdeen and 50 miles west of the Danish coast on 31 May to 1 June 1916.

 

A battlecruiser was broadly the same as a battleship but faster and less heavily armoured. In all three cases, weaknesses in design and carelessness in the management of explosives allowed the flash from German shell-strikes to penetrate the British ships’ magazines and destroy them with their own unused ammunition.

Jutland was the first and last fleet action of the war. It was only the third large battle to be fought by steel-clad warships. It was the only battle ever fought by large numbers of “dreadnoughts” – the large, heavily armoured and heavily armed warships invented by Britain in 1906.

The arms race between Britain and Germany to build dreadnoughts was one of the principle causes of tension between the two countries in the years before the war. Unless the Royal Navy maintained a significant lead, the hawks argued, Britain would be invaded or strangled by a German blockade.

The ill-fated HMS Queen Mary, commissioned in 1913, was one of the products of a shrill political and press campaign for “more dreadnoughts” during a period of acute suspicions of German ambitions around 1910–11.

Jutland was a great disappointment to the British, who had been nourished on tales of crushing naval victories over the French a century earlier. The Royal Navy lost 14 ships to the German navy’s 11. Britain lost 6,784 men, Germany 3,039. On the other hand, the badly battered German fleet fled for home and never ventured en masse into the North Sea again before surrendering in 1918. 

The outcome was shaped by industrial strengths as well as military ones. The German ships were tougher. The British gunnery was excellent but the Royal Navy’s shells were often too weak to penetrate the heavy German armour. Many of the British shells were duds (just as they were at the battle of the Somme, one month later).

Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the British fleet Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the British fleet
Germany claimed a victory and continued to celebrate a victory up to the end of the Second World War. Even the British press accepted the German version – at first. A diary entry by W N P Barbellion on 3 June 1916 charts Britain’s fluctuating mood: “This morning in bed I heard a man with a milkcart say in the road to a villager at about 6.30am,  ‘… battle… and we lost six cruisers’. This was the first I knew of the Battle of Jutland. At 8am I read in the Daily News that the British Navy had been defeated, and I thought it was the end of all things … At the railway station the Morning Post was more cheerful, even reassuring, and now at 6.30pm the Battle has turned into a merely regrettable indecisive action. We breathe once more…

“Next morning: It has now become a victory.”

Who was right?

Strategically, Jutland maintained the status quo – the dominance of the Royal Navy and the maritime blockade of Germany. As one American journalist wrote at the time, the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) had “assaulted its jailor but it remains in jail”.

The German navy had planned to lure the British fleet from its bases in Orkney and the Firth of Forth and reduce its numerical superiority by submarine attacks and mines. The Admiralty could read the German naval codes and knew that the Hochseeflotte was preparing for sea.

The British Grand Fleet, under Admiral John Jellicoe, left Scapa Flow, before the German fleet sailed under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. A smaller force of British battlecruisers and last battleships under Admiral David Beatty, sailed from the Firth of Forth and made the first contact.

The Royal Navy ships were still largely communicating with flags, as they had at Trafalgar. The Germans successfully used wireless. Unseen flags and other miscommunication divided Beatty’s force. He lost two battlecruisers, including the Queen Mary, as he pursued what he assumed was a smaller German force to the south.

He found that he had been drawn into the entire German fleet.  He turned tail and fought a running battle, drawing the whole of the German navy into the massed ranks of Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts.

Twice, Jellicoe achieved the tactical advantage of “crossing the T” – sailing his fleet, all guns bearing, across the head of the German line. Twice, using their superior communications, the Germans turned away in perfect formation.

German destroyers off the English coast German destroyers off the English coast (Getty Images)
Jellicoe’s fleet was forced to manoeuvre to avoid a volley of torpedoes. The Germans escaped his clutches in the dark and sailed for home. Jellicoe was much criticised  for turning away from the torpedoes and allowing the Gemans to escape. This was unfair. He had, at all costs, to preserve his fleet.

A British victory would have changed little; a German victory would have changed everything. As Winston Churchill had said, Jellicoe was the “only man who could lose the war in an afternoon”.

Despite their claims of victory, the German navy and high command accepted, de facto, that Jutland had been a failure. They rapidly switched to unrestricted submarine warfare against all merchant ships, allied and neutral. This strategy almost won the war before the admiralty reluctantly started to organise convoys. It also guaranteed Germany’s ultimate defeat by outraging public opinion in the US.

What Jutland proved – though naval strategists were slow to grasp the lessons – was that the dreadnought was already a clumsy and obsolete weapon. Most future naval battles would be decided by submarines and aeroplanes.

Many of the 34 British dreadnoughts which survived Jutland never fought again. They were scrapped between the wars. The 20 surviving German dreadnoughts were surrendered in 1918, interned at Scapa Flow in Orkney and scuttled by their crews in June 1919, almost exactly three years after Jutland.

Most, including the Derfflinger, were later raised for scrap. Seven remain to this day below the beautiful, placid water of Scapa Flow. They have become a popular deep-sea diving destination.

Tomorrow: The Arab Revolt begins

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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