A History of the First World War in 100 moments: When Britain tried to rule the North Sea waves

Continuing our centenary series, Jamie Merrill describes the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915, a naval encounter that didn’t quite live up to the official spin

With the land war mired in a bloody stalemate, the British public was hungry for a morale-boosting naval victory. So why, people asked, was the powerful British fleet sitting idle at its great anchorage at Scapa Flow? True, Germany’s East Asia Squadron had been sunk off the Falkland Islands in December, and its hunted merchantmen scattered to the four corners of the earth. But the German Navy had put up a stiffer resistance than expected, and, although it had subsequently been confined to the North Sea, there had still been no decisive battle.

So when Vice-Admiral David Beatty promised the “complete destruction” of the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet, hopes were high that a glorious victory was imminent. The prestige of the Royal Navy was immense, and its admirals – household names such as  Admiral of Fleet John Jellicoe, Vice-Admiral Beatty and First Sea Lord Fisher – were trusted implicitly to rule the waves.

“Make the German fleet fight and you win the war!” Lord Fisher declared – a more positive view than that expressed by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty (and Fisher’s detested rival). In August 1914 Churchill had described Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.

By January, the need for a high-profile engagement had trumped the need for caution. But the German fleet was bottled up in its Baltic ports, and Lord Fisher knew that he needed to force the Germans to fight at sea. A chance for battle came on 24 January, when elements of the German fleet were reported to have sallied forth into the North Sea. Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron had been forewarned by the Navy’s crack “Room 40” code-breaking section and quickly set out from Rosyth to meet the threat.

The Germans’ aim was to destroy the British fishing fleet, which their naval intelligence blamed for warning the Royal Navy of its approach during its December raid on the Yorkshire coast.

Beatty’s force linked up with another fleet of British destroyers and cruisers sailing from Harwich and set a trap for Admiral Franz Hipper’s ships.

The trap worked. Hipper’s force of battlecruisers fled the shallows of Dogger Bank with the Royal Navy in hot pursuit. Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion quickly crippled SMS Blücher, but weak communications and poor gunnery allowed most of the German fleet to escape. Meanwhile, despite facing nearly the entire British column, SMS Blücher fought on, putting one British destroyer out of action and damaging a cruiser.

Eventually, battered by more than 50 direct hits, Blücher went to the bottom. British destroyers, fearing torpedoes, didn’t linger long to pick up survivors, and more than 800 German sailors were left to drown.

The rest of the German fleet was relatively unharmed. HMS Lion limped back to port (but not military dry-dock, so as to downplay the damage), and the indecisive encounter was presented as a great victory. Vice-Admiral Beatty was hailed as a national hero, while his deputy, responsible for the worst of the communications errors in battle, was also decorated.

Perhaps as a result, few lessons were learnt. The Royal Navy failed to address its problems with communications and gunnery or to recognise the strength of the Imperial Navy. The fact that the cream of the British fleet had succeeded in sinking just one heavy cruiser (with only seven shells, apart from the strikes on Blücher, hitting home) was overlooked. The lethal price of this complacency would be paid a year later, at the Battle of Jutland.

Tomorrow: Honour for the nurses of Pervyse

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballArsenal vs QPR match report
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
i100
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all