By Dr Jen Novotny, Research Assistant in History, University of Glasgow
One hundred years ago on 31 May, the British Grand Fleet met the German High Seas Fleet in the most important naval battle of the First World War. One hundred and fifty ships of the Royal Navy met 99 German ships in the North Sea – 100,000 sailors manoeuvring the might of the world’s two most advanced navies in the only full-scale naval engagement of the First World War.
Since the declaration of war in 1914 the British public had eagerly anticipated a major naval battle. The Royal Navy was the strongest in the world, and despite German efforts to achieve parity in the decade prior to WWI, British ships still easily outnumbered and outgunned those of the German fleet. The British fleet was split between two ports: the swift battlecruisers under the command of Vice-Admiral David Beatty at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth, and the main fleet at Scapa in Orkney with Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. Early in the war the Admiralty captured a German naval codebook, enabling staff to decipher intercepted wireless communications. Late in May 1916 German wireless traffic made it clear that the German High Seas Fleet was about to make a move, though the exact objective and route was unknown. When the German ships set sail late on 30 May, Jellicoe correspondingly left Scapa with the big dreadnoughts, followed by Beatty and his battlecruisers the following day. By mid-afternoon on 31 May Beatty met Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper, who was at the vanguard of the German fleet, beginning the cat-and-mouse manoeuvring of ships trying to lure their enemy into position. By early evening this culminated in full fleet engagement with the battle raging throughout the night and into the early hours of 1 June. By dawn on that day, the German fleet had managed to extricate itself from the engagement and was steaming back to port.
Initial reports of the battle were confused. The German press immediately declared that “our Fleet has victoriously fought the most powerful Fleet in the world” (Berliner Tageblatt, quoted in The Scotsman), while The Scotsman’s report of the battle on 3 June states with some frustration:
The accounts officially furnished from each side are meagre, besides being in many important particulars directly at variance; and as to what led up to the action, and how it developed, we are left almost entirely in the dark.
What the newspaper could clearly identify, however, was that the Germans inflicted ‘heavier damage than they sustained’, though this is tempered with the observation that ‘losses which, if they be less than those of our own Fleet, the Germans Navy is less able to afford’.
The German claims to victory were not unwarranted: the High Seas Fleet inflicted severe damage to a superior force. The Royal Navy lost 14 ships at Jutland and nearly 6,000 men, while the German fleet lost 11 ships and 2,500 men. The British ships were plagued by failures of communications, with orders delayed or not relayed at all. For hours at the start of the battle Jellicoe was inexcusably ignorant of the location of the German fleet, even though Beatty’s battlecruisers were already engaged. Furthermore, the German ships had several distinct advantages: their ships were more heavily armoured, they used a more stable cordite compound in their ammunition and stored it more safely, had effective armour-piercing shells, and were better at night fighting. They particularly used their armour-piercing shells to great effect. Punching through the turrets and other weak points of the Royal Naval ships, they ignited the unstable British ammunition, causing flash fires that detonated magazines. A number of ships were lost in sudden explosions. HMS Indefatigable, for example, took a hit to the fore turret which prevented the magazine from being closed or flooded. The ship exploded, with a loss of 1,017 crewmen. After the battle it was popularly thought that the British ships were simply too lightly armoured, leading to design changes in future ships.
Engineer Sub-Lieutenant Charles Tanner, graduate of the University of Glasgow who died aboard the HMS Indefatigable. University of Glasgow Archives reference: CH4/4/2/2/286
Jellicoe came under scrutiny after the battle, specifically for being overly cautious in not pursuing the German fleet. Beatty, too, garnered criticism for his management of the early engagement with Hipper and the losses sustained therein. Despite this disparity in losses, with hindsight we now recognise that Jutland ultimately relegated the German High Seas fleet to port, their strategic focus shifting to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.
On 31 May commemorations will take place throughout the UK, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, including a service at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, and a wreath-laying ceremony at sea by both British and German ships.
You can learn more about the Battle of Jutland on the web by exploring the Jutland centenary pages of the Royal Navy, Imperial War Museum, and Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as well as explore and even contribute information to the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s interactive map. More information on shipbuilding during WWI and Clydebuilt ships at Jutland can be found by exploring public archival collections throughout Scotland, including the records held by National Records of Scotland, University of Glasgow Archives, the Mitchell Library, or the Fairfield Heritage Centre.