By Dr Jen Novotny, University of Glasgow
On 31 May, the national commemorations of the Battle of Jutland will take place in Orkney. It highlights Scotland’s contribution to the First World War at sea: particularly the great ships constructed along the Clyde and the strategically important harbours of Rosyth and Scapa, from which the fleets of Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe set sail to meet their German counterparts. This post explores the contributions of Scottish industry and the labour tensions that simmered on the home front while war continued to be waged on land and sea.
Of course Jutland was not just the meeting of 100,000 sailors and 249 ships: it was the culmination of the technical knowledge and skilled labour of two highly industrialised societies. A number of Clydebuilt ships were involved in the battle, including the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Barham, and battlecruisers HMS Tiger and HMS Inflexible built by John Brown Engineering at Clydebank. William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton produced the destroyer HMS Ardent as well as HMS Engadine, the seaplane carrier from which the first heavier-than-air reconnaissance flight during a naval battle was launched.
Scott’s Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Greenock produced battleship HMS Colossus, flagship of Rear-Admiral Ernest Gaunt, while Alexander Stephen & Sons in Govan built the destroyer HMS Nomad.
William Beardmore’s shipyard, also in Govan, produced lightcruisers, like HMS Galatea, the first ship to spot signs of the German fleet, while Beardmore’s Parkhead forge produced naval guns (along with field guns, tanks, aeroplanes, and air ships).
Forty-two per cent of the ships at the Battle of Jutland were Clydebuilt: 63 ships ranging from mighty battleships to lighter weight destroyers, built by 9 different firms in the West of Scotland (a full list has been compiled by Stephen Farmer and Ian Donaldson and is available at the Fairfield Heritage Centre).
The expertise of shipbuilding on the Clyde is exemplified by individuals like Sir John Harvard Biles. Born in Portsmouth, Biles served his apprenticeship at Portsmouth Dockyard and in 1875 graduated from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. He joined the Admiralty and in 1880 he was appointed chief designer at J&G Thomson’s Clydebank shipyard. He also took up a post as Professor of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow in 1891. He was a long-time consultant to the Admiralty. During the First World War he helped to develop river and shallow-draft vessels for use in Mesopotamia and he sat on the ship designs committee (1904–5) that resulted in the Dreadnought and the subsequent eponymous class of battleships so important at Jutland.
Equally important to the war effort were specialist firms like Barr and Stroud optical instrument makers in Anniesland, who made rangefinders. In 1914 Barr and Stroud supplied equipment to navies around the world – and in fact had to withhold orders meant for Austria and Hungary at the outbreak of war.
At the outbreak of war, the company’s inventory was immediately appropriated by the Admiralty and War Office, forcing them to meet the demand of increased output while losing staff who were called up with the Territorials and later conscripted.
Unrest at home
To meet the challenges of increased demand and a smaller workforce, like many companies throughout the UK, Barr and Stroud diluted their workforce: that is, they employed unskilled workers in previously skilled and protected jobs, which caused tensions with trade unions. The situation was exacerbated by the conditions of The Munitions of War Act, which had passed in 1915. The Act suspended the right to strike in factories considered to be doing war work. Furthermore businesses were prohibited from employing any individual who left war work, meaning that any employee wishing to change employers had to first obtain a transfer certificate releasing them from their current position (which was often denied). Munitions Tribunals regularly arbitrated between employers and employees, made decisions on what constituted strike action, and dealt with many other issues that affected the lives of working men and women.
Contemporary newspapers report a steady stream of labour unrest throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. During the week of the Battle of Jutland, for example, The Scotsman reported a strike at the Bellshill-based Rosehall Collieries over recognition of the union, a strike at the Summerlee Coal Company’s Muirhead Colliery, cases of wrongful dismissal at Yarrow & Company being heard by a tribunal, skilled riveters at Scott’s Shipbuilding denouncing being swapped onto less-skilled (and less well-paid) work, and Clyde engineers requesting a raise in wages to compensate for increased cost of living, specifically rising food prices. At the same time workers across the UK had agreed to a postponement of Whitsuntide holidays to try to meet production backlogs.
Throughout the First World War centenary, as we mark important events like the Battle of Jutland, we remember not only those who fought and fell or served and survived, but also the many ways in which everyday lives on the home front were impacted by conflict.
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.
At the University of Glasgow, we will remember four members of our community who died in the battle. The biographies of Surgeon Probationer John Hislop, Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Mclaren Hutchison, Surgeon Probationer John Ebenezer MacIntyre, and Sub-Lieutenant Charles Philip Tanner will be read out at 9.00 a.m. in the University Memorial Chapel, followed by the planting of poppy crosses in the WWI Memorial Garden. All are welcome.
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, and the Mitchell Library.
Read more about the Battle of Jutland in this previous post.