Conference Report: Jutland, History and the First World War

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. Recordings of all of the papers from the event can be accessed for free here.


The role of sea power in the First World War was a source of disagreement and debate during the conflict itself and has remained so ever since. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister at the War’s end, recalled in his memoirs how no less of a figure than the Allied Generalissimo Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had played such a pivotal role in steadying the Western Front in 1918, always asked ‘What have the Navy done? Have they done any fighting?’

Foch’s question highlights one of the greatest difficulties of comparing combat on land and at sea: a highly effective naval campaign can involve very little actual combat. This proved to be the case in the First World War, where British sea power enabled her to draw upon the resources and manpower of her colonies, to trade with the remainder of the world and to isolate the Central Powers from the global economy. None of this required a decisive victory over the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, even if one may have been desirable.

Yet the lack of a focal Battle made the vital importance of the naval War difficult to compare with the casualty figures of the Western Front. From the War’s outset this created a problem for the naval leadership. Dissatisfaction at the Navy’s lack of an obvious success built in Britain from 1915 onwards, as a gloomy realisation that the warships of the British Fleet alone would be unable to affect events on the Continent set in. Thus, when an opportunity for an engagement did arise off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1916, public and political expectations were for a readily comprehensible success.

The indecisive action that followed at Jutland was unpalatable to some in the Navy and many the country, and was quickly over-awed by the mammoth British offensive on the Somme the following month. The absence of a further major fleet action in the final two years of war thus resulted in an ongoing fixation on Jutland itself and in recriminations over decisions taken at the Battle that are out of all proportion with its genuine strategic significance. This has been reflected in the centenary celebrations, which have perpetuated the indefensible myth that Jutland may somehow have ‘won the war’, thereby reinforcing the simplistic and unhelpful notions that war is decided merely by a series of battles rather than on the fact that sea power under-pinned the British and thus Allied war effort throughout the entire conflict.

This event was conceived in order to set the Battle into its broader context, both within the history of the First World War and of the Royal Navy itself. It highlighted the extent to which a myopic emphasis on fighting can lead to a deeply misleading impression of war, making it virtually impossible to understand events in the past in anything more than the most superficial manner. By engaging with the past in a more nuanced, sophisticated and thoughtful manner, themes of far greater interest and relevance are not difficult to find.

Indeed, one of the most prominent themes of the afternoon was the fact that the Battle of Jutland itself was of relatively minor strategic importance in the context of the wider war. A decisive loss for the British would undoubtedly have been a major setback, but the pace of pre-War British shipbuilding was such that the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority over the High Seas Fleet was assured by 1916 and would only have continue to grow. Moreover, even a heavily bloodied British Fleet would have remained ‘in being’, effectively still denying Germany the ability to use her Fleet outside of the North Sea. Britain was in a commanding strategic position through a combination of her industrial and financial might and the miscalculations which under-pinned the German ‘risk fleet’ and these could not be undone if her commanders prioritised strategic effect over a chance at operational victory. These broader factors were of far greater import than tactical decisions taken at Jutland.

Yet the question remains could Britain have utilised her sea power in a more aggressive manner to exert pressure on Germany? There is a credible case that a more creative approach to her military strategy, utilising more combined operations and exploiting the benefits of seaborne manoeuvre may have produced an impact out of proportion to the forces employed. Whether these would have proven acceptable to the sceptical French high command and government is another issue, but here we see how an appreciation of history enabled a more creative approach to strategy making at the Admiralty than that prevalent in military circles.

As to the Battle itself, discussion in the media has tended to emphasize the disparity in relative losses, both of ships and men. The implication has been one of incompetence, either of the commanders or of those who designed the ships and prepared their crews. The reality was rather different. Mistakes were undoubtedly made during the Battle – Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was particularly at fault for the mistakes he made in deploying his force during the opening phases of the Battle and his poor communication with Jellicoe. Yet the Fleet performed well, with Jellicoe twice crossing the German ‘T’ and obliging a hasty retreat. It is unlikely that any decisions taken on the day would have led to a decisively different outcome. False comparisons with the Battle of Trafalgar ignore the reality that the British gained little more in 1805 than was achieved in 1916: command of the sea.

Indeed, such was the impact of Jutland on German thinking that caution defined the use of the High Seas Fleet for the remainder of the conflict. The resulting shift in emphasis towards unrestricted submarine warfare by the German leadership proved a massive miscalculation, precipitating American entry into the conflict and thereby further isolating the Central Powers from global trade and finance. This enabled the British Empire to exploit the resources of neutral powers, to tighten its economic stranglehold on Germany and to use the sea to move resources around the globe. Men, munitions and supplies from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and across the Empire proved vital not only on the Western Front and at Gallipoli, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. This global war effort was ably supported by the nascent Royal Australian Navy which, in combination with French and Japanese units conducted effective trade protection, influence and counter-insurgency operations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

So far as the Navy concerned, Jutland was undoubtedly a major disappointment. Combined with the embarrassing escape of the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914, the inability to translate numerical superiority into victory left a bitter taste in the mouths of many officers. Yet failure can only be described as such if nothing is done to address its causes. The vast majority of the Navy’s senior leadership for the subsequent four decades served in the Grand Fleet, and many witnessed Jutland. The Battle thus became key in fostering a spirit of tactical offensive and mission command in the Fleet, the benefits of which were reaped in 1939-45.

This event showed how progressing commemoration beyond simplistic judgments based upon inter-service rivalries, historical shibboleths and condemnation of the First World War as a whole can produce a far more interesting, accurate and valuable discussion. The latest scholarship can be of value of all of those interested in history, whether for personal or professional reasons, and need not be divorced from the centenary experience.

Image: Warships of the Grand Fleet at sea, viewed from the quarter deck of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.











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