The centenary of the First World War was not in 2014. It was in 2014 and 2015, it is in 2016 and it will be in 2017 and 2018 as well and Angus Konstam’s book on the War’s medial naval battle is only one of many being published as one grim anniversary after another passes over us.
The book begins with the setting of the scene. The account of “Jacky” Fisher’s career is lively and interesting and the reader gets a good idea of how Britain and Germany built up their respective Grand Fleet and High Seas Fleet almost entirely of new ships in remarkably quick time. The actual battle began on 31 May 1916, with the High Seas Fleet’s meeting and beating the squadron of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, who scurried northwards to lure the Germans into the path of the Grand Fleet itself, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, whereupon the Germans reversed and retreated. Several opportunities to catch them again before nightfall were missed. The reader can almost feel the frustration of the British captains as they grope around for the enemy. The centrepiece of the battle – the confrontation of the two main fleets – lasted only twenty minutes, yet it takes up sixty-seven pages of book.
Somewhat accidentally, there was a series of increasingly serious night-time clashes, at which the Germans excelled. The worst losses were British and the few German casualties were due more to chaos in their own line than to British cunning. By light, the High Seas Fleet was too far away for the British to catch it before it reached the safety of Wilhelmshaven and Jellicoe had to give up.
Beatty comes across as the Haig of the High Seas
Perhaps the most famous moment of the Battle was Beatty’s line about the menstrual condition of the ships. This was uttered early on, during his own bruising encounter with the Germans. With a mind for symmetry, he uttered, wearily, something very similar on the 1 June, as the realisation of the battle’s failure sank in: “There is something wrong with our ships and something wrong with our system.”
It would have been more accurate to say that there was something wrong with the Vice-Admiral. Throughout the book, Beatty comes across as the Haig of the High Seas. He initially refused to believe reports of how near the Germans were to his own squadron because they contradicted (inaccurate) intelligence. He behaved irresponsibly numerous times, failing to update other commanders on his position when he was supposed to rendezvous with them, while also expecting back-up when he had only a vague idea of where the enemy was. Worst, as night closed in and Britain’s chances began to run out, Beatty attacked the soft target of a few pre-dreadnoughts and so let slip the German battlecruisers, which would almost certainly have been destroyed.
If anyone emerges from the account with any credit (apart from the Germans), it is Jellicoe. Particularly electrifying is the author’s description of the moment when, having realized that he was about to engage the High Seas Fleet, Jellicoe rapidly made the calculations for battle formation, little knowing that these thoughts would ultimately win Britain the War.
So, who won the battle? The author devotes the whole of chapter twenty-three to answering this question. The hastily published German account of the battle declaring victory based on the statistics and the British ships were jeered on their return. Yet, as the author explains, while the Royal Navy’s losses were heavier, it found it easier to recover. The High Seas Fleet, by contrast, was permanently diminished and, although (contrary to popular belief) it did put to sea again, it was only in minor engagements, which it lost. It is on these grounds that Jutland is now generally regarded as a Pyrrhic victory for Britain, ensuring that the blockade would remain in place and ultimately leading to Germany’s starvation-induced surrender. Nonetheless, for a nation brought up on the legend of Trafalgar, anything less than the annihilation of the enemy lacked the feel of a victory, however strategically valuable. If you have to explain why it was a victory, then it was not a victory.
There are descriptions of intimate, gruesome scenes
Stylistically, the book is imperfect. A typo on the dust-jacket does not augur well for what lies within. The sheer number of such errors (for a while, they seem to come on every page), along with unusual choices in punctuation (semi-colons before a quotation mark are the most persistent offenders), makes one suspect that they have published the second-to-last draft by mistake. The author’s phraseology also tends towards the repetitive. To cite just one example, on pp. 94–5 he uses the expression; “Nobody realised that the peace of the afternoon was about to be shattered” twice in as many pages. Even his spelling is inconsistent. He names chapter fourteen “Hartog’s Death Ride” but calls him “Hertog” just as often as “Hartog” within it. One last read-through would have left a more polished book.
The descriptions of battles and the journeys taken by the ships can, for a reader unfamiliar with the subject, be rather confusing. This could have been alleviated by maps and diagrams of what was happening. Although a few are provided, they are not enough and, by the time the first one appears, this reader was already at sea.
The author punctuates his narrative with insights into the nature of battle. German sailors cheered as the Indefatigable sank but stopped cheering when they realized that they had caused a massacre. There are descriptions of intimate, gruesome scenes, such as groping through the darkness in a gas-mask, looking through the bodies of injured sailors to see who was still alive. An especially sobering thought is the fact that some men, having been thrown into the water, were killed by their own side’s ships sailing over them.
The author points out how very different naval war was in terms of its lack of discrimination. A general can dine in a chateau while sending his men over the top but, if a ship is sunk, then officer and rating drown together. While disproportionately few generals were killed in the whole of the land war, three admirals were killed in the Battle of Jutland alone.
This is important because of the disproportionate importance of the naval war to the land war. Britain won mainly because of the blockade and it was the Navy, not the Army, that maintained this. “Jutland, therefore, did more to bring about an allied victory than any amount of fighting in Flanders, the Somme or Verdun.” As if the sheer number of dead on the Western Front were not depressing enough as it is, it becomes even more so when one realises that they might as well have not turned up, for all the difference they made.
Another casualty of the War, however, was Britain itself. We won but the cost of victory was not just the lives lost. Jutland should have been another Trafalgar. Had it not been for the incompetence of Jellicoe’s subordinates, chiefly Beatty, it might have been but reputations are not founded on what might have been but on what actually was. What happened at Jutland, though a technical victory in hindsight, was a disappointment by British naval standards and as such a dangerous diminution in the myth of this country’s omnipotence. “The modern decline of the Royal Navy, and possibly of Great Britain too, began that afternoon off the coast of Jutland.”
Jutland 1916: Twelve hours to win the War is published by Aurum Press and may be purchased for £20.