World War I 100 Years Later: Reassessing the Battle of Jutland

With commemorations of the World War I centennial in full-swing, names of historic battles like Verdun, Ypres, and the Somme have been recognized and remembered along with the soldiers who fought there. Images of men in the trenches dominate our memories of World War I, but of equal importance are the naval skirmishes that were waged in the European seas. No naval engagement was more important or had such an impact as the Battle of Jutland 100 years ago today, in which the German navy—under Admiral  Reinhard Scheer—attempted to break the British blockade of German shipping lines. Outnumbered against the renowned and dominant Royal navy—commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe—sixteen German dreadnoughts engaged twenty-eight British warships in World War I’s largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships.

untitledThe Battle of Jutland marks a significant turning point in modern warfare—when new technology such as the submarine, the torpedo, and mines made major fleet combat between battleships irrelevant. Outdated strategies of war limited the leadership and tactics of both commanders. Traditional surface battles were quickly becoming a thing of the past as new, smaller battle cruisers could outmaneuver and outrun larger ships of the fleet, and the increasing use of submarines to disrupt and attack merchant vessels was seen as a more effective strategy.

After two days of bloody combat, both sides claimed victory. Britain retained control of the North Sea and forced the Germans to withdraw their fleet, but the British lost more ships and many more men than the German dreadnoughts.

The following excerpt comes from Jutland: World War I’s Greatest Naval Battle. Editors Michael Epkenhans, Jörg Hillmann, and Frank Nägler have collected an international group of scholars to investigate the iconic battle from both the British and German perspectives and reassess the leadership, strategies, and tactics of what would become the most formidable battle in modern Royal Navy history.

Reflections on the Battle of Jutland

by Michael Salewski [Excerpted from Jutland: World War I’s Greatest Naval Battle]

Somewhere a steamship idles in the waters. It is wartime, and steamships have to be inspected—as the Admiralty Staff book expressed it, a “minor event.” Thus the small cruiser Elbing and the torpedo boats B-109 and B-110 set off. The English have sighted the steamship as well, and so they send Galathea and Phaeton out in order to ensure fairness. N. J. Fjord is a harmless Danish commercial ship. But behind the German and British inspectors, at a proper distance, the High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet were on the move, their battlecruisers out front in operational positions. “Smoke possibly from fleet,” radioed Elbing and at 1532h set off the first shot of the battle.

The steamship functioned as a semaphore point. Before the development of radio telegraphy, flags were mounted on church towers. With the speed of light and vision, this kind of signal could be sent and received from beyond the horizon. But the two fleets now approaching one another are modern ones, even though they include one or more less modern squadron. No, as Scheer will argue, out of solicitude toward the crews, it would have been impossible to justify leaving the Second Squadron in Wilhelmshaven. It came back rather disheveled, and the Pommern was missing, along with its 844 men—the entire crew.

Only Franz Hipper and Sir David Beatty confronted one another at eye level, with commensurate weapons—this very thing brought forth the mystique of the cruiser battle. “It was a powerful moment,” reads the work by the Admiralty Staff, “and no one who experienced it could withdraw, when, after the breathtaking haste of the deployment, the German and British battlecruisers, the most beautiful and powerful ships of each fleet, swung into the battle line in majestic confidence, as if they were ‘fate itself,’ and the seconds of the utmost calm and marshaling of all strength gave way to the first thundering of the guns.” It was the ultimate duel, an industrial-scientific heroic deed worthy of the beginning of the heroic and brutal twentieth century.

Then “the cruiser battle raged.” The Theater of War as world theater, in three acts. The first act was, in the eyes of the Germans, the most beautiful and most successful, and its glory was to reach to the furthest areas and lift Hipper’s chief of staff, Erich Raeder, to the highest heights.

In the second act, the main bodies of each fleet confronted each other. The third act took place at night, and the entanglements recall Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except that here comedy became tragedy.

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British battle cruiser HMS Tiger. Battle of Jutland, in combat, May 1916. (Bundesarchiv Bild 134-B2535)

Other aspects were typical: modern ships hunted the older ones, and the stronger ones hunted the weaker ones—thus, the small German cruisers perished under the concentrated fire from the British line—while throughout the night battle floated the ghost of Theophile Aube, founder of the “Jeune Ecole.” Without his name ever being mentioned, Jutland became proof that he had been right but not just because the Pommern had fallen victim to the torpedoes of the small ships. When Jellicoe gave as grounds for his decision not to pursue Scheer that during the night the risk had become too high, it was just because of the many little “rats,” as the English press so delicately called them, that had flocked around the High Seas Fleet in the night and were able to become a danger to the Grand Fleet. On the other hand, Scheer dared to make the three-time tactical battle turn only  because both the battlecruisers and the small cruisers and torpedo boats, in fear of death, “charged the enemy”—thus illustrating Aub.’s philosophy, which maintained that the Era of the Battleship was past and that the era of small torpedo carrying vessels had dawned.

And if, as Jellicoe had suspected, U-boats had also actually been involved, if the weather had not thwarted the airships’ battle plans, if Jellicoe could have taken along and deployed his carriers—there were two seaplane carriers at that time—if he and his men only halfway believed the decoded wireless messages with which the Admiralty had been presented via Room 40 as if on a silver platter, and if they had understood what it meant to be able to precisely collect and decode the German radio signals, then Jutland could actually have been what the future of naval warfare was supposed to represent—especially in the Atlantic.

Everything that augured the future was present in a rudimentary and fundamental manner: the battlefield had now become three-dimensional, with its zeppelins, U-boats, and mines. But because the big ships had fought so bravely and spectacularly, and because the Seydlitz, the Konig, the Derfflinger, the Von der Tann, and the other fabulous and brazen heroes of modernity had returned to Wilhelmshaven, the big ships only became truly sacrosanct after Jutland—not only in Germany but also in England. And because after Jutland all admirals understood that due to their exorbitant prices, the “post-Jutland ships” were unaffordable in their necessary quantities, they resigned themselves to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and basically gave up dominance of the sea, by no means without tragic gestures. Was that the actual German victory at Jutland?

. . .

The truth of Jutland will never be known. This is because what is associated with Jutland is not history but mere traditions and myths, and this is because Jutland was transformed from an unknown reality and truth into a “symbolic weaving” (Ernst Cassirer). Out of the seriousness of the battle grew the buoyant game of the battle. It is rumored that the first chief of the fleet of the Bundesmarine, Rolf Johannesson, had the Battle of Jutland reenacted. And naturally there were masses of Jutland marches—be it naval seamen who marched or naval bands who played—year after year.

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In memory of the Battle of Jutland: Poster for a British and Foreign Sailors’ Society event in honor of the Society’s hundredth year of existence, which was to take place on the second anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Poster by British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, 1917 ( © IWM Art.IWM PST 11005)

The work on the myth began during the battle. It was not the High Seas Fleet that returned to its homeports but its myth. The kaiser as much as Scheer, later Hipper, Raeder, and countless others, traverse this myth. And where something did not fit together, it was made to fit. That could become grotesque, as when Friedrich von Kühlwetter maintained: “The first of June, the glorious first of June, the day of remembrance of the Battle of Trafalgar won by Nelson. A day of glory for the English navy, henceforth, a day of glory for the German navy.”

Naturally Trafalgar haunted the English as much as the “Glorious First of June,” but to make two battles out of one and to style both of them into one German victory—that closely borders on historical schizophrenia. Graf Keyserlingk was also exceedingly happy and thankful “to have experienced the breaching of the anxiously tended Trafalgar legend, of the Trafalgar magic.” It recalls Wagner and the magic of Good Friday. But even Scheer could not escape the myth: “We therefore had to try to prove by any means that the German High Seas Fleet was willing and able to wrest the glory of Trafalgar and to secure for Germany its national advancement in the world.” The kaiser expressed it more drastically: The tradition of Trafalgar had been “torn to shreds,” and a new chapter of world history opened.

Naturally Jellicoe did not escape the comparison with Nelson, despite desperate opposition, and the Admiralty Staff’s book mentions with relish, in contrast to other great English naval heroes, that his name was not associated with the battle location—that is, Jutland—but simply the location of the “fleet in being”—that is, Scapa. The fact that it was primarily thanks to Jellicoe that the High Seas Fleet should find its end in that particular spot was not mentioned once, and if it had been, Reuter’s deed would be celebrated almost like a second Jutland in Germany. Only Hitler was of the opinion that Scapa had been no glorious chapter for the Kaiser’s Navy and heaped flaming outrage upon Hipper’s former chief of staff, the commander in chief [Oberbefehlshaber] of the Kriegsmarine, Erich Raeder. Sir David Beatty, incidentally, had fewer scruples when it came to a comparison with Nelson.

This had nothing to do with the battle but everything to do with Trafalgar or, more precisely, the Trafalgar complex and the myth. Reality had been transformed into an illusion. It speaks in favor of the English level-headedness that neither Jellicoe nor Beatty wanted to see themselves as heroes or to celebrate on account of Jutland—in their eyes, the battle had simply not been a second Trafalgar, and they themselves were no Nelsons.

In this area the Germans had fewer scruples. They celebrated their heroes unconcernedly and loudly; Scheer and Hipper were formally showered with medals of all kinds. Later the heroes became ships and harbors. The large to large, the small to small: the armored ship Admiral Scheer was launched in 1931; the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in 1935. In 1959 the Bundesmarine bought a school frigate from England and named it Hipper, then its faithful companion the Scheer, which lay more than once in Kiel’s Scheer Harbor.

Max Schultz, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Bernd von Arnim, Friedrich Ihn, Erich Steinbrinck, Friedrich Eckoldt—these seamen and many others, whose names should not be left from the list—did great things in the Battle of Jutland, had charged the enemy as per orders though dead tired, and had gone to their deaths with eyes wide open. In the best case their names would have remained recorded in the names register of the Admiralty Staff’s book, if the Kriegsmarine had not given these names to their destroyers, which were built between 1934 and 1938. Many of these destroyers were lost at Narvik in 1940. The German navies that followed the Kaiser’s Navy towed this net of recollections proudly behind them. It has still not become torn apart, and on the occasion of the fiftieth birthday of the German navy, the German post office brought out a postage stamp of the Gorch Fock, something that brought great enjoyment to all concerned.

According to the official German book on the naval war, during the Battle of Jutland, 6,094 British sailors and 2,551 German seamen lost their lives. Six hundred seventy four British and 507 Germans were wounded, some most hideously disfigured. No one can measure how much pain stands behind these numbers. In Kiel’s North Cemetery there is a simple gravestone. At the top is carved an Iron Cross; underneath, the relief carving of a woman in mourning. The inscription reads: “Here rests my beloved husband, a good father to my children, Naval Sergeant [Marinewachtmeister] Fritz Mittendorf, born 16 March 1878, fallen 31 May 1916, in the naval Battle of Jutland on board the SMS Konig.”

Dr. Michael Salewski: One of Germany’s most distinguished naval historians, the late Dr. Salewski was professor of modern history at Kiel University until 2005. His most important books were Die deutsche Seekriegsleitung 1935–1945 (The German Seekriegsleitung) (vol. 1: 1935–1941; vol. 2: 1942–1945; vol. 3: Denkschriften und Lagebetrachtungen 1938–1944 (Memoranda and Observations 1938–1944) published from 1970 to 1975.

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