Jutland’s Significance

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Jutland had been no Trafalgar, but then it never could have been. The “wooden walls” of Nelson’s three-deckers were nearly indestructible: the Royal Navy won its victories in the “Age of Fighting Sail” by slaughtering enemy crews and then capturing their ships, not demolishing them. In the Age of Fighting Steel, that was no longer true: the ships themselves were now far more vulnerable than their crews, and were almost irreplaceable. The fate of the three British battlecruisers at Jutland proved only too well the validity of Churchill’s analogy of dreadnoughts being “eggshells armed with hammers.”

Nor could Jellicoe place his faith in the measure of his crews’ competence over their adversaries: time and again in the course of the Great War the officers and ratings of the German Navy proved themselves every bit as proficient and courageous as their Royal Navy counterparts. The yawning chasm that separated the fighting skills of the British seamen of 1805 from their French and Spanish opponents did not exist in 1914.

And so Jellicoe fought a very different battle, one meant to maintain the Grand Fleet’s quantitative supremacy over the High Seas Fleet and ensure that the German warships remained locked in the North Sea, utterly impotent, far from the Atlantic shipping lanes that were Great Britain’s lifelines. As Churchill so correctly observed, Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Thus to Jellicoe nothing but the preservation of the battle fleet mattered: all of his strategies, all of his tactics, were drawn up with this overarching requisite in mind.

Like Trafalgar, Jutland’s consequences were not immediately felt, but they possessed a long reach and proved decisive. The myth that Jutland was somehow a German victory, or even just a draw, is simply that—a myth. For all of the bluster and posturing in his official report, Reinhard Scheer could not alter the fundamental fact that when dawn broke on June 1, 1916 the High Seas Fleet was limping back into its home port, while the Grand Fleet was cruising the open waters of the North Sea, ready to renew the battle. No amount of rhetoric or circumlocution could disguise the fact that the High Seas Fleet turned away from the enemy not once but twice within the span of an hour. If any more convincing demonstration of the Grand Fleet’s ascendency was needed, it can be found in the signals each commander sent to his admiralty upon arriving in port: Scheer told Berlin that the High Seas Fleet would require at least two months to repair and refit before it would be able to put to sea; the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe informed London, needed only to refuel before it would be ready to sail again.

In the end, though, when taken in the longest view, Jutland can finally be seen for what it was—one of the decisive battles of the First World War. There is more to winning and losing a battle than simply numbers: victory or defeat cannot be determined by simply counting the killed, wounded, and missing —or in the case of a naval battle, by the number of ships sunk; it would be an exercise in superfluity to recount the major, decisive battles where the victors’ losses exceeded those of the defeated forces. Jutland was decisive not because one fleet failed to destroy the other, but because something else was destroyed: Reinhard Scheer’s faith in the High Seas Fleet’s ability to defeat the Royal Navy. After Jutland, Scheer never again advocated a major fleet action as a strategic option for the Imperial Navy. Having seen first-hand the power of the Grand Fleet, he instinctively understood that the High Seas Fleet simply lacked the strength to cripple the Grand Fleet, and that nothing less would be required if German warships were to ever reach the North Atlantic. Instead, he threw his wholehearted support behind what became the panacea of German naval strategy: unrestricted submarine warfare; so great was his newfound enthusiasm that it carried his commanding officer, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, with it.

Scheer never fully articulated how his change of heart came about, yet the inescapable conclusion is that it was produced by his experience at Jutland. Certainly Scheer was no coward, but something broke within him that May afternoon, for he was never again the fiercely aggressive sailor he had been before the battle. Jutland disabused Scheer and his fellow admirals of any illusions they may have held about a triumphant High Seas Fleet. The decisive effect of the Battle of Jutland was that it drove them to choose the path of risk; in the end by accepting, even embracing, that risk, Germany paid the price in defeat.

After the Battle of Jutland, almost a year passed before the United States joined the Allies in making war on Germany, nearly two and one-half years went by before that cool, brisk November morning when the warships of the High Seas Fleet steamed into internment off the Firth of Forth. And yet, when they did, they were silently confirming that for the Royal Navy, for Great Britain, and for the Allies, the Battle of Jutland had, indeed, been a victory. It had just been a distant victory.

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