Were the public right to see Jutland as a defeat?

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

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The nation’s attention is being drawn to the centenary of the pivotal clash in the North Sea that took place off the west coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsular on May 31, 1916.

An inconclusive action, involving 150 ships of the Royal Navy and almost 100 of the German High Seas Fleet, it was the only major clash in World War I of the two most powerful navies the world had seen.

Britain had for long periods the advantage of breaking the enemy’s coded signals so when the German navy slipped out of Wilhelmshaven on the night of May 30, hoping to entice a section of the Royal Navy into a damaging, but perhaps not definitive full-scale clash, the code breakers had already alerted the British command to Germany’s intentions.

The scene was set for a clash which could have been disastrous for Britain, but only frustrating for the Germans.

As in the land war of 1914-18, the personalities of the commanders often played as important a role as the fighting efficiency of the divisions.

The British commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was a modest man who had the burden of knowing that, as Winston Churchill put it, “he was the one man who could lose the war in an afternoon”.

Leading the more agile, but less well armoured battlecruiser vanguard was Vice-Admiral David Beatty. A man as different as chalk from cheese to the cautious Jellicoe, Beatty was of raffish style and a risk taker. Born into a patrician background, he had interests in hunting and shooting, as well as being well-connected. Churchill would play a significant part in promoting Beatty’s cause in the great debate and scandal that surrounded the immediate public outrage that our Navy, and its commander, had not shown enough offensive spirit.

Mindful of the enemy’s submarine and torpedo threat, Jellicoe declined to risk all in a dangerous pursuit of the main German force, which had turned tail when it realised that it had been drawn into a British trap.

The simple arithmetic of the battle appeared to show in laymen’s eyes a British defeat – more large ships lost and men killed. The nation ‘expected’ (as Nelson had exhorted his men 110 years earlier). Jellicoe would pay the price of appearing to lack the elan and dash of Beatty. Naval historians today have a different view.

Jellicoe incurred the wrath of an ‘unknowing’ public, who had seen huge sums expended in the naval arms race of the previous ten years and expected nothing less than outright annihilation of the enemy. Beatty (no Collingwood) would reap the rewards of supreme command when Jellicoe resigned a year later and saw to it that the history of the battle, as written at the time, showed him in the best light.

Peter Coppack will be giving a talk on Aspects of the Battle of Jutland at 2.30pm, on Wednesday, June 1, at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre, Clifford’s Fort, Fish Quay, North Shields.

The Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project’s exhibition telling the story of the Battle of Jutland and its many connections to Tyneside runs at the centre from tomorrow (Friday) until Thursday, June 23.

Anyone with information about anyone killed or who died as a result of the war from homes across North Tyneside is asked to contact the project. The project workroom is open from 10am to 16pm each weekday at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields. The Memorial Garden is also at Linskill. For details see www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk

Our address is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.