Before the centennial of the Battle of Jutland in May 2016, many were concerned whether the importance of the First World War’s greatest naval battle would be recognized as worthy of national commemoration. Simply put, the history, literature and poetry of the Great War focusses more on the terrible stalemated quagmire of the trenches and the Jutland centenary fell between three great battles – Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. It was in danger of being over-shadowed. Both of Britain’s greatest maritime and naval museums, the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), were nervous but eventually committed to what became important exhibitions. Even the senior service did not appear fully at ease with a battle that remained controversial.
As it turned out, Jutland became a TV ‘moment’, with programming from Scapa Flow, Belfast and the North Sea where, as one group, HMS Duncan, HMS Iron Duke and FGN Brandenburg laid wreaths. A slew of new books, mine included, were published and both the BBC and Channel 4 broadcast significant documentaries. Museum exhibitions took place, as mentioned, in the UK, Denmark (the Seawar Museum) and Germany (Deutsche Marine Museum) with strong co-operation on exchanging artefacts and stories. In the shadow of Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s and later between the fountains on Trafalgar Square where the two British admirals’ busts can be found, the Beatty and Jellicoe families came together, joined by many German descendants as both NATO allies and friends, sharing the same historical experience,
Ongoing digital support for Jutland’s story has been a resounding success: Jutland1916.com had over 5,000 visits on the day, the 25-minute animation of the battle more than 5 million views and the Battle of Jutland Facebook initiative to finally assemble British crew lists has now reached 95% completion (only having a quarter of the crews identified in 2016). All of which is good preparation for the 110th anniversary in five years’ time.
What sustained this interest in an engagement that many feel was uneventfully indecisive and disappointing? Amongst naval professionals, Jutland still holds its own as a unique confrontation of the dreadnought navies. It is still hotly debated even if its ‘lessons’ are often tinged with political and ideological prejudice. Our understanding continues to evolve with technology: it was only in August 2016 that the last wreck from the battle, HMS Warrior, was discovered and in the two years before, that all the battle area wrecks were identified and the last moments of HMS Indefatigable only understood for the first time. Despite its surface-only nature, Jutland is still annually war-gamed at the US Naval War College for its important lessons on fleet control and battle-condition communications.
We look at Jutland a hundred years later maybe in much the same manner as those who fought there on 31 May 1916 recalled Trafalgar. Jutland stands at the mid-point of almost 300 years of British maritime history. A navy which regarded itself as unchallengeable had its nose bloodied: Jutland was a rude awakening – much of what was tried and tested, believed in, relied upon, failed. But, from that failure, arguably, grew a stronger navy. Without its immediate disappointing tactical results, many of the reforms in weapons, tactics, command and training might, arguably, have not have remained unanswered.
The understanding of the battle continues to evolve with the benefit of hindsight; it is increasingly free from the more obvious quantitative reliance on casualty or tonnage data and more open to deeper, qualitative appreciation. The loss of ships was, as Jellicoe said, ‘at best unpalatable’ but the RN could afford the losses while Germany’s navy could not. The continued ‘bottling’ of the North Sea, responsible for the largely successful interdiction of trade with Germany, cutting her industrial and economic supply line, would not have been possible had Jutland ended with a British defeat. Finally, the core role of the RN in trade protection and in economic warfare, never so important as in todays’ age of ‘Just in time’ logistics, started to be more prominent in the national conversation.
However, it’s hard not to be disappointed in how our maritime and naval history is taught. There is no physical reminder of a sea battle; There were no class outings as there were to the trenches even if, in the manning ports, Jutland had a particularly strong memory. The nation has lost much of its collective maritime memory. It’s a sad testament to that history that only four admirals grace Trafalgar Square. It’s arguably where we should remember names like Raleigh, Cabot, Rodney and, the creator of Britain’s modern navy, Jackie Fisher.
You can watch a film explaining the battle here.
Nick Jellicoe is the author of George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander
“A hugely powerful tale of one of the most revered and inspirational Special Forces commanders of WWII.” Damien Lewis, Best-selling author, SAS. Band of Brothers.
Nick Jellicoe, the author of Jutland.The Unfinished Battle and The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet has now turned his attention to his father’s wartime career in Special Forces as David Stirling’s No. Two in the early SAS and to his immediate post-war career as a diplomat in a service riddled with spies. His new book will be published in May 2021 by Pen & Sword.
George Jellicoe grew up with the traditions of service but was never compromised by his privileged upbringing. His father, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, had commanded the British Grand Fleet at Jutland and he himself would become the last holder of the time-honoured title of First Lord of the Admiralty. His distinguished military career, first in North Africa as David Stirling’s second in command in the newly formed SAS, culminated in October 1944 with the liberation of Athens as the Germans pulled out, he himself on a bicycle, racing in with a small band of special forces to deny the capital to the communist guerrillas of ELAS.
It was his first encounter with the brutality of Stalinist communism and led him directly to diplomatic service. These were the formative years of NATO and Jellicoe found himself in the thick of espionage and intrigue in Washington where he worked closely with Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. In 1958, Jellicoe chose resign from the Foreign Office rather than give up the woman he would eventually marry and become his life partner. Again, in 1973, he turned his back on a promising political career after he’d unwittingly become entangled with the Lambton affair. He rose above it, never hiding his weaknesses, and dedicated the rest of his life to the service of others, becoming President of the SAS Regimental Association and the UK Crete Veterans Association.
George Jellicoe lived life to the fullest. When he died in 2007, he had become the world’s longest serving parliamentarian and such was the respect amongst colleagues that he was known as the ‘Father of the House’ having briefly been Leader of the House of Lords. His public roles took him to roles as varied as President of the Royal Geographical Society and Chairman of the Medical Research Council.