The Battle of Jutland – getting the history right

This is an account of some issues surrounding the historiography of the Battle Jutland, including a critique of a BBC documentary on this enormous naval engagement. It refers especially to two important written sources dated 1921 (and 1986) and 1998.

The Battle of Jutland has been in our minds this year, and occasioned a moving BBC documentary which was severely flawed in its handling of historical evidence. This post in two parts: the first outlines my beef with the TV show; the second heads readers towards a better historiography of the engagement in which tragedy and success were intertwined.

#1 The BBC show

The BBC2 TV documentary, Battle of Jutland: The Navy’s bloodiest day, was of course very interesting as it commemorated the 100th anniversary of the country’s biggest and bloodiest naval engagement. But even granted the inevitable infantalism of style in modern prime time TV documentary-making, it was irritating. The programme-maker’s blurb said of the show: “Fresh evidence sheds new light not only on why so many died, but also on the importance of Jutland to the eventual triumph of the Allies”. It didn’t.

The show actually mostly rehashed old evidence and analysis, and brought precious few new insights to the table. Historian Dan Snow, engineering scientist Dr Shini Somara and naval historian Nick Hewitt were variously quite informative, over-excited, disingenuous and PC.

The worst fault of the show was typical of the genre: it presented information (often analysis, evidence, or conclusions) as though it was new and, often, as though it was controversial when actually it was old and explicable in a non-shocking way. The show’s presenters were, again typically, supposed to be on journeys of discovery, revelation and investigation. Leave aside the idea that the BBC should be ashamed of itself, I am inclined to be more irritated with professional historians who go along with this abuse of their profession. I think TV shows should post online the evidence surrounding their work, and this one, as usual, didn’t.

As an example of the show’s tricksiness: for a longish stretch, and to explain the RN’s tragic and colossal losses of lives and ships in the battle, we had a pretty experimental exploration of the idea that British Dreadnought ships were inherently more sinkable (less good at floating when flooded) than their German opposition. It was shown that they weren’t. But if that was ever a serious view, I have seen precious little discussion of it nowadays. Having dismissed this, its own straw man, the show moved on to discuss the vulnerability of British ships to massive and catastrophic explosions due to mismanagement of ammunition. Off we went on a One Show or Blue Peter or Coast experiment – exciting enough in its way – to prove the severity of the problem of flash fires in gun turrets and magazines. There was little discussion of the plain fact that this issue was well known – and worried over – before the Battle of Jutland, and has been agonised over ever since. One could say it became the orthodoxy. Indeed, one might say that the main controversy surrounding Jutland is the way that the Admiralty’s understanding of the issue – which soon became quite advanced – was taken badly by the fleet’s commanders, Jellicoe and Beatty; though they knew of the problem they arguably sidelined it when they rose to greater authority. Below, I follow a little of that.

There were some pretty passages in which Dan Show said that British tactics were old-fashioned, indeed Nelsonic, at Jutland. But actually, British tactics more or less worked during the Battle, and in so far as they didn’t it is indeed (as the show said) because Beatty perhaps led his advance party of ships deeper into engagement with the Germans than he should have, granted that his mission was supposed to be a coat-trailing ploy. He lost ships tragically in that engagement, and indeed did so because his vessels were explosive shrapnel bombs. But his ships did get the Germans’ attention, and he did lead the Germans into confronting the much superior British Grand Fleet under Jellicoe; it was a confrontation the Germans turned away from. Job done, one might say.

It may be, as Snow said, that the fleet should have attended to Admiralty information better, or communicated within itself better than it did. But as he partly acknowledges, there were plenty of real communication and intelligence difficulties during the battle, as there always are and probably always will be.

The show gave us passages which said that the Battle of Jutland needed to be reframed as a victory, since in effect it produced a permanent blockade of the German fleet, which never again ventured a full-scale surface challenge. The show implied this vital revisionism was freshly-minted. Actually, at the time, the immediate public response indeed seems to have been one of shock at the losses, and disappointment that the victory had not been more obvious. But that the engagement turned out to be a success, albeit one achieved with much mismanagement alongside colossal courage, seems to have been the consensus ever since.

There are profound issues surrounding the Scarborough (16 December 1914), Dogger Bank (24 January 1915) and Jutland (28-31 May 1916) naval operations. There is a long list of failures – definite or arguable by turns – in command and control from the top to the bottom in the Royal Navy of the day. There seems to have been from the outset and ever since a feeling that institutionally, the RN was not good at learning, absorbing and disseminating the lessons of experience. Certainly, Scarborough and Dogger Bank produced lessons which weren’t well-learned in time to inform the same fleets when they went out to Jutland. Sometimes, amore propre afflicted senior men; rivalries got in the way; sometimes, loyalties did. Almost none of that can be dragged to a sure conclusion as to culpability.

I do see that difficulties confront a documentary commemorating a battle with huge, and largely self-inflicted losses, which produced an unglamorous victory whose worth was slow to reveal itself. Still, it’s easy to imagine a far better attempt at the complexities than achieved by this show.

I am tolerably sure that every important element of the Jutland story had been picked over in recent TV documentaries (and I don’t mean the Channel 4 offering in May 2016, which I didn’t see). As I pursued my own very amateur sleuthing into Jutland, I came across two main serious sources, and I cite them below.

#2 A pair of takes on the evidence

Should anyone want to understand the role of WW1 in the evolution of modern naval warfare, they can readily begin with the writings of the distinguished naval historians James Goldrick and Nicholas A Lambert, both of whom feature below.

I’ll start at With Battle Cruisers, 1921 (and with a modern historical introduction by James Goldrick, 1986), by Filson Young. I take an interest in the North Sea naval engagements of WW1 for the ordinary reason of being a Briton. But it happens that my grandmother’s second husband, the journalist and writer, Filson Young was an acquaintance of John Fisher, David Beatty and Winston Churchill, and inveigled himself as an observer (first as a civilian and later as a commissioned officer) on various RN ships in the North Sea at periods up to and including the Battle of Dogger Bank. In the Dogger Bank events, he was aboard HMS Lion as a sort of guest of David Beatty and played rather an interesting role as a high-powered messenger between the Fleet’s commanders and the Admiralty. As was his way, he was always at the elbow of the admirals and captains – and people even more senior – in these berths.

By the way, FY was in a very exposed spot during much of the Battle of Dogger Bank. He was high up on a mast on Lion, just as was one of the two survivors (out of a crew of 1017 men) on HMS Indefatigible during the later Battle of Jutland, the latter a man who counted himself lucky to have been thrown clear of the sinking ship.

The main long-form result of FY’s visits was With the Battle Cruisers which was published in 1921. It was re-issued in 1986 by the Naval Institute Press, US, with a useful Introduction and footnotes by the distinguished naval historian (and WW1 expert) James Goldrick. WTBC is written by a self-confessed fan of Admiral Beatty, but FY is not wholly uncritical of his hero. In its account of the Battle of Dogger Bank, the book talks seriously about the dangers of the way ammunition was handled on British ships, and noted an example of a similar issue on a German ship. FY is very critical of the way the RN failed to learn systematically from such experiences. A footnote in the US edition notes that on HMS Lion, and that ship alone, ammunition handing was reformed in time for the Battle of Jutland, and by a single officer, who could not gain wider traction for his idea.

“’Our Bloody Ships’ or ‘Our Bloody System’? Jutland and the Loss of the Battle Cruisers”, 1916, by Nicholas A. Lambert, The Journal of the Military History 62 (January 1998)
This essay is available behind academic journal paywalls and also free on a blog online. It comes from an accredited naval historian and is fascinating not merely on the facts, so far as we understand them, about the evolution of various RN tactics, and especially ammunition handling, in the run-up to, and during, the Battle of Jutland. In particular, it is also an unsparing but judicious account of the toing and froing between the Fleet and The Admiralty as the tragedy of the lost British ships was analysed and absorbed. It seems fair to say that Nicholas Lambert’s conclusion is – tentatively – that Jellicoe and Beatty were not keen to name themselves or their junior officers for their failure to reform ammunition-handling, and that they side-tracked the evidence.

[James Goldrick has contributed the comments below. I have tred to contact Nicholas A Lambert to check I haven’t traduced his views, but so far without success.]



James Goldrick
Dear Mr North You have it pretty right - and I have looked more deeply at the problems of command, control and communications, as well as the general technological challenges in 'Before Jutland', a very much revised and extended edition of my 1984 book 'The King's Ships Were at Sea'. Best wishes James Goldrick
James Goldrick
I'll add that my opinion of the Dan Snow programme, which I saw while I was in the UK, is very much yours. I was very disappointed. Were you aware that Berlinn in Edinburgh published another edition of the USNI version (with the introduction and footnotes) of 'With the Battle Cruisers' in 2002?
Thanks for those two useful (and comforting) comments. I will check out the Berlinn edition.

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Publication date

09 June 2016