Our Bloody Ships

AT LAST, THEY SAID — a battle at sea. An inconclusive one — much as the endless showdown on the western front — but a battle at least.

Despite the massive build-up of a surface fleet by both Germany and Britain in the years before the war, the Kaiser had (for all his bombast) been loath to take on the superior strength of the British Grand Fleet. If his ships were destroyed, Germany would be brought to the very edge of starvation.

Thus, since August 1914, the naval war had been carried out mainly by submarine. The Imperial High Seas Fleet (as Germany’s Navy was known) had been confined to port — a disconsolate body of men, living in cramped conditions and increasingly susceptible to ideas disseminated by extremists.

In January 1916, a new commander was appointed — Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Notably more belligerent than his predecessors, Scheer ached to engage the enemy. His plan was to lure Vice Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers into attacking Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers near the Jutland coast of Denmark and from there egg them towards the battleships of the High Seas Fleet. At that point, the British would then find that the exits of the Grand Fleet anchorages would be blocked by U-boats. Jellicoe’s battleships would therefore be unable to come to their rescue and the British would accordingly stare in the jaws of defeat

So, at least, ran the theory. The success of the plan depended, amongst much else, on total secrecy. However, British Naval Intelligence had been happily decoding German naval encrypts since the early days of the war in the top-secret Room 40 in Whitehall and thus Jellicoe was fully apprised of their intentions. On 30 May, the Grand Fleet left harbour by 11pm on 30 May and was at sea hours before the Germans.

The Battle of Jutland, destined to be the largest naval engagement of the entire war, involved 100,000 men and 250 ships. It began at 14.28 on 31 May when HMS Galatea opened fire, signalling, soon after, that a considerable number of ships had been sighted. Beatty gave chase in his flagship HMS Lion and, after initial communication problems, was joined by Evan-Thomas’s squadron. At this stage, the British felt pretty upbeat: their battlecruisers with their 13.5-inch guns could easily outrange the 11- and 12-inch German guns.

Then they hit problems. The first was that British range-finding equipment initially over-estimated the distance between opposing ships so it was German and not British shells which hit the mark. The second was that, even when that was put right, British shells fell in lines and German ones in clusters. It was instantly apparent that the Germans were inflicting radically greater damage. The third was a consequence of geography: clouds of thick smoke often obscured the Germans ships, whereas the British ones were silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Indeed,the British battlecruisers took so many direct hits that Beatty famously declared, ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today’.

A rich narrative had thus already accumulated when Scheer’s sixteen huge battleships appeared — a direct threat to Beatty’s squadrons, and his dreadnoughts, including HMS Barham, came under heavy fire. Beatty turned north and at 18.30 met Jellicoe’s battle squadrons.

At this point, the initiative turned swiftly in favour of the British. “Suddenly we were practically surrounded. The entire British feet had suddenly appeared” recalled Obermatrose Blessman. “We were in a tight corner”. They were indeed, but Scheer extricated them with huge skill. Executing a 180 degree turn, he fled the scene, determined to preserve his main ships. The smaller ships were left — sacrificial lambs, it must have seemed — to fight off the pursuing British.

By now, the light was already fading. Despite the formidable firepower at the hands of both parties, contemporary technologies did not extend to pinpointing the position of an enemy save by sunlight. When darkness fell, the battle stuttered to its anticlimactic finish. By next morning, dearly as Jellicoe longed to re-engage, Scheer had decided discretion was the better part of valour and his ships were beating a very frightened path back to Kiel harbour.

Only the propaganda battle — which proved both vigorous and prolonged — remained. Both sides, of course, claimed victory.

The Royal Navy sacrificed 6,094 men and boys and 111,980 tons of shipping that comprised fourteen ships, including three battlecruisers — HMS Queen Mary, HMS Invincible and HMS Indefatigable. HMS Lion had been hit fourteen times with the loss of ninety-nine dead and fifty-one wounded. The Germans lost 2,551 souls and 62,233 tons of shipping: eleven mainly lighter ships.

The calculus of victory has always been contentious. The British evidently lost more in tonnage and lives, and within two days, the Kaiser had proclaimed it as a famous German victory but, as George V told his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, “William’s speech at Kiel about the great navy victory of the German fleet made me laugh”.

In truth, the German High Seas Fleet had been badly frightened and remained in port, virtually uninterruptedly, for the rest of the war. By any reckoning, that was a victory for its opponents. On the other hand, the British public’s lukewarm response to news of the battle suggested that it had instantly discerned that success was qualified. Jellicoe’s calculated restraint, especially when set alongside the swashbuckling Beatty, left many uneasy. History has been kinder to him, sensitive to his responsibility to preserve the British fleet on which the defence of the realm depended. As Churchill recognised he was “The only man on either side who could lose the war in a single afternoon”.

There are some fascinating comparisons to be made between the feelings of those on the eve of battle at Jutland and those on the western front. The words of the German, Richard Stumpf, suggest a millenarian joy seem in some ways reminiscent of that of infantry officers in 1914. Stumpf was aboard SMS Heligoland which fired sixty-three shells during the battle and was only hit once:

At last, at last — finally it’s happening, the great event that has been the object of our desires, thoughts and feelings for the last twenty-two months. This is what we have been hoping for, working for and training for with such passion for years.

Later in the day he noted:

I am convinced that it is actually impossible for a man to describe the thoughts and feelings that go through his mind during his baptism of fire. If I said I was afraid I would be telling a lie. No, it was an indescribable mixture of pleasure, fear, curiosity, apathy and …the joy of battle.

Few people today know that the future King George VI, then Albert, Duke of York and aged twenty, fought at Jutland. He described his experience on HMS Collingwood:

At the commencement I was sitting on the top of a turret and had a very good view of the proceedings. I was up there during a lull, when a German ship started firing at us and one salvo “straddled us”. We at once returned the fire. I was distinctly startled and jumped down the hole at the top like a shot rabbit! I didn’t try the experiment again. The ship was in fine state on the main deck. Inches of water sluicing about to prevent fires getting a hold on the deck. Most of the cabins were also flooded. The hands behaved splendidly, and all of them were in the best of spirits as their hearts’ desire had at last been granted, which was to be in action with the Germans … It was certainly a great experience to have been through.

It is poor history that this is a man remembered for his stammer rather than for his unobtrusive gallantry. The Prince was mentioned in despatches for his actions as a turret officer.

A vivid version of the battle, this time from Other Ranks, came in a letter written on 4 June by Assistant Paymaster Cracknell to his parents of his experience aboard HMS Champion:

I was on deck most of the time and saw mostly all of it — it was providence which saved us from being blown out of the water … Saw the Queen Mary –about 440 yards from us go up in a puff of smoke and flame afterwards there was nothing more to see only 6 or 7 saved … We passed a german ship sinking — though most of the crew seemed to have gone down. Next day on our return we passed through mases of corpses….rescued lots on rafts and in small boats but they had been adrift for hours and many died from exposure. It was a horrible sight. Doesn’t it seem funny that Tuesday afternoon I was playing golf and 24 hours afterwards wondering when my time was coming — its a funny world.

While history remembers Jutland, it was a footnote at the time — the more so in France, where the attrition of Verdun continued to be pitiless and irresolute. The narrative was enriched this week by a German attack further to the north, in Flanders. It had been provoked by the Germans’ awareness of a build-up of British resources in the Somme area, and by their dark suspicions of an imminent offensive. In anticipation, they now attacked over a one and-a-half mile front from Mount Sorrel to Hooge on 2 June.

According to one account:

The 3rd Canadian Division was the target of a crushing German bombardment on the morning of 2 June. The barrage devastated the forward Canadian positions and killed hundreds, including the division commander, Major-General Malcolm Mercer. German infantry then swept forward, capturing Canadian positions at Mount Sorrel and on two surrounding hills. A hastily organised counterattack on 3 June failed. Three days later, the Germans exploded four mines under the Canadian positions and captured the village of Hooge.

This was bad news for the British. Any hope that their planned summer offensive might retain the element of fundamental surprise was quashed. At least as seriously, the Germans now occupied ground which afforded excellent observation over the Ypres Salient, the town itself, and the approach roads, railways and tracks.

Planning for another Allied counter-attack began. Again, this is more easily seen in retrospect. Many British accounts from soldiers at the front stress either local actions or the tedium of waiting upon events. Raymond Asquith wrote on 2 June:

I rose at 5am and the battalion marched off at 7.30. We went about 20 miles over hot hard dusty roads under a brilliant sun and one got nothing to eat or drink between 6 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. Considering how little exercise I have had these last 3 months I was surprisingly little tired and hardly at all footsore.

A long march is really more boring than tiring, provided one is going light. Our late CO used to make the officers carry packs but this one mercifully doesn’t. It makes a vast difference …

We got to a pleasant enough town where we were staying for 3 weeks – quite pretty country and excellent billets, but the authorities had failed to notice that the whole district was under crops and consequently there was no possibility of training there … We marched off another 10 miles to a large Franco-Flemish village where we now are and where there is about 1000 yds of uncultivated ground on which we are to dig trenches and practise popping the parapet …

Yesterday we spent digging trenches, from which to practise the attack. The government have bought 500 acres of the richest acres of the richest land in France for the purpose and we tramped down or dug up God knows how many tons of the best food stuffs in the execution of our fatuous project. Luckily the weather has been beautiful and the country watered with the golden light of Dutch pictures.

The idea of limitless different lives being lived intensely at the same moment remains pertinent. Edith Appleton was still nursing Maddox, her very sick patient. Her diary continued:

May 30 — Another gruesome thing Sam Maddox told me was that when they were marching into Ypres they saw a company of Warwicks resting by the roadside, some sitting on the kerbside, some lying about. They took not the least notice of the passing officer — no salute or acknowledgement. Then the officer went up to them and touched one man’s cheek — and white powder fell off. He was stone dead. They had all been killed by gas as they sat or lay. Maddox said it was a horrible sight, some of them were still smiling, and some looked as if they were still asleep …

The glorious 1st of June — A lovely morning for Ascension Day … My two VADs and I had a little time to spoil the patients a little. It must be a ghastly thing to be buried alive, as one of my men was. He knew his company was short-handed and that chances were that he would never be found as only a part of his hand was showing above ground. His head was doubled over on to his chest and there was only ventilation enough for him to take slow, short breaths. There was a tremendous weight of sandbags and earth on his shoulders, and he spent the time wishing he had been killed outright by a shell instead of being buried in a mine. When at last they got him out, he fainted and knew no more until he was in hospital. He is a quaint, dreary creature and says he will never be the same again.

The Russians added to the drama. For several weeks, the eastern front had been, at least in comparison to the west, becalmed. Now, on 4 June, a new offensive opened under General Brusilov — with attacks stretching from Pripet in Poland to the Romanian frontier; 13,000 prisoners from the Central Powers were claimed in the opening days.

It was a welcome diversion for the beleaguered French and British. This latest push had been designed partly to sweeten the temper of those from whom they now sought urgent material help. Right at this moment, Lord Kitchener was en route to Moscow in an attempt to hammer out some kind of package of allied assistance.

In his moustachioed and simple-minded magnificence, the noble Lord was the very antithesis of someone else making news that week. Bertrand Russell — atheist, intellectual and Cambridge Apostle — appeared at the Mansion House on 5 June before the Lord Mayor, Sir Charles Wakefield, charged with making, in a printed publication, “statements likely to prejudice the recruiting discipline of His Majesty’s forces”.

Russell defended himself and the proceedings were brightened by the presence of the flamboyant Ottoline Morrell in an astonishing hat and a multi-coloured cashmere coat.

Lytton Strachey appeared in tow — someone else unlikely to be selected by Lord Kitchener for a walking holiday. Strachey noted that “B.R. spoke for about an hour — quite well — but simply a propaganda speech. The Lord Mayor looked like a stuck pig. Counsel for the prosecution was an incredible Daumier caricature of a creature.”

It is not difficult to see why some opponents of war were resented and feared as well as despised. Russell was found guilty and fined £100 (with £10 costs and the alternative of sixty-one days’ imprisonment). An appeal was launched.

It may be rather easier to identify with the note sounded on 2 June by Paul Hub, the wounded German officer, who wrote to his parents as he returned to the front from his barracks in Ulm:

We crossed the Rhine at Mainz. The singing! It rang out like thunder! Half of Mainz must have heard it. God, the Rhine looked beautiful. After Aachen there was silence. All the men’s cheering and shouting stopped. I crossed for the second time into enemy territory.

A note of pathos is also struck by the diary entry, again for 2 June, made by a German schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr. She lived in Schneidermuhl, East Prussia, where her grandmother worked with the wounded at the local Red Cross depot:

The women are all at work in munitions factories, because the men are nearly all at the front. When the women come home in the evening, they are too tired to look after the children. This is sad when the children are small. The bigger ones try to help with the housework. Grandma says that we women are an ‘Emergency Force’. Many women and girls sell their lovely long hair to provide money for the Fatherland. 100 grams of hair fetches 2 marks. The hair is used for military purposes.

Since 1914, Berlin had a Ministry for ersatz Materials. While the war continued, supplies of raw materials were badly affected by the British naval blockade, and human hair was used as a substitute for rubber and leather belts in industrial machinery.

Fortunes of war — never-ending narratives, only more intense and more terrible than those of peace. This was a week of war more terrible than most, with a sting in its tail. Late on 5 June, news reached the Admiralty that Lord Kitchener’s ship, HMS Hampshire, en route to Russia, had been sunk by a mine. He and his staff all drowned, along with another 600 souls. Fortunes of war.