A century ago, looking for another Trafalgar, the Royal Navy steamed into battle against the Imperial German Navy off the Jutland Peninsula. But the outcomes of the two contests were starkly different: Trafalgar was a decisive victory for Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, while Jutland—the most mighty clash between battleships in history—was a virtual draw. Nevertheless, the significance of Jutland is much greater that the contrast with Trafalgar suggests.
The possibility of decisiveness in the age of steam had been suggested by the dramatic 1905 Japanese victory at Tsushima in waters close to those where China and Japan compete today. Of the eight Russian battleships there, six were sunk and two captured, with the damage having been inflicted by big 12-inch Japanese guns. Japan’s only ship losses were three torpedo boats.
Just as with American naval victories over Spain in 1898, but more spectacularly, Tsushima appeared to vindicate the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan: A high-seas encounter would occur, it could be a decisive battle, and, if so, the result would affect the fate of nations. Russia soon after accepted peace terms. In 1916 the battleships available to Britain and Germany would be far more powerful than those available to Russia and Japan, seemingly increasing the likelihood of a decisive battle result.
However, World War I would expose the difficulty of predicting developments and thus the limitations of much prewar planning and speculation. 1914 and 1915 did not see any decisive naval campaigns in European waters, and the clashes that did occur there—notably Heligoland Bight (1914), Texel (1914) and Dogger Bank (1915)—were all small-scale affairs. The most significant Anglo-German naval development was British 1914 success in destroying Imperial Navy units outside of Europe, notably at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, where Royal Navy battlecruisers destroyed Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s cruiser squadron. Moreover, amphibious operations captured the ports of German colonies.
German surface raiders had challenged the supply system of Britain, a country that could not feed itself, whose imperial economy relied on trade, and whose military system required troop movements within the empire. That challenge was overcome. Indeed, Allied success in blockading the North Sea, English Channel, and Adriatic Sea and in capturing Germany’s overseas colonies ensured that, after the initial stages of the war and despite the use of submarines, the range of German naval operations was smaller than those of American and French warships and privateers in wars between 1775 and 1815. Germany could not match Britain’s strength in surface shipping and suffered from the island nation’s position athwart German routes to the Atlantic.
Moreover, the situation was not transformed by German conquests. Whereas in 1940 the Germans would conquer Denmark, Norway, and France, making it far harder for the British to counter enemy naval operations, in 1914 the only ports Kaiser Wilhelm II’s forces conquered were those in Belgium: Antwerp, Ostend, and Zeebrugge. These ports provided Germany with a stronger presence in the North Sea but could not serve as fleet bases. In practice, the German navy was still confined.
In 1915 Germany responded to its previous year’s failure to win on land and to Britain’s naval dominance by stepping up submarine production and, in February, launching unrestricted submarine warfare—attacking all shipping and sinking vessels without warning. U-20 sank the RMS Lusitania, the largest liner on the transatlantic run, off Ireland on 7 May. Among the 1,192 passengers and crew killed were 128 Americans, and the resulting U.S. criticism was savage. In response, Germany agreed that its U-boats would no longer attack large passenger liners, and then on 18 September finally canceled unrestricted submarine warfare to avoid provoking American intervention in the war.
Aside from its impact on neutrals, Germany had been unprepared for unrestricted submarine warfare; the Imperial Navy lacked enough U-boats, trained crews, or bases to mount an effective blockade of Britain. In early 1915 only 29 submarines were available, a number that rose to only 59 by the end of the year. In addition, for submerged movement the boats depended on motors powered by batteries that had to be recharged on the surface, where the vessels were highly vulnerable. In a major assault, the Germans sank 748,000 tons of British shipping in 1915, but Britain and its empire launched 1.3 million tons. The country had the largest shipbuilding industry in the world, one that was not vulnerable to air attack (as would be the case in World War II).
That was not the only strategic limitation of German submarine warfare. Submarines and mines appeared to be the means to snipe at the British naval advantage, rather than an effective way to reverse it. Apparently, the German surface fleet was needed to do that. The German plan was to fall on part of the British Grand Fleet with its entire High Seas Fleet. It was attempted in three sorties in 1916 that did not result in battles.
Benefiting from superior intelligence and analysis, the British did not fall for this plan when the Germans tried it again on 31 May. But despite having the larger fleet in the Jutland battle that ensued that afternoon, the Royal Navy failed to achieve the Trafalgar, or sweeping victory, hoped for by naval planners. Instead, during the battle the British suffered from problems with fire control; inadequate armor protection, notably on their battlecruisers; the unsafe handling of powder; poor signaling; and inadequate training, for example in destroyer torpedo attacks. German gunnery at Jutland was superior to that of the Royal Navy, partly because of better optics and better fusing of shells.
Command decisions were also very important. Grand Fleet commander Admiral John Jellicoe’s caution possibly denied the British the victory they might have obtained had the bolder Vice Admiral David Beatty, commander of the Battlecruiser Fleet, been in overall command. Beatty was regarded as more dynamic. However, as with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, Jellicoe only needed to avoid losing. Former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill famously remarked that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” The admiral was worried that German torpedoes would sink pursuing British ships. Wellington was to win more than a defensive success at Waterloo; Napoleon not only failed but was also routed. In contrast, Jellicoe did not achieve anywhere near such a dramatic outcome. However, the circumstances were very different and the risks greater at Jutland.
The British certainly lost more ships and men in the battle than the Germans: 14 Royal Navy ships, including 3 battlecruisers, and 6,094 men, compared with 11 Imperial Navy ships, including 1 battlecruiser, and 2,551 men. On 5 June, four days after the battle ended, Kaiser Wilhelm, a virulent Anglophobe, announced at the Wilhelmshaven naval base: “The English were beaten. The spell of Trafalgar has been broken.”
Nevertheless, the German fleet had been badly damaged in the big-gun exchanges. Moreover, its confidence had been hit hard. Glimpses of the Grand Fleet had given German officers a frightening view of Britain’s formidable naval power. Thereafter in the war, the High Seas Fleet sailed beyond the defensive minefields of the Heligoland Bight on only three occasions. Each time, it took care to avoid conflict with the Grand Fleet.
In turn, precisely because the High Seas Fleet had not been defeated, it continued to pose a threat as a fleet in being, which restrained British naval operations. Royal Navy losses at Jutland made both Jellicoe and the Admiralty more cautious. British plans for bold large-scale operations, notably for sorties into the Baltic to help Russia, were never carried out. This was significant, as Russia was then under heavy pressure from German advances and the Western Allies feared it might be forced out of the war.
Yet the British employed their fleet by deterring the Germans from acting and thus challenging the British blockade of Germany. Thwarted was the German option of combining surface sorties with submarine ambushes in order to reduce the British advantage in warship numbers. This advantage was supplemented by British superiority in the intelligence war, especially the use of signals intelligence organized by Room 40, which allowed the Royal Navy generally to know the location of German warships.
High Seas Fleet commander Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer had recognized that Jutland left the British still dominant in the North Sea. On 4 July, he suggested to Kaiser Wilhelm, who took a close interest in naval operations, that Germany could only win at sea by the use of submarines.
British concern, meanwhile, was focused on submarines after Jutland. In October Jellicoe observed that the submarine menace was worsening. He attributed this to the greater size and range of U-boats and their increased use of the torpedo as opposed to the deck gun. When using the former, submarines did not need to be on the surface, where they were most vulnerable. The following month, First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour wrote, “the submarine has already profoundly modified naval tactics . . . it was a very evil day for this country when this engine of naval warfare was discovered.”
The greater emphasis on submarines altered the nature of the war at sea, as submarine warfare did not offer the prospect of a decisive, climactic engagement. Instead, the increased role of submarine and antisubmarine warfare ensured that the conflict at sea became attritional, indeed much more so than that on land. Strategy was transformed.
Jutland thus ensured a change in the content and tone of the war. Combined with the British blockade of Germany, the submarine conflict more clearly defined the war as a battle between societies. There was an attempt to break the resolve of peoples by challenging not only economic strength but also social stability and indeed demographics. Germany’s post-Jutland air assault on London, launched in May 1917, was an aspect of this new focus, again putting civilians on the front line.
The challenge necessarily directed attention to the ability of governments to safeguard the home front, which became more important as the war dragged on without an end in sight. The absence of any diplomatic or military breakthrough suggested that the conflict would continue for a long time, and, indeed, the British anticipated that their blockade would yield victory in the early 1920s.
Jutland moreover led to the United States’ entry into the war, a crucial development because of America’s military, economic, and financial strength. Failure to alter the naval balance of power at the battle, combined in 1916 with an inability to break the Western Front deadlock at Verdun by forcing a battle designed to cause heavy casualties, and the experience of the lengthy and damaging British attack in the Somme offensive, had resulted in Germany’s determination to use submarines to force Britain from the war. The decision paralleled one made earlier, to invade France via Belgium in 1914. In each case Germany faced the possibility that its actions would provoke a major power to enter the war, Britain in 1914 and the United States in 1917, but disregarded the risk on the grounds that victory could be obtained as a result of the decision. A belief in the certainty of success characterized German policymaking during the war, as did a mistaken assumption that the options of others could be predetermined.
As a result of their earlier use of unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany had plentiful warnings of the likely American and British responses, but an ideology of total war that pervaded German leaders’ thinking combined with a powerful Anglophobia based in nationalist right-wing circles to force the issue. On 31 January 1917, Germany announced, and on 1 February resumed, unconditional submarine warfare. Perceived as quickly leading to victory, the country’s leaders assumed that U-boats would be able to impede the movement of American troops to Europe. Thus, after Jutland had failed to yield strategic effect, the submarine was given the task.
Ironically, America’s entry into the war increased the importance of submarines to German capability as it further tipped the balance in surface warships against Germany, a balance that had not been significantly shifted at Jutland. The United States had the third-largest navy in the world, after Britain and Germany, and the Naval Act of 1916 had increased the American shipbuilding program.
In part because of the primacy of the army’s needs in Germany, where there was no naval influence comparable to that of the British Admiralty, the country added fewer battlecruisers and, in particular, dreadnoughts to its fleet during the war than the British, despite having a large shipbuilding industry. More seriously, Germany had no prospect of naval support from new allies, such as the French and British had gained through their alliances with Italy (1915) and the United States (1917). In addition, in accordance with a British request, Japan eventually sent 14 destroyers and an armored cruiser to the Mediterranean. There, based at Malta, they added to escort capacity as well as strengthened the Allied position in the equation of naval power.
These additions more than nullified the success of German submarines in sinking Allied warships; in 1917 the British lost only one predreadnought battleship and one cruiser to U-boats. The German failure in surface-ship warfare at Jutland therefore was matched by the more general arithmetic of surface-ship strength. And as for unrestricted submarine warfare, the Admiralty’s adoption of the convoy system in late April 1917 succeeded in greatly reducing shipping losses while increasing the number of U-boats destroyed.
The Germans therefore lost the naval war, a strategic failure that owed much to their inability to defeat the Royal Navy at Jutland. While it had not resulted in a triumphant Trafalgar-like victory, the British would find reason to celebrate the resolve of Beatty’s battlecruisers and Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts at the battle. Along with his paintings of HMS Victory at Trafalgar, William L. Wyllie, one of Britain’s finest maritime artists, produced acclaimed works depicting the Royal Navy in action at Jutland. They represent a continuation of his, as well as Britain’s, celebration of the nation’s naval enterprise.
John Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986).
Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996; Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).
Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994).
Christopher McKee, Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).