On 31 May 1916 the largest naval battle of the First World War took place off the coast of Jutland in Denmark. Over 6,000 British sailors lost their lives.
These high losses were partly due to the unexpected sinking of three large battleships which were designed to take heavy hits without sinking. At the time the sailors who died were heralded as gallant comrades who died gloriously in battle. However, some historians believe that most of these sailors died because people made careless mistakes.
Before 1916 there had been no major sea battles between the world’s largest naval powers, Germany and Britain. The British Grand Fleet kept to the safety of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands while the Germany High Seas Fleet stayed anchored in their own ports. In January 1916, the Germans had a new Naval Commander, Admiral Von Scheer, and he was eager for action. Von Scheer planned to lure the British Fleet into battle and trap them. The British found out what he was planning and prepared to meet the German fleet.
Just before 6pm on 31 May, the great fleets of Britain and Germany, totalling some 250 ships, came into contact off the coast of Jutland. Fierce fighting went on all evening with high explosive shells ripping into thick armour plating. Sailors burned to death or were drowned in the icy-cold sea. As darkness came Von Scheer headed back to port and the British fleet concerned about enemy submarines and minefields refused to give chase.
Both sides claimed victory. The Germans said they sank more ships but the British claimed Von Scheer had given up first and fled the scene of the battle. However, when losses were counted Britain seemed to have lost more. Britain lost 14 battleships to Germany’s 11. While Germany lost 2,551 men, Britain lost 6,077.
The German High Seas Fleet stayed at home for the rest of the war. They chose to rely on U-boats (submarines). German U-boats caused great problems for the British as they sunk an enormous amount of shipping. The British eventually defeated the menace of the U-boats by employing a convoy system where anti-submarine ships protected other ships in a group.
This lesson can be used for:
Looking at how evidence over time can change leading to new conclusions. The first reaction to the sinking of the Indefatigable was one of heroic loss and then it became clear it was a mistake in the method of carrying up shells from the magazine.
You could ask the students if they think the truth should have been told to the sailors’ relatives or kept under wraps to avoid embarrassment and unnecessary anguish.
Discuss the effect such a revelation would have on morale. This could then lead to a general discussion on the importance of morale in wartime.
Students could further investigate the Battle of Jutland and perhaps debate who won the battle based upon the evidence. Were the losses more important than who left the scene of battle first? Was the subsequent avoidance of contact by the Germany navy an admission of defeat?
Illustration : MFQ 1/366/4
Source 1 – ADM 188/464
Source 2 – ADM 137/1642
Source 3 – ADM 137/301
Source 4 – ADM 1/8477/308
The Battle of Jutland Information
This website gives you information about the background to the battle, the ships involved and the outcomes.