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The Continuing Argument Over Jutland

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

It can be argued that the greatest mistake made by the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, apart from giving Austria-Hungary the blank check that turned what might have been a localized dispute into a catastrophic world war, was the decision to build a High Sea Fleet. By creating a naval force that was clearly intended to challenge Britain’s, and nobody else’s, Imperial Germany ensured that when a European war did come, if Great Britain was involved it would be on the opposing side. Beyond question it was the naval race of the early 1900’s that was instrumental in converting British public opinion from being mildly pro- to intensely anti-German, and brought an end to a century of “splendid isolation” from continental alliances and ententes.

The culminating event of that naval race, the Battle of Jutland, remains one of the most written-about of engagements. Fought between the Grand Fleet of Great Britain and the High Seas Fleet of Imperial Germany in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark May 31-June 1, 1916, it was the largest and the last full-fledged naval battle between massed fleets of dreadnoughts. A couple of aircraft did make their appearance, but to no effect. No submarines took part, although the fear that they might was a very real factor.

Strategically Jutland changed nothing, and yet it was one of the decisive battles of naval history. During the 85 years since it was fought, numerous books have been devoted entirely to it, and many more that deal extensively with it. Only Trafalgar has drawn more attention, though it may be that nowadays Midway is coming close.


The immediate impetus for the German decision to build a blue-water navy was the restless, erratic ambition of Wilhelm II to possess a fighting fleet that would rival that of his grandmother Queen Victoria. That, however, was possible only because the creation of such a fleet, and for just such a purpose, embodied the intense nationalistic ambitions of the recently-unified Reich, and in particular of the flourishing German middle class. Having emerged as the dominant continental power in Europe with the defeat of the French in 1870, the Kaiser’s Germany now saw Great Britain as its chief rival. Germany’s population was far larger, its industrial production superior, its army much more powerful. Yet there were the British Isles, located geographically athwart Germany’s access to the open ocean, a portal that could be slammed shut. The British Empire was the Ruler of the Waves, its colonies and dominions spread over the globe, its merchant marine transporting a major portion of the world’s commerce, its Royal Navy twice the size of any other nation’s. And the British knew it, too; they were accustomed to a position of preeminence.

Not much was needed to encourage German public opinion to begin viewing Britain as the Antagonist. Economic rivalry furthered it, and various incidents abetted it. Still, the ultimate motivation for German militarism was probably much the same as that for the France of Bonaparte and of Louis XIV, and the Spain of Philip II before that: the assertion of supremacy.

The Prussian military tradition, and the dominance of the Junker aristocracy, was of long standing. The navy, however, had scarcely existed before 1870. Its coming into being was an expression of the technological efficiency, the commercial ascendancy, and the growing industrial might of an expanding nation, come lately to empire in an age of rampant imperialism and deficient in colonial possessions.

The justification advanced for creating the High Seas Fleet was security for the German merchant marine and the links with its recently-acquired colonial empire. The navy that the Germans proceeded to build, however, was clearly intended for duty in the North Sea—i.e., against the British. Its major warships were not designed or equipped for lengthy seagoing.

As for Britain, the long decades following Waterloo had brought prosperity, and with it complacency. Insufficient heed was given to the fact that by the 1880’s the economy was in decline, the educational system was increasingly inadequate and in need of revamping, and the British class structure all too stiflingly restrictive. That both Germany and the United States had caught up with and surpassed Great Britain in population and in industrial production seemed scarcely to register.

In 1898 and 1900, the German Reichstag enacted naval bills which together called for a High Sea Fleet of 38 battleships, 20 armored cruisers, and 38 light cruisers, more than double its previous size. The German theory was that such a fleet would be, in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’ formulation, “so strong that even for the adversary with the greatest sea power a war against it would involve such dangers as to imperil his position in the world.” In other words, the British fleet, although remaining more powerful than Germany’s, would dare not risk battle, because even if it won its losses would jeopardize the Royal Navy’s continued command of the seas.

The decision to build a fleet to rival Britain’s was opposed not only by German liberals but also by some conservatives. As Friedrich von Holstein, a longtime German diplomatic official, warned in 1906, “It is not economic rivalry alone that has made England our enemy. This exists in her relations with America and Japan. What is frightening the English is our accelerated shipbuilding and the anti-English motivation behind it.”

All such caveats were wasted. By 1914 there were more than a million members of a German Navy League dedicated to the proposition that the Reich’s rightful place in the world was being blocked by Britain. Industrialists, academics, chambers of commerce, propagandists of all fends trumpeted the glories of a German fleet and the inevitability of an eventual showdown with the Royal Navy.

Until Germany began to build a fighting navy, France had been Britain’s assumed rival, but now it became obvious to the British what was going on beyond the North Sea—the more so when, after the abortive Jameson Raid in South Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm II expressed public sympathy for the Boers. The stage was set for an all-out naval race.

Thereafter the British outbuilt the Germans. In 1906 the Royal Navy launched the first super-battleship, HMS. Dreadnought, 17,900 tons displacement, with ten 12-inch guns for its main armament and steam turbine engines capable of 21 knots. Its existence rendered obsolete all other battleships the world over. This was followed by the battlecruiser HMS. Invincible, a new variety of warship, similar to Dreadnought in size and armament but faster and with less protective armor. By the time that war broke out, the Royal Navy had 20 dreadnoughts and 12 more under construction, along with nine battlecruisers. Germany responded with 13 dreadnoughts, seven more under way, and five battlecruisers. The increased cost to the Germans, whose army was the most powerful—and most expensive—in Europe, was enormous. In 1905 the German military budget was 35 per cent lower than Britain’s; by 1914 it was 40 percent higher.

Once the war began, instead of steaming promptly across the North Sea to do battle, the British Grand Fleet set up a distant blockade, barring the importation of strategic material and foodstuffs for the embattled Reich. German merchant commerce quickly disappeared from the seas. The Kaiser issued orders that the High Seas Fleet was to risk challenging the Royal Navy only when close to its own bases. It could make raids on British channel ports, but must avoid a general action. This meant that the only hope of the High Seas Fleet was to catch a segment of the Grand Fleet and destroy it before the full fleet could interfere.

It was with that goal in mind that during the final days of May 1916, the High Seas Fleet set up what it intended to be a trap to lure a portion of the British fleet to a point at which the German dreadnoughts could get at them. Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet, planned a prominently-advertised cruiser sweep along the mouth of the Skaggerak, the hundred-mile-wide entrance to the Baltic Sea lying between the southern tip of Norway and the Danish coast. When the British battlecruisers, moving to intercept it, left their bases, German submarines would be waiting offshore for them. Meanwhile the High Seas Fleet would follow its cruisers north, and be ready to pounce upon the British ships that came into the Skaggerak after the German cruisers.

What the German Navy did not realize was that the British were reading its wireless communications. Thus on the morning of May 30, 1916, when elements of the High Seas Fleet were ordered to assemble at the entrance to the Jade River Bay off Wilhelmshaven, the Royal Navy quickly learned of it. By 11:30 that evening, two and one-half hours before the High Seas Fleet set out, the Royal Navy had departed its anchorages and was headed for a rendezvous 50 miles west of Jutland in the North Sea.

The German U-boat ambush failed, and by the next morning not merely the British battlecruisers but the entire Grand Fleet was steaming steadily eastward, while the High Seas Fleet moved northward. Each side was unaware that the other had put at sea. The result was the Battle of Jutland.


At the lead of the German fleet was Admiral Franz von Hipper, with five battlecruisers and a screen of light cruisers and destroyers, 50 miles ahead of the main body under Scheer with 16 dreadnoughts, six slow and poorly-armed pre-dreadnoughts, and a variety of armored cruisers, cruisers, and destroyers. The British Grand Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was in three groups, with 24 dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers in the main body, and, not quite 70 miles to the south, six battlecruisers under Admiral David Beatty and four fast dreadnoughts under Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Each capital ship segment was screened by cruisers and destroyers. In all there were 151 British and 100 German vessels.

The British fleet very much outgunned their enemy, with longer-ranged guns throwing a more powerful broadside. Its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were equipped for director firing, whereby an entire ship’s main armament could be aimed and fired as one. But German range-finding optics were superior; German armor-piercing shells were considerably more reliable and exploded after penetration rather than shattering upon impact when striking at oblique angles; and German ships were more sturdy, of broader beam, with honeycombed bulkhead arrangements that made them less sinkable, and heavier deck armor protecting them against plunging fire.

Winston Churchill, writing in the mid-1920’s, made a famous comment about Admiral John Jellicoe, that he “was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon” (The World Crisis). A disaster to the Grand Fleet could break the British naval blockade of Europe, cut off the British Army in France from its base of supply, and expose the British Isles themselves to invasion. Jellicoe knew this very well. If he could decisively defeat the German High Seas Fleet, that would be highly desirable, but in Churchill’s words, “We were under no compulsion to fight a naval battle except under conditions which made victory morally certain and serious defeat, as far as human vision goes, impossible.”

Jellicoe was a systematizer, a man of deliberate ways. Unable to delegate authority, upon assuming command he had acted to develop procedures that would cover every possible eventuality. His Grand Fleet Battle Orders were 200 pages long. Fearful of encountering mines and torpedoes, he placed severe restraints upon the ability of the Grand Fleet’s component divisions to respond to unexpected developments. His aim was centralized control; in striving for that he produced subordinates who preferred to wait for instructions from the flagship before acting.

Jellicoe’s plan was for Beatty and his six battlecruisers, with Evan-Thomas’s four new dreadnoughts following close by, to head eastward to a point approximately 250 miles distant from their base in the Firth of Forth. If by then no contact had been made with the enemy, Beatty was to turn north by east to join Jellicoe and the oncoming Grand Fleet, with a rendezvous set for 2 p. m. on May 31, 90 miles southwest of the Skaggerak. Meanwhile the German High Seas Fleet was steaming northward up the Jutland coast, with Hipper’s battlecruisers no more than 25 miles away from Beatty’s scouting force.

It was during Beatty’s turn toward Jellicoe that a British light cruiser, sent to investigate a Danish merchant ship, spotted two German destroyers also engaged in doing so. The British cruiser opened fire. The German battlecruiser vanguard swung westward toward the action, while Beatty’s battlecruisers reversed course to south-southeastward. Not quite two hours later the two battlecruiser forces were within range of each other, and the battle of Jutland was under way.

The British were silhouetted against the western sky, and the initial German firing was more accurate. Beatty’s flagship Lion was hit hard. Another German salvo struck the older battlecruiser Indefatigable, setting off a flash fire that reached its magazine, and the 18,460-ton vessel exploded and sank. Beatty’s signal to turn had not been properly relayed to Evan-Thomas’s dreadnoughts, which continued northward for ten more minutes before turning to follow. The result was that ten miles separated the two British forces. When after 20 minutes the British dreadnoughts began drawing within range and their 15-inch guns opened fire, their shooting was far better than that of the battlecruisers, and the Germans too began taking severe hits. But another well-aimed German salvo landed squarely on the newer battlecruiser Queen Mary, 26,700 tons, with the flash again igniting the magazine and blowing up the warship. It was then that Beatty, from the bridge of Lion, made his understandable and oft-quoted comment that “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!”

At 4:38 p. m. the light cruiser Southampton flashed word that the main German fleet had been sighted, whereupon Beatty ordered a 180° turn northward, and pursuer and pursued swapped roles. It was now Beatty’s turn to try to lead the oncoming Germans toward Jellicoe’s battle fleet, 35 miles distant and steaming southeastward to join the fight.

At this juncture there occurred one of the most controversial episodes of a battle studded with controversial episodes. Evan-Thomas’s dreadnoughts, which were still speeding southward while firing away at Hipper’s ships, again failed to turn at once and follow the battlecruisers northward. Apparently the signal to do so was not made operational until three minutes after Barham, Evan-Thomas’s flagship, passed Beatty and Lion. Much post-Jutland dispute centered on whether Evan-Thomas should on his own initiative have proceeded to fall in behind Beatty’s battlecruisers, and whether the turn should have been made simultaneously rather than one ship after another.

As the northward chase continued, the rearmost of Evan-Thomas’s dreadnoughts took punishment before drawing out of range, while also handing out a great deal of the same to the Germans. The British battlecruisers were angling north-northeast, Beatty and Lion in the lead, while Jellicoe and the dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet were moving southeastward in six columns, preceded by a screen of armored cruisers, and with three battlecruisers under Admiral Horace Hood well up ahead to the southeast.

By six p.m., with three hours of daylight remaining in that northern latitude but visibility difficult because of mist and smoke, the Grand Fleet sighted Lion, well to the southwest of where the battlecruisers had been expected. Jellicoe thereupon ordered his dreadnoughts to deploy in line of battle to port, a maneuver that took 15 to 20 minutes. When done, it not only gave the British the visual advantage of being east of the High Seas Fleet but put the 24 dreadnoughts in position to move vertically across the strung-out German battle line, “crossing the T” and allowing them to use the majority of their heavy guns, while greatly restricting the number that Scheer’s dreadnoughts could employ.

As Andrew Gordon notes in the most recent and I think best of all books on Jutland, The Rules of the Game, one would assume that, from the direction in which Beatty had been angling, Scheer might have suspected that there might be more to what he was doing than an attempt to run away. Yet not until the salvoes of heavy shells began falling among the High Seas Fleet did the German commander realize that he, not Beatty, had fallen into a trap.

The visibility now favored the British, who could see the Germans while they themselves were largely hidden by the mist and smoke. To extricate his dreadnoughts Scheer ordered a simultaneous turn westward. He later claimed he had no intention of avoiding battle, but clearly he was bent on departing posthaste. The German ships, in particular the battlecruisers, took heavy punishment; a light cruiser was sunk and the battlecruiser Lützow so badly mauled that it went down during the night.

While that was happening, a squadron of obsolescent British armored cruisers quixotically steered between the two fleets; one was destroyed and another later failed to make it back home. Next, a momentary break in the mist exposed HMS. Invincible to Hipper’s guns. A well-placed salvo penetrated a gun turret, and for the third time that afternoon a magazine explosion demolished a British battlecruiser.

The well-trained German dreadnoughts executed their tricky 180° turn away without flaw and steamed southwestward, while the cruisers and destroyers sent a line of torpedoes streaking toward the Grand Fleet. One torpedo hit the dreadnought Marlborough; the others were avoided by a turn away. The High Seas Fleet had moved out of Jellicoe’s sight, however, and he received no reports from those who could see what was going on.

At this point, for reasons never fully understood, Scheer executed another 180° turn and led the High Seas Fleet right back into trouble. Whatever the explanation for the move, his adversary was given a second chance to wreak havoc with the German High Seas Fleet.

Upon realizing his predicament the German admiral signaled to his already much-mauled battlecruisers to head for the enemy, then ordered a torpedo attack from his destroyer screen, followed by yet another turnaround by his dreadnoughts. Jellicoe’s response to the torpedo threat was once again to order the British dreadnoughts to turn away. By the time that they returned to the attack, the peril to the Germans was considerably reduced.

Once darkness intervened, the prospects for a slugging match between dreadnoughts were gone. Jellicoe had no intention whatever of fighting a night action. Too much would be left to chance confrontations; without a destroyer-cruiser screen it would be too easy for his capital ships to blunder into the path of torpedoes. The Germans were better equipped for night fighting and better rehearsed at it.

Scheer and the High Seas Fleet steered east-southeast, aiming for the Jutland coast below the Horn Reef, from where he could take shelter behind minefields for the journey back to Wilhelmshaven. The British admiral, uncertain which escape route the Germans would choose, headed south, with his battlecruisers well to the west of his dreadnoughts. There was ample evidence to deduce the High Sea Fleet’s route, but almost nothing was reported to Jellicoe. In actuality the rival fleets were on converging courses, with the British in the lead, and at some point close to midnight the German dreadnoughts crossed through and astern of the British van. During the night an older British armored cruiser and a German pre-dreadnought battleship were lost, together with a German light cruiser and destroyers on both sides. When dawn came shortly after three a. m. , a heavy mist lay over the coastal waters, and by the time Jellicoe could have gone into action Scheer’s fleet was safe from further attack. The Battle of Jutland, or the Skaggerak as the Germans termed it, was over. The argument about it had only begun.


Upon arrival at Wilhelmshaven the Germans proclaimed victory. Kaiser Wilhelm II announced that “the spell of Trafalgar had been broken” and bestowed decorations and promotions. The German press exulted. In terms of ships, tonnage, and men lost, there could be no question that the count favored the High Sea Fleet. The British had lost three battlecruisers, three older armored cruisers, and eight destroyers, totaling 115,025 tons, as against a single battlecruiser, a pre-dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers, in all 61,180 tons. The cost in lives was 6,094 for the Grand Fleet, 2,551 for the High Seas Fleet. In damage sustained, the surviving German ships had been hit hard; as a fighting force the High Seas Fleet was out of commission for some weeks to come, while within 24 hours after returning to base Jellicoe’s fleet was ready for action.

For the British Grand Fleet, Jutland was scarcely a well-fought battle. “There is something wrong with our ships,” David Beatty repeated aboard Lion the afternoon following, and he added, “and something wrong with our system.” Jellicoe himself was deeply depressed. Yet what mattered most was that nothing had been changed strategically. The battle fleets had met, and the High Seas Fleet had fled, with the Grand Fleet in pursuit. Scheer had not isolated and trapped a segment of the Grand Fleet and equalized the odds for a future decisive battle. On the contrary, the German admiral was now convinced that there was no way that the High Seas Fleet could alter the course of the war, and he informed the Kaiser that “a victorious end to the war within a reasonable time can only be achieved through the defeat of British economic life—that is, by using the U-boats against British trade.” In other words, the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which would probably have the effect of bringing the United States into the war on the Allies’ side. The German emperor reluctantly consented. The results of this decision would prove to be almost incalculable.

As for Great Britain, what Jutland did show, and all too clearly, was that there were serious deficiencies in His Majesty’s Fleet and its mode of operation. No less than three British battlecruisers had exploded and gone down, with tremendous loss of life, upon being struck by salvos that triggered flash fires and reached the magazines. The big-gun ammunition was unreliable, and its lyddite charges inefficient; investigation revealed lax manufacturing standards and slipshod inspection procedures. Signaling procedures were haphazard; again and again orders given by flag were not repeated with searchlights, and not passed on from ship to ship.

Throughout the battle there was a failure to keep Jellicoe informed of what was happening; ship captains repeatedly assumed that the Grand Fleet commander could see whatever they saw, which was by no means always true. When on several occasions during the night the shapes of what could only have been crippled German battle-cruisers were observed, they were not fired on, for fear that they might be British, nor was Jellicoe notified of their presence.


In the controversy over Jutland that ensued, what has been most at issue has not been whether the British or German fleet can be said to have “won” the battle, but the Grand Fleet’s inability to win a Trafalgar-like victory, and whether it might have been expected to do so. On the one side is the argument that John Jellicoe’s responsibility was not to fight and win a major battle. His task was essentially defensive and in this he succeeded. As Richard Hough declared in The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918, “Germany could play with figures for as long as she wished, but British control of the world’s sea lanes was unimpaired, the blockade of the enemy as tight as ever.”

On the other hand, it can be argued that in developing a 200-page set of battle orders and expecting total conformity to them, Jellicoe had trained a set of subordinates to expect that all their decisions would be made for them. In Hough’s words, “Jellicoe did not encourage consultation and did not care for any questioning of what he had laid down.” At Jutland the Grand Fleet division commanders and most flotilla captains had only done what they had been encouraged to do: wait for instructions, interpret them conservatively, and play it safe.

Thus when Evan-Thomas with the new dreadnoughts failed to follow Beatty’s turn to the south as the battle opened, he was waiting for an order to do it. When two hours later he continued to steer in the direction of the oncoming High Seas Fleet even after his flagship passed Beatty’s battlecruisers headed northward, he was again waiting for an order. Others of Jellicoe’s captains showed a similar absence of enterprise.

As for Jellicoe himself, the decisions for which he was most often criticized in after years were establishing his line of battle to port rather than starboard— i.e., away from the action—when his dreadnoughts prepared to enter the fighting, and then twice turning away from instead of toward his opponent to avoid the torpedoes fired by Scheer’s destroyers. It is generally agreed nowadays that his choice of a swing to port to form his dreadnoughts into a fighting line was justified, and indeed it placed him in an excellent position to pulverize the oncoming German fleet.

His second turn-away from the torpedoes in particular, however, and how it was done, was dubious. Andrew Gordon, describing Jellicoe’s response, declares that “At this juncture Edward Hawke or Adam Duncan (and, perhaps, David Farragut) would have turned the Grand Fleet, by divisions, towards the enemy.” [For reasons to be remarked later, the “perhaps,” set off by commas, is delicious.] In Richard Hough’s summation, “This was the moment when to turn from the defensive to the offensive posed none of the risks [from submarines and mines] Jellicoe had always feared. . . . This failure to follow up the enemy, whose tactical position was a shambles, and destroy almost certainly Hipper’s battlecruisers, and very likely half a dozen of Scheer’s most valuable dreadnoughts, is a serious and valid criticism of Jellicoe’s leadership.”

David Beatty thought and later said as much, and it is the supporters of Beatty who argued that there should have been a devastating British victory at Jutland. To be sure, Beatty has by no means been without his own critics. He retained a signals officer who had on a previous occasion demonstrated his incompetence. Before he went in pursuit of the German battlecruisers after the first sighting, he failed to see that his force was properly closed on him. He did not keep Jellicoe properly informed after he had turned back northward; not until the following day, when the battle was over, did Jellicoe learn of the loss of Indefatigable and Queen Mary.

As a man Beatty was self-serving, deceitful, in Gordon’s term something of a bounder. Yet his aggressive fighting talents were what had twice provided Jellicoe with the opportunity to devastate the German fleet. He went after the enemy. He understood the importance of encouraging initiative and responsibility. He was willing to take losses in order to insure triumph. When later he succeeded to command of the Grand Fleet, he vastly simplified the basic principles for action in battle, with far more emphasis on the need for his captains to act for themselves when opportunity presented itself. It was Beatty’s lead, and not Jellicoe’s, that Philip Vian followed a quarter-century later when without orders he broke away from escorting a convoy and sped to join the attack on the Bismarck, and that Andrew Cunningham employed against the Italians at Cape Matapan.


Much of what has been written about Jutland in the years immediately following World War I was based upon the accounts published by various participants. Later books, such as Arthur Marder’s multi-volume From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (1966), have sought to interpret the documentary evidence with less pre-judgment. I want to note three recent studies of Jutland by British historians: V. E. Tarrant’s Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle. 31 May 1916 (1995), John Campbell’s Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (1986), and Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (1996). To different degrees, all three are useful to anyone wishing to understand the battle, and the value of Gordon’s book goes considerably farther than that.

Tarrant chronicles the proceedings of May 31-June 1 as they appeared to the Germans at the time and later, quoting extensively from the official German history published in 1925, the memoirs of Tirpitz and Scheer, and other German accounts. While it remains essentially a British view of Jutland, with the German reports used to provide not so much an alternative vantage point for the narrative as an additional dimension, it enables the reader to get a sense of the battle as involving opposing strategies and tactics. Not the least interesting feature of the book is a summary of the more important German wireless messages and signals in sequence.

Campbell’s Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting is not for the casual reader. It offers a meticulous breakdown of what was going on. We are told which ships opened fire on which ships, at what ranges, the courses and speeds made, the signals sent and received, the decisions made and the orders given by the commanders. There is a report, ship by capital ship, on the damage each suffered, where it occurred and the probable source of the projectiles, the casualties, together with diagrams and cross-sections showing the path of the projectiles and the extent of their impact. Campbell was able to get access not only to the British but to the German post-battle damage analyses. The result includes some correctives to assumptions made in earlier accounts.

He develops a point also made by Arthur Marder in From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, that in the destruction of the three British battlecruisers the most important factor was that the British projectile charges were kept in silk bags, while those of the High Seas Fleet were in brass cases, which when an enemy shell penetrated the turret had the effect of delaying their ignition, causing them to burn relatively slowly. Thus “no dangerous pressure rise occurred from a number of charges igniting at nearly the same instant, as occurred with British charges.” Had British propellant charges been used by the German ships, Campbell declares after examining the evidence, the dreadnought König and the battlecruisers Derfflinger, probably Seydlitz, and possibly von der Tann would have suffered the same fate as the British battlecruisers. Campbell doesn’t take sides in the Jellicoe-Beatty dispute; it is the ships themselves, not how they were employed, that interest him.

Which brings us to Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game, a book that, far from being principally for specialists, seems to me to be little short of a major work of military and naval history. The Rules of the Game handles its subject so masterfully, and so imaginatively, that one wonders how a better book on the particular topic could ever be written.

Gordon divides his book into five parts—all 690 pages of it, about 230,000 words together with maps, charts, diagrams, plus 40 photographs and a few line drawings. Part I, “Background to Battle,” sends the Grand Fleet eastward on what was generally assumed to be yet another useless expedition. Part II, “Chasing Hipper and Eluding Scheer,” chronicles the chase southeast, the sighting of the High Seas Fleet, and the run north toward the oncoming Grand Fleet. David Beatty’s negligence in keeping the four dreadnoughts closed on his battlecruisers and the inability of his hapless signals officer are fully aired, but it is Hugh Evan-Thomas’s unwillingness to think for himself that Gordon sees as the index to what went wrong with the Royal Navy at Jutland.

Why, Gordon asks, did it happen? “Common sense says that Britain’s finest battle-squadron should not have found itself, in effect, “not under command” at this critical juncture, and that, when Beatty passed on his opposite course, an admiral worthy of 120,000 tons of capital ships should have maneuvered them of his own accord.” The ultimate explanation, Gordon proposes, was cultural: “the coincidence of mass-production and the social religion of deference.” To show how this came to be this, he leaves the battle of Jutland to embark on an engrossing 250-page excursion into what he describes as “the long calm lee of Trafalgar.”

The technological advances of the 19th century—steam power, iron ships, and long-range gunnery—would have produced in any case a need for readjustment, experiment, and revamping of long-established ways of doing things. For the peacetime Royal Navy, however, there were special problems, having to do with the culture, attitudes, and expectations of Victorian England. Naval command was a profession for gentlemen only, and the educational system for upper-class British youths was narrowly classical, with a bias against science and technology. Moreover, imbedded in the British class system was the habit of deference to one’s superiors. Persons entering the Royal Navy were “subjected to a cultural climate more unremittingly authoritarian than at any other time in British history, for the Victorians sought to structure and codify as many fields of behavior as possible in order to regulate their world, disarm the unpredictable and perpetuate the status quo.” To this is added the inevitable tendency of peacetime navies and armies to be the natural habitat of “authoritarian” personalities who do everything by the book, are meticulous about details, attempt to systematize all their activities, and are suspicious of any signs of initiative. Another response to technology in the 19th century was an intense revival of the medieval cult of chivalry, “Playing the Game” by the rules, doing only what is “cricket”—”Chivalry was uncerebral, extrovert and physically healthy . . . In Victorian England its most pernicious effect was the confusion of warfare with ritualized team games.” Hence the title, intended ironically, of Gordon’s book.

The reply of the Victorian Navy to the unprecedented demands of adjusting the traditional methods of naval warfare to steam-powered ships that could fire on each other from miles off was to attempt to regulate fleet tactics through detailed rules and extensive direction via flag signals. The result was Philip Colomb’s Manual of Fleet Evolutions (1874), which offered 300 pages of geometrically precise maneuvers. The flag combinations necessary to accomplish these numbered in the tens of thousands, and a 500-page Signal Book was issued to all ships.

There were some who were disturbed by such developments, and who feared that the Royal Navy was in danger of forgetting that its primary mission was to fight. By the early 1890’s the advocates of simplification and decentralization were putting their hopes on Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, a bluff, autocratic old sea dog, no worshipper of authority, who was succeeding to the command of the elite British Mediterranean Fleet. Tryon wanted to break the hold of traditionalism over the Navy, which he thought was throttling initiative, and he believed that the key to doing so was to end the dominance of signaling.

On June 22, 1892, the fleet was maneuvering in parallel columns, with Tryon aboard the battleship Victoria at the head of one, and Rear Admiral Albert Markham on Camperdown leading the other. Tryon signaled—with flags—for the columns to make 180° inward turns in succession, the flagship turning to port and Camperdown to starboard, and each subsequent warship following suit.

Officers on Victoria’s bridge realized that the columns were too close together for the maneuver, but Tryon insisted. As everyone watched to see what would happen, Victoria and Camperdown turned onto an obvious collision course, Camperdown ‘s bow knifed into the starboard bow of Victoria, and within four minutes Victoria turned keel up and sank. 358 officers and sailors, more than half the flagship’s crew, were drowned, among them Sir George Tryon. Commander John Jellicoe, ill and confined to his berth, managed to get to the deck and swim away.

No one knew what had gone wrong with Tryon. (The incident was parodied in Alec Guinness’s movie Kind Hearts and Coronets.) At the subsequent court martial his flag-captain was acquitted of dereliction of duty, and neither Admiral Markham nor Camperdown’s flag-captain was blamed. Thus three high-ranking Royal Navy officers, any one of whom by declining to follow an order that was obviously dangerously wrong-headed could have averted the disaster, went uncensured and unpunished—for “the best interests of the service,” the claim was made.

The implication, so far as the encouragement of intelligent dissent and the exercise of individual judgment in the British Navy was concerned, was all too clear. Andrew Gordon describes the difficulties of reform during the two succeeding decades in the face of the complex, entwined allegiances of the upholders of the status quo. He also chronicles the pervasive role of the British royalty in advancing the careers of certain favorites, notably Hugh Evan-Thomas. When war came, the stage was set for what happened off the Jutland coast.

The Rules of the Game then resumes the analysis of the battle and the concluding night action in which the German High Seas Fleet made it back to safety. The unwillingness of Evan-Thomas and various of Jellicoe’s squadron commanders to act on their own initiative, the automatic assumption by almost everyone that the commander on the flagship must already be aware of what they saw, the reluctance to break wireless silence at night when important developments occurred, the general disinclination to act and eagerness to defer to authority—all these are seen as the inevitable outcome of “the structured “rationalist” certainties of the late Victorian Mediterranean Fleet. . . .” By the prescriptive, centralizing premises on which his elaborate battle orders were based, Jellicoe had acted correctly—but they were the premises of the Victorian era, not Horatio Nelson’s.

Gordon then describes the post-Jutland controversy between the supporters of Jellicoe and those of Beatty, which by the time the war ended was in full swing. Beatty’s role in the extended dispute is shown as underhanded and unattractive.

This extraordinarily interesting narrative concludes with a chapter entitled “Perspectives,” in which the author formulates 28 “syndromes” which, he says, are likely to happen in the peacetime Royal Navy. Most of them are truisms such as “The key to efficiency lies in the correct balance between organization and method.” This to my mind is the least convincing portion of The Rules of the Game. If included at all, the chapter should have been treated as an appendix, not the culmination of the book. The historical insights in Gordon’s book are too profound, and in terms of military and naval performance the implications too far-reaching and inferential, to be ticked off in reductive fashion, as if they were no more than a set of cautionary aphorisms.

Yet the very passion with which Gordon goes about announcing his set of cautions is emblematic of what makes The Rules of the Game so notable a book. The author is deeply and emotionally involved with his subject, even while sufficiently objective not to take sides. His involvement is what leads him, for example, to argue at prodigious length with certain of John Campbell’s findings. One also gets the sense that Gordon’s reluctance to acknowledge the extent to which Arthur Marder’s work anticipates his own involves more than disagreement about particular points. What Gordon seems to object to about Marder is his temerity in venturing to write about the Royal Navy at all; it appears to annoy him.

Not only Andrew Gordon’s ardor, but John Campbell’s meticulous computations, and the avidity with which so many British writers have refought Jutland over the years, are an interesting phenomenon. Certainly warfare at sea makes for stirring reading; unlike land warfare it often has a starkness and an absence of contingency about it. And understandably there is a fascination about the last and greatest battle of the dreadnought era. Even so, there seems a kind of obsession about refighting Jutland that suggests the presence of something over and beyond its place in naval history. It bears, in fact, a distinct resemblance to the way that Southern historians have written about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg was the High Tide of the Southern Confederacy, and it has been refought on paper ever since, first by the veterans themselves, then by the historians. Over the decades the terms of disputation have become more subtle and the historical involvement more disciplined by methodological rigor, yet the fervor remains. One-hundred-thirty-eight years and two world wars have not yet extinguished it. The events, the details, the personalities of the leading generals, the ramifications of the failure to win the battle have been reexamined again and again.

Surely this has to do with the way in which Gettysburg symbolizes the South’s failure to win the war and establish its independence. The diminution of the sectional issues that led to secession and that made separate nationhood appear desirable has brought less partisan, more objective history, with less searching about for scapegoats. Yet that history is still far from being cold-bloodedly and dispassionately chronicled. What went wrong with our army? This is the implied question.

Much the same kind of impulse would appear to lie behind the continuing hold of Jutland on the British imagination. The memory of Jutland is of an opportunity lost. As such it symbolizes the inability of an island nation to sustain a hundred years of Ruling the Waves. How could it have happened? There is a poignancy to it that goes quite beyond any historical determinism. It is not economic logic that is involved, but Heart’s Desire.

This, I think, helps to account for the considerable falling off of Andrew Gordon’s concluding chapter. Its approach is incongruous with what the book is and is not about. For The Rules of the Game is not a work of military and naval instruction, in the style of Mahan, Liddell Hart, Fuller et al., in which history is shaped and adapted for teaching purposes. It is history for history’s sake, written because the event being described carries so much significance for the author.

The emotional dimension also goes far to explain the occasional snide remarks about Britain’s American ally, of which the begrudging reference to David Glasgow Farragut is only one, that crop up here and there, however arbitrarily, in Gordon’s book (and indeed much military and naval history written by Britons). The American Navy may not have been involved at Jutland, but symbolically the United States did “win” the battle, in that after World War I it would inherit the role that Victorian and Edwardian Britain had previously played in the world.

Spliced-on “Perspectives” to the contrary notwithstanding, this latest installment in the Jutland dispute is a masterful work. In thoroughness, in imaginative concept, in depth of perception it dwarfs its predecessors. So much so that if military and naval analysis were all that were involved in the choice of subject, as if Jutland were of no more emotional importance than, say, Actium or Oresund, one could even declare that the long-standing Jutland controversy has now been resolved once and for all, and no further books about it are in order. Much more is at stake emotionally and historically, however, which is why the argumentation is likely to continue—and why Andrew Gordon has written a naval classic.

* One is reminded of the response of Stonewall Jackson, not an aristocrat, when his men forebore to fire at a Union officer engaged in bravely exposing himself to Confederate gunfire in order to rally his troops. Jackson ordered them to shoot him down; “I do not wish them to be brave.”


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Andrew Sanders · 4 years ago

What a good article.  The only thing I would disagree with is the notion that Jutland was the last clash of Dreadnoughts.

Whilst it is true that for the Royal Navy this was the only major fleet action after Trafalgar, it was not, in World terms the last clash of Greadnoughts.

Although the author mentions Midway (no battleships were involved there, however) he fails to mention Leyte Gulf in late 1944.


In this three-part confrontation the older US battleships did indeed cross the "T" of a major part of the Japanese fleet and using radar controlled firepower at night they pulverized the Japanese forces.

The overall defeat of the IJN was however largely down to airpower;  Admiral Halsey had withdrawn his superb fast battleship squadron to chase the IJN aircraft carriers (as he was intended to do by the Japanese).  So the "clash of Titans" planned by both the USA and Japan never happened.

Jutland had a very little effect on subsequent history;  Leyte Guld was devastating for the Japanese and neither their heavy ships nor their air-power ever really recovered.  it was a major step in the defeat of Japan in WW2.

Andrew Sanders



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