Jutland: Death at sea

Map of the Battle of Jutland, 1916
(MFQ 1/366 (4))
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Were lives wasted when the Indefatigable sank?

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.


Tasks

1. Look at Source 1. First, find out the following information from the service record of a sailor involved in the battle:

  • What is the sailor’s full name?
  • What was his date and place of birth?
  • What job did the sailor do before joining the Navy?
  • When did he join the Navy?
  • How old was he when he joined up?
  • How many ships did he serve on?
  • What ship did he die on and when?
  • Does the service record give any information on why HMS Indefatigable sank?

Transcript of WWI Navy Service Record for John Ackrill (ADM 188/464) (19.50 Kb)

2. Look at Source 2. This is a telegram reporting on the sinking of the Indefatigable.

  • How according to the telegram was the Indefatigable sunk?
  • Was the Indefatigable the only ship to be sunk by this means?
  • What is the ship’s magazine? (Hint: it is not a publication!)

3. Look at Source 3. This is a public statement made by the Navy on the loss of the Indefatigable.

  • Is any reason for the ‘severe losses’ given in this statement?
  • What does the Navy think of the men who died?
  • Is there any sign of the Navy being concerned at the reasons for the losses of these ships?

4. Look at Source 4. This is a private Navy report on the loss of the Indefatigable.

  • What ‘deduction’ was made about why the Indefatigable exploded?
  • Charges are explosives. What was wrong with the way the charges were carried to the guns?
  • What other factor contributed to the explosion?
  • Was the death of Joseph John Ackrill and countless others on the Indefatigable:
    • glorious?
    • an unnecessary loss?
    • explain your answer
  • Write a newspaper report based on one of the following headlines.
    • The sinking of the Indefatigable: A glorious and noble sacrifice for the defence of King and country
    • Indefatigable goes down! Lives wasted due to mistakes made on board ship

Background

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.


Teachers' notes

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?

Sources

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


External links

The Battle of Jutland Information
This website gives you information about the background to the battle, the ships involved and the outcomes.

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Related resources

Great War soldier’s record

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