Jutland: Death at sea
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 ships: HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable. 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. Use this lesson to explore original documents relating to the losses at the Battle of Jutland.
Before 1916 there had been no major sea battles between the world’s largest naval powers, Germany and Britain, despite an arms race creating large fleets in anticipation of great sea battles between the new dreadnought warships and more advanced battle cruisers.
In January 1916, the Germans had a new Naval Commander, Admiral Scheer, and he was eager for action. The German fleet had less than 100 ships compared to the British Grand Fleet of around 150. Sheer planned to lure the British Fleet into battle and trap them, but the German plans were intercepted by the British who prepared to trap the German fleet in return. Around 4pm on 31 May, the swift British battle cruisers lured the Germans towards the Grand Fleet, taking heavy losses in the initial fighting.
Just before 6pm, the full great fleets of Britain and Germany came into contact. Fierce battle 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 Scheer attempted to return back to port, but found the British had manoeuvred to block their path. After a further skirmish between battle cruisers, Scheer managed to retreat whilst the British fleet, concerned about enemy submarines and minefields, chose not to give chase.
Both sides claimed victory. The Germans said they sank more ships but the British claimed 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 ships to Germany’s 11 and while Germany lost 2,551 men, Britain lost 6,097.
The German High Seas Fleet stayed in port for the rest of the war, becoming a ‘fleet-in-being’ to threaten but not engage with the British Navy. They chose to rely on U-boats (submarines) instead. German U-boats caused great problems for the British as they sunk an enormous amount of imports and supplies. 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 helps students appreciate the value of looking at a range of sources and the danger of basing a conclusion upon a single source. Students explore four sources. The first source is the service record of a sailor involved in the Battle of Jutland. The second source is a telegram about the sinking of the Battleship ‘Indefatigable’. The third source is an extract from a newspaper called the Gazette on the loss of the battleship. The fourth source is a naval memorandum which suggests that the losses could have been avoided.
The first reaction to the sinking of the Battleship ‘Indefatigable’, was one of heroic loss. According to source 4, the loss could be attributed to the magazine on the ship. A magazine on a ship was the storage area for the ammunition. Therefore ammunition would have been physically transported by sailors to the guns from these storage areas (the magazine). It was quite common for these to explode in battle – if a ship took a direct hit to the magazine then this caused a massive explosion. In this case, however it appears that as the ammunition for the guns was not in non-inflammable cases, it caught fire, partly because of the trail of the cordite, which led to the magazine and, in turn, caused an explosion.
- Discuss with students if they think the truth should have been told to the sailors’ relatives or concealed 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 using the blog with further documents below
- Debate who ‘won’ the battle based upon the evidence.
- Were the losses more important than who left the scene of battle first?
- Use the sources to write a newspaper report on the Battle of Jutland
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.
Read this blog on the Battle of Jutland which discusses further original documents
Connections to curriculum
Key stage 3
The First World War and the Peace Settlement
Key stage 4
AQA GCSE History: Conflict and tension: the First World War, 1894–1918
Edexcel GCSE History: c1900–present: Warfare and British society in the modern era
OCR GCSE History: War and British Society c.790 to c.2010; attitudes and responses to war