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Jutland. Something Wrong. Bloody Ships.

May 31, 2016


100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland today, I read.

The last, the very last whopping great battle consisting of battleships blasting away at one another.

These were always fairly rare events from a global history point of view.  Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, Spanish Armada, Trafalgar… the concatenation of circumstances required to get at least two major naval powers to bring their entire maritime strength to bear on one another did not occur in every generation.

And there will never be another one.  Aircraft carriers and submarines have made battleships obsolete – a battleship is an inefficient way of concentrating firepower.  The great naval actions of the Second World War did not involve battleships fighting one another in large numbers.  Jutland, one hundred years ago, was the last, the very last time this happened.

At the time, Germany claimed a points victory.  It was celebrated as a victory in Berlin and was considered somewhat embarrassing in London (“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”).  The inability of Jellicoe and Beattie to chase the German fleet and inflict proper losses on them has long been debated.  Jellicoe and Beattie meanwhile have quite small busts at the northern edge of Trafalgar Square while Nelson bears down upon them.

In hindsight, Jutland was one of the most important British victories of World War One.  With the German fleet never again venturing into the North Sea or beyond, the Atlantic was confirmed as an Allied sea.  Germany was therefore an impossible trading partner from an American point of view and Lloyd George was quick to note that shares rose on Wall Street with every Anglo-French victory and fell with every German victory.  The U-boat campaign that compensated for a surface Atlantic campaign proved a propaganda gift to the French and the British.

More seriously, cutting off Germany from the Atlantic had a disastrous effect on the German home front.  By 1917, German civilians were suffering material privations quite unlike anything suffered in Britain or France.   Of course, part of the tragedy of the twentieth century is that the Western allies were very polite (in 1918) to the military-imperial version of Germany that had prosecuted the war, and subsequently very insulting (in 1919) to the republican democratic version Germany that ended it.

The Battle of Jutland was a tragedy for all those who perished on both sides.  But it also proved, belatedly, a preface to an understanding of total war of a kind anticipated by Grant and Sherman in which a people rather than just an army was part of the military equation. The British did not win on points on the day itself, but by knocking the imperial surface fleet out of war, the political and economic basis of the German war effort was fatally undermined.

Celebrate.  If you like.


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