First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe Replaced 1917


Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s flagship, HMS Iron Duke at the Battle of Jutland, 1916.


Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanded the Grand Fleet in the last great clash of the Dreadnoughts. Here, Jellicoe’s flagship, HMS Iron Duke, opens fire on the German fleet. Although the outcome of the Battle of Jutland was indecisive – both sides claiming victory – the Germans never again risked a serious confrontation with the British Navy.

Artist: Lesley Arthur Wilcox


Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

They may still have ruled the waves outside of the North Sea, but the British were deeply unhappy with the outcome of the Jutland fighting. They had dreamed of a glorious triumph but although they had gained a strategic victory it had been at high cost and there was a nagging feeling that a great opportunity had been missed. This air of depression was augmented by the sense of loss as Kitchener became a belated victim of the Scheer submarine and mine trap intended for the Grand Fleet, when the ship on which he was travelling, the Hampshire, was mined and sunk on the night of 5 June off the coast of Orkney. Kitchener may have lost some of his lustre after two years of war, but he was still a hero of the Empire and he had died while in the care of the Royal Navy. Much of the angst over the Battle of Jutland was caused by unrealistic expectations rather than any real likelihood of destroying the High Seas Fleet during a confused encounter in low visibility with night looming. Nevertheless, there were anguished discussions as to what had gone wrong at Jutland with an undercurrent of murmurings as to who was to blame, centred on a degree of ill-informed criticism of Jellicoe by the acolytes of Beatty. In the event, Jellicoe did not retain his command much longer, as he was required to leave his beloved Grand Fleet to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty in November 1916. He was replaced as Commander in Chief by Beatty but, interestingly, for all his bravado, Beatty would institute only minor adjustments to the cautious tactics enshrined in Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Battle Orders.

After the first fleet action in the dreadnought age it is not surprising that there was a great number of technical and material considerations for the British to digest. One thing was evident: something had gone wrong with the battlecruisers and a full investigation into their explosive demise was begun, resulting in strict anti-flash precautions being implemented, plus additional armour protection for all those ships still under construction. But urgent improvements were also required in the design of British shells, which had shown a distinct tendency to break up on impact and hence not to cause the anticipated damage. Night fighting may still have been abhorred, but Jutland forced a belated recognition of the necessity for proper training and preparations. There was a general tightening of ship-to-ship identification procedures, coverable searchlights were fitted and night exercises were begun in earnest. The method of handling and disseminating naval intelligence was also improved to avoid the kind of errors which had dogged Jellicoe at Jutland. The British had certainly learnt some valuable lessons from their bitter disappointment.

Despite their protestations of victory the Germans were deeply chastened by some aspects of their Jutland experience. They knew they had done well, but they also knew how close they had come to annihilation. Whatever they would do next, it would not involve another fully fledged fleet confrontation. Scheer did seek to lure the Grand Fleet into a submarine trap again by using battlecruisers to bombard Sunderland on 19 August. The operations were inconclusive as although Jellicoe was once again forewarned of their arrival by Room 40, he adopted a cautious approach, fearing just such a trap as Scheer had laid. In the end there was no confrontation, and when Scheer realised that there had again been a theoretical chance of his being ambushed by the whole Grand Fleet, he lost all further enthusiasm for adventures in the North Sea. If the British would not take risks, then the High Seas Fleet had little to gain and a lot to lose by exposing itself to the possibility of defeat.

In view of England’s plan of campaign, there was no alternative but to inflict direct injury upon English commerce. We could not build a sufficiently great number of additional large ships to compensate for the inevitable losses which we were bound to suffer in the long run in a conflict with the numerically superior English fleet. We ought to have tried earlier what the result of a victory by our fleet would be. It was a mistake on the part of the naval leaders not to do so.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Third Battle Squadron

The German High Command could only bewail the pusillanimity that had held them back in 1914; for by late 1916 it was far too late. With a successful fleet action ruled out, there seemed to be only one option left that promised any concrete results against their implacable enemy: submarine warfare. In October 1916 the Germans took their first cautious steps when they announced a return to restricted submarine warfare with at least lip service being paid to the international rules. The U-boats took a rising toll of British shipping, but they were still hamstrung by international conventions and Scheer wanted a far more robust approach.

A victorious end to the war at not too distant a date can only be looked for by the crushing of English economic life through U-Boat action against English commerce. Prompted by the convictions of duty, I earnestly advise Your Majesty to abstain from deciding on too lenient a form of procedure on the ground that it is opposed to military views, and that the risk of the boats would be out of all proportion to the expected gain, for, in spite of the greatest conscientiousness on the part of the Chiefs, it would not be possible in English waters, where American interests are so prevalent, to avoid occurrences which might force us to make humiliating concessions if we do not act with the greatest severity.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Third Battle Squadron

The seeds were set for unrestricted submarine warfare; yet this would be a gamble based on the lack of a realistic alternative rather than the inherent merits of the policy. German naval experts believed that they could knock Britain out of the war if they managed to sink some 600,000 tons of shipping a month for just five months. The British would simply run out of shipping while neutral shipping would be either frightened away or sunk as well. As to the likely bellicose American reaction, the German High Command believed that US goods and services were effectively already at Britain’s beck and call; all that was missing was her armed forces. As the US Army was inconsequentially small, it would be more than a year before a mass army could be mobilised; by which time it would be far too late. The Germans decided to ignore the American protests and take their chance. After all, Jutland and their failure to gain victory on the Western Front had left them with no viable alternative.

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