In 1916, Britain was a nation still dining on Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar more than 100 years before. The Royal Navy’s dominance at sea was an accepted part of folklore and sat at the heart of empire.
It was thought that a decisive clash between the battleships of Britain and Germany could decide the First World War – and a “second Trafalgar” would cut short the hostilities.
On May 31, 1916, the Grand Fleet had the opportunity to best the German upstarts in the North Sea to the west of Denmark’s Jutland .
It was to become the biggest sea battle of the war, the only time that battleships clashed and, with the emergence of U-boats, the last ever encounter on that scale in military history – and yet there was no Trafalgar, no victory parades. Dockers threw coal at the returning British ships.
Commander-in-chief of the fleet Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was wildly traduced for showing too much caution while his second in command Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was said to be reckless. He was found to have altered records after the event to preserve his flawed narrative.
All this – and yet the British had not lost the Battle of Jutland – they had not delivered a decisive victory, contrary to a nation’s expectations.
Whether they had won or not is still keenly debated.
At the end of 24 hours of fighting 279 ships engaged, 8,500 lives were lost, 22 ships were sunk, including the newly-launched HMS Queen Mary, with its 1,266-strong crew, and one VC was awarded, to a 16-year-old esat London boy Jack Cornwell who stuck to his post, shrapnel in his chest, fatally wounded.
He will be commemorated at a service in East Ham on June 5 with a commemorative stone unveiled by Mayor of Newham Sir Robin and 14-year-old Cadet Kacey-Leigh Jasper, from the Newham Cornwell VC Sea Cadets.
The battle lasted from May 31 to June 1 and there were numerous separate clashes as Jellicoe and German Admiral Reinhard Scheer out-manoeuvred, out-foxed and out-thought each other to gain the upper hand.
When the fighting was done the final phase of the battle commenced. The battle to write its history.
The Germans were quick to claim victory and Kaiser Wilhelm II dished out Iron Crosses and praise. The Admiralty, less adept at PR, gave the impression that the British had lost and there was infighting among navy commanders about mismanagement of intelligence and missed opportunities to put the High Seas Fleet to the sword.
But as time went on, a more nuanced picture emerged. The Germans never again left port in the same numbers and stuck to raiding parties. It meant that the British dominance of the seas remained intact.
Jellicoe’s policy of caution – to turn away from the torpedoes – to keep the fleet intact for a long war gave the impression of cowardice but was, in fact, a pragmatic and ultimately crucial decision.
Former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill said he was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.
The British people, who had become so used to naval victories, were disillusioned and dissatisfied with such an inconclusive encounter, but soon their thoughts turned to the Somme offensive where the horrors and the casualty lists were deeper and longer than those of Jutland.
Quickly, the greatest naval battle of the First World War slipped from the headlines and was forgotten.
Jutland 2016: WWI’s Greatest Sea Battle is a new free exhibition at the National Maritime Museum that coincides with the 100th anniversary commemorations. It tells the tale of the battle and the ensuing battle for hearts and minds.
Curator Andrew Choong said: “I’d say its greatest effects were hidden at the time and it’s only when we look back we realise it did have a significance and that significance was that it maintained a status quo that was unfavourable to Germany strategically.
“It was in many respects inconclusive. If you measure victory by body count it was a German victory but if you look at the broader strategic picture there’s a strong case for arguing for a British victory.
“It’s a question that will never be answered but my personal view is that it was a British victory, if very painfully won.”