Background: In the shadow of Trafalgar
Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy was held in high esteem by the British public – even more so than the army. Being an island nation, the British relied on the seas as a barrier against invaders and her navy, which was considered the most powerful in the world, helped consolidate Britain’s status as a Great Power.
While the public and those involved were justifiably proud of the Royal Navy’s achievements, there was also the awareness that the late 19th and early 20th century navy was in the shadow of the greatest victory achieved by the Royal Navy – Trafalgar – and its commander Nelson, whose exploits continued to be lionised and held up as the gold standard not just for the Royal Navy but the British public. As the Battle of Jutland would demonstrate, Nelson and Trafalgar for good and ill would have serious consequences as while individual stories of courage and heroism would recall Nelson’s famous signal that “England expects that every man will do his duty”, what worked in securing that decisive victory at Trafalgar would prove to be inadequate at Jutland and expose several weaknesses in the strategy, tactics, communication and even basic health and safety procedures in the navy.
However that was still far away in the 1890s when Britain’s position as mistress of the seas was challenged by Germany. Under the new emperor, Wilhelm II – himself half-British – Germany began building up its navy, which stemmed partly from the Kaiser’s intention of protecting German interests and that she must have her “place in the sun”. This ambition for the German navy was also inspired by his summer holidays in Britain especially at the Isle of Wight where his maternal grandmother Queen Victoria had a summer residence, Osborne House. When he was made an honorary admiral in the British navy, the Kaiser was so overjoyed that he told a courtier, “fancy wearing the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson, it’s enough to make one feel giddy.”
While Germany built its navy, Britain watched with a mix of wariness and suspicion further fuelled by scare stories about espionage and a possible invasion in the papers and in popular fiction. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 sparked an arms race between Britain and Germany as both countries tried to outdo each other in the number of ships they could produce and add to their respective navies. By 1914, Britain had 28 dreadnoughts compared to Germany’s 16. With this superiority in numbers, the British press and public expected that should there be a head to head encounter with Germany, the Royal Navy would triumph and replicate Nelson’s feat at Trafalgar.
The man chosen for this task was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935), a naval officer who had participated in campaigns in Egypt and China. He was popular with his men, competent and well respected however he was viewed as too cautious. Winston Churchill once said that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” His second in command, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty (1871-1936) was a contrast to Jellicoe: while the latter was cautious, analytical and unshowy the former was impulsive and cavalier. Even in their personal lives, the two men could not have been more different – Jellicoe’s private life was quiet and conventional while Beatty was an illegitimate son who had courted scandal further by marrying a wealthy American divorcee. The marriage eventually soured: partly bought about by his wife’s lack of understanding of the demands of his naval career and duties as well as her selfishness and narcissism. Their personalities would reveal themselves during the battle where Beatty’s impulsiveness and carelessness would result into making parts of his squadron vulnerable to the German fleet while Jellicoe’s caution meant that lives were saved in the long run.
The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction
On 31 May 1916, the British and German fleets met off the coast of Denmark and went head to head in what became known as the Battle of Jutland. In 36 hours it was all over but the public had to wait until 3 June before the first accounts of Jutland were being reported in the papers. What was reported did not exactly provide comfort the public who were expecting a Trafalgar part 2 and Jellicoe to be the new Nelson.
There were reports of appalling losses of life, especially on the Indefatigable and Queen Mary which sank when magazines on the ship exploded because the safety doors were kept open throughout the battle. Both ships sank within minutes with the loss of around 2,266 lives. The death toll and the number of ships lost were noted down by a local woman from Kent, Ethel M. Bilbrough and interestingly she makes a comparison and contrast of the number of lives lost between Trafalgar and Jutland:
This morning comes news of our first naval battle in the great war, for up to now the Germans have kept their fleet well boxed up in port. We have lost heavily, as our main fleet was not in the North Sea where Admiral Beattie’s [sic] squadron was attacked by the Enemy with her most powerful battleships, cruisers, and torpedoes, aided by three Zeppelins to throw search lights etc., and to guide them which way to go. A most unequal fight to start with, and our splendid “Queen Mary” sank in two minutes, and others followed suit before the main fleet could get up to their assistance. Our losses were appalling, about five thousand four hundred killed, whereas in the great battle of Trafalgar only about 400 lives were lost – far less than there were in the “Queen Mary” alone, which had over 1,000 souls. And its dreadful to think of the poor little “middys”, lads of sixteen having to go through what must have been a veritable hell upon Earth, Two admirals killed, and 333 officers. All England is bewailing, and no wonder.
This was echoed by Georgina Lee who mentioned the terrible loss on HMS Invincible:
There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attacked a powerful German fleet of 34 off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.
But two days later, the Admiralty began to issue bulletins and reports in the papers which reassured the public that Jutland was a British victory despite the losses. The Daily Mirror trumpeted on 5 July that “German losses are heavier than the British” while The Times reassured their readers that “Britannia still ruled the waves”, something which was reiterated by Georgina Lee:
The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the act that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.
Eventually as more facts became known and were reported, the public demanded answers but overall there was satisfaction that the Germans did not dare challenge the British again. As Lillie Scales wrote in her diary:
On Monday the papers spoke quite differently – telling of numbers of German ships sunk, and that our strategy had been most wonderful, and that the German fleet would have been annihilated if a fog had not come on, and the day closed in before we had had time to reap the fruits of our victory, for it was a victory, the German fleet scuttling off for all it was worth and leaving us masters of the sea.
A century on, controversy still rages on about what went wrong at Jutland and who really was the victor but then as now, what was clear that Jellicoe and Beatty failed to deliver the knockout blow of a decisive victory that ensured Jutland would equal Trafalgar in the annals of great British naval victories. When the surviving ships returned to Britain after the battle they were greeted with boos and shouts of “cowards” while Admiral Jacky Fisher the man most responsible for the Dreadnought project after learning of what happened at Jutland, wailed “they had failed me!” which more or less summed up public disappointment of the outcome of the battle and his own desire to crown his career as the St. Vincent to Jellicoe’s Nelson.
“I Need a Hero”: Jack Cornwell VC
The aftermath Battle of Jutland undermined confidence in the Royal Navy and damaged its reputation in the eyes of the public. It also weakened national morale; as stories of heroism during the battle made their way into the press, one more than others captured the popular imagination – Boy First Class John Travers Cornwell or better known to the public as Jack Cornwell or Boy Cornwell.
His background and how he came to be in the Royal Navy was typical of the period. Born into a working class family in Leyton, Essex (now Leyton, east London), Cornwell left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy and a year into the First World War enlisted in the Royal Navy without his parents’ permission. After training he was assigned to HMS Chester where he was posted as a gunner. During the battle, Cornwell remained at his post awaiting orders despite his comrades lying all around him dead or dying. Badly wounded but still refusing to abandon his post, he was finally rescued and transported back to Britain where he died of his wounds at Grimsby Hospital.
Cornwell’s exploits and conduct during the battle captured the public imagination and over the next few weeks and months after Jutland, his image was circulated widely in the papers and his gallantry was immortalised by a portrait by the society artist Frank Salisbury. A campaign for Cornwell to be awarded the Victoria Cross was begun as well as to bury him with full military honours. The Daily Sketch noted that “England will be shocked today to learn…that the boy-hero of the naval victory has been buried in a common grave”. On 29 July 1916, Cornwell was buried with full military honours at Manor Park Cemetery and on 15 September, the London Gazette announced the awarding of a posthumous Victoria Cross to “Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.” His mother finally received the award at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 16 November.
The lionising of Cornwell as a hero had its roots in the Crimean War which was the first conflict to be covered from the battlefield first hand by war correspondents. While the papers reported military disasters and appalling conditions on the front, there were also stories of bravery and gallantry displayed by ordinary soldiers and sailors. The institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 was one way to recognise the bravery and gallantry of the ordinary soldier and sailor and the public began to see them as heroes.
The failure of Jutland in becoming another Trafalgar lead to general disillusionment over the navy and its officers and the bravery of Cornwell and other sailors went into some way into restoring confidence in the Royal Navy. With the conflict both on land and sea not going well, the British public needed heroes and Jack Cornwell’s exploits provided a boost to national morale. During the rest of the war and even to this day, he has been held up as a role model especially for the young.
Conclusion: A Pyrrhic victory?
Each side claimed victory but never again would Germany go head to head with the British at sea. During the rest of the war, they resorted to U boats which forced the Navy to adapt the convoy system to guard Britain’s food supply and the transporting of civilians across the Atlantic. As several historians have pointed out, Britain might have lost the battle but in the long term they did win the battle of the Dreadnoughts. However controversy still rages over what did happen and what could have happened had things been different. New research and advances in technology has meant that the wrecks could be examined more thoroughly and help us learn more about what really happened in those 36 hours
Upon hearing news of the battle, Kaiser Wilhelm II exulted that “the spell of Trafalgar has been broken” and on one hand, he was right as despite having several advantages, the British failed to score a decisive victory. On the other hand however, the British retained control of the North Sea and the Germans were unable to penetrate the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.
A month later, the Battle of the Somme would mean that Jutland was pushed out of the headlines and it became increasingly clear that another sea battle that could finish off what Jutland started would never materialise. In the end, the shadow of Trafalgar still looms large even a hundred years on. If one goes to Trafalgar Square, there are a pair of memorial fountains and busts of Jellicoe and Beatty that commemorate Jutland but the busts are tucked away in a corner of the square behind the column that bears Nelson’s statue which literally and figuratively is a sign that both men will always be condemned to be in the shadow of Britain’s pre-eminent naval hero.
Further reading and viewing:
Innes McCartney. Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (London, 2016)
Nick Jellicoe. Jutland: The Unfinished Battle (Barnsley, 2016)
Gavin Roynon (ed.). Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)
Ethel M. Bilbrough. My War Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)
Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)
Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell. The Battle of Jutland (Barnsley, 2007)
Andrew Gordon. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and the British Naval Command (London, 1996)
Correlli Barnett. The Swordbearers: Supreme Commanders in the First World War (London, 1963)
John Winton. Jellicoe (London, 1981)
Charles Robert Beatty. Our Admiral (London, 1980)
George Bonney. The Battle of Jutland (Sutton, 2002)
Robert K. Massie. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War (London, 2004)
Robert K. Massie. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (London, 1991)
S.W. Roskill. Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (London, 1980)
Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle (Channel 4 UK documentary) – first telecast on 21 May 2016
The Battle Of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day (BBC documentary) – first telecast on 31 May 2016
Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle – at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
36 hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle that Won the War – at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth
Photos of portraits of Jellicoe and Beatty in the National Portrait Gallery London and busts in Trafalgar Square taken by blogger
All other photos from the internet, Times article of Cornwell’s funeral screenshot taken by blogger