(publisher’s review copy)
‘Jellicoe is the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’
Winston Churchill, ‘The World Crisis’
.. But fortunately for the whole world, being calculating and far-seeing, rather than hot-headed, he didn’t.
Seaforth here present in paperback a reprint of Professor Marder’s 1975 second edition of his analysis of Jutland, which he had been able to tune using input from a very long list of Jutland veterans who wrote in following the original publication of the work.
The first half of the book is devoted to an exhaustive and authoritative account of the battle itself, which will forever be the greatest sea battle in the history of the world. It has been fought over ever since, from tactical floor to tablecloth, floodlit by hindsight and the audience misled by partisan efforts to big up favoured participants, Churchill’s ill-informed and ignorant comments in ‘The World Crisis’ (apart from his lambent insight quoted above) and Beatty’s deliberate tampering with the official record, and widespread mistaken belief that sea battles are an end in themselves. Here in Marder, an academic historian and an American at that, we have an absolutely neutral commentator who cuts through all this to present us with the ultimate, wholly objective account, analysing all available detail (much only unearthed due to his diligent ferreting) with scrupulous fairness to the participants of whom he provides interesting character sketches. In the process he demolishes or qualifies several popular myths. His exhaustive research apart, it is remarkable that a civilian can get so accurately under the skin of naval events. His analysis benefits from his own WW2 intelligence experience.
As to the battle, in spite of superior German cartridge design, optical equipment and spotting rules; superior German ship subdivision facilitated by their wider dry docks; defective British shell fuzes; our inadequate magazine flash doors and catastrophically mistaken ammunition handling policy; repeated failure by subordinate British commanders, from Beatty downwards, to pass on vital (or any) information; the limited intellectual and professional abilities of subordinate flag officers and captains, and Beatty’s own Flag Lieutenant (whose shortcomings had already been demonstrated to his master), and their technical ignorance; want of appropriate training at all levels, including Staff training; primitivity of W/T (aggravated by German jamming) and difficulty in visual signalling; mishandling of intelligence in the Admiralty; banks of mist, clouds of cordite smoke and near a thousand belching funnels; fatigue to the point of utter exhaustion from lookouts to commanders; dead reckoning affected by the concussive effect of gunnery on compasses; the Germans’ use of our recognition challenge; Jellicoe won a total strategic victory. His decision to deploy in a way that crossed the enemy‘s T is surely among the most crucial operational decisions ever taken by any commander. The Germans failed in their tactical aim of seeking a winnable battle so as to achieve their strategic goal of breaking the British blockade, whereby the silent pressure of our sea power slowly strangled their nation into well-deserved defeat.
‘Clothes burnt send money’
(News of the battle as telegraphed to his parents by a midshipman from HMS Warspite)
Dead bodies from the battle drifted as far as Norway.
The Grand Fleet was reported ready for action again at 0945 on the day after its return to harbour. The Admiralty’s crass mishandling of the press eventually came right as more informed commentators recognised the futility of taking undue risks, as against the need to preserve the superiority of the Grand Fleet as the anchor of our entire (and successful) naval strategy, and the fact that it takes two sides to make a battle for, as was been demonstrated, Scheer did not want to take part; all his manoeuvring once he had discovered that the Grand Fleet was at sea had been aimed at getting back to his base. The Admiralty formally endorsed Jellicoe’s insistence of concentration and his treatment of mine and torpedo threats. The centralisation of command enshrined in Grand Fleet Battle Orders was vindicated by events.
Nevertheless great debate ensued and materiel improvements were put in hand, improved W/T sets were fitted in our submarines, and the 15” Repulse and Renown emerged from the builders to join the Battle Cruiser squadron. A crucial limiting factor was shortage of destroyers, given competing needs in the Mediterranean. Tactical measures were much discussed, including the correct way to employ the battle cruisers and the fast Queen Elizabeth class battleships.
Rumination was rudely interrupted by an abortive German sortie on 19th August aimed at bombarding Sunderland. The German use of Zeppelin reconnaissance backfired when L13 falsely reported what was actually the Harwich force as including battleships, which ironically caused Scheer to steer south and thus avoid what might otherwise have been annihilation. In the event, for a variety of reasons not least Scheer’s determination to avoid a battle with the entire Grand Fleet, the main fleets never met.
The Air does not escape Marder. The fledgling RNAS, many of whose squadrons had been diverted to support the army in France, was pretty much an irrelevance to Grand Fleet operations. Its advocacy suffered from no one admiral having charge of it - materiel, personnel and operations were all directed by different heads who might or might not (mostly not) understand the relevant priorities and opportunities. By the end of 1916 we were still well behind the Germans in successfully making use of either aircraft or airships.
Later in the year public dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war began to wash over to the Navy, partly due to two essentially unsuccessful German tip and run raids in the English Channel, but also because of disquiet regarding the increasing depredations of U-boats. The time had come to freshen the nip. Lloyd George replaced Asquith, Balfour the First Lord was moved on in favour of Carson and as the U-boat campaign began to bite (by which, inter alia, Scheer had been deprived of their reconnaissance function) the worn-out First Sea Lord, Jackson, essentially out of his depth, was replaced by a reluctant Jellicoe. Beatty - not Jellicoe’s first choice - took over the Grand Fleet. All this is explained by Marder, as usual with a wealth of convincing detail as he slices through the personal axe-grinding and explains the various misconceptions about naval strategy that misinformed the debate.
This Seaforth edition of Marder’s work is introduced by Barry Gough, a Canadian historian, who provides a précis and appreciation. Mercifully, in the main text many asides are appended as footnotes on the relevant pages so that one does not have to swap around from narrative to notes and back again. This is no picture book but portraits of the principals are included as illustrations. The narrative is supported by a number of elegantly drawn charts showing the action at various times. It is stated, but I could not see how to do this, that they can be downloaded in larger versions.
This must be the master work on Jutland. Even though the story is familiar to this reviewer from other sources I emerged from reading this book much better educated and to boot was gripped by the flow of Marder’s narration. His coverage of the politics of the post-Jutland months is particularly informative.