Jutland, the Naval Staff Appreciation ed. William Schliehauf

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  • The first official account of Jutland was prepared by Captain JET Harper in 1919. This was suppressed by Beatty following Harper’s objections to Beatty’s requirement for self-serving alterations. In November 1920 a new official Admiralty ‘Appreciation’ was commissioned from Captain Kenneth Dewar and his younger and junior brother Alfred. This is now presented in an edited and annotated edition by the late Canadian naval historian William Schliehauf whose work has been brought to completion by his friend Steven McLaughlin.

    As history, there is one huge problem with the ‘Appreciation’. Kenneth Dewar was hopelessly biased towards Beatty and against Jellicoe. My take on Dewar is that he was probably one of those brainy people who know that they are right and everyone else is wrong, and get increasingly tired of waiting for the wooden wheels to clunk round in other people’s heads. Unfortunately Dewar (like many of us) could not see the beam in his own eye and did not accept that what was intended to be official history should be totally objective. His belief that Jellicoe could have forced a decisive battle on an unwilling enemy near the shelter of that enemy’s own coasts is plumb wrong. It follows that his argument that crushing the High Seas Fleet would have enabled us to control the Heligoland Bight, defeat the submarine menace at source and even drive around in the Baltic (a Churchill/Fisher fantasy) without finding it shut behind us is based on a false premise. To castigate Jellicoe or at any rate to try and show him in a bad light was wrong, unfair, and unofficer-like. The background for criticising the Command has to be the picture in Jellicoe’s brain, his view limited by smoke hundreds of funnels (including smoke belching from Beatty’s battle-cruisers as they raced across the front Jellicoe’s line) and his attention perhaps diverted by the shattering blast from his flagship’s own guns, not the far more comprehensive picture compiled with hindsight in the quiet of an office ashore. Consideration should have been given, instead of outright condemnation of the comparative rigidity of the British battle orders, to the shambles that would have resulted by letting loose individual actions in the extremely poor visibility conditions; also the way rigidity and order had been (and continued to be) deliberately hard-wired into the RN officer corps as a whole; and the pitifully inadequate staff support enjoyed by leaders afloat at every level. Schliehauf deftly blows apart Dewar’s facile comparison of Jellicoe with Nelson who did not face an enemy of equal competence. Beatty should surely have come in for criticism for his shallow approach to technology and inattention to the signals being sent in his name, particularly considering how their actual author, his Flag Lieutenant, had already (on Beatty’s later admission) bungled that task in two previous engagements. The editor explores this in the context of the Run South. Also ignored by Dewar is how Beatty’s flagship turned a complete circle later on because someone gave a helm order and forgot about it. Beatty had the official record forged to deny this.

    As it is, a whole chapter is spent trying to prove that Jellicoe got his initial deployment wrong - no competent later historian agrees with this and some hold that Jellicoe’s deployment was a stroke of genius. Criticism of events after night had fallen is seen as having more substance, as does criticising the lamentable staff failures in the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty.

    Technicalities of our gunnery - inferior rangefinders, inferior Spotting Rules, want of practice at realistic targets and at realistic ranges, failure of fuzes in armour piercing shell, and worst of all, breaches in ammunition handling rules which arguably cost hundreds of lives - affected the outcome considerably. Oddly, both being qualified Gunnery Officers, the Dewars do not analyse these factors.

    Eventually the ‘Appreciation’ was released by the Admiralty to the Fleet in an expurgated edition on a limited circulation. The work under review here is however a recovery of the original text, annotated in detail by the editor. The many charts have all been redrawn for clarity. The history of the Appreciation and its vicissitudes is a fascinating tale in its own right.

    As the editor points out, this is NOT an entry text for Jutland. For that, Marder is your man. Nevertheless there is considerable value in the book if one’s critical faculties have been well alerted by the editor, particularly the references to primary material, key for anyone wanting to study Jutland from basics as it were - but might there be selective omissions? - and the lists of casualties per ship and of torpedo and heavy shell hits. Incidentally the latter is, for Warspite, at variance with the eventual reminiscences of a relative of mine who was on board at the time. One must respect the fact that many items of evidence were contradictory and any Jutland author has to navigate a middle way between conflicting citations, and in this case it was too early for Dewar to have access to official German records, although Von Hase, Gunnery Officer of the German battle-cruiser Derrflinger had published a personal account, which was made available in English in 1921. Dewar is often spinning a rattling good yarn but this must not blind one to the slant of the whole thing. The editor deserves posthumous congratulations for spotting as many as he did.

    I have one quibble with the editor - his statement on p.xvii that ‘both sides can plausibly claim victory’. The Germans failed in their strategic objective of breaking out to break the Royal Navy’s blockade, which eventually strangled their economy, and (yet again) in their tactical objective of biting off a piece of the Grand Fleet so as serially to inflict defeat in detail. The result of the battle, in spite of British losses - as indeed pointed out by Schliehauf - was that the British superiority in capital ships was proportionately increased, not diminished. The privations suffered by Germany, together with the enforced idleness of the High Seas Fleet - substantially pent in its harbours after Jutland - brought that Fleet to internal collapse and mutiny, proving that the annihilatory and indubitably costly battle desired by Dewar was not necessary. What mattered was the integrity of the Grand Fleet, its weight of broadside double that of its German opponents (the same was true of the opposing battle-cruiser forces). The proof of our victory was the sight of the beaten German Fleet surrendering to internment in Scapa.

    The value lies in the story of the Appreciation, not the Appreciation itself except as a facet of the Beatty versus Jellicoe arguments that in their day were perhaps as harmful to the Service as the pre-war Beresford versus Fisher arguments. In each case the left-brained, analytical technocrats were opposed by the facile propositions of the flashy, right-brained ‘arts’ men - as always in the history of our species. Fortunately for posterity objectivity won the day.

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