Reading, Writing, And History

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Many of the Navy’s finest ships were poorly designed, engineering was faulty, protection was defective, ordnance development had lagged, and in the science of gunnery the new German Navy was far ahead. In matériel and in training, the Germans had better torpedoes and knew more about how to use them, and at the time the war began, Jellicoe privately confessed that “it is highly dangerous to consider that our ships as a whole are superior or even equal fighting machines.”

This unhappy belief shaped everything Jellicoe did. He adopted a highly conservative course, both in strategy and in tactics; he would force no action to a conclusion, he would take no chances with German submarines or torpedo attacks, he would play it safe all the way. With his flawed cutlass he would not try to strike a blow so heavy that the cutlass might break.

At Jutland the German High Seas Fleet was at his mercy. That is, he had put the much larger British fleet between the Germans and their home base, under circumstances which offered him a dazzling victory that would have had far-reaching effects. With the High Seas Fleet removed from the water, Britain could have patrolled the North Sea so closely that the desperate German submarine war, which came a year later, could not have been tried; as Mr. Barnett sees it, the war might well have been shortened by a year or so. In the hazy twilight of a North Sea spring evening, Jellicoe had his fleet where it could force a showdown; yet he could not quite do it, partly because he knew that it might be very risky and partly because, as Churchill remarked, Jellicoe was the one man on either side who could have lost the entire war in one day. Jellicoe played Jutland for a standoff. He accepted a draw, knowing that this way he would not lose anything that could not eventually be regained. His reasoning was flawless—except that the war did go on for two more years, and the British Empire itself suffered because of it. As Mr. Barnett remarks, “the last military chance of avoiding a long war and utter mutual exhaustion had gone.”

All of this is usually laid at Jellicoe’s door, but Mr. Barnett thinks it goes deeper. He insists: “Jutland proves that the spectacular collapse of British power and British industrial vigour after 1945 was not a sudden disaster due, as comforting legend has it, to the sale of overseas investments in 1914-18 and 1939-45, but the final acute phase of seventy years of decline. For the principal armed service of a country … is an extension, a reflection, of that country’s whole society, and especially of its dominating groups. …

“Two things caused the decadence of British maritime power: the long peaceful supremacy after Trafalgar and the capture of the navy by that hierarchy of birth and class that controlled so many of Britain’s national institutions. … The navy reflected social rather than functional values, preoccupation with tradition rather than technology.”

It does not do to blame Jellicoe. Let the author sum it up:

“Jutland was one of the critical battles of history; it marked the opening of that final phase of British world power and maritime supremacy that was to end in 1945, with the British battle fleet no more than ‘Task Force 77’ in the United States Pacific Fleet, and Britain herself reduced to financial dependency. Yet it was partly owing to Jellicoe’s personal skill as an admiral that the final collapse of British sea power was delayed until 1945 and after.”

One of the great problems men like Jellicoe faced was that they were commanders depending in the last analysis on the machines they controlled; and the magnificent dreadnought, the ponderous battleship on which both navies relied at Jutland, turns out on analysis to have been one of the oddest, most sadly flawed mechanisms ever devised by man. It was a terribly expensive, cumbersome, and awe-inspiring instrument of war that was actually obsolescent when it was born and that was never able to do the things its inventors thought it could do because of a simple but rather frightening truth: to any purely mechanistic invention, a mechanistic answer will be devised before the invention itself can develop its potentialities.

An absorbing study of this strange instrument of naval warfare is available in Richard Hough’s Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship , which traces the development of this man-made dinosaur from birth to death. The story after all is fairly short. The dreadnought—that is, the all-big-gun battleship, heavily armored in the belief that it would be unsinkable, and heavily armed in the hope that it could sink all of its foes—had a life of just half a century: a few years more than the life of the monitor, or the steamdriven ram, and a great deal less than the life of the galley.

The dreadnought came into existence in 1906 as the culmination of naval men’s attempts to devise an impregnable platform for irresistible guns. It was a battleship unlike all previous battleships in that all of its main guns were big : H.M.S. Dreadnought mounted ten 12-inch guns, with a battery of light guns to ward off enemy torpedo craft; it was armored so that no guns any smaller than its own could hurt it materially. Once it was launched, every naval power on earth hastened to copy it. It sent all earlier battleships to the scrap heap, and within six years the navies of the world had forty-seven ships of this type in commission, with sixty-three more under construction.