October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
In the years between the World Wars, officer-students at the world’s war colleges, including the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, spent much of their time studying the naval Battle of Jutland (May 31, 1916). After all, the great North Sea fight between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet was then (and remains today) the largest battleship confrontation in history. Sixty battleships and battle cruisers slugged it out in a contest that lasted all day. Consequently, naval officers in the postwar years spent whole weeks and even months pushing little wooden ship models around on a large checkerboard floor in order to comprehend the tactical nuances of this epochal event. But, in fact, the Battle of Jutland was one of the most meaningless and historically unimportant major naval battles of all time.
When World War I broke out in 1914, many Britons expected a reprise of the Napoleonic Wars, in which a ruthless Continental land power with an apparently unstoppable army was brought at last to heel by the power of Britain’s Navy. As American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan put it: Napoleon had been defeated less by the armies of his foes than by those far-distant, storm-tossed ships upon which the Grand Army never looked. Surely, Englishmen thought, the Royal Navy could do it again: could win another Battle of Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet and thereby isolate and eventually defeat the German menace.
The expected confrontation was delayed by German unwillingness to risk its fleet in a winner-takes-all showdown. But in late May of 1916, Vice Admiral Reinhold Scheer brought his fleet out into the North Sea to meet the British Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe off the coast of Jutland, the western shore of Denmark. Jellicoe suffered from the high expectations of a public that assumed another Trafalgar was in the offing. But Jellicoe was no Nelson. Though he managed twice to “cap the T” (that is, cross the enemy’s battle line with his own), the Germans inflicted more damage on the British than they received, and in the end Scheer’s fleet “escaped” back into home waters largely intact.
It hardly mattered, for the German battlefleet never left port again only twice—and briefly—before surrendering when the war ended in November of 1918. Because of that, modern naval historians argue that although the Germans won the battle tactically, the British won it strategically because they continued to control the sea. In effect, the Battle of Jutland changed nothing; afterward both fleets returned to their home ports and waited out the rest of the war. As it happened, it was the U-Boat menace that dominated the war at sea both in the war and the next. For all the impact these two huge battlefleets had on the course of human history, the billions of pounds and deutsche marks spent in their construction might as well have been tossed into the sea.
The American colonies that declared their independence from Britain in 1776 had to start from scratch in building up a military force to contend with the powerful British Empire. On land, General George Washington eventually built a ragtag army of volunteers into hardened professionals. But at sea, the Americans had no hope whatsoever of challenging the great Royal Navy, John Paul Jones notwithstanding. Or at least they had no hope on salt water. But on the inland fresh-water lakes where both sides had to start from scratch, it was a different story. In October of 1776, a small force of American sailors, manning a flotilla of gunboats they had built themselves, took on a squadron of British ships on Lake Champlain in what became known as the Battle of Valcour Island. And though the Americans still lost, they did so in such a way as to change the course of history.
In the 18th century, armies in America could not move effectively by the wilderness trails that passed for roads—they relied on water transport. For the British army in Canada under Guy Carleton, who sought to invade New York, the only logical route was up the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, and then down the Hudson. If the Americans could maintain command of Lake Champlain, the route would be blocked. It was an American army colonel, Benedict Arnold, who took up the challenge. He arrived at Skenesboro at the head of Lake Champlain in mid-summer and immediately infused the shipbuilding effort with his boundless energy. From the standing timber of the forests, he built a dozen small warships, equipped them, trained his volunteer “sailors” in their management, and set off to meet the enemy.
Aware of his efforts, Carleton stopped his southward progress long enough to build a squadron of his own. In a running naval battle that began at Valcour Island halfway down the lake, and ended at the American fortification at Crown Point, the British emerged triumphant. But Arnold’s efforts were not in vain. The construction of a fleet, and the fighting of the battle, had used up all the good campaign weather and Carleton decided he had better take his army into winter camp and continue the operation next spring. By then the world had changed. The Americans had raised an army, and the British had a new general: “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. When Burgoyne moved south, he encountered that new American army and suffered a decisive defeat at Saratoga. That American success led to a FrancoAmerican alliance and eventual victory in the war. It would not have happened without the Battle of Valcour Island. And, ironically, it would not have happened without Benedict Arnold.