Great War at Sea: Remembering the Battle of Jutland
May 27, 2016
This essay draws on Maurer’s talk at our history institute for teachers on America’s Entry into World War I, hosted and cosponsored by the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, IL, April 9-10, 2016.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the largest sea fight of the First World War, a clash between the main fleets of Germany and Great Britain that took place on the afternoon and evening of 31 May 1916 off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The Battle of Jutland was a trial of strength between a rising challenger, with aspirations to world power, and the reigning superpower, accustomed to thinking itself the indispensible leader of the international system. To whom did the future belong—the rising power or the keeper of the system? A single day of combat between the steel giants making up the British Grand Fleet and German High Sea Fleet might decide (or so it was thought) the vital question of world power or decline for these competing empires.
The Battle of Jutland formed an episode in a longer naval arms race between Britain and Germany that stretched back almost twenty years. At the end of the nineteenth century, Germany’s rulers made a conscious strategic choice to challenge Britain as a sea power. They looked upon the building of a battle fleet as part of a strategy to establish a post-British international order, marked by the passing of Britain’s commanding position on the maritime commons and the emergence of a German super-state on the world stage. Both countries went to great expense in building up their battle fleets before the war. In this naval arms race, Britain kept ahead of Germany in the construction of large surface warships. The Battle of Jutland’s outcome was largely predetermined by Britain winning this prewar naval arms race.
The day of battle itself, when these great fleets clashed, would disappoint the high expectations held by the leaders and peoples on both sides of the North Sea. While the battle did not lack in high drama, the day’s ending did not result in one side or the other winning a clear-cut victory. What Jutland did demonstrate was the lethality of modern naval warfare: in a single day of combat, the two fleets together lost 25 warships sunk and over 8,500 men killed. Those losses would have been even greater had it not been for, at critical moments in the battle, both the British and German fleet commanders taking actions to avoid risking the destruction of their battleships, turning away from the enemy rather than pressing the attack. The admirals took decisive actions during the battle’s course that precluded a decisive action. Instead of a single-day showdown to determine naval mastery, the fleets limped back home to lick their wounds after having inflicted appalling damage on the enemy. This ambiguous result would not stop both governments from claiming the trophy of victory. The day of battle had come and gone, but the cruel war at sea to command the maritime commons would continue on without respite until the conflict’s end more than two years later.
While Jutland did not end the naval stalemate in the North Sea, it did produce important strategic consequences. One consequence of Jutland was to convince Germany’s naval and military leaders that the German battle fleet stood little chance of success in wresting command of the maritime commons from Britain. Instead, Germany’s rulers sought to win by executing an all-out submarine offensive against the world’s merchant shipping that sustained the British and Allied war effort. This decision for unrestricted submarine warfare would prove fateful and self-defeating because it provoked the United States’ entry into the war against Germany. Jutland, then, by swaying Germany’s leaders toward a submarine offensive, paved the way for their own country’s eventual defeat in the Great War and the rise of the United States as a naval and military great power.
What can we learn from this battle fought a hundred years ago? One conclusion is that the outcome of the prewar arms race provided a good indicator of which country—the rising peer competitor or the reigning superpower—would prevail in the struggle for naval mastery. The baneful consequences of arms races and security dilemmas should not be allowed to conceal the strategic value of military superiority. The leading power will no longer lead if it falls behind in an arms race to a rising challenger. Any future Battle of Jutland, fought in the aerospace, cyber, and maritime commons, will play out against a high-stakes strategic backdrop of rising and declining great powers. The United States, to prevail in that contest, must prepare not only for the day of battle but for the day after.