The Battle of Jutland was one of the defining events of the First World War. Fought by vast British and German fleets off the coast of Denmark between 31 May and 1 June 1916, it was the greatest naval battle of the conflict.

Background

The sea was an important battleground during the war and the Royal Navy was the most powerful maritime force in the world. It quickly established a blockade of Germany, restricting the movement of the German High Seas Fleet and merchant shipping. Led by Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the German High Seas Fleet sought to erode British superiority by bombarding coastal towns then attacking warships sent to their air.

On 30 May 1916, radio messages intercepted by the Admiralty revealed that the German fleet was preparing to sail. A squadron under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty was dispatched from the Firth of Forth, followed by the Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe from Scapa and Cromarty.

The Battle

On the afternoon of 31 May, Beatty’s battle cruisers encountered their German counterparts under Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper. They duelled for an hour, steaming south towards the High Seas Fleet, accompanied by the boom of guns and a haze of smoke. Silhouetted by the sun, the British ships presented excellent targets. In many, the doors of ammunition magazines were left open to enable cordite charges to be brought more quickly to the guns, exposing them to the blast of a shell strike on the turrets.

HMS Indefatigable was hit and engulfed in flame before rolling to port and sinking. Soon afterwards, Queen May was obliterated by a series of explosions, leaving only a thick black cloud. Within minutes, more than 2,280 British sailors were lost.

On meeting Scheer’s battleships, Beatty’s squadron turned north towards the Grand Fleet. As they made away, shells damaged Barham and started fires in Malaya which killed or burned more than 100 men. Shortly after 6pm the pursuing German ships came under the guns of Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts, deployed in a line across their path.

Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, the German fleet suffered heavy damage, but a third battle cruiser, HMS Invincible, was hit by a shell which ignited a magazine. She blew in half, taking more than 1,000 souls with her. With his ships in peril, Scheer reversed course and suffered further casualties in brief clashes with the pursuing British, including torpedo attacks by destroyers, twice escaping under the cover of smoke.

When darkness fell, the German battleships passed astern of the main British force, fighting through Royal Navy destroyers, and made for the Danish coast. As 1 June dawned, the High Seas Fleet had escaped.

Aftermath

The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, including three battlecruisers, and more than 6,000 men. The German fleet lost 11 ships and more than 2,500 men. Although Jutland did not result in the decisive victory both sides had hoped for, the Royal Navy retained command of the sea. Germany would eventually turn to unrestricted submarine warfare, inflicting terrible losses on the merchant fleet and its seamen, but contributing to US's decision to join the war on the side of Britain and her allies.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Most of those Commonwealth sailors who lost their lives have no grave but the sea and their names are inscribed on one of the three naval memorials constructed by the CWGC after the end of the war. These stand at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham - the three manning ports of the navy during the war.

Those who died of their wounds or whose bodies were recovered from ships which were damaged but not sunk were often buried ashore. The graves of sailors from HMS Barham and Malaya can found at the CWGC Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in Orkney, others from Warspite and Tiger were buried at the CWGC plot in Queensferry Cemetery, Edinburgh.

The bodies of more than 200 men were washed up on the shores of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Originally laid to rest by local people, their graves can now be found at CWGC sites in those countries. The largest is at Fredrikstad, an hour south of Oslo, where many sailors from HMS Queen Mary are buried.