Battle of Jutland | Fort Vaux | 1 June 1916

Battle of Jutland

Very, very quick recap. Ships of the High Seas Fleet and Grand Fleet fired on each other in anger yesterday, for the first time in the war. At nightfall we found Admiral Scheer barely escaping into the night, but on a westerly course out into the North Sea, and with the Grand Fleet positioning itself squarely between himself and his home port at Wilhelmshaven.

It’s times like this, so rare on the deadlocked Western Front, where an individual commander can prove his quality by making quick decisions under pressure. Pretty much all the senior commanders have made some considered, thoughtful mistakes. But then, when the shit hits the fan and they’re under the cosh, there have been a lot of good tactical decisions made very quickly and under extreme pressure.

Hipper was quick to realise that he was facing an isolated force that could be drawn onto the High Seas Fleet. On the information available to him, Beatty’s decision to pursue was sound, even though there were flaws in how he carried it out. Then at the end of the Run to the South, he quickly reacted and realised he could trap the Germans in the same way that they were trying to trap him. Jellicoe deployed his battle line, on a guess, in the most prudent fashion, and then avoided what could have been disaster when facing a major torpedo attack just before nightfall.

And then there’s Admiral Scheer. His ships nearly managed to close and destroy the Battle Cruiser Fleet before it could escape, and not knowing that the Grand Fleet was at sea, it was also reasonable for him to pursue. When he nearly blundered straight into it, he’s somehow managed to escape himself. Now he needs one more good decision. With the enemy between himself and his home port, and darkness cloaking the seas, what does he do next? It’s near the summer solstice at a dangerously northerly latitude. The sun will rise at about 2am.

He also knows Jellicoe to be a cautious, sensible man, and that the Grand Fleet’s capabilities for night fighting are questionable at best. Jellicoe, he reasons, will do the prudent thing; steer south and east, keep him cut off, and look to resume the fighting at first light. He could just steer out into the sea, far enough to be out of sight at daybreak, and then try to sneak back home tomorrow. However, just as the Grand Fleet is between him and his port, he’s now between the Grand Fleet and their port. There’s every chance that the two fleets would somehow trip over each other again tomorrow.

They could also attempt to turn north and head for the Baltic via the Skagerrak and the Kattegat. However, this would require an extended multiple-day voyage. Several of his ships are badly damaged and might not be able to stand the trip. Those waters are also extremely difficult to navigate, and there’s every chance that they could be stooged off by a neutral on the way and be stuck in a horrendous knife fight in confined waters.

So here’s what he tried to do instead.

All my maps are inaccurate.  These ones even more than usual.

All my maps are inaccurate. These ones even more than usual.

The fleet performs yet another turn, and attempts to sneak back towards the Danish coast across the rear of the Grand Fleet. It might mean them getting uncomfortably close to some very large British ships, but if it comes off, they’ll be able to head down the coast and then put a large minefield between themselves and the enemy. And if it doesn’t…then at least the fight will come at night, in far more favourable conditions than after sunrise, and perhaps they will be able to force their way through in the confusion.

Here is what is actually happening as the clock ticks towards midnight.

If it had been daylight, they couldn't possibly have avoided each other.

If it had been daylight, they couldn’t possibly have avoided each other.

I believe I am now required by law to make some ironic comment about “two ships passing in the night”, hohoho. It’s better than just two fleets being agonisingly close, though. Room 40 has been merrily intercepting Admiral Scheer’s signals. During the night, Jellicoe was sent a perfectly accurate signal telling him exactly what Scheer intended to do. And then came the final, crowning irony of this battle of fuck-ups and blunders. The British commander-in-chief is still stinging at having been told that the High Seas Fleet was absolutely not at sea, only to find out that they were yesterday evening. He now has no time for Admiralty messages.

So he ignores the signal, holds on course, and the two fleets miss each other by about 15 minutes and three miles, well within gunnery range, even at night.

And off they went...

And off they went…

Even then there might have been time to head the Germans off before they could have turned south. During the night, Room 40 intercepted and decoded some seven different messages from the fleet, making it quite clear where the High Seas Fleet is, and where it’s going. Various ships near the rear of the Grand Fleet saw heavy fighting as the German dreadnoughts forced their way through cruiser scouts and destroyer screens to the rear of the main body of the fleet. And nobody opened fire. Nobody even thought that Admiral Jellicoe should be told what was going on, in case he might not know.

And the man himself, left without information, assumed the intermittent firing was something to do with repelling German torpedo attacks. If there were anything else going on, surely they’d tell him…?

So ends the most important single battle of the war. At daybreak, a British destroyer squadron torpedoes and sinks one of the German pre-dreadnoughts, Pommern. As the Germans return to port, one of their dreadnoughts steers the wrong course and blunders into a mine, but doesn’t sink after taking on plenty of water. At 11am, having spent a fruitless morning looking for the enemy, the Royal Navy heads back to Scotland. By 3pm, the German fleet is safely back in port.

So, who won? As so often in this war, this is a very difficult question. Let’s just hold it for a moment or two and consider something very important. Pausing only to down a glass of champagne with his flagship’s officers, Admiral Scheer is hurrying to compile a report as quickly as possible. By late afternoon, he has enough information to inform Berlin. A few hours later, the German Navy has sent a press release out, not just to the German media, but to the world’s news agencies in Germany and in neutral countries. Newspapers around the world scramble to produce special editions.

The Battle of the Skagerrak, as it is known in Germany, has been presented to the world, clearly and authoritatively, as a clear German victory, with large numbers of British capital ships sunk in return for a single German pre-dreadnought. The German government declares tomorrow a public holiday. Meanwhile, the Admiralty telegraphs Jellicoe asking for a report so they can issue a contradictory statement. Jellicoe, still mightly pissed off with a lot of things, ignores the request. The battle is over; now the battle for the battle has begun. Let the shitstorm commence!

Battle of Verdun

Meanwhile. There is a whole rest of the war going on! As the Russians begin final preparations to launch the Brusilov Offensive, the Germans are turning up the heat on Fort Vaux to blistering levels. After the customary “drumfire” artillery barrage, which as always is so intense that the sounds of individual shells landing blur together into one horrendous whole, a massive infantry assault comes over the top. At the end of the day, French control of the fort is effectively untenable. All the outworks are in German control, and German infantrymen have control of the fort’s roof and are setting up an artillery observation post there.

The sensible thing would be to surrender, or to retreat, but Major Raynal has not been given command of the fort so that he can surrender it. This is why the French needed to ask for volunteers to take command. Raynal has been specifically ordered to organise the stiffest defence possible, to fight corridor by corridor and room by room. Even as the Germans begin the assault, he’s rushing into place alterations to the fort’s internal layout, destroying access points, having barricades built. There is, perhaps, a faint hope that they might hold out long enough to convince the enemy to quit it.

But, more likely this will only be the final act of a three-month epic struggle for control of the fort. Indeed, from the other side of the hill, the Germans had expected far much more trouble clearing the roof and the outworks, and planned only to begin forcing into Fort Vaux itself on the 5th. The timetable for further attacks is quickly brought forward to 2am tomorrow…

Georges Connes

Yeah, another new correspondent. We’re now on a strict diet of “only new perspectives we haven’t seen before”, but this one fits the bill. Lieutenant Georges Connes of the French Army was rudely pulled out of teacher training in 1914 and sent off to become an officer. Like Henri Desagneaux, he at first served in the rear as a gendarme before being re-assigned to the infantry. However, those first two years of his war, he chose not to write about. His story begins today; he was one of the men trying to defend the out-works of Fort Vaux.

Schneider and I once again resurfaced from under a heap of earth that had buried us many times for the past two days. The moment we emerged, a Bavarian soldier, swinging a grenade above our heads, shouted “Raus! Raus!” What could we do? We came out. … Still today, the man appears magnanaimous to me, he didn’t throw it. It would have been quite easy and must have been very tempting. Bavarian friend, you were neither a coward nor a butcher. Had I been you, would I have had your calm judgement?

The man with the grenade points the direction we must follow, [towards Fort Douaumont]. I don’t linger. French shells are starting to reach the area. What an end, to be killed by friendly fire. With my clothes, helmet, and blanket as my sole worldly possessions, I take off towards Douaumont, running the most terrible race of my life. I don’t wait for Schneider. He is fat. I am lean. He can’t keep up, and I don’t see any advantage to him in both of us being torn to shreds by the same shell. The shelling of a ground position by heavy artillery is not as terrible as one might think. It “only” kills three quarters of those exposed to it.

Connes passes through Fort Douaumont, which is serving as a makeshift processing station for French prisoners. This is why we’re joining his story, folks.

Foch and the Somme

Discontent with the Battle of the Somme continues among French higher command. General Foch, whose army group will still be involved in a much-reduced role, has been pressured by his bosses into formally committing 6th Army to a major attack. However, he remains extremely skeptical and is fully supporting General Fayolle’s plans for a limited, step-by-step offensive without much hope of achieving much except casualties. Despite his public support, he’s writing a series of memorandums to GQG, pointing out in painful detail exactly why he favours standing on the defensive everywhere except Verdun until 1917.

Salonika

Fallout from the recent Bulgarian not-an-invasion invasion of Greece continues. The Entente governments have finally got round to issuing a formal diplomatic protest, accusing King Constantine I of conspiring with the enemy. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians continue advancing into Greece, carefully avoiding the towns with a Greek Army garrison. Some of the British troops have now moved out of Salonika and into advance positions in the country, at the bottom of the Struma Valley, but they’ll soon find that the Bulgarians won’t be interested in advancing far enough to cause any trouble.

This can’t go on. Something needs to be done, and something will be done.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson and friends are setting into a routine of playing cards, keeping their heads down, and listening to the guns firing.

Took the bandage off my leg and had a look at the blisters which were like young kopjes. Dick took me on his back to the doctor who said he would send up and have it dressed. After an hour’s waiting Basson, one of the stretcher bearers, came up with wadding and bandages. He cut the blisters and removed the loose skin which was a very painful job, the leg being so tender and still swollen. About half a breakfast-cupful of water must have come from the blisters. … Dick got a sore throat so went to the doctor who told him he had quinsy.

Quinsy is what happens if you have tonsilitis and it goes untreated; a large, infected abscess forms and starts causing a lot of pain. In modern-day Europe it’s easily treated with antibiotics, and need never arise if medical attention is available for tonsilitis. In 1916 in the middle of German East Africa during a war? Different cauldron of stew entirely. Thompson’s mate could die if something isn’t done in the next few weeks.

Evelyn Southwell & Malcolm White

The BEF continues to prepare for the Battle of the Somme. Malcolm White is participating in that one great shared experience of infantrymen of all nations. Well, for some of the day, at least.

I joined the 6th Rifle Brigade a year ago to-day. We shall have mayonnaise, and I shall make a speech about the Empire afterwards. At least, that’s what ought to happen. On an all-day working-party, digging cable trenches through the fields. After haversack lunch I lay in long cool grass and looked through the dog-daisies and buttercups, and remembered that it was June.

Fraser returned from 3rd Army School. It was very good to see him. Russell-Smith and Barnes and Johnstone came to dinner. Also the Company Quartermaster-Sergeant brought me round quite a decent fiddle from another sergeant-major, which I played for some time. At midnight, I was playing “con molto sentimento” to the Transport Officer, in the hearing of all his horses.

Evelyn Southwell, meanwhile, is off at Divisional HQ, attending a series of lectures.

Some Recollection of Several Fine People.

8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps: Rogers. This was a magnificent thing of a man in his way: huge deep voice and command like a bull: knew Irving and Fairbairn and Day in the Artists Rifles, from which, I think, he has recently got his commission. He was the hero of our little cricket-match. I shall never forget him dancing round, hanging on to the roof the while, in the bus coming back from the Sniping School. He would be a dark man with what would go for a firm chin and a decided personality, and the words of his mouth were powerful hearing.

Some of these names are traceable. “Day” is too common a word to make anything of the name with Google. “Irving” might have been future Hollywood set designer Laurence Irving. “Fairbairn” is almost certainly George Eric Fairbairn, a rower at Cambridge who won a silver medal at the 1908 Olympics in the coxless pairs. He also rowed in that year’s Boat Race, and competed against Southwell, who was rowing for Oxford (Cambridge won comfortably). “Rogers” is probably 2nd Lt Robert Murray Rogers, who will die in one month and one day’s time as the Battle of the Somme begins.

The Artists Rifles, by the way, more properly the 1/28th London Regiment, is primarily an officers’ training battalion with a surprisingly long history. Oh, and Fairbairn died a year ago, on the 20th of June, at Bailleuil. What a nice, cheery thought to leave you with.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive

Further Reading

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Battle of Jutland | 31 May 1916

Battle of Jutland

Today’s the day. Der Tag, as the Germans have been calling it. For my money, there is only one thing we can talk about today. This is my nomination for “most important day of the war”, and it isn’t even close. This is the day that could have upturned the applecart, then thrown the apples to the four winds, and then smashed up the applecart and thrown it into a ditch.

The High Seas Fleet is at sea only a very few minutes after midnight. Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers are steaming full speed ahead to the Skagerrak to lay their trap. The summer night will be a short one. The sun rises very, very early on the two fleets. And then, at 5am, people start to cock things up. I’m utterly shocked at this development. The story of the next 48 hours may well be about who fucks up the least.

(It is also the story of tens of thousands of men, sweating away below decks, keeping the engines running, keeping the guns firing. Naval battles are a pain in the arse for this format. On land I get weeks, or months, to weave personal accounts into the story. Here, there just isn’t the space. At the moment, at least. For now, this will have to be the story of a few admirals.)

It’s Admiral Scheer who opens the bidding. He has 16 of Germany’s 18 modern dreadnought battleships available to him; one is still having condenser issues, and one is too new to fight yet. However, at 5am, the fleet is joined by the German 2nd Battle Squadron. This sounds good, but it’s actually a voluntary handicap. The 2nd Battle Squadron consists of six obsolete pre-dreadnought battleships. Just as the Royal Navy had its Live Bait Squadron, the German Navy has its “Five-Minute Ships”, this being their predicted survival time if they should encounter enemy dreadnoughts.

They really have no place in the fleet. They’re both old and slow. But Scheer once commanded that squadron himself. On the eve of departure, he was bearded in his cabin by Admiral Mauve, the current commander, begging not to be left behind. At length, Scheer has allowed himself to be persuaded, and includes the six pre-dreadnoughts in his battle line. This has effectively slowed the entire fleet to the old ships’ top speed of 18 knots. The Grand Fleet’s battle line steams at 20 knots. This is not the wisest decision in the war. And it’s one they can ill-afford to cope with, not when the enemy’s fleet has already been at sea for some twelve hours.

But let’s now switch sides of the hill and see how the score’s been evened up. For one thing, as I talked about yesterday, there’s Admiral Beatty’s inexplicable refusal to speak with Admiral Evan-Thomas. For another, Admiral Jellicoe’s prized proto-carrier, HMS Campania, lives in a relatively isolated anchorage within Scapa Flow. Somehow, the orders to raise steam and sail didn’t reach the ship for some hours. By the time anyone noticed, the fleet was so far away that Jellicoe did not want to run the risk of Campania sailing alone and running into submarine-shaped trouble.

So Campania is staying behind. Jellicoe will have no way of scouting over the horizon. Scheer’s Zeppelins are grounded. With one very important exception, the fleets are going to have to actually go physically find each other. And hey, what about those German submarines? They were supposed to be taking pot shots at the British ships as they left port. But, as luck would have it, they’ve been able to leave during a cloudy night. The U-boat tripwire has not been tripped in the slightest. Never mind not firing at the Royal Navy, they’ve barely noticed that the fleet is at sea.

It’s still early morning, and it seems the fuck-ups have been relatively evenly distributed. The two fleets are both heading for the mouth of the Skagerrak, on a collision course. Let’s have a crappy MSPaint map, shall we? The first of many, yes indeed.

As ever: these are meant to be helpful like a Tube map, not helpful like an atlas.

As ever: these are meant to be helpful like a Tube map, not helpful like an atlas.

Room 40

Back to Room 40 we go now, the code-breaking room in London. The room that’s apparently giving the Admiralty perfect intelligence. It’s one of the few things in this war that I’ve described with consistent positivity. Time to snap that streak! On the morning of the most important day of the war, something’s about to go badly wrong. There is a nasty little culture in the Admiralty of sneering at signals intelligence and the civilians who live in the room. It’s all very well for them to decipher and translate the signals, bigads. But they’re not Navy men. They can’t possibly be trusted to interpret the messages they spend all day reading.

Enter Captain Jackson, Director of the Admiralty’s Operations Division. When the Magdeburg codebook was obtained, Jackson was Director of the Intelligence Division. He is the absolute exemplar of the sneering at Room 40. He’s only been in there twice before today; their loathing is mutual. But now it’s important. The High Seas Fleet might be at sea. So he marches into the room and asks for the location of “DK”. DK is the callsign used by Admiral Scheer’s flagship. “It’s in the Jade”, says someone, doing as he’s told. The Jade Bight is the German Scapa Flow. The High Seas Fleet would never go to sea without its boss. So the HSF can’t be at sea. Jackson grunts and walks out.

What he doesn’t know, despite his vast ego, er, experience, is that Admiral Scheer has foreseen that someone might find out what his callsign is. He has therefore been taking the precaution of switching it to a shore wireless station when he goes to sea. No, don’t say “Ooops” yet! It gets better and you’ll need somewhere to go! Room 40 knows about the trick! They put two and two together after the Lowestoft Raid. But Captain Jackson didn’t say why he wanted to know where DK was. If he had, he might very well have been told what was going on and given Scheer’s actual position.

He didn’t. Bye-bye goes the critical tactical advantage of Room 40. Admiral Jellicoe is informed just after midday that Scheer has not left port after all. The German action must therefore only be a battlecruiser raid. The Germans only have six battlecruisers. Admiral Beatty outnumbers them. This is all going rather well. Beatty can take care of things by himself. And, let’s flip sides of the hill once more.

Scheer is relying on his submarines to tell him what’s going on. By the time the bullshit has been perpetrated in Room 40, he’s had reports from the submarines. The first is from U-32, loitering outside the Firth of Forth. They’ve been unable to close to torpedo range, but the ship has seen two dreadnoughts, two cruisers, and attendant destroyers, leaving port and heading south-east, in his general direction. The second is from U-66, in a similar position near Cromarty, with similar reports. And the German Brains Trust thinks very hard, before completely disregarding the reports. Clearly they are isolated fleet movements, of no concern or relevance.

The Jutland Bank

How many times during this war have two opposing fleets, or ships, been at sea, barely out of visual range from each other, knowing the enemy is out there somewhere, but they entirely missed each other because they were steering diverging courses? Too many to count.

And it oh-so-nearly happened again. Admiral Beatty’s orders were to hold course until 2pm, then turn north and rendezvous with the main fleet if they hadn’t found anything. 2pm comes and goes. At 2:10pm Beatty passes round the order to turn north, away from the slower German battlecruisers; at 2:15pm they turn. But the signal, being passed by flags throughout his fleet of 50 vessels, has taken its time percolating all the way through; a light cruiser, HMS Galatea has held on for a few minutes more.

They see another ship. They hold course to go identify it. Turns out it’s just a dull Danish merchantman. But, just on the other side of that merchantman there is a German destroyer, doing exactly the same thing. The two battlecruiser fleets have stumbled over each other, entirely by accident, because one Danish merchant sailor managed to put himself in the right place to get noticed by both fleets at once. At 2:28pm the ships making contact go to action stations; Galatea opens fire; and the Battle of Jutland is on.

Beatty’s reaction

Let’s have another map, this one from 2:32pm when the news was passed to Beatty aboard his flagship.

I really cannot emphasise how very rough these maps will be.

I really cannot emphasise how very rough these maps will be.

Beatty’s actions here are quick, decisive, and tactically sound, if risky. Up go the flags again, ordering a turn south-east along the indicated course, looking to get in between the reported enemy ships and their home port. The flagship turns so quickly that not all the battlecruisers see the flag signal, but that’s okay. Their commanders all know that when the Boss does something suddenly, you follow him and then work out exactly what you should be doing next. All hands, brace for incoming fuck-up!

The 5th Battle Squadron has already turned north. They’re now five miles away from the battlecruisers, heading back to the Grand Fleet. That’s a long distance to see flag signals. But don’t worry, they know that when the Boss does something, you follow. Don’t they? They don’t. Beatty never deigned to tell them. But even that’s not so bad. There’s still a backstop. Alert to the possibility of a missed flag signal, HMS Tiger has been specifically tasked with repeating all flag signals via searchlight to the 5th Battle Squadron, which can’t possibly be missed.

But Tiger doesn’t signal, her captain later offering a terrible excuse about changing position within the fleet and this clearly meaning it was someone else’s job to signal. And so the two squadrons sail away from each other for nearly ten minutes. Beatty has gone from having overwhelming fire superiority over the German battlecruisers to only a very slight advantage. A more cautious man might have slowed and let the big beasts catch back up, but not Beatty; he charges off after what has been reported only as cruisers and destroyers. They’re coming about. The German battlecruisers are right behind and are soon spotted.

2:40pm. Now the Grand Fleet knows what’s going on and is moving south to get stuck in. At 2:47pm, Beatty plays a card. The Grand Fleet might have forgotten to bring Campania, but Beatty’s got Engadine, a small seaplane tender. Up goes the plane. Over the next hour, it sends several reports back to Engadine. There is a general prohibition on sending inherently insecure radio transmissions between ships, except when utterly necessary. Engadine tries and fails to use searchlights to pass on the reports. Engadine does not use the radio.

The Run to the South

The Royal Navy has had approximately 4,722 chances since yesterday to seize the initiative and direct the further course of the battle. All of them have been passed up. By 3:30pm, Admiral Hipper knows he’s facing an enemy battlecruiser fleet, and believes it to be alone and unsupported. This is the chance! Hipper knows exactly what to do; close the range, because the enemy has bigger guns than he does, and he can’t afford to take fire without being able to shoot back. Then, tempt the enemy commander into fighting a running engagement with him. He’ll head south, apparently running for Wilhelmshaven and home, but actually drawing ten British capital ships right into the teeth of sixteen dreadnoughts.

And away they go!

And away they go!

At 3:45pm the German battlecruisers open fire, and begin the Run to the South. It takes a long time for the British ships to open fire, even with a range advantage. Their shooting is absolutely atrocious. If only they’d started their gunnery training earlier! A combination of simple bad aim and miscommunication about which ships should be firing at which is seeing some shells miss their targets by three miles. Meanwhile, the Germans have the range almost immediately, scoring hits from the off.

I don’t think I felt fright, simply because what was going on around me was so unfamiliar that my brain was incapable of grasping it. Even now I can only think of the beginning of the action as through a dim haze. I remember seeing the enemy lines on the horizon with red specks coming out of them, which I tried to realize were the cause of projectiles landing around us, continually covering us with spray, but the fact refused to sink into my brain.

This from a midshipman, just 16 years old, on board HMS Malaya, as the British fire gradually finds the range. By 4pm there are hits being suffered on all sides, and Admiral Beatty has a gigantic personal stroke of luck. One of his turrets is hit. The enormous shell flies easily into the gun turret and detonates. British ammunition handling is, as we’ve seen earlier in the war, about as safe as rollerblading down the autobahn. A powder bag ignites; the turret is full of flame, and there’s an obvious place for it to go: straight to the ship’s magazine, incinerating 70 crewmembers on the way.

And then, the stroke of luck. Despite hideous wounds and crushed legs, the Royal Marine major in command of the turret, Francis Harvey, had dragged himself to the voice pipe and ordered the magazine doors closed, and the magazine itself flooded. Just in time; the fire reached the closed doors and bounced back, venting violently through the top of the wrecked turret and killing anyone left alive, including Harvey. It’s rare I mention the winners of bravery medals; but Harvey won very possibly the most important medal of the war for that act. If you’re writing alternate history and looking for a point of divergence, you could pick a worse one than 4pm today.

Five minutes later, HMS Indefatigable takes a hit to the turret. There is another fire. This time the fire goes straight to the magazine, and the ship explodes and sinks. Distracted by the battle, men on board the flagship turn round a few minutes later to find a ship missing. There’s no time to process this; at about this point Admiral Evan-Thomas’s dreadnoughts finally haul themselves into range and the battle continues. The German ships are taking damage, of course. Plenty of it, over the next half an hour. But none of Admiral Hipper’s ships just up and explode. They just keep taking hit after hit after hit, and giving it back.

Meanwhile, over with the Grand Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe is heading south as fast as he can. Nobody has told him anything yet, but given that Beatty is over two hours late to meet up, it seems the prudent course. The only thing he can do is detach Admiral Hood’s three battlecruisers, and send them on ahead. These are the ships who had been at Scapa Flow doing gunnery practice, and who otherwise would have been with Beatty.

At 4:26pm, the Germans score a hit on Queen Mary’s turret. Same story. Fire, followed by a vast magazine explosion. Beatty is down to four battlecruisers, and by rights Beatty should really be dead. The ships astern of Queen Mary wrench their helms, and two of them miss hitting the wrecked corpse of the ship by only a few yards. And then the same thing happens to Princess Royal. It is at this point that Admiral Beatty turns to the captain of his flagship and remarks, quite casually, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

And then, a miracle; the report on Princess Royal turns out to have been in error. The ship’s still alive; she just couldn’t be seen through mist and spray. Beatty orders mass torpedo attacks from his destroyers. The Germans retaliate in kind. Everyone takes evasive action; there’s only one hit, on the German ship Seydlitz, and she’s been designed so well that even though she takes on a large amount of water, she keeps right on trucking and firing at full speed.

It Hits The Fan

It is now 4:38pm. Let us go back to the map.

Not good at all.

Not good at all.

See that one red spot. That’s Commodore Goodenough on HMS Southampton. His light cruiser is doing its job, scouting ahead of the fleet. At 4:38pm, he sees a sight that would surely make any cruiser captain fill his uniform full of human waste of all kinds. Goodenough has done his job. It’s good enough. He’s found the High Seas Fleet. This is clearly worth sending a radio message; Jellicoe and Beatty are immediately made aware that the High Seas Fleet is not in port. The fleet is, in fact, right up Beatty’s chuff and about to open fire on him. He might easily have panicked, or frozen, or been dead already.

Instead, the British battlecruiser supremo quickly grasps the new situation and its implications. He may be temporarily outnumbered. But the Grand Fleet has double the number of battleships that the High Seas Fleet does. And he has a speed advantage over the Germans. Now he has a chance to do to the High Seas Fleet what the High Seas Fleet just tried to do to his battlecruisers. Up go the flags. At this point there is another massive stroke of luck. The precise order given is “Alter course in succession”. This means that the four remaining battlecruisers will all steer to the same point and then do the world’s most ungainly U-turn, one after another. If the Germans can concentrate their fire on the turning point…

There were minutes in it, probably not seconds, but the turn is pulled off safely. The battlecruisers are out of danger and on a reverse course. Oh. Hold on. They’re not the only ships here, are they? Yes, once again, nobody has told Admiral Evan-Thomas what to do, and now they’re heading straight for each other at a combined 60mph. Fuck-up piles on fuck-up as Beatty’s flag lieutenant (a man so incompetent he doesn’t deserve the dignity of his name in here again) hoists the flags, and then leaves them there for six minutes, far longer than necessary. Maybe he lost track; maybe he was just making sure Evan-Thomas saw them. In any case, flag discipline says that you don’t steer until the signal flags are lowered. And Evan-Thomas is a very disciplined man.

So now it’s the battleships’ job to turn, one after the other, on the same point in the water. They take several hits, and one captain saves his ship only by thinking “bugger this for a game of soldiers” and turning early. But they’re made to take fire from heavy guns. They’re all still alive, and now the running battle continues, going the other way. Now, at about 5pm, the Royal Navy has the initiative. Jellicoe, well out of the battle, can only wait for developments. He knows nothing of all this carry-on; only that the High Seas Fleet is at sea, and he makes the reasonable assumption that Beatty will steer north and draw them onto him.

Run to the North

Back to the map as the Run to the North begins.

"Shall we change ends and we'll try defending it?"

“Shall we change ends and we’ll try defending it?”

Beatty is the luckiest bastard in the history of luck. He should be dead, he’s not. With all the hits his survivors have taken, someone’s engines or steering gear should surely have been damaged. Somehow they’ve all survived with full speed and steering. The battlecruisers are now able to use their high speed to accelerate out of range, and then keep out of range, leading the High Seas Fleet on. Admiral Evan-Thomas is once again handed a particularly foul stick, shitty end first. He now has to run as fast as he can from six German battlecruisers and four German dreadnoughts and God knows what else right behind them, and somehow not die.

Shells fly. Many hit. Nothing too serious on either side. Admiral Scheer, sensing victory, urges his ships forward. Like Beatty before him, he can have no idea that he’s sailing into a trap. The run continues as the sun begins its long set, going down right in the faces of the Germans. They simply can’t sail fast enough to overhaul their enemies, try as their engine rooms might. They can just about keep up, but that’s it. The High Seas Fleet begins to straggle dangerously. The pre-dreadnoughts are left behind. Even some of the modern dreadnoughts can’t quite take the pace.

At about 5:40pm, Beatty orders a turn, closing the range, and opens fire again. The Germans, however, take evasive action. There is a manoeuvre in naval warfare that has been every admiral’s dream since the invention of the rotating gun turret. It’s called “crossing the T”, and it looks like this.

Ka-pow ka-pow ka-pow

Ka-pow ka-pow ka-pow

Admiral Hipper has no intention of having his T crossed. He moves with Beatty, heading further out to sea. Slowly but surely, the British fleets are giving themselves a chance of putting themselves between the Germans and safety. Beatty continues pushing, having sighted the scouts of the Grand Fleet. He knows it’s vital to keep the Germans distracted long enough for Admiral Jellicoe to spring the trap. And, as it also turns out, they’re also bearing down on Admiral Hood’s battlecruisers, who for the past couple of hours have been roaming off to the west, trying to find the battle.

The weather is rapidly deteriorating. It’s clouded over, and the sun is out of German eyes; but mist and fog is coming in. And Beatty has forgotten his main duty. Again and again he’s been reminded while back in port. The job of his ships is to find out where the enemy is and then tell the Grand Fleet so they can hand out an arse kicking. You may have noticed that I’ve not been mentioning, “and Beatty told Jellicoe what he was doing”, at any point. This would be because Beatty has not, in fact, told Jellicoe jack shit. The commander-in-chief has been left to fiddle aimlessly with fripperies while he sails towards a battle that he has no idea about.

He has had some information, from Commodore Goodenough; but Goodenough has completely lost track of his own position and can’t possibly be where he says he is. As the daylight ticks away, they can hear gunfire and see flashes from Admiral Hood running smack into some of the HSF’s cruisers and getting into a massive torpedo knife fight. “I wish somebody would tell me who is firing and what they are firing at,” he said. The map at 5:55pm.

Really, this is not to any kind of scale, don't even try.

Really, this is not to any kind of scale, don’t even try.

Here’s Jellicoe’s problem. If the High Seas Fleet is coming, he has a golden opportunity to cross the T on isolated groups of German dreadnoughts. It will be the worst possible situation for the German fleet. They were supposed to be concentrating their fire on isolated enemy ships, and now they’re going to get exactly the same treatment back while horribly outnumbered. But before that can happen, Jellicoe needs to know where the hell the enemy is so he knows which way to deploy his battleships and where they should be firing. If he turns the wrong way, he could be offering up his own T to be crossed.

At 6pm, Beatty’s ship appears out of nowhere through a bank of mist. Signalling searchlights rip through the horizon. For 15 minutes Jellicoe tries to screw some useful information out of Beatty, and mostly gets a whole lot of nothing. The Grand Fleet’s guns are powerful enough to literally fire at targets over the horizon; so are the better German guns. If he waits for visual contact, he could find himself being fired on before he’s deployed. Without proper intelligence, he allows himself just one minute to take an educated guess.

The Deployment

The decision is made. The battleships begin to deploy to the east. This will mean engaging at long range, but in the best position to cross the German T. Deploying to the west would have put them at much closer range, possibly close enough for German destroyers to charge in, launch torpedoes while the twenty-minute deployment is underway, and throw the whole thing into chaos. Well, more chaos. At 6:20pm:

There are more than 30 battleships in a big long line, and all kinds of supporting cruisers and destroyers.

There are more than 30 battleships in a big long line, and all kinds of supporting cruisers and destroyers.

The seas around the British battle line are seething with small ships weaving in and out of the lumbering dreadnoughts, the only way for them to get into anything approaching their proper positions. it’s a mess, but a marvellously-conducted mess. And, for a fleet that’s had considerable problems not tripping over its own feet in the past, it’s highly notable that there are absolutely no collisions, although several small ships are knocked sideways by coming too close to a dreadnought as she fires a broadside.

As the Grand Fleet wallows around, Admiral Hood’s battlecruisers have finally found Beatty again, and they hurry to get stuck into the German ships…

Crossing the T

Just before half past six, it is Admiral Scheer’s turn to fill his uniform with human waste of every description. His ships emerge from a nasty patch of mist and smoke to find that they’re staring down the entire Grand Fleet, hopelessly outnumbered. The line opens fire, and hits rain down on the lead German ships. Once again, a major commander is confronted by an utterly unforseen situation that is about as terrible as it could possibly be. Once again, he could have frozen, or panicked. He does no such thing. Just three minutes after firing begins, the High Seas Fleet shows exemplary seamanship with a flawless “Battle About Turn”.

Insert Teutonic swearing here.

Insert Teutonic swearing here.

Unlike the earlier turns ordered by Admiral Beatty, this move involves the entire fleet turning 180 degrees at once. If it’s not executed properly, everyone’s going to crash into everyone else, and Scheer will look like the biggest clot in the history of naval warfare. But it is executed properly. By 6:34pm, the German fleet is running away very fast. Meanwhile, Hood and Beatty are scoring hit after hit after hit on the German battlecruisers. And then, at almost exactly the moment that the Grand Fleet opens fire, HMS Invincible proves that she isn’t.

Another battlecruiser shell penetrates her turret. Another fire. Another explosion. Moments later, Jellicoe’s fleet comes steaming past the gently smoking wreck. It must have seemed like pure wizardry. The High Seas Fleet, which seemed ripe for the picking moments ago, has in a matter of minutes vanished into the mist and been replaced by a dead British battlecruiser. And the Grand Fleet hasn’t even finished deploying into line yet.

It takes Admiral Jellicoe longer to react. He’s still supervising the deployment, like a good admiral. There’s plenty of time and plenty of thinking before he can riddle out what must have happened and do something. Happily, the Germans are now steering west, away from Germany, towards Britain. The map again.

Things are still going well. The High Seas Fleet will soon be in a position where it must come back past the Grand Fleet to get home. Jellicoe still has the whip hand, but absolutely no information. Still nobody is passing information to the flagship. Iron Duke’s own gunnery controllers saw the German turn, but assumed everyone else did too. The admiral remains crucially unaware of exactly what is going on. The time ticks towards 7pm. Daylight is running out fast.

Scheer’s gamble

And then Scheer takes a gamble. His fleet has now taken serious damage, even though the fighting so far has been far from as intense as it might be. He’s well aware that daylight is running out and the enemy is between him and home. Time to ginger things up a bit, and do something completely and totally unexpected to rescue the situation. Scheer has decided to do the last thing Jellicoe will expect; a second simultaneous U-turn. He made the decision completely on instinct, and never attempted to rationally explain it.

Death Ride

It is comparable to the second, third, and fourth waves of Australian Light Horse going over the top at the Battle of the Nek. The German battlecruiser survivors called it the Death Ride. For twenty minutes, the entire Grand Fleet opens fire. Somehow there are no German sinkings, but the fleet’s cohesion is on the point of total collapse. For about ten minutes, it seems as though ideas we think of these days of the wildest of pipe dreams might happen. For ten minutes, there is room in the war for dreams of Jackie Fisher’s Baltic Project, and other such crackpot schemes, to seem possible.

Then Admiral Scheer comes to his senses. At 7:18pm the German dreadnoughts execute a third U-turn. There’s no time for perfect synchronisation this time; just a mass of German dreadnoughts turning around, many narrowly missing collisions. And then, once more, they run away very fast. The German battlecruisers, however, continue on course. There may be cannon to the left and right, but this time there is no blunder. Dreadnoughts are more valuable than battlecruisers. Destroyers are more valuable than battlecruisers.

The battlecruisers are to invite the Grand Fleet to beat up on them while the destroyers form up for a major torpedo attack. Then, under cover of that torpedo attack, whoever can run away will run away, and if Scheer’s calculations are correct, by the time the enemy gets back on course, it will be dark. This then is the Death Ride, and death there is on heaping helpings. There is gunfire. There are hits aplenty. But once again those German battlecruisers have led a charmed life. Against all the odds, they’re still all floating, just about. And then their destroyers come in with the torpedoes.

Escape and Recriminations

When faced with a mass torpedo attack, Admiral Jellicoe followed established and sensible procedures. He ordered an immediate turn away from the torpedoes, presenting his ships’ stern to them for the smallest possible target. And nobody got hit. This preserved his fleet and succeeded in not losing the war in an afternoon, or even a late evening. And yet there are people who object to the decision, which necessarily allowed the High Seas Fleet to sneak off behind smoke screens in the last of the daylight.

I don’t get it. Well, I understand why people would say it. In a world where it is imperative to win a crushing tactical victory over the German fleet, of course you throw caution to the wind and take the risk of losing a few dreadnoughts to sink the High Seas Fleet. But this was not that world. Any result that preserved the Royal Navy’s overwhelming superiority was a win. And I defy anyone who says that yes, they would have turned their fleet nose-on to a torpedo screen (offer not valid to anyone named Beatty or Keyes), to actually have the brass balls to do it. The idea is like suggesting General Rawlinson should have stood naked on a trench parapet at dawn, and proceeded to perform The Watch on the Rhine via carefully controlled flatulence. Which at least would have had entertainment value.

Sunset

And so, this is the (extremely approximate) position at sunset. There are still quite a few hours until May turns to June, but this post is so very long enough already. We’ll come back tomorrow and pick things up then.

Lot of maps.

Lot of maps.

The High Seas Fleet remains in an extremely precarious position. Admiral Jellicoe is still taking a cautious attitude. We’ve seen how not-good the Royal Navy is at night actions. They’re still firmly between the Germans and home. It seems that all they need to do is sit tight until morning and then find the enemy again when they can see what they’re doing. More tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

The fleets leave port | Jutland | 30 May 1916

Battle of Jutland

The High Seas Fleet continues concentrating in preparation to sortie immediately after midnight. The water seethes with activity as ship after ship of one of the biggest naval fleets ever built prepares, once more, for battle. 99 ships will leave port, with sixteen modern dreadnoughts among them. They’re completely unaware, of course, that the Admiralty has detected and decoded all the attendant radio traffic as they prepare. The clock continues ticking, but it’s the Royal Navy with the advantage. One of the decoded messages contains the number 31. It’s clearly important. Perhaps it means “do something on the 31st?”

A little discussion follows among the Admiralty; by noon they’re wiring Jellicoe and Beatty with a warning. Another five hours to digest and consider, and the fleet is ordered to raise steam and then to leave port and head off, east of the Long Forties, right into the mouth of the Skagerrak. By 6pm, the crews are returning to their ships, starting their engines. The anti-submarine defences guarding Scapa Flow are being prepared for opening. The game, Watson, is afoot. By 10pm the ships are going out. 70 from Scapa Flow. 50 from the Firth of Forth. 23 from Cromarty. The Harwich Force, and the 3rd Battle Squadron with HMS Dreadnought herself, are also making ready in case the Germans should try something in the Channel.

And, just before things look too favourable for the Royal Navy, there’s a moment today to point something out. Quick recap: Admiral Beatty is, at present, lacking a few of his battlecruisers, who are doing gunnery practice on the far side of Scapa Flow. In return he’s been given four ships from the 5th Battle Squadron, four of the most modern dreadnoughts in the fleet. They’re commanded by Admiral Evan-Thomas, who until now has been attached to the Grand Fleet. Serving with Beatty’s battlecruisers is a completely different kettle of fish.

The battlecruisers are supposed to be fast and nippy. Their role is to scout ahead of the main fleet, to find the enemy’s strength and report back to Jellicoe. Beatty himself is a thruster, free-wheeling and risk-taking. His contemporaries have worried that, with the new battleships, he might take on the entire German fleet alone. His command style is also highly informal. His subordinates are expected to quickly react to changing conditions. If necessary, they should be prepared to take a lead from their boss and follow his lead without waiting for signals to be sent out. If all else fails, “Follow me!”

This is completely different to the role of a battleship squadron with the Grand Fleet. The standing orders are completely different. The 5th Battle Squadron will be with Admiral Beatty for months to come. They’ve been at Rosyth for over a week. Beatty has barely exchanged signals with Admiral Evan-Thomas. He’s not even invited his new subordinate over for a cup of tea, to politely explain how things are done round here. Nothing at all. Not a sausage. Not a soya link. Just splendid isolation. And now they’re sailing to battle together.

This action will have consequences.

Battle of the Somme

There is, apparently, no problem between brass hats that cannot be solved with a nice conference. (And, one assumes, a nice lunch.) This one is more an invitation for General Haig to attend a senior generals’ meeting at GQG, along with President Poincare and the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand. It seems to have mostly been an exercise in being sure that Haig will not, in fact, back out of the offensive. He is happy to oblige, and even happier when they settle once and for all on July 1 as a start date. Except they haven’t quite settled. General Joffre means “The infantry attack will begin on July 1”. Haig means “The week-long artillery preparation will begin on July 1”. Wonder if this is going to cause problems later? Water wet, Pope Catholic, Louis Barthas moaning about something.

Meanwhile, rather closer to the sharp end. One 2nd Lt Colyer of the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers is about now taking part in one of the simulated attack exercises that General Kiggell recommended to familiarise the men with the plan and the ground. He doesn’t seem entirely convinced.

The whole of the division was assembled and grouped as for the attack. After the usual explanations and pow-wows, beginning from the brass-hats and commanding officers and finishing with the platoon officers and section leaders, we moved across country against imaginary Boche trenches. As we went along the various bodies of men unfolded themselves into smaller groups, and eventually into extended order, as per programme, according to the amount of opposition which we were supposed to be encountering.

After some time, having advanced a great distance and captured an immense tract of country (with such surprising ease that we all felt it was a pity we hadn’t thought of doing it this way before) a halt would be called. Whereupon the brass-hats would ride up again and there would be criticisms, more explanations and more pow-wows. This being over we could collect ourselves together and hurry home, so as not to be late for tea. War under these conditions certainly was very enjoyable.

There is a disturbing note of confidence here. They don’t appear to be considering the possiblity that, like in every battle in the history of war ever, something might go wrong. I guess they forgot to invite the Germans to the planning meetings. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

Our favourite klutzy invalid E.S. Thompson continues his recuperation at Kondoa Irangi.

Had a lot of trouble getting to the latrines again. Took me over half an hour before I got back to the tent and when I did I was utterly fagged out. Lieutenant Parsons asked me if I could ride his mule as he wants me to take Paddon’s place in town. At first I said I could go but later on changed my mind as I could not hop around cooking my own scoff, and it would be painful work riding a mule.

The Germans sighted the artillery mules grazing and put a good many shots among them, stampeding them, but as far as we could see no damage was done. They were using one of their long range guns and we could hear the shells whistling over our heads. Our artillery put in 6 shells just before dark meaning them to be the last for the day but the enemy fired 3 shells towards town just as dark fell. Had been in bed about 2 hours when Paddon turned up with nothing but a stick of sugar cane. He told us that our long range guns’ were expected tonight and that the Germans had shelled them when 8 miles away.

He also told us that the church which was being used as a hospital had got 3 shells into it, 2 of which had burst on the altar and the other knocking 2 legs off a bed but not injuring the patient. He gave me a crust of bread he had made which was quite tasty. Heard that Bibby is at Lolkissale and that Legg has something from him for me.

The supply situation is abating somewhat. They’re probably not going to starve to death, but disease is still crippling the garrison.

Oskar Teichman

Yeomanry doctor Oskar Teichman is now making himself useful at last, up at the Suez Canal.

A case of smallpox having occurred in this area, orders were received to vaccinate everyone. This disease appeared to be common amongst the natives. No one was allowed to leave the camp during the morning, as the Ballah guns were practising. After lunch we found our first chameleon, which proved most useful in eating all the flies in the mess; later on we kept quite a large number of these little animals, which became quite tame and used to live on the tent-poles. One of these, known by the name of Cuthbert, held the record for eating fifty flies before breakfast.

I’ve never heard of a chameleon as a Regimental pet before, but this does make a large amount of sense.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier has, quite unexpectedly, been given leave.

My lieutenant has again gone off and I am taking his place, which is all right in its way, but as it happens, my turn for a ten days’ trip furlough comes to-morrow. Had a pow-wow with the captain. Think of getting a look into the interior of the country! This has given me a chance to tell my brother of my coming. Now I am sure to find him in Valence.

We are in a pretty good village. Since I do the work of a lieutenant, I got busy and found a room rather the room was all found when I got here. The cook of my section is my friend. Those gentlemen, of course, come into a place before their body of troops so that the first meal may be ready when it comes down hungry and tired. Well, my cook got busy and hunted me a room without my having asked him anything at all. Pretty good of him.

We are now just getting over our stay in the hills; that is, getting new clothes, etc. A great business getting everybody satisfied. After the war, I’ll make a first-class dry goods clerk.

While he’s away, his battalion will be moved from trench-digging duty back to the trenches up in the Vosges mountains.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is now heading to a port to go to France, either Southampton or Portsmouth, I can’t be sure which.

To-day it is broiling hot, and I found the tramp of two miles to Shoreham station with the straps of the heavy haversack cutting into one’s shoulder rather trying. I am the oldest man in the draft with my 38 years; all the other boys are between 20-26. My old sodjer-friends amongst the Royal Fusiliers advised me not to go out with the COs, and said “Dear! There must be a mistake! Why not refuse obeying orders and get it cleared up!” That’s what the darlings meant; their actual language was more forcible…Yet I do think I acted wisely in following the ancient rule of the soldier, “Obey first and complain after!”

Good-bye, Hampshire! Good-bye, fair England! You know I go with a willing heart, for I like to do something for you, to serve you according to my abilities; and perhaps out there in France I may meet some of the Men who made you great. They will appreciate my willingness and utilise my powers better than the manxmonkeys that fool on office stools.

I too think he also acted wisely; the most likely outcome would have been “Don’t be bloody silly”, followed by a dose of field punishment in France.

Oskar Teichman

Medical officer Oskar Teichman, now at the Suez Canal, has been around the Army long enough to become properly cynical about certain things.

To-day we heard that there was a rumour of a move; this usually happened when we had put in a lot of work and got thoroughly settled. The men had been working for weeks building reed mess-huts and sun-shelters over the horse lines. “Intelligence” stated that a German Turkish offensive was maturing at El Arish.

Despite his cynicism, there is indeed a fresh offensive being planned against the Suez Canal. More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

The stakes at Jutland | 28 May 1916

It’s a slightly unusual opening today. Bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this.

The Skagerrak and the Kattegat

Hey, have you ever wondered why Sweden and Denmark used to be major international players a few hundred years ago? It’s geography time. For the answer, we need to look what happens in the east of the North Sea, before it becomes the Baltic Sea. There’s that bit of Denmark called Jutland, the peninsula jutting up out of continental Europe and pointing directly at Scandinavia. As the North Sea gets squeezed tighter and tighter between Jutland and Scandinavia, eventually it stops being the North Sea and becomes a large strait called the Skagerrak.

The Skagerrak then narrows again as it takes a right turn and begins flowing south, and it becomes the Kattegat, a notoriously tight and shallow sea area. The Kattegat then flows through three exceptionally tricky channels between some islands, and on the other side of those channels you are now in the Baltic Sea. Control those islands and you control the flow of trade from the Baltic to the rest of the world. (To get around this problem, Germans have first built and then significantly widened the Kiel Canal.) Question answered.

All very nice, but how does this relate to the war? Let us now join Admiral Scheer of the High Seas Fleet. He’s steadily getting more and more annoyed and more and more nervous. We’ll hopefully remember that he even now has U-boats lurking near the Royal Navy’s ports, ready to attack as the British ships leave port to fend off an apparent battlecruiser raid on Sunderland. The operation is time-limited by the submarines’ fuel, and the clock is about to run out. May 23rd, his original alternative date, had seen fine and clear weather in the North Sea. Now, the weather has turned against him, keeping the fleet in port.

Weather is critical to the High Seas Fleet, since its fleet battle tactics have been heavily based on having Zeppelins available for long-range scouting from the air. The giant airships can cover vast amounts of sea and remain on patrol for days at a time. With the larger Grand Fleet having no comparable capability, it’s a vital advantage. But it can only be used if the weather complies. The weather is not complying. Scheer is now facing the possibility of having to call everything off, to postpone Der Tag yet again, well into June.

The German Navy needs a Plan B. Or, indeed, a Plan S. Britain is still enthusiastically trading with Scandinavia. The Skagerrak is heaving with British merchantmen sailing to and from neutral Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. They’re secure in the knowledge that the American ultimatum protects them from submarines, and if the Germans try to use surface raiders then the Grand Fleet will be after them. And this knowledge is now what Scheer turns to.

The basic concept remains the same. Scheer will use his own battlecruisers, under the command of Admiral Hipper, to lure his headstrong opponent Admiral Beatty into the clutches of Germany’s dreadnoughts. They will destroy the Royal Navy’s Battle Cruiser Fleet, escape before the Grand Fleet catches up with them, and begin the process of whittling the RN’s strength down to the point where the HSF might stand a chance in a straight fight.

However, instead of feigning a bombardment of the British coast, Scheer will pretend to be attacking commercial ships in the Skagerrak. The Royal Navy will still have to respond. Operating in the confined waters of the Skagerrak and the eastern North Sea, there will only be one direction from which the German fleet might be attacked. They will also be almost on top of their own port and minefields; the necessary reconnaissance can be done with destroyer and cruiser screens. All this will, apparently, compensate for the absence of the Zeppelins.

As last-minute Plan B efforts go, this is a pretty damn good one. Of course, it’ll all come to nothing, and the fleets will miss each other by an annoyingly short distance again, just like every other time in the war. But it’s surely worth a try. Scheer gives himself until tomorrow afternoon to make a decision. Either way, he’s going out. If the weather improves and the Zeppelins can go up, they sail to Sunderland. And if not, they go to Jutland.

Battle of Jutland

Deep breath. Meanwhile! We’re not done with all this yet. It is politically prudent in Britain that the Grand Fleet develop a plan to force a battle on its own terms. Both Jellicoe and Beatty agree that this is not a good idea, but appearances must be maintained. England does not just expect that every man will do his duty. England expects that eventually, the fleet will run Harry Hun’s pop-gun battleships to ground, and give him six of the best, trousers down. The idea that the Navy could be, for instance, defeated at the Battle of Coronel, prompted mass wailing and gnashing of teeth in the British press.

So Jellicoe’s staff have come up with their own plan involving the eastern end of the North Sea. It involves sending a light cruiser squadron all the way into the Kattegat and all the way to the edge of the channels into the Baltic, being sure that everyone knows where they are. They’ll be accompanied by a dreadnought squadron in the Skagerrak. This will effectively be the military equivalent of ordering a Scottish infantry battalion to climb up on the parapet and moon the German trenches.

The High Seas Fleet will then emerge from their North Sea port at Wilhelmshaven and sail up the Danish coast to sort the British cruisers out. Then the Grand Fleet will fall on the HSF from the north-west, and ideally trap them in the confines of the Skagerrak. As plans that you don’t really want to carry out go, this one is really rather good. That is, as long as the British battleships can avoid sailing into each other or exploding for no reason, both things that have already happened in the war. Pending Admiralty approval, there’s a 2nd June date pencilled in for the operation. Dear God, what a horrendous and brutal knife fight it could have been.

However, the Admiralty’s attention has recently been occupied by some very worrying messages from Room 40. Which, of course, is using its German naval codebook to decode and translate all the German Navy’s radio signals. They’ve noticed that German submarines have been sent out. They’ve also noticed that German submarines are not going after any merchants, not even under Prize Rules. Today it seems like the High Seas Fleet might well be assembling to leave port. Thoughts of the Kattegat raid are quickly shelved. No need, if the Germans are coming out to play of their own accord…

Let’s now just go over one more time how important all this is. The entire course of the war is being determined by decisions that rest primarily on what is happening on the Western Front. A vital supporting column for what is happening on the Western Front is that the British Expeditionary Force has now swelled to be well over one million men strong, after having gone to France in 1916 with 90,000. Were the BEF to disappear from France, the French Army would be extremely hard-pressed to cope with the loss of a million fighting men to its cause.

And, if some disaster were to come to the Grand Fleet in the North Sea, they might not be able to keep the Germans out of the English Channel. If the Germans could start raiding the BEF’s supply lines, then at best, they’ll have to switch to an extremely convoluted set of supply lines from Liverpool and Bristol out into the Atlantic and round into the Bay of Biscay. All the British assumptions since November 1914 have been based on undisputed control of the Channel ports and the shortest possible supply lines. The War Office might have to consider, if not withdrawing the BEF completely, at least greatly reducing it in size.

And then there’s the Blockade of Germany, which every month bites just a little deeper. For over a year, ordinary Germans have had to eat ersatz bread, KK-Brot, made from potatoes. Vital foods have been rationed since January 1915. Imports of every kind of vital material and trade good are getting harder and harder to come by. A disaster for the Royal Navy will seriously impact their ability to sustain the blockade and keep German industry under pressure. (More about the blockade to come, incidentally.)

So that’s what’s at stake every time the fleets put to sea. That damn Churchill quote rears up again. “Admiral Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” It is a slight exaggeration, but the emphasis is on slight. Any fleet action in the North Sea, no matter how comedic it seems at the time as they blunder around failing at everything, has the potential to immediately change the entire course of the whole war. No land offensive in this war has had that immediate potential. Even the German invasion of France in 1914 took a month to play out. A battle at sea, once joined, could (with considerable luck) be settled decisively in an hour.

Africa

You know what I find interesting? The number of times that events in other theatres of the war have a tendency to just quieten down enough to be glossed over for a day or few while I go deal with something major. We do need to quickly check in with Africa, and the Rhodesian invasion of the south-west of German East Africa. It’s going extremely well, better than even the most optimistic general could have predicted. True, they’ve arrived at the Namema fort to find it even more imposing than they’d suspected. Artillery is having little effect, and the Schutztruppe have again cut the bush back to give their machine-guns a perfect view of any infantry attack.

But they’ve successfully encircled the fort and begun a siege. And tonight, they’ve earned a gigantic stroke of luck. The German commander, Lieutenant Franken, personally led a night probe of the besiegers’ strength. In the wrong place in the wrong time, he was fatally wounded. Amusingly, it is said that when his body was recovered, in his pocket he was carrying a notebook belonging to local commander Colonel Murray’s intelligence officer. Oopsie.

E.S. Thompson

Even our correspondents have been compliant and not filed any copy for today! Mostly. There’s a short note from E.S. Thompson at Kondoa Irangi, who is not getting any better after spilling boiling fat all over himself.

As it is Sunday the Germans only shot 3 shells into the town, only one of which burst. My foot has swollen a good deal and gave me no little pain, so I loosened the bandage and eased it a bit. I noticed there were big blisters down the side of my leg. Had an interesting talk with a 2nd South African Horse signaller, who told us that the Native Commissioner of Moshi had been captured, and that he had said that in 5 months there would be no British army in German East Africa. Of course this is his version, but half our men are sick with fever, dysentery, etc.

The Germans shot a shrapnel shell at the 10th Regiment at about 4 o’clock, and another a quarter of an hour later. The boys brought the water for the stew late so the meat could not be boiled much and was rather hard but I managed to finish my share. Wrote a ten page letter to Mother in the afternoon. Slept fairly well though my leg troubled me a lot.

“Half our men” is a serious understatement.

Henri Desagneaux

We conclude with a nasty, worrying little message from Henri Desagneaux, near Nancy.

Yet again there is talk of our being relieved and going to Verdun. They have been fighting there for three months now. All divisions are going there in turn.

Great. The only positive spin I can put on this is an extremely selfish one; a hope that he will go somewhere other than Hill 304, where Louis Barthas was.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Rain at Kondoa | Daily Mailed | 23 Apr 1916

Rain at Kondoa

In Africa, the penny is beginning to drop for General van Deventer quite how foolhardy he’s been in leading the march to Kondoa. His men are on starvation rations pending the arrival of some supplies. Now, they weren’t quite stupid enough as to not prepare for the difficulty of getting supplies forward to Kondoa during the rainy season. Things will be fine, although uncomfortable and spartan, as long as the rest of the 2nd Division can straggle in without dying. This is turning out to be far from easy, mind you.

In the meantime, the blokes are giving the greatest attention to finding more food. Some cattle have been appropriated from a nearby farm. The town has been thoroughly searched, but the Schutztruppe have done an excellent job of destroying most of what they couldn’t take with them. Tighten your belts, boys. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

Meanwhile, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is feeling extremely optimistic. The transfer of his own men towards the Central Railway and Kondoa is going slightly slower than he’d like, but they’re all healthy and well-supplied. The Schutztruppe also have significant experience in keeping lines of communication and supply operational during their own country’s rainy season. But the good colonel’s biggest asset is unquestionably an excellent map of the district, prepared for him at his express request by the former civilian administrator at Kondoa.

The first step in his plan will be to send men forward into the hills five miles south of Kondoa to ensure that the South Africans can’t contest control of them. As soon as that’s done, he’ll be sending two enormous naval guns forward. Keep your heads down, boys. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better!

The North Sea

Let’s pick up yesterday’s story from the North Sea. The Grand Fleet spends most of the day heading homeward with tail firmly between legs. By mid-afternoon it’s back in port and beginning the long refuelling process after the recent unsuccessful adventure in the North Sea. At which point Admiral Jellicoe is informed that the High Seas Fleet has gone out again. And the Grand Fleet is unable to respond immediately because they’re busy coaling. That’s not good. More tomorrow!

Egypt

A few days ago, we heard about an Ottoman recon-by-fire exercise in front of the Suez Canal. Today it continues, with the responsible Ottomans leading the defenders on a merry chase between Bir el Abd, Oghratina, and Qatiya, a step ahead all the way. They’ve not caused many casualties or much damage, but that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there for intelligence about the defences and how the British Empire commanders might respond, and they’ve gained intelligence in spades.

By nightfall they’re heading back to camp. The next few months here will be mostly quiet, barring some semi-frequent air duels, while General von Kressenstein plans his attack on the canal.

E.S. Thompson

More now from Private E.S. Thompson’s slapstick adventures in Tanzania with a motor car. He and his mates are now trying to make things easier for said car as possible, but it’s no good; in very short order they slide into a particularly squelchy bog and stick fast. There’s clearly no going on, and with conditions as they are it’s “every man for himself, and see you in Arusha”, so they turn back.

There was an ox convoy passing, empty and returning [from Arusha]. We asked if they would tow us out of the bad parts but they said they couldn’t so we took French leave and threw all the spare equipment on to each wagon as it passed. We then had lunch, packed up our private kit and started. The car got on fairly well, the wheels slipping round a good bit. As the car had practically nothing on she sailed through the first and third drifts and got through the second one in 2 shots. We then had an enjoyable run back to the last camp, stopping on the way for tea.

You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll go nowhere fast!

Flora Sandes

Sergeant Flora Sandes, as she is now, is today taking ship to go to Salonika with her battalion. Morale is high, but there is one minor wrench for her.

We had a very hot, dusty tramp down to the embarking stage, and I had very bad luck, as I lost my dog “Mah,” who was a most faithful little brute, though it would be hard to describe his breed. He was a stray who had attached himself to an officer and afterwards been handed over to me, and he was always at my heels, never quitting me for a moment and sleeping in my tent. Even when I was dancing the previous day he had nearly upset several people in his anxiety to keep close to me.

The image of a mildly bonkers Englishwoman getting blotto and dancing Serbian dances with all her soldier comrades is arresting enough. Now you’re saying that I’ve got to add a big mongrel dog to that picture? Ye gods.

It was only about half an hour before the boat sailed that I missed him. In the immense crowd of soldiers he had lost sight of me for a moment, and then could not trace me, and someone eventually told me that they had seen him starting back along the hot, dusty road to camp looking for me, and, as I dared not miss the boat on his account, I had reluctantly to give up the search.

The boat was a fine French Transatlantic boat, but the first day out at sea was very rough, and the men, who are anything but good sailors, lay about prostrate, declaring that they would rather have ten days’ continuous battle on land than one day on board ship.

After they arrive in Salonika, Sandes will be given a long home leave in England, and only the most uncharitable of uncharitable arses will suggest that she hasn’t thoroughly earned it. We’ll pick her story back up in August, when she returns to the war.

Malcolm White

Iiiiiiiiiiiiit’s Easter! Malcolm White has just had “a week of rain and mud”, but now he’s got some very interesting insights for us. He’s been on trench duty all night, but there’s something to stay awake for.

A really beautiful Easter Day. The chaplain came round to our trenches at 6am, to hold a Communion Service in a large dug-out. This is a good man and makes me realise what good men Christians are, when they are Christians. There is a good ‘influence’ from him, of which one is conscious at his first appearance. Not many men could cry out ‘A Happy Easter to you’, with meaning and without any impediment of self-consciousness or spinality.

It makes one rather sad about the slight shyness with which we returned his greetings, the shyness of laymen towards the parson. At 6.30 this wonderful west-wind day had begun, and I went to bed, smoking a pipe and thinking of father and of many things.

The chaplain’s role in the British army has long involved far more than just giving services, and we’ll soon be getting to know another one. However, it’s here, in this war, that many selfless and like-minded souls created the image of the modern chaplain, offering counselling support and providing a few creature comforts to the men to help them endure years of war. (Of course, as Kenneth Best pointed out at Gallipoli, there were also plenty of padres whose primary concern was their own safety and the fullness of their stomachs, but for the most part I’m happy to let them fade into the obscurity that they deserve.)

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, is also having church parade in a meadow near his camp.

It was attended by all the Protestants in the Brigade. The troops formed three sides of a hollow square, or rather parallelogram, the officers in front of their battalions. The staff officers stood in the centre of the rect angle. The pulpit, consisting of six drums piled, and covered with the Union Jack, stood at the open end of the formation. Behind the chaplain were the massed bands of the brigades.

The form of service used was that intended for open air service in the Regular Army, and was apparently an abbreviated form of the regular Episcopal service. It was followed by a short Easter sermon, the whole service lasting about three-quarters of an hour. From the rising ground on which we were standing we could see for miles over the country.

The partly ruined castle of Saltwood (where the murderers of Thomas a Becket slept the night before they killed him at Canterbury) was visible in the distance, surrounded by tall trees which may have been standing when Caesar landed a few miles away. A bluff beside us was scarred owing to having been used as a machine gun target. During the service an aeroplane flew over our heads.

These signs of warfare, however, seemed much less close to us and much less real than the quietness and peace of the service and of our natural surroundings.

He’s also finished his quarantine period.

Maximilian Mugge

If Maximilian Mugge thought anything of his Easter church parade, he didn’t publish it. He’s too busy complaining about the NCOs again.

The language of some of the NCOs in the square is abominable. For filth and vulgarity it is unequalled. They bully the boys. One of my neighbours in the ranks actually burst into tears after a storm of abuse had passed over his unfortunate head.

An interesting phenomenon offers our own Sergeant. He belongs to the same social class as most of the Privates, yet the former bricklayer is more autocratic than an iron master, more dictatorial than a schoolmaster and more conceited and cruel than Falstaff and Nero together (assuming the latter has not been bedailymailed by his friends the Christians).

Anyhow, we all in our hut now know, in case of a dispute, a complaint, a “crime,” an NCO always comes out “on top.” If he “cops” you, or wants to “cop” you, there is an end of it! The officer will believe him. Napoo!

Yes, Mugge really did write “Be-Daily Mail-ed”. Some things never change! “Napoo” (or “narpoo”) is the English mangling of the French ” il n’y a plus”; literally “there is none”. Which the first arrivals in France heard rather a lot of. Their fun new word has now leaked back to England with the wounded.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide