The Battle of Trafalgar, a hundred and ten years before this war, was not made in a day. The fleet that won at Trafalgar first had to spend two long, boring years farting around outside Toulon. At least the Grand Fleet gets to do its ration of sod-all while sitting quietly in port at Scapa Flow. They don’t need to do anything. They’re comfortably superior to the High Seas Fleet. As long as they have that superiority, the distant blockade of Germany can be maintained and tightened at will, as long as sufficient small craft exist to enforce it.
And yet. This is not how the Royal Navy is used to doing things. The entire culture of the Navy demands action. Admiral Jellicoe, commanding the fleet, is not unaffected or unsympathetic. There’s a constant correspondence between the Admiralty in London, Jellicoe at Scapa Flow, and Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser force at Rosyth. All kinds of schemes are being discussed that might provoke a battle. They range from the simple (bombarding the islands of Heligoland) through real throwbacks (sending fire-ships into German ports) to the incredibly far-fetched (Jackie Fisher’s old idea for a sally into the Baltic Sea is still giving encores).
However, Jellicoe is commanding with his head, not his heart. Now that Churchill and Fisher are no longer around, there’s nobody with the personality to force a bold move forward. And a good thing too. After the war, Churchill famously wrote that Admiral Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”. This is, typically for Churchill, an exaggeration, but it’s not too far off.
Naval superiority in the North Sea is an assumption that underpins everything that the Entente is doing. It means that the Germans can’t hope to seriously interfere with the supply lines that keep the BEF in Europe. It means the Germans can’t hope to challenge the blockade of their country and relieve the growing shortages of food and other supplies (more on that to come). The entire course of the war on the Western Front is propped up, not entirely, but in large part, by British naval superiority.
And that’s why I said a few days ago that the Battle of Jutland is the only battle in four years with the potential to completely change the war on the Western Front. It’s impossible to describe fully, yet briefly (it’s an either-or) how different the war would have been if the Grand Fleet were to lose naval superiority. I’ll leave that to the authors of alternate history.
Beatty and the battleships
There is a slightly more concrete concern for Jellicoe at the moment (or indeed, a more steel concern). These are the monstrous new Queen Elizabeth-class super-dreadnoughts. 15-inch guns and 24-knot oil-fired engines all round! Four of the five ships are now with the Grand Fleet; the fifth will be commissioned in a week’s time. Their guns can out-range anything in the High Seas Fleet. They’re such good, powerful ships that they’ll all see service in and survive not just this war, but the Second World War also. They are the very shiniest of shiny new toys.
And, inevitably, there’s a big old pissing contest going on about who gets to play with the shiny new toys. Beatty’s command has been expanding from simply being a battlecruiser squadron. His job is perhaps best described as heavily-armed reconaissance. He’s still under Jellicoe’s orders, but if the Grand Fleet sails, Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet will be out in front of the fleet’s main battle line, looking for trouble. Find the enemy, report its size, engage if possible, bring the main fleet into action if necessary.
So he wants the toys. The Germans have just completed two new battlecruisers. The QEs will ensure that the Battlecruiser Fleet can take on any enemy force short of the entire High Seas Fleet. Jellicoe, unsurprisingly, would prefer to see the QEs under his direct command. They’re battleships, they belong with the rest of the battleships. He does have another concern. Beatty is an unashamed dashing thruster, the embodiment of the old Navy song Heart of Oak: “We always are ready; steady boys! steady! We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again!”
Unsurprisingly, this worries Jellicoe, the man who only needs to preserve the fleet in order to do his job. He outright told Sir Henry Jackson, the First Lord of the Admiralty, “the stronger I make Beatty, the greater is the temptation for him to get involved in an independent action.” So he’s keeping the new toys for himself, at least for the moment. More soon, particularly on the subject of what the blokes crewing the ships are actually doing so as not to go round the twist. The traditional serviceman’s pastime of chronic masturbation can only use up so many hours in the day, after all.
Inspection by General de Villaret, commanding the 7th Army. An inspection of the battalion, which is supposed to teach us something. It turns out to be a grotesque parade where this general is only interested in the men’s bootlaces, the buttons on their greatcoats, and the hooks on their cartridge pouches.
Now, there is something to be said for having Standards, and not going about the place looking like sacks of manure tied in the middle with string. There are rather more things to be said for having reasons for your Standards, and not just using them to annoy the blokes to no purpose. At least it seems that Desagneaux will not be following the example of Captain Cros-Mayrevielle any time soon.
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