June 20, 1916 – The Battle of Jutland: it’s the British Press wot won it!

HMS_Queen_Mary_Jutland

The Battle of Jutland is nearly a month old but the battle to decide which side won is still ongoing.

The German Press is claiming their High Fleet were the victors but the British Press maintains the Royal Navy came out on top.

Incredibly, the argument still goes on today with historians providing evidence for both outcomes. However, in the heat of post-battle it was incredibly important for the British Government to ‘prove’ to the public that we were winning the war as well as this particular engagement.

Hence a story in the June 20, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser – sourced from The Scotsman newspaper – which quotes a junior officer. The cynical mind of the 21st century can see the Machiavellian hand of the Government’s infamous Press Bureau wheeling out the young sailor so he can be the trusted ‘voice’ the public will connect with and believe.

Whatever the calculation behind the story, it makes a vivid and evocative read. There’s plenty of jingoism and anti-German sentiment in many of the passages – a sign of Government intervention or the obvious, blinkered approach of any combatant of any armed force? Make up your own mind.

However, there is also plenty of evocative detail that overshadows the dry military reports normally associated with the Press Bureau or even Fleet Street’s national reporters.

The sailor – who remains unnamed throughout – begins his narrative by explaining why there is such confusion about the battle. “I can’t see how anybody’ll ever be able to put thing together properly. The mist made the whole business so chancy. One minute the German line would be as clear as the silhouettes on a turret about 10,000 yards away and the next you could see nothing but the leading ship.”

World-War-I-British-Grand-Fleet

There are plenty of instances of national pride coming to the fore: ‘the German gunnery was simply all over the place’ or ‘one of their ships loomed out of the darkening haze at perhaps 7,000 yards and gave us a salvo – the rottenest shooting you ever saw, calibration bad, dreadful’.

It is a riveting read and becomes even more evocative as it moves towards a climax – almost literary in style – where the sailor describes what the fighting becomes like when darkness falls.

“As the night drew on the sight of the battle became more awful than the sound; all along the horizon and sometimes in the air and sea, the night was rent by lurid red flashes with here and there the towering flame of a ship on fire and here and there a vast explosion, heaving the inside of a ship to heaven.”

This remarkably intimate and graphic description goes on.

“I can’t describe what the fight at night was like. It was literally too awful for words. One moment we were in furious action with enemy craft, then the darkness would swallow them up and we would wait as you wait for thunder after the lightening flash. The tension, appalling din, the more appalling lulls, the torpedo alarms.”

Would the Advertiser readers believe this story comes from the lips of an ordinary lad, just like the ordinary Harborough lads fighting on land, sea and air?

They certainly would if it had been a named Harborough sailor who had been telling his story. It appears there was no-one involved at Jutland from Harborough, but my fellow researcher David Penman, who is undertaking a similar project with the Derbyshire newspaper the Ashbourne Telegraph, has found a connection with the great battle.

The latest edition of the Telegraph quotes young sailor R Sweeney, a member of the crew of HMS Obdurate. “I had the hottest time of my life, during last action, as our ship was nearest the enemy, and what we did not see was not worth seeing. It was a grand sight.”

Bundesarchiv_Bild_134-B2100,_Panzerkreuzer_Derfflinger_-_Gefechtsschäden

He tells his aunt, Mrs Mansfield, of Buxton Road, Ashbourne he considers it to have been a great victory. “It was a terrible sight when our first battle cruiser went up not 15 minutes after we had opened the engagement, but I was cheering when I saw their largest battle cruiser catch fire and blow up.”

Another man with Ashbourne links was missing in the wake of the naval battle. Mr W Silvester of Derby Road tells the Telegraph his grandson Stoker Frank Fearn is among those missing from the crew of the Queen Mary.

The Notes and Comments column observes that several Ashbournians had witnessed the terrible battle. “There has been scarcely an important incident in connection with the war which has not been witnessed by someone having a close connection with our little town, a fact of which we may be justly proud.”

  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
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