31st May 2016 marks the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Jutland, the largest sea battle between the British and German fleets to take place in the 20th century. While there is rightly a lot of attention focussed on the anniversary and the huge loss of life, my thoughts turn to one sailor in particular who sailed out with the Grand Fleet that day.
My great-grandfather William Gray was born in Dundee in 1885, the son of an iron founder, also called William, and Jessie (née McLaren). On 29th October 1909, at the age of 24, William enlisted with the Royal Navy for a term of twelve years. It was a life changing few days for William as just 24 hours before committing himself to the Navy, he married Florence Maria Hornsby at Gateshead Register Office.
The discovery that William had been at Jutland came while analysing his naval service record at the National Archives (ADM 188 / Royal Navy registers of seamen’s services 1873-1924). These documents detail each ship or base the sailor has served on, complete with start and end dates. In William’s case, he was assigned to the brand new battleship HMS Benbow in October 1914, where he remained until July 1916.
HMS Benbow was an Iron Duke-class dreadnought battleship, commissioned on 7th October 1914, 190m in length, with a beam of 27m and was crewed by just over a thousand men during wartime. Dreadnought was a term to describe a new type of giant battleship, named after the first one to be built, HMS Dreadnought (1906). The impact these new ships had in terms of physical size, speed and firepower, made all built before pretty much redundant. So by the start of the First World War, fleets were measured by the number of dreadnoughts at their disposal and older battleships were described as “pre-dreadnoughts”. Typical of this type of ship, the Iron Duke class was fitted out with some fearsome weaponry; ten 13.5 inch guns, twelve 6 inch guns, as well as anti-aircraft guns and torpedo tubes.
The Grand Fleet of 1914 was the latest incarnation of centuries of proud naval tradition. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar had occurred just over hundred years previous and the nation believed the fleet were not only invincible but that a battle with the Germans would have only one outcome. These beliefs were not entirely without foundation. HMS Benbow was one of 151 combat ships to head out into the North Sea to intercept the Germans, a formidable fleet which comprised 28 dreadnought battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 8 armoured cruisers, 26 light cruisers and 78 destroyers.
This fleet, based primarily at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, had spent much of the early years of the war concentrating on maintaining a blockade, to keep the German fleet at bay and restrict the supply of goods by sea to Germany and her allies. The Germans always knew they had little chance of winning a full-on battle, with their fleet just two-thirds the size of the British. Instead they believed their only success would be to entice smaller numbers of British ships to come after them, in response to raids in the North Sea or attacks along the English coastline.
The German stance changed however in January 1916 when Admiral Reinhard Scheer was put in charge of the High Seas Fleet. He believed that too much caution had been exercised and that despite the numerical disadvantage, the Germans had better ships and better men. So, in April 1916 an ambitious plan was put in place to position submarines close to the British naval bases and attempt to lure larger numbers of ships towards the waiting German fleet.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the British were aware of every part of the plan well in advance, thanks to them obtaining a copy of the main German code book from a ship captured in 1914. This enabled the British Admiralty to decode most of the German naval signals and be forewarned of the whole battle plan. So it was that HMS Benbow, carrying Engine Room Artificer (ERA) William Gray, steamed out of the safe waters at Scapa Flow on the night of 30th May, alongside fifteen other dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers. Their destination was the North Sea, just off the coast of the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. British fleet commander Admiral John Jellicoe planned to prevent the German fleet from leaving straits at Skagerrak (the German name for the battle), to the north of Jutland.
HMS Benbow acted as the flagship for the 4th Battle Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. In this role she led the battleships HMS Bellerophon, HMS Temeraire and HMS Vanguard. As they headed into the North Sea, the 4th Battle Squadron was immediately to starboard of the fleet flagship, the HMS Iron Duke, under Admiral Jellicoe’s command.
On the morning of 31st May, a reconnaissance force led by six fast battlecruisers, under the guidance of Jellicoe’s second-in-command Admiral David Beatty, headed out from the Firth of Forth with the aim of rendezvousing with Jellicoe to the west of the mouth of the Skagerrak.
What happened next remains the source of great controversy and debate but in the first engagements of the battle, Beatty’s force encountered their German counterparts, commanded by Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper, an exchange which ended in the sinking of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, with the loss of over 2000 men.
Hipper’s plan was to lure the remaining battlecruisers south towards the waiting Scheer and the German battle fleet but when Beatty saw the vanguard of the German line he ordered 180 degree turn to try to draw the Germans back towards Jellicoe’s main force. Jellicoe sent ships south to support Beatty but in the ensuing action a further dreadnought, HMS Invicible was destroyed.
In a classic Naval manoeuvre known as ‘Crossing the T’, Jellicoe led his dreadnoughts directly into the path of the German line, enabling the British ships to target a number of enemy vessels at once. As the sun started to set, the major engagements of the battle and indeed of the dreadnoughts during the First World War, were already over.
Aware that the Grand Fleet were deficient in night time combat, at 21:00 Jellicoe placed a screen of cruisers to the north while he headed south to try to cut off an escape route. Scheer however managed to navigate his force through, back to the safety of their home waters.
As well as the battlecruisers, three British cruisers and eight destroyers were lost. The Germans did not escape lightly; the crippled battlecruiser Lützow was torpedoed by their own side to avoid it falling into British hands; a pre-dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers were also lost. In total 6,094 British sailors lost their lives and 2,551 Germans.
For me, perhaps the saddest story on a day of much sadness, was the loss of the cruiser HMS Black Prince. Just after midnight on 1st June, detached from her squadron and lost in the darkness, the ship took position back in what was thought to be the British line when in fact it was the Germans. Realising the error too late, Black Prince turned away but was destroyed at point blank range by overwhelming German gunfire. All 857 crew on board perished.
The tragic losses at sea were only the beginning as the country began to hear stories that the unthinkable had happened, the Grand Fleet had failed to destroy the Germans. Worse, the Germans declared it a victory, justifying this on the numbers of ships and men lost by both sides. In Britain, the recriminations followed quickly.
The Times of 2nd June printed an announcement from the Secretary of the Admiralty under the headline “Great Naval Battle. Heavy Losses. Six British Cruisers Sunk. Eight Destroyers Lost…. Enemy Fleet Battered”.
The official report into the battle effectively laid the blame on Jellicoe, saying he was too cautious and made some tactical errors. Beatty was particularly vocal and replaced Jellicoe when the Admiral was promoted away from active duty to become First Sea Lord. Conversely blame has been laid at Beatty’s door; two battlecruisers lost when he, against orders, went after Hipper in the early stages of the battle. Beatty equally was deficient in keeping Jellicoe informed of the position and course of the High Seas Fleet.
By July, attention was taken away by the terrible events occurring at the Somme in Northern France. However the reverberations continued and the unshakeable belief in British naval invincibility was irreparably damaged.
I feel privileged to have had first-hand access to some of the key documents of the battle; the ship’s log for HMS Benbow (National Archives ADM 53/35121 and 35122), which details in exquisite detail the routine of life at Scapa Flow contrasted with the heat of a great sea battle; and Jutland: Reports of Flag and Commanding Officers (National Archives ADM 137/302).
Above all though, the most treasured documents are letters written from on board HMS Benbow by William Gray, to Florence, in the immediate aftermath of the battle. His words are a telling reflection as to the mood of the men who were there and the fierce loyalty they felt.
Thursday June 1st 1916
My Dearest Wife,
I suppose you will have seen by the papers that the two Fleets have met at last. We had a great day and plenty of excitement you bet. I am writing this in the evening and up till now don’t know the extent of the damage or casualties. The Germans appear to have lost very heavily though and I suppose it will be a long time before they issue forth again, this is what is left of them. I can tell you Flo that I am all safe and we came out of it unscathed not hit on the ship. I expect you will have been anxious, that is if there was anything in the papers about it, but this is the soonest possible that I could write and I don’t know when this will be sent off but I must get it posted so that you will get it at the earliest.
I will write you more fully later.
Sunday June 4th 2016
My dearest wife,
Received your letter and stamps alright for which many thanks. There is still nothing doing Flo but expect it this month. Well what do you think of the great sea battle. It is a great pity that they got away at all but there, they did and by all accounts it was the fog that allowed them to do so. They did a lot of damage to our ships before we got on the scene but they soon showed them off then. The full accounts are not out yet but it seems pretty equal either side. The German account is properly ridiculous. They are talking about the supremacy of the seas, more bluff. They were the ones to break off the action and run to Kiel. Of course that happened after us, the Battle Fleet, had appeared. Portsmouth has been hit pretty hard this time. Queen Mary and Invincible and one or two of the destroyers that have been lost. I know a few of the chaps on both. I was at the burial of some of the dead today, very impressive. I am awaiting a full account rather anxiously to see how things have really gone. So you have had Dolly at the dentist at last, I am so glad she was good. Sorry to hear you have a cold again. Look after yourself Flo. Best love dear and kisses to Dolly. Your ever loving husband, Will.
Monday June 5th 1916
My Dearest Wife,
Enclosed 30/- let me know if you get it alright. What do you think of the great battle.
Best love, Will
As news of the public reaction to the battle reached Scapa Flow, William’s reaction was understandably forthright.
Saturday June 10th 1916
My Dearest Wife,
I was pleased to hear that you had received my letter so promptly last Monday. I knew you would have had an anxious wait and, especially in view of the almost hysterical papers the press issued about the naval action. I can assure you that no one was more surprised at the so-called defeat than we were. It seems too ridiculous for words. I suppose you will have seen by the papers now, something like the truth which in my opinion was that Admiral Beatty with his squadron, engaged the whole German Fleet and held them until we arrived on the scene. That doesn’t seem much like a defeat, does it; a few ships against the German Navy, and it is a great shame that the light and weather failed us at the critical moment. If it had only kept decent for just a little while longer there would have been no more German Navy. As it was they had a fearful hammering before they got away, and I have no doubt that when Admiral Jellicoe’s report is published you will all be agreeably surprised. He is a great man. I think it will be a long time before they come out again in any strength, more’s the pity. Everyone would like to see them come out to give battle. They had a wonderfully narrow squeak last week and they know it too. All those gains of theirs is sheer bluff for well they know how near they were to going in properly. It is a great pity though that the press and the country too, jumped to the wrong conclusions too quickly last weekend. The Admiralty published our losses as soon as possible and did not publish theirs for the simple reason thay they did not know them fully, and I don’t think that they know them yet. But the Germans are gradually publishing them and by the time the Commander-in-Chief’s report is known it will be a good total. But the idea of defeat, it was a victory, and a good substantial one too. Wasn’t that horrible losing Lord Kitchener like that, what a great loss to the nation.* It is a wonder there was anyone saved, but I see there were 12 picked up. It was a wild night when the “Hampshire” was lost. The fortunes of war, and duty, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Do you remember Mrs Cole, a neighbour of Mrs Lucas. Her husband went down in the Black Prince, leaves two children. You are right, I do know a lot of poor chaps who lost their lives. You remember Mr Self, his son also went down in the “Invincible”. There is bound to be a lot of mourning in Portsmouth and Devonport. That is the hardest blow Pompey has had. I had a letter from Lucas. He expects to be called up shortly. Hope you have got rid of your cold again, is dear little Dolly alright. Get her teeth attended to at all costs. Best of love Dear and kisses to Dolly.
Your ever loving husband, Will
* Field Marshall Herbert Kitchener was Secretary of State for War and the subject of the famous “Your Country Needs You” posters to advertise recruitment for the largest volunteer army the world had ever seen. On 5th June 1916, he was travelling on board the cruiser HMS Hampshire, on his way to attend negotiations in Russia, when the ship struck a German mine west of the Orkney Islands. The ship sunk, killing more than 600, including Kitchener and his staff. Only 12 crewmen survived.
These letters form part of an incredible collection, a treasured family archive, and will be the subject of further blog posts.
So many men were denied a proper burial, the ships at the bottom of the North Sea are official grave sites. As we reflect upon these terrible events one hundred years later, I think not only about those who never came back to their loved ones, but how lucky my family were to get William back safe and sound.
As well as the documents I refer to in this blog post, FindMyPast have published a specially created collection, bringing together the names of all those who served at Jutland.