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The Battle of Jutland, 1916
It was one of the most anticipated naval battles in history. On May 31, 1916 the British Grand Fleet collided with the German High Seas Fleet off the coast of Denmark in an encounter that became known as the Battle of Jutland.

The conflict had been brewing for a number of years, ever since Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had begun building up the German navy in order to challenge the naval dominance of the British fleet. The competition slipped into high gear in 1905 when the British introduced the first dreadnought - a super-sized battleship that carried larger guns and was faster than its predecessors. Soon both countries were adding these new super-weapons to their fleets as fast as possible.

At the beginning of World War I the British fleet was dispatched to the North Sea where it established a ring of steel off the German coast that effectively prevented the movement of supplies into the country by sea. This left the German fleet bottled up in its ports, eager for a fight, but restricted by Kaiser Wilhelm's fear of losing his precious naval weapon in battle. Finally, in May 1916 the German fleet was ordered to leave its safe harbor and attack the British Grand Fleet.

Unfortunately for the Germans, British Naval intelligence had broken the German code and was aware of its enemy's intentions. On the afternoon of May 31, a combined force of 250 ships collided in an epic duel that lasted into the night and ended when, under cover of darkness, the German fleet escaped to its home port to lick its wounds.

Tactically, the battle was a draw. The final scorecard revealed that the British had lost 14 ships and 6,094 men while the Germans lost 11 ships and 2,551 men. Strategically, however, the British came out the winner as the Germans never again jeopardized their High Seas Fleet by allowing it to battle the British. German surface naval power was thus neutralized. The Germans thereafter relied on its submarine fleet to bring the naval war to its enemy. (see Uboat Attack, 1916)

"...then came the big explosion."

Petty Officer Ernest Francis was a gunner's mate aboard the battle cruiser Queen Mary. His ship was one of the causalities of the conflict. It was blown out of the water with the loss of almost its entire crew of 1,000. We join his story as he and his gun crew sits in the turret of one of his ship's big guns and prepares for battle:

"The guns were loaded and brought to the half cock and reported, and then came the order to bring the right gun to the ready...Shortly after this, the first salvo was fired, and we started on the great game.

Up till now I had not noticed any noise, such as being struck by a shell, but afterwards there was a heavy blow, struck, I should imagine, in the after 4 inch battery, and a lot of dust and pieces flying around on the top of 'X' turret.

Another shock was felt shortly after this, but it did not affect the turret, so no notice was taken. Then the T.S. reported to Lt Ewert that the third ship of the line was dropping out. First blood to Queen Mary.

...A few more rounds were fired when I took another look through my telescope and there was quite a fair distance between the second ship and what I believed was the fourth ship, due I think to third ship going under. Flames were belching from what I took to be the fourth ship of the line, then came the big explosion which shook us a bit, and on looking at the pressure gauge I saw the pressure had failed. Immediately after that came, what I term, the big smash, and I was dangling in the air on a bowline, which saved me from being thrown down on the floor of the turret.

Everything in the ship went as quiet as a church, the floor of the turret was bulged up and the guns were absolutely useless.

...I put my head through the hole in the roof of the turret and nearly fell through again. The after 4 inch battery was smashed out of all recognition, and then I noticed that the ship had got an awful list to port. I dropped back again into the turret and told Lt Ewert the state of affairs. He said, 'Francis, we can do no more than give them a chance, clear the turret.'

'Clear the turret,' I said, and out they went...

I went through the cabinet and out on top and Lt Ewert was following me; suddenly he stopped and went back into the turret. I believe he went back because he thought someone was inside. I cannot say enough for Lt Ewert, nothing I can say would do him justice. He came out of the turret cabinet twice and yelled something to encourage the guns crew, and yelled out to me 'All right, Francis'. He was grand, and I would like to publish this account to the World. It makes me feel sore hearted when I think of Lt Ewert and that fine crowd who were with me in the turret.

...I was half way down the ladder at the back of the turret when Lt Ewert went back. The ship had an awful list to port by this time, so much so that men getting off the ladder, went sliding down to port. I got to the bottom rung of the ladder and could not, by my own efforts, reach the stanchions lying on the deck from the ship's side, starboard side. I knew if I let go I should go sliding down to port like some of the others must have done, and probably got smashed up sliding down. Two of my turret's crew, seeing my difficulty, came to my assistance. They were AB Long, Turret Trainer, and AB Lane, left gun No 4. Lane held Long at full length from the ship's side and I dropped from the ladder, caught Long's legs and so gained the starboard side. These two men had no thought for their own safety; they knew I wanted assistance and that was good enough for them. They were both worth a VC twice over.

When I got to the ship's side, there seemed to be quite a fair crowd, and they didn't appear to be very anxious to take to the water. I called out to them 'Come on you chaps, who's coming for a swim?' Someone answered 'She will float for a long time yet', but something, I don't pretend to know what it was, seemed to be urging me to get away, so I clambered over the slimy bilge keel and fell off into the water, followed I should think by about five more men. I struck away from the ship as hard as I could and must have covered nearly fifty yards when there was a big smash, and stopping and looking round, the air seemed to be full of fragments and flying pieces.

A large piece seemed to be right above my head, and acting on impulse, I dipped under to avoid being struck, and stayed under as long as I could, and then came to the top again, and coming behind me I heard a rush of water, which looked very like surf breaking on a beach and I realised it was the suction or backwash from the ship which had just gone. I hardly had time to fill my lungs with air when it was on me. I felt it was no use struggling against it, so I let myself go for a moment or two, then I struck out, but I felt it was a losing game and remarked to myself "What's the use of you struggling, you're done", and I actually ceased my efforts to reach the top, when a small voice seemed to say 'Dig out'.

I started afresh, and something bumped against me. I grasped it and afterwards found it was a large hammock, but I felt I was getting very weak and roused myself sufficiently to look around for something more substantial to support me. Floating right in front of me was what I believe to be the centre bulk of our Pattern 4 target. I managed to push myself on the hammock close to the timber and grasped a piece of rope hanging over the side. My next difficulty was to get on top and with a small amount of exertion I kept on. I managed to reeve my arms through a strop and I must have become unconscious.

When I came to my senses again I was half way off the spar but I managed to get back again. I was very sick and seemed to be full of oil fuel. My eyes were blocked up completely with it and I could not see. I suppose the oil had got a bit crusted and dry. I managed by turning back the sleeve of my jersey, which was thick with oil, to expose a part of the sleeve of my flannel, and thus managed to get the thick oil off my face and eyes, which were aching awfully. Then I looked and I believed I was the only one left of that fine Ship's Company. What had really happened was the Laurel had come and picked up the remainder and not seeing me got away out of the zone of fire, so how long I was in the water I do not know. I was miserably cold, but not without hope of being picked up, as it seemed to me that I had only to keep quiet and a ship would come for me.

After what seemed ages to me, some destroyers came racing along, and I got up on the spar, steadied myself the moment, and waved my arms. The Petard, one of our big destroyers saw me and came over, but when I got on the spar to wave to them, the swell rolled the spar over and I rolled off. I was nearly exhausted again getting back. The destroyer came up and a line was thrown to me, which, needless to say, I grabbed hold of for all I was worth, and was quickly hauled up on to the deck of the destroyer. The first words I heard spoken were 'Are you English or German?'"

   Ernest Francis's account appears in: Moynihan, Michael (editor), People at War 1914-1918 (1973); Buchan, John, The Battle of Jutland (1916); Herman Arthur, To Rule the Waves, How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (2004).

How To Cite This Article:
"The Battle of Jutland, 1916," EyeWitness to History, (2006).