"Sleep not, my country, though night is here, afar
Your children of the morning are clamorous for war.
Fire in the night, O dreams
Though she send you, as she sent you long ago
South to desert, east to ocean, west to snow,
West of these, out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go,
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young
Star Captains glow."
—Flecker (Dying Patriot).
It was now twenty-two months since the beginning of the Great War, and as yet, although there had been desperate fighting on land, the long-expected battle between the two greatest fleets in the world had not taken place. It was 111 years since Nelson had won the last great naval action with the British fleet at Trafalgar. It would be a fateful day, when British ships fought again against a worthy foe. The new German Fleet was yet untried, but known to be well organised and well commanded.
It was May 1916, and the British Grand Fleet was keeping watch over the great North Sea under Admiral Jellicoe. At Scapa Flow, by the Orkneys, the great battleships rode at anchor, while farther south, in the Firth of Forth, the battle cruisers lay under the command of Admiral Beatty.
From time to time, the great ships made thrilling secret sweeps over the North Sea waters, and it Happened at the end of May 1916 that one of these periodic sweeps had just been planned to take place. This time rumours were afloat of a hungry German Fleet thirsting for action. It was not unnatural. The general military situation was not satisfactory for Germany just now. On the Western Front, Verdun had been a failure, and Russia was still giving trouble. A successful naval demonstration would hearten up the whole German nation!
So the German High Seas Fleet left its harbours and steamed out into the North Sea, part under Admiral von Hipper and part under Admiral von Sheer.
The afternoon of Tuesday, 30th May, was one of almost summer warmth, with clear skies ashore and a dead calm at sea, when Admiral Jellicoe, on board his flagship the Iron Duke, and Sir David Beatty, on board the Lion, each left headquarters according to plan, and steamed forth into the North Sea toward the opposite coast of Jutland.
Never before in history had such a powerful array of fighting ships been grouped under one command, and manned by men steeped in traditions of England's long mastery of the seas. Here was British sea strength in all its glory.
By 2 o'clock in the early morning of 31st May, the Grand Fleet in its two divisions had reached their appointed places, some seventy-seven miles apart, and Beatty was turning north to join Admiral Jellicoe with his six battle cruisers—the "Cats," as they were called—the Lion, Tiger, Queen Mary, and Princess Royal, with the Indefatigable and New Zealand. Suddenly, across the still waters came a signal, "Enemy in sight," and every man on the battle cruisers went to his appointed station. Soon five battle cruisers under Admiral von Hipper came in sight. It seemed as if the long-expected battle was coming. It was between 3 and 4 o'clock that summer's afternoon, when the first shot from the Lion rang through the air.
The battle of Jutland had begun. Soon, at a range of 102 miles, both sides were pressing the attack with the utmost vigour. The German gunnery was excellent, and within a short time the great British battle cruiser Indefatigable was struck. She rolled over and went down, with all hands, into the merciless waters of the deep North Sea. A few minutes later the Queen Mary was struck. A salvo of German shells hit the quarter-deck, a terrific explosion followed, and the finest ship in the British navy went down with her human freight of 1300 men and boys.
At a speed of 30 miles an hour, firing as they raced, the great vessels in parallel lines now raced southward—von Hipper to meet the rest of the German High Seas Fleet now hurrying up to meet him, Beatty to cut him off from his base. Suddenly—it was after half-past four in the afternoon—Beatty sighted von Sheer's Battle Fleet about to join forces with von flipper. He was now in face of overwhelming odds, two of his best ships gone. He did not hesitate. He knew, what the German commanders did not know, that Admiral Jellicoe was some fifty miles to the north with the main British Fleet, and he hoped as he quickly turned north to draw the whole German Fleet after him to do battle.
Again the two fleets raced in parallel lines, some eight miles apart, firing as they went. The weather was now changing for the worse, and as evening grew on, mist hid many of the enemy's ships. It was nearly 6 o'clock when, in a drift of smoke and sea haze, the British Fleet hove into sight.
Soon the greatest naval action of modem times was in full swing between the mightiest ships in the world. The noise was terrific. "Sheets of fire issued forth amid clouds of smoke." It was difficult to realise what was happening—so vast was the range, so confusing the numbers of ships engaged. It would be impossible to record all the heroism displayed in the midst of the battle, but, as typical of many, the marvelous bravery of the boy John Cornwall on board H.M.S. Chester stands forth. It is recorded in the Commander-in-Chief's Report of the Jutland Bank Battle as a splendid instance of devotion to duty.
"Boy (First-class) John Travers Cornwall of Chester was mortally wounded early in the action. He nevertheless remained standing alone in a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was under 16 ½ years. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory, and as an acknowledgment of the high example set by him." His well-earned V.C. was presented to his mother.
It was about half-past six when Admiral Hood's Flagship the Invincible was sunk, and with her perished one "who in faithfulness and courage must rank with the nobler figures of British naval history." Night was coming on. Searchlights played through the mist, and phantom ships appeared and disappeared in the gloom.
But the situation had become very serious by this time for the German High Sea Fleet, when Admiral Sheer adopted the desperate remedy of turning all his ships away from the British line. It was a movement of great risk. But under cover of a dense artificial fog produced by German destroyers, it was successfully accomplished, and soon contact between the Fleets was lost. By 9 o'clock the German Fleet had completely disappeared, and darkness made it necessary for the British admirals to ensure the safety of their ships for the night and renew fighting with dawn.
During that "uneasy darkness" the Germans made good their escape; so that when the sun rose through heavy mists next morning, nothing was to be seen of the enemy. Four hundred miles from his base, though in unchallenged possession of the field, Admiral Jellicoe now sailed for home waters.
Meanwhile the German commander, overjoyed at having escaped destruction, had already proclaimed a great German victory! The Kaiser had at once visited his broken Fleet at Wilhelmshaven, and by wireless and by telephone the news of a great British naval disaster found its way throughout the world.
"The gigantic Fleet of England, ruler of the seas," ran his words, "which since Trafalgar for a hundred years has imposed on the whole world a bond of sea tyranny, came into the field. That gigantic Armada approached, and our Fleet engaged it. The British Fleet is beaten. British world supremacy has disappeared." But though the toll of victory was great, the British Fleet still rode supreme on the waters of the North Sea, while the German ships had retired to the shelter of their harbours, where they remained until the end of the War.
News of the victory was received with enthusiasm throughout the Empire.
"The men were splendid," was the simple comment of a naval officer.
"The officers were magnificent," was the quick response of the sailors.
"Admirals all, for England's sake
Honour be yours and fame!
And honour as long as the waves shall break
To Nelson's peerless name."
The greatest naval battle in modern history was to be followed, a few days later, by the news of a sea tragedy that carried Lord Kitchener, the maker of the new armies now fighting on the Western Front, to his death.
For nearly two years the Commander-in-Chief of the new armies had worked untiringly and ungrudgingly for his country. He had thus raised the United Kingdom to the status of a great military power, and to some it had seemed as if his work might be almost done.
But our ally Russia was badly in need of arms and munitions, and it was decided that Lord Kitchener should now visit Russia and examine thoroughly the whole Russian situation, which even now was causing her Allies deep anxiety. The Hampshire, just returned with the Fleet after the battle of Jutland, was put at his disposal, and he arrived at Thurso on the morning of 5th June 1916. With his staff, he crossed at once on a destroyer to visit Admiral Jellicoe on board his flagship the Iron Duke before setting sail for Archangel, en route for Russia.
A heavy north-easterly gale was blowing, and a wild rough sea was dashing around Scapa Flow. Later in the day, he bade farewell to the Admiral, and embarked on board the Hampshire. At 5 p.m. that afternoon the ship sailed to her doom.
"Wild were the headland skerries,
And wilder the sunset's frown,
And the kelpie lords were abroad in the dark,
When Kitchener went down."
The Hampshire was accompanied by two destroyers, but so violent grew the gale and so high the waves that the captain ordered them to return. Then, suddenly the Hampshire struck a mine, only 12 miles from shore, and sank in a few minutes. In the bitter waters and with heavy seas running, the strongest swimmer had little chance, and only a few survived.
When daylight dawned, it became known that the man who had served his country so faithfully in the great emergency had gone down with the captain and crew on the Hampshire.
"Thy work was done
Ere we could thank thee;
and the high sea swell
Surgeth unheeding where thy proud ship fell
By the lone Orkneys, at the set of sun."
—(R. Bridges on Lord Kitchener.)