On May 31, 1916, there took place off the coast of Denmark the only engagement between the German and British fleets of the war; and while it cannot be called in the strict sense a great battle, it does bring into relief the policies of the two navies and shows something of their relative competence. It was the only engagement, because it was the German policy to avoid battles. By great daring and skillful planning the Germans had brought into existence a fleet. They boasted that it was large enough to frighten the British navy, but they never so far deceived themselves as to suppose that it was large enough to conquer it. Indeed, they were pretty thoroughly of the opinion that despite its size and quality it would be inadvisable to risk it in battle. The existence of that fleet was more useful to them than a victory could possibly be. Even supposing that it won a great battle, it could not expect to do so without loss, and, inasmuch as the German fleet was smaller than the British, its losses would be relatively more serious.
So long as the fleet existed, the British were compelled to concentrate their own navy in the North Sea, both in war and in peace, and were therefore compelled to surrender the actual control of the ocean highways to their allies.
The Germans could easily conceive that these allies might not always remain faithful. It was even thought in Berlin that the chances to take possession of the Pacific would be more attractive than the Japanese could resist, that possession of the Mediterranean would have an irresistible charm for the French, and that the United States would not be sorry to occupy the West India Islands. By all means, therefore, keep the German fleet in existence. It perpetuated a situation extremely dangerous to the British, one which had caused uneasiness in London for ten years.
This policy had also caused the Germans to locate the real base of the fleet in the Baltic at Kiel rather than on the Atlantic at Hamburg. The Kiel Canal, connecting the Baltic and the Atlantic, allowed them to use their fleet in both seas, gave them control of the Baltic, and enabled them to blockade Russia. On the Atlantic they erected at Helgoland and at Wilhelmshaven the most extraordinary variety of defenses, with great guns, mine fields, and all other devices they could think of, to prevent the British fleet from attempting, in Nelson fashion, to deliver an assault upon the German base. For they well knew that it would be British policy during the war, as indeed it was, to force an action between the fleets at all costs.
The British were so far superior in numbers and believed their fleet, ship for ship, so superior in quality, that they could well afford to take great risks and even suffer considerable loss to cripple or destroy the German navy. They were entirely capable of dashing into the German fleet at anchor, for, if they could sacrifice ship for ship and succeed, it would be well worth their while. The German base must be strong enough to prevent a battle without German consent.
For practically two years, therefore, the German fleet swung at its moorings, while the British fleet steamed restlessly up and down the North Sea, partly to make the blockade tight, but principally to he on hand to take instant advantage of the slightest opportunity the Germans might give for an attack. The British admirals knew at the outset that any attempt to rush the German fleet in harbor would be suicide; they must entice the Germans outside. They were also wisely anxious about mines and submarines. As Admiral Jellicoe has revealed since the war closed, the preponderance of the British in numbers in 1914 was not sufficient; the German calculations were correct; the British could not disregard caution. There was in 1914 the possibility that they might be defeated.
Nevertheless, they were anxious for an engagement, and on May 31, 1916, the British scouts reported that a battle screen of swift, German light cruisers had come into sight off Jutland, followed by five battle cruisers of the largest type. It was half past three in the afternoon, however; the day was relatively dark, and the light was therefore likely to fade between six and seven. If an action was to be forced, it must be done in a hurry. Nine fast British cruisers, followed by four of the largest battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class, started at once in pursuit. The details of this engagement as given by the British and the German accounts vary considerably, but it seems likely that the British account is the truer, primarily because it accords with the general policy of the two navies, whereas that of the Germans does not.
When twelve miles distant, the British battleships opened fire, but the Germans kept back well out of range. At 4:40 p.m. a destroyer screen was seen behind the German battle cruisers and behind it what the British believed to be the whole German high seas fleet, steaming ahead in three divisions. The British grand fleet was already in motion but was some miles away. Admiral Beatty did not hesitate for a moment. He saw before him the only opportunity in two years to force an engagement and he started at the Germans at top speed, his object being to engage them, lead them to attempt the destruction of his small force, and thus expose themselves to the full weight of Jellicoe's assault, which Beatty hoped they would not realize was so imminent.
A considerable amount of maneuvering took place. The Germans attempted to close around Beatty; he avoided them and kept clear his own retreat, while at the same time enticing them to pursue him toward Jellicoe. All this time a running battle was continued at long range between such ships as could open fire. For about an hour, therefore, Beatty's cruisers and the Queen Elizabeth were in contact with the German fast cruisers, and perhaps with a portion of the German high seas fleet. But the mists of the evening were rising, the smoke of battle added to the obscurity, the ships were firing at a distance of several miles, and marksmanship became extremely difficult.
The British grand fleet was coming up fast in three divisions, and by masterly maneuvering, Beatty so arranged his division as to keep in touch with the Germans and at the same time let the whole British fleet pass through upon them. Jellicoe seems to have attempted the Nelson touch, an attack in force upon the head of the column of advancing German ships. He seems also to have meant to get between the Germans and their own base, if possible. But the mists descended; darkness came; the whereabouts of the rival navies could only be determined by distant flashes. There was imminent danger that the British would fire upon each other in the dark. The Germans seemed to have profited by the situation and made good their escape, for escape it was.
Both sides at first claimed the victory; both claimed to have sunk the larger number of the other's ships and the greater tonnage. The British admitted the loss of fourteen ships, the Germans of eleven, though the British felt sure that they sunk some eighteen or twenty German vessels. The darkness and distance made it impossible, however, to dispute the German claims. There seems to be no considerable doubt now that the victory remained with the British. Technically it was theirs, because they remained in possession of the field of battle. Certainly too the Germans retired behind their defenses and never emerged again until they sailed forth to surrender.
The engagement showed the mettle of the British navy, its willingness to attack under tremendous odds, its great skill in maneuvering, but the fact is none the less clear that the real fighting took place between a few ships only of the second type,—fast, heavily armed cruisers. The battleship squadrons of both fleets were present, rather than in action, and certainly did not really come within effective range of each other until darkness had already fallen. The real result of the engagement appeared in the German unwillingness to attempt another. But the German policy, as the war displayed it in the field, in the air, and on the sea, was always the same, never to risk an engagement without practical certainty of victory. No victory could possibly be worth the risk of the navy's loss. When eventual victory came in France, the navy must be ready to go forth and conquer the seas. A victory on land and defeat at sea would be in the end an overwhelming defeat. They must win both on land and on sea, but they could not begin the battle on the sea until they had won on land.