The Battle of Jutland

HMS Indefatigable Image held by Imperial War Museum ref 392

‘On the afternoon of Wednesday 31st May a naval engagement took place off the coast of Jutland. The British ships on which the brunt of the fighting fell were the Battlecriuser Fleet supported by four fast battleships.’
Admiralty communique of 2nd June 1916

The 98th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrackschlacht has just passed without much attention. The much anticipated clash between Britain and German fleets took place on 31st May 1916 and in  some respects is  regarded as a ‘draw’: British losses of ships and men were higher but realistically Britain still retained control of the seas and still was able to impose its naval blockade against Germany. In the short term Kaiser Wilhelm depicted Jutland as a victory for Germany, telling his navy that they had begun a ‘new chapter in world history’. He was particularly keen to stress this to neutral countries who were caught up in the British naval blockade. In fact Jutland marked the end of an era of great sea battles : Increasing developments in respect of aircraft changed the nature of sea conflict.

If Britain had lost the battle, and control of the seas, then the outcome of the Great War would have been different. In ‘Jutland 1916 -death in the grey wastes’ Nigel Steel & Peter Hart’ (2003) , the back cover ‘blurb’  (looking at the 2004 paperback edition) announces that these authors want the battle to
return to its rightful place alongside the Somme and Passchendaele as one of the key episodes of the Great War.

I am intrigued by the idea of return , the implication that Jutland somehow was once considered as a key episode  but somehow slipped from view.  

Jutland has not really been the theme of War memoir or poetry that is regularly anthologised:  The numbers of men engaged were tiny compared with those who served on the Western Front. The number of those killed in action , 6,097 on the British side/ 2,551 on the German side, were not high compared with other ‘key’ battles.  Those who oppose Britain having engaged in the Great War don’t seemed to have found enough in the battle; paradoxically, those who longed for Admiral David Beatty to be a ‘Nelson’ for the 20th century didn’t feel that their high expectations were met.
Rudyard Kipling wrote the following eulogy about Jutland.

The Verdicts -(Jutland)

Not in the thick of the fight,
Not in the press of the odds,
Do the heroes come to their height,
Or we know the demi-gods.

They are too near to be great,
But our children shall understand
When and how our fate
Was changed, and by whose hand.

Our children shall measure their worth.
We are content to be blind . . .
But we know that we walk on a new-born earth
With the saviours of mankind.

Interesting that Kipling elevates those who fought at Jutland into ‘demi-gods’ and ‘saviours of mankind’ .

There’s also a strand in ‘Great War at Sea’  poetry that aims to make a connection between a maritime tradition and the Great War at Sea, such as in Captain R. A. Hopwood’s ‘The Old Way’ (  published in 1916)

” There’s a sea that lies uncharted far beyond the setting sun,
And a gallant fleet was sailing there whose fighting days are done,
Sloop and galleon, brig and pinnace, all the rigs you never met,
Fighting frigate, grave three-decker with their snowy canvas set;
Dozed and dreamed, when, on a sudden, ev’ry sail began to swell,
For the breeze has spoken strangers, with a stirring tale to tell,
And a thousand eager voices flung the challenge out to sea:
“Come they hither in the old way, in the only way that’s free?” ”

Captain Ronald Hopwood  has already been discussed  on the page ‘HMS Vanguard ”The Old Way’ was included in ‘The Muse In Arms -A Collection of war poems, for the most part written in the field of action, by seamen, soldiers, and flying men who are serving, or who have served, in the Great War. (1917) , and re-published  in 1918.

A strange contrast emerges. Kipling, dare I say it, turns Jutland into a modernist event. Life is never the same again after the battle : Captain Hopwood is calling on tradition, frigates being connected to ‘sloop and galleon’.  The sea is strangely passive…..’uncharted’  just waiting for a British gallant fleet to define it.  The speech is archaic  ‘Come they hither…..’

News of Jutland – Roma White

But different again from either Kipling or Hopwood, is Roma White’s poem ‘News of Jutland’  -a writer who visits Poole a couple of days after Jutland and goes out in harbour with a fisherman, who just tells her about his life.  The poet  adopts Kipling’s annoying habit of dropping aitches to denote a ‘common person’. And  those who dislike war poetry on aseathic grounds will start the standard argument ” That’s journalism, that’s not poetry “. The fisherman has two brothers who were serving in the Royal Navy, and had no news of them. The men aren’t the demi-gods of Kipling’s poem. They aren’t part of a grand naval tradition – ‘The Old Ways’ of Captain Hopwood.  It is most likely that they were recruited from the fishing fleet into the navy, or possibly one time members of the Royal National Service Volunteers who were serving for the duration of the war.  The sea itself is potentially full of dangers,…and war at sea is depicted realistically

” Aye, fights on sea are grave!
There ain’t no Red Cross people there
To lift you off the wave!
There ain’t no ‘cover’ you can take,
No places to lie down!
You got to go – wi’ red-hot shells
Just helping you to drown! ”

” The fisherman named in the poem, Jacob Matthews, was a real person. Ancestry database gives us a lot of personal information about him, born about 1882-4, married in 1905 or 1906, by 1911 he had 2 children, lived in Taylors Buildings near the Quay in Poole, his occupation was fisherman. At the time the fishing boats of Poole would use sails. ”

“When the war began in 1914, the Admiralty, the Board that controlled the Royal Navy, took control of all British shipping. That included fishing boats. The Admiralty told fishing boats not to enter ports at night, and said that fishing was not allowed at certain places on the coast. Fishing boats had to make sure that they had registration letters and numbers painted on, or the Royal Navy could fire at them.” http://www.historyshelf.org/secf/danger/links/link5.php

(  I am extremely grateful to Lois Woods of Poole History Centre for this information )

It’s hard to find any other poems by ‘Roma White’.  Lois Woods’ theory is that she was a writer by the name of Blanche Oram, born in London in 1866, who later became Mrs. Winder.  Amongst her published work are versions of Aesop’s Fables and the Legend of King Arthur, for children.
‘News Of Jutland’ was published in the aforementioned anthology ‘A Muse in Arms’  (1917) in the section titled ‘The Sea Affair’ .

News of Jutland
by Roma White

June 3rd, 1916

(On June 3, 1916, when the news of our sad losses in our first great naval battle off the Jutland Bank had just come to hand, I went fishing with a sailor on the Naval Reserve. The following lines are, almost word for word, a transcript of his talk.)

The news had flashed throughout the land,
The night had dropped in dread –
What would the morrow’s sunrise tell
Of England’s mighty dead?
What homes were wrecked? What hearts were doomed
To bleed in sorrow’s school!

At early morn I sought my friend,
The fisherman of Poole.

He waited there beside the steps:
The boat rocked just below:
“You’re ready, m’m? The morning’s fine!
I thought as how you’d go!
I dug the bait an hour agone –
We calls ’em ‘lug-worms’ here.
The news is grave? Aye, so I’ve heard!
Step in! Your skirt is clear.

“My brothers? Any news, you ask?
No, m’m! Nor like to be
A fortnight yet! Maybe they’re both
Asleep beneath the sea!
I saw’ em start two years agone
Next August – and I says
We’ll see ’em back by Christmas time –
But we don’t know God’s ways!

“I’ll pull her round the fishing-boats!
The Polly’s lying there!
D’you see her, m’m? The prettiest smack
For weather foul or fair!
It’s just the ways they’ve builded her
As seems to make her feel
Alive! She’s fifty sovereigns’ worth
O’ lead along her keel.

“Fine men my brothers war – I’ll tie
Her up against this boom!
Don’t fear to move free! This here boat
Is built with lots o’ room!
You’re safe with Jacob Matthews, m’m!
He’s ne’er been called a fool
By any of the fisher-folk
As lives in little Poole!

“How many left? Well, maybe half;
They’ve gone off one by one.
It’s likely I’ll be gone myself
Afore the war is done.
Attested just a month agone,
And passed for fit and sound –
It’s shallow here for flat-fish, m’m,
The boat’s well-nigh aground.

“I’ll throw your line out – that’ll do!
Aye, fights on sea are grave!
There ain’t no Red Cross people there
To lift you off the wave!
There ain’t no ‘cover’ you can take,
No places to lie down!
You got to go – wi’ red-hot shells
Just helping you to drown!

“It minds me of a night we men
Had got the life-boat out.
They’d ‘phoned us up! And off we pulled
With many a cheer and shout!
We rowed her hard up to the wind,
And clear the moonlight shone –
But when we reached – you see, just there –
Both ship and crew were gone!

“We cruised around for half an hour!
Ah, m’m, our hearts was sore!
We’d looked to throw the line to them,
And bring’ em safe to shore!
Aye! these blue waves ha’ swallowed up
More finer men than me!
But we’ve been always fisher-folk,
And we can’t fear the sea!

“Why, there’s a catch! Aye, pull it in!
‘Tis on your second hook!
Well, that’s as odd a little fish
As e’er a line ha’ took!
I’ve ne’er seen nothing like it, m’m –
Don’t touch it wi’ your hand –
These strange ‘uns prick like poison, m’m,
Sometimes – you understand?

“I’ll take it off! It won’t hurt me!
You wonder what it’s called?
I couldn’t say! The rummest thing
That ever yet was hauled!
A farthing’s worth o’ queerness, m’m,
I’d name it if ’twas priced!
A young John Dory? No – they bears
The marks o’ Jesus Christ.

“You’ll see His fingers and His thumb!
Where are they? Well, a bit
Beyond the gills – look! Here’s the place,
Just where I’m holding it!
So this ain’t no John Dory, m’m!
I’ll put it safe away!
You’ll tell your friends you pulled it from
The bottom o’ Poole Bay!

“‘Twas better than a submarine?
There ain’t such devils here!
We’ve got the North Sea trawlers down,
They keeps the harbour clear!
You saw a heap o’ tangled wire
A-lyin’ on the quay?
And thought as they’d just hauled it up?
Aye, m’m! That’s how ‘twould be.

“We’re what they calls a’ Naval Base,
Since this here war abroke!
You seen it up? Aye, yonder there!
‘Tis hard for fisher-folk!
We gets our catches in the night!
But we mayn’t leave the Bay
Save when the sun is on the sea –
You don’t catch much by day!

“But we’ve our bit to bear, as much
As richer men nor we.
We got to get a ‘permit’ now
To take our nets to sea.
We starts at dawn – if tides is right –
And, when the sun be gone,
Unless we lie inside the booms
We’d like be fired upon!

“You want to see the mack’rel shoals?
They come in black as – see –
Yon house that’s tarred from roof to floor
Just there, beside the quay!
My smack’s up now by Christchurch steps,
I’ve got my ‘permit’ signed!
I’ll take you out o’ Thursday next
If so be you’ve a mind?

I shan’t be gone? Not yet! I waits
Until I gets the call! –
If you’ll come out, m’m, with the nets,
I’ll promise you a haul!
You’re safe with Jacob Matthews, m’m!
He’s ne’er been called a fool
By any of the fisher-folk
The war has left in Poole!”

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