Jutland, Naval Battles and the Ghost of Seapower

Date Posted: 31/05/2016

Battle of Jutland

The British obsess about naval battles and always have done. Yes, we are an island nation; yes the sea matters; but that does not necessarily mean that it matters MORE than it does — or it did — to France or Germany: The French coastline is longer than ours; Germany was as dependent on maritime imports in WW1 as we were, hence the key position of maritime blockade of Germany in British strategy during the war.

And what of the battle of Jutland itself? Yes it was ‘indecisive’ but what were people expecting then? And what do people consider now to be ‘decisive?’. ‘They wanted a new Trafalgar’ they cried then, and everyone cries now, but here’s the key thing about Trafalgar that everyone tends to overlook: Trafalgar was fought in 1805 but we didn’t defeat Napoleon until 1815. That’s a DECADE later.

So the really interesting question has two sides to it: one is the actual impact of seapower upon history and the other is the public perception of the impact of seapower upon history. The role of the historian, of course, is to bring the two together as closely as possible. Far more, indeed, needs to be written about the impact of seapower upon history but we do at least know that seapower affects economics, politic, culture, society and so on in an enormous variety of ways. In fact, fleets of naval ships don’t even have to doanything to affect history. They can simply exist and exude a threat thereby influencing history. So often the impact of seapower needs to be measured in its promise rather than its actual effect, and so too must its ghost be considered — fleets influenced wars long after their presence left a theatre of operations.

Jutland, then, must be weighed and measured in numerous ways. Ok the British expected a victory and they expected that victory to rapidly and directly affect the war, and for me that is the interesting point — for it reveals an ignorance of naval history that has influenced British politics and cultural thought for a century. Naval battles simply do NOT affect wars that quickly and never have done, which means that in this obsession with naval battles we find a fascinating flaw in the British psyche — a love for seapower allied with a curious misunderstanding of how it works.