HAYES IN THE HOUSE: By local MP John Hayes
On May 31st Britain commemorated the centenary of Jutland, the biggest sea battle of the First World War. Fought in the North Sea, off Denmark’s coast, it was to be the only wholescale confrontation between the two largest naval powers the world had known.
The British navy lost more sailors and ships than the Germans, and so, at the time, the Kaiser claimed victory, declaring that ‘the spell of Trafalgar has been broken’. Though contemporary received wisdom was that, by tearing into the Grand Fleet, Germany had ended British naval supremacy, subsequent thinking was very different.
Despite an impressive array of battleships, by 1916 the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy had failed to stop the sea blockade of Germany, which is why Jutland became a strategic victory for Britain. With the Royal Navy retaining control of the North Sea, the blockade eventually strangled the German economy, sowing the seeds for the Kaiser’s eventual defeat, as his subsequent desperate U-boat campaign resulted in the United States later joining the war.
Commemorating its centenary, David Cameron joined descendants of those who fought in the 36 hour battle to mark their forbears’ sacrifice at Scapa Flow in Orkney, where the Grand Fleet was based. Across the country, memorials to those who died in the North Sea are being repaired and rejuvenated; their future protected.
The relevance of the Battle of Jutland today lies not only in its significance to the outcome of the Great War, but as a reminder of misplaced trust in conventional wisdom. So certain that their dreadnoughts had delivered the Kaiser the upper hand, the German Empire celebrated a ‘Great Sea Victory over the English’, giving schoolchildren a day off to celebrate, as the nation felt sure of eventual triumph.
Though he had lost many men, Admiral Jellicoe, Commander of the Fleet, knew that Britain had won a costly victory, and that the notion that the battle had been a tragic defeat would soon be proved wrong. Jellicoe was, at first, widely criticised for the outcome of the Battle of Jutland, but events proved him right.
Perhaps today, in our -thankfully peaceful - contemporary debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe, we would do well to reflect that the routine assumptions and predictions of “expert opinion” are often shown to be wrong over time. It’s people’s common sense that is the best measure of what’s right.