efore the start of World War One, all major world powers upgraded their navies with new technologies. This change started as early as the mid-1800s when steam-powered “ironclads” were first developed and built, but due to most European nations already having invested a lot of money into their wood-hulled ships many disregarded further innovations.
Germany had hopes of gaining naval supremacy over Britain; they were one of the first on the continent to go all out in modernizing their fleet. Britain would soon follow as they saw this as a challenge to their naval supremacy which was one of their strongest attributes.
This move cost both countries heavily due to the metal being much more expensive than wood and cannons getting much bigger and requiring newer and bigger shells. As an example, only one of the 9 battlecruisers to take part in the battle cost the British government 2.1 million GBP.
Because of the large spike in the cost of maintaining and using a fleet both powers were anxious about using their newly built toys. Small skirmishes by lighter ships through raids and disruption of trade were still common, but large battles like the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) were not on the table as a possibility.
Battle of Jutland
This was about to change as Reinhard Scheer, Commander-in-Chief of the German navy sought to free Germany from the British naval blockade which was cutting off much-needed supplies such as food from reaching Germany.
His plan was to bait a smaller portion of the British navy into his main force and destroy it, weakening the enemy which would allow him a much better chance at gaining superiority over the Royal Navy in the North Sea. This plan failed due to the British interception of German communications which gave the whole plan away.
The resulting battle was what could best be described as a mess. Miscommunication from both sides combined with outdated tactics and questionable decision-making from the Germans meant that no outright winner came out of the battle.
Although it is widely accepted as a British tactical victory due to the fact that they maintained naval superiority. Casualties were heavily weighted in favour of the Germans. More than 6,000 British sailors were killed, more than double the number of German sailors killed, as well as the British, who lost 3 battlecruisers and 3 armoured cruisers.
The difference between the two sides was that Britain could afford the large casualty count as well as damage to their navy whereas Germany couldn’t afford almost any casualties due to already having a strained economy.
After this, the German navy wasn’t to leave port for another major offensive for the duration of World War One. This had the crushing effect of leaving the British naval blockade unchecked which slowly strangled the German economy through the lack of vital materials.
This war of attrition was won by the British as their supply convoys were left alone except for the U-Boat attacks which inflicted both economic and civilian casualties due to the unrestricted submarine warfare act introduced by Sheerer in 1915. But once again due to Britain’s large economic base, it could take those hits.
Overall this story is a show of a central British characteristic. Their navy. Throughout history, since the creation of the British state, its navy has been its crown jewel.
From the Napoleonic wars to both world wars the navy protected the mainland from any foreign threats and was used as Britain’s strongest political asset in many situations through “Gunboat diplomacy”. In trying to take over, Europe Germany became ignorant of this fact which resulted in their defeat at Jutland.