The reality of the sea as a First World War battleground is often overlooked. Yet, controlling shorelines and shipping lanes was as critical as achieving success on land.
Action on the high seas
Struggles for naval dominance had been building in the northern hemisphere for years as Britain and continental nations sought to protect vulnerable coastlines and their economic and strategic advantages. New Zealand did not have her own navy until 1941. However, hundreds of New Zealanders served with the Royal Navy, including a number on the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand which had been a pre-war gift to the Royal Navy from the people of New Zealand.
Navies participating in the First World War saw action in a number of watery theatres around the world, but the Atlantic became the main focus for the British Grand Fleet. The British intended to keep the Imperial German High Seas Fleet in port, a strategy that was to be largely successful.
The last full-fledged naval battle
The Battle of Jutland, still known as "the last and largest full-fledged naval battle" marked the final major German surface challenge to the British fleet. The fierce and bloody engagement on 31 May - 1 June 1916 took place off the coast of Denmark. It involved over 150 British and nearly 100 German warships, and over 100,000 men, both sides suffering huge losses. On the basis of casualties, men and ships, Germany claimed victory. However, if victory is defined as achieving the intended goal, in Germany's case to break the British blockade, there was no clear winner. Nevertheless the result was conclusive, summed up by an oft-quoted quip attributed to an American news correspondent: "The prisoner has assaulted his jailer but he is still in jail."
Major consequences flowed from this battle. A shift in the German naval focus to her underwater strength saw an intensification of the effective U-boat campaign aimed at breaking Britain economically. Early in 1917, Germany resumed the strategy of 'unrestricted submarine warfare' that had been used briefly in 1915, meaning all vessels were targets regardless of nationality or function. This choice had a powerful influence on America's decision to enter the war a couple of months later.
Almost a charmed life
The big ships in the British fleet included HMS New Zealand in Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's Battlecruiser Squadrons, the first Royal Navy vessels to engage at Jutland.
New Zealand had participated in the previous battles with the German High Fleet at Heligoland Bight (28 August 1914) and Dogger Bank (24 January 1915) and had escaped unscathed.
During Jutland, New Zealand was struck by a German shell on her after turret but there were no casualties and the damage was minor. Captain John Green had worn the piu-piu and tiki gifted to the ship in 1913, the taonga intended to ward the ship as long as the Captain wore them whenever the ship saw action.
A contemporary report published in The Scotsman praised the ship’s role:
"A tornado of shell churned the sea and splinters pattered the New Zealand's side like hail: but she played her part right well. She had almost a charmed life and her escapes were numerous and narrow, while the damage suffered was of the slightest and casualties negligible, only two sailors being wounded. Moreover she gave a great deal more than she received."
New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey cabled that the country was "thrilled with pride" at the crew's courage and bravery.
Among the crew on the ship was Leading Seaman F W Ablett, who was in the turret of HMS New Zealand when the shell hit. He remained on her to the end of the war and in October that year was married on board the ship. L S Ablett later donated a fragment of the shell to Auckland Museum.
Clements, K. (n.d.). Who were the key personalities in the Battle of Jutland? Imperial War Museums: London.
Hewitt, N. (n.d.). What Was The Battle Of Jutland? Imperial War Museums: London.
Jutland 1916. (n.d.). Understanding the Battle: An animation of the Battle of Jutland.
Rubin, L. D. (2001). The continuing argument of Jutland. In VQR: A national journal of literature and discussion.
Cite this article
The Battle of Jutland. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 22 May 2016. Updated: 30 May 2016.