The centenary of the Battle of Jutland was commemorated on 31st May 1st June, 2016.  It was the greatest naval battle of the First World War and the last ‘big-gun’ battleship confrontation in history.  It took place because the Germans tried to end the Allied naval blockade that was seriously affecting their civilian population. 

The Background

By 1916, food was becoming so scarce that people were actually dying from the effects of starvation.  So, the German Admirals decided to try and provoke the Royal Navy into the major set-piece battle that had been anticipated for years and break the Allied strangle-hold around Germany’s throat.  In Britain, this confrontation was named the Battle of Jutland, after the region of Denmark that is the nearest land to the scene of the fighting. 

The British Grand Fleet in 1916


A Controversial Affair

Jutland is controversial battle because both sides claimed it as a victory and historians have argued about it ever since!  In terms of numbers of ships sunk, the Germans were superior, inflicting heavy losses on the Royal Navy.  Three British battle cruisers, three armed cruisers and eight destroyers were sunk, with the loss of 6,094 sailors.  Whereas the German’s lost three battleships, one battle cruiser, five light cruisers and seven smaller craft.  The total number of German sailors killed was 2,551.  These smaller losses were partly due to the inaccuracy of the British gunners.  In some cases, British shells failed to explode and just bounced off the German ships!  Afterwards, Kaiser Wilhelm II boasted that British naval supremacy was over for ever. 

A German Failure?

Strategically, however, the battle was a German defeat, because they had failed in their one real attempt to destroy the Royal Navy and smash the blockade by surface ships.  Having returned to port, the German fleet never re-appeared to confront the British in the North Sea.  The naval blockade stayed in place and conditions for German civilians went from bad to worse.  Ultimately, starvation and food riots helped bring about German defeat and forced their government to seek an Armistice in 1918.  The ultimate significance of this was unknown to people at the time, however.  In 1916, the British public were shocked and dismayed to learn that ‘our boys’ had failed to trounce the Germans.  The loss of several major warships also added to the national mood of sombre disappointment. 

The Wolverhampton Connection

Even though Wolverhampton lies far from the sea, at least nine men from the town fought and died in the Battle of Jutland.  A further three Wolverhampton sailors may have also been involved, only to die later in the war.  Yet, the Central Library and the City Archives contain almost nothing to record their involvement in this epic confrontation.  There is an intriguing explanation which might well explain this dearth of information and reveal why these men literally sank without trace.

On 31st May 1916 the German High Seas Fleet sailed into the North Sea from Kiel and Wilhelmshaven.  The British were soon given warning of this move by naval intelligence, who had cracked the secret code used in Germans wireless signals.  Two flotillas of the Royal Navy now set out to try and catch the Germans in the open sea and cut them off from their home ports.  Admiral Beatty set out from Rosyth with a fleet of cruisers, whilst Admiral Jellicoe sailed from Scapa Flow with the rest of the British Grand Fleet. 

The Fate of the Indefatigable

At 2.25 pm on the 31st May 1916, Admiral Beatty caught sight of the German advanced squadron and went into the attack immediately.  The Germans fell back, trying to lure him towards the rest of their fleet, which was rapidly approaching.  At first, Beatty fell into the trap and at 16.02 pm the battle-cruiser, HMS Indefatigable was hit by a salvo of shells from the German warship, HIMS Van Der Tann.  The British ship was rocked by a catastrophic explosion which launched vast chunks of the superstructure over 200 feet into the air.  Indefatigable sunk within minutes, with the loss of 1,017 men.  There were only two survivors.  Among the losses was Able Seaman Frederick William Chambers, aged 21.  Fred was the son of James and Emmeline Chambers, of 43 Vernon St, Springfields, Wolverhampton.  In the 1911 census he was listed as an ‘apprentice pattern maker’, with five siblings. 


HMS Indefatigable


Twenty-four minutes later, HMS Queen Mary suffered a similar fate, struck by shells from HIMS Derfflinger.  Under the headlines:


BLOWN UP.


QUEEN MARY DOWN IN TWO MINUTES…


FIGHT WITH WHOLE POWER OF GERMAN FLEET.


at only two minutes from the first shots a misfortune occurred enough to strike iron into the most iron soul, a full salvo from a German Dreadnought striking the Queen Mary.  There are several vulnerable points on all battleships, and the salvo was an unlucky one for us, and in a cloud of steam and a roar, which rose above the thunder of the shells, the splendid craft blew up and was engulfed by the waves.”


The Wolverhampton Chronicle, Wednesday 7th June, 1916
HMS Queen Mary

The Wolverhampton Sailors of HMS Queen Mary

Queen Mary had also suffered a massive explosion in her magazine and another 1,266 officers and men were killed in an instant, including three from Wolverhampton.  Robert Hartshorn, aged 34, was an Engine Room Artificer, 2nd Class.  He was married to May and they lived at 28 Hordern Road.  William Light and Thomas Edward Wollaston were both Stokers, First Class.  Light’s home address was Calf Heath, Four Ashes, where he lived with his wife, Florence.  The precise location of Wollaston’s address is unknown. 

Two more sailors from Wolverhampton died when the cruiser, HMS Defence was sunk at 18.20 pm.  Once again, the cause was an explosion of the aft magazine which meant

Defence sank so quickly that all of her 903 crewmen died.  These included Signaller Henry Smith, aged 21, and Henry Arnold Tack, aged 39.  Smith was the son of John and Christiana Smith, of 40 Navigation St.  Tack was the son of Sarah Tack, of Rearsby House, Limes Rd, Tettenhall.  His late father, Richard, had been a police officer. 

HMS Invincible

Then, at 18.31 pm, the battle-cruiser HMS Invincible was struck in her ‘Q’ turret, which caused another devastating magazine explosion, literally snapping this enormous vessel in two.  There were only six survivors, whilst 1,026 men were killed, including two more from Wolverhampton.  James Snead, Boy 1st Class, was only 17 years old.  He was the son of George and Sarah Snead, of 20 School Lane, Bushbury.  In 1911, James was still at school, but the census recorded his father as a night watchman, born in Bridgnorth.  Able Seaman, Allan Rostance, also died on the Invincible.  This 28-year-old was the son of John and Maria Rostance, and his home address was Stone Cross, Penkridge.  The 1911 census records that Allan was at the RN Gunnery School, Whale Island, Portsmouth.  On 7th June 1916, The Wolverhampton Chronicle reported:

PENKRIDGE SAILOR KILLED

A Penkridge sailor – Allen Rostance – was aboard one of the ill-fated warships, and it is feared that he is among the killed or drowned.  Rostance took part in the Falklands battle on the Invincible.” 

Sadly, those fears were to be well-founded.

The fate of the Black Prince

The final Wolverhampton casualty of the Battle of Jutland was Leading Seaman, David Phillips, aged 29.  He was killed at 00.20 am on the morning of 1st June 1916, when his ship, the cruiser HMS Black Prince, appears to have inadvertently sailed too close to the German fleet and was sunk by point-blank salvoes of heavy shells.  There were no survivors from the crew of 857 men.  Phillips was the son of Isaac and Emma Phillips, of 179 Merridale St, West, Wolverhampton.  In 1901, the census revealed that David was working as a ‘rope spinner’ at the tender age of 13.  At that time the family were living in Gozzard St, Bilston, and his father was a mill and forge engineer. 

HMS Black Prince

A Further Wolverhampton Connection?

It is possible that another three Wolverhampton sailors were present at Jutland.  This is because the ships they later died on had fought in the battle.  Herbert Jones, an Electrical Artificer on HMS Vanguard was killed on 9th July 1917.  Vanguard suffered a huge accidental explosion, whilst moored at Scapa Flow, killing over 800 men.  Able Seaman John Rogers, aged 18, died on board HMS Agincourt, on 2nd September 1917.  He was the son of James Rogers, of Windmillbank, Wombourne.  He is the only sailor mentioned in this article with a known grave, being buried in Queensferry Cemetery, Edinburgh.  George Ernest Merrick, aged 32, was a Leading Seaman on the Destroyer, HMS Opal.  He died on 12 January 1918 when his ship was wrecked on the rocks off the Scottish coast.  George was the son of William and Frances Merrick, of 177, Leicester St., Wolverhampton.  His father was a fireman on the Great Western Railway.

The Aftermath

Eventually the Battle of Jutland ended when the Germans withdrew and returned to Wilhelmshaven, under the cover of darkness and fog.  News of the Wolverhampton casualties arrived in the town during the next week, but no mention of anyone, except Allan Rostrance, appeared in the pages of either the Wolverhampton Chronicle or The Express and Star.  What could explain this puzzling omission? 

Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener

Just as the British public were digesting the huge disappointment of Jutland, another story broke which buried, if not sank, the recent ‘bad news’ from the North Sea.  What trumped Jutland was the staggering revelation that Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, was dead.  This national hero and icon had drowned, whilst en route to Russia.  His ship, HMS Hampshire, had struck a German mine off the Orkney Islands, on 5th June.  For contemporaries the loss of ‘K’ was truly memorable; similar to when later generations could recall exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. 

At a stroke, the Jutland nightmare had been superseded and this was duly reflected in the local press.  On the 14th June, The Express and Star included an article about the ‘Wolverhampton men lost with the Hampshire,’ complete with photographs of three Stokers, 1st Class.  George William Bowen had been in the navy ‘about six years’ and left a widow at 28 Prestwood Road.  William Cecil Squire, aged 23, of Heathtown, had served in the navy for over three years and been in China when the war broke out.  Before that, he had worked in the building department of Messrs Butler’s Springfield Brewery.  George Reynolds, aged 26, had also been in the navy for about three years.  He was the son of John and Elizabeth Reynolds of 6 Fordhouse Rd, Bushbury.  According to the paper, Reynolds ‘took a keen delight in his work and was a very capable sailor.’ 

The Memorial to Able Seaman Harris, St Peter’s Gardens

A Puzzling Legacy

It is interesting to speculate why these three HMS Hampshire sailors were deemed worthy of brief, though heart-felt obituaries in the press, whilst the nine Jutland sailors were not.  It is also, perhaps, ironic that whilst Wolverhampton has an impressive monument to an heroic sailor – the bronze bust of Able Seaman Douglas Harris, in St. Peter’s Gardens – there is no other permanent memorial to the brave men that fought and died in the greatest naval battle of the Great War.  Instead, they are commemorated on the Royal Naval Memorials at Plymouth and Portsmouth, many miles away. 

Quintin Watt

Sources used:

  • Steel and Hart, ‘Jutland 1916’, 2003.
  • CWGC Website
  • The Wolverhampton Chronicle, 7th  June 1916
  • Ibid, 14th June 1916
  • Wolverhampton Express and Star, 14th June 1916

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