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this mission; but whatever it was, it can hardly have been accomplished, as the most northerly point reached was less than 180 miles from the point of departure, and the whole fleet, or what was left of it, was back in port within thirty-six hours of the time of leaving.
It has been surmised, and there is some reason to believe, that the German plan was to force a passage for their battle cruisers through the channel between Scotland and Norway into the open sea, where, with their high-speed and long-range guns, they might, at least for a time, have paralyzed transatlantic commerce with very serious results for England's industries, and still more serious results for her supplies of food.
Another and a somewhat more plausible theory is that the plan contemplated the escape to the open sea, not of the battle cruisers themselves, but of a number of very fast armed merchant cruisers of the Moewe type, which were to repeat the Moewe's exploit on a large scale, serving the same purpose that the submarines served during the period of their greatest activity. Color is lent to this theory by what is known of the controversy now going on in Germany between those who advocate a renewal of the submarine warfare against commerce, and those who are opposed to this. It is evident that if fast cruisers could be maintained on England's trade routes they might do all that the submarine could do and more, and this without raising any question as to their rights under international law.
Whatever the plan was, we must assume that it was thwarted by the interposition of the British fleet; and from this point of view the battle takes on the aspect of a British victory. The German fleet is back behind the fortifications and the mine fields of the Helgoland Bight, in the waters which have been its refuge for nearly two years of comparative inactivity. And the British fleet still holds the command of the sea with a force which makes its command complete, and, in all human probability, permanent.
From the narrower point of view of results on the actual field of battle, it appears from the evidence at present available that, although the Germans were first to withdraw, they had the
advantage in that they lost fewer ships than their opponents and
It is certain that the British losses as here given are substantially correct. It is possible, as has been said, that the German losses are much understated. British officers and seamen claim to have actually seen several large German ships blow up, and they are probably quite honest in these claims. They may be right. But it is only necessary to picture to one's self the conditions by which all observers were surrounded while the appalling inferno of the battle was at its height to understand how hopelessly unreliable must be the testimony of participants as to what they saw and heard. Four or five 15-inch shells striking simultaneously against the armor of a battleship and exploding with a great burst of flame and smoke might well suggest to an eager and excited observer the total destruction of the ship. And an error here would be all the easier when to the
confusion of battle was added the obscurity of darkness and of fog
No doubt the time will come when we shall know, if not the full truth, at least enough to justify a conclusion as to the comparative losses. Until that time comes, we may accept the view that, measured by the narrow standard of ships and lives lost, the Germans had the advantage. This may be true, and yet it may be also true that the real victory was with the British, since they may have bought with their losses, great as these were, that for which they could well afford to pay an even higher price.
According to the statement of Admiral Jellicoe, the British fleet has for some months past made a practice of sweeping the North Sea from time to time with practically its whole force of fighting ships, with a view to discouraging raids by the German fleet, and in the hope of meeting any force which might, whether for raiding or for any other purpose, have ventured out beyond the fortifications and mine fields of the Helgoland Bight.
On May 31, 1916, the fleet was engaged in one of these excursions, apparently with no knowledge that the German fleet was to be abroad at the same time.
In accordance with what appears to have been the general practice, the Grand Fleet was divided; the main fighting force under the command of Admiral Jellicoe himself occupying a position near the middle of the North Sea, while the two battlecruiser divisions under Vice Admiral Beatty, supported by a division of dreadnoughts of the Queen Elizabeth class under Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas, were some seventy miles to the southward (Plate I). Admiral Jellicoe had a division of battle cruisers and another of armored cruisers in addition to his dreadnoughts, and both he and Admiral Beatty were well provided with destroyers and light cruisers.
The day was pleasant, but marked by the characteristic mistiness of North Sea weather; and as the afternoon wore on the mist took on more and more the character of light drifting fog, making it impossible at times to see clearly more than two or three miles.
At two o'clock in the afternoon Admiral Beatty's detachment was steaming on a northerly course, being then about ninety miles west of the coast of Denmark, accompanied by several flotillas of destroyers and with a screen of light cruisers thrown out to the north and east.
At about 2.20 p. m. the Galatea, one of the light cruisers engaged in scouting east of Beatty's battle cruisers, reported smoke on the horizon to the eastward, and started to investigate, the battle cruisers taking up full speed and following. The Galatea and her consorts were soon afterward engaged with a German force of similar type, and at 3.30 p. m. a squadron of five battle cruisers was made out some twelve miles farther to the eastward.
Beatty immediately swung off to the southeast in the hope of getting between the German squadron and its base; but the German commander, Vice Admiral von Hipper, changed course correspondingly, and the two squadrons continued on courses nearly parallel but somewhat converging until, at about 3.45 p. m., fire was opened on both sides, the range at that time being approximately nine miles. About ten minutes after the battle was fully joined, the Indefatigable, the rear ship of the British column, was struck by a broadside from one or more of the enemy ships, and blew up; and twenty minutes later the Queen Mary, latest and most powerful of the British battle cruisers, met the same fate. The suddenness and completeness of the disaster to these two splendid ships has not yet been explained and perhaps never will be. Their elimination threw the advantage of numbers actually engaged from the British to the German side, but very shortly afterward the leading ships of Rear Admiral Thomas's dreadnought division came within range and opened fire (Plate II), thus throwing the superiority again to the British side. For the next half hour or thereabouts, Von Hipper's five battle cruisers were pitted against four battle cruisers and four dreadnoughts, and Beatty reports that their fire fell off materially, as would naturally be the case. They appear, however, to have stood up gallantly under the heavy punishment to which they must have been subjected.