On Behalf of the British Government, Winston Churchill Renders Judgment on the Largest Naval Encounter of WWI

"The enemy had been driven into port and that we were safer at home and stronger afloat as a result".

The Battle of Jutland, fought off of Denmark’s North Sea coast, was the only major naval engagement of World War I. Involving some 250 ships and 100,000 men, the British fleet enjoyed a numerical advantage over the German of 37:27 in heavy units and 113:72 in light support craft. Thus the battle...

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On Behalf of the British Government, Winston Churchill Renders Judgment on the Largest Naval Encounter of WWI

"The enemy had been driven into port and that we were safer at home and stronger afloat as a result".

The Battle of Jutland, fought off of Denmark’s North Sea coast, was the only major naval engagement of World War I. Involving some 250 ships and 100,000 men, the British fleet enjoyed a numerical advantage over the German of 37:27 in heavy units and 113:72 in light support craft. Thus the battle had all the ingredients to be a great British naval victory, but in the event the result was much less clear-cut.

It began in the afternoon of May 31, 1916, with a running artillery duel at 15,000 yards between the German and British scouting forces. German ships took a severe pounding but survived due to their superior hull construction. The British lost three battle cruisers due to lack of protection in the gun turrets, which allowed fires started by incoming shells to reach the powder magazines. Commenting that “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” British Admiral Beatty after this initial encounter turned north and lured the Germans over into action with the main British fleet.

The second phase of the battle started at 7:15 p.m., when British Admiral John Jellicoe brought his ships into a single battle line by executing a 90-degree wheel to port. Gaining the advantage of the fading light, he cut the Germans off from their home base and twice crossed their fleet making a “T.” German Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s ships took seventy direct hits, while scoring but twenty against Jellicoe. Scheer, however, escaped seeming annihilation by executing three brilliant 180-degree battle turns away. He retreated and returned to port. By the full darkness at 10:00 p.m., British losses amounted to 14 ships sunk and 6,784 men, and German losses to 11 ships sunk and 3,058 men.

The Royal Navy suffered more loses, and the Kaiser quickly claimed a great German victory. By contrast, the battle caused significant disappointment in Britain, where news of a new Trafalgar had been expected. The official statement on the battle was made on June 2 by First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour, of Balfour Declaration fame. It was short, and factual, lacking in media savvy, giving details on losses and making no claims whatever, least of all of victory. The most it said was “The enemy’s losses were serious”. The lack of characterization of the great battle caused an explosion of outrage in Britain, where many people demanded to understand the results. Of course, the war’s supporters desired a positive claim of victory to counter the Kaiser’s and enhance the impression that things were going well, even as British troops were gathering in France for the bloodbath at the Battle of the Somme, which was less than a month away.

Winston Churchill had been Lord of the Admiralty before Balfour, and been sacked in May 1915 after the disaster at Gallipoli, for which he was held responsible. Churchill was now asked to step in and draft a second and more positive statement about the results at Jutland. He was somewhat hesitant to get involved, no less make a statement that might appear to contradict Balfour’s. A colleague, Charles Remington, said of a meeting he had with Churchill on June 3: “Winston was full of the naval-fight off Jutland. He had been asked to issue the semi-official communique which appeared in Sunday’s papers, June 4, and was not quite sure whether he had done right or not. Balfour’s private secretary had made the demand, whereupon Winston had consulted Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs, who said that he could not refuse, so he returned to the Admiralty, and said he would draft something if Balfour personally asked for it. This Balfour did.” So Churchill was prevailed upon to make an upbeat assessment, and that day a statement was released in his name by the Admiralty giving an optimistic view that the battle had indeed been a British victory.

The press jumped on this statement, demanding to know whether Churchill, the former First Lord, was trying to overshadow or upstage Balfour, the current First Lord, and how it came to pass that a man with no position in the Admiralty came to issue a statement on crucial Admiralty matters like the battle. Churchill felt obliged to respond, and determined to issue his response as an official statement to the Press Association, and thus receive nationwide coverage with one communication. This is the original of that statement.

Typed letter signed, being a formal statement to the press, London, June 20, 1916, to the Editors of the Press Association. “I have noticed so much public comment on my statement after the Naval battle, that I think it right that the circumstances which lead me to make it should be known. I went to the Admiralty at 11 o’clock on the Saturday morning to ask for news. When I had finished reading the telegrams I was asked by Mr. Balfour’s private secretary whether I felt able to give a reassuring interview for the benefit of the neutral press. I hesitated to do this, but on being pressed by some of my old friends at the Admiralty, I said I would reconsider the matter and return at 4 o’clock. I went away and consulted two friends of high official position, both of whom expressed the opinion that if I were asked directly by the First Lord I should have no choice but to comply. I returned to the Admiralty between 5 and 6 o’clock and told Mr. Balfour’s private secretary that if the First Lord asked me personally to give an interview, I would do so, but not otherwise. I then for the first time had a talk with Mr. Balfour. I found that we were in complete agreement on the estimate to be formed of the naval encounter, viz. that the enemy had been driven into port and that we were safer at home and stronger afloat as a result. Mr. Balfour then informed me that I should render a public service if I made a statement. I then drafted my communiqué and left it in the hands of the Admiralty officials to use as they saw fit.”

The final assessment of history concurs with Churchill’s. The Battle of Jutland came in time to be seen as a key strategic British victory. It effectively ended any threat from the German fleet, which now knew it could not really contest control of the high seas, and would never again try. Instead, the Germans turned to mere commerce raiding, which brought them into conflict with the United States.

A search of public sale records going back 40 years finds only one other such official statement signed by Churchill having reached that market, and that was twenty years ago. That this relates to one of the world wars which are his chief claim to fame is all the more remarkable.

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