Chris Bilham

THE JUTLAND HONOURS: RESEARCHING THE AWARDS FOR THE GREATEST SEA BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I

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The Battle of Jutland was one of the greatest naval battles in history. On the afternoon of 31st May 1916 Great Britain’s Grand Fleet – 151 warships under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe – encountered the Kaiser’s fleet of 99 ships in the eastern North Sea, off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland province. The battle lasted, on and off, until just before dawn on 1st June and, at the end of it, fourteen British ships had been sunk and 6,000 British sailors – about 10% of those who had taken part – were dead.

I have been fascinated by this battle for many years and about 20 years ago I began to collect medals awarded to some of the men who fought at Jutland. This was the time when service records of the First World War period were just beginning to be available and one could identify in which ship a sailor had been. Studying the careers of these men was fascinating: the older ones had been brought up in a navy of sailing ships and strange steam and sail hybrids. Many had campaign medals for service in China or South Africa in 1900, a few individuals had medals for the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 or service in paddle-steamers on the rivers of Burma in the 1880s. There were men in Jellicoe’s navy who had taken part in the heroic age of Polar exploration, in anti-slavery operations in Central Africa, in relief operations after the Messina earthquake of 1908. Many of the younger ones went on to see active service against Hitler a quarter of a century later.

Many orders and decorations were awarded for the battle – four Victoria Crosses, 47 Distinguished Service Orders, over 200 DSMs and hundreds of awards from Britain’s allies, France and Russia. It was when I came to carry out research on these that I encountered difficulties. For example, the London Gazette of 16th September 1916 records the awards of many decorations, often with a citation, but the recipients’ ships are rarely identified. Likewise, I had a book with the citations of Conspicuous Gallantry Medals. Here is one awarded to Stoker Petty Officer FJH Wherry:

“Wherry, at great risk, flooded the 6-inch
magazine of the ship in which he was serving, and
then, until gassed, assisted to extinguish a fire in
close proximity to the magazine. Subsequently,
while still suffering from the effect of the
fumes, he left the dressing station to unlock the
secondary position for 13.5-inch flooding valves,
showing great devotion to duty.”

It was possible to identify this as a Jutland award by the date of the gazette entry, but it would have been nice to know the name of the ship concerned. 

I began to compile a card index of each ship, listing the members of her crew known to have been awarded a decoration or been mentioned in dispatches. The volume of information made this impractical and I soon switched to a computer file. In the end I created a file for each of the 151 ships listing her class, squadron or flotilla, commanding officer, vital statistics (tonnage, number and type of guns, etc), her role in the battle and number of casualties, and eventual fate of the ship. Then came the lists of orders, decorations and MIDs awarded to members of her company, with citations where available; the list for Beatty’s flagship Lion covers more than six pages, for a few ships there were no awards at all.

When I decided to publish this research, I added some first person accounts of the battle. Few battles have been documented as thoroughly as Jutland; many of the participants published their memoirs and there are several books consisting of accounts by stokers, seamen and junior officers. Some are extremely vivid and convey the impression of what it was like to be on the bridge of the flagship watching as a nearby ship explodes, and more than 1,300 lives (some of them your friends) are extinguished, or watching the flicker of gunfire on German battleships and knowing that heavy shells will be arriving in your vicinity in 23 seconds.

There was also a wealth of illustrations available of the ships and their officers and men. I have never seen a battleship (a few still exist in the United States) but they must have been impressive ships, combining power and beauty; Surgeon Commander John Muir proudly recalled his own ship, the battlecruiser Tiger: “Speed and beauty were welded into every line of her … the highest ideals of grace and power had taken form at the bidding of the artist’s brain of her designer. Wherever she went she satisfied the eye of the sailorman and I have known them to pull miles just that the sweetness of her lines might delight their eyes.” My book includes both photographs and paintings which capture the majesty of battleships and battlecruisers – as well as cruisers and destroyers. 

 

Finally, I added photos of some of the medals awarded for the battle; Lord Ashcroft kindly supplied a photo of the VC and other medals awarded to Commander Loftus Jones of HMS Shark, other collectors contributed pictures of medals from their own collections (including those of Stoker Petty Officer Wherry) and I included a few from my own collection. I believe this will be the most comprehensive guide to the awards of this iconic battle available to collectors.

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