An Irishman’s Diary on Irish sailors and the Battle of Jutland
Sculptures at the memorial park near the Sea War Museum in Thyboroen, northern Jutland, Denmark. The memorial park opens next month. Photograph: Henning Bagger/AFP/Getty Images
On the last day of May 1916, the cold waters of the North Sea brought the angel of death to every part of Ireland.
At least 350 Irishmen were killed during the Battle of Jutland, the greatest sea battle in history to that date. Historian Tom Burnell, who has just completed his research on the Irish war dead, lists some 266 men from what is now this State who died in the battle. Naval historian Karen O’Rawe lists a further 90 from the North.
Cork, for generations a fertile recruiting ground for the Royal Navy, accounted for by far the most Irish dead with 123, followed by Antrim (70) and Dublin (64).
Some 250 ships, German and British, the pride of their respective navies and symbols of national economic and martial virility, clashed in the decisive naval confrontation of the war.
The battle had been the culmination of a deadly game of nautical cat and mouse between the British grand fleet and the numerically inferior German high seas fleet.
The weaker Germans sought to tempt the British into making a mistake and nearly succeeded.
The sea was a maelstrom of splash and smoke, debris and floating bodies. Compared to the protracted land battles of the first World War, the Battle of Jutland was over in 12 hours, but it was at least as significant as any land encounter.
The two fleets were joined in battle at 2.20pm on the afternoon of May 31st, 1916.
In the initial exchange of fire, one German battlecruiser was left unhindered and almost sank the flagship British vessel HMS Lion. On board was the foxhunting scion of Anglo-Irish parents, Rear Admiral David Beatty, who considered himself “essentially Irish”.
HMS Lion was hit in the gun turret from a distance of 16 kilometres away and dozens of men died in an instant. Others died a terrible death in the flooded magazine, which was closed to stop the ship exploding.
The British lost more than 6,000 sailors at the Battle of Jutland, twice as many as the Germans. Half of those men died on three ships that were ripped apart by internal explosions.
In a direct shooting match with a German cruiser, HMS Indefatigable sustained a hit to the turret, not in itself a potentially fatal blow, but it set off a series of secondary explosions which travelled down to the magazine. Indefatigable disappeared in an explosion so violent that the armour-plated heavy guns were lifted clear of the ship. All but two of the 1,027 men on board were killed. The ship sank in 90 seconds.
Among the dead were 120 Irishmen, 50 alone from Co Cork. One was 26-year-old Stoker Maurice Daniel “Moss” Murphy from Coachford, Co Cork. His heartbroken family left the following notice in the Cork Examiner: “Dear Moss, you’re gone but not forgotten, Never shall your memory fade. Sweetest thoughts will ever linger. O’er your deep and watery grave.”
Minutes later HMS Queen Mary, the Royal Navy’s most powerful ship, blew up in similar circumstances. In their haste to load the guns, the crew left explosive propellant lying around the turrets. The explosion was followed by a mushroom cloud that rose hundreds of feet into the air. Just 18 men out of a crew of 1,284 survived.
Two hours later HMS Invincible was caught between two German battlecruisers that opened up at short range. The ship broke in two and sank rapidly, its bow and stern making a colossal “V” in the North Sea. More than a thousand men met instant death.
At least 34 were Irish, including two 17- year-old Belfast “boys” John McCullough and John Cleland Carlisle. At the other end of the social scale, Commander Richard Townsend (37) from Cobh, the son of a well-known Cork ophthalmic surgeon who had risen to one of the highest ranks in the Royal Navy, also perished on board the Invincible.
Hundreds of teenagers were killed. The youngest Victoria Cross winner of the war, Jack Cornwell (16), died as a result of wounds sustained manning his post on board the HMS Cheshire. The youngest Irish sailor to die, Albert Perkins from Kinsale, Co Cork, was also 16. Eight Irish cadets were only 17 when they perished at Jutland.
British losses at Jutland were twice those of the Germans in terms of ships and men, leading Kaiser Wilhelm II to claim a great victory, but it was not enough to overturn the British naval blockade which was crippling Germany’s supply line. Britannia still ruled the waves the day after Jutland.
Commemorations for the Battle of Jutland take place in Belfast on May 31st and will be an all-Ireland affair. The ceremony takes place on the HMS Caroline, the last surviving ship from Jutland, which has been subject to a €20 million refit and is now expected to be a major tourism attraction for the city. The Royal Navy and Irish Naval Service will stand side by side with honour guards to mark all from the island of Ireland who served at sea. Representatives from the ports of Ireland, Irish Lights and maritime emergency services will also be in attendance.
The most important guests will be 200 family members of those who died at Jutland. The commemoration is a timely reminder that 1916 is not all about the Easter Rising. For thousands of grieving Irish families it was about much more than that.