Gorebridge sailor killed at epic Battle of Jutland

Battleships of the Royal Navy at full steam preparing to fire
Battleships of the Royal Navy at full steam preparing to fire

The majority of the great battles of the Great War were fought on land, whether in the trenches of France and Flanders, the rocky outcrops of Gallipoli or even in far-flung corners of Africa, writes John Duncan.

However, in 1916, the mighty Royal Navy departed from the Firth of Forth. Their mission was to engage the Germans and inflict a decisive blow on them, taking them out of the war.

The Royal Navy were still stinging from the public outrage over a number of daring hit-and-run raids along the east coast at Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool which killed many civilians.

They were determined to have revenge. The fleet was massive and consisted of many battle cruisers; fast, modern having been built just before the war, and carrying heavy armament of eight 13.5-inch guns. They were supremely confident that they could match anything the German High Seas Fleet could send against them.

Leading the squadron was the even mightier HMS Barham, a Queen Elizabeth class battleship. Built on the Clyde in 1915, she was armed with eight 15-inch guns, firing shells nearly a ton in weight – a colossal broadside capable of taking any ship to the bottom.

So on May 31, 1916, the greatest fleet on earth left bases in Scapa, Cromarty and on the Forth to do battle. It was a battle many had longed for, and dreaded. It was said the war could be lost in a day if the Royal Navy was defeated.

Steaming ahead of the main body of the fleet, the battlecruiser squadron, under Admiral Beatty, sailed eastward to Jutland off the Danish coast. At 3.30pm the fleets spotted each other and the Germans turned away to the south, their intention to draw the Royal Navy into an ambush with their battleships. Around 3.45pm the Germans opened fire on the British ships. It was very accurate and immediately caused hits on the Princess Royal and Lion.

Taking a number of hits the Princess Royal continued to fight but many of her guns were knocked out. However, smoke made it impossible to see her. The Germans switched their guns to HMS Queen Mary who took multiple hits. At 4.25pm, to everyone’s horror, she was ripped apart by a series of explosions and went down rapidly. Of her 1,266 crew, only 18 survivors were picked up.

Among the dead were local men, Thomas McFarlane (19), a former electrical engineer from Arniston, and Colin Burnet Munro, a member of the of Dalkeith District Ancient Order of Forresters and a footballer with Musselburgh Athletic FC. Both had enlisted in the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war.

Lookouts then reported that they could see the main German fleet dead ahead and moving at full steam. The British broke off the fight and turned north pursued by the Germans who were now moving into the ambush laid by the British.

HMS Princess Royal was hit nine times during the battle. She sustained 22 killed and 81 injured. Among the dead were Lt Ian Colquhoun Cowan from Dalkeith, the Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Sir Robert Arthbuthnot, and Stoker 1st Class James Stewart, a former pupil of Wellington Farm Reformatory School for Boys, near Penicuik. He was one of nearly 300 boys from the school who enlisted in HM Forces.

For now the tables had turned. The German fleet had sailed into the jaws of the entire British fleet which “crossed the T” of the Germans and brought down massive firepower on them.

In the thick of the fighting was HMS Barham. Her huge guns blasted away engaging a number of German cruisers and battleships in rapid succession. However, it was not one-way traffic and Barnham was rocked by four large explosions from 12-inch shells fired by the Derfflinger, including a direct hit on the radio room where a number of boys, some aged 14 or 15, were killed, along with local man Able Seaman Thomas Davidson from Gorebridge.

Davidson had been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal while serving on HMS Inflexible at Gallipoli. The tragic news was passed to his brother David, serving with the 16th Royal Scots on the Somme. Five months later he too would be killed.

Facing increasing losses, the Germans turned for home behind a screen of torpedoes. The British disengaged and headed back towards Scotland. Casualties were high. The Germans lost around 3,000 men, the British nearly 7,000.

Both sides claimed victory. In reality the Germans, although causing more casualties, were lucky not to be wiped out and remained in local waters for the rest of the war.

Jutland remains one of the greatest battles in naval history and the largest loss of life for the Royal Navy in one action.