Article by Dr Innes McCartney, Author of Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield
The Battle of Jutland took place in the North Sea 100 years ago. 249 ships fought for 16 hours. In the end 25 were sunk, killing nearly 10% of the sailors present.
It is therefore with the greatest reverence that we have studied the battlefield to better understand what happened.
The 17-year study of the Jutland Battlefield has been has been one of the most rewarding projects I have been involved in.
Back in 2000 only a few of the larger shipwrecks were known. And in those days we used to swim around them, gazing in awe at these massive structures.
Because of the limited time one can dive on them and their sheer size I wondered if we would ever be able to fully understand what they actually represent today.
One example was the wreck of the 26,000 ton battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary which sunk in the battle taking 1,266 sailors to their deaths.
The main portion of the wreck that we first dived was huge. Standing 15m off the seabed at a depth of 60m, it was upside down.
We recorded rows of boilers, a turret and the remains of one of the ship’s magazines. In the two years which followed we came to understand we were looking at what appeared to be the stern.
We also found that the wreck site had much dispersed wreckage around it which was roughly spread out along the path the ship was taking when it was sunk.
In 2003 we used a very primitive “side scanning” sonar device which seemed to show that the wreck site was oriented 180 degrees in reverse of its original course.
This seemed to be uncanny and illogical and I wondered if somehow we had got things wrong.
But in 2015 when we surveyed nearly every wreck in the battlefield with the incredible new technology of multibeam sonar, it showed that we had been right.
This of course presented a problem, because it then became necessary to reconcile the scientific fact from the survey with the historical accounts of the battle.
Not for the first time I found that despite there being over 90,000 sailors at the present, nobody reported seeing Queen Mary sink in the way we know it did.
The closest account to being accurate was by CPO William Cave who, from the foretop of the passing light cruiser HMS Dublin, saw the ship sink but could not quite reconcile the unlikely scenario we discovered with what he saw.
This has subsequently become a familiar pattern with all of the 23 wrecks we have subsequently studied in detail. The archaeology of the wrecks continues to offer fascinating new insights into the battle and to challenge the historical record.
Sadly we have also noticed that around 60% of the wrecks have been looted on an industrial scale. I find this saddening and do hope that a stop can be made to it.
It would be a great step forward if the UK ratifies the UNESCO Convention on the protection of Underwater Cultural heritage. This month the UK has said that it will look at doing so.
There would be no better action the government could take to commemorate the fallen sailors than to properly protect their graves by doing so.
Dr Innes McCartney is the author of Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (Bloomsbury). To buy a copy, click here.
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