The Daily Telegraph - Travel
Denmark’s date with destiny
The memorial marking the sea battle of 1916 has a wonderful simplicity
The road to Thyboron is paved with – or, at least, flanked by – furrowed fields and plains of water. They are there on both sides of Highway 181 as I head north through the village of Harboore, grey and silver in turn, equal evidence of the low-lying nature of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The Limfjord, which supplies a sheet of liquid to the right side of the road, licks hungrily at the land mass. The North Sea, off to the left, looks like it could devour the whole picture in a single bite.
Everything is fragile and beautiful – apart from the Cheminova fertiliser factory, which offers a rude interruption three miles south of town, chimneys gesturing at the sky, a hard glint of industry where the sun strikes them. Somehow, though, it feels appropriate. Immediately west is the cauldron where, a century ago, the heavens were similarly scratched by steel and iron – the funnels of great ships perspiring in combat, a pall of smoke above the waves as one of the most important chapters of the First World War scrawled out its plotline – not in the trenches of the Somme, but across the flecked summer swells of the North Sea. If the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1 1916) does not always “enjoy” the notoriety of the suffering that occurred in Flanders and Gallipoli during mankind’s first 20th-century descent into the abyss, this is not due to any lack of sacrifice or significance. Twenty-five vessels were lost, and 8,645 men went to their deaths, in a brutal collision between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet).
The battle was, in effect, a draw – Britain paid for the confrontation with 14 ships to Germany’s 11 – but neither side inflicted catastrophic damage on the other. However, the German failure to break British control of the North Sea, and the blockade on maritime traffic it ensured, would help to starve Berlin, Hamburg and Munich by 1918.
Like Ypres and Verdun, Jutland was an unlikely context for such events – a rustic realm caught in crossfire. Denmark was even a bystander in the war – so fearful of its proximity to both Britain and Germany that it declared neutrality in August 1914. But the violence seeped in anyway. The lower half of the peninsula’s west coast – 150 miles of it, as far up as Esbjerg (the German border was 30 miles further north in 1916 than it is today) – was carpeted by a minefield designed to lure ships to their doom.
It still seems an implausible setting – fishing boats moored in the harbour, seagulls peck-pecking the docks – when I arrive in Thyboron. But this busy port, two thirds of the way up the peninsula, is the ideal place for a tribute to the ghosts of May and June 1916. The problem with turning a spotlight on naval encounters is that the ocean always washes away the stain. The Sea War Museum Jutland, which opened in September, redresses this by being sited as close to the battle site as is physically possible.
“The battle took place about 60 miles to the west of Thyboron,” says Knud Jakobsen, a historian and First World War author attached to the museum. “But it was so loud that you could hear the gunfire here – the shots echoed across the water like rolling thunder.”
The museum – set almost within reach of North Sea spray, in a former coastal authority base – makes its tone clear from the start. “War is a tragedy, and should not be glorified,” says a sign by the front
door. “But the history must be told, and the victims remembered.”
Within, an incisive exhibition – the private collection of Danish salvage expert and diver Gert Normann Andersen – does just this. History, certainly, is represented – via artefacts plucked from the bottom of the sea. A pair of 10.5cm quick-firing guns, two of 12 that would have been on board, recall the SMS Rostock, a German light cruiser that was sent to the depths shortly after midnight on the battle night. Alongside, a G7 torpedo, launched using compressed air, is a remnant of another German light cruiser that failed to survive the darkness – the SMS Wiesbaden, which sank after a firefight at about 2.45am.
There is controversy, too. It is no exaggeration to say that SM U-20 changed the course of the war. This was the German submarine that sank
the liner RMS Lusitania off the south of Ireland on May 7 1915 – a bareknuckle assault which caused the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. The incident was instrumental in the United States entering the war. It is oddly discomfiting to see the conning tower of this underwater assassin – which ran aground at Vrist, eight miles south of Thyboron, in November 1916 – in this small space. Unnervingly, the periscope, which spotted the Lusitania, still works.
If this is history, there is also remembrance. Against one wall, two ledgers list the battle dead – one volume for the 6,094 sailors of the Royal Navy, another for their 2,551 German counterparts. Suddenly, the indiscriminate scythe swing of it all is grimly apparent, in ornate type – page after page of names. Seven men called Müller (Heinrich, Alwin, Otto, Karl,
Oskar, Johann, Franz) died on the SMS Wiesbaden. There were three sailors called Miller (Bertie, Frank, Robert), and four called Mills (Ernest, Frank, George, Harry), among the 1,266 sailors killed when the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary exploded.
In a rear room, the museum pulls the battle into the present with a digital map of the seabed, created by Andersen via two years on the water, which shows the position of the wrecks, and their condition, in 2016 – HMS Invincible and HMS Indefatigable, the two other British battlecruisers disembowelled that day, reduced to shapeless lumps by a century of saltwater; the smaller HMS Defence intact, despite its reported explosion on the surface.
But it is outside the museum that yesterday and today lock arms. The Memorial Park for the Battle of Jutland is an ambitious project, pitched amid dunes on the lip of the North Sea. It is due officially to open on June 1 and, once completed, will have 8,645 granite figures – one for every fallen sailor – stationed on the sand. This, however, will take a while.
“How long this will be depends on money, and whether we can raise it,” says Jakobsen. Donations (each sculpture costs £260) have been accepted, but for now the memorial is wonderful in its simplicity. Twenty-five curved blocks – each one a vanished ship – jut up through seagrass, the fatality count in each case etched on the side.
“The memorial will not distinguish between British and German seamen,” Jakobsen says. “It will be a salute to the fallen sailors on neutral ground – encouraging reflection on the course of history.”
‘The shots echoed across the water like rolling thunder’