John Jellicoe

John Jellicoe

John Jellicoe, the son of a sea captain, was born in Southampton in 1859. He joined the British Navy and served in the Egyptian War of 1882 and was one of the survivors of the collision between Victoria and Camperdown in 1893.

In 1900 Jellicoe was chief of staff on the international overland expedition to relieve the legations in Peking during the Boxer Rising. Jellicoe played an important role in the modernization of the Royal Navy under Admiral John Fisher. As director of naval ordnance (1905-07) and controller of the navy (1908-10), Jellicoe was a strong supporter of the new Dreadnought battleships, torpedo boats and submarines. In November, 1911, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, appointed Jellicoe as Second-in-Command of the British Grand Fleet.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Admiral Jellicoe replaced Sir George Callaghan as Commander of the Grand British Fleet. Jellicoe directed operations at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916. Jellicoe was criticised for his defensive attitude towards sea warfare and in late 1916 was replaced by Admiral Sir David Beatty. He became First Sea Lord until he was dismissed by David Lloyd George on 24th December 1917 over a disagreement about the introduction of convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic.

After the war Jellicoe published The Grand Fleet 1914-1916 (1919) and became governor of New Zealand (1920-24). Sir John Jellicoe died in 1935 and is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

Primary Sources

(1) John Jellicoe, The Grand Fleet 1914-1916 (1919)

It was curious that, in spite of all the lessons of history, there was general expectation that a great Fleet action would at once be fought. Most people found it difficult to imagine that the German High Sea Fleet (built at vast expense, and rightly considered by the enemy to be an efficient weapon of war) would adopt from the outset a purely passive role, with the inevitable result that German trade would be swept from the seas. But there were two factors tending to make the High Command adopt this course. First, there was the fear that action with the British Grand Fleet would so weaken the High Sea Fleet as to cause the command of the Baltic to pass into Allied hands, with the landing of an army of Russian troops on German soil as the result. The second point, no doubt, was that the German High Command realised that, if Germany adopted a defensive role with her Fleet, it created by far the most difficult situation for us.

Repugnant as this might be to high-spirited German naval officers, it was unquestionably the worst policy for us, for, whilst the German High Sea Fleet remained "in being" as a fighting force, we could not afford to undertake operations tending to weaken our Grand Fleet, particularly in the earlier period of the War when our margin of superiority at Germany's "selected moment" was not great. The main disadvantage to the Germans, apart from their loss of trade, lay in the inevitable gradual weakening of the morale of the personnel of the Navy, and it is highly probable that this loss of morale was in the end responsible for the series of mutinies which broke out in the High Sea Fleet during 1917 and 1918, culminating in the final catastrophe in November, 1918.

The last consideration present in my mind was the danger involved in leaving too much to chance in a Fleet action, because our Fleet was the one and only factor that was vital to the existence of the Empire, as indeed to the Allied cause. We had no reserve outside the Battle Fleet which could in any way take its place, should disaster befall it or even should its margin of superiority over the enemy be eliminated.

(2) In his account of the First World War, The Grand Fleet 1914-1916, John Jellicoe wrote about the Battle of Jutland.

But a victory is judged not merely by material losses and damage, but by its results. It is profitable to examine the results of the Jutland Battle. With the single exception of a cruise towards the English coast on August 19th, 1916 - undertaken, no doubt, by such part of the High Sea Fleet as had been repaired in order to show that it was still capable of going to sea - the High Sea Fleet never again, up to the end of 1917, - ventured much outside the 'Heligoland triangle', and even on August 19th, 1916, the much reduced Fleet made precipitately for home as soon as it was warned by its Zeppelin scouts of the approach of the Grand Fleet. This is hardly the method of procedure that would be adopted by a Fleet flushed with victory and belonging to a country which was being strangled by the sea blockade.