Newspaper headlines across the country on Saturday 3rd June 1916 were dominated by a single item – “Heavy British Losses in a Great North Sea Battle”. A stunned nation was left asking the unthinkable, had the Royal Navy really been defeated?
The Germans had fired the first salvoes in the propaganda duel, releasing a press statement at midday on 2nd June that was transmitted by wireless around world. They claimed an exaggerated victory, while down playing their own losses. The Kaiser waxed lyrical –
“The gigantic fleet of Albion, the rulers of the seas, which since Trafalgar for a hundred years has imposed on the whole world a bond of sea tyranny, and has surrounded itself with a nimbus of invincibleness, came into the field. That gigantic Armada approached, and our fleet engaged. The British Fleet was beaten. The first great hammer blow was struck, and the nimbus of British world supremacy disappeared.”
The Admiralty had not released its first communiqué until 7pm on 2nd June which was quoted verbatim in the following day’s newspaper reports, as typified by the Daily Mail’s coverage on its inside pages. The Admiralty’s bland and unadorned statement gave credence to German claims.
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The British populace, brought up to believe in supremacy of their navy, fully expected an outright victory, their confidence was severely shaken. Some naval personnel would later say how they had been abused on shore by members of the public whose disbelief had turned to anger.
A second Admiralty communiqué issued on Saturday evening based on better information presented a more balanced view but still did little to counter the German claims of victory. Finally, a third communiqué was issued on Sunday evening making the case for a British victory. This was widely reported in newspapers on the following day, Monday 5th June 1916. Public sentiment began to shift as newspaper reporting focused on the gallantry of the officers and men of the Royal Navy and tributes to the many lost sailors appeared alongside survivor’s stories.
Earlier reports of ships “sunk” always left room for hope, but by 5th June the reality was starkly clear, the “Great North Sea Battle” had claimed the lives of thousands of sailors.
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