jpg     HMS Centurion during the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 2016 with battle ensigns flying.  Ships company stood down briefly from action stations

A Naval Surgeon's memories of the Battle of Jutland

31 May 2016

A Naval Surgeon's memories of the Battle of Jutland

This week marks the centenary of the largest naval battle of World War One. More than 9,000 men perished in the Battle of Jutland which was fought in the North Sea from May 31 to June 1, 1916. The scale of the battle was such that even those involved struggled to understand the enormity.

Temporary Surgeon Fred Gladstone fourth from the left front rowIn the words of Temporary Surgeon Fred Gladstone (pictured fourth from the left front row): 

“….the battle was fought at such a rapid speed and over such a large area of sea that it was quite impossible for any one person to understand exactly what was happening.”

Dr Gladstone, who was on board HMS Centurion, not only kept a detailed diary of his experiences during the battle, he also took a series of photographs as events unfolded. His family have since gifted the photographs to the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth but his granddaughter Deborah Aylward, who is joint Divisional Secretary of SSAFA’s East Hampshire Division with her husband Meyrick, described how these were very nearly lost altogether. Following her father’s death the family were helping her mother to move.

Deborah said: “Meyrick and I were clearing some stuff out and I was just about to hurl a small wooden box into a skip when he asked to look inside.  To our amazement, we found a set of silver nitrate slides, carefully preserved in this little box, some of which depicted the Battle of Jutland. Amongst them were shots that had never been seen before, such as pictures of the Sick Bay in HMS Centurion.”

The family also uncovered a detailed account of her grandfather’s life, including his experiences during the Battle of Jutland. She said: “My grandfather had written, in beautiful old fashioned long hand, his life’s history and most important of all, his ‘Personal Experiences of the Battle of Jutland May 31st – June 1st 1916’.”

jpg     HMS Centurion during the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 2016 with battle ensigns flying.  Ships company stood down briefly from action stations Pictured above: HMS Centurion during the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 2016 with battle ensigns flying. Ships company stood down briefly from action stations. 

HMS Centurion was part of the 2nd Battle Squadron and in the days prior to the battle had been resting at anchor in Cromarty Firth. On the morning of May 30th, Dr Gladstone describes life as ‘much as usual’. He spent the morning doing routine duties such as “tending to the sick and censoring letters”.

“The morning duties finished, I accepted an invitation from the Fleet Surgeon to go ashore for a walk. We left the ship at about two o’clock, and our walk took us over the surrounding hills which at this time of year were covered with broom in full flower, making a lovely sight.

“Little did we think, as we walked along, that twenty-four hours hence we should be entering the fringe of the greatest naval battle that the world had ever known, and that many of us would be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice that millions were called upon to make at this dreadful period in the world’s history.”

Although he kept a detailed record of his experiences, his family knew little about Dr Gladstone’s experiences during the war. Deborah said: “There were albums of photographs that came out on special days and Mum and Dad had odd bits of memorabilia around the house from the ship, including a beautiful brass plate.  So when I took my husband Meyrick home for the first time, he was instantly intrigued - as a retired naval officer - about why we used so many naval colloquialisms, which of course we were completely unaware of, although it soon became evident that Dad had got them from his father, who had been incredibly proud to serve in the Royal Navy during the First World War.”

Battle of Jutland HMS Centurion sick bayDr Gladstone’s diary describes how their destination was shrouded in secrecy as they left Cromarty Firth on May 30, 1916.

“As usual, nothing whatever was said as to the proposed plan of operation, the utmost secrecy was observed…”

He was among those who had to evacuate his cabin to allow all the watertight compartments of the ship to be closed down. He slung a hammock on the half deck and attempted to rest there. At around 9pm on May 30th the squadron put to sea.

“There had been so many similar sweeps in the North Sea that the possibility of meeting the enemy never really excited us; in fact, if the question had been raised, it would have excited a good deal of derision. This state of mind was both dangerous and foolish but it is only human nature to become casual about matters that are of everyday occurrence.”

Dr Gladstone assisted the Fleet Surgeon who commanded the forward dressing station. The dressing stations were intended for first aid and urgent operations. On the morning of May 31 he described how everything seemed perfectly peaceful but then the signal came from the flagship sending everyone to action stations.

“We were flying no less than three White Ensigns so as to give the other ships an easier chance of distinguishing us from the enemy.”

When the Centurion later passed the wreckage of another ship, the assumption was that it was a German ship or Zeppelin.

“Our Captain, who had been in command of  the Invincible before coming to us, was convinced that it was the stern of his old ship, but nobody was inclined to believe him and everybody was so convinced that the Germans were incapable of sinking one of our best ships.”

Battle of Jutland HMS King George and Ajax at sea mid battleThe battle continued to rage and the Invincible was not the only loss for the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet but for those involved it would be some time before the details emerged.

“It was not until the next day when the newspapers came on board that we fully grasped the fact that there had been a major naval battle and that our casualties in ships and men had been very heavy.”

After the war Dr Gladstone went on to work as a GP in Gloucestershire but his record of his experiences has proved to be an invaluable historical document and was recently used by the historian Sarah Quail in her book ‘Portsmouth in the Great War’.

Deborah said: “We were all absolutely thrilled that my grandfather’s meticulous efforts have been recorded for posterity and that his photographs and slides are in the safekeeping of the Royal Naval Museum for generations to come. It has become very evident that his experiences during the First World War had a lasting and powerful impact on his life. 

“In our work for SSAFA Meyrick and I are reminded on an almost daily basis of the incredible sacrifice that our military personnel today give for Queen and Country so that we can sleep easy in our beds. And we are able to do this because our grandfathers, who extraordinarily had been contemporaries at the same school, both fought in and survived the First World War.''

Read more about Meyrick Aylward's Grandfather Major Dick Wooley and his experiences in the Battle of the Somme here