A HUNDRED years ago the biggest naval battle in history was fought. Battleships of the Royal Navy faced their German enemies in force for the only time of the war.

Some Gwent sailors would not see the end of the fight, while others were luckier. Martin Wade tells of Battle of Jutland and the Gwent sailors who fought there.

THE British Fleet was by far the biggest on the face of the earth. The so-called 'Dreadnought' battleship was the key to the power of their fleet. The Royal Navy had 37 of these ‘castles of steel’, the Germans 21.

It was against this disparity that Germany's strategy grew. It had to provoke the Royal Navy into small battles to whittle away at her superior numbers. So British ports were bombarded in the hope that the British would respond and they could be drawn into fights the Germans could win.

This is what they hoped to do on May 31 1916.

The German Vice-Admiral Hipper led his battlecruisers in the hope of drawing the British into a battle in the North Sea off Denmark, to be joined by the larger battleships of the German High Seas fleet. There the British ships could be destroyed by superior numbers.

It was a simple plan, but one which the British had an inkling of. The Royal Navy had long been able to intercept German naval signals. The British sent the Grand Fleet, their most powerful battleships, south to meet the threat.

They thought the German's main strength, the High Seas Fleet was still in harbour when it too was steaming towards battle. Both navies sent their cruisers forward. Each believed themselves to be sailing towards an inferior force when in fact 150 British and 100 German warships of the two largest navies in the world were on a collision course.

Many Gwent sailors sailed in the British battle fleets that day. Several served on HMS Indefatigable, one of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty's battle cruisers steaming fast towards Hipper's fleet. She exemplified the speed and power of the type.

The class of 22,000-tonne ships was designed to be fast and to pack a punch. To this end they could sail at 25 knots (29 mph) and had four turrets, each with two 12-inch guns. Most of the crew were either below deck in the engine rooms or sealed in their turrets, ready to feed the guns which could fire shells weighing 850 pounds up to 14 miles away.

Having sighted eachother at just after 3.30pm, 20 minutes later the British had opened fire, lobbing shells across 12 miles of open sea, but at 4.02pm a shell from the German cruiser, Von der Tann, struck the Indefatigable.

The British cruisers, although heavily-armed and fast were light on armour. Another weakness of the British was cruelly exposed that day. In an effort to increase their rate of fire, the cruisers' gun crews neglected a key safety feature. The anti-flash curtain was a barrier between the gun turret and the store of shells, the magazine. Designed to deflect the fire of an explosion from spreading to the highly flammable ammunition, it was left open so guns could be loaded and fired more quickly. This proved to be fateful.

The German shell plunged through the roof of one of cruiser's turrets and exploded, detonating her magazine. The ship was blown to pieces. Only two crew members survived.

Usk man Bob George has good reason to be interested in the anniversary of the great battle. Two of his great-uncles and his wife's grandfather all served at Jutland. While two survived, his great Uncle Ernest Robathan was one of the thousand to die when the Indefatigable was destroyed.

The Engine Room Artificer was from Pontymoile and before the war worked as an engineer at Pontypool Road Station. Having joined the navy, the keen church-goer and sportsman was rapidly promoted. The Pontypool Free Press told how "his untimely end is deeply deplored". His wife was in Scotland as the battle raged and had moved there to be close to her husband.

Also on the Indefatigable were Newport gunners Charles Abraham of Portland Street and Ernest Sealey of Manchester Street. Abertillery men Stoker John Thomas and Able Seamen Augustine Morgan of Oak Street and George Doherty of Upstone Terrace in Pontypool were also onboard. They were just some of the Gwent sailors who perished.

One of the two survivors of the Indefatigable, Signaller C Palmer told how he was thrown well clear of the ship “otherwise I would have been sucked under”. He said: “There was a terrific explosion aboard the ship - the magazine went. I saw the guns go up in the air just like matchsticks - 12 inch guns they were - bodies and everything. Within half a minute the ship turned right over and she was gone.”

As well as miracles, there was great bravery that day. The battlecruiser Lion too was hit in her turret but the quick action of Royal Marine Major FJW Harvey saved the ship. Despite having both legs blown off he managed to flood the magazine to stop the fire spreading. He later died but was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

But the lack of protection told as other ships were wiped out in a few short hours that afternoon.

The Queen Mary and the Invincible both met a similar fate to the Indefatigable. Each was consumed by a vast explosion following a hit to their magazine, it became apparent as Vice Admiral Beatty was famously to remark: "There's something wrong with our damn ships today!"

In spite of this disastrous start, Beatty succeeded in drawing the German cruisers towards the Grand Fleet, the main British force. The British battleships joined the cruisers and together they brought their guns to bear on the Germans ultimately sinking 11 of their ships and resulting in the loss of 2,551 men.

It looked like the British had them cornered, but deft manoeuvres and a torpedo attack saw them escape for home for what they claimed was a victory. The Royal Navy had lost more ships than they had, so who had won the day?

The German fleet, safely at home, but bruised by battle, would never leave harbour again. The price was high for the British, with 6,094 men and 14 ships lost, but the prize was perhaps the most valuable won by any British force throughout the whole of the war.

The German fleet would not bombard British towns or menace her shipping again. Instead, reluctant to risk her surface fleet in another clash with the still larger Royal Navy, they chose to carry the war at sea by submarine alone. As they sank merchant shipping of enemy and neutral alike, the greatest neutral, America was finally goaded into declaring war by 1917. Defeat for Germany followed a year later.

Bob George says he feels the devastation Ernest’s death must have caused. “He was a well-known figure in Pontymoile, especially on the railways, but for his family it must have been crushing.” He adds that thinking of his death and that of the thousands of other men who died, he is struck by the “awful waste of life” that day. Equally he says they did not die in vain, saying: “After the battle it was said of the Germans: ‘The prisoner has struck the jailer, but he is back in his cell’. It’s some consolation to know what a victory it was for the Royal Navy.”

Ernest Robathan is remembered on the gates of Pontypool Park and in the small church of St Matthew in Pontymoile, as others are named on memorials across Gwent. Their sacrifice, perhaps not as well-known as those of our soldiers who died in the mud of Flanders, should be recalled in that short and bloody but vital battle 100 years ago.