By Alex Comber
A century ago, the largest naval battle of the First World War took place off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. More than 250 warships of the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy manoeuvred to get ready for action. The first salvoes of long-range cannon fire were discharged at 14:30 on May 31, 1916, and the ensuing clash lasted into the morning of June 1. With three British battle cruisers and 11 other ships destroyed, and more than twice as many sailors killed and injured, British naval power seemed to have suffered a setback. However, in a strategic sense, the smaller German fleet could not afford its more modest losses, and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s military commanders avoided a similar fleet battle for the duration of the War, focusing instead on submarine attacks.
In many regions of Canada, there were very strong pro-imperial sentiments and cultural ties to Britain. Many had recently emigrated, and still had family back in the “old country.” Though there was a small Canadian Navy (created in 1910), many residents of Canada and of the Dominion of Newfoundland volunteered to serve with the Royal Navy in a variety of roles. With ports across the British Empire and the prospect of an alternative to a soldier’s life in the trenches of the Western Front, there was much to appeal to recruits.
Careful searching of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online casualty database reveals that at least a dozen of the approximately six thousand sailors killed serving in the British Fleet at Jutland came from Canada or Newfoundland. Stanley de Quetteville, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, was attached to the Royal Navy and served in the massive battle cruiser HMS INDEFATIGABLE. He was originally from the English Channel island of Jersey and had emigrated to Canada in the years before the First World War in search of opportunities. A qualified engineer, he enlisted in 1910 and had served on the cruiser HMCS NIOBE, one of Canada’s first ships. He married Phyllis Fisher of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1915.
De Quetteville died at 16:03 on May 31, when HMS INDEFATIGABLE exploded after being hit by accurate shellfire from the German Dreadnought VON DER TANN. Of the crew of 1,019 men, there were only two survivors. The Minister of the Naval Service, J. D. Hazen, sent his widow a letter of condolence, which reads: “I wish to express to you not only my personal sympathy, but that of the whole Canadian Naval Service, which, in his death, has lost an Officer of undoubted ability and great promise. That he died a sailor’s death, in action against the King’s enemies, and in defence of the Empire, must be to you some consolation in your great sorrow.” Today, Mount Indefatigable in the Canadian Rockies stands as a tribute to de Quetteville and his fellow crew members.
Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division.