Look to World War I for lessons on today’s Navy

So during this gap year, I’ve been reading Andrew Lambert’s books The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the battle for a national strategy as I prepare for my next book, an introduction to joint sea power. At its core, Lambert’s book is an intellectual biography of Sir Julian Corbett, who has a strong claim to be the greatest maritime strategist in history. Hell, I’d probably rank Corbett second among everybody strategic theorists, following only their own hero, the Prussian scholar Carl von Clausewitz, in whose masterpiece At war he based his theories on matters of salt water. This year marks the centenary of Corbett’s passing, making it an opportune time to revisit his legacy.

The British style of war It is well worth the investment of time and energy of anyone doing business on the big waters and, indeed, of anyone involved in the profession of arms. On the one hand, we tend to see great thinkers almost as oracles, abstracted from any specific place and time. They dispense instant and directly relevant wisdom for our times. Professor Lambert accepts none of this, and rightly so. He portrays Corbett as a man of his own time and country and, indeed, as a major player in a struggle over the nature of British strategy in world politics. That’s why he wrote. While he began with an interest in naval history for its own sake, for example writing lively histories of the Tudor navy, during his later career he wrote to shape thinking about how Britain should achieve her goals in the world.

It must do so at sea, as befits a maritime empire on which the sun never sets.

This was applied history, history with a purpose. Corbett addressed the treatises on the Seven Years’ War, Trafalgar, and the Russo-Japanese War not just to the Royal Navy, the obvious audience, but to Parliament and the body politic at large. Through a flurry of writing, he hoped to impress a doctrine of sea power on British society, rolling back an effort by the British military to recast British strategy as a continental strategy based on a massive conscript army conducting land operations in Europe.

In other words, he wanted the British to take certain precepts as self-evident and reason from there about the direction of foreign policy and strategy. These must be nautical precepts. He fervently believed that London should put her faith in a dominant navy wielding a compact expeditionary force geared for amphibious warfare. In effect, he saw the British Army, properly conceived, as a marine corps intended to help the fleet gain command of the sea and control maritime traffic in the interests of British commerce and to the detriment of an enemy such as Imperial Germany. . Economic warfare at sea was Britain’s comparative advantage.

What the British leadership should do No to do, he insisted, is what he did during the First World War, namely committing the British Expeditionary Force to large-scale, prolonged ground combat in Europe. In doing so, he stripped the navy of its main strike arm and restricted the fleet to purely maritime operations. Depriving the Navy of its ability to make a difference on land was a move he considered a grave strategic mistake, alien to time-tested British traditions.

Corbett’s ideas won him influential friends. He was a close confidant of First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, the Royal Navy’s chief uniformed naval officer. Admiral Fisher was a revolutionary who reinvented British maritime strategy and the navy’s force structure for an era of strategic competition and war against the Kaiser’s Germany. Corbett’s works, in other words, had a direct practical impact. In fact, his best-known treatise, and the one we read in every class at Newport, entitled Some principles of maritime strategy:It enjoyed the official sanction of the British Admiralty. So again, Corbett’s writings may be a legacy forever, I think they are, but he composed them for a specific context. That being the case, readers must cultivate a demanding mindset when reading his works. Ditto the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose agenda was to shape popular and elite opinion in a rising America, or the founding Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, who wrote to instruct the Red Army on how to win. enemies such as Chinese nationalists and Imperial Japan. Or any other theorist.

Some parts of classic works, that is, are immediately applicable to the US military in 2022; others are not. The spirit of the times and personal agendas influence the writing. warning emptor is a solid motto when consulting the strategic canon.

Strangely, the part of Lambert’s book that I found most compelling was the part that should have been the most boring, namely his account of the struggle to publish an unclassified naval history of the First World War, simply titled Naval Operations. During the Great War Corbett was commissioned by the Admiralty to write a multi-volume series using official documents, later supplemented by correspondence with some of the leading men on operations such as the Dardanelles and Jutland. Yawn. And yet the product was not a dusty, straightforward chronological account of events. Corbett saw the series as his way of moving Britain away from continental warfare, which he saw as a cataclysmic change from past practice, and returning the nation to its natural element. That is, sea water.

Naval Operations it was a conduit for opinions expressed in previous works. He intended to use the current history to vindicate them.

This is why that part of Lambert’s book is more intriguing than dry. An old joke holds that If you’re not getting flak, you’re not on target.. Corbett is Exhibit A. His targets unleashed a hail of anti-aircraft fire. That’s the downside of hazarding critical judgments on current or recent events, when the individual protagonists are still alive and jealous of their reputations. And when you try to create a favorable culture for your institution, rival institutions aware of their own parochial interests tend to back down. Both occurred in the case of Naval Operations.

Among the individual antagonists, former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Royal Navy’s most senior civil servant, observed that the book that people read the most tends to become the accepted interpretation of events. He fretted about it Naval Operations it would be that book, and that its author would blame him for the loss of three armored cruisers to a single submarine in a single day; for the defeat of a British squadron at the Battle of Coronel, off the Pacific coast of South America; and, most infamously, for mishandling the effort to break into the Black Sea at the Dardanelles. Churchill strongly objected to Corbett’s interpretation of some of his actions, sparking a food war in the British government.

For his part, Admiral David Beatty came under fire for his actions as commander of the battlecruiser fleet in Jutland and demanded that the offending passages be toned down or eliminated. Like Churchill, Beatty did not end up getting his way. But as the reigning First Sea Lord, he arranged for a disclaimer to be attached to the story, stating that the service rejected some of the principles underlying Corbett’s analysis, chiefly his watering down of the importance of sea battles. decisive, which mocks orthodoxy. among the naval officers of the old guard. A basic element of Corbett’s comment was that mastery of the sea means control of maritime communications, not battle itself. To him, then, battle was merely an enabler for the true purpose of maritime strategy, while the capital ships, far from being at the top of the pecking order, as accepted wisdom held, were the protectors of lighter and more powerful vessels. unattractive, like cruise ships that fan out. large numbers to watch the sea. The latter were the executors of the maritime command.


and naturally Naval Operations it came into conflict with the British Army and the Royal Air Force (RAF), each of whom also wanted their competing narrative of events to prevail in government and society, winning widespread support. For example, Lambert criticizes the government for allowing the RAF to write the official history of air operations in the First World War, entitled war in the air. Then, as now, airmen jump at the opportunity to preach the gospel of air power, promoting it as a decisive instrument of war. But as Lambert tartly points out, the RAF was founded in 1918, after the military merged the navy’s Royal Naval Air Service with the army’s Royal Flying Corps. Letting the air arm tailor its own interpretation of events long before its founding, he says, distorted history and undervalued the value of naval aviation. The result was an avian evangelism work, rather than an objective story.

Unfortunately, Julian Corbett, never in good health, died suddenly before he could finish the five volumes of his book. Naval Operations. This marked a serious loss for the seafaring community and for British society in general. And yet it inspires strategic thinking to this day, and far beyond the British Isles to begin with.


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Contributing editor in 1945, Dr. James Holmes holds the JC Wylie Chair in Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and was on the faculty of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last artillery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger during the first Gulf War in 1991. He received the Foundation Award from the Naval War College in 1994, meaning he graduated top of his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, a 2010 Best Book of the Atlantic Monthly, and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis considers it “problematic.” The opinions expressed here are his alone. Holmes also writes on the Naval Diplomat blog.

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