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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Look to World War I for Lessons About Today’s Navy

HMS Hood
HMS Hood. Image Credit: Royal Navy.

So during this sabbatical year, I’ve been reading Andrew Lambert’s The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy while gearing up for my own next book, a primer on joint sea power. In essence, Lambert’s book is an intellectual biography of Sir Julian Corbett, who has a strong claim to be history’s finest maritime strategist. Heck, I would probably rate Corbett second among all strategic theorists, trailing only his own hero, the Prussian sage Carl von Clausewitz, on whose masterwork On War he based his theories of saltwater affairs. This year marks the centennial of Corbett’s passing—making it an opportune time to revisit his legacy.

The British Way of War repays the investment of time and energy for anyone who does business in great waters, and indeed for anyone involved with the profession of arms. For one thing, we tend to view great thinkers almost as oracles, abstract from any specific place and time. They dispense wisdom instantly and directly relevant to our own times. Professor Lambert is having none of this, and justly so. He portrays Corbett as a man of his own times and country, and in fact as a leading protagonist in a struggle over the nature of British strategy in world politics. That was why he wrote. While he started out interested in naval history for its own sake, for instance by penning sprightly histories of the Tudor navy, during his later career he wrote to mold thinking about how Great Britain should accomplish its aims in the world.

It should do so at sea, as befitting a maritime empire on which the sun never set.

This was applied history—history with a purpose. Corbett aimed treatises on the Seven Years’ War, Trafalgar, and the Russo-Japanese War not just at the Royal Navy, the obvious audience, but at Parliament and the larger body politic. Through a flurry of writings, he hoped to imprint a doctrine of sea power upon British society, beating back a British Army effort to recast British strategy as a continental strategy founded on a mass conscript army waging ground operations in Europe.

In other words, he wanted Britons to take certain precepts as self-evident and reason from there about the direction of foreign policy and strategy. These should be nautical precepts. He believed fervently that London should place its faith in a dominant navy wielding a compact expeditionary force geared for amphibious warfare. In effect he saw the British Army, rightly conceived, as a corps of marines meant to help the fleet win command of the sea and control sea traffic in the interest of British trade and commerce, and to the detriment of an enemy like imperial Germany. Economic warfare at sea constituted Britain’s comparative advantage.

What Britain’s leadership should not do, he insisted, is what it did during World War I, namely commit the British Expeditionary Force to large-scale, protracted ground combat in Europe. Doing so stripped the navy of its chief striking arm and restricted the fleet to purely seaborne operations. Depriving the navy of its capacity to make a difference on land was a move he regarded as a gross strategic blunder, 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 top uniformed naval officer. Admiral Fisher was a revolutionary who reinvented British maritime strategy and the navy’s force structure for an age of strategic competition and warfare against the Kaiser’s Germany. Corbett’s works, in other words, had direct practical impact. In fact, his best-known treatise—and the one we read with every class in Newport, titled Some Principles of Maritime Strategy—enjoyed official sanction from the British admiralty. So again, Corbett’s writings may be a bequest for all time—I believe they are—but he composed them for a specific context. That being the case, readers must cultivate a discerning mindset when perusing his works. The same goes for the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose agenda was to shape elite and popular opinion in a rising United States, or of founding Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, who wrote to instruct the Red Army on how to overcome such foes as Chinese Nationalists and imperial Japan. Or any other theorist.

Some parts of classic works, that is, are immediately applicable to the U.S. military in 2022; others aren’t. The zeitgeist and personal agendas inflect writing. Caveat emptor is a solid motto when consulting the strategic canon.

Strangely, the part of Lambert’s book I found most compelling was the part that should have been the dullest, namely his account of the fight to publish an unclassified naval history of World War I, simply titled Naval Operations. During the Great War the admiralty commissioned Corbett to pen a multivolume series using official documents, complemented later on by correspondence with some of the principals in such operations as the Dardanelles and Jutland. Yawn. And yet the product was no dusty, straightforward chronological account of events. Corbett saw the series as his way to wean Britain away from continental warfare, which he saw as a cataclysmic departure from past practice, and return the nation to its natural element. Namely, seawater.

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

This is why that portion of Lambert’s book is intriguing rather than dry. An old wisecrack holds that if you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target. Corbett is exhibit A. His targets put up a hail of flak. That’s the downside of venturing critical judgments of current or recent events, when individual protagonists are still alive and jealous of their reputations. And when you try to fashion a culture favorable to your institution, rival institutions mindful of their own parochial interests are apt to push back. Both happened in the case of Naval Operations.

Among individual antagonists, former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Royal Navy’s seniormost civilian official, observed that the book people read the most tends to become the accepted interpretation of events. He fretted that Naval Operations would be that book, and that its author would fault him for the loss of three armored cruisers to a single U-boat on a single day; for 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 objected strenuously to Corbett’s portrayal of some of his actions, setting off a food fight in the British government.

For his part, Admiral David Beatty came in for criticism for his actions as commander of the battlecruiser fleet at Jutland, and demanded that the offending passages be toned down or struck. Like Churchill, Beatty didn’t end up getting his way. But as the reigning First Sea Lord, he did arrange for a disclaimer to be attached to the history, stating that the service rejected some of the principles underlying Corbett’s analysis—chiefly his soft-pedaling the importance of decisive naval battles, which flouted the orthodoxy among old-guard naval officers. A staple of Corbett’s commentary was that command of the sea means control of sea communications, not battle for its own sake. For him, then, battle was merely an enabler for the true purpose of maritime strategy, while capital ships—far from standing atop the pecking order, as accepted wisdom maintained—were the protectors of lighter, unsexy craft such as cruisers that fan out in large numbers to police the sea. The latter were the executors of maritime command.

Heresy!

And naturally Naval Operations ran afoul of the British Army and Royal Air Force (RAF), each of which likewise wanted its competing narrative of events to predominate in government and society—winning widespread support. For instance, Lambert takes the government to task for permitting the RAF to write the official history of aerial operations in World War I, titled War in the Air. Then as now, airmen miss no opportunity to preach the gospel of air power, touting it as a decisive implement of war. But as Lambert points out tartly, the RAF was only 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 retrofit its own interpretation to events that long predated its founding, he says, distorted the history while slighting the value of naval aviation. A work of avian evangelism was the result, rather than an objective history.

Alas, Julian Corbett, never in good health, perished suddenly before he could finish all five tomes of Naval Operations. This marked a grave loss to the seafaring community, and to British society at large. And yet he inspires strategic thought to this day, and far beyond the British Isles to boot.

RIP.

Read the whole thing.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Error403

    June 12, 2022 at 8:06 pm

    Whew ! Today’s navies are far removed from 1914 except in the reckless policy of pursuing needless gunboat provocations.

    As a result of the old putrid policy of using gunboat provocations as an extension of foreign diplomacy now still used by western nations, nations at the receiving end have developed fearsome WEAPONS that have nothing in common with 1914.

    One fearsome weapon is the Russian nuclear torpedo-drone called Poseidon that packs a humongous warhead said to be between 10 to 100 Mt of explosive thermo power.

    Poseidon not only can erase a major seaport or coastal city, it can destroy the sea coasts of places like the Netherlands where the land is generally at or below sea level.

    Then there’s the hypersonic cruise missiles like the zircon that can cut a carrier like a hot knife through butter.

    Then there’s also the upcoming FOBS glider that can easily destroy a carrier parked on the other side of the globe. Certainly nothing to do with 1914 except maybe gunboat provocations.

    • Jack

      June 23, 2022 at 11:29 am

      I’d have to wait and see. People have been freaking out about the DF-21’s for years, but the USN has SM-3’s and the DF-21 hasn’t exactly been tested under realistic circumstances. Remember the US Torpedo Scandal of WWII.

  2. speedster

    June 12, 2022 at 9:31 pm

    The theme with Russian weapons is the butterfly effect, where attention is distracted before sufficient implementation has been accomplished. Unfortunately the result is similar to the Russian missiles unleashed in Ukraine, where 60% of the missiles fail.
    Much the same ineffectual effort is applied to new jet aircraft, where most often the aircraft is not out into mass manufacture, but marvellous descriptions are given as to the capabilities.

    In all this o r has to remember just how small the Russian economy is so that the state of new York has a larger economy. It is no wonder that Russia with a miniscule economy just does not have the economic muscle to finish anything.

  3. greenman

    June 13, 2022 at 12:14 am

    Ah yes, 1914 what a year, to think just 10 years earlier in 1904, Japan inflicted a defeat on the Russian Pacific fleet, in destroying two of the three Russian navy fleets.

  4. cobo

    June 13, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    To the “Error” above, you are correct. No more gunboat drive-bys. It’s time to build the pace of aggression across all domains of battle to destroy the Russian military and begin the prosecution of war against China – better not wait any longer.

  5. Pete Rowe

    June 13, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    Given that German nearly won the initial stages of WWI in France with the BEF playing a part, how would have France faired without the BEF in 1914 & 1915? The British Navy maybe have guaranteed the independence of UK in short-term, it did little to protect France or Belgium from the Germany army.
    If historians want to complain about how the UK misused the BEF and the BEF should be an appendage of the Royal Navy, then you have to answer how that strategy will defeat Germany.

  6. Tony Daniels

    June 13, 2022 at 8:44 pm

    Brilliant! Loved every word!

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    June 14, 2022 at 9:29 am

    The China Sea will see a strategic blockade if China attacks Taiwan. This will permanently end the economic advances China has enjoyed since Nixon allowed investors into China. Mines will fill Chinese harbors, and missiles will sink China’s navy. The Chinese make nothing that can’t be made elsewhere with less risk, and once production moves it will never go back. China’s economy will lose 40% of GDP, permanently no matter if they win or lose (amphibious operations are hard and Taiwan has 1,200 smart anti-ship missiles).

  8. fenderowner

    June 14, 2022 at 11:39 am

    I hope you are correct, Libertarian. Of course, your predicted response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan depends on there being a will to react with decisive force, and that decisive force would mainly have to come from the United States. Given the current US leadership, one has to be skeptical of that becoming a reality in the event of an invasion. As many have stated, the Chinese are well aware of the possibility that America would flinch should they invade, and they surely are deliberating the pros and cons of launching such an invasion during the current Administration’s term.

    • Jack

      June 23, 2022 at 11:25 am

      I tend to think Libertarian is right. China gets 85% of its oil from the Middle East and that is really really easy to cut off. This can be done at the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca. The US and its allies have significant firepower near both. China might get 100,000 troops into Taiwan, but then they’ll have to face the consequences of a blockade like what is happening to Russia, but they don’t have the supplies to deal with it. Taiwan won’t be the pushover the PRC thought it was before the Ukraine War. Finally, China’s Navy will be target practice for the USN. Yes, they are the largest, but the USN was the largest in 1865, but they’d be nuts to have challenged the Royal Navy at that time. The same holds true for China today.

  9. MaxAmoeba

    June 14, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    Our Navy is more like McHale’s Navy with a cast of transvestites.

  10. Rio

    June 14, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Tensions had been brewing throughout Europe—especially in the troubled Balkan region of southeast Europe—for years before World War I actually broke out.

  11. Barefoot Cavalry

    June 15, 2022 at 12:20 am

    Mr. Holmes, I’ll save you from writing a book that will never make an impact. As long as the US Navy advances women in a combat role, the Navy will never be up to the task. Since the emasculation of the American male, the sissified quitters can not stand the necessary discipline for combat operations. This is compounded with the natural tendency of women to nurture, babies.

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