Julian Corbett and the Rebirth of British Strategy

Julian Corbett and the Rebirth of British Strategy

Andrew Lampert’s The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy provides an insightful look at one of the pioneers of British naval strategy.

Rather than fixed maxims, which as a lawyer he disparaged, Corbett offered an analytical framework to guide thinking and placed strategy in context. Circumstances that varied for each country defined the problems to address. Colmar von der Goltz, a more recent German military theorist, noted that anyone writing on strategy “ought not in his theory to neglect the point of view of his own people.” Corbett accordingly turned the British Empire’s strategic experience into a usable doctrine. His British way of war applied to continental struggles a limited maritime strategy using economic warfare and smaller military forces to support allies. He defined maritime strategy as the principles governing war when the sea is a factor. Naval strategy then determined fleet movements once maritime strategy had decided its actions in relation to land forces. Controlling sea communications protected, if not expanded, Britain’s trade while denying adversaries resources and wealth. The resulting financial strength could sustain protracted conflicts that pushed rivals to their limits. Continental states with large armies and vulnerable frontiers needed quick success through decisive victories to avoid attritional war. Britain enjoyed flexibility in using combined operations by naval and military forces against vulnerable points of its own choice. Peripheral attacks diverted the enemy from other efforts or simply kept them off balance and unable to concentrate their own force. Besides compelling adversaries to seek terms, Corbett’s strategy deterred rivals by raising the cost of aggression. It leveraged Britain’s advantages as an insular state with a dominant navy and strong public finances to wage the kind of war that favored its strengths instead of one that pressed its vulnerabilities.

The qualifier “limited” covered both ends and means. Britain had the limited aim of preserving a European balance of power and protecting specific interests such as keeping the Low Countries out of hostile control. Corbett’s maritime strategy made limited demands short of mass conscript army or a costly state designed to sustain war. Enlightenment absolutism may have been an historical curiosity by the late 1800s, but Corbett saw conscription and an expanded bureaucracy as incompatible with a liberal political order. Competing with continental states on their terms would be a defeat itself given the changes it would require, but the approach Corbett prescribed sought to avoid that choice by offering a way to sustain even unlimited conflicts at manageable cost.

LAMBERT TRACES the concept’s development through Corbett’s writing. England in the Mediterranean: A Study of the Rise and Influence of British Power within the Straits, 1603-1713 showed how commanding trade routes with bases like Gibraltar won control over commerce that financed the navy and constrained the options of rival land powers. Corbett linked English emergence in the Mediterranean with Russia’s rise as the two great events of seventeenth-century history. He presented maritime strategy as part of a larger art of war English statesmen mastered. Revealingly subtitled A Study in Combined Strategy, Corbett’s England in the Seven Years War presented a conflict mainly treated in its separate theaters as a complete whole. Early missteps gave France the initiative to seize the Mediterranean base of Minorca while campaigning successfully in Germany, but an imperial maritime strategy turned the tide. Prussia and a British financed army in Germany pinned the French down on the continent while coastal raids and a Canadian offensive pushed them to counter at the cost of losing their fleet. Sea control not only preceded battle, but provoked it by seizing France’s colonies and trade. Defeats brought the French to terms that confirmed Britain’s maritime ascendancy.

Historians and naval officers praised Corbett’s account of the Seven Years War which still holds up as effective scholarship. He distilled historical lessons into principles and linked them with more recent conflicts in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and the “Green Pamphlet” defining concepts for the war course. Naval staff officers, Corbett noted, had the responsibility to carry on where diplomacy left off by giving ministers options to secure aims. They accordingly needed conceptual tools and examples to articulate maritime strategy and hold their own in disputes with soldiers and civilians. He provided them in his lectures and historical studies, including The Campaign of Trafalgar (1910), which applied limited maritime strategy to the decidedly unlimited struggle with Napoleon. Nelson’s famous victory secured unchallenged command of sea routes even as Britain fought alone for a counter-stroke through economic blockade, a land campaign in Iberia, and eventually military intervention with a European coalition. Growing involvement with current policy debates made Trafalgar Corbett’s last historical book and left his project tracing Britain’s strategic experience incomplete.

Changes in the late-nineteenth-century strategic environment prompted military reforms and a reassessment of British foreign policy. Benjamin Disraeli called the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 “the German revolution, a greater political event than the French,” as it swept away every diplomatic tradition in Europe, but the consequences only came gradually into view. France and Russia, with their interests outside Europe, remained Britain’s likely adversaries even as the United States began its transition from wealth to power. The Naval Defense Act of 1889 formalized the two-power standard by requiring the Royal Naval to maintain battleship numbers to match the next two largest navies. It began a lavish rise in naval spending that prompted Gladstone to resign as prime minister in 1894 over the financial commitment at what he considered the taxpayer’s detriment. The Franco-Russian alliance combined the naval force of Britain’s likely foes when it lacked firm partners. Splendid isolation looked increasingly less attractive.

The Boer War highlighted Britain’s gaping military shortcomings and diplomatic isolation. Striking defeats in a conflict expected to last only a few weeks revealed poor planning and even worse leadership. Britain had dispatched the largest army it had ever sent abroad to South Africa where a guerilla war persisted until May 1902. A costly and controversial victory prompted an inquiry to improve the army’s effectiveness. It also renewed military interest in continental examples of force structure and strategy. Arthur James Balfour, the Conservative prime minister, introduced a Committee of Imperial Defense and reshaped military administration in other ways. Foreign policy shifted from isolation. Besides a regional alliance with Japan covering the Far East and continued rapprochement with the United States, Britain secured an entente cordiale with France in 1904.

Support for the Boers, including provocative statements by Kaiser Wilhelm, the tempestuous grandson of Queen Victoria, altered the hitherto chummy tone of Anglo-German relations while Continental Europe became more polarized between rival alliances. Bismarck had constructed alliances to deny the French support while minimizing the risk of conflict in Central Europe. But tensions between Russia and Austria, Berlin’s closest partner whose support had implications for German domestic politics, over the Balkans derailed his diplomatic efforts. When his successors foolishly allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse, the French seized their chance. Partnership with St. Petersburg split Europe into rival alliance blocs. Germany also increasingly antagonized Britain by its naval expansion program and overtures to Turkey that marked a forward policy in the Middle East. It became a new rival and model for military best practice among soldiers rethinking strategy.

Corbett’s disdain for Imperial Germany’s militaristic culture reflected a wider trend in Britain even as he learned from a range of its military thinkers. “Suspicion and readiness to take offense,” he told a friend in 1901, “is the mark of every middle class German you meet traveling and envy the note of all their journalism.” Militarism and tolerance of petty restraints, along with suspicion and envy, to him characterized savages. Indeed, Corbett saw “Germans as the most savage of recently civilized people” and drew an unfavorable parallel between Prussians and Zulus or Masai. The bellicosity of writers like Goltz and Heinrich von Treitschke he read as a strategic analyst sharpened concerns about Germany’s threat to peace and liberal order that went beyond chauvinist prejudice or comfortable assumptions of British superiority.

BRITAIN UNDERWENT its own polarization in the decades before 1914. Lambert highlights tensions between Corbett’s progressive commitments as a proponent of liberal commercial society and the social conservatism behind support for conscription and a continental military commitment, but both positions faced challenges from working-class enfranchisement and other social changes. Walter Bagehot, a key mid-Victorian liberal figure who lauded the bourgeoise ethos of parliamentary government in The English Constitution, had feared the effects of enfranchising working-class men and the growing influence of mass culture. Britain seemed in decline. An “Age of Decadence,” in Simon Heffer’s evocative description, followed midcentury high-mindedness and the competitive spirit behind the country’s eighteenth-century rise. Falling agricultural incomes during the long depression from the 1870s had weakened the aristocracy and landed gentry while fueling unrest in Ireland. Irish Home Rule threatened the United Kingdom’s political integrity. Trade union militancy also grew as workers struggled with employers for a greater share of earnings. An aggressive suffragette movement forced its demands through civil disobedience and other kinds of direct action.

Conservatives accordingly sought to uphold established hierarchies under threat even when doing so involved challenging parliamentary democracy and defying lawful authority. Military conscription, in their eyes, not only provided manpower to match rival powers but also promoted social discipline. Victorian liberalism, despite an election victory in 1906, seemed besieged from left and right with the latter increasingly willing to challenge the authority of parliamentary government and back soldiers against elected politicians. Conflict over the prospect of ministers calling the army to enforce Irish Home Rule anticipated wartime problems in civil-military relations and paralleled intransigence over strategy.