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.

Corbett worked alongside Sir John Fisher and other reformers who adapted maritime strategy to new technology and opposed army leaders anticipating a European war fighting alongside France. He helped transform Fishers’ thinking into strategic doctrine and defended his program for naval modernization. With their combination of guns, armor, and speed, ships like HMS Dreadnought rendered older battleships out of date and forced rivals to catch up in a building race where Britain possessed the lead. They served a limited deterrent strategy by raising the cost of naval war and forcing the enemy to seek battle or yield sea control. Fisher’s deployment of the fleet to the North Sea targeted Germany by cutting maritime communications. Blockade raised legal questions Corbett understood and he framed arguments to uphold it without alienating neutral powers including the United States. As with his historical and strategic writing, they gave serving officers intellectual tools against critics. Corbett’s efforts also linked economic power and diplomacy with national strategy. He updated old practice for new circumstances.

Henry Herbert Asquith’s government, however, did not impose policy at the cabinet level to bring the services together behind a coherent strategy. Doing so would have brought a clash with soldiers backed in parliament and the press while hurting efforts to limit expenditure. Naval expansion still contributed to a political clash over taxation in 1909 that brought a constitutional crisis resolved by curbing the House of Lords’ veto on legislation. Britain’s army and navy pursued divergent strategies which meant neither had the means to pursue its preferred approach. Nor did they coordinate planning to enable joint efforts. Lambert describes Fischer’s plan to deploy the fleet in the Baltic and cut vital German access to Swedish iron ore as a more realistic option than sending a non-existent land army to aid the French in Europe. The threat had deterred Germany during the 1905 Moroccan Crisis, but it required an amphibious army supporting the fleet which was sent instead to fight alongside France in 1914.

Britain’s “controlling aim,” Corbett had told the Naval War Course in 1907, was to avoid “being forced to fight for our ends where our power was weakest.” Decisions in 1914 took exactly the step he warned against. The result, Lambert argues, “cost a million lives, shattered the British economy, polarized British politics, wrecking a Liberal party that stumbled into a continental war.” Treating the Western Front as World War I’s decisive theater demoted other areas to sideshows and made a limited maritime strategy with peripheral operations irrelevant. Having anticipated the danger, Corbett worked to draw lessons as an advisor and official historian of naval operations. The volumes he wrote explained errors while making a case for maritime strategy as an alternative. For example, the Dardanelles Campaign launched against Constantinople in 1915 broke with maritime strategy’s principles by trying to force the Turkish Straits with naval force alone. Subsequently, landing troops at Gallipoli repeated the stalemate on the Western Front on a narrower scale. The lesson was that combined operations using the mobility sea control circumvents defenses and cuts into the enemy rear, while a static war of attrition squandered that advantage at great cost.

ILL-HEALTH and strain ended Corbett’s career in 1922 with much left undone including the last volumes of the official history. He had also defended the maritime belligerent legal rights on which British strategy depended against the United States and promoted naval history as an academic field. Much of Corbett’s argument for a British way of war, Lambert writes, had to be uncovered by others. His friend Herbert Richmond influenced Basil Liddell Hart, the soldier and journalist who later popularized the concept, but without the depth and literary force to make it stick. Corbett’s ideas became by default the system Britain followed during World War II. Cold War imperatives revived the continental commitment and a preoccupation with total war that set different priorities, but since 1989 the world formed by globalization looks a lot more like the one in which Corbett wrote than its immediate predecessor. 

Although Corbett framed a strategy for Edwardian Britain, Lambert notes the relevance of his thinking to the current Western security partnership that “favors deterrence over war, dominates the maritime domain, and shows little interest in mobilizing large conscript armies.” He also stresses Corbett’s insistence that strategy serves the wider national interest over service priorities and be directed by statesmen advised by experts rather than military professionals. The United States, while a continental state, has been a naval hegemon since 1945 and depends on sea control to operate globally. Frequently raised parallels between China and Wilhelmine Germany place America in Britain’s position before 1914, highlighting the relevance of maritime strategy. Options for a European challenge then suggest ways of responding to its Asian counterpart today.

The key lessons from Lambert’s fine study, however, lie in Corbett’s approach to considering strategic problems. Emphasizing the higher levels of war prevents conflating strategy with military operations and focuses attention on political considerations. Neither the conduct of war nor its objectives can be separated from politics; avoiding the trap of trying to do so requires a wider view in matching available means to realistic aims. Processing strategic experience using historical examples prevents relying upon rote maxims that become an intellectual cage limiting thought. These points are less about a particular national strategy than how to think usefully about strategic problems. Applying them would be a good step towards the reassessment the United States needs after thrashing about during the past several decades.

William Anthony Hay is a professor of History at Mississippi State University and is currently writing a history of British strategy in the American Revolution.

Image: Wikipedia.