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BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Corbett: Maritime Strategy and Naval Policy for the Modern Era

Andrew Lambert, ed., Naval Institute Press Annapolis MD (2017)

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, Ph.D.

Announcing the death of Sir Julian Corbett in 1922, The Times of London believed the nation had lost ‘a naval historian of remarkable gifts.’ Corbett was certainly that, but he was also much more as Andrew Lambert ably amplifies in this welcomed introduction of the historian, his craft, and his legacy. Of strong academic attainments courtesy of Marlborough College and Cambridge University, Corbett’s career as a barrister proved short-lived as the death of his father left him financially independent to pursue other lines. Initially, his hand turned to romance literature and if his contributions in that regard have been widely forgotten, then it at least made possible his foray into history with a study of George Monk appearing in 1889. Other works soon followed announcing a writer of penetrating analysis married to a lucid pen. The first-class degree read in the Law Tripos had not been wasted after all merely waiting for this advocate to find his proper brief. Naval history and, in time the Royal Navy, would advance side-by-side.

Producing two serious studies on the Tudor Navy, Corbett soon was lecturing to mid- and senior-level officers at Britain’s naval war course on the essentials of the War of Spanish Succession, the Thirty Years War, the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the campaigns fought against Napoleon. This was history with a purpose as the key was to find those elements and principles elucidated from the past to inform present British strategic choices. The pity is this portion of Corbett’s writing is missing from what is offered in 21st Century Corbett, though Lambert summarizes the essentials. Perhaps more than anything else, it was this aspect of Corbett’s work that garnered some of its most strident criticisms from serving officers, such as George Aston of the Royal Marine Artillery.

Still, the seven essays captured show Corbett the scholar and Corbett the polemicist both. Accepting the King’s shilling as naval lecturer, Corbett no longer had the latitude to write freely. Access to naval war plans proved one reason why, but another was Admiral Sir John Fisher, the brilliant but irascible First Sea Lord from 1904-1910, increasingly looked to Corbett to fight the Navy’s corner in the press campaign being waged by a cadre of retired officers commonly known as the ‘Syndicate of Discontent.’ Thus, in ‘Recent Attacks on the Admiralty’ Corbett offered a full-throated defense of the Fisher style of naval administration. Where critics deplored the lack of a proper staff, Corbett countered that the existing Board of Admiralty employing the Naval Intelligence Department and abetted by the War College constituted a proper staff in all but name. Perhaps if the service had only its affairs to attend, Corbett’s rejoinder would have had merit. Alas, a Committee of Imperial Defence coordinating the varied problems of empire and overseeing the many agencies of executive responsibility now existed. A naval staff may not have been an imperative for Fisher or his acolyte Corbett, but the rest of government stood to gain a great deal if problems could be handled systematically within the broader bureaucratic structure and not held hostage to the whims of the First Sea Lord’s office.

Following his defense of current naval administration, Corbett was soon touting ‘The Strategic Value of Speed in Battleships.’ Employing his historical knowledge with effect, he argued that superior speed was essential in heavy ships for making a reluctant enemy give battle. That had been true in Nelson’s day, and it would doubtlessly be so in any encounter against the Kaiser’s Navy. Of course, providing such an advantage in battleships came with a steep price, be it range, defensive protection, size, and cost. Such trade-offs Corbett ignored partly because they fell within the realm of technical and tactical considerations, but more probably as they undercut his argument that past strategic factors remained essentially unchanged.

As a jurist and a navalist, Corbett was uniquely qualified to argue the Admiralty’s case against extending the provisions of the 1856 Declaration of Paris. This was the hour of the second Hague Convention and a move to prohibit the capture of private property at sea prompted the third essay presented. Having the world’s largest merchant marine such an extension would seemingly benefit the British Empire. Great Britain also had the world’s greatest navy which more than existing for battle existed for economic warfare. Slow to take effect, economic warfare was the primary means by which a maritime power could face a continental adversary on equal terms. Owing to geography, the case for Britain yielding current rights was a fine one if war with France or the United States arose. If war with Germany was the case, Britain stood to sacrifice all and gain nothing in return. Corbett understood this even if he did not give voice to this Admiralty conclusion. This does not detract from the essay’s value, but it is a reminder Corbett wrote within a context and always for a purpose.The final years of Sir Julian’s professional life were much devoted to writing official history and seeing naval history established as discipline in its own right. No longer writing about events in the distant past, the interests of institutions and those still alive became manifest. In ‘Staff Histories,’ the Corbett of 1913 stressed the difficulties of crafting a joint scholarship true to British maritime roots of combined operations and not simply prepare separate military and naval accountings. The new war soon faced found Corbett at the center of such a monumental effort, and the experience proved fraught with peril. His earlier warnings about the difficulties of preparing joint histories proved entirely correct, and his health suffered in the process. In the end, coordinating the many strands of the World War’s joint history proved every bit as difficult as coordinating the strands of the conflict’s military and naval policies. How much more so today with the advent of a third service and a fourth domain?

The final years of Sir Julian’s professional life were much devoted to writing official history and seeing naval history established as discipline in its own right. No longer writing about events in the distant past, the interests of institutions and those still alive became manifest. In ‘Staff Histories,’ the Corbett of 1913 stressed the difficulties of crafting a joint scholarship true to British maritime roots of combined operations and not simply prepare separate military and naval accountings. The new war soon faced found Corbett at the center of such a monumental effort, and the experience proved fraught with peril. His earlier warnings about the difficulties of preparing joint histories proved entirely correct, and his health suffered in the process. In the end, coordinating the many strands of the World War’s joint history proved every bit as difficult as coordinating the strands of the conflict’s military and naval policies. How much more so today with the advent of a third service and a fourth domain?

Taken altogether, 21st Century Corbett provides a worthy introduction to the man and his times. Of course, more awaits the reader including Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. If Sir Julian Corbett failed to see in his lifetime historical method firmly anchored within the Royal Navy and coupled to an associated university, he need not despair. Professor Andrew Lambert and the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London remain the successors to his strong legacy of naval scholarship, and the drama continues.                                         

Joseph Moretz, Ph.D. works for the British Commission for Military History.

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