Andrew Lambert. The British Way of War Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy. Yale University Press, 2021. ISBN: 9780300250732; 544 pages, £25.00, $35.00.
by Darin MacDonald
On the surface, Professor Lambert’s most recent book is a wonderfully detailed and thoroughly researched biography of the man he esteems to be Britain’s greatest strategist, Sir Julian Corbett. Undoubtedly, this book clearly fits into the biographical genre in that it outlines the trajectory of Corbett’s life from his childhood and education, to his early years as a rather unsuccessful novelist, and the choices that eventually landed Corbett inside the highest decision-making bodies of the Empire. In so doing, Lambert’s book illuminates the mind and motives of the man, his personal connections, professional conflicts and private thoughts, and the manner in which these elements conjoined in the pursuit of what came to be his professional legacy; the articulation of a unique British “way of war”.
Those not familiar with Corbett’s extensive works on history and strategy need not fear; a very basic understanding of the contemporary strategists of the 19th and early 20th centuries is all that is required in order to follow the narrative and central thesis of The British Way of War. Chapter by chapter, he outlines the key events and that were critical in the development of Corbett’s thinking and analysis. Extensively researched, the book takes the reader on a literary journey through Corbett’s life. Following a short-lived career as a novelist and travelling war correspondent, Corbett’s initial non-fiction works included short, populist biographies of English military heroes. Corbett’s two-volume publication on Francis Drake received excellent reviews and caught the eye of many key naval historians and naval thinkers of the day, including the future First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir ‘Jackie’ Fisher. The lifelong partnership formed by these two men became a symbiotic relationship between civil scholar and uniformed strategist and innovator.
Fisher and Corbett worked together over the next twenty years shaping the Royal Navy that entered the Great War. Fisher’s reforms were articulated through Corbett’s pamphlets, books, newspapers and periodicals. Corbett’s writing was also central in the establishment of the Naval War Course, where his ideas became influential in the strategic education of many of the future Admiralty figures of the Great War. Lambert nonetheless highlights how despite their best efforts, the two were ultimately unsuccessful in correcting the continentalist ‘drift’ of British strategy that they both judged exceedingly dangerous for the British Empire. Prodded by Fisher, Corbett published historical studies concerning the strategic culture and history of the British Empire in 1904 and 1907. Together, these works began to reveal unique strategic principles applicable to the British empire in the early 20th century. Corbett was building the case for a limited maritime strategy for Britain vis-a-vis developments on the continent. Despite the soundness of his analysis and logic, however, Corbett’s ideas remained controversial.
The previous epoch of relative peace and unchallenged naval supremacy, combined with the fallout from the German wars of unification had led many in Westminster to become seduced by the concept of ‘decisive battle’ and ‘decisive theatres’, which required the annihilation of the enemy’s forces in order to secure quick victory in war. Both Fisher and Corbett observed that, despite operating the most strategic asset available to the British Empire, most naval officers were ill-equipped to counter this continentalist narrative due to a lack of strategic literacy. Their cause was not aided by the fact that the most influential naval thinker of the late 19th century, Mahan, largely promoted a navalised version of German continentalist thinking: that the primary purpose of a navy was to defeat an adversary’s fleet in a decisive, blue-water engagement and thereby gain Command of the Sea. This was a theory written for an American audience who required convincing of the value of expensive blue-water naval assets but Britain needed no convincing about the utility of its navy.1 Still, unease with the long peace and new naval technology combined to distort British confidence in the employment of sea power as a component of a maritime strategy that focused on land and sea elements working in unison through combined operations.
Corbett’s work therefore had two aims. Firstly, he aimed to re-acquaint the military and government that the true value of sea power was as a strategic deterrent that prevented the need for tactical victories in battle in the first place. Lambert repeatedly highlights how Corbett painstakingly built the evidence to support his theory that continentalist ‘decisive battle’ thinking was antithetical to Britain’s unique circumstance as a global maritime empire, rather than a continental power based on mass conscript armies. In the process, Corbett found himself sparring with the War Office and the anti-Fisher elements of the Admiralty through the leading periodicals and newspapers and struggled to insert his ideas heard as a civilian outsider. Corbett’s second aim, therefore, was to educate a naval officer corps able to get British strategic thinking ‘back on track’. Arguably Corbett’s most famous work, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911) was written to fill this void in strategic education. It became a strategic primer text used extensively in the Naval War Course to prepare naval officers for the strategic dialogues and debates that would await them in their future roles in the Admiralty. Corbett’s strategy allowed naval officers to offer a counterpoint to the strategic logic of the Prusso-German tradition using historical British maritime strategy.
Corbett’s efforts came too late as the Admiralty’s ability to influence the strategic discourse was diminishing largely due to the controlling influence of the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill. Lambert highlights the cognitive dissonance of Churchill’s later record as Prime Minister during the Second World War with his continentalist leanings and raw ambition as the First Lord of the Admiralty in the opening years of the Great War. Lambert’s criticism of Churchill’s motives, methods and decisions during this period underscores that Churchill largely misunderstood British sea power. Churchill’s recall of Fisher out of retirement to fulfill the vacant post at the head of the Admiralty in late 1914 is indicative of his belated recognition of the error in his strategic logic.
Fisher and Corbett understood that only the combined use of the Navy and the BEF to threaten the closure of the entrances to the Baltic, including the Kiel Canal, could force the High Seas Fleet to seek an engagement. Fisher and Churchill would never agree on this course of action, however, leading to Fisher threatening resignation on multiple occasions. Having committed the strategic blunder of prematurely assigning the BEF to the continent, Churchill spent the remainder of his time as First Lord seeking some manner for the RN to decisively alter the course of the war. The Dardanelles campaign, by far the most famous of these initiatives, led to his dismissal and decades of collective Empire introspection. Meanwhile, Corbett had been commissioned in 1914 to lead the writing of the official history of the conflict. Needless to say, many of his contemporaries feared having their errors exposed and analysed, Churchill and Beatty amongst them. When Corbett and Fisher both died before it was completed, however, the door was left open for alternate versions of events, such as Churchill’s own The World Crisis, to muddy the waters.
Lambert’s The British Way of War highlights not only the great works of Corbett and the influential role he and his publications had in attempting to correct the continentalist drift of British strategy at the turn of the 20th century, but also to provide the context around the logical basis for these works. Lambert’s book is presented in such a way that each chapter is dedicated to one specific work or a specific period that demonstrates the progression in Corbett’s thinking as well as the progression of the political and strategic developments of the day. Corbett’s works are presented in parallel with the unfolding strategic tragedy that would lead to the First World War. The chapters build on and support each other such that each is able to be studied separate from the book as a whole. In this way, the chapters lend themselves to ease of use for students and educators of this era in British strategic thought.
While clearly articulating the strategic purpose underlying each of Corbett’s works, it is far less obvious to the reader what the ultimate purpose of Lambert’s work is. The British Way of War is much more than a simple biography of a man Lambert clearly admires. Corbett wrote about historical events and key figures from Britain’s past, but with a clear purpose to educate the naval officers and statesmen of his times about the unique British way of war as particular to the conditions of the British Empire. Lambert’s writing follows a parallel structure. He not only conducts a biographical study of Corbett’s life, but examines the historical events and debates that both shaped and gave purpose to his analysis. I suspect that Lambert, like Corbett, hopes to educate the naval and diplomatic classes of the present day United Kingdom. The events of the past several weeks and the desperate scramble to refine some semblance of a strategy in the face of old-world Russian realpolitik suggests that Lambert’s message, is badly needed, but his timing, like Corbett’s, may have come slightly too late to influence the outcome of this particular crisis.
Darin MacDonald is a Commander in the Royal Australian Navy having previously served in the Royal Canadian Navy. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada (B.A. (Hons) Military & Strategic Studies – 2000) and a distinguished graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course – Joint (2018). He holds a Masters degree from the Australian National University in Defence and Strategic Studies and is currently serving as the Commanding Officer of HMAS Toowoomba, an ANZAC-class frigate.