Andrew Lambert, your new book is based on Sir Julian Corbett. He was a fascinating man, with many interests outside of military strategy, but he’s not as well-known as he should be. Why is that?
Despite his critical role in capturing and distilling the essence of British strategy, Sir Julian Corbett, (1854-1922), has been largely forgotten. In his lifetime Corbett had been the most important contributor to the strategic debate in Britain, and a pioneer of modern historical scholarship. He made major contributions to winning the First World War, and the Versailles Peace. He also directed the entire British Official History project, writing the core strategic analysis. His sudden death in September 1922 left his work unfinished. Innate modesty and personal wealth meant he made no effort to become ‘famous’, or to publicise his work.
Thereafter his ideas were ignored by those with vested interest in portraying the catastrophe of the Western Front as both inevitable and necessary, arguments Corbett had demolished. Instead the narrative of the war would be shaped by those who had opposed him, Churchill, a legion of Generals, and the statesmen who had lost control of the conflict. Their case drew strength from the fact that after 1945 the concept of a ‘continental commitment’ dominated British analysis of the world wars, a British Army on Rhine would be central to national strategy throughout the Cold War. The end of that era ushered in a steady shift of focus as Britain turned back towards the wider world. Corbett’s ideas survived the Cold War because they remain by far the best explanation of how Britain has fought in the past, and how it will fight in the future. The Western Front was, and remains an aberration. The only other biography of Corbett, was written in the ‘continental era, before the Falklands Conflict began the process of rehabilitating the man and his ideas.
New evidence has emerged that warrants a fresh look at Corbett – what do we know now that we didn’t when his previous biography was written?
This book uses Corbett’s long-lost diaries and a wide range of other sources, to locate his work in late Victorian and Edwardian debates about defence, strategy, culture and empire, emphasising his Liberal politics, he supported female suffrage, and progressive views of Empire. He envisaged the empire evolving into a sea-commonwealth, linked by mutual dependence on the oceans for security and prosperity. He detested Imperial Germany. His opponents were self-serving soldiers and wooden headed Admirals who thought war was all about fighting. Like his friend Admiral Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord 1904-1909, 1914-15, Corbett stressed the need to outthink the enemy, and attack his weakest points, not charge into his strongest defences.
Corbett’s outlook seemed to reflect Britain’s traditional strengths of a large and powerful navy, combined with a smaller, flexible army. Did that mean he was viewed in 1914 as old-fashioned and out of touch with the ‘modern’ era of warfare?
Corbett built the ‘British Way’ on the record of experience, analysed using the theoretical work of Carl von Clausewitz, suitably developed for a global maritime power. Britain’s traditional strength, the world’s most powerful Navy, was vital to secure the global trade upon which the Empire and economy relied, while creating a mass conscript army would shatter the economy, weaken the fleet, and shift British politics to the right. Britain was not a continental power, and did not need to behave like one when her allies in 1914 outnumbered the Central Powers, and had the massive advantage of secure access to global resources. He worked to ensure there would not be another ‘Western Front’.
In your introduction, Corbett and T.E.Lawrence appear as like-minded, eg their views on the ‘waste’ of life in WW1 and they discussed Alexandretta as an alternative to Gallipoli – why would that have been more likely to achieve success?
Corbett and T.E. Lawrence discussed the war in 1920, and agreed that the ‘soldier’s methods had been catastrophic. They looked to maximise the strategic exploitation of sea control, and condemned continental mass army operations. They discussed plans to land an amphibious army in the Gulf of Alexandretta, to cut Ottoman rail links to Palestine and Arabia. This would have secured Egypt and the Holy Land, but it was blocked by French demands to occupy Syria after the war. Both men were well aware that alliance politics had compromised strategy. Corbett did not live to write up the ‘Revolt in the Desert’, but he recognised it had been a brilliant example of the ‘British Way’, depending on the Royal Navy for critical logistics, firepower and funding.
Corbett has been dismissed recently as a ‘pen for hire’ and of lacking strategic thought in the changed world of Dreadnought era. Could his strategy of economic war through blockade have worked more effectively than what was ultimately a victory by November 1918?
Corbett’s concept of strategy emphasised targeting the enemy’s economy, and it is clear that by 1918 Germany had been gravely weakened by effective economic warfare: had the Navy been able to enter the Baltic and break Germany’s critical trade links with neutral Sweden, as Fisher and Corbett recommended, the German war economy could have been crushed in a matter of months. The Army refused to even think about such an operation, and when Winston Churchill prevented the Cabinet form reading the key memorandum Fisher ensured he was removed from the Admiralty.
Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, and his subsequent behaviour when dealing with Corbett’s criticisms on him do not reflect well. Did he try to destroy Corbett?
In August 1914 Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had persuaded the Government to adopt as Continental strategy, breaking the vital link between army and navy in national strategy. He then developed a mad plan to pass the Dardanelles without any troops. When Corbett exposed these error in the Official History Churchill tried to prevent publication, and spent the rest of his life trying to undermine Corbett’s reputation. Admiral Lord Beatty, similarly vexed by Corbett’s account of Jutland, helped Churchill. Corbett’s expertise was never challenged by the men who really understood war: Lloyd George knighted him for his war work.
What was his view of the Navy, which had produced brilliant seamen in the long 18th century such as Hood, Collingwood and of course Nelson, but a different type of officer by the start of WW1?
Corbett spent most of his career developing the lessons from the age of sail for the Dreadnought era, using Nelson to teach the rising generation about strategy and politics, using old tactical debates to spark fresh thinking, and ensuring the soldiers and sailors realised that it was only in combination were they were powerful and effective. For Corbett the past was the key to thinking ahead, because it was the only ‘real’ experience of major conflict before 1914. After 1914 he switched his focus to the current war, which provided all too many examples of how wars should not be waged.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on a study of how Britain attempted to balance the European state system, and address the strategic challenges created by new technology in nineteenth century.
Andrew Lambert is an acclaimed naval historian and the author of Admirals: The Naval Commanders who Made Britain Great and Nelson: Britannia’s God of War. The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy is his latest book.
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