Julian Corbett: Military Genius

Andrew Lambert

Julian Corbett, the great naval strategist, was a British Clausewitz. Are we following his doctrine today?
Sir Julian Corbett (1854-1922)
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The British Way of War is about the interconnected lives of a man and an idea, lives that reached a climax in the catastrophe of the First World War Western Front. Great ideas do not emerge in a vacuum, they are shaped by individuals, and reflect the time in which they live. In this respect it is critical to any assessment of a ‘British Way’ to know that Sir Julian Corbett (1854-1922) was a progressive Liberal in politics, that he believed the Empire would evolve into a Commonwealth of independent nations, linked by common values and mutual dependence on sea communications. While his family were wealthy, and he had no need to work, he practised as a Barrister, and believed it was a social duty to serve the wider community, both in local Government and national strategy. His literary talent was obvious, he travelled extensively, published four successful novels, and contribute to contemporary culture before finding his calling in defence policy and history. His friends included Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Edward Elgar, leading historians, and prominent artists.

Jacky Fisher

Corbett’s public career as a leading Edwardian intellectual, historian, journalist, naval educator, strategist and advisor to Navy and nation has long stood in need of reconsideration. He shaped national strategy in the decade before the First World War, with a view to deterring conflict, taught every senior naval officer of note, worked closely with leading statesmen and Admirals, published Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, the core statement of national strategy. It demonstrated that Britain, then a global empire, was utterly dependent on sea control for security, and imported food and raw materials for survival, Britain had to command the seas, which was why it had maintained the world’s most powerful Navy for the past two centuries. He demonstrated the effective combination of that Navy with an amphibious strike force, a deployable professional Expeditionary Army, had been the key to success in every major war of the past 200 years. Furthermore any defeats in that period could be traced to the lack of such co-operation. Britain was a seapower state, and only a maritime strategy could secure it in the event of conflict with another Great Power, as it had in the Napoleonic Wars. Seapower strategy was far more than winning naval battles, it encompassed economic warfare, the support of allies with money and munitions, the use of amphibious attacks to reduce maritime threats, seizing or wrecking hostile naval bases was a commonplace of the Napoleonic era.

Not only did Corbett educate the Royal Navy’s rising officers, but he worked closely with First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, promoting his reforming social and technical and strategic policies between 1902 and 1910, contributing to the development of new strategic alignments to meet the dramatic naval challenge of Imperial Germany. His work as a historian, public intellectual and confidential advisor to the state was widely recognised before 1914.

When war broke out in August 1914 Corbett took on the unprecedented task of directing au unprecedented Official History project dealing with all aspects of the conflict, to ensure sound lessons were learnt, and mistakes rectified. The key mistake had been made on the first day of the war, when the Liberal Government allowed the British Army, a tiny force created for expeditionary warfare, to link up with the massive French Army. From that day Britain would have two separate strategies, while the world’s most powerful fleet commanded the world ocean, it lacked the amphibious component needed to project power at key points, notably the Dardanelles. As he worked through the conflict, form inside the war machine, he worked to recover a ‘British Way’, which focussed on the maritime dimension, not the continental, one that saw the wider world beyond the casualties in Flanders. His genius lay in revisiting the classic theories of modern strategy, critically that of Carl von Clausewitz, in the light of British experience. There was a ‘British way of war’, one he would discuss with T E Lawrence in 1919, as he wrote a masterly strategic analysis of the conflict.

Although ‘great men’ with big egos tried to block his Official History, because it exposed their failures, he refused to give way. Both Winston Churchill and Admiral Sir David Beatty, demanded Corbett revise his verdict: he refused, and won both battles. Sadly the strain took a toll on his fragile health, he died suddenly in September 1922, at the height of his powers, leaving his masterpiece incomplete. While his ideas ensured and prospered, although commonly ascribed to lesser figures, they survived the continental obsessions of the Cold War, and the decline of national power. In 2021 a British Carrier Strike Group, based around a new aircraft carrier, has voyaged the South China Sea and back, reviving alliances, notably with Commonwealth states, re-assuring friends and exerting influence. Julian Corbett’s ideas have never been more relevant: he demonstrated there is a unique ‘British Way’, one that can be understood by thinking about defence and security as a continuum of past, present and future, shaped by national interests, national experience, and national needs.

Andrew Lambert is the author of The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy, published by Yale University Press.