THE BRITISH WAY OF WAR: JULIAN CORBETT AND THE BATTLE FOR A NATIONAL STRATEGY
Readers of the Naval Review will need no introduction to Sir Julian Corbett, nor to Professor Andrew Lambert. Nor will they need to be told that if a new volume on Corbett is to be written, then Lambert is the man to do it. He is the world’s foremost authority on the great maritime strategist and his new book is without question the definitive text of our age. At over 400 pages, underpinned by another 60 pages of notes and as comprehensive a bibliography as would be expected of a leading scholar, Lambert leaves no stone unturned. This incredibly well-researched book unpicks Corbett’s life, his times, his contribution to naval thought and education, and his lasting legacy on what might be termed the British Way of War.
It is worth pointing out, however, that like any writer or thinker, Corbett’s work was a product of his own understanding and position. He was not a simple war course lecturer who woke up one morning with fresh ideas. He was a product of his privilege, his politics, his surroundings, and the context of the times in which he lived. He was wealthy (a man of independent means who dabbled in writing fiction and popular histories), he was a Liberal (a well-connected one at that, with numerous offers to run for parliament), and he was an imperialist (his own 19th century ‘grand tour’ had included time in British India, and not exactly slumming it). A qualified lawyer who never wore uniform, one might say that Corbett arrived at his maritime strategising by a circuitous route, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. He was unencumbered by the received wisdom of the predominantly Tory, predominantly ‘Little Englanders’ of the time. He was clever, could see alternative perspectives, and he could use his knowledge of strategy to analyse events. Whereas many socially conservative naval and military commentators had succumbed to the ‘German’ way of thinking, advocating short, sharp wars to relieve their anxieties, Corbett (like his foil Jackie Fisher – Corbett was imbued with the ‘Jack-fish spirit’) had a more expansive world view and wanted to use Britain’s naval supremacy for deterrence and national prosperity.
Lambert’s explanations of Corbett’s circumstances and his personal and professional development, his relationships with the key figures of the day, even his connections with the Navy Records Society and his interpretation of Mahan, give the reader such a solid picture of his subject that Corbett’s conclusions, when they come, seem as though they should have been obvious from the start. If only life, and strategy, were so straight-forward. The ideas of course took years to form and were resisted by many. However, a century later his Some Principles and his other writings remain classics in their field and have not been overturned by subsequent theorists, and his impact on the professional education of naval officers is still being felt.
An important question, though, is whether Corbett won the ‘battle for a national strategy’ that Lambert alludes to in the book’s title, and whether his ideas actually constitute a ‘British way of war’. On that, this jury is out. Corbett’s liberal imperialism bears more than a passing resemblance to Global Britain, but the 21st century British ‘way’ is perhaps internationalist not imperialist, favours manoeuvre over mass, and partnership over hegemony. The context, the time, and the means of delivery are different. Yet Some Principles is still quasi-official doctrine and has been adapted and reinterpreted to be applied to space and cyber. So perhaps he did win. That said, Britain has become embroiled in series of short, sharp land wars which turned into long, painful failures. It has measured ‘effect’ in numbers of boots on the ground, and it has disinvested in its navy. So, maybe he didn’t. Who knows? Readers should decide for themselves the British way of war but not before getting to grips with Andrew Lambert’s thoughts on the matter. This book isn’t just recommended, it is an immediate necessity for the shelves of any and every serious navalist.