RogerBW's Blog

The Rules of the Game, Andrew Gordon 08 November 2017

For over a hundred years, the Royal Navy had been expecting to win the next Trafalgar. On 31 May 1916 off the Danish coast they got their chance, and it didn't go as well as might have been hoped.

Anything more that is a matter for controversy, with partisans of Jellicoe and Beatty continuing their arguments about who erred when and how to the present day; my first reaction to this book was a strong sense of coming in half-way through the argument.

But while there is material to support both admirals here, there's plenty more to show that they both made huge mistakes. The core conflict on the British side seems to have been between peacetime and wartime leaders, authoritarians who wanted everything just so and centrally controlled versus autocrats who wanted to do their own thing and would let their subordinates do the same; but while Beatty's preferred tactics of independent action rather than waiting for a signal from the flagship were doubtless superior, the same Beatty (eschewing pointless "spit-and-polish") had also neglected gunnery practice and seamanship among his fleet, preferring to spend his time sleeping with his fellow-officers' wives.

The Germans don't come off well either, with Hipper's and Scheer's mistakes being similarly ruthlessly catalogued, but this is primarily a book about the British side of the conflict.

Some readers find the book to favour Beatty, which in a strictly tactical sense it may, but his relentless self-promotion (which continued after the battle, with alteration and destruction of key records that might not show him in the best light, not to mention casually destroying the careers of some of his former allies and subordinates when they looked as though they might tell the truth) doesn't to my mind show him in any sort of favourable way. Even in the battle itself, a key moment – when the 5th Battle Squadron, a group of slower battleships attached to the Battlecruiser Fleet, failed to turn away with that fleet and continued into the teeth of the High Seas Fleet – while clearly a major error, seems at least as attributable to Beatty as to Hugh Evan-Thomas commanding 5BS.

The process of analysis is not helped by a wildly inconsistent primary record: some signals are logged as having been received before they were sent, some logs have clearly been altered, and eye-witness accounts rarely confirm to the logs at all; Gordon usefully summarises several of the major points of disagreement in works by earlier historians.

Just after the narrative reaches that failed turn, there's a large central section exploring the previous decades of the Royal Navy's experience, and how it had slowly adjusted its tactics in the face of new technologies. This provides what I think is Gordon's central thesis, that the long years of peace, or at least of nothing like a serious opposition, had allowed the Navy to rest on its laurels, to put its energies into centralised command and an ever-more-complex system of flag signals, and of course to promote by patronage since there was no other way for a young officer to stand out from the crowd. I learned all sorts of unexpected things here, not least the context in which HMS Pinafore was written, and about some of the more special admirals:

Sir Robert [Arbuthnot], a Scottish baronet, distended the muscular Christian and authoritarian mores of Edwardian England to the point where he was, in a colloquial if not a clinical sense, insane — although, for sure, even in today's armed forces he would be acclaimed for his combative spirit and, from a safe distance, alluded to vaguely as a sound chap. (He kept his motorbike, lovingly polished, in his day-cabin, and went in for gruelling long-distance races in which he pioneered falling off as a means of keeping awake.)

Gordon does perhaps go a bit far for my taste – he's clearly swallowed Dixon's On the Psychology of Military Incompetence whole, while I found it prone to descend into doctrinaire Freudianism, and he finds Vitae Lampada nothing more than "embarrassing" – but even here he makes a useful point, that while a tradition of carrying on against all odds can occasionally produce miracles, it's rather better to try to arrange the situation such that miracles are not required. (Gordon is not polite about Scott's Antarctic expeditions; one suspects he might feel the same way about the Moon landings.)

The writing, as one might hope, is excellent. Gordon is prone to careful understatement and one feels that he'd be good company in person.

For Miss Evan-Thomas, [John Neale Dalton] was not a bad catch, by Victorian criteria, one supposes.

This style particularly shows in discussion of the collision between Victoria and Camperdown, which seems to have left nobody looking good:

In return, [Charles Beresford] rated [Tryon] "the best man we had" and now consoled Lady Tryon with "the whole Navy weeps with you. The State has lost its most brilliant seaman; the Navy its most generous and affectionate friend." Elsewhere, he declared that Markham had been "crucified alive for another man's blunder"; and he wrote to assure him that he would have done exactly the same himself. These positions were not literally incompatible — a politician could have occupied both without discomfort — but naval officers' loyalties were normally more linear.

I could see this being stolen and used as a business book, if it didn't have quite as much interesting military content in it. After all, the tension between rule-followers and innovators, either of whom will destroy an enterprise if unchecked, is pretty much a universal one.

I'm a wargamer, and one thing that I got out of this book is that if one were to wargame Jutland usefully it would have to be a much more psychological game than usual: simply telling ships to go here and there, and then adding up dice of gunfire, would fail to capture the very limited way in which ships and captains could be ordered to fight, and would produce results which while physically possible would not be plausible in terms of things that might have happened that day.

This is an excellent book, though rather substantial. I'd recommend it obviously to anyone interested in naval actions of the Great War; but also to anyone interested in the background that informed the Royal Navy of the Second World War, and indeed in the Victorian navy during the latter half of the nineteenth century; and one can see many of the same problems, with different technical shells wrapped round them, recurring today.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 01:27pm on 08 November 2017

    The Battle of Cape Matapan seems particularly informed by Jutland. The sinking of the Italian cruisers in the night action seems like the Royal Navy proving to itself that it had learned to fight at night.

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