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Sunday Book Review: Rules of the Game

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Sometimes simple questions result in enormous projects. The question that Andrew Gordon tackles in Rules of the Game amounts to this: Why did the Grand Fleet fail to destroy the High Seas Fleet at Jutland, in spite of a massive advantage in material and a devastating tactical position? Gordon begins with a detailed account of the development and deployment of the Fifth Battle Squadron (consisting of four of the five members of the Queen Elizabeth class, most powerful battleships in the Royal Navy) at the Battle of Jutland, which is followed by a familiar account of the Run to the South, in which the British battlecruisers under the command of David Beatty encountered the Franz von Hipper’s squadron of German battlecruisers. Then, just as the battleships of the Fifth Battle Squadron turn away from the oncoming High Seas Fleet, we return to Trafalgar, a history of the Victorian Royal Navy, and a long discussion of what peacetime does to military doctrine and practice. As you might imagine, it’s a long and detailed book. The first half of this review deals with Gordon’s theoretical argument, and will be of interest to those curious about the study and practice of military doctrine. The second half focuses on Gordon’s empirical argument about the outcome of the Battle of Jutland.

Gordon argues that the nineteenth century dominance of the Royal Navy combined with the social customs of the Victorian Age to produce an officer corps hostile to and largely incapable of decisive, independent action. This hostility was reflected in the training and social institutions of the Royal Navy. The consequence was a military organization that was exceptionally effective at certain tasks, but remarkably inflexible. However, no social institutions can exist without producing resistance, and the Victorian Royal Navy produced both doctrinaire officers and “ratcatchers”, rebels who struggled with the hierarchy but who would do well in combat situations.

British command at the Battle of Jutland featured a doctrinaire officer (Admiral John Jellicoe), and a ratcatcher (Admiral David Beatty). Of course, these are ideal types that can never quite catch the complexities of particularly individuals; Jellicoe would not have risen to command if he had not himself among his fellow doctrinaire officers, and Beatty tamed his rebellious streak enough to move up the Royal Navy hierarchy. Military organizations, like any other organization, are riven by faction, although the factional breakdown doesn’t always manifest in the same manner. Carl Gemzell made this point in a not-often-enough-read study on conflict within the German Navy between 1880 and 1940, and it’s fair to say that the dispute between “conservatives” and “crusaders” in the US Army represents a modern manifestation of this tendency. Factionalization isn’t simply dichotomous, but describing it as such can be a fair way to characterize certain kinds of arguments.

Gordon’s policy/theoretical argument is that military organizations need to understand factionalization and structure themselves to manage, and even take advantage, of its manifestation. His conclusion provides twenty-four lessons on how military doctrine evolves during peacetime, and on how peacetime developments can create difficulties during war. This chapter in particular should be of tremendous interest to both scholars and practitioners of military doctrine. The lessons evaluate both how the body of knowledge itself emerges, and how that body of knowledge creates individual officers, an officer corps, and the physical structure of a military organization.

On the empirical case, Gordon aggregates and refines the mountain of evidence about the conduct and outcome of the Battle of Jutland. He is interested primarily in the command decisions of the Royal Navy, and as such doesn’t spend a lot of time considering German deccision-making. It’s not quite true to say that the evaluation comes down to a comparison of Beatty and Jellicoe, but it’s not quite untrue, either. The case against David Beatty is complex, but compelling. His audacity made him a capable commander, but he lacked a sense for detail. His evaluation of subordinates was suspect, and in any case he didn’t communicate well with his senior officers. These shortcomings may well have had an impact in the early stages of the Battle of Jutland. Had Beatty taken more care to coordinate with the Fifth Battle Squadron, more damage might have been inflicted on Hipper’s battlecruisers, and Queen Mary just might have been saved. Later, poor communications with his subordinate created a zone of vulnerability for the Fifth Battle Squadron, which could have but did not lead to the loss of one or more of the most valuable units in the Royal Navy.

All of these issues have resulted in damage to Beatty’s historical reputation. The initial reaction to Jutland in the United Kingdom was to blame Jellicoe; he had failed to destroy the Germans, and in fact the Grand Fleet ended up suffering greater losses than the High Seas Fleet. Jellicoe was “promoted” out of command of the Grand Fleet, and Beatty was promoted into command. As Gordon suggests, however, the historical record has tended to support Jellicoe over Beatty. Gordon disputes this conclusion. Beatty, in spite of all the mistakes he made, did his job; he drew the High Seas Fleet into a hopeless tactical position against a vastly superior enemy force. The loss of a battlecruiser or two would hardly be remembered if Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet had proceeded to destroy the Germans, as it clearly was capable of doing. Put differently, the loss of a battlecruiser may be attributable to Beatty’s mistakes, but the escape of the High Seas Fleet is on Jellicoe.

There was no single decisive moment at Jutland; the tactical and operational situations resulted from the accretion of a tremendous number of decisions large and small. However, some decisions deserve more attention than others, and Gordon devotes study to Jellicoe’s decision to turn the Grand Fleet away from a German destroyer attack. With the High Seas Fleet in disarray and suffering a pounding from Jellicoe’s battle line, Admiral Scheer ordered his destroyers to launch a torpedo attack against the Grand Fleet. Instead of turning into the attack (accepted doctrine was to display as little profile as possible for torpedos), Jellicoe decided to turn away, and the Grand Fleet lost contact long enough for the Germans to escape. The decision was understandable both to the extent that Jellicoe wished to preserve his fleet, and in that he expected he would be able to retain contact in spite of turning away.

I wonder if part of the problem is that Jellicoe was thinking at a level above his paygrade. I know more about Jutland than Tsushima, and a lot more about Jutland than Trafalgar, but one difference between Togo/Nelson on the one hand and Jellicoe on the other is that the former two didn’t worry overmuch about the consequences of defeat. They were given a job (destruction of the enemy), and a set of tools with which to do that job, and both of them undertook as expediently as possible to bring the enemy under their sights and destroy him. Jellicoe seems to have agonized over his position as the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. Togo, as I suggested some time ago, could have agonized in the same fashion; the IJN held a strategic advantage, could have won the war without forcing an engagement against the Russians, and indeed could only have lost the war by allowing the Russians to win a battle of annihilation.

Still, I get the sense that Nelson, Togo, and Beatty would not have turned away from the destroyer attack, but rather would have maintained contact with the Germans. Had contact been maintained, the outcome of the battle could not have been in doubt; the British had more ships, better ships (this is a debatable point, but I’ll be happy to respond to any queries in comments), and a tactically advantageous situation. The Grand Fleet, even accepting a few torpedo hits, would have utterly destroyed the High Seas Fleet with relatively light losses. Then again, part of Gordon’s point is that while all of the decisions that were made at and before Jutland were consequential, there can be said to be no “moment of decision” in which Jellicoe could have made a certain judgment that would have destroyed the High Seas Fleet or allowed it to escape.

All that said, it’s worth noting that a Tsushima-esque battle of annihilation would likely not have shortened the war by a day, but would have killed some 20000 German (and no small number of British) sailors who, in the real world, survived the war. It’s also worth noting that Beatty, Jellicoe, and most of the other officers of the Grand Fleet successfully accomplished the tremendous number of very difficult tasks that were necessary to bring the High Seas Fleet to the point of destruction; they shifted formation and maintained station, avoided submarines, avoided collision, and in general did all of the tasks that are expected by professional naval officers. The conservative vs. crusader distinction is more one of degree than of type; all professional military officers of a particular rank are capable of a large range of tasks.

Rules of the Game is well worth reading, both for specialists in military doctrine and for those with an interest in naval combat. The book is long and detailed, so it helps to be interested in both; I would hope, though, that an interest in either would be enough to draw the reader in and keep her attention.

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