In 1911, Sir Julian Corbett (1854-1922) published Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Principles established a broad theory of war and maritime strategy that conflicted sharply with the prevailing naval doctrines of his day.
Corbett’s father was a successful architect and property developer who provided him with the means to study travel extensively. He attended Marlborough College and Trinity College, Cambridge, receiving a “first class honours degree” in law. He began working as a barrister in 1877. In 1882 he left his law practice to be a correspondent and novelist. He published four novels before writing books on naval history. Although he had no military background, Corbett’s histories attracted attention from important. 1896, renowned professor and naval historian John Knox Laughton invited Corbett to edit his work in progress on the Spanish War, 1585-87. This corroboration began Corbett’s progression from “hobby historian” to profoundly important naval historian and theorist. Principles so impressed the British admiralty that in spite of Corbett’s lack of military credentials, they invited him to begin lecturing at the fledgling British Royal Naval War College in 1902. He became the admiralty’s chief unofficial advisor, and rose to “Secretary of the Cabinet Historical Office.” He was one of the most influential naval theorists in history, widely studied to this day.
As arrogant as it may sound to us today, Corbett (again, having no military or political credentials) wrote Principles specifically to influence Britain’s naval policy. The prevailing strategy at that time encouraged “decisive battle” and “command (control) of the sea” executed by large fleets. This theory, encouraged by A.T. Mahan’s very influential book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) had long been embraced by most of the senior staff of the British Royal Navy (as well as those of most other major navies.) Mahan’s book had provided the admiralty with justification for developing a more powerful fleet capable of decisive force projection, built around massive (and exorbitantly expensive) battleships. Corbett considered this policy unrealistic, wasteful, and potentially dangerous. Corbett may not have been a politician, but he knew how to influence policy. Leveraging his popularity as a novelist, he wrote Principles for public consumption, not just for politicians and military professionals. His comfortable style enabled him to communicate effectively with the non-professional reader. In fact, Principles is still an easy read, with a surprisingly contemporary feel in both language and structure.
Principles explained Corbett’s ideas simply and progressively, leading the reader to inevitable, logical conclusions. He often stated that the purpose of all his work on maritime theory and history was to contribute to the development of a common understanding and vocabulary, so that people across the spectrum could work together to create sound policy. Corbett’s approach succeeded, and in doing so, he turned the policy process upside-down.
Corbett does not offer a general theory of war at sea, focusing instead on maritime strategy and its impact on state power. Principles begins by developing a basic theory of war based in part on the theories of Jomini, but more so upon those of Clausewitz. Like Clausewitz (and unlike Jomini) Corbett prefers the term “art of war” over “science of war.” Any formulaic “science” of warfare tends to lead decision-makers to believe that they can predict and control the outcome of war. Corbett was also suspicious of any idea of universal and eternal theory. He did not believe that war could be distilled into a set of immutable precepts. Corbett believed that war is far too unpredictable for a nation to entrust its very existence to a single “decisive battle,” as advocated by Mahan. All war, in his view, changed constantly, and was subject to chance on every level.
Corbett proposed that naval strategy should be only part of the greater maritime strategy of the state, encompassing economics and policy as well as the use of military force (another Clausewitzian position.) In Part I of Principles, Corbett emphasized: “Military action…must never supercede policy. The policy is always the object.” Chapters 2-6 discussed the nature of war, defining the concept of limited war and providing analysis of the principles and inherent dangers in wars of intervention. Throughout Part I, Corbett turned complex concepts of continental (land-based) military theory into simpler forms, enabling common understanding. In Part II, “Theory of Naval War,” he compares continental strategy to naval strategy. Corbett explains that while some elements of continental strategy and naval strategy correspond well, most do not. He generally rejects Jomini’s prescriptive methods of continental strategy, at least in application to naval strategy. To Corbett, Jomini’s most fundamental principles did not apply due to the differences between movement on terrain and movement over water. Continental wars were generally fought between neighbors. Their armies were so restrained by march distances, lengths of supply lines, and the shape of the ground that a state’s whole force may have been fixed to a specific location. Naval warfare is not similarly constrained. When the sea is the border, all nations with ports are neighbors (and competitors.) In Corbett’s theory of naval war, “command of the sea” as promoted by Mahan was too fleeting and localized to be a sustainable policy of the state. A navy cannot be in all places at all times, and the act of concentrating forces in one place necessarily places other areas at risk. He rejected the idea of the decisive battle, because the enemy at sea was too hard to find, and even if located, they could easily and quickly disperse, preventing the attacking naval force from eliminating them.
Corbett believed a navy’s principle task was to protect sea lines of communication (shipping routes) and preserve trade. In war, that task expanded to limiting or interfering with the enemy’s ability to conduct trade or resupply by sea. Corbett argues for a policy of strategic defense and tactical offense. He believed that a naval force should not over-concentrate (as it would in an attempt at decisive battle) but rather occupy numerous positions critical to the efficient operation of the fleet as a whole, focusing on the defense of the home shores. Corbett concluded the book with a chapter on the attack and defense of trade, fleet attack, fleet defense, and naval support of continental military expeditions. He taught shore defense and a dispersed fleet, but also believed that (especially in wartime) the navy should retain the ability to form a strike force capable of exploiting tactical opportunities, especially in the case of an enemy demonstrating serious strategic weakness or fatigue. In short, Corbett does not dismiss the importance of a naval offensive capability, but subordinates it to the defense so that the navy may exhaust and destroy the enemy at a preferable time and place.
The modern reader will be surprised by the modernity and relevance of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Corbett demonstrated a sound understanding of military theory, bringing great light to the works of Jomini and Clausewitz. His insights into Clausewitz alone make the book worth reading. His then-controversial views on maritime strategy and the role of navies may be as relevant today as they were the day this book was written.
Interested in this topic? Come back next week for the other side of naval theory: Alfred Thayer Mahan was as Jominian as Corbett was Clausewitzian. Whatever we may think of his theories, the book by this American Naval Officer may well have changed the course of history.