By The Late Sir Julian S. Corbett
By the Editor: Sir Julian Corbett is widely acknowledged as one of, if not, the pre-eminnent Naval Strategist of the 20th Century as such the 2022 Summer Edition of the Naval Review will celebrate his work and his substantial contribution to the development of Maritime strategic thinking. By way of an hors d’oeuvre to this bumper edition we are delighted to reproduce ‘United Service’.
‘United Service’ was the only article of Julian Corbett published in The Naval Review, appearing in the 1923 edition after Corbett’s death in 1922. The article, as the original introduction below states, was initially written during the first year of the Russo-Japanese War as a call for greater interservice and diplomatic strategic cooperation in Britain, what today we would describe as a combination of Joint doctrine and national strategy. The article is republished online here in two parts, but is otherwise unabridged from the original.
The following article, which was among the late Sir Julian Corbett’s papers, is printed by the kind permission of Lady Corbett. It has a peculiar interest to-day, dealing as it does with the problems of cooperation between the Services which are occupying so much attention and forming the subject of investigation by Committees.
The paper was written in 1904 for a Review, to be called ‘The Army Review,’ which the War Office of the day proposed to establish. The project fell through, and so it came about the paper never was published.
At that time the Russo-Japanese war was in progress, and coincidently the Committee of Imperial Defence had just been instituted. From this Committee Corbett evidently expected an increased coordination between the Navy and Army, the development of a true appreciation of the use of the two Services as one weapon – a return, it might be said, to the view that there were not two Services but two branches of one Service, as Lord Spencer on one occasion put it. In the Committee, Corbett hoped to see the development of the study not merely of combined operations, but of combined study. The Committee would have formed, if developed along the lines he visualised, into the nucleus of an advisory body for the inner Committee of the Cabinet, which, as every war has shown us, becomes the directing body in war, but, as experience equally shows us, begins a war without any clear idea as to how war – WAR – is to be waged. The establishment of a permanent Committee on which naval and military men were continuously serving would, he hoped, result in the formation of a common outlook. Study would be made of the fundamental principles upon which this country has made war in the past. An understanding of wherein lies the real strength of this country would have been distilled from a study of the past, and the measures of offence and defence, of their employment, could be examined and applied, in so far as changed conditions allowed their application, to the circumstances of the present.
If the Committee has not done all this – and it is hardly to be denied that it has not – we are set to think why it has not been able to fulfil these vary obvious needs; and to discover in what manner this essential study of great problems in common can be developed. There are many remedies on the market, and we may be fairly sure that many of them are quack remedies. It is our business to begin by making sure that we are not rushed into one of these nostrums which look well on paper, and are theoretically unchallengeable, but in practice result only in a diminution of our power.
In the history of war there are many paradoxes, but none of them, not even that which is being played out before our eyes in the Far East, are quite so bewildering as one that our own history presents. In the British Empire we have the phenomenon of a small island power which, in the course of about three centuries, has spread itself over the world; and setting aside commercial and missionary enterprise, the main instruments of the expansion wherever organised opposition of civilised powers had to be overcome were combined expeditions of the naval and military forces. Almost everywhere they were the ultimate exhibition of energy by which the effects of pacific penetration were secured; and even in India, where the conquest was mainly military, it was by combined operations that the first foothold was gained and by naval action that it was maintained and nourished.
So much is indisputable; and yet it is equally beyond question that from the days of Elizabeth, when the process of expansion was set on foot, till a few months ago there has never existed a department of State in which it was possible for such joint operations to be planned, arranged or studied. From the first, out instincts in warfare, no less than our national needs, were amphibious, and yet the need was almost immediately ignored and the instinct suppressed. In the sixteenth century, when England first astonished the nations, as Japan is doing in the twentieth, by showing her power of standing up to the most awe-inspiring Empire in the world, she effected the miracle by amphibious expeditions that were absolutely homogeneous. The oversea operations that preceded the Armada were the true-bred children of the national instinct. They were planned, organised and led by practical seamen, who had made themselves soldiers by sagacious study, while the military officers that accompanied them set to work patiently to perfect themselves in the sailor’s branch of the art of war, taking their place loyally in the undivided ranks.
Yet no sooner did the defeat of the Armada awake the country to self-consciousness than the instinct was overpowered, and the baleful influence of continental precedent, a pedantic plagiarism of Italian and Spanish science, took its place. In the expedition of Drake and Norreys to Portugal in the year after the Armada, which was well intended to reap the harvest of the great naval triumph, the land and sea forces were separately organised and separately commanded, and disaster was the result. Instead of the army and the fleet being used together as one irresistible force, each indefinitely increasing the fighting energy of the other, they were used as separate forces in loose cooperation. Each found itself powerless to act alone, and the progress of the war, which had been flowing with so much promise, was suddenly checked never again to be restored to its old native movement. Under the well-meant if pedantic influence of the professional soldiers, who had been bred entirely in the continental schools and had worshipped blindly at continental shrines, the army and the navy were divided, and in spite of certain half-conscious efforts to reunite them during the seventeenth century, divided they have remained; and so long as continental canons are suffered to govern our ideas of war, the sure national instinct for just coordination of land and sea is never likely to reassert itself. The old lessons, which are written so clearly on every page of the history of our expansion, will never be read, and we shall go on in the old paradoxical way. We have but to turn to the long-drawn story to see how persistently the oft-taught lesson was ignored. In almost every effort of our progress to Empire, the need of close and well-designed cooperation between army and navy immediately declared itself with a crying importunity not to be ignored, and in spite of innumerable warnings the machinery had to be improvised and the method of using it learned each time anew, and learned by bitter experience of needless failure and lost opportunities.
This paradox of our success, even in spite of the purblind neglect of all the native instinct for war, and the unique strategical advantages which made success possible, and even it may be said unavoidable, is more striking when stated in its higher powers. If we dismiss these combined operations as a mere question of tactics, there still remains behind the higher strategy of which they were the indices. It has become today a commonplace to labour the proposition that in the great wars during which the Empire was established, victory was finally determined by control of the sea, and this formula, valuable as it is for certain purposes, has come, like all overstrained formulas, to obscure the real truth. Certainly without control of the sea the work could not have been done, but it was not by control of the sea that the end was achieved. It was done by the close interaction of naval, military and diplomatic effort, of which the control of the sea was but a part. By itself it was almost nothing, as the barren results of the great Elizabethan war should have taught us once for all. It was only by a right and well-considered adjustment with the other factors that it could or ever did achieve anything material against a great land power. One leading example will suffice.
In the War of the Austrian Succession, Great Britain in virtue of her command of the sea, succeeded in taking Louisburg, the gate of French America; but this brilliant colonial effort, which naval action had rendered possible, had not been properly adjusted to military and diplomatic efforts in Europe, and when peace was made, the conquest could not be retained. In spite of her oversea reverses, France had been able to secure a position in the Netherlands, which, from the combined view of naval, military and diplomatic strategy, was impossible for us, and the price we had to pay to loose her hold was the chief prize which the sea had given us. In the Seven Years’ War that followed, the converse was the case. Louisburg again fell into our hands, and Quebec and all Canada followed; while in Europe, partly by the military and partly by the diplomatic effort of ourselves and our allies, all sufficiently supported from the sea, France was unable to regain her former position; and without risk we were able to retain what the control of the sea brought us in the West.
Similarly, in the same war, through our maladjustment of naval effort at the beginning, France was able to snatch Minorca from us, and yet though not a single blow was struck to recover it by army of navy then, efforts latterly were so well adjusted upon the oceans and in Northern Europe that at the peace diplomacy recovered the prize, and without firing a shot we were able to resume our old dominating position in the Mediterranean. It was the result clearly foreseen and worked for by Pitt, and although pure considerations of sea power demanded the immediate recapture of the lost base, he would not suffer them to disturb those masterly concentrations of naval, military and diplomatic force with which he well knew the final triumph could alone be achieved. The machinery for weaving a sound coordination of the services was in full working order and no bigoted insistence on purely naval exigencies would avail to throw it out of gear.
Such instances of the indispensability of well-balanced coordination in war could be multiplied without end, but it is needless to labour the point. Often though it be forgotten or but dimly seen, it is an obvious truism. No one of the three great national forces can rightly direct its efforts except hand in hand with the other two. Without knowledge of the probable limits and direction which diplomacy can set for a war, and without a clear conception of the political end in view, soldiers and sailors are alike without map or chart wherewith to trace their strategy; nor in like manner can diplomacy be rightly directed without a full grasp of the range and energy of the fighting pressure that can be brought to back it. And if this be true of the relations between diplomacy and the fighting forces, it is doubly true of the relations between the army and the navy. It is a truth that comes out with vivid clearness the moment we seek for a real working definition of strategy. If we set aside the many deductive attempts to define naval and military strategy and seek inductively to frame such definitions on what has actually happened in our wars, we see at once that for us neither can be defined except in terms of the other; we see that for an island power at least, except when fighting a purely naval power, as in the old Dutch wars, there are no such things in the broader sense as naval strategy and military strategy, but one simple strategy of war in which naval and military considerations are inextricably intertwined.
To take naval strategy first – we are usually given some such formula as that it has for its object the command of the sea, or else the concentration of superior force in superior positions, and the like. From the deductive point of view, these formulas are true enough – so true as to be axioms of no practical guidance in a dilemma. In the actual framing of a plan of campaign they will be found to confuse the means with the end, and in practice are as likely to mislead as to give the right line. If, however, we approach the matter inductively and keep our eyes on what actually happened in those great wars, when the Empire was welded, we get something widely different. We find that in all those wars, except those three naval contests with the Dutch in the seventeenth century, the object of our naval strategy was almost always, either the destruction or the protection of commerce or else the hindrance or the furtherance of military operations ashore. They were not always our own operations that we sought to assist. More often than not, they were those of our allies. But these were ever the true ends we sought whenever our naval action was directed by a master hand. The command of the sea was but a way to those ends, and conceivably not always the shortest way. It has happened, and may happen again, for instance, that a well-protected expedition passing over a sea not actually commanded, to the assistance of our allies, is able to shift so favourable the military balance as to make it well worth the risk of withdrawing the navy for a while from the spade-work of wearing down the enemy’s marine. The truth is, that the process of exhausting a continental enemy by means of securing a complete command of the sea, and particularly when he assumes a steady naval defensive as he usually did, is far too long and costly to be within the range of practical strategy; consequently, the purpose of the navy must always be to bring about a situation which, in the quickest and surest way, will expose the enemy to the severest military pressure, and confuse and hamper his plans for resisting it.
If we turn to military strategy it is the same. We shall be told probably that its object is to mass troops at the right moment and place, in such numbers as to enable us either to overwhelm the enemy by force or to deprive him of his means of subsistence. Such formulas, again, are purely academic. For the purpose of designing the action of a great war, they are of little use. But if we turn once more to what has actually happened in our great wars we get quickly to something more practical. For all history teaches us that the most successful of our masters of strategy have always made it their object to seek for the army such lines of action and such points of pressure as will enable us by the ease, secrecy and suddenness of sea transport, and the natural inviolability of our fundamental base, to reap to the full all those advantages which geography has denied to every great power but ourselves. If example be sought to confirm this view, it is sufficient to remember the persistent efforts of the great Duke of Marlborough to overcome those diplomatic difficulties which stood in the way of his transferring his main action in the War of Spanish Succession from Northern and Central Europe to the shores of the Mediterranean. They were difficulties which, mainly through the nervousness of the Dutch and the clumsiness of the Germans, we were never able to overcome, and he had wearily to fight out the long-drawn war with armies that crawled on foot instead, as he would have had it, mounted on the wings of the fleet.
Part Two will be posted on 8 Jul 22.