When it comes to works of history, there are good books and great books and bad books. And then there are a rare few which examine a subject – oftentimes one covered before by innumerable others – in a way that is so unique and offers such groundbreaking insights in the process as to change completely our understanding of it.
Andrew Gordon’s book is one such work. In it he seeks to understand the outcome of the battle of Jutland through the prism of the organizational culture of the Royal Navy. The problem can be described as this: how did a force that took such pride in the fighting heritage of Horatio Nelson fail to demonstrate such aggressiveness when facing the German High Seas Fleet on May 31, 1916? To answer this, Gordon charts two generations of British naval command, reaching back into the Victorian era to describe the development of British naval thinking. He finds that the decades of peace – a peace brought about by the victories of Nelson’s navy and maintained by British warships – fostered a culture rooted in theory rather than practice. This was a natural development, fueled both by the dearth of naval combat experience (one of his many fascinating details is that the overwhelming majority of Victoria’s Crosses won by Royal Navy personnel during the 19th century were won fighting on land rather than the sea) and the transformations wrought by new technologies. Without the test of combat, other factors such as ship-handling, social connections and the appearance of warships often determined promotions to command rank.
One of the trends that emerged from this new culture was a greater emphasis on fleet control through signaling. Though signaling through code flags had a long tradition in the Royal Navy, the Victorian era saw a greater emphasis upon it, to the point where a fleet’s commander expected to direct its every action to the detriment of the ships’ captains. Not everyone agreed with this and one admiral, Sir George Tryon, sought to foster more operational independence during his time as the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in the early 1890s, but his death in a ship collision (brought about, ironically, by signals from his flagship) in 1893 ended efforts to challenge the dominant naval ethos.
As a result, the admirals who commanded the Grand Fleet at Jutland were the products of a culture which encouraged centralized control in an environment where such control broke down quickly, as the vast distances over which fleets were spread and problems with visibility hindered the ability of the fleet to act in unison. He is forgiving of the men themselves, arguing that commanders from John Jellicoe on down did their duties to the best of their ability (perhaps surprisingly his greatest criticism is reserved for David Beatty, who, while the admiral least committed to the authoritarian style of command, committed many errors which contributed to the loss of the battlecruisers in his squadron). In the end, they simply were not prepared for the conditions of combat when they finally faced it, and thus lost the best opportunity they would have during the war to defeat the nemesis they had prepared so long to face.
Summarizing Gordon’s book cannot do justice to the richness of his fascinating text. It abounds with insights on nearly every page, which are woven together in a narrative that guides readers deftly through a world that was often defined by arcane rules and narrow cliques. While his study is a little too detailed and technical to serve as an introduction to the battle, it is a masterpiece of the historical craft that is essential reading for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of the clash between dreadnoughts and why it ended so frustratingly inconclusively for the British.