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The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command

Published in 1998

This superb study of military culture – Longman/History Today Book of the Year 1997 – focuses on Jutland and the question of why the British did not do better. The Royal Navy had had no equivalent to the Boer War, no real challenge to suggest that its practices, values and commanders were not up to the job. In particular, Gordon argues that this had enabled the Navy to draw the wrong conclusions from Nelsonian victory. Instead of placing the emphasis on initiative, Nelson’s legacy was seen as one of duty. In what is a superb study of the tripartite nature of naval history – the navy at peace, the transition to war and the navy in war – Gordon demonstrates how and why it proved difficult to dispel this dangerous legacy.

This was not simply a matter of doctrinal teachings, but also of patronage structures, and thus of factionalism and personality types. Although Gordon’s analysis departs from that of Norman Dixon in his On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976), those familiar with Dixon’s discussion of the promotability of the mediocre will find much here of interest. Jellicoe is seen as overly cautious.

'All this rationalization made detailed, on-paper sense. But while it is the job of staff-officers to foresee hazards, it is the role of the admiral to review the warnings in the wider context... Jellicoe was himself a natural staff-officer, and his caution compounded theirs... what we can say for certain is that this career technocrat was misled by 'rationalist' doctrine (for which he was ultimately responsible) into getting grossly wrong the threat-percentage in regard to both mines and torpedoes... as a consequence, for seventeen critical minutes... he helped Sheer to disengage'.


This conclusion is more powerful, because Gordon skilfully works out the balance of probabilities. This indeed is counterfactual history with a vengeance, but counterfactual history set in the context of a firm grasp of institutional cultures as well as operational possibilities.

Much of the fascination of the book relates to Gordon’s ability to place such issues in a background of contemporary debates. He offers a rich account of the controversy after Jutland. George V played a major role. His loyalty to old naval friends such as Evan-Thomas, a keen supporter of Jellicoe, conflicted with his sense of public duty and the latter led him to appreciate Beatty’s assertiveness. The publication of Churchill’s The World Crisis, 1916-18, in 1927 kept the subject on the boil with his support of Beatty.

Gordon’s analysis of the controversy highlights the irreconcilable doctrinal premises of the two sides. He argues that Beatty managed to reconcile Jellicoe’s strategical caution with his own more robust tactical doctrine. Jellicoe, however, could not accept the risks of war. His 'main fault was that 'control' was a contract he tried to make with fate: he feared losing it, sublimated the possibility that he might do so, and imposed a doctrinal regime which seemingly presumed to govern the very nature of warfare'.

This was more important than the ease with which British magazines were detonated by German shells, or the superior quality of British torpedoes, fuel endurance, signals intelligence, propulsive machinery, and armour-plate (inch for inch). Unlike Beatty, Jellicoe did not concentrate on raising the threshold of unsuitable conditions and was unwilling to inculcate ‘fundamentalist action-principles’. Gordon overwhelmingly supports the 'Beattyites', and his willingness to make an unequivocal but informed judgement is welcome and helps to make this an important book. Indeed Gordon is able to bring his story down to the present day, considering for example both the Falkland and Gulf Wars and assessing the nature, context and problems of modern naval leadership. This book well deserves its prize.


About the Author

Jeremy Black is the author of War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents (Yale University Press, 1998)

The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command

John Murray, xii + 708 pp. £30. ISBN 0719 555337

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