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The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command

By Jeremy Black | Published in 1998 
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Andrew Gordon

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'.

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