#Reviewing Strategy and the Sea: Essays in Honour of John B. Hattendorf

Strategy and the Sea: Essays in Honour of John B. Hattendorf. N.A.M. Rodger, J. Ross Dancy, Benjamin Darnell, and Evan Wilson (eds). Suffolk, United Kingdom: Boydell Press, 2016.

This collection of essays is the result of a 2014 conference hosted by All Soul’s College Oxford to honor John B. Hattendorf, longtime Ernest King Professor of Naval History at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The conference was held at Pembroke College, Oxford, not far from where a young John Hattendorf, still on active duty in the United States Navy, earned his Doctorate in Philosophy. As is usual with these affairs, there are no offerings from Hattendorf in the collection; instead, readers will have to consult the excellent bibliography compiled at the collection’s end to find his body of work and satiate their curiosity about Hattendorf’s wisdom on these matters within the edition.

The anthology is reminiscent of a famous earlier effort for British naval historian Arthur Marder and perhaps attempts to be an updated version of sorts for a new generation, a way of chronicling how the bat has passed across the Atlantic.[1] The current effort was edited by a team of mostly British historians led by N.A.M. (Nick) Rodger, also of All Souls, and although the English-speaking world contributed much of the content, the line-up of authors is truly an international effort—scholars represented here come from Spain, France, Japan, Australia, Denmark, and Germany. It is a fine representation of stars among naval historians, and Hattendorf—and master of ceremonies Rodger—are to be congratulated for serving as the agents of their aggregation.

As with most collections of conference papers, after a hagiographic introduction to Hattendorf by Rodger, a second introduction by his co-editors provides a snapshot of the various essays. I advise the reader to skip this and get right to the essays. They are arranged chronologically, starting with the Spanish in the 16th century and then proceed along a timeline to concerns about the present.

I will focus on those essays I found most clearly related to naval strategy; this does not mean, however, the  other essays are not of worth. With this guidance in mind, of the twenty-one essays here, only slightly more than half are really about naval strategy per se. The others are certainly contextual, but not about strategy in the naval sense, that is the employment of fleets to achieve operational objectives and everything above that in the levels of war. Those essays that did not discuss strategy directly focused on topics such as manpower, training, personnel policy, identity, the state of naval education, and the teaching of history to navies (i.e., to their naval officer corps).

As for the clearly strategic essays, the first comes from a French scholar, Olivier Chaline—a welcome study in English on what today might be termed the operational level of strategy, although the author does look at the higher political level of strategy and the French naval officer corps in the 18th century. Chaline implies, but does not highlight, that French officers, when they were more involved in making operational decisions tended to do better in conflict—that when the norm of keeping them in the dark was relaxed or violated, as in the American Revolutionary conflict, they tended to do better in combat and achieve significant operational results. Speaking of France, Benjamin Darnell offers a fine re-appraisal of the switch in the naval strategy of the France of Louis XIV from guerre d’escadre (decisive fleet action) to guerre de course (commerce war). He finds it had little to do with military success or failure and more to do with political economy, that strategy followed fiscal policy, and not vice-versa. Jaap Bruijn renders a neo-Mahanian analysis of the sources of the early Dutch Republic’s strategy with the intersection of political economy, geography, opportunity, and threat.

In one of the more traditional essays, Nelson-biographer Roger Knight presents a cogent summation of post-Trafalgar British naval strategy. Knight emphasizes the switch by Britain to smaller ships to work closer inshore in protecting British domestic commerce as well as providing convoy escorts once the major threat of Napoleonic fleet action had been seriously degraded. He points the way ahead for other scholars to look more closely, especially, at the convoy operations, which would not be equaled again in size or complexity until the great convoys of the 20th century world wars. Agustin Guim examines the Spanish Navy from after the Seven Years War (1763) to the Peninsular War (1808). His essay, like many of the others, is revisionist, looking at under-appreciated components of the Spanish naval strategy narrative. Instead of regarding Spain as simply trying to defend a status quo with a purely defensive strategy, he looks at the components of that naval strategy that were offensive, especially the execution of Spanish strategy during the American and late French Revolutionary wars.

Paul Kennedy picks up where Guim leaves off, offering a comparative analysis of sea power in three cases of global conflict—the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II. Kennedy’s is the longest essay of the bunch, and one of the most useful. His survey focuses for the most part on Great Britain, highlighting that the imperatives of sea power in World War I were less Mahanian than the other two conflicts and more about sea lines (al la Sir Julian Corbett) and land power (Halford Mackinder). Kennedy writes: “The advocates of the influence of sea power had a far easier time of it after 1815 and 1945” than after 1918.[2] In other words, he finds that sea power is contextual in terms of strategic approach and depends on the geography and political economy of conflict. It is a fine survey of sea power from 1791 to 1945, although mostly a synthesis using published works.

Kennedy’s essay is very much the link between older concepts of maritime strategy and newer approaches. He provides much context for what follows. His address of the issue of historiographical debate over World War I battlefleet revolutions frames the subsequent essay by Matt Seligmann about battlecruisers, an argument that Kennedy dismisses as essentially unimportant to overall naval strategy during the Great War in the previous essay.

The essays after Seligmann’s, which is not really strategic, then break into two groups: those that chronologically examine strategy after World War I through to the present and what one might call current topics of interest to naval historians of the present generation. In the first group there are fine essays on the interwar and wartime Royal Navy and the strategic approaches of its leaders by George C. Peden and Tim Benbow, respectively. Benbow, in particular, looks at the idea of the capital ship and its relation to strategy, both in World War II and after. Werner Rahn visits the topic of German naval strategy, looking at it through the lens of Hitler and his admirals, just as military historians have examined—most famously (or infamously) B.H. Liddell Hart—how Hitler’s relationship with his generals influenced (or derailed) strategy ashore.

The final essay of this first post-Kennedy group looks at the relationship of naval limitation and geography in the oft neglected area of the Indian Ocean by Ohio University’s Peter John Brobst.

After this the essays become more topical rather than strategic. Andrew Lambert continues his exposition of the influence of Sir Julian Corbett upon naval strategy through education and theory, and Paul Ramsay covers the American side of the equation not through theorists, but by the influence of the practitioner and leader William Sims at the Naval War College in the United States. Duncan Redford examines the influence of “Identity on Sea Power,” and finds the relationship “a massive one.”[3] He provides a fine framework for what one might consider the current crop of identity crises in navies worldwide (with the possible exception of China).

Continuing in this cultural vein, Keizo Kitagawa examines intellectualism regarding the Imperial Japanese Navy and, not surprisingly, finds that disesteem of intellectualism and over-focus on tactics and technologies contributed in some measure to the catastrophe that befell Japan from 1937 to 1945. In this sense, he follows in the footsteps of Sadao Asada’s pioneering work on the Imperial Japanese Navy of the interwar period, especially in From Mahan to Pearl Harbor.

Some of the biggest names come toward the end of the collection. Retired Australian Rear Admiral and historian James Goldrick, following to some degree in the footsteps of Mahan, examines History and its relationship to navies as institutions. The venerable Geoffrey Till follows in support with an examination of how navies as institutions perhaps should teach their history to themselves, placing a premium on honesty rather than the approach we often find, a neglect of naval history altogether and its utility to modern naval strategists. Till closes with good advice for historians, writing that they should not insulate themselves from naval strategists (usually naval officers), but that it is their duty to help them.[4] Perhaps Clausewitz would concur, his chapter in Book Two of On War treating the utility of historical examples preceding immediately his Book Three “On Strategy.”[5]

In summary, about half the anthology is about naval strategy in the modern era (since the 16th century) and the other about how those who lead naval institutions, as well as those scholars who write and teach naval history, might better study, use, and employ naval history to improve understanding and professional judgment. It is really two books in that sense, and thus worth reading for either purpose. To say there is something here for everyone would be something of an understatement. There is more than enough in the volume for naval strategists and historians in terms of scope, geographical region, and topic. But for a popular strategy audience this collection will be a hard slog, if not intimidating. That is the great challenge of efforts like this in their ability, both in terms of cost as well as style, to reach a broader audience outside their normal readership—in this case the academic circles of naval history, mostly those in Britain in this case. This is a shame, because these essays have much to offer. So, if one can afford it, purchase the anthology, peruse the topics, and read. Otherwise, for the everyman strategist out there, go to your nearest college library and get it there. You will still be rewarded.

John T. Kuehn is a Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He authored Agents of Innovation, A Military History of Japan:  From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century, and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater with D.M. Giangreco. His latest book is America’s First General Staff:  A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the  General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The USS Kidd in the Pacific Ocean. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cole Schroeder/U.S. Navy Photo)


[1] Gerald Jordan, editor, Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century, 1900 – 1945: Essays in Honor of Arthur Marder. New York: Crane Russak, 1977.

[2] Matthew Seligmann, “The Evolution of a Warship Type: The Role and Function of the Battlecruiser in Admiralty Plans On the Eve of the First World War,” in Strategy and the Sea: Essays in Honour of John B. Hattendorf , eds. N.A.M. Rodger, J. Ross Dancy, Benjamin Darnell, and Evan Wilson (UK:. The Boydell Press: United Kingdom, 2016), 138.

[3] Ibid. 212.

[4] Geoffrey Till, “Teaching Navies Their HIstory,” in Strategy and the Sea: Essays in Honour of John B. Hattendorf  240-241.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), Book Two, Chapter 6 and Book Three Chapter 1, passim