May 31, 2023

Jutland - The Rules of the Game

In the search for material for this year's Jutland post, I read Andrew Gordon's The Rules of the Game - Jutland and British Naval Command. It's a massive book that grapples seriously with the question of why the British Admirals at Jutland acted the way they did, and it goes a lot of very interesting places. But ultimately, I didn't feel that I could do it justice with my usual method of drawing directly from sources without taking a lot of posts, so I will instead review it.

Rules of the Game is many things. It's a critical look at Jutland, a social history of the RN's late Victorian officer corps, an investigation of their signalling and command practices, a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the loss of HMS Victoria, a biography of Hugh Evan-Thomas and a meditation on the sorts of flaws that military organizations tend to have in peacetime. It's also 600 pages, but Gordon does an excellent job of bringing his threads together in the last chapter, making the whole book possibly the best presentation I've ever seen of some of the deeper structures of military theory I've talked about before.

Gordon starts his quest to figure out why officers up and down the chain of command so thoroughly lacked initiative at Jutland with a detailed account of the opening phases of the battle, ending when Beatty turned north and Evan-Thomas failed to follow for several critical minutes, exposing his ships to heavy fire. Then, with that framing, he launches into a complicated historical odyssey covering a great deal of the second half of the 19th century, before returning for a look at the rest of the battle, it's aftermath, and the lessons we can draw from it today. It's a wild journey, but one I enjoyed immensely.

Hugh Evan-Thomas

The thread that ties all of this together is the conflict between authority and initiative, and Gordon's thesis is that the century between Napoleon's defeat and the outbreak of WWI saw authority triumph almost completely, leaving the RN's officer corps unprepared for the chaos of combat. While some degree of this was inevitable in the long peace, Gordon places a great deal of emphasis on the development of flag signalling in the 19th century. The system first developed by Home Popham had greatly increased the vocabulary available to Admirals, who rapidly began to exercise far more control over their fleets. At Trafalgar, Nelson had sent only three signals, the immortal "ENGLAND EXPECTS EVERY MAN TO DO HIS DUTY", "PREPARE TO ANCHOR AT CLOSE OF DAY" and "ENGAGE THE ENEMY MORE CLOSELY". Some of his subordinates thought that even this was too much. By the closing years of the century, a fleet maneuvering together would involve dozens of signals, with ships maneuvering precisely as the Admiral desired, and Captains judged on how well they could execute orders.

Not every officer thought that this was a good idea, the most notable exception being George Tryon, who took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1891. Tryon was concerned that signalling took too long, and would likely break down entirely in battle, as halyards were shot away and visibility fell due to smoke. He began to drill the Mediterranean Fleet on a simpler system, where subordinate divisions were simply instructed to follow the flagship's movements, ready to take the initiative if they saw the chance. This worked fairly well, although the more authoritarian Admirals objected, and any chance it had of catching on more widely was scuttled when Tryon botched his maneuvering and died when his flagship Victoria sank after being rammed by HMS Camperdown. In the ensuing controversy over whether or not Camperdown acted improperly by not disobeying orders, the obedience side won, and several mid-grade officers who took part in the events in the Med, including Jellicoe and Evan-Thomas, would go on to play leading roles at Jutland. Evan-Thomas is given particular emphasis, as he was heavily involved not only in the development of signalling but also benefited from being a close companion to the Dukes of Clarence and York, the latter of whom would eventually be crowned as George V.

Robert Arbuthnot

All of this would cause serious problems when the two fleets finally met in battle. While the Grand Fleet accomplished its fundamental mission of maintaining the blockade, Evan-Thomas passed up several obvious opportunities for lack of orders, most notably not turning to follow the battlecruisers when the Germans were first sighted and then delaying the turn north (which Gordon suggests was probably because Beatty's rather terrible flag lieutenant simply forgot to haul down that signal for a couple minutes). More broadly, British officers generally failed to do anything in the absence of orders, with the notable exception of the pugnacious and (literally) pugilistic Robert Arbuthnot, who took his armored cruisers into the space between the two fleets in pursuit of Weisbaden and died along with every other man on his flagship, Defence, when she came under fire from much of the High Seas Fleet. The problem became even more obvious during the night action, when ship after ship failed to fire on German vessels even at point-blank range due to a lack of orders.

The one exception Gordon brings up to all of this is Beatty, who he places firmly on the initiative side, citing things like the difference between Jellicoe's detailed Grand Fleet Battle Orders and the far less formal procedures Beatty produced first for the battlecruiser force and later after he took over the Grand Fleet. He cites Beatty's rather odd career history, rescued from mandatory retirement only because Churchill liked him, as the reason he was able to reach such a high position despite his fundamental disagreement with the culture of the broader RN. In this, I think Gordon is probably kinder than Beatty deserves. Whatever his theoretical virtues in opposing the problems in the RN's officer corps, his performance at Jutland wasn't great, and his attempt to burnish his reputation after the battle was hilariously self-aggrandizing, while Jellicoe made the right decisions at the right time to keep the blockade intact and win Britain a strategic victory.

David Beatty

So, with all of that said, should you read it? The first 24 chapters include two very good books, one on the organizational culture of the RN in the years leading up to WWI, and another a critical reappraisal of Jutland. Even though they're mixed together, and with a lot of diversions, I enjoyed that section, and would recommend it if you have interest in either side. Then came Chapter 25, in which Gordon brings everything together in a tour-de-force that is probably the best breakdown I've seen of how peacetime rot can set in in a modern military. It wouldn't work nearly as well without going through the process Gordon does to get there, but it significantly improved my gut understanding of this stuff, which I've been feeling my way around the edges of for some time. Cassander likes to mention attending a talk by Secretary Mattis where he recommended two books, Rules of the Game and This Kind of War.1 I would definitely second the recommendation for Rules of the Game if you're deeply interested in Jutland,2 interested in the broader RN of the era, or if you want to read an excellent work of military history that breaks down the details into the building blocks out of which armed forces are built.

1 He tells it mostly because he was the only other person present who had read both, which gave him an opportunity to be even more smug than usual.

2 This is the second book in the category of "work of genius on Jutland that definitely shouldn't be your first book on the topic". The other is John Campbell's Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting, although unlike that one, this one is readable as a book (instead of reference material). If you just want to read about Jutland, I'd recommend Nicholas Jellicoe's Jutland: The Unfinished Battle.


  1. May 31, 2023Emilio said...

    Funny how it was in today's mail... :-D

  2. May 31, 2023ike said...

    Does the work say anything about similar problems being shared with other navies of the period?

  3. May 31, 2023Grant said...

    This book is now on my to-read list. From your description, it sounds a lot like Shattered Sword. The two books are also similar in that my library has audiobooks of both but not print copies. Oh well, it’s better than nothing.

  4. June 01, 2023bean said...


    Not really. The German officer corp is occasionally mentioned, but it's a book about British naval command. Drawing in other nations seriously would have made it even longer, and it's already very long.


    It's been a decade since I read Shattered Sword, but I can see the parallels. From memory, it's less mathematical (although Gordon does occasionally get into "I ran some numbers on ranges and the common values can't be right") and less about challenging a specific set of accepted views, largely because all of that work was already done.

  5. June 01, 2023AlanL said...

    Ooh, cool, I can be smug too

  6. October 28, 2023RP said...

    In a book about this battle, titled "The Battle of Jutland," there was related a brief exchange between two officers on the bridge of HMS Orion, the lead ship of four that formed the 2nd of 2 sub-groups that made up one of the battleship squadrons, occurring during the "night action," when for a time the German and British fleets steamed parallel to each other, and most of the British bridge officers were aware that those just barely visible ships were the enemy but were gripped by a strange paralysis wherein they could neither report these facts to Jellicoe nor act without a direct order from him and under these conditions a junior officer addressed the admiral, saying, "Sir, if you leave the line now and turn towards, your name will be as famous as Nelson's." And the admiral replied, "No, we must follow the next ahead."

    Sometimes it's hard to see the opportunities in battle or in life, and sometimes one sees them but fears to act. Ironically, I know the name of the admiral who declined to make his name as famous as Nelson's (Leveson) though I don't know the name of the junior officer, but I always imagined that whoever he was--someone who as a senior officer played a significant role in World War 2? or who died not long after the battle in one of those little accidents that frequently occur in military settings? or who left the Navy after the war and lived the rest of his life as a private citizen, and this single sentence of rejected advice to an admiral was the only mark his existence left on "history," that, a century later, someone would read his words in the pages of a book--how fortunate he would be to know that he had the stuff to see the opportunity and take it.

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