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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
9min read

Undertaking to examine “the decisive effect of individual human character on history,” the British writer Correlli Barnett reaches a glum conclusion. In his excellent book, The Swordbearers , he studies four famous leaders of the First World War—Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, General Philippe Pétain, and General Erich Ludendorff—and his moral seems to be that these men were thrown into crises that were simply too big for them. Their impact on history came largely because of their own inability to measure up to an overwhelming challenge.

It was not altogether their fault. They had to direct the enormous instruments of mass power which modern Europe had developed, and these instruments were all but uncontrollable. Immense technological proficiency was in the hands of a society that was politically and socially obsolescent. These men could not rise above the level of that society, and in the end they destroyed what they were trying to save. Leadership of an extraordinary kind was demanded of them, and unfortunately they were just average leaders.

Moltke, for instance, had to execute the famous Schließen Plan, which was supposed to bring Germany a quick, decisive victory over France. (Whatever else World War I might have done, its effect would certainly have been infinitely different if it had ended in two months.) Moltke was probably the wrong man for the job; far from being the blood-and-iron war lord of Prussian military tradition, he was sensitive, subject to paralysis simply because he saw his innumerable problems in too great detail.

But the job itself was wrong. Once Germany’s magnificently prepared armies went into France, they got beyond the reach of headquarters. Communications broke down, and presently each army was acting on its own. They were fighting a twentieth-century war under the conditions of Napoleon’s day; trained to render implicit obedience to detailed orders from the high command, they got off into a confusing melee where fragmentary’ orders based on imperfect knowledge reached them too late to be of any use. When they moved across Germany these armies went by train, with every detail of supply and transportation elaborately arranged; when they moved across France they went on foot, services of supply collapsed, the soldiers themselves were marched out of their shoes, and in the end they lost the Battle of the Marne from a combination of utter exhaustion and the lack of coherent direction. Moltke was the victim not so much of his own inadequacies as of an impossible situation.

Pétain was another sensitive soldier, who found himself given supreme command in France in 1917 just at the moment when the French Army was beginning to mutiny. Heaven knows it had reason enough for a mutinous state of mind, and Pétain served his country ably by devoting himself simply to keeping the army in existence, saving its manpower, and waiting for the rising tide of Allied power to save the day. The trouble here was that he was confirmed in a defeatist psychology. He kept France from falling out of the war then, but a generation later, called on once again to serve in a time of catastrophe, he could be nothing more than the architect of defeat.

Ludendorff defeated himself, as Mr. Barnett sees it. An expert tactician, he mastered the secret of winning tactical successes, brought the German war machine close to victory in 1918, lost sight of his strategic goals in his obsession with purely tactical achievements, found at last that he had used up the strength that was needed to turn these achievements into final triumph, and then gave way to panic. He had none of Moltke’s or Pétain’s brooding sensitivity, but his toughness was brittle and it broke under strain. Once he realized that Germany’s strength was ebbing and that Allied power was immeasurably increasing, and that his own powerful offensive was not going to bring a quick decision, he threw in his hand. The immediate cause of Germany’s surrender in November, 1918, was not the legendary “stab in the back” inflicted by defeatist elements at home, but the abject collapse of the will of General Ludendorff.

Of the commanders whom Mr. Barnett studies here, the most interesting by all odds is Admiral Jellicoe. Not only was he a much more appealing character than these others; he seems also to have been more intelligent, and his great handicap was the fact that he realized all too well—as few other men did at the time —that the famous British Navy which was his to command was actually (in Mr. Barnett’s expressive phrase) a “flawed cutlass.” It simply was not as good as it was supposed to be, and that knowledge kept Jellicoe from taking advantage of the opportunity that opened to him at Jutland.

The British Navy was the victim of its own imposing tradition. For a century it had not fought, except for minor “police actions” here and there, and Mr. Barnett sums it up with cruel frankness: “The navy was no longer a deadly functional instrument of policy; it was an exclusive yacht club.” It was a spit-andpolish organization, most of whose officers blandly assumed that no other navy was comparable to it, and over the years it had gone badly to seed. To be sure, Sir John Fisher came in as First Sea Lord in 1904 and gave it a merciless shaking-up, and when he left, Winston Churchill arrived and carried the process further, but the time had not been long enough. As one of Fisher’s protégés, Jellicoe knew that most of the defects had not been remedied.

The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War , by Correlli Barnett. William Morrow and Company. 392 pp. $7.50.

Many of the Navy’s finest ships were poorly designed, engineering was faulty, protection was defective, ordnance development had lagged, and in the science of gunnery the new German Navy was far ahead. In matériel and in training, the Germans had better torpedoes and knew more about how to use them, and at the time the war began, Jellicoe privately confessed that “it is highly dangerous to consider that our ships as a whole are superior or even equal fighting machines.”

This unhappy belief shaped everything Jellicoe did. He adopted a highly conservative course, both in strategy and in tactics; he would force no action to a conclusion, he would take no chances with German submarines or torpedo attacks, he would play it safe all the way. With his flawed cutlass he would not try to strike a blow so heavy that the cutlass might break.

At Jutland the German High Seas Fleet was at his mercy. That is, he had put the much larger British fleet between the Germans and their home base, under circumstances which offered him a dazzling victory that would have had far-reaching effects. With the High Seas Fleet removed from the water, Britain could have patrolled the North Sea so closely that the desperate German submarine war, which came a year later, could not have been tried; as Mr. Barnett sees it, the war might well have been shortened by a year or so. In the hazy twilight of a North Sea spring evening, Jellicoe had his fleet where it could force a showdown; yet he could not quite do it, partly because he knew that it might be very risky and partly because, as Churchill remarked, Jellicoe was the one man on either side who could have lost the entire war in one day. Jellicoe played Jutland for a standoff. He accepted a draw, knowing that this way he would not lose anything that could not eventually be regained. His reasoning was flawless—except that the war did go on for two more years, and the British Empire itself suffered because of it. As Mr. Barnett remarks, “the last military chance of avoiding a long war and utter mutual exhaustion had gone.”

All of this is usually laid at Jellicoe’s door, but Mr. Barnett thinks it goes deeper. He insists: “Jutland proves that the spectacular collapse of British power and British industrial vigour after 1945 was not a sudden disaster due, as comforting legend has it, to the sale of overseas investments in 1914-18 and 1939-45, but the final acute phase of seventy years of decline. For the principal armed service of a country … is an extension, a reflection, of that country’s whole society, and especially of its dominating groups. …

“Two things caused the decadence of British maritime power: the long peaceful supremacy after Trafalgar and the capture of the navy by that hierarchy of birth and class that controlled so many of Britain’s national institutions. … The navy reflected social rather than functional values, preoccupation with tradition rather than technology.”

It does not do to blame Jellicoe. Let the author sum it up:

“Jutland was one of the critical battles of history; it marked the opening of that final phase of British world power and maritime supremacy that was to end in 1945, with the British battle fleet no more than ‘Task Force 77’ in the United States Pacific Fleet, and Britain herself reduced to financial dependency. Yet it was partly owing to Jellicoe’s personal skill as an admiral that the final collapse of British sea power was delayed until 1945 and after.”

One of the great problems men like Jellicoe faced was that they were commanders depending in the last analysis on the machines they controlled; and the magnificent dreadnought, the ponderous battleship on which both navies relied at Jutland, turns out on analysis to have been one of the oddest, most sadly flawed mechanisms ever devised by man. It was a terribly expensive, cumbersome, and awe-inspiring instrument of war that was actually obsolescent when it was born and that was never able to do the things its inventors thought it could do because of a simple but rather frightening truth: to any purely mechanistic invention, a mechanistic answer will be devised before the invention itself can develop its potentialities.

An absorbing study of this strange instrument of naval warfare is available in Richard Hough’s Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship , which traces the development of this man-made dinosaur from birth to death. The story after all is fairly short. The dreadnought—that is, the all-big-gun battleship, heavily armored in the belief that it would be unsinkable, and heavily armed in the hope that it could sink all of its foes—had a life of just half a century: a few years more than the life of the monitor, or the steamdriven ram, and a great deal less than the life of the galley.

The dreadnought came into existence in 1906 as the culmination of naval men’s attempts to devise an impregnable platform for irresistible guns. It was a battleship unlike all previous battleships in that all of its main guns were big : H.M.S. Dreadnought mounted ten 12-inch guns, with a battery of light guns to ward off enemy torpedo craft; it was armored so that no guns any smaller than its own could hurt it materially. Once it was launched, every naval power on earth hastened to copy it. It sent all earlier battleships to the scrap heap, and within six years the navies of the world had forty-seven ships of this type in commission, with sixty-three more under construction.

The only trouble with all of this, as Mr. Hough remarks, was that the dreadnought was simply a gun platform, and the gun itself was going out of date. The big gun, of 12- or 14- or i6-inch caliber, was meant to be a ship-killer, and under ordinary circumstances that is what it was; unhappily, better ship-killers were being brought out. The torpedo was beginning to emerge as the one weapon no ship could cope with. Mines, torpedo boats, destroyers, long-range submarines, airplanes—even before the 1914 war started there were perceptive naval officers (including a number of smart juniors in the British service) who were beginning to feel that these fearfully expensive battleships were rapidly becoming obsolete because much less expensive craft could destroy them.

The real basis for Jellicoe’s crippling caution at Jutland was his realization of this fact. He had enough of a numerical advantage over the German fleet to stand up against it in head-on combat, even though his foes did have a superiority, ship for ship, but he did not dare expose his irreplaceable fleet to the mines and torpedoes which the Germans might use against him. The fact that he greatly overestimated the ability of a retreating battle fleet to sow mines in its wake and also overestimated the effectiveness of torpedo attacks in that particular stage of naval development does not mean that he was wrong. He recognized one point clearly enough: it did not take a battleship to destroy a battleship. Mr. Hough points out that in all the First World War, “not one Dreadnought battleship was to be sunk by the guns of another.”

Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship , by Richard Hough, with an introduction by C. S. Forester. The Macmillan Company. 268 pp. Illustrated. $14.95.

Furthermore, the big-gun ship was infernally cumbersome. At Jutland, Jellicoe was in command of a fleet that extended over seven miles when it was drawn up in line of battle. It was simply too big, too long, too much the prey of faulty communications (like Moltke’s army in France) to be wielded as an effective instrument. It was irresistible, in a way, but it was also extremely vulnerable. All of the nation’s hopes were riding on it: inevitably, the admirals had to feel that “behind every calculation, every decision, every signal, every turn of the helm was the deeply held conviction that the disaster of defeat must always be greater than the rewards of victory.” The ships, the squadrons, and the fleet must be preserved, even if the price of preserving them was victory itself. The chief function of the dreadnought, in the last analysis, was to stay afloat.

The battleship, in short, did not pay its way in World War I. In the next war it did, in a way, because by this time it had subsided to a subordinate role. It was extremely useful as an instrument for bombarding shore fortifications and as a guardian for airplane carriers, but it was no longer dominant. Mr. Hough points out, properly enough, that “where command of the air helped to grant command of the ocean’s surface, the battleship performed usefully; scarcely ever in the role for which it was once devised, but very often to good purpose. When command of the air was lost—as, say, at Pearl Harbor to the Japanese and at Leyte Gulf to the Americans—then the battleship succumbed.”

All of this, to be sure, is matter of common knowledge. The point is that the dreadnought was devised as an unlimited weapon, and was unable to be that even in its early days because newer weapons were available. Perhaps Jellicoe’s greatest problem—the one neither he nor anyone else could have solved—was simply the fact that the dreadnought battleship, the most ponderous weapon man had ever invented, was just not up to the kind of victory he was supposed to win.

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