On the 100th anniversary of Jutland, World War I’s largest naval battle, I should talk about one of the longest and most influential books I’ve read, which happens to feature the battle considerably. That book is Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of The Game.
It was one of the first real deep, scholarly military history books I obtained. The book, which I saw as incredible upon my first, long-ago readings of it, has faded somewhat. In terms of describing the battle itself and the history of the Royal Navy, it’s still amazing.
But in terms of analyzing the history, it falls short.
The book describes not just the fleets, but also the personalities. The reader hears about John Jellicoe, the cautious yet respected commander of the Grand Fleet and David Beatty, the brash, ambitious, not-so-respected battlecruiser commander. Another far more unknown but pivotal figure is Hugh Evan-Thomas, an organization man put in charge of the four most modern Queen Elizabeth battleships of the fleet.
Gordon covers the battle until the moment where Evan-Thomas continues to sail towards the German fleet because he did not receive a signal, and then shifts to the 19th century, from the development of steam engines, increased signalling, the romanticization of central control, and the effort by George Tryon to reform it, cut short by his death in the HMS Victoria disaster.
After going up to World War I proper, it returns to May 31st, 1916, and ends with the post-engagement (and postwar) recriminations. The attention to detail Gordon has is incredible. So why have I (slightly) soured on it?
The answer can be summarized in one sentence. It’s too Pentagon Reformer.
- Gordon shows a fatalistic view of communications technology, stating that it will always be pushed past its limits. While true, this is a glass-half-empty view of it, the reverse being that said limits themselves keep expanding.
- The love of the “dashing maverick” hurts his view. Gordon seems to be reluctant to acknowledge the big picture-that fleet engagements were a luxury compared to the blockade, and that said blockade worked-the RN knew how to do it, and did it well. While he acknowledges it, it seems to be with gritted teeth.
- Said “dashing maverick” also makes him one of a very few historians who hold David Beatty highly. What it amounts to is “Well, yes, Beatty was an egomaniac, yes he botched his deployment so that his best ships were in the back, with fatal consequences, yes he failed to do his job as a high-end scout, but hey, he understood initiative more than Jellicoe. This isn’t convincing.
Finally, the biggest problem with analysis (as opposed to presentation), is that it’s working off a sample size of one. This is not Gordon’s fault, this was the nature of WWI at sea. But even the most experienced forces can stumble, and so making a grand narrative of decline based on one single incident, no matter how big, is flawed. If the British had declined from Nelsonic initiative to centralization and then smashed the German fleet anyway, a hypothetical Andrew Gordon’s account would sound less like a chronicle of decline and more like the Reformer post-Gulf War “But you didn’t hit any Scud launchers” sour grapes screeds.
If the reader can keep these caveats in mind, The Rules of The Game is still a fantastic book.