Strategy from “Inherently Erroneous” Conceptions

Fear of InvasionA brief review of David G. Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I am very grateful for this book. David G. Morgan-Owen’s narrative provides much-needed clarity on one of the fundamental questions of World War I: How did the Royal Navy, the most dominant naval force of the day, come to adopt a passive strategy that ceded the initiative to their German opponents?

Morgan-Owen’s detailed analysis of strategic planning in the decades prior to the war provides a compelling answer. He does this by expanding the scope of the narrative, looking beyond the Royal Navy’s planning to consider its relationship with the British Army and the Government. What emerges is a pattern of decisions—each with a logical explanation in context—that gradually limited the Royal Navy’s freedom of action and left Admiral John R. Jellicoe in the unenviable position of being, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Those words made sense to me over three decades ago when I first started looking into the naval history of World War I. They seemed to offer a useful explanation for Admiral Jellicoe’s defensive attitude in the war’s largest fleet action, the Battle of Jutland. As more recent scholarship emerged, however, I began to wonder. Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game was an important step because it introduced the idea that perhaps the Royal Navy was insufficiently well-prepared to exercise command in a modern naval war.1

My study of U.S. Navy doctrine and tactics in the interwar period (1919-1939) provided another useful perspective. Although historians have repeatedly accused the U.S. Navy of “refighting” Jutland, U.S. Navy officers examined the battle as a learning tool, drawing out valuable lessons about the principles of naval warfare.2 One of the ideas repeatedly stressed in their analyses was the importance of offensive action, to seize the initiative and keep the enemy off-balance. Today, we would describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. In Learning War, I make the point that the U.S. Navy’s conception of the importance of the initiative expanded during the interwar period, so that it embraced not just the tactical level of warfare, but also the strategic. With this in mind, one U.S. officer described Jellicoe’s approach as “an inherently erroneous conception of naval warfare.”3 A rather damning critique which I’ve referenced in the title of this post.

I had that perspective in mind when I read Shawn T. Grimes’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918. Grimes challenges many established assumptions about the Royal Navy’s approach to war, providing a thorough analysis of exercises, strategic thinking, and conceptualizations about a potential war in the North Sea. I highly recommend it. Before reading his monograph, I hypothesized that—as strange as it might seem—perhaps the Royal Navy had not performed the kind of large-scale exercises necessary to adequately assess how to handle a modern fleet in battle. Reading Grimes, I realized my hypothesis was incorrect. Exercises were performed, and they seemed to provide a reasonably accurate assessment of modern technologies and their capabilities. I began to wonder if something prevented the Royal Navy from learning effectively from their exercises.

I had several questions. Why did men like Jellicoe adopt a defensive strategic posture? How did they maintain it in light of their material superiority? What led them to remain passive in the home theater while pursuing aggressive actions elsewhere around the globe? How did they expect the Royal Navy to help win the war?

Morgan-Owen provides a compelling history that answers these questions. British war planning is described in its full complexity; the Empire’s strategy emerges from the interaction of three linked—but largely independent—organizations, the British Army, the Imperial Navy, and the Government. Morgan-Owen eschews simplistic explanations like personal failings or shortcomings within a single organization’s planning process. Instead we are told that the “lack of a meaningful vision of how to prosecute a war against Germany” prevented alignment.4 There was no coherent overall strategy.

Instead, there were a series of lower-level decisions made by each of the three major organizations involved. The Army focused on creating a large expeditionary force, first for India, and then later for the Continent. The Government (and the public) became aware of the potential threat of a German surprise attack on England’s East Coast. The swift Prussian victory in 1870 prompted fears that a rapid movement across the North Sea could land unopposed and force a decision while the main strength of the British Army was away. The Royal Navy could not allow this to occur, so it focused on countering the threat.

Taken together, these cascading decisions—the brief description in the paragraph above is a gross simplification—provide a clear explanation for Jellicoe’s defensive stance. The outcome is remarkable in hindsight, because it meant that the inherent flexibility offered by naval power—which the British had used repeatedly to their advantage in the past—was subordinated to the employment of a large army. One could argue that the British, by focusing on a continental commitment, played to German strengths, which is something strategic planning should avoid. This outcome was obviously not clear to decision-makers at the time, and Morgan-Owen does an excellent job of explaining their perspectives, assumptions, and context to illustrate how undesirable consequences can result from the actions of well-intentioned individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategy, war planning, or naval history.


1. Gordon suggests that the Royal Navy’s dominant position through the nineteenth century led to ossified command structures that were insufficient for the demands of modern naval combat. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

2. David Kohnen argues that the U.S. Navy was the ultimate winner of Jutland. David Kohnen, “The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland”, Naval War College Review (Autumn 2016, Vol. 69, No. 4), 122-145.

3. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland (Annapolis, Md: U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 517.

4. David G. Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 215.

On the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast

I’m excited to be on a recent episode of Vasco Duarte’s Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast along with Karl Scotland and Henrik Mårtesson. The three of us discussed strategy, doctrine, and decision-making in Agile and business contexts.

Karl has some wonderful tools and approaches for what he calls Strategy Deployment (conceptualizing and promulgating a plan throughout an organization). The X-Matrix is a way to visualize desired outcomes, strategic approaches, specific tactics, and processes. The format of the matrix allows them all to be related together. Along with his Backbriefing and Experimenting A3s, the X-Matrix forms a three-level hierarchy for synergistic planning. Karl waked me through this approach during a workshop at Lean Agile Scotland last year. He emphasized that while the tools are useful, the real value comes from the conversations they trigger.

I would agree with that assessment, which is why I stress the importance of the Naval War College’s “conference method” when I bring up the U.S. Navy’s historical tool for strategic decision-making, the Estimate of the Situation. The Estimate of the Situation was a well-defined process that—like Karl’s X-Matrix—walked participants through exploring options and formulating strategies. Unlike Karl’s three-level hierarchy, it was fractal, so any level of the organizational structure could use the Estimate. What made it really powerful was the conversations it triggered (hence the importance of conferences).

I’d never met Henrik before, but it was a pleasure to talk with him. He describes himself as a systems thinker who focuses on making companies more resilient and more fun. That really came though in our conversation and I was pleased to learn more about his perspective.

Check out the podcast to hear more about our discussion and the different themes we explored like John Boyd’s OODA Loop, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, and Steven Bungay’s The Art of Action.

Thoughts from SMH 2018

I attended the Society of Military History’s annual conference in Louisville, KY last week and it was a wonderful time. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, making new ones, and sitting in on some very thought-provoking panels.

IMG_1364Learning Across Peace and War

The conference’s theme was “Landscapes of War and Peace” so I put together a panel on learning in the U.S. Navy of the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I. My paper was about the early development of U.S. Navy doctrine and I attempted to illustrate the importance of certain methods developed at the Naval War College—the conference method, the estimate of the situation, and the concept of “doctrine”—and how these ideas influenced the development of tactical doctrine within the fleet (there’s more on that in my book).

I thought it was an excellent panel. There was a nice synergy between my paper and the others. K.J. Delamer discussed the importance of Mahan’s thought for the campaign in the Pacific in World War II. Larry Burke presented on the early development of American naval aviation; his paper reminded me how much emphasis there was on making “every ship” an airplane carrier from the earliest days, something I had noticed in my own research, but have never stressed the way Larry did. Randy Papadopoulos was our commentator and said something that I felt was particularly important. “Doctrine” as we understand it today seems to have originated with Dudley Knox and his work at the Naval War College; that was a major element of my paper, but it merits further study.

Race, Progressivism, and Holy War

One theme that emerged from several of the panels I attended was the idea of race. “Was the First Crusade an Offensive or Defensive War?” was a panel discussion in which attendees wrestled with changing definitions of “offensive” and “defensive” war over very long timescales. It was quickly apparent that the justifications used in the eleventh century to “defend” Christendom would not be considered “defensive” today, but the discussion was still quite valuable. One question surfaced the importance of race as a means of distancing Christians from Muslims and justifying a “holy war.”

That idea was in my mind when I attended “Bayonets & Bolos: The Sharp End of Military Culture in the U.S. and the Philippines.” Garrett Gatzemeyer gave a particularly interesting paper on the relationship between bayonet training in the U.S. Army during World War I and the role of progressive reformers. Their emphasis on the importance of “manpower and manhood” to win the war reflected Social Darwinist assumptions about relationships between races and the superiority of white Americans. Justin C. Pergolizzi’s paper on the Dominican Constabulary established by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1917 touched on very similar themes, drawing attention to the paternalistic racism of American interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.

Race was a central theme of the keynote, “Southern Cross, North Star – The Politics of Irreconciliation and Civil War Memory in the American Middle Border” by Christopher Phillips. He went through the themes explored in his award-winning book, The Rivers Ran Backward which explores the influence of the Civil War on the Midwestern states. The talk was a fascinating look at the troubled time in that region immediately following the Civil War and how regional differences and discrete “northern” and “southern” myth-making influenced racial attitudes. Phillips pointed out how rural counties embraced white nationalism while industrial modernization overtook the cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a development that influences American politics to this day.

Early Sunday morning, I heard Matthew S. Muehlbauer discuss his paper, “Defending the City on the Hill: Holy War and Just War in Early New England, 1630-55” which built on his 2017 award-winning article on holy war and just war in New England during the same time period. He referenced Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and described differing attitudes between the settlers in Massachusetts Bay and along the Connecticut River. Where the former seemed to be predisposed to use just war approaches to legitimize fighting Native Americans, the latter quickly framed the conflict in holy war terms. The Native Americans were “others” and it was, therefore, justifiable to slaughter them (as at Mystic in May 1637) using the terminology of holy war. Muehlbauer closed with a hypothesis that fear plays an important role in how race is used to justify conflict; the Connecticut River colonists were much more fearful—because of the surprise attacks on them—than those in Massachusetts Bay.

Naval History?

Few panels addressed naval history directly, aside from mine and another scheduled at the same time, but there was one from the Naval Institute and another with Ryan Wadle. I’m excited for his forthcomingbook on Harry Yarnell. I’ll write about observations from those sessions in a future post.