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Best Defense

A naval classic revisted: Andrew Gordon’s fascinating study ‘The Rules of the Game’

'The Rules of the Game' is thick, meticulously researched, often tedious, frustrating but ultimately fascinating book about the slow and unwitting transformation of the British Royal Navy from the glory days of Trafalgar in 1805 to the indecisive and controversial battle of Jutland in 1916, when the British fumbled the ball.

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By Robert Killebrew
Best Defense chief sailing correspondent

The Rules of the Game is thick, meticulously researched, often tedious, frustrating but ultimately fascinating book about the slow and unwitting transformation of the British Royal Navy from the glory days of Trafalgar in 1805 to the indecisive and controversial battle of Jutland in 1916, when the British fumbled the ball.

As the U.S. Navy’s great sea victories of 1942-45 recede in time, Rules of the Game should be on the desk of every serving naval officer, starting with the CNO, and of every other military officer as well. It is the enormously complicated story of how a great institution declines, imperceptibly and unknowing, from the supreme heights to unconscious mediocrity.

The late Victorians would have found such a statement astounding. In the late nineteenth century the Royal Navy stood supreme on the seas, it’s reputation as the world’s foremost naval power unchallenged, and its role in underpinning the British Empire undisputed. Its rich heritage was based, more than any other period of history, on its exploits of the Napoleonic era, when, in Mahan’s words, the Royal Navy’s “distant, storm beaten ships” stood between Britain and Napoleon’s domination of Europe.

But those “storm beaten ships” were part of a navy that was at war for almost an entire generation of sailors, a period that ruthlessly paired down the navy’s officer corps into a hard professional body whose character was molded by fighting admirals like Jervis, Hood and, of course, Horatio Nelson, whose aggressiveness and spirit infused the fleet before Trafalgar and for a generation afterward.” In the event signals can not be understood,” Nelson famously instructed his “band of brothers,” “No captain can go far wrong who puts his ship alongside that of an enemy.” No finer example of “mission orders” exists in military history.

But in the generations after Trafalgar, the service that had been formed and hardened by war began to change, slowly, affected by both personalities — and Gordon does a mind-bogglingly good job of tracing the networks of friendships, professional cliques and Royal favors that fed the old-boy leadership of the Service — and by technologies — above all, the conversion from sail to steam, during which the traditions and fighting concepts of the “old navy” continued to frustrate and derail innovation, above all in tactics.

During the age of fighting sail, techniques of sailing by flag hoist by combinations of code flags had become common; by the use of repeating frigates and other means, vast fleets of line-of-battle ships tacked and wheeled when the “haul down” execute order was given by the flagship. As steam replaced sail, meticulous attention to detail — in spit-and-polish (especially in the Mediterranean fleet), in behavior, and in every detail of execution — became the sine qua non for professional advancement. In the forward, Admiral Sandy Woodward catches the transformation nicely when he says, “The keynote of battle-doctrine in Victorian times stemmed from the imperative to try to regulate everything — even the nature of combat, which of course, cannot be done.”

But they tried, and they prevailed, unconsciously, by promoting a long line of admirals who thought and acted like all the other admirals. The single exception was — and his name should be remembered — Admiral Sir George Tyron, who died in a collision that sank his flagship, the Victoria, and killed 350 of her crew in 1893 while experimenting with Nelsonian battle maneuvers. The shock of the tragedy and the subsequent court-martial effectively ended any “new thinking.” Ship-handling, attention to detail, and signaling became the watchword — especially signaling. An excerpt from the chapter titled “The Long, Calm Lee of Trafalgar” captures the moment:

The yeoman would stand on the foredeck, his telescope glued to his eye, and his whole frame quivering with excitement, like a pointer about to flush a covey of partridges. Up would go a hoist of flags in the flagship. As each flag was hoisted clear of the deck… the yeoman spotted what it was and shouted it down to the signalmen on the bridge. There would be a rush toward the flag-locker and rolled up flags would be hauled out of their pigeon holes, bent together and hosted in a frantic effort to get them to the masthead before the flagship mastheaded her signal. The yeoman would report the meaning of the signal to the captain, the navigator and the officer of the watch. Down would come the signal on board the flagship, and at the same time down would come the signal on board the repeating ship.

“Signal’s down, sir,” would shout the yeoman, repeating the significance of the signal, over would go the wheel, and the ships, all over 10,000 tons and spaced at intervals of 300 yards, would swing together into the new formation.

“It bothered a few,” Gordon writes, “that in battle there would be shell splinters and machine-guns to slice through halyards and… even kill the admiral. But no matter; one can readily understand how the new steam-tacticians were seen as representing the Royal Navy’s triumphant assimilation of the industrial revolution.”

Personalities come into the narrative. By 1916 the commander of the entire front-line British Grand Fleet in its northern anchorage at Scapa Flow was Admiral John Jellicoe, whose career Gordon follows from his days as a sub-lieutenant on a Nile gunboat through his climb through the ranks to his flag. The pressures on him were enormous. Across the North Sea lurked the German High Seas fleet at Williamshafen. If the Germans were to break out, or, worse, defeat the British battle fleet — unthinkable to the British — the war in France could conceivably be lost. (Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, said that Jellicoe was the “only man who could lose the war in a day,” hardly words to encourage an aggressive fighting spirit.)

Jellicoe had divided his fleet at their anchorages, sending his battle-cruisers (faster mini-battleships) to Rosyth, near Inverness and — a point that matters — more accessible to the public and press than the remote anchorage at Scapa Flow. There was also a great difference in the commanders: Jellicoe, with the main fleet of 24 dreadnought battleships and other fleet assets, was a fast-track but careful professional. He is described by Gordon as a reserved, quiet man, “a manager rather than a heroic leader” and as “the Uncle Arthur of Admirals.” His subordinate commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, though, was quite the opposite. David Beatty was, according to Gordon, “… a scion of hard-hunting, hard-playing Irish landowning gentry (with) charisma and panache… unequaled by any other naval officer this (20th) century.” Riskily married to a rich American divorcee, he left turbulence in his wake, but became, at 38, Britain’s youngest rear admiral since Nelson. He loved the press and, like Nelson, the press loved him.

Inevitably, stationed apart, each man pressed his personality on his fleet — Jellicoe’s deliberate approach on the dreadnaughts, Beatty on the dashing, more public and more Nelsonian battle cruisers. So when the High Seas Fleet did come out, the climactic battle — to which Gordon gives considerable space — becomes, on the British side, a series of misunderstood signals, confusion and missed chances; the analysis of the battle is thorough and a gripping story for professional seamen and laymen alike, replete with heroics and diagrams that lead the reader through the complexities of dreadnaught warfare. Afterward, controversies between the “Jellicoe” and “Beatty” factions roiled the Royal Navy, and led to changes in doctrines, training and aggressiveness that stood the Navy in good stead in the dark days on 1939-45. Of the officer corps of 1914, Gordon writes that “They thought they were good, but in ways that mattered, they were not. They thought they were ready for war, but they were not.” What a damning indictment.

Nothing is more important to a fighting service than sound doctrine — its common agreement on how to fight. As Gordon’s book so thoroughly points out, doctrine is a combination of personality, culture, and technical capability more than codification in a manual or rulebook; it is actually the way a Service behaves in wartime. Without the pressure of war, as Woodward points out in his preface, “continuous peace will produce a predominance of regulators, as evidenced by the pre-1914 Navy.” Gordon’s book is the best I have ever seen that explains how this kind of transformation from “fighting” to “regulating” took place in the world’s preeminent navy from 1805 to 1914. Rules of the Game should be on the bookshelf, and should be read and discussed, by every naval officer now on active duty.

Bob Killebrew is a retired U.S. Army colonel who consults and writes about issues of national defense, with especial interest in the age of sail.

Tom note: Got a military history classic you’d like to revisit here? Drop me a line. E-mail address is at upper right, in my lil bio.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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