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From Trafalgar to Jutland: The Atrophy of a Great Naval Power

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The embarrassing failure of the Royal Navy to destroy the smaller and less-experienced Imperial German Navy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 was caused by decades of willful neglect of the principles that made Britain a maritime superpower after its victory at Trafalgar in 1805. The years between Trafalgar and Jutland were, to the British, an era of naval supremacy, economic might, and relative global stability (with the exception of colonial wars); it was a time uniquely similar to the United States’ present experience. Yet as Britain fought and won what Rudyard Kipling called “the savage wars of peace,” her naval skills atrophied, and the Royal Navy’s warfighting culture declined. If the U.S. Navy is to avoid the fate that befell its predecessor, its leaders must heed the signs of atrophy, and learn the lessons their British counterparts ignored.

These lessons became the debate of countless historians since the battle of Jutland was fought over a century ago. Yet few offer a more compelling understanding of the cultural factors that led to the Royal Navy’s tactical defeat than Andrew Gordon, in his masterful work Rules of the Game. This article draws heavily on his research; observations regarding the current state of the U.S. Navy, as well as recommendations to improve its warfighting culture are the author’s own.

Can the 21st Century United States Navy learn the lessons of its 19th and 20th Century cousin?

A 111-Year Rot

At the Battle of Trafalgar, the legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson raised one set of signal flags upon the sighting of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet. His orders were simple – “England expects every man to do his duty.”1 Without hesitation, Nelson’s ships closed with and destroyed their enemy. The outcome of the battle was arguably the greatest naval victory in history, and for the remainder of the century, Britannia ruled the waves, and the world.

When a rival finally emerged in the form of a unified Germany in 1871, it was a continental power with little naval experience. Consequently, when war broke out in 1914, the German High Seas Fleet feared a confrontation with their larger foe. In the words of the German Commander-in-Chief Admiral Hugo von Pohl, “nothing could turn out better for the English, and nothing could so damage our [reputation], as that our fleet should be the loser in a serious engagement.”2 “Meanwhile,” a junior Royal Navy officer in the Grand Fleet wrote to his parents, “we wait and prepare… to make ourselves fit to fulfill our destiny… the destruction in a fair fight of the High Seas Fleet.”3

British officers’ hubris and contempt for their challenger blinded them to a cultural rot that deteriorated their service over the course of 111 years. When the Royal Navy finally clashed with the High Seas Fleet at Jutland, the admirals at the helm of the titanic engagement failed to achieve Nelsonian results. Upon their return to England, the officers of the Grand Fleet were jeered by their country-men, having lost over double the tonnage of the Germans’.4

International news coverage of Jutland, without the hindrance of national pride or propaganda – was much more divided on the outcome of the battle.

Lesson 1: Savage Wars of Peace are not Great Power Conflicts

The Royal Navy at Jutland was commanded by Admirals John Jellicoe and David Beatty. Their naval upbringing consisted of colonial service in the Mediterranean, police actions off of the Chinese coast, and naval parades. Despite the fact that both men were wounded in battle as junior officers, neither they nor their peers had experience fighting another great power at sea.

Similarly, the waterfront captains of today’s U.S. Navy are the product of humanitarian interventions, presence missions, and escorting aircraft carriers. The most grueling task assigned to ships’ crews since the end of the Cold War has been to complete a pre-deployment training cycle. American admirals rise to command from surviving surprise visits from inspectors, not anti-ship cruise missile attacks.

Peacetime navies fail to prioritize warfighting. While Nelson was “the apogee of a generation of officers who, through remorseless war at sea, had acquired a near perfect understanding of their trade,”5 Jellicoe and his subordinates were the epitome of a generation that lived and breathed the overbearing centralization of Victorian culture. Jellicoe in particular sought to conduct the Grand Fleet “through a plethora of standing orders” while he surrounded himself with like-minded officers that lacked initiative or true warfighting experience.6

When there is no war to fight, naval officers turn their attention towards administrative tasks. In the Royal Navy of 1896, “The state of the paintwork,” commented Royal Navy Admiral Percy Scott, “was the one and only idea. To be the cleanest ship in the fleet was still the objective for everyone; nothing else matters.”7 Any officer in today’s U.S. Navy could utter a similar remark. Likewise, a deep knowledge of one-thousand-page instructions superseded officers’ understanding of naval tactics or adversaries’ capabilities. The sheer quantity of instructions in the modern U.S. Navy, to quote a British newspaper commenting on the Royal Navy in 1894, has increased to such a degree that “it has become a commonplace that no officer can know all of the printed instructions by which he is supposed to act.”8

New priorities must be established in order to make up for lost combat experience – warfighting first, bureaucracy second – through brutally realistic training emphasizing high-end warfare at sea. The U.S. Navy has taken some positive steps in this direction, such as the return of live fire missile exercises and Fleet Battle Problems as a part of ships’ pre-deployment training.9 Moving forward, sailors should be afforded more opportunities to hone their skills in simulators, tackling damage control or combat scenarios. Equally, officers must be provided more training at the onset of their careers in combat leadership rather than peacetime management. The existing training curriculum at the Surface Warfare Officer School, with its emphasis on PowerPoint learning, shiphandling, and naval administration is inadequate. The return of warfighting as the central function of the U.S. Navy can only occur if the service removes the bureaucratic hurdles that dominate officers’ and sailors’ daily lives. Immediate action should be taken by Type Commanders to identify unnecessary programs, and replace them with rigorous training.

At the onset of the Battle of Jutland, one Royal Navy officer’s reaction to German shells splashing around his cruiser demonstrated nothing but the Royal Navy’s unpreparedness for war: “Hey, watch out! You’re going to hit us!”10 The U.S. Navy must place warfighting first, and better prepare its officers and sailors for the day missiles start flying towards their ships.

Lesson 2: Retire “Men of the Material School”

By the onset of WWI, some within the Royal Navy argued that “proper tactical and strategic considerations were being ignored because the Navy was now dominated by men of the material school.”11 This critique refers to the type of naval officer that excels in peace time; he or she knows how to maintain equipment in “ship shape” and believes the only clear path to victory in battle is effective program management. Innovation dies in this environment, and effective wartime leaders never stay long enough to promote to senior ranks.

The Victorian-era Royal Navy created a culture that promoted men of the material school, which in turn produced service values – order and control – that are the antithesis of war itself. The catalysts for cultural change within the Royal Navy between Trafalgar and Jutland “were the departure from the Fleet of Nelson’s last subordinates, and the arrival of steam propulsion.”12 The era of mechanization ushered into the Royal Navy a precise empirical mentality which sought to ritualize and regulate warfare to the point where during fleet maneuvers in the spring of 1910, Admiral Archibald Berkeley Milne commented, “They pay me to be an admiral, they don’t pay me to think!”13

Men of the material school thrived between Trafalgar and Jutland, and naturally promoted ahead of their innovative counterparts, who in turn found themselves at odds with their organization’s cultural values. This trend can be seen in the U.S. Navy through poor talent retention amongst top officers – only 35% stay after their initial commitments.14 They retire from the service after becoming frustrated working in an organization plagued by inefficiencies and broken processes. It should come as no surprise that companies such as Facebook — whose motto was once “move fast and break things” — become appealing to talented officers and sailors eager to take their leadership experience and innovative ideas away from an organization that struggles with revolutionary change.

The U.S. Navy’s bureaucracy disincentivizes innovation, while the service’s outdated talent management practices prevent rising innovators from staying long enough to reach the top.15 To correct these trends, the U.S. Navy should identify and promote risk-takers and innovators within its ranks, while concurrently recruiting the best talent from the country’s top universities and innovation centers. Forming strong relationships with institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Defense Innovation Unit, and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum will be crucial to sustaining this strategy. Simultaneously building a culture that derides men of the material schools’ “zero-tolerance for failure” mentality will ensure that the individuals whom the U.S. Navy painstakingly recruits today, remain in the service for a long time.

In 1805, Lord Braham “handed [Nelson] a Navy list and invited him to choose his own officers. Nelson handed it back. ‘Choose yourself my Lord. The same spirit actuates the whole profession. You cannot choose wrong.’”16 Future U.S. naval leaders should be able to say the same. If the U.S. Navy intends on winning the next major war at sea, it must develop an agile culture of innovation, and retain talented officers and sailors.

Lesson 3: Return to Command by Negation

At Jutland, Jellico and Beatty attempted to command their 151 ships stretched over 100 nautical miles by raising one set of signal flags approximately every 67 seconds.17 Amidst the smoke and confusion of battle, this overly complex system failed, and ships, whose officers were ill-prepared for independent decision making, nearly collided on several occasions. This was a far cry from the day when Pierre de Villeneuve could remark, “In the British fleet off Cadiz, every captain was a Nelson.”18

Nelson famously fought the Battle of the Nile (referenced above) without the use of signals, instead relying on the personal initiative of his commanders. He frequently held council with his officers, and instilled within them a clear vision for victory – the “Nelson touch,” known today as command by negation. Conversely, Jellico and Beatty replaced commander’s intent with a primitive form of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C41) – a technological effort designed to elevate naval officers’ propensity for control from the deck plates, to the operational and strategic levels of war. In this sense, today’s U.S. Navy resembles Jellico’s and Beatty’s Royal Navy more than Nelson’s. One need look no further than the combat information center of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer and find watch officers more comfortable waiting for orders than acting on initiative.

At the height of the second industrial revolution, Royal Navy Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge warned that technology should never overtake the human dimension in warfare, stating “at the heart of it all, war is essentially a contest of wits, that in it, the human element is the most important.”19 In other words, current investments in quantum computing and artificial intelligence are incredibly valuable, but these systems do little to correct the atrophy of naval officers’ warfighting instincts. Moreover, complex systems may fail or be disrupted by adversary capabilities. The Royal Navy’s experience during WWI is equally instructive in this respect; after the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915, one officer quipped that “Signals went through like clockwork… until the clock stopped, which it did at the critical moment when we really wanted to signal.”20 What happens when American satellites are shot down by Chinese missiles? What are officers who are used to an unprecedented flow of information going to do?

In answering these questions, the U.S. Navy needs to train officers to think critically, act independently, and contextualize their actions within a greater strategic framework. The Education for Seapower Study (E4S) and the appointment of a Chief Learning Officer are positive steps in this direction, but remain vague notions discussed at the Pentagon; they have yet to produce “trickle-down” effects within ships, airwings, or staffs ashore.21 While the U.S. Navy waits for these initiatives to take hold, it should promote command by negation at the tactical and operational levels during exercises and the execution of daily shipboard tasks. Exercises should replicate battle-conditions by degrading ships’ and aircrafts’ communication systems and tactical data links. Daily shipboard responsibilities should be delegated to the lowest level instead of requiring commanding officers’ approval. While there are risks associated with these recommendations, the inability of American officers to make independent decisions will be far costlier.

Correspondingly, the U.S. Navy should look to the past at officers like Nelson, who famously declared: “in case signals can neither be seen, nor perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”22 The U.S. Navy must practice command by negation, and cultivate critical thinking and warfighting instincts in order to win in a future competitive environment characterized by C4I degradation.

USS George HW Bush and HMS Queen Elizabeth working in tandem. The USN – and the Royal Navy – should pay heed to some of the arguments made in this article.

The Decision to Alter Course

On June 22, 1893, HMS Victoria sank in a collision with HMS Camperdown. The collision was the result of Camperdown’s officers’ deliberate decision to obey an erroneous order and maintain course until their bow struck Victoria.23 The resultant investigation by the Admiralty produced an opportunity for the Royal Navy to shed itself of over-centralization and its proponents. Yet the incident had the opposite effect – the Royal Navy doubled down on its tendencies and promoted officers who advocated against reform.24

HMS Victoria sinking after colliding with HMS Camperdown, with the loss of 358 hands.

The U.S. Navy is in a similar position to shift its rudder three years after its own collisions at sea. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the fleet and its leaders must follow in Nelson’s wake and act decisively in the face of rapidly expanding Chinese economic and naval power. Yet the U.S. Navy’s leadership has so far failed to recognize the causes of its own atrophy – an aloofness to the priorities of great power competition, the loss of war-winning talent in the officer corps, and institutionalized over-centralization and over-reliance on technical solutions. In order to remain the premier maritime power in the world, America’s sea services must reprioritize warfighting over bureaucracy, promote innovative leaders ahead of effective peacetime managers, and return to command by negation at all levels.

As British battlecruisers began to sink at Jutland, Beatty famously remarked that “something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today.”25 The admiral’s worlds are striking – Beatty and his contemporaries completely misdiagnosed the causes of atrophy in their fleet; their navy was sinking because of cultural, not material deficiencies. The Royal Navy’s disappointing decision to maintain course in 1893 resulted in the untimely demise of over 6,000 men, fourteen warships, and 111 years of undisputed maritime supremacy. Thus, the most important lesson that the U.S. Navy can learn from the pre-WWI Royal Navy is that atrophy, is deadly.

LT(JG) Artem Sherbinin USN

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Artem Sherbinin is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, and is currently deployed to the Indo-Pacific. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy of the U.S. Government or Department of the Navy.



  1. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2000), 159.
  2. Gordon, The Rules of the Game, 20.
  3. Gordon, 20.
  4. Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (New York: Random House Publishing, 2003), 658-665.
  5. Gordon, 158.
  6. Gordon, 18-19.
  7. Gordon, 304.
  8. Gordon, 173.
  9. Naval Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center Public Affairs, “Live Fire with a Purpose Program,” U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Magazine, Fall 2018, https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/swmag/Pages/Live-Fire-with-a-Purpose-Program-Takes-Navy-Warfighting-to-New-Leve.aspx.
  10. Gordon, 102.
  11. Gordon, 349.
  12. Gordon, 183.
  13. Gordon, 369.
  14. Guy Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, March 20, 2014, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2014/03/20/keep-a-weather-eye-on-the-horizon-a-navy-officer-retention-study.
  15. John Nowell and Daniel Stefanus, “We Must Win Today’s War for Talent,” Proceedings, January 2020, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/january/we-must-win-todays-war-talent.
  16. Gordon, 158.
  17. Gordon, 506.
  18. Gordon, 183.
  19. Scott Swift, “Master the Art of Command and Control,” Proceedings, February 2018, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/february/master-art-command-and-control.
  20. Gordon, 591.
  21. John Kroger, “Charting the Future of Education for the Navy-Marine Corps Team,” War on the Rocks, November 4, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/charting-the-future-of-education-for-the-navy-marine-corps-team/.
  22. Ryan Mewett, “The Emergence of Horatio Nelson: Lessons for Leaders,” War on the Rocks, February 14, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/the-emergence-of-horatio-nelson-lessons-for-leaders/.
  23. Gordon, 244-249.
  24. Gordon, 303.
  25. Massie, Castles of Steel, 596.

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Captain Rob April 2, 2021 at 14:27

Good to see some idle naval gazing from the lower deck. The British Empire lasted four centuries and brought positive outcomes that still persist today around the world, as members of the Commonwealth such as Canada and Australia.
The Americans have lost any moral authority with their illegal Iraq War and “shock and awe” bombing campaigns. They are hated in many countries around the world, in Asia, South America and the Middle East. They believe that they can beat China, but this war has already been lost; they just don’t know it yet. America believes that they can reverse this result by starting an arms race and a shooting war. This isn’t such a bad idea, because it would allow aggrieved nations to settle old scores.
The mass conflagration that follows, as threatened nations such as Israel and Pakistan let loose their nukes, will once again redraw the lines of power.

JM April 2, 2021 at 19:13

An interesting article. I find myself disagreeing with much of the working, but broadly agreeing with the conclusions. A number of the lessons the author seeks to draw from the past seem forced. There are obviously parallels – namely the uncertainty of how ever more long-ranged, accurate and lethal technologies could effectively be deployed en masse versus a local peer, but to suggest stagnation, lack of initiative and overreliance on command structures characterises the RN 1805-1916 is flawed.

Despite the pace of innovation Jellicoe was able to retain strategic control of 151 warships and outmanoeuvre the High Seas Fleet. Those ships which by initiative or accident independently put themselves alongside the enemy and fired either sank or suffered serious damage. Perhaps the key flaw in the argument is the scale of lessons learned and acted upon after Jutland that saw many of the ships and officers of the battle remain effective in ww2.

That being said, the author is correct to point out that a fleet culture must reflect its core objectives – seizing or maintaining control of the sea. There is a need to think very carefully about how each and every ship (Indefatigable, Queen Mary, Invincible & Pommern) fits into this and how any group of ships can achieve it. That can only be tested through exercises where fleets are encouraged to rip each other apart and are given seemingly insurmountable hurdles. To cite Star Trek, you only get a Kirk if you have a kobayashi maru.

AkronMike April 12, 2021 at 11:02

Just read the article on RealClearDefense. With Critical Race Theory, U.S. military leadership is actually disincentivizing objective thinking and critical analysis. The only hope is that our future enemies will be even more adversely indoctrinated such that we will fight only slightly less blind then they.

ADM64 April 12, 2021 at 15:06

Some good points but a bit simplistic.

Nelson always had a plan of battle, a detailed and thorough one that was comprehensively discussed ahead of time – repeatedly – with his captains. When there was a breakdown in communication, his officers could respond intelligently knowing his intentions. Prior to WWII, Ernie King made the point that in our navy, initiative mattered, but that it was mostly to be along the lines of the intelligent exercise of judgement within the context of the overall battle plan and not some unilateral independence on the part of subordinates. One of our problems, I would suggest, is that we don’t have particularly good senior officers nor much of an emphasis on sound tactical planning, nor any experience of war at sea, so the issue of initiative must be framed within that context. It’s also worth noting that towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Admiralty tightened up their Fighting Instructions because they understood that a) Nelson was a somewhat unique case and b) that some of his methods worked well only because of the nature of the enemies he fought: the Royal Navy didn’t do quite so well, even in squadron sized battles against our navy in 1812 because our fleet could maneuver and fight as well as theirs.

Jellicoe was not a bad officer and his tactics were basically sound. The issue of over centralization was real enough and led to missed chances. However, his actual tactics at Jutland, twice crossing the German T, were excellent. The Germans suffered heavily in the battleship duel even if the overall tonnage losses went against the British. No modern British battleship (as opposed to the battlecruisers) were lost to German fire. Many of the battlecruiser loses were due to shell-handling procedures. British shells were also defective; much heavier German losses would have resulted had they not been. Again, I don’t dispute the thrust of the criticism – I’ve also read Gordon’s book – but Lt. Sherbinin doesn’t provide the full context. It’s also worth noting that the RN fixed almost all of these issues during the interwar period and fought WWII with considerable more of the Nelsonic spirit. And our Navy, which was highly professional and which emphasized the initiative, struggled greatly during the night fighting against the Japanese during 1942 and early 43, whereas our carrier forces gave as good as they got.

It’s important to remember that when fighting a competitive enemy, even with sound tactics, good leadership, and realistic command procedures, there will be no magic formula and heavy losses should be expected. Nelson was the greatest admiral in history leading the most professional navy of its day against largely second and third rate French and Spanish fleets. His achievement was the scale of his victories, but no one should expect similar results between competitive fleets.

Finally, any consideration of our navy’s shortcomings should include its relentless focus on political and social issues at the expense of readiness. Battle-mindedness, psychological and physical fitness, and high standards have been “compromised” through decades of social experimentation, starting with going fully coed, and now likely with the whole diversity push. Military forces that can’t face empirical data honestly in peacetime won’t do better in wartime. We mocked this in the Soviet Navy; we are replicating it now.

RTColorado April 12, 2021 at 17:21

A fun read, but as a guide as to how to “run a Navy”…I’m not so sure. Comparing anything in the past with the present is fraught with pitfalls. Comparing anything in the past with the future is just impossible. There are several points the author makes, especially the “Men of Material” that at first glance appear as “spot on” but closer and more detailed inspection reveal the argument as a box canyon. The attitudes of the Navy are a reflection of the White House and the Congress, as those two institutions control the leadership of the military services. So the author’s point about “Men of Material” goes nowhere because the Navy doesn’t control it’s own path. The degradation of the Royal Navy was more a socio-political-economic phenomenon than a calculated decision made within the Navy. Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of Great Nations” and Ferguson’s “Cash Nexus” both spell out the future of the United States Navy, sadly but true. We’ve worked our way into a box canyon where the only way out is to go back from where we came, but sadly we don’t have the moral compass to do that.

Douglas Mayfield April 12, 2021 at 17:59

Not having served in the armed forces, and particularly the US Navy, I cannot comment other than to say that someone who is a lower ranking officer deserves kudos for having the courage to write such an article.

hleroy April 13, 2021 at 00:02

Sure wish you’d use black text instead of gray. Difficult to read.

Duane April 13, 2021 at 01:28

The decline of the Royal Navy had little to do with naval attitudes or mismanagement and everything to do with changes in economic and geopolitical power. The Brits were temporarily on top of the world with the collapse of the Napoleonic empire in 1815, but it was inevitable that the natural super powers of the first half of the 20th century – Germany, Russia, Japan, and the USA would easily eclipse the tiny island nation of the UK – militarily and economically. To be joined in the 21st century by China, India, the EU, and South Korea.

There is nothing the Royal Navy could ever have done to overcome the new geopolitical reality of the UK’s disintegrating empire. A lot of folks mistakenly credit the creation and growth of the British Empire to the Royal Navy, but the opposite was actually true – it was the economic might of the British Empire that created and sustained the Royal Navy.


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