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

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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