Did British admirals of World War I lack the “Nelson Touch”?

A review of a book about World War I I read recently claimed that, in that war, “(British) Admirals lacked the Nelson Touch”.

I find these sorts of comment very aggravating. Personally, I have no doubt that, had a reincarnated Nelson commanded a fleet in World War I, he too would have lacked the “Nelson Touch”.

That phrase (which was in fact first used by Nelson himself, about his plans prior to the battle of Trafalgar) referred to his determination to turn a fleet into a decisive weapon of war, in a way no other admiral had done previously.

Prior to his time as a senior commander, naval battles had mostly been fought between opposing fleets drawn up to form two parallel “lines of battle”. This tactic seldom had decisive results, as neither side was able to the inflict much damage on the other. This was even the case if one fleet’s gunnery was much the faster and more accurate. The fact that the British consistently showed superior gunnery often did not give them decisive victories, as their enemies were able to sail away, badly mauled but largely intact.

Nelson sought to bring about a disorganized, close-action fight between ships. In these, he was confident, the superior gunnery of the British would give them a decisive advantage.

Clearly, this tactic had risks. Once battle was joined, the smoke from the cannon fire would obscure any flag signals that the fleet commander might make. In effect, he would lose all control over the course of the battle, and the battle would resolve itself into a series of ship-to-ship contests, with the outcome dependent upon the qualities of the individual captains and crews.

Nelson’s response to this problem was clear. He would not even pretend to direct the battle once battle was joined. Rather, on frequent occasions in the period leading up to a battle, he would gather his captains together on his flagship, and chat with them about his intentions until they fully them understood what he wanted from them. He would also make sure that they knew they could follow their own initiative, so long as they brought their ships into close action with the enemy. The bond of trust which Nelson fostered between himself and his captains ensured that they were motivated to follow his wishes.

There is no doubt in my own mind that Nelson was one of the greatest (perhaps THE greatest) naval commander in world history. However, his achievements were those of a very particular time and place. He commanded fleets at a time when the British navy had accumulated unparalleled experience and capability in naval warfare. There was not much difference in the quality of the warships of the different navies in the great days of sail, but the officers and crews of the vast majority of British warships were significantly more highly disciplined, motivated and battle-hardened than their opponents.

In World War I, things were very different. No navy (except perhaps the Japanese, who were not involved in any serious fighting) had any real experience of the new kind of naval warfare that they found themselves waging. Whereas the old sailing battleships were virtually unsinkable (they could only be battered into surrender), the dreadnoughts of the World War I could be blown up by a single lucky (or unlucky) shell. They could also fall victim to mines and torpedoes, stealthy weapons which might damage or sink them before they even knew they were there.

In the new kind of industrialized warfare of the early 20th century, the design and construction of the individual ships mattered to a much greater extent than in the days of sail. Their speed, armour, and gun power were all critical: and the German ships proved rather more effective than the British.

Under these circumstances, no British admiral could risk the sort of close action fighting that Nelson so earnestly sought. It is therefore ridiculous to charge them (Jellicoe and Beatty were the leading examples) with lacking the necessary spirit in handling the huge and diverse fleets under their commands. At the very least, Nelson could see his adversaries; they could not.

Also, whereas the British navy of the 18th century fought numerous major battles, each of which gave its commanders that little bit more experience in fleet-handling, the World War I admirals fought only one major set-piece action, at the battle of Jutland in May, 1916. No wonder it was a disorganized muddle – both sides had difficulty even knowing where their opponents were, let alone attacking them effectively!

It is easy for us historians to pontificate about the inadequacies of historical figures. I for one could while away many a happy afternoon pronouncing against this blinkered admiral (even though I’ve never set foot on a warship that was actually at sea), or that blind fool of a general (though I have never worn an army uniform). It’s a temptation we should resists with all our strength, because, as well as being arrogant and mean-minded, it results in very bad history.


By Peter Britton