Julian Stafford Corbett

From The Dreadnought Project
Jump to: navigation, search

SIR Julian Stafford Corbett, Kt. (12 November, 1854 – 21 September, 1922) was a naval historian closely associated with the Royal Navy in the early Twentieth Century.

Early Life & Career

Corbett was the second son of Charles Joseph Corbett, architect, of Thames Ditton, Surrey, by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Philip Henry Byrne, of London. He was born at Imber Court, Thames Ditton, 12 November 1854, and was educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a first class in the law tripos in 1875. In 1879 he was called to the bar by the Middle Temple, and continued to practise for five years, although the work from the first appears to have been irksome. In 1882 he abandoned it and, having private means, travelled extensively, visiting among other places India and the United States. In 1886 Corbett found in fiction an outlet for literary ability which in his Cambridge days had occasioned remark. His first novel was The Fall of Asgard, and this was quickly followed by For God and Gold (1887) and Kophetua the Thirteenth (1889). By a natural process he was drawn towards biography, contributing to the ‘English Men of Action’ series the life of Monk in 1889, and in the following year Drake. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that these volumes helped to shape his subsequent career. In 1895 he reverted to fiction, his next novel being A Business in Great Waters.

During this, the formative period of his life, Corbett continued to travel, visiting Norway frequently, and almost invariably spending the winter in Rome. It was his taste for sport and travel that induced him in 1896 to accompany the Dongola expedition as special correspondent of the Pall Mall Gazette. His experiences were much less exciting than he had anticipated, but the campaign undoubtedly set him thinking about the conduct of war as a subject for his pen. In 1898 he produced his first serious contribution to historical literature, Drake and the Tudor Navy. Corbett had already written two novels on this theme as well as a biography, and the choice was natural enough; but his experiences as a war correspondent had changed his outlook, and the two volumes may be taken as inaugurating a new chapter in his life. He was not quite sure, however, that he was pursuing the right course, even though his researches had brought him into touch with the Navy Records Society, recently founded by Sir John Knox Laughton [q.v.] , who had persuaded him to edit a volume connected with Drake, Papers Relating to the Navy during the Spanish War, 1585–1587 (1898). At forty-five Corbett was hesitating whether to follow his own preference and resume the role of the novelist or yield to the counsel of his friends and stand for parliament, when his marriage in 1899 with Edith, only daughter of George Alexander, cotton manufacturer, of Manchester, enabled him to make up his mind. At his wife's request he decided to devote himself to serious historical writing.

The first fruit of this decision was The Successors of Drake (1900), which may be regarded as continuing and concluding his work on the Tudor navy, although two years later (1902) he edited for the Navy Records Society Sir William Slyngsbie's contemporary Relation of the Voyage to Cadiz, 1596. On the strength of work already completed Corbett was appointed in 1902 lecturer in history to the Royal Naval War College, just established at Greenwich, and in 1903 was selected to deliver the Ford lectures at Oxford. In 1904 he presented the substance of the research which his two new spheres of work had involved in England in the Mediterranean, 1603–1714, a comprehensive study of naval strategy. Naval tactics next engaged his attention, and for the centenary of Trafalgar (1905) he prepared for the Navy Records Society a volume which he called Fighting Instructions, 1530–1816, a collection of documents illustrating the art of handling battle-fleets in the days of sail. But at the War College it was strategy rather than tactics that his audiences required, and in 1907 he completed another notable contribution to the subject, England in the Seven Years' War, a book which, more than any of its precursors, demonstrated the true relationship of naval power and national policy.

In 1908, almost by way of relaxation, Corbett edited for the Navy Records Society volumes dealing with Views of the Battles of the Third Dutch War and Signals and Instructions, 1776–1794, the latter a supplement to his Fighting Instructions. He found time, also, to write numerous articles and pamphlets, one of which, The Capture of Private Property at Sea, was reprinted by A. T. Mahan in Some Neglected Aspects of War (1907). But at this time Corbett was chiefly engaged upon a new study, The Campaign of Trafalgar, published in 1910. This, his most important work so far, disappointed the reviewers, who were expecting a controversial treatment of Nelson's tactics and received what may be called the first staff history of a naval campaign.

The welcome which the book received from naval officers induced Corbett in the following year to present the essence of his doctrine in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy; while a paper on "Staff Histories" which he read to the International Congress of Historical Studies in 1913 was reprinted in Naval and Military Essays (1914), the first volume of a series which was interrupted by the War. At this time (1913) he was editing for the Navy Records Private Papers of George, second Earl Spencer, which threw a flood of new light on naval administration in Nelson's day; and on the appearance of the second volume he was awarded the Chesney gold medal by the Royal United Service Institution (1914).

When the European War broke out, Corbett offered his services to the Admiralty and, in addition to organizing a bureau for the collection of material for the history of the struggle at sea, wrote pamphlets for the enlightenment of neutrals and supplied tabular statements of historical parallels for the assistance of the naval staff. In 1917 he was knighted.

Shortly before the War Corbett had undertaken to write an official history of the naval campaigns of 1904–1905; this was completed in 1915 under the title Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War (for official use). The experience which he gained in the compilation of this work was invaluable. It showed him what was needed in the way of sources, and in conjunction with his labours at the war bureau accelerated the writing of Naval Operations, the official history of the European War at sea. The first volume appeared in 1920, and the second, carrying the narrative down to the resignation of Lord Fisher, appeared in the following year. In 1921 Corbett delivered the Creighton lecture at King's College, London, sketching in outline the subject which he had put aside to deal with the Russo-Japanese War and to which he always hoped to return—‘Napoleon and the British Navy after Trafalgar’ (published in the Quarterly Review, April 1922). But his plans were denied fruition; for he died quite suddenly at Stopham, Sussex, 21 September 1922, leaving one son and one daughter. He had just completed a third volume of Naval Operations, containing his account of the battle of Jutland, and this was printed posthumously (1923).

Corbett had a natural bent for antiquarian pursuits, collected rare books and manuscripts bearing on his chosen themes, and wrote in a cultured and arresting style; but left to himself, he would hardly have devoted himself so whole-heartedly to naval history. There was as much of the philosopher in him as the historian. It was the good fortune of his country that he had not committed himself to any definite line of inquiry when, at the opening of the new century, the Royal Naval War College was instituted and, finding in him the instrument it needed, inspired the series of monographs and histories which won for his original genius a wide measure of esteem.


  • "Sir Julian Corbett" (Obituaries). The Times. Friday, 22 September, 1922. Issue 43143, col E, pg. 12.
  • Goldrick, James; Hattendorf, John B., eds (1993). Mahan is not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond. Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College Press. ISBN 096379731X.
  • Schurman, D. M. (1965). The Education of a Navy: The Development of British Naval Strategic Thought, 1867-1914. London: Cassell.


See Also