Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Corbett piece feature ;

Re-learning from Corbett: Applied History to the rescue of Strategic Thought

Dr James W E Smith

Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies

27 September 2022

A century ago, in 1922, arguably Britain’s last great national strategic thinker and philosopher of seapower and maritime strategy died. Sir Julian Corbett (1854-1922) as a historian and civilian was Britain’s response to other strategic theorists such as Prussian army officer Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).

Corbett’s recognition that classical strategic theory, long dominated by continental military concerns, conflicted with his analyses of Britain’s national strategic experience over prior centuries. This experience had resulted in the decision to emphasise the sea and maritime dimension, but it was far beyond mere matters of navies and battles at sea. Corbett’s analysis identified maritime strategy as national defence policy, the key element in securing British strategic and foreign policy objectives.

In contrast to many theorists whose arguments focused on the application of military power in a particular context, Corbett’s analysis was far broader and never dependent on short term tactical experience. Instead, it was an understanding of the use of trade, sea blockade, economic and diplomatic power coupled with the intelligent use of a mobile army – supported from the sea – in a national strategy to defend not only a sea dependent island nation, but also, its interests.

Studying history enables sound national strategy

Corbett analysis showed the path to developing credible, national strategy could only be achieved by objective engagement with the past. Educating about the past–what had worked before­–across the military services and government departments was crucial to this process, as Professor Andrew Lambert remarks:

"Corbett understood that the key to making sound contemporary strategy lay in the combination of sophisticated historical analysis and strategic theory."

Many historians are also futurists who apply history by harnessing insight from the past to guide thinking and debate on contemporary problems and challenges.

Corbett understood the past was freely available to harness guidance from which was better than running the tightrope of relearning the costly and hard way, with all the risks associated to it."– Dr James Smith

At a baseline, the root of applied history is an understanding that there is something to be recovered and useful in the past. We can only achieve serious and often useful output by analysing trends through a substantial body of historical research. The challenge, just as Corbett faced, is how to use a body of work to inform the problems of today and tomorrow and develop a coherent national security strategy. Corbett understood the past was freely available to harness guidance from which was better than running the tightrope of relearning the costly and hard way, with all the risks associated to it.

Corbett was in good company: long before Michael Howard founded the Department of War Studies in 1962, naval historians came to King’s late in the 1800s, concerned about not just the recording of past military events but how they could guide future military leaders and high-level civilian decision makers. They secured in institutional memory, the events, decisions and trends that led to past successes. This was a superior and more coherent method than consistently reinventing and relearning foreign policy and defence strategy.

Corbett sought to explain not what had happened in the First World War but what should have happened, setting him apart from the growing trend in the 20th century in ideological and theoretical outputs rarely rooted in experience."– Dr James Smith

Corbett’s analysis of past wars demonstrated the use of complex methodology and applied history to think about future challenges. It was less to write a new history of previous wars, but to educate and guide on the process of making national strategy in the build-up to the First World War. His efforts were later thwarted by politicians and those who could only think in narrow land perspectives.

Thinking strategically versus short-termism

By the 1920s, it was clear to Corbett of a growing trend amongst military and defence policymakers to fall into the ease of short-term, tactical and reactive understandings, as they fitted neatly into political, fiscal and doctrinal cycles. An outlier, Corbett sought to explain not what had happened in the First World War but what should have happened, setting him apart from the growing trend in the 20th century in ideological and theoretical outputs rarely rooted in experience or merely isolated to some battle or politicised event.

After 1945, the creation of unified defence was at the heart of the devaluation of applied history. Unified defence saw the standalone service ministries that commanded and controlled the military services, homogenised into a tripartite organisation. By the 1960s, strategic experience and national strategy were sacrificed in the turmoil of budgetary and political realignment, which was part of the unification process. At the same time, the use of applied history across defence and foreign policy was replaced with theory, guesswork, and assumptions about the future nature of warfare. Debate changed to be about technology, power, and force rather than delivering strategic argument. The particular application and relevance of force to a particular context consumed post-1945 debates, favouring doctrine that saw jointness bruited as superior to strategy. Scholars who wanted to use applied history found themselves pitted against ever vocal technicists and theorists whose military focused operational circumstances drove their reactivity to global events.

Re-learning from Corbett: History to the rescue

The rush to devalue analysis and applied history in the 21st century, is exemplified in recent years over the concept of space warfare. The growing litany of literature proclaiming theories, often based on airpower theory, is based on guesswork and assumptions rather than on the experience of application and influence – both gained and beyond the Space Race of the last century. By looking backwards at experience rather than abstract theorising, we see that space as a military domain from the outset, influences events on Earth, akin –as Corbett assessed– to the influence of maritime forces on land.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the decline in using applied history in decision-making has resulted in a rise of suspicion and cynicism to foreign policy and the application of military force in recent decades. It is not to say that history provides clear-cut answers to the unique problems of today, nor does it provide an end point. Instead, it provides useful insight as a method for approaching the challenges of today and tomorrow. Whilst theory alone might spark new ideas, the day after that theory is dismissed, another takes its place. This is antithetical to using past experience, and reflective of a reactionary mindset rather than pre-emptively and intellectually thinking through problems that comes from the methodology of the study of history.

The key message of applied history from Corbett should remain central to any thinker or researcher of strategic studies, as should the critical role of properly trained historians in the policy-making process. Serious historians advance and develop work across strategic studies as a field, stimulated by fresh thinking, but is no easy task today as it was in the past. Those enquiries need to be open-ended, and ambitious: avoiding closed questions and lazy assumptions. If we do not value experience, the ideas it generates, and the processes that exist to recover and process it into usable outputs, we condemn ourselves to repeat mistakes of the past.

Dr James W E Smith completed his PhD “Deconstructing the Seapower State: Britain, America and Defence Unification 1945-1964” in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London in 2021. He helped create the King’s Wargaming Network in 2017, is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was previously a visiting research associate at the US Naval War College. He created the ‘Corbett 100’ project in partnership with academic colleagues and military personnel from around the world including the United States and Australia in 2019. He is currently working on research projects that include, maritime strategy, space and astrostrategy.

Twitter: Dr James W.E. Smith (@James_WE_Smith) / Twitter

LinkedIn: James W.E. Smith | LinkedIn

King’s webpage: Dr James W E Smith (

In this story

James W.E. Smith

James W.E. Smith

Laughton-Corbett Visiting Research Fellow

Latest news