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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 4 of 10]

[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 4: Naval Wargaming

Livermore and McCarty Little were about to begin a tradition of naval wargaming that started at the Naval War College in 1889 and continues to this day. They were hardly the fathers of naval wargaming overall— history records a peculiar story of a man who had never been in the navy, indeed never been to sea, whose ideas on naval wargaming were embraced by one of the most revered admirals in the history of naval conflict— Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. John Clerk was a Scotsman who was fascinated by naval conflict despite his own lack of experience with the sea. When addressing his authority from which to speak on Naval matters, Clerk wrote:

 “…I had recourse not only to every species of demonstration, by plans and drawings, but also to the use of a number of small models of ships which, when disposed in the proper arrangement, gave most correct representations of hostile fleets, extended each in line of battle; and being easily moved and put in any relative position required, and thus permanently seen and well considered, every possible idea of naval system could be discussed with the possibility of any dispute.”


Clerk’s claim was based on his careful construction of his own naval war game. His game was designed to model reality. Clerk’s model of naval combat predated the rigid Kriegspiel, being created completely enough for preliminary publication in 1779. Naval wargaming was a separate discipline, learning its own lessons and being developed independently of the Prussian/German tradition of land-based wargaming. Clerk gleaned his information from the information available to the public about naval conflict.

“…often as dispatches with descriptions of these battles were brought home, it was my practice to make animadversions, and criticize them, by fighting them over and over again, buy means of the aforesaid small models of ships, which I constantly carried in my pocket; every table furnishing sea-room sufficient on which to extend and maneuver the opponent fleets at pleasure; and where every naval question, both with respect to situation and movement, even of every individual ship, as well as the fleets themselves could be animadverted upon.”

Clerk, in effect, used these dispatches and battle reports to reverse-engineer the physics of naval combat, thereby constructing a model upon which he could run conjectural naval engagements. He circulated his findings among naval personnel and got positive feedback, leading him to publish a complete version of his rules and his own tactical thoughts in 1782. According to Perla and others, a copy of Clerk’s work found their way to Admiral Sir George Rodney of the British Navy, who appreciated Clerk’s ideas and by some accounts made use of them in the decisive victory fought against the French fleet of Admiral de Grasse in the West Indies. There is some dispute on the timing of Clerk’s work arriving in Rodney’s hands— Rodney’s flag captain, Captain Sir Howard Douglas, claimed that while Rodney did appreciate Clerk’s work in later years, he had not yet read the work at the time of his battle with de Grasse.

Rodney’s success may or may not have been directly attributable to Clerk and his wargame, but changes made in the British Navy’s tactical doctrine in the years following its publication most certainly were. “In all his reasoning he shows with truth and success that our defeats were never owing to a want of spirit, but to a deficiency of tactical knowledge.” Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Ekins said of Clerk. Clerk, a man with no direct naval experience, had successfully through the use of wargaming deduced the tactical deficiencies of the British Navy, the predispositions of the French tacticians, and created a new school of naval tactics that by all accounts improved the success rate of the British Navy immensely. US Navy Rear-Admiral S.B. Luce wrote

“The object of Clerk was to point out the grave defects in the English Fighting Instructions and to suggest a remedy. There seems no doubt that the English naval officers profited by the lesson, and, the ice once broken, there was no longer any hesitation in putting in practice the principal suggestion thrown out by the author, and one which is conformable to one of the oldest and best-known rules of the art of war— viz.: to inflict upon the enemy a decisive blow by concentrating an overwhelming force upon a given point of his line, thus beating him in detail.”

Luce points out that the adoption of Clerk’s ideas led to a “fresher, brighter chapter in the history of English Naval Tactics” in the battles of the French Revolution. Even the victories of Lord Nelson at Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Trafalgar in 1805 include the variations on the tactics suggested by Clerk.

While Clerk’s game system did model accurately enough the realities of naval warfare of its time, there is debate of whether his system constituted a game in the strictest sense, since it was usually played by Clerk against himself, making the moves the conjectural French would have made based on his observations of historical French tactical habits. In this way, it could be considered to be more a simulation than a game, as Clerk’s intent was more to simulate possible outcomes for his own education, allowing him to come up with tactical solutions he could then present to the Royal Navy. This approach was successful, as indicated above his tactics were taken to heart by the Royal Navy to great effect— but was his game a game? Perla believes the term “manual simulation” might be more appropriate.  Regardless of classification, the mechanics of Clerk’s game had created a precedent for a naval simulation that modeled reality well enough to have a tangible effect on British naval tactics.

American naval wargaming was not widely accepted until the end of the nineteenth century. Livermore and McCarty Little had struggled to gain acceptance for wargaming in the US military community with mixed success. The joint Army-Navy wargame run in 1887 resulted in the Army forbidding any further joint exercises, but the 1894 and 1896 games played a pivotal role in influencing the Navy’s budget. The 1895 game helped convince Congress of the need for the Cape Cod Canal. The Naval War College started their tradition of regular wargaming as part of the curriculum in 1889, with the Army War College finally following suit in 1899.

In an example of wargaming having an indirect effect on military education and outcomes, the story of Fred T. Jane presents another civilian wargame author scenario. Jane was a British illustrator and author of science fiction. Much like Clerk before him, he was not a professional navy man. An enthusiast of naval matters, Jane took it upon himself to begin publication of All the World’s Fighting Ships in the 1890s, the forerunner of the Jane’s Fighting Ships series still published today. Jane’s publication of Rules for the Jane Naval War Game in 1898 showed the ultimate purpose for his collection of data on as many fighting ships as he could— a wargame. In The Jane Naval War Game Jane had created a game that he hoped would be useful for the training of naval officers. Much like Kriegspiel, Jane required admirals to submit written orders to their subordinates, and had a referee who adjudicated damage and mediated communications. The models used to play the game were accurate to Jane’s own technical drawings of the actual vessels. The ship classification system created by Jane for his manuals and war games helped shape the course of future naval wargaming by introducing clear types and purposes of vessel rated for their speed, armament and defensive capabilities.

Fred Jane’s passion for collecting data on warships for his game has led, over a century later, to Jane’s being one of the top respected names in the defense and intelligence communities. The Jane’s brand now graces Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jane’s Intelligence Review and Jane’s Navy International as well as online and in-print intelligence and military resources. Jane’s has grown from a civilian illustrator with a hobby into a major force in global intelligence. This force has taken shape with Jane’s reference works having set the standard in vessel recognition for decades.

American Naval wargaming had more effect on the Navy than tactical doctrine. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt himself gave war game problems to the Navy for assessment. The Strategic Naval War Game assigned colors to the potential threat fleets – the United States Navy was the familiar Blue of a friendly force. The Royal Navy was Red, the Germans were Black, the Japanese Orange, and the Canadians Crimson. War Plans were named for the threat force— War Plan Orange dealt with a war with Japan. These war plans used the Navy’s wargaming to find and correct flaws not only in tactics and deployment – but in vessel construction and weapon configuration as well. As a result of a war game against the Red navy, the Naval War College results found that the Royal Navy’s guns outranged the US Navy’s so dramatically that in closing for action the US Navy would suffer unacceptable losses before any of their own fire could begin to have an effect.  To address this inequity, the US Navy searched out methods to overcome the problems the wargames presented.

US Navy vessels were subsequently laid down with steel deck plates to mitigate the plunging fire from these long-range engagements, and naval guns were designed with higher maximum elevations to allow greater maximum ranges for engagement. The US Navy began to train heavily on long-range gunnery. The result of these changes can be seen in the evolution of the US Navy’s vessels throughout the interwar period. By 1938 the US Navy’s heavy guns outranged the Royal Navy’s by 10,000 yards, and Blue began to score wins when matched against the Red of the Royal Navy. Also of note the wargames run by the Naval War College were occasionally uncannily predictive of events that would come to pass. The Orange war games predicted the fall of the Philippines, and the doctrine those 127 games played between 1919 and 1941 created were the basis for US-Japan war plans as of the initiation of hostilities on 7 December 1941.

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