Book Review: The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak

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by Arne Røksund

Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. xviii, 242. Appends.,notes, biblio., index. $149.00. ISBN: 9004157239

Jeune École is the name given to group of French naval officers and politicians during the late nineteenth century who proposed radical changes in the country's naval strategy.  They believed that the French Navy should shift from a “command of the seas” model based on a battle fleet to a “guerre de course” (commerce raiding) and coast defense model.  The ultimate result was a notable decline in the importance of the French Navy by the eve of the Great War. 

In this work, Rear-Adm. Røksund (Royal Norwegian Navy), finds the origins of the confusion in French naval thought in the complex changes in the country’s strategic situation from the Franco-Prussian War onwards.  While some thinkers saw the need for a major battle fleet to cope with the traditional enemy Britain and the upstart foe Italy, others stressed the difficulty of maintaining a major navy while confronting Germany, a new and dangerous land enemy, some among the more radical claiming that the battle fleet was obsolete in the age of submarines, automotive torpedoes, torpedo boats, fast cruisers, and long-range coast artillery.  The debate ran for decades (c. 1875-1910), and along the way the traditionalists failed to notice that both Britain and Italy had gradually become more interested in cooperating with France rather than in confronting her, while the radicals grossly overestimated the effectiveness of the new technologies.  Meanwhile, due to continuous “flip flopping” between the two schools of thought almost with every change in the nation’s political leadership, the French Navy experienced a marked decline, so that on the eve of World War I it was not second among the great naval powers but fourth, behind Britain, Germany, and the U.S., and with largely obsolete fleet, a result of the long confusion in strategic thought and political leadership. 

While The Jeune École is important reading for anyone interested in naval history, it can also be read profitably by modern American naval strategists, trying to shape the U.S. Navy in the present political and strategic environment, plagued with similar claims by traditionalists and radicals.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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