CASTLES OF STEEL
Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.
By Robert K. Massie.
Illustrated. 865 pp. New York:
Random House. $35.
WHEN most people think of World War I, they think of industrialized land warfare on the Western Front: of trenches and mud, machine guns and artillery, heroic charges and useless slaughter. But if you cast your gaze toward the sea, another war emerges -- one that, at least until 1917, was mainly fought in traditional ways and according to traditional rules of chivalry.
Britain's Grand Fleet and Germany's High Seas Fleet may have been equipped with state-of-the-art armor, turbines and radios but, like every navy since the 16th century, they were still built around capital ships carrying heavy artillery. Both the submarine and the airplane had been used from the start of the conflict, but neither had succeeded in transforming it. The Battle of Jutland (1916), waged between two fleets firing broadsides within visual range of each other, had more in common with the Battle of the Spanish Armada 328 years before than with Midway 26 years later, when the combatants exchanged over-the-horizon blows with airplanes.
The great historian of the Armada, Garrett Mattingly, observed that the 1588 battle marked "the beginning of a new era in naval warfare, of the long day in which the ship-of-the-line . . . was to be the queen of battles, a day for which the armor-plated, steam-powered battleship with rifled cannon merely marked the evening." Mattingly's 1959 masterpiece, "The Armada," remains the most entertaining narrative of how this era opened. Now Robert K. Massie has come along to offer a fitting bookend, an equally dramatic account of how it ended.
"Castles of Steel" is a sequel to Massie's 1991 "Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War," which described, in his own words, "the implacable chain of events that moved like a Greek tragedy toward the ultimate catastrophe of the Great War." In the acknowledgments to "Castles of Steel," he tells us that initially he "had intended 'Dreadnought' to include the war itself, but that book carried the story only up to the night Britain and Germany went to war."
"Castles of Steel" is a more narrow chronicle than "Dreadnought," focused on the naval battles of the war. And though it runs to more than 800 densely detailed pages, it lacks some of the vital context that the earlier volume provided. That said, it remains a work of impressive literary craftsmanship. Many other books have been written on the Great War at sea, some more concise, others more comprehensive, but none more readable.
The very first page announces that you are in the hands of a master of historical narrative. Massie does not trouble himself with the long, throat-clearing introductions typical of more academic volumes. This is his first sentence: "On an afternoon in early July 1914, a middle-aged man with restless, bright blue eyes and curly, iron gray hair boarded his yacht in the German Baltic harbor of Kiel, and the following morning departed on his annual summer cruise to the fjords of Norway."
The middle-aged man in question was Kaiser William II, and Massie uses his yacht trip as a convenient frame on which to hang an account of naval preparations and the onset of hostilities in 1914. He then proceeds, at the stately pace of a passenger liner, to describe all the significant events in the naval conflict, starting with British squadrons unsuccessfully chasing the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau around the Mediterranean in August 1914, continuing on to major and minor surface battles, the invasion of Gallipoli and submarine warfare, and concluding with Germany's defeated, mutinous fleet being surrendered to its enemies in November 1918.
Massie does not slight the mechanics of battle; he includes enough descriptions of guns roaring, ships maneuvering and pennants flapping in the breeze to satisfy any fan of Patrick O'Brian. In fact, he so often tosses off nautical terms that a reader may find himself wishing for a glossary to keep straight the difference between, say, an "armored cruiser" and a "battle cruiser."
But, as in his previous books, Massie's primary interest is clearly not in technology or other grand historical forces but in the play of personalities. Several of the characters so vividly drawn in "Dreadnought" make a return appearance here. Among the more memorable are the admirals who oversaw the construction of the pre-1914 German and British fleets, the bushy-bearded Alfred von Tirpitz and the caustic Jacky Fisher. Both were credited with foresight in building the dreadnoughts -- the fastest, most powerful battleships of their era -- but neither adequately anticipated the possibility of new weapons like the torpedo and the mine. And neither lasted out the calamitous conflict that he did so much to prepare for; both wound up quitting in a huff over political decisions they did not like.
Still, the Great War produced plenty of younger stars. The two who emerge most distinctly from these pages are John Rushworth Jellicoe and David Beatty, the two leading admirals of the Royal Navy, who, after the war, directed more venom toward each other than toward their former German adversaries.
They had very different personalities. Massie writes of Jellicoe, "A quiet, methodical man, he was a consummate professional whose success in the navy had been based on discipline, foresight, loyalty, self-confidence and imperturbable calm at moments of crisis." Beatty, on the other hand, "was an impetuous, bulldog type of fighter, courageous and impatient for action." He was also frequently distracted by Venus when his thoughts should have been on Mars: his wife, a rich American divorcee, cuckolded him repeatedly, sometimes with his own officers, and he in turn carried on a torrid affair with another officer's wife throughout the war.
The two men had a falling out over the inconclusive results of the Battle of Jutland, where Beatty commanded the British battle cruisers and Jellicoe the entire British fleet. Jutland was essentially a draw that disappointed a British public hungry for another Trafalgar. Beatty tried to cast the blame on Jellicoe's cautious approach, which Massie argues was unfair. If anyone messed up at Jutland, it was Beatty, who suffered heavy losses against an inferior enemy.
This was to be the only full-scale clash between the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet. For most of the war, the two armadas, afraid of mines, submarines and each other, stayed in port. Britain carried on the naval war with a small number of ships that maintained a North Sea blockade designed to starve Germany into submission. The Kaiser finally decided to return the favor in 1917 by unleashing unrestricted submarine warfare to strangle Britain. The effort almost succeeded. But in the end, the entry of America into the war and the use of simple U-boat countermeasures like convoys turned the tide. After a last-gasp offensive on the Western Front in 1918, Germany collapsed.
Naval power did not prove decisive to the outcome, in part because both sides were constrained, until late in the war, by a relatively traditional view of how war at sea should be fought. Massie's concluding chapters can be read as the story of how that traditional view was discarded in favor of a more brutal -- and more modern -- perspective.
In the early days, when U-boats spotted a merchant ship, they would surface, inspect its papers and, if it was found to be carrying Allied supplies, blow it up -- though only after making sure that the passengers had safely debarked into lifeboats. This approach may have been morally laudable, but it was militarily ineffective: surfaced U-boats were highly vulnerable to attack. The British even exploited German chivalry by building Q-ships, antisubmarine vessels disguised as innocent merchant ships.
The German resolve to abide by international law had begun to crack as early as 1915, when a U-boat sank the Lusitania with 1,265 passengers aboard. By 1917 all scruples had been cast aside: U-boats started sinking civilian ships with no warning, and some even opened fire on survivors in the water. The gallantry of the war's early years had died. As the historian Michael Roberts once wrote in another context, "The road lay open, broad and straight, to the abyss of the 20th century."
Max Boot, the Olin senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."