Author: Robert Massie
Publisher: Random House Inc.
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter
"If one type of ship could summarize the key
differences of the German and British navies, it would be the
Histories of the First World War have been few and far between. In recent
years, World War II, that brazen attention hog, has received an inordinate
amount of observation. The second world war would have never occurred
without the first, which makes the lack of material on it all the more
puzzling. Most books on WWI seem to to be attempts at understanding why
the war happened, and not really what happened during it.
Castles of Steel is the newest book by Pulitzer Prize winning historian
Robert Massie. It is a history of the naval conflict between Great Britain
and Germany during the Great War, focusing on the major surface actions of
1914, 1915, and 1916. It is an effortlessly-written epic, voluminously
detailed, and free of the sensationalism and posturing that mars many
modern history books. In telling the story of the British Grand Fleet and
the German High Seas Fleet, Massie has avoided outright pretension, or
worse, self-serving revisionism.
Despite being an 800 page tome, Castles of Steel focuses on a narrow slice
of the First World War, skimming over broader topics such as the blockade
of Germany and the U-boat war. These topics are covered, but Massie
chooses to examine them from a political, rather than operational,
perspective. The naval adventures of the other major powers are ignored,
and the American declaration of war doesn’t occur until page 713.
>From the beginning, as Massie points out, the naval war was a war of
contradictions. The British public clamored for a Trafalgaresque defeat
over the German navy from the beginning. The German naval leadership was
willing to risk their dreadnoughts in a decisive battle, but the Kaiser
fought to preserve his prestigious battleships. The British still believed
Nelson's maxim "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship
alongside that of the enemy," and found themselves in a war of
improvisation. Instead of a close blockade of Germany’s ports followed by
a massive "final battle," they spent most of the war simply trying to lure
the German fleet out of port and into a trap.
The three major North Sea battles are presented in extensive detail in
Castles of Steel - Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank, and the epic Battle of
Jutland. Far from resembling orderly processions of warships, these
encounters can only be described as "orderly chaos" Opposing fleets
blunder through fog, mist, and rain squalls, trying to stay in formation
and interpret contradictory signal flags, all the while trying to avoid
being sunk by enemy gunfire. Sudden changes in weather could give an
advantage to the other side, or someone might spot a "torpedo" which sends
the entire fleet running back to port.
Castles of Steel has dozens of secondary characters, but only four that
are essential for the reader to understand: David Beatty, John Jellicoe,
Winston Churchill, and John Fisher. Beatty commanded the 1st Battlecruiser
Squadron from 1912 to 1916, while Jellicoe was Commander-in-Chief of the
British Grand Fleet from August 1914 to November 1916. Winston Churchill,
who needs no introduction, was the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911
until his forced retirement in mid-1915. Jackie Fisher served as First Sea
Lord from 1905 to 1910, during which he implemented sweeping reforms of
the British navy, and again from November 1914 to May 1915.
Castles of Steel culminates in a gripping, revealing, and extremely
violent account of Jutland, where the clashing personalities of Beatty and
Jellicoe reveal themselves with explosive results. Fearing a destroyer
torpedo attack, Jellicoe turned his fleet away from the Germans. Earlier
that day, Beatty, ignoring Jellicoe's warnings about his battlecruiser’s
flaws, charged the German battlecruisers at full speed. This action drew
the German fleet to Jellicoe, but Beatty lost three of his battlecruisers
to catastrophic magazine explosions.
If one type of ship could summarize the key differences of the German and
British navies, it would be the battlecruiser. Sacrificing armor and
watertight integrity, British battlecruisers were fast, and armed with 12
and 13.5-inch guns. German battlecruisers were slower, and not as well
armed, but had heavier armor and superior watertight subdivision.
Basically, if the British forced them to fight, they would fight until
their last gun fell silent. These dissimilarities perhaps best expressed
the main differences in British and German naval policy - rapiers versus
The Jellicoe/Beatty controversy is the only subject where Massie seems to
take sides. His sympathy lies with Jellicoe, who is praised for his
defensive actions at Jutland. Beatty, on the other hand, is admonished for
being recklessly aggressive. In the end, the German dreadnoughts never
left port again, so they must have done something right.
While Castles of Steel does plenty of things right, I have two major
problems with it (normally, I have three, so I guess this is an
exception). First off, the lack of maps makes the battle accounts hard to
follow, and I found myself reading paragraphs over and over before finally
"getting" what was going on. Events such as the destroyer actions at
Heligoland Bight and Jellicoe’s turn at Jutland were incomprehensible
until I found a decent set of maps. The six maps that were included are so
lacking in detail I wonder why they were included to begin with.
Massie’s take on the German perspective is extremely sketchy in places.
None of the Germans, except for Kaiser Wilhelm II (who’s name has been
anglicized to William), are well developed, and the reader never quite
gets "inside the head" of their naval leaders. This doesn't render the
book one-sided, but a closer look at the German naval establishment would
have made their decisions easier to understand.
Castles of Steel is a refreshing take on a battered genre, that genre
being the epic war story. It’s not groundbreaking or especially revealing,
but it’s the kind of book you read for two weeks, and when you reach the
end all you can say is "Wow!" It may not be a flawless masterwork, but it
is an excellent introduction to World War I at sea, and one I can
recommend to anyone interested in the subject.
The 2004 Ballantine Books edition of Castles of Steel is an 888 page trade
paperback book. There are 38 chapters, along with a list of notes, a
bibliography, and a 16 page section of black and white photographs.
Robert K. Massie was born in 1928, and studied American history at Yale
and European history at Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes scholar. He
was the president of the Author’s Guild from 1987 to 1991. His other books
include The Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandria, Peter the Great, and
Dreadnought, which Castles of Steel is technically a sequel to.