Castles of Steel

Author: Robert Massie
Publisher: Random House Inc.
Year: 2003
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter


     "If one type of ship could summarize the key differences of the German and British navies, it would be the battlecruiser."

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 battleaxes.

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.


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