When I was much younger (just getting out of college, actually), I read this massive 1000+ page book on the naval arms race between the great powers of Europe leading up to World War I.
The book was called Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War by historian and journalist Robert K. Massie. Publish in 1991, it was huge, and it was terribly interesting to this military history buff having just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History.
In 2004, Massie came out with a follow-up book about the naval aspect of World War I called Castles of Steel.
I picked it up a few years later but kept deciding that I was going to read something a bit shorter and it fell by the wayside.
When I heard that Massie had died on December 2, 2019, I was determined to make Castles of Steel my next read.
Boy, was it worth it!
I remember really liking Dreadnought but it was so long ago that there’s no way I could review it now. But I do recommend it!
Castles of Steel picks up where Dreadnought left off, with the first shots of the war being fired. It covers the entirety of the naval conflict during World War I, especially the cat and mouse game between Germany’s High Seas Fleet and Great Britain’s Grand Fleet in the North Sea.
Great Britain had established a very effective naval blockade of Germany, and part of this blockade was attempting to keep the High Seas Fleet hemmed up in its ports on the German coast so they couldn’t escape and disrupt shipping on the world’s oceans. The British fleet was hoping for a decisive battle between the two fleets that would end the suspense once and for all.
The Germans, under the Kaiser’s orders, refused to do this. The High Seas Fleet was not authorized to risk losing its dreadnoughts to a numerically superior force. While there was the occasional feint or attempt to hit a smaller portion of the Grand Fleet and annihilate it, for the most part the fleet was contained until the huge battle of Jutland from May 31 – June 1, 1916.
Castles of Steel gives such a detailed description of the battle that you almost feel like you are there. You can see the pennants waving in the wind, the mist settling in and hiding your adversary, then the roaring cannonade of the ships’ massive guns.
The book is about more than Jutland, though. It covers every sea action during the war, all with the same amount of detail.
The Battle of Coronel, where a German squadron of ships commanded by Admiral Maximilian von Spee that were originally based in China and were trying to make it home around the tip of South America destroyed a British cruiser squadron. The Battle of the Falkland Island where von Spee met his doom.
There’s also the Battle of Dogger Bank (the first attempt to destroy the High Seas Fleet that ended poorly for the British and inconclusively in general), naval operations during the Dardanelles disastrous campaign to knock Turkey out of the war that was the end (temporarily) of Winston Churchill’s career in the Admiralty.
The book also details the German U-Boat campaign, the ongoing debate between German officials on whether to resort to Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (the indiscriminate sinking of cargo vessels heading to Britain designed to starve it into submission) and whether that would bring the United States into the war.
Castles of Steel finally ends after the war with the internment of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow (off Scotland) and its subsequent scuttling by German commanders.
All of this is told in the wonderfully detailed yet easily readable style Massie used. It’s a very dense book but it also holds your attention. It took me almost a month to get through it, but I didn’t feel like any of that time was wasted with a boring read that I felt more obliged to finish than an actual interest in studying.
A great part of the book was that it deals with more than just the battles. It deals with the personalities and the politics behind it all.
Most noteworthy in this aspect are two Admirals of the Grand Fleet: Admiral John Jellicoe (overall commander of the Grand Fleet at Jutland) and Admiral David Beatty (commander of a battle cruiser squadron during the battle who succeeded Jellicoe as commander of the fleet after he was recruited into the Admiralty).
Castles of Steel gives entire histories of these two men, especially how they clashed both openly and behind the scenes. While they were fulfilling their respective duties, they were remarkably cordial to each other, but Massie records the back-biting between the two through private letters and other correspondence to show just how much they didn’t like each other.
This is especially true after Jutland, which while it was a major British victory it did not actually annihilate the High Seas Fleet like they were hoping. Recriminations came from both sides, both in the immediate aftermath as well as long after the war. Both men (and their supporters) thought that the other had cost the British a golden opportunity through either bungling or an over-abundance of caution.
Massie clearly comes down on Jellicoe’s side in this debate. Though he doesn’t shy away from some of the mistakes that Jellicoe made, many of them have explanations (like Beatty not clearly communicating the location of the German ships that he was engaging during the first day of the battle).
Meanwhile, Beatty is portrayed as a bitter, arrogant and angry man, cuckolded by his rich American divorcee wife (sometimes with his own officers) and who thus ended up engaging in his own torrid affair with another officer’s wife.
I don’t know enough about the history to know whether this is an overly slanted view of Beatty & Jellicoe or whether it’s accurate, but it’s an interesting read regardless.
Massie gives the same detailed treatment (if not the same discussion of controversy) with other major figures during the war, namely Alfred von Tirpitz and Jacky Fisher (both architects of their own country’s entry into the Dreadnought world).
Many biographies of Churchill are out there, so Massie doesn’t provide a detailed history of the man, but he does thoroughly explore Churchill’s time as First Lord of the Admiralty and how he handled all of the various personalities and events that happened during this time.
I never knew I wanted this much detail about the naval history of World War I (a subject I didn’t know much about as it wasn’t covered that completely in the last overall First World War book I read, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson.
After reading Castles of Steel, though, I discovered that I had really wanted it all along.
If you’re at all interested in military history, especially the naval aspect of it or of World War I, you owe it to yourself to check this book out.
Don’t wait like I did.