December 2003

A riveting account of war at sea

By Robert K. Massie
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The land battles of the First World War with their miles of muddy trenches and coils of flesh-shredding barbed wire were such horrific scenes of slaughter that it's easy to forget that there was a huge and complex naval component of the war as well. Robert K. Massie's massive and meticulously detailed Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea should correct this imbalance of attention. A sequel of sorts to his 1991 classic Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, Massie's latest book displays his usual talent for bringing history to life in a narrative that is both exhaustively researched and completely engrossing.

Beginning with the buildup of the German fleet during the early days of the 20th century, a time when Germany and Great Britain were still linked by military friendships and monarchial blood, the author portrays the main players on each side and then proceeds methodically to chronicle all the major (and most minor) clashes at sea. He ends with the defeated German forces scuttling dozens of their battleships while corralled at the British stronghold of Scapa Flow.

The towering figures in Massie's narrative are Winston Churchill, in his pivotal role as First Lord of the Admiralty; John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief; the calculating and duplicitous David Beatty, who would succeed Jellicoe near the end of the war; and the resourceful German admirals Alfred von Tirpitz, Maximilian von Spee, Reinhard Scheer and Franz Hipper. Although the focus always stays on the encounters out at sea and along the coasts, Massie does take time to explain the increasing importance of airplanes and dirigibles in combat. And he gives a thorough assessment of that new and cunning instrument of destruction, the submarine, and shows how the surface vessels quickly came to terms with it.

No detail is too small to escape Massie's discerning eye, whether it is a failure of ship design that denies it a victory or Beatty's amusing extramarital peccadilloes (he even treats the reader to a sample of the commander's erotic doggerel). With America's entry into the war in April 1917, another great naval force was brought to bear against Germany. This one, as Massie demonstrates, was less important for its firepower than its ability to deliver into battle enormous numbers of troops and volumes of supplies. While the British fleet maintained a strangling blockade of its foe, "[t]he U. S. Navy played a major role in transporting over 2 million American soldiers to Europe. By June 1918, American troops were pouring into France at the rate of 300,000 a month." Part a study in strategies and part pure adventure story, Castles of Steel illuminates an important transitional period in military history just before land and sea forces gave way to the supremacy of air power.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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Castles of Steel

Castles of Steel

By Robert K. Massie
Random House
ISBN 9780679456711

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