Robert Massie’s credentials as a historian are impressive indeed. After studying history at Yale, he attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and there studied modern European history. His second book, “Peter the Great,” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1981.
Modern history, however, is Massie’s field, and his best book to date may be his 1991 work “Dreadnought,” which considers the four decades of political rivalry in Europe that led up to World War I. In “Dreadnought,” the reader is reminded that the author is a biographer at heart: His portraits of the young Winston Churchill; of the intense, eccentric Adm. Sir John “Jacky” Fisher; and of Germany’s ambitious Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz make for a riveting narrative.
With “Castles of Steel,” Mr. Massie moves on to the war at sea that resulted from the naval race, taking the British and German battle fleets from the diplomatic crisis of July 1914 through the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919.
The two great fleets had vastly different origins. The German fleet was the creation of an unstable monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who chose to compete for naval supremacy with the Royal Navy.
Starting almost from scratch in the 1890s, Germany developed a modern fleet that in many respects was superior to its British rival. Britain’s Royal Navy, in contrast, entered the 20th century encumbered with tradition and sloth.
Few of its officers had ever seen a shot fired in battle. Firing practice was discouraged because of its effect on paintwork, for cleanliness — the mark of a “smart ship” — was what counted in efficiency ratings.
The transition from sail to steam had been achieved with some difficulty. One elderly captain had entered port under both sail and steam, and ordered the sails struck and the anchor dropped. Moments before his ship ran aground the skipper was reminded that he had not stopped the engines. “Bless me,” he remarked, “I forgot we had engines.”
The man who brought the Royal Navy into the 20th century was the energetic Fisher. As First Sea Lord he introduced the all-big-gun Dreadnought, the turbine-powered vessel that made all earlier battleships obsolete.
The problem was that it made most of the Royal Navy obsolete as well, allowing the Kaiser to threaten Britain’s supremacy at sea despite his late start and inferior numbers.
The two navies brought different assets and liabilities to the conflict. Britain’s Grand Fleet consistently outnumbered German warships in the North Sea, and its battleships — Winston Churchill’s “castles of steel” — mounted heavier guns than their German counterparts.
On the other hand, German vessels had better watertight construction and were more heavily armored. The Kaiser’s navy reflected von Tirpitz’s conviction that “the supreme quality of a ship is that it should remain afloat.” And German gunnery was consistently better than that of their adversaries.
At sea as on land, World War I confounded the planners on both sides. The Germans anticipated a sea blockade, but thought that an enemy blockade close to their own coast would be vulnerable to sorties by their own warships.
Instead, Britain instituted a remote blockade, declaring most of the North Sea a war zone and enforcing the blockade from a distance. Much of the war was passed in attempts by each side to lure the other into a naval ambush.
Neither side anticipated the importance of submarines. The sinking of three British cruisers by a U-9 in September 1914 threw a scare into the Royal Navy that plagued it throughout the war.
Later, when Adm. John Jellicoe declined to pursue a retreating German fleet in the Battle of Jutland, his hesitation reflected in part his fear of a submarine ambush.
The Germans themselves were uncertain as to how best to employ their U-boat fleet. Attacks on merchant vessels without warning were in violation of international law, and risked bringing the United States into the war.
At the same time, any U-boat that surfaced became vulnerable to attack either by armed merchantmen or by enemy warships nearby. Not until January 1917 did the blustering Kaiser commit his country to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that brought the United States into the war.
The climax of World War I at sea was the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. There, in the North Sea off Denmark, a sortie by German battle cruisers led to the greatest naval battle of the last century, involving at one time or another more than 200 vessels, including 44 battleships.
The British lost more ships and men than their enemies in the resulting melee, in part because of the rugged construction of the German ships. But the German fleet was driven back to its ports, and played only a minor role in the last two years of the war.
Although Jellicoe was roundly criticized for his failure to vigorously pursue the German fleet as it turned tail for home, Mr. Massie sympathizes with the admiral. Not only did Jellicoe’s subordinate commanders fail to keep him informed of enemy movements, but the admiral was all too aware of the design and gunnery deficiencies of his own ships.
Most important, Britain’s strategic objective was different from that of its adversary. In the author’s words, “Jellicoe’s strategic purpose was to retain command of the sea. The destruction of the High Seas Fleet was a secondary object — highly desirable but not essential.”
At nearly 800 pages, “Castles of Steel” requires a commitment from the reader. But this is history in the grand manner, extensively researched and vividly told. The reader would be helped by additional maps, but this is a quibble. Robert Massie has written the definitive history of World War I at sea.
John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of numerous books of history and biography including “Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama.”