I’ve just finished Robert K Massie’s enormous book about the battle for naval supremacy during the First World War. The book is a full account of the naval aspects of the First World War and covers pretty much anything that you could want to know about the subject in an imposingly thick tome.
Massie previously established himself on this subject with his well-received book “Dreadnought” that describes the naval arms race between the global powers in the prelude to the First World War. In this later book, he plunges into the war itself, exploring the many aspects of the naval endeavors of both side. Some readers may be put off by the thickness of the book, but this would be to miss out on a treat; Robert Massie has a very readable style that keeps you hooked and turns what could be a dry account into a real page turner.
The book opens with the attempts to corner the German dreadnaught Goeben as the opening moves of the First World War are played out. Blending the diplomatic and naval moves the chapter portrays the cat and mouse game that was played out which resulted in the Goeben fleeing to Constantinople. Plunging further into the book, the major encounters and themes of the naval aspects of the war are all covered in detail, covering the Battle of Coronel and Falklands, the hunt for the German raiders charged with attacking British merchant shipping, the Battle of Dogger Bank, the naval aspects of the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) campaign. The Battle of Jutland, pivotal in its importance, is treated to a particularly detailed account.
Other themes, such as the decision by the Germans to declare unrestricted submarine warfare and the diplomatic and military consequences of that actions are also developed. The operation of the British blockade and the operation of the British Q-Ships (U-Boat hunters concealed as merchantmen) is particularly fascinating, with a number of stories that I had not heard before. The book culminates with the end of the war and the internment of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow and the subsequent scuttling of the fleet, which now rests at the bottom of the natural harbour.
The leaders of the British and German fleets are examined in terms of their professionalism, preparedness and effectiveness. The British command, in particular, is often singled out for an inability to seize opportunity and for clinging to pre-war thinking and practices. The political pressures weighing upon both sides are developed from both the German and British perspectives, contrasting the democratic and autocratic differences between the two main naval protagonists. However, it’s not just about the major themes and events; often Massie will use an excerpt from personal correspondence to illustrate a point, bringing home the point that not everyone involved was an Admiral.
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea is comprehensive, detailed, well-researched and most importantly of all, readable. At times you feel like you’re reading a novel as the text races along and you turn page after page. Whilst Castles of Steel turns out the same story that has been well trodden before, it earns its place on the bookshelf for its readability alone. It may not give startling new insights, but unless you follow naval history closely, this is unlikely to matter.
If you do consider buying this book (or Dreadnought), please use the link below as it means that a small affiliate payment from Amazon will help this project to continue.