Castles of Steel
© 2004 Robert K. Massie
Everyone’s recipe for cooking up the First World War is slightly different, but one essential ingredient is that of the arms races between various countries, especially the Anglo-Germanic quest for naval supremacy. England’s island status and naval tradition meant possessing the mightiest navy in Europe, if not the world, was a must, but Kaiser Bill’s fondness for boats meant his empire kept acquiring bigger and faster dreadnaughts. What’s worst, all of them were parked right outside Germany, within staring distance of London – and its own fleet had a global empire to defend. Castles of Steel picks up where Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnaught left off, detailing how the arms rivalry of the United Kingdom and Germany continued in open war. Castles is a naval history of the great war that focuses almost exclusively on the North Sea, brimming over with detail and delivered with the enthusiasm of an author who plainly enjoys his subject.
The twilight years of the 19th century, and the opening of the 20th, were to be the Age of the Battleship, an era of naval warfare marked by thickly armored titans sporting enough guns to bring a city to heel on its own. Rather than seizing the spotlight during the Great War, however, the fleets of goliaths never have the Battle of the Ages, the gods vs titans duel everyone dreamt about. Instead, action in the north sea is principally one of attritive warfare, of both Germany and England imposing blockades on the other and playing a delicate game of diplomacy so to not offend too many neutral nations. There are, of course, minor skirmishes featuring the gunships, and Massie milks them for all they are work, uplifting minor spats into feuds that shake the Earth. Naval buffs will no doubt find the spellbinding accounts that seem to mention every turn of the rudder in battles of interest. Massie doesn’t limit his history to ships, however; in the interests of thoroughness he devotes chapters to airships and airplanes over the seas as well. Zeppelin warfare seems like fantasy now, but for the people of England it was a real threat for a time. This is also a book of personalities; men of consequence merit chapter-length biographies in miniature, most notably Admirals Fisher and Beatty. Churchhill is a heavy player, too, of course, but so colorful is the cast that he doesn’t dominate. The action sometimes moves away from the North Sea and the Atlantic, as it does in the beginning to follow running battles through the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean.
Castles is impressive, for both exhaustive detail and a narrative voice that never seems to run out of steam. The size might intimidate, but the storytelling makes it a suitable and informative choice for someone who wants to know more about how the war over the seas was fought.