Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: Castles of Steel

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Robert Massie

I've recommended Robert Massie's book Dreadnought a couple of times in these electrons. I particularly like its biography-based structure. Starting in the mid-19th century, every chapter of Dreadnought focuses on one or two people, gives them a wonderfully vivid biography, and uses them to move the story forward by a few years. It follows these interleaved lives right up to the eve of World War I.

Castles of Steel is the follow-up. It must have been a much harder book to write. The leapfrogging-biographies approach works brilliantly over a period of decades; there's not so much scope for it in just four years. Not only that, Massie had to deal with the fact that very many of the actors from Dreadnought return prominently in Castles of Steel: do you reintroduce them for new readers at the risk of boring the returnees, or do you carry boldly forward and risk leaving the new readers behind?

But the biggest challenge for Castles of Steel is that there's a lot of nothing happening. Most naval histories of World War I focus on the German submarine campaign. That's because the U-boat war was strategically vital (as it would be in World War II), and encompassed a lot of action. By contrast, the surface-ship war consisted of a few small actions, one very large but inconclusive battle, some side-shows such as Gallipoli, and an enormous amount of shadow-boxing.

All true, and yet Castles of Steel is gripping. It's an absolute textbook case of how genuinely great writing can make all the difference. In Massie's telling, this isn't shadow-boxing; it's fencing. The British fleet was larger, but preserving it was a matter of life and death--without it, the seas would have been swept clear of British shipping, and the nation would have starved. The German fleet had a protected anchorage, but it couldn't come out without risking annihilation. Massie turns these facts into a kind of naval chess game, while keeping the main strategic narrative firmly in view the whole time, move and countermove, personality vs. personality, feint and thrust, all leading up to and illuminating the book's twin climaxes: the Battle of Jutland and Germany's final desperate resort to unrestricted submarine warfare--the latter, ultimately, a tragic decision, as it brought the U.S. into the war. The description of Jutland, in particular, is almost movie-like in its pacing, clarity, and tension.

It's probably better to read Dreadnought first; its people-oriented narrative is hard to beat, and it provides context that you'll otherwise miss. Also, these are not small books; they're each about four inches thick. If you have even a slight interest in the subject, don't let that stop you. And if you don't . . . I challenge you to pick up Dreadnought and read the first few chapters. You may get hooked.

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