Sunday, May 29, 2005

BOOK: George G. Napier, "The Homes and Haunts of Sir Walter Scott"

George G. Napier: The Homes and Haunts of Sir Walter Scott. Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1897. xvi + 216 pp.

Sometimes I have the impression that Scott’s popularity in the nineteenth century was such that it occasionally began to exhibit some of the characteristics of a cult. Well, if there was such a thing as a cult of Sir Walter Scott, this book must surely be one of its fetishes. A book is the union of a text, which is a kind of immaterial platonic entity, and an object, the material thing which we hold in our hands and the leaves of which we turn when we read. In most books, the object is relegated to the background; we don’t really think about it much and focus on the text only. This book, however, is one of those where the object is very much more in evidence than usually; it’s a fairly heavy volume, printed on vellum in an issue limited to 550 copies (admittedly not a very strict limitation), illustrated by a large number of plates and engravings; turning the thick, cream-coloured pages and cursing the uncut fore and bottom edges, one cannot help thinking of this book as somewhat bourgeois and ostentatious, and being somewhat embarrased by it.

This book tells the story of Scott’s life and literary career with particular emphasis on the places he inhabited or visited. Occasionally the author goes into more detail about some bit of architecture or furniture or something else of that sort that I was not really interested in, but overall the book was pleasant and interesting reading. To enliven the book there is some illustration on almost every other page: drawings, paintings, photographs, etc. There are also many short quotations from Scott’s works and from various things written about Scott by others.

I haven’t read very much Scott so far; only Waverley and about half of his poetical works; but I enjoyed both the novel and his poems immensely. I certainly have a long-term intention to read the rest of his poetical works and the rest of the Waverley novels, as well as Scott’s diary. One thing that I especially enjoy about Scott’s works is that the reader is never thrust curtly, coldly and unkindly into the beginning of a story as is so often the case in the works of many other authors (especially the modern ones). No, Scott is like a kind friend who always begins with a greeting, an introduction, a prologue, and then starts to weave his tale slowly and carefully, giving you time to accustom yourself to your new surroundings; and along the way he always provides a helping hand in the form of innumerable notes. Anyway, in these introductions, prologues, and dedications, Scott often mentions various small bits from his life, various places where he lived, and various people who were until now mere names to me. Thus it was nice to read a bit more about these things in this book; in particular, it tells us quite a bit about various Scott’s friends and collaborators.

I was particularly touched by the story of John Leyden, who worked together with Scott on the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and eventually died of a fever in Indonesia; there’s a picture of his tomb near Batavia, present-day Jakarta, on p. 61; I found this episode a touching reminder of those days when the world was very much larger than it is now, when Indonesia truly was on the other side of the world, and when life expectancy was much shorter, with unconquerable diseases lurking around every corner, in the tropics even more so than in moderate climes.

Another person of whom I was glad to learn a bit more is James Hogg, “the Ettrick shepherd” (see the chapter on Yarrow); Scott mentions him in a note to Marmion; his curiously titled Confessions of a Justified Sinner are still waiting unread on one of my shelves.

Scott dates his introductions from such places as Ashestiel and Abbotsford; finally I have learnt something more about them: this book has a chapter about each.

In the chapter on Glasgow we learn more about Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and biographer.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, however, was the story of the famous financial collapse of Scott’s publishers, following which a huge debt fell on Scott; to repay the debts, he wrote even more copiously than before and eventually ruined his health through overwork. This is told on pp. 178-184, and the chapter ends with the interesting story of the fate of Scott’s copyrights.

The story of his last months is also quite touching. He travelled to the Mediterranean to improve his failing health, but the beautiful Italian scenery didn’t mean anything to him, and he hurried home full of homesickness and arrived in worse condition than when he left (p. 195). He died not long afterwards.

In short, although this book would perhaps be somewhat uninteresting for someone indifferent to Scott, it is delightful for a Scott enthusiast such as myself.

One of the downsides of the book is perhaps that it does not say much about his family life. But after all there is probably nothing particularly exciting about that.

Another perhaps more annoying downside is that the author never cites his sources. There are many quotations, some probably from well-known sources (e.g. Scott’s works), some from more obscure publications or even from unpublished letters, but almost none are in any way documented (with the exception of a quote from Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera on p. 89, where the volume and page number are given); there are no footnotes or endnotes in this book. Of course it was not meant to be a scholarly work, and its intended readers would probably be more likely annoyed than pleased by the footnotes, nor would I really follow up any of the footnotes if they had been included, but nevertheless I am always slightly annoyed when a book does not cite its sources carefully.

Curiously, Goethe’s name is spelled Goëthe. I remember that I once saw the same spelling in Poe’s note to Al Aaraaf. However, what is it supposed to mean? Are o and e really supposed to be pronounced as separate vowels? Do Germans really ever spell it that way?

Another thing which somehow attracts me to this book is that it comes from the sunset of the Scott cult. The stolid, self-satisfied, vaguely pompous Victorian age was an eminently suitable period for the veneration of such a sane, wholesome, non-problematic, indeed conservative author as Scott. No wonder that his works, both the poetical works and the novels, were reprinted over and over again in countless editions by all sorts of publishers in a number of countries. No wonder that his uncomplicated view of the middle ages went so nicely with the fetish for sterile medievalism that was popularized by Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. And no wonder, likewise, that when the nineteenth century died in the trenches of Flanders and nerve-wracked modernity entered the scene, Scott fell completely and irredeemably out of favour. How could anybody in the twentieth century take seriously an author that merely told stories which make the reader keep turning the page; one who did not continually obsess about the psychology of his characters; one who naively hoped, by dint of hard work and study of the manners of the ages in which his stories are set, to make up for his inability to write incomprehensible prose; one who, for god’s sake, was actually kind and friendly to his readers and took the trouble to make his works accessible rather than merely shitting out his precious words all over their heads like all the modern authors do? Of course such an author can only be taken for a naive simpleton nowadays; nor would his readers fare any better if anybody spared them a thought. And thus, naturally enough, nowadays anyone would agree that what Scott wrote was essentially merely a better class of pulp fiction of his day; people give him a nod as the innovator who brought, first with The Lay of the Last Minstrel and later again with Waverley, two quite new and hugely popular phenomena into English literature, but that doesn’t count for much; in narrative poems he was eclipsed by Byron, and as for historic novels — he is surely still an undisputed master of those, but historic novels hardly count as literature. And thus Oxford University Press stopped reprinting their standard edition of Scott’s complete poetical works some time in the 1970s, and as for the Waverley novels, who knows when they stopped being easily available otherwise than in second-hand bookstores (not counting the fiendishly expensive Edinburgh University Press edition that is being published since the early 1990s). And this perhaps is one of the reasons I am charmed about Scott: given the turn that literature has taken since the early 20th century, one cannot help thinking of Scott as a bit of an underdog; and I always feel sorry for underdogs. Reading Scott is always a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, the dirty secret of a person who is ashamed of being completely unable to understand modern literature. And thus, although I of course realize that the Victorian age was in almost every sense utterly abominable, and although I hate most of its values and opinions, I cannot help sometimes looking back on it with something like a nostalgia: for a time when the world could still have seemed stable, when it was still possible to believe in progress, when people could still believe in concepts such as right and wrong — and when it was still possible to think of a novel or a poem as a good one even though it merely told a story in a coherent and sensible way. And this book, with its sturdy cloth binding, its solid, heavy, hard vellum pages, their dark colour evocative of sunset, is surely a perfect expression of this ridiculous nostalgia for a vanished stable world.

BOOK: Curt Riess, "Total Espionage"

Curt Riess: Total Espionage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941. xii + 318 pp.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a cheap paperback reprint of a book first published in late 1939, Gestapo by an author with the curious old-worldly name of Philip St. C. Walton-Kerr. Until then I usually thought of the Gestapo as merely a secret police, an institution that worked within Germany to find and suppress opponents of the regime, whether domestic or foreigners, as well as members of any of the other marginalized groups which the Nazis sought to oppress. However, Walton-Kerr’s book shows that Gestapo’s activities were very extensive outside Germany as well. German agents were particularly active in Central and Eastern European countries, trying to increase German influence in their political and economic life, spreading Nazi propaganda among German minorities in these countries, supporting and encouraging various groups with pro-fascist leanings, spreading discontent among unsatisfied minorities in the hope of destabilizing and weakening the governments of their countries. Gestapo was also active in other parts of the world (e.g. Western Europe, Middle East, the Americas), although there its work was perhaps somewhat more difficult and closer to the traditional understanding of espionage.

Anyway, this is what I learnt from Walton-Kerr’s book. I was quite fascinated by it and read most of it two or three times. Now another chance encounter brought me another book about German espionage, Total Espionage by Curt Riess, a book I had never heard of until I noticed it in one of eBay’s notification e-mails: one of the words in the auction description incidentally matched one of my want keywords on eBay. How could I resist another book on this fascinating topic?

This is a book about the German espionage activities in the years before WW2. Thus its focus is somewhat broader than that of Walton-Kerr’s book; it is not only about the Gestapo but also about various other German organizations, whether secret or not, as long as they were involved in espionage (in fact the Gestapo was relatively small compared to the total number of people involved in spying for Germany; p. 136). Indeed one of the main messages of this book is that together with total war comes “total espionage” — hence the title of the book — total war requires the cooperation and coordination of all spheres of life, all parts of the economy and society, etc., and the same also holds for total espionage, which becomes necessary in the era of total war. Judging from Riess’ book, it was the totalitarian countries who first took steps towards total espionage: many elements of it can be found first in the Soviet Union (p. 11) and in imperial Japan (p. 89), while the Nazis have perfected it still further. The Western democracies were a few steps behind (e.g. the French, p. 40; the U.S., p. 45), although they were catching up quickly (see esp. Part VI of the book). For some time one of their problems was that even though their intelligence services obtained useful information, e.g. about German rearmament, this information was ignored or distrusted by the politicians (e.g. the British prime minister Baldwin, p. 31, and later Chamberlain, p. 59).

The book is written in a somewhat journalistic style, which is not really surprising since the author is a newspaper correspondent. I’m not really used to that style of writing (at least not in books), and I can’t quite make up my mind whether I should like it or not. There are many passages that could just as well be written in a neutral, moderate tone, but the author opts instead for something much more meretricious, using the innumerable journalistic devices which “spice up” a text, make it more exciting, etc., devices which would be perfectly appropriate for a spy novel, but I’m not quite delighted to see them in a nonfiction book. (Some passages particularly awash with this style may be found on pp. 62, 153-6). Or perhaps it’s not only a matter of style but also of period? Sometimes I felt that the style of this book has a certain colloqual, brash, in-your-face quality, which reminded me somewhat of the characters of the film noir movies in the same period, played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart. But I shouldn’t give the impression that the style of the book is problematic or annoying; it’s just a bit different from what I’ve been used to, that’s all.

Ocassionally I also felt that the book was somewhat “granular” in structure: that each section was too much a vignette of its own, with not enough of a red thread to connect them all into a whole. Possibly this is due to a journalist’s habit of writing individual articles rather than longer texts, or perhaps it is not the book’s fault but mine, due to insufficiently careful and concentrated reading.

Anyway, the book contains many interesting passages and anecdotes, which all in all do build up to a fascinanting portrayal of how wide-spread an activity espionage is in modern times. From the very beginning onwards, the author very clearly debunks the popular image of espionage as a romantic, glamorous activity, practised by people like Mata Hari; this is what espionage might have been like in a former time (p. 20), but modern espionage, the “total espionage” that this book is about, is much more an organized activity, involving thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, who collect huge amounts of material in ways which are often quite dull and mundane, and these numerous little bits of data are then sifted and analyzed and eventually yield quite a lot of information about other countries, not just their military but also their economy, infrastructure, public utilities, politics and society.

The German system of total espionage made use of a large number of people, organizations, and institutions (p. 95): officers’ associations who were in touch with the many German officers who left Germany after WW1 to help organize the armies of South American countries (pp. 22-23, 246); in the U.S., there were the Friends of the New Germany (p. 54); German consulates were “springing up like mushrooms” (p. 69); planes flown by German pilots would make unusual detours to observe interesting parts of foreign countries (p. 71, 244); news agencies (p. 105); various associations and clubs dedicated to maintaining contacts with particular countries or regions (p. 104); film studios would send large crews abroad to shoot documentaries as well as perform acts of espionage (p. 128); foreign politicians and journalists were bribed or blackmailed (pp. 107-8, 157; perhaps the French foreign minister Bonnet is one of the most striking examples, pp.  163, 165), and pro-fascist groups in foreign countries supported (the Cagoulards in France, p. 110; the Sinarquists in Mexico, p. 237; the Green Shirts in Brazil, p. 247; Becerra’s dictatorship in Bolivia, p. 247); via the Auslandsorganization, all Germans living abroad were encouraged to report their observations to the German authorities (p. 114), particular attention was being focused on German engineers, technicians, scientists, chemists, sailors and people in other professions who were particularly likely to obtain valuable information (p. 119); however, other Germans abroad were also used, even cabaret singers (p. 129), waiters, language teachers, domestic servants (pp. 70-1, 130), as well as Germans travelling abroad as tourists (p. 131); Germans living abroad were exempt from mobilization because of their value as spies (p. 148); foreigners were given opportunity to study in Germany, and connections with them were kept in the hope that they would one day provide useful information (pp. 120-1); German businesses in foreign countries would also provide information, and were sometimes encouraged to offer their services at uneconomically low values to make sure they would get the jobs (e.g. radio transmitters, p. 133; airlines, pp. 243-4);

There are a few interesting pages on the training of German agents, pp. 137-40.

Apparently German agents in France were quite successful, and managed to infiltrate many important institutions; pp. 166-177.

As the French collapse was approaching in June 1940, the officers of the French secret service managed to disappear, together with the entire archives of their organization, none of which came into the possession of the Nazis. This exciting and dramatic story is told on pp. 184-97. As of the writing of the book, the ultimate fate of the documents was still unknown. Well, this is one of the downsides of reading books that were written not long after the events whereof they speak.

Apparently, Rudolf Hess was one of the main organizers of the Nazi system of espionage (p. 86). I found this interesting; until now I haven’t read much about him, and he always seemed very much a minor figure, with his famous flight to Britain in May 1941 merely a bizarre footnote in the history of WW2. It seems that certain influential Britons were favourable to the idea of concluding peace with Germany and perhaps joining it in its attack against the Soviet Union, and Hess hoped to make contact with these people and discuss the treaty before the attack began. There were no realistic prospects of this, however; it was merely a trap organized by the British secret service (pp. 277-282). It isn’t quite clear to me why this was done anyway; perhaps, given Hess’ prominent role in organizing the German espionage system, the British hoped to seriously weaken this system by depriving it of its head; or perhaps they hoped they might be able to exchange him for some of their own agents, who had fallen into German hands (p. 179)? Anyway, I think I’m going to have to read something more about Hess to find out if he really had such a major role in German espionage. At some point I would also like to read more about these pro-German circles in Britain, the Cliveden set and what not.

Many of these espionage tricks are fairly simple but in a clever and ingenious sort of way. For example, in January 1940 the Allies got hold of a document suggesting that Germans were about to attack Belgium; the Allies therefore rearranged their forces according to their plan for such an eventuality; however, the document was a fake planted by the Germans, who had no intention of attacking Belgium just yet, but merely wanted to observe how the Allies planned to defend themselves against such an attack (pp. 152-3).

The Germans were also active in other parts of the world, such as Africa (p. 213), the Middle East (p. 214), and Japan (p. 217), but there their work was more difficult and they did not accomplish very much. The Italian secret service was apparently quite incompetent (p. 226) until the Gestapo took it over in 1940 (p. 230). Incidentally, it seems that Mussolini had been a French agent during WW1 (p. 227).

The Germans also made many efforts in Central and South America. In Mexico, they offered to buy or barter for oil when Mexico was being boycotted by U.S. and British companies whose wells it had nationalized (pp. 202, 205). They also supported various revolutionary and pro-fascist movements (pp. 237-8). However, the Mexican secret police was apparently quite successful at defending itself from these Nazi machinations (pp. 239-40). In South America there were many German investments (p. 241); German airlines performed military espionage (pp. 243-4) and built airfields that could acommodate military airplanes in addition to civillian ones (p. 244); many Germans were advisors in South American armies (p. 246); German agents supported the Green Shirt movement in Brazil, and Becerra’s dictatorship in Bolivia (p. 247); Germans even tried to claim Patagonia for themselves, saying that the Argentinian claim to it is invalid due to the large number of German farmers who had settled there (p. 248).

The book ends on a more optimistic tone, however, and the last part (from p. 250 onwards) shows how the German espionage is being resisted and countered more and more successfuly, and is suffering ever greater setbacks.

Comparing this book with Walton-Kerr’s book mentioned at the beginning of this post, I would say that they complement each other more often than overlap (nor have I noticed any glaring disagreements between the two), so I think it was worth reading both. Walton-Kerr has more details on the Gestapo “dismantling” of Czechoslovakia, as well on as its activities in Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It also has more details on the selection and training of its agents. On the other hand, Riess’ book has more material about other German espionage activities, i.e. by organizations other than the Gestapo, as well as about German activities in other parts of the world (particularly South America, Western Europe, and the U.S.).

Incidentally, the book is printed on paper of a curious kind; thick, brownish in colour, somewhat rough to the touch and a little unhomogeneous, with individual fibers like short curled hair noticeable every now and then. Perhaps this was due to some sort of wartime paper rationing scheme.

The book’s typography has a curious limitation: apparently the printers were able to produce such accented characters as the French è but not the German characters with umlauts, ä ö ü, which are therefore consistently written as ae oe ue. Actually ä does appear once, on p. 77 (Sängerknaben); but e.g. on p. 120 we find Hafenaemter, not -ämter.

Another curiosity of this book is its use of the word kidnaped. I don’t think I’ve seen it before, and I always thought that only kidnapped is acceptable; however, the dictionary allows kidnaped as well.

ToRead: the dust jacket contains an advertisement for Munich Playground, by Ernest R. Pope (another journalist), which apparently contains much salacious and titillating material on the Nazi bigwigs in Bavaria. Of course one may have very reasonable concerns about the objectivity of such a book (writing about your enemies during a war surely doesn’t make it terribly easy to be unbiased), but in the spirit of that Italian proverb “if it isn’t true, it’s at least a good invention” (I wish I could quote it in Italian, but I can’t speak Italian myself, and on the web each page seems to have a slightly different spelling of this proverb, so I have no idea which one is correct), I think I’ll definitely try to buy and read it.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

BOOK: Robert K. Massie, "Castles of Steel"

Robert K. Massie: Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. Random House, 2003, 0679456716 (hc); Ballantine, 2004, 0345408780 (pb). xii + 865 pp.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think that the first time I heard of Massie was when I stumbled upon his Dreadnought in a bookstore. That book is about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany in the decades before WW1. I enjoyed it immensely; it’s a splendid work of narrative history, written in a pleasant, accessible style that makes you unable to put down the book; it has a lot of anecdotes and biographic information about the leading personalities (politicians, rulers, admirals, etc.) involved on both sides of the arms race; it is, at the same time, also in a way a history of diplomacy and relations between the great powers in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The origins of the first world war: I have always been fascinated by this subject. How could a simple political assassination by an obscure group of nationalists in an out-of-the-way corner of Europe trigger a war that involved all of the great powers of the day? Obviously it could never have happened if the relations between the powers hadn’t been such as they were; this is why I have been so fascinated by the diplomatic history of the decades preceding WW1, the formation of alliances and rivalries that eventually meant that as soon as a war would involve one of the great powers it would almost inevitably involve several or even all of them. So Dreadnought was really the perfect book for me.

However, Dreadnought ends with the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914. It felt a bit unusual to reach the end of the book just as all the declarations of war have been presented; traditionally, one thinks of wars as terribly important historic events and it feels a bit odd to see a book that terminates abruptly at the very beginning of a major war. I didn’t really mind that in the case of Dreadnought; I’m not very interested in military history and the details of the war anyway; besides, the book’s subtitle clearly says it’s about the coming of the war, rather than about the war itself. But it nevertheless felt a bit odd to reach the end of the book at such an exciting moment as the outbreak of war.

So when I heard that Massie has written a new book, Castles of Steel, which continues the story where Dreadnought finished and takes it all the way to the end of the war, I was naturally very excited. I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite as much as Dreadnought, because it inevitably has to focus more on military topics and less on diplomacy and anecdotes. However, it was nevertheless a very enjoyable book; in the hands of a less skilful author such a topic might have turned out boring for me, but Castles of Steel was interesting to read all the time.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from these two books was that the influence of naval questions on WW1 was perhaps greater than we usually think (when one thinks of the first world war, one usually only thinks of warfare on the land: soldiers in the trenches, dying by their millions somewhere in Flanders, etc., etc.). Initially the German Empire didn’t have much of a navy, because none of its constituent parts had had much of a navy either. At some point they decided to build a serious navy, partly to be able to protect their commercial ships (on which the German economy had become heavily reliant), partly to be able to act as a world-wide imperialistic power (for which you needed ships back then, just as you would need airplanes now), and partly out of prestige (with the likes of that pompous ass Kaiser Wilhelm II exclaiming that any self-respecting country with such a powerful army as Germany simply needs to have a powerful navy as well). This, however, made Britain feel seriously threatened. Throughout the 19th century, the British navy was considerably stronger than that of any other country, whereas its army was typically smaller and weaker than that of the large continental countries such as Germany or France. This weakness was not so important: since Britain was an island, having a strong navy was enough for self-defence; it was also enough to acquire and protect its colonial empire because the colonies could not really be reached from Europe otherwise than by sea. However, if some other country with a stronger army should build a navy comparable in strength to the British, this would instantly make Britain’s position much weaker. Thus when Germany started to build its navy, Britain (after unsuccessfully trying to reach a friendly arrangement with Germany) responded by speeding up its own shipbuilding programme, leading to the arms race that went on throughout the early 20th century, all the way to WW1. Since Germany is not far from Britain, the latter now had to keep most of its navy close to home to be able to defend itself from a surprise German attack. To protect their interests in other parts of the world, the British had to partly rely on others; hence their alliance with Japan in 1902 and their entente with France in 1904. This in turn encouraged the Germans to think of Britain as unfriendly and to feel that they are being encircled by hostile powers. German links with Austria-Hungary, their only reliable ally, strengthened while the other European countries wondered if Germany was not getting too powerful and whether it would still be possible to contain her ambitions.

When the war broke out, most of the British and German warships were near the coasts of their respective countries. The British had considerable preponderance in numbers, which the Germans tried to whittle down in occassional small skirmishes (or with the use of mines and submarines; p. 145) before risking any all-out fight between the two navies (p. 120). Thus no really large battles took place at sea during the first two years of the war. However, this situation was disadvantageous for Germany: as long as most of its navy had to remain in port, the British were able to control the Channel and the North Sea, intercepting any cargo ships going to Germany (or even to neutral countries if it seemed that the ultimate destination of the cargo is Germany). This blockade was seriously damaging not only German industry (which was now unable to import all the raw materials it had been used to, and to export its products) but even its agriculture (which was in principle able to feed the German population but only if it could import enough fertilizer from America). Germany knew that a similar blockade against Britain could also be very effective, as Britain also relied heavily on imported materials and food; however, if Germany tried to blockade Britain with its surface ships, an all-out battle between both navies would probably result, which Germans wanted to avoid until they could reduce British numerical superiority. So they tried blockading Britain with submarines instead. Apparently, there were quite clear and well-known traditional rules about how to enforce a blockade (ch. 28, pp. 504-6): your warships could stop a neutral cargo ship, your officers would inspect it, give its crew some time to enter lifeboats or (if far away from nearest dry land) transfer to your own ship, and then you would sink their ship. Alternatively you might bring it to your own port and confiscate it, or at least its cargo. However, all of this was very inconvenient for submarines. A submarine, at least in WW1 technology, is quite vulnerable when on the surface; nor does it have enough room to take in the crew of a ship that is to be sunk (p. 515). Thus a blockade enforced by submarines was a much nastier affair than one enforced by surface ships (pp. 536, 546); many more cargo ships were sunk (by torpedoes, to avoid the need for the submarines to surface), their crews drowned, etc. This enraged the neutral countries, particularly the USA (ch. 29). Germany, not wanting the US to enter the war against them, gave up submarine warfare for some time; this left the German navy little other options but to try breaking the British blockade with a large battle between their surface ships (p. 552, 560). This led to the battle of Jutland; British losses there were greater than German ones, but because of the initial numerical superiority of Britain, the balance of strength after the battle was still heavily in Britain’s favour and the German navy avoided such large battles for the rest of the war. Germany decided to resume submarine attacks instead (by 1916 the British blocade was causing hunger in Germany, p. 696), hoping to strangle Britain’s economy in a few months before neutral countries such as the US would get involved. They had great success for some time (p. 726), sinking many cargo ships, until the British started organizing them into convoys protected by destroyers, which made the submarines’ job much more difficult (pp. 732-3). (The British also installed concealed guns on a few merchant ships, hoping to be able to shoot at a submarine when it surfaces near the ship; pp. 717-22.) The US eventually entered the war (partly because of this ruthless submarine warfare, partly because of German intrigues to have Mexico attack the US, p. 711), flooding the western front with a million fresh soldiers (although initially very inexperienced; p. 765) and finally shifting the balance of power to the point that Germany was unable to continue fighting (p. 769). Germany asked for an armistice; one of Wilson’s conditions was a stop of submarine warfare (p. 772), which the German navy opposed as it did not feel defeated. The navy subsequently tried to organize one last battle with the British navy (pp. 773-4), but it had to be called off as the sailors began to mutiny. The mutiny later spread to various German ports and sparked a revolution all over Germany (p. 775-6). After the armistice was signed, the remaining German ships and submarines were interned in the British port of Scapa Flow and manned by small crews of German sailors (p. 778), who eventually scuttled most of the ships to prevent the British from seizing them (p. 787-8).

The phrase “castles of steel” is Churchill’s (p. 20).

When the war broke out, two battleships ordered by Turkey were nearing completion in British shipyards. Although Turkey was neutral at the time, the British government seized the two ships to increase its numerical superiority over the German navy (pp. 22-3).

On the very first day of the war, a British ship cut all the German overseas cables in the Channel, thus preventing Germany from communicating directly by cable with countries outside Europe (p. 77).

“Old Asquith spends his time immersed in a Baedeker Guide and reading extracts to an admiring audience.” (Written by the bored admiral Beatty, who met Asquith and several other politicians during a Mediterranean cruise in 1912; pp. 92-3).

Although the British navy was considerably larger than the German, invidivual ships and their crews were not necessarily any better than their German counterparts. Many passages in the book praise the accurate and rapid German gunnery (p. 119), as well as the design of their ships, which were often able to withstand many shell hits and remain afloat (because of more watertight compartments; p. 666). On the other hand, Britain had several ships (the battle cruisers) where too much armor had been sacrificed to make them lighter and therefore faster, with the result that they were too vulnerable in battle.

After the battle of Dogger Bank, the Germans realized the dangers posed to ships by the possibility of an explosion in the gunpowder magazines, and introduced safety measures to make this less likely (p. 423); the British did that only after losing several ships to such explosions in the battle of Jutland (p. 667).

“The origins of the House of Battenberg, an unkind chronicler once wrote, are lost in the mists of the nineteenth century.” (P. 165.)

The interesting chapters 10-14 deal with the fate of the German East Asia Squadron, led by Admiral von Spee and originally stationed in China. After Spee’s flagship received the signal for “threatened state of war”, “the vessel was stripped for battle and all peacetime and nonessential belongings were sent ashore”, including all the souvenirs amassed by the crew during their stay in Asia (p. 187). His squadron was too weak for serious confrontation with battleships, and some of his ships were too slow to be used for raiding merchant vessels; he also sailed across the Pacific in the hopes of eventually reaching Germany by sailing around Cape Horn; he couldn’t stay in the Pacific indefinitely as he had no base where he could resupply his ammunition or carry out any larger repairs (p. 237). He also had difficulties obtaining coal in neutral ports (p. 253).

Before the war, relations between British and German officers were often fairly cordial if they met in some exotic part of the world (pp. 182, 202).

In a battle between ships of different types, or with significantly different gun sizes (larger guns being able to fire much heavier shells at considerably longer ranges), there was little that the weaker ships could do but to let themselves be slaughtered (unless they were able to escape). This was the fate of the outdated British ships, manned by inexperienced crews, who were defeated in the Battle of Coronel (p. 229) by von Spee’s East Asia Squadron. Von Spee’s squadron of armoured cruisers and light cruisers was in turn almost completely annihilated near the Falkland Islands (p. 271) by a superior British force which included two battlecruisers.

On the effects of a sea battle on parrots: p. 232.

There was sometimes a fair amount of chivalry in the battles on the sea; p. 274, 279. One might stop shooting at a defeated ship to give it opportunity to surrender by lowering its flag (pp. 234-5, 276). Ships might try to rescue survivors of enemy shipwrecks, if they could do so without exposing themselves to danger (p. 235).

At some point the British camouflaged several merchant ships into fake battleships and battlecruisers, hoping to deceive the Germans as to the size and location of their warships. This bizarre idea was Churchill’s (p. 307), who was First Lord of the Admiralty (i.e. the minister for the navy) during the first few years of the war.

Early in the war, the entente powers got possession of German naval code books. The British were able to intercept many German naval wireless messages, and thanks to the code books they could now also decode them. Thus they were often forewarned about German plans and were able to send their ships to the right place in the right time (pp. 314-18). However, sometimes this information was not used to its maximum potential because some officers regarded cryptography with disdain (p. 580).

It’s interesting how, despite years of construction, planning, and preparation, a great deal might eventually still depend on little random events. During the Scarborough raid, the Germans sent some of their ships ahead to attack the town of Scarborough, hoping that this would lure a part of the British fleet down from their bases in the north of Britain. This detached part of the British fleet would then be destroyed by the main German fleet, led by Admiral von Ingenohl, which was sailing towards Britain for that purpose. However, Ingenohl at some point started to worry that he was dealing with the entire British fleet, not just a detachment of it, and turned his ships back to Germany. Had he waited only half an hour longer, a battle between the German navy and the detached part of the British fleet would have resulted, in which the Germans would quite likely win and thus wipe out the numerical advantage of the British navy (pp. 338-9, 359).

Although airplanes and airships (zeppelins) were used during WW1, they didn’t have much of an influence on naval warfare. Seaplanes (i.e. airplanes able to take off from the sea and land on it) were sometimes carried on board ships, i.e. the first airplane carriers (p. 363). However, they were fairly unreliable, sensitive to weather, and their range was limited. Zeppelins could fly very high and were occasionally used for reconaissance, or even to bomb British cities, but if they came too low, the zeppelins were vulnerable to airplane attack (p. 364, 374).

There are many examples of problems arising from unclear or misunderstood instructions (e.g. Churchill’s, p. 31, 210), or because of difficulties in sending signals from one ship to another by the means of flags or lights (e.g. at the battle of Dogger Bank, p. 398). There were also some communication problems during the battle of Jutland; p. 582, 641, 645.

Chapters 23-27 describe the curious episode of the Dardanelles bombardment and the Gallipolli expedition. After Turkey had joined the Central Powers, a number of German officers were employed in its army (p. 427), and the German ship Goeben was stationed in the Dardanelles. The entry of Turkey into war made things difficult for Russia, which needed to export grain and import ammunition but was now able to do so only through Archangelsk on the White Sea, frozen for much of the year (p. 50, 428). The British tried to take control of the Dardanelles by having their ships bombard the Turkish gun batteries (although this is difficult, pp. 435-7); seeing that the clever Turkish defense system (mines in the water, guns in the fort, mobile howitzers along the coast; p. 451) makes it impossible to force the way through the Dardanelles using ships alone, they managed to get a foothold in the peninsula of Gallipoli and sent some infantry there, but the fighting soon turned into the same sort that was familiar from the western front: trenches, many casualties but the front line hardly moved (p. 480). Finally the expedition was called off, but its failure and the resulting bickering eventually cost Churchill and admiral Fisher their positions at the Admiralty (pp. 489-91). The Turks, incidentally, were good and hardy infantry soldiers (pp. 493-4).

During the battle of Jutland, the captain of the battlecruiser New Zealand wore a tiki pendant and a Maori kilt that had been presented to him by a tribal chief, who had said that wearing them during battle will protect his ship from harm. And indeed that particular ship survived the battle almost unharmed (p. 586).

Admiral Beatty during the battle of Jutland: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today” (p. 596). This would look great on one of those ‘Famous Last Words’ type of lists (except that Beatty survived the battle).

Torpedoes were not really very fast as that time: 30 knots, whereas many battleships could sail at over 20 knots, battlecruisers over 25, and some smaller ships even faster (p. 630).

There is an eerie anecdote of a German submarine damaged by depth charges and unable to rise. For hours, the British surface ship listened to the “scraping and straining noises” coming from the sea floor, growing fainter and fainter; finally, the following day, they heard the sounds of twenty-five revolver shots. (P. 737.)