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