Massie - Castles of Steel

August 23, 2004

Robert K. Massie
Castles of steel : Britain, Germany, and the winning of the Great War at sea
New York : Random House, c2003.
ISBN 0679456716

Robert Massie is a wonderful biographer. His Nicholas and Alexandra argued persuasively that the collapse of the Russian Empire came because of the personalities, passions, and love between Tsar and Tsarina, compounded by their only son's hemophilia. His Peter the Great went back a few centuries and explored the life and impact of the man who dragged Russia kicking and screaming from the middle ages into the early modern era, although it ignores the shallow and military nature of Peter's reforms. Both are wonderful reads and both make a good case.

His later books have been less persuasive, largely because he has moved back to the twentieth century, continued to focus on the lives and personalities of national leaders, but has not integrated these lives and personalities into the larger trends of the day. His Dreadnaught is a wonderful set of portraits of Wilhelm II and the British royal family; it explores the Anglo-German naval race and the tensions that led to war; it fails to explain why the war happened and why it was fought as it was. The book informs without making a convincing argument, and so while it is wonderful fun to read it leaves the reader a little cranky. "Is this all?"

That lengthy introduction was necessary because Castles of Steel is the sequal to Dreadnaught and it shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor.

Massie's title suggests that it is a history of the Great War at Sea. But really, the bulk of the narrative and the bulk of the evidence is British; most of the rest is German; the Turks make a short cameo for the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. The narrative focuses on a few individuals who had the power to make crucial decisions. Admiral Jellico of the British Navy, commander of the Grand Fleet up at Scapa Flow, was the only man who really could lose the war in an afternoon. As a result he was cautious and capable. David Beatty, who had been a hard-charging admiral when he commanded the battle cruiser squadron, similarly got cautious when promoted to that spot. Similarly, Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to preserve his fleet. As a result, the great steel castles came out but rarely, fighting one major and a couple of minor clashes.

Massie's focus on these individuals means that the book is a study in top-level command and control in the early days of wireless. From that perspective, I found it fascinating that Massie condems Winston Churchill because of his inability to maintain a proper tempo of orders. He comes down even harder on David Beatty, who let the same flag officer garble crucial commands on THREE different occasions, and who himself had only a tenuous grasp on communications and coordination. Beatty, in many ways, was a throwback to the 17th-century admirals who simply hoisted "follow me" and steered for the heart of the enemy fleet.

Like Dreadnaught I finished the book having learned lots of little things and having had as enjoyable a read as one can have in a military history of the Great War -- Massie's description of the sinking of the Lusitania was meant to disconcert the reader, to help them conjure up the emotions that British and Americans felt when they read the gory details, and it worked. One of his little vignettes still bothers me. I will paraphrase it in the extended entry in the hopes that writing it out will exorcize it from my system.

And yet, I finished the book very pleased with Massie's description of the elephant's left foreleg and very cranky that while he had explained the leg's position with respect to the hindlegs (the Western Front) or even the right foreleg (the importance of Turkish involvement) he never did connect it to the body of the beast; domestic opinion appears only in the form of official German complaints about the privations and slow starvation created by the British blockade; sailors' lives appear only briefly in a discussion of Scapa Flow and Jellico's popularity among the men; civilians appear briefly in the newspapers and vanish; even the cabinet and Prime Minister and the German Chancellor appear in an administrative vacuum. This is an old and a common complaint about Massie, but it still applies.

Finally, Massie returns to one of his themes from Nicholas and Alexandra, contingent moments in the Great War. If the Russians had not plunged forward into Prussia in 1914, the Schleifflen plan might have worked although poor German command and control did more to slow their advance than did the missing troops diverted to fight the Russians. Massie, however, points out that most of Russia's pre-war trade went through Odessa and the Black Sea. If Turkey had remained neutral, then guns, supplies and advisors could have come from the Western Allies to the Tsar's under-equipped, poorly trained, but very brave army. Morale would have been stronger; Russia would not have suffered such terrible losses; the Russian economy would not have collapsed as badly; the Tsar might not have fallen.

And, Turkey entered the war because the German battle cruiser Goeben made it from the Western Mediterranean to Istanbul. The Goeben made it because Winston Churchill completely garbled his orders to the admirals on the spot -- he had wireless and thought this meant that he had tactical control, but all he did was issue three or four sets of mutual contradictory commands and muddle everything.

That is why I have such trouble reading the Great War, and why I can not let it go either. It is painful to read, a tale of mistakes and blood and death. And yet, those mistakes created the 20th century as we know it.

The Lusitania was a large, fast passenger liner. It and its two companion ships had been subsidized by the British government on the condition that they be built with mountings for deck guns and with a very high speed. Every nation had plans to take passenger liners into service as naval auxiliaries and use them as commerce raiders for they were far faster than most freighters, and the Lusitania and her sisters were intended to run down other armed liners just like battlecruisers were intended to run down and sink armored cruisers. The other two ships were armed and taken into service, the Lusitania was left to carry passengers and urgent war materials across the Atlantic.

She was sunk just off the coast of Ireland while carrying a lot of passengers, a full crew, and a cargo that included military explosives. The U-Boat who sank her correctly identified the ship but concluded that she was an armed liner serving as a troop transport, a legitimate military target.

After the torpedo struck, the crew responded without much worry for the ship had more than enough lifeboats. Alas, the ship listed so quickly that the boats could not be launched and almost everyone went into the bitterly cold sea.

During the early phase, the stewards in the nursery had tied the wicker infant baskets into life jackets for extra safety. After the ship went down, one of the surviving crew members recalled hearing the cries of the children as they floated nearby, alone in their baskets on the tossing sea. It was all he could do to remain afloat himself, and so he had to listen as the cries died down one by one as the baskets filled and sank. All 37 infants drowned, as did about a thousand adults.

The image of Moses baskets sinking in the Atlantic bothers me. Massie meant it to. The people who wrote the stories up for the contemporary newspapers meant it to. And that was one of the big factors convincing Woodrow Wilson that Germany was evil and that he should mount a moral crusade against war and especially against Germany. The 14 points and the bizarre failures of Versailles stem in part from a ship designed as an armed cruiser but not designed to preserve its crew after battle damage.

Posted by Red Ted at August 23, 2004 07:30 PM | TrackBack
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