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Men of war

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

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, By Robert K. Massie, Random House, 865 pp., illustrated, $35

One hundred and thirteen years ago Boston publishing house Little, Brown produced a book that would change the course of history. US Navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History" argued that success in war and economic prosperity were directly related to command of the sea. He also predicted that an Atlantic partnership between the United States and Great Britain would make the world safe for the democratic and commercial values that linked the two nations. Mahan's book helped persuade a reluctant government to plan a battleship navy, and an equally dubious Congress to vote the funds. Outside the United States no one read Mahan's book with more enthusiasm than German kaiser Wilhelm II and his Navy secretary, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Wilhelm wanted a great fleet to go with his outrageous collection of uniforms; he did not want to fight a war. But when Germany began the First World War the fate of the world would be determined by the ability of his fleet to challenge British command of the seas. Once the initial German attack on France had been stopped, victory would go to the side with access to the greatest resources, resources that came by sea.

In "Castles of Steel" Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Massie follows "Dreadnought," his study of the pre-1914 Anglo-German naval race with a full-blooded, elegantly written, and engaging account of the fighting at sea between 1914 and 1918. This is the theater of the great, be they battleships, warriors, or statesmen, and the scale of the book allows them ample opportunity to develop. Titanic characters stride across the page, Winston Churchill, in his troubled apprenticeship as a statesman, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Grand Admiral Tirpitz, Lord John Fisher, John Jellicoe, David Beatty, and everywhere the ghost of Nelson.

This is mainstream history at its best. Exploiting the latest research, Massie demolishes a number of myths, and uses a rich harvest of eyewitness accounts to bring both war and warriors to life. His effortlessly readable narrative brings us closer to the human face of battle than we have any right to expect. Noise and smoke, majesty and horror fill pages that pass at 30 knots. Then, when the shooting stops, he stands back to view the consequences.

Massie focuses on the critical contest between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet for command of the sea. In the first two years of the war, the Royal Navy had to shake off the sloth of a century without a major war. Like armor-plated Rip van Winkles, the heirs of Nelson found their initial efforts arthritic and awkward. As its political head Churchill thought the Royal Navy could do anything, but the failure of his attack on Turkey in 1915 led to his dismissal. The genius that would flower in the Second World War was as yet too hasty, and too arrogant for practical service. But the underlying power of the Royal Navy would transcend such setbacks.

For all the drama of Jutland and the Dardanelles the decisive blows in the war at sea were struck on the very first day. The British cut Germany's telegraph cables to the outside world, leaving her overseas colonies and cruisers to be picked off one by one. Berlin also lost the propaganda battle for American opinion. This was the first war in which radio transmissions were used for key communications. Within weeks the British had obtained the main German naval codes, and radio-tracking and code-breaking systems enabled them to anticipate every German move.

After two years of inconclusive war, which the kaiser's ships spent in harbor, the two battlefleets met, by accident off the Danish coast late on the afternoon of May 31, 1916. Ten hours later the Battle of Jutland was over, 9,000 men were dead and 20 warships sunk. But nothing had changed. Britain maintained command of the sea; her blockade still deprived Germany of food and raw materials.

German U-boat attacks on merchant shipping proved elusive and damaging, but they served only to highlight German desperation. The Germans deliberately broke existing international law governing war at sea. Twice US protests forced them to back down, but in early 1917 the German High Command adopted unrestricted submarine warfare as a desperate gamble, hoping to win the war in six months, before the United States could send any troops to fight in France. Like every other strategic alternative to command of the sea, it failed. British warships convoyed vital merchant ships to thwart the U-boats, and the US Navy crossed the Atlantic to serve under British command. The German threat to the Atlantic sea lanes had brought Mahan's vision of the future into being.

As the war ended the High Seas Fleet, the cause of so much trouble, refused to go out and fight. The sailors mutinied, sparking a revolution that brought down the kaiser. Interned by the British, the fleet was scuttled in a final act of Wagnerian fatalism. Ultimately this is the story of the triumph of ideas and values. In proclaiming that the future lay with command of the sea and liberal democracy Mahan had been right. As he went into exile, the kaiser must have wondered if Mahan's meaning had not been lost in translation.

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