There is a scene in Robert Massie’s Castles of Steel that is right out of a movie: The German High Seas Fleet is chasing British Admiral John Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Squadron across the North Sea. Beatty has already lost the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary (each with over 1,000 men) and now his four remaining battle cruisers are desperately heading north, away from the German ships and towards Britain and home. The German Fleet pursues Beatty’s battle cruisers into a large patch of thick mist, confident of victory. But as the Germans emerge from the fog, they “behold a terrible sight: the [British] Grand Fleet spread before them across the northern horizon. Twenty-four British dreadnought and a host of cruisers and destroyers…” Too late, the Germans realize: It’s a trap!
Some history books want to give the reader a sense of perspective: A view from 30,000 feet that shows the movement of great historical forces and explains why things happened as they did. Others just want to tell a good story. Fortunately, Castles of Steel is both.
From the beginning we are introduced to wonderful characters: John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, who had the most intense responsibility of the War but who never let the pressure affect his professionalism, his cool, or his self-control; John Beatty, dashing and brave, married to a demanding, American socialite, who lived in fear of being discovered as a fraud; and of course, the brilliant but reckless Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty was blamed for the fiasco at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, but who later resurrected his political image, partly by volunteering to fight on the Western Front.
Strong pacing drives the reader forward. The book starts in July 1914, just before the start of World War I (then only known as the Great War). A quick chapter sets up the scene: The British Grand Fleet ruled the high seas. With twenty-four dreadnoughts, enormous castles of steel, each the home of a thousand men, the British Fleet could blockade Germany and starve her war machine (as well as her people). But the German Kaiser, William II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, had built a fleet of his own: Seventeen dreadnoughts, each one equal (and in some cases superior) to the British designs. What would happen when the two greatest navies in the world collided?
The British Grand Fleet was blockading Germany, so logically you might expect the German Fleet to aggressively seek battles to break the blockade. At the same time, you might expect the British to attempt to avoid sea battle, since all they had to do was prevent merchant ships from reaching Germany. But the reality was different. The British Admirals (and the British public) expected much from their Fleet—everyone worshiped the heroic Admiral Nelson and his great victory at Trafalgar. Every man in the Fleet wanted to live up to that standard and fight and destroy the German Fleet. Conversely, the German High Seas Fleet was Kaiser William’s pride and joy. He did not want to risk it on a chancy battle against the British Fleet, the best fleet in the world. And so the German Fleet was ordered to stay in its harbor.
The German Admirals, however, were eager for battle, and they devised a simple plan: Send out a small, fast battle cruiser squadron (led by Admiral Hipper) to attack the English coast. When the British, eager to sink enemy ships, chased the German ships, lure the isolated British ships into a trap set by the entire High Seas Fleet (led by Admiral Scheer). In this way, the Germans planned to reduce the numerical superiority of the British fleet. Unfortunately for the Germans, by this time, the British code breakers in secretive Room 40 had already broken the German fleet codes and could tell (roughly) where and when German ships were going to move. And so the British devised their own trap: meet the German fleet with their own (larger) Grand Fleet.
The British traps almost worked. Many times they got advanced warning of the movement of Hipper’s squadron. In response, the British sent out a fast battle cruiser squadron (led by Admiral Beatty) to sink it. But a series of communications errors on the British side led Hipper to escape (if only they had cell phones!) Sometimes, Beatty’s bravery and brashness was overcome by the resulting chaos that he caused. Nevertheless, Hipper (incapable of believing that his codes had been broken) continued to sail out.
In the end, the final confrontation at Jutland happened by accident. Hipper sailed out as usual and was chased by Beatty. But through another series of communications errors, the British Grand Fleet (led by Admiral Jellicoe) was completely unaware that the entire German High Seas Fleet was also at sea, not very far from his position. As planned, Hipper led Beatty to the rest of the German High Seas Fleet, hoping to destroy Beatty and his ships. But when Beatty saw the German fleet, he knew that his own British fleet was not too far away. Putting his brashness in check, Beatty played the role of the coward and ran away from the Germans, knowing that he was leading them to their own destruction.
Both the British and the Germans suffered heavy losses at Jutland, but the German fleet was (amazingly) not destroyed. Knowing that the odds were against them, Admiral Scheer led his ships back to Germany under cover of night. The British, though victorious, blamed their own admirals for not annihilating the German fleet. To this day there are passionate debates about whether Admiral Jellicoe or Admiral Beatty screwed up at Jutland. Massie, though wielding the even-handed pen of a scholar, still seems to side with Jellicoe against Beatty. Perhaps he is right to.
For Germany, though High Seas Fleet survived, Jutland was a disaster. After Jutland, it was clear that the fleet could not break the British blockade. With no hope of defeating the British Grand Fleet, and with the ground war on the Western Front bringing only despair, Germany turned to the last weapon in its arsenal: The submarine.
From the British perspective, Britain’s blockade of Germany (which caused immense suffering and death to civilians) was a legal and accepted way of prosecuting the war. But Germany’s use of submarines to sink merchant ships without warning was considered barbaric (even if the merchant ships, like the Lusitania, carried weapons). The German people could not understand how the sudden death of a few hundred people on merchant ships could be against international law when the slow starvation of millions of German citizens was not. Nevertheless, Germany refrained from sinking neutral ships or British civilian ships, afraid that America would enter the war.
After Jutland, the submarine was all that Germany had left, and the Kaiser agreed to send them to sink any ship, military or civilian, bound for Britain and France. For a while, it almost worked: The U-boats sank 4 million tons of shipping in 1917, four times more than Britain was able to replace . Only six weeks’ supply of wheat remained in Britain and unless they could stop the U-boats, Germany would win the war.
Unfortunately for Germany, at that point in time, the United States finally did enter the war. President Wilson, who desperately wanted to keep the US out of the war, had received assurances that Germany would not sink neutral (i.e., American) ships. When the Germans broke their agreement, Wilson was incensed. To make matters worse, Americans learned that Germany had secretly proposed to help Mexico attack the US so that Mexico could reclaim territory in Texas. In Berlin, diplomats believed that, “America [would] do nothing, for President Wilson is for peace and nothing else.” They were wrong.
Reading Castles of Steel, or any book about the World Wars, makes me realize how different war was back then. The conflicts that have happened in my lifetime almost shouldn’t be called “war.” The two Gulf Wars, though devastating to Iraq, never had the potential to seriously harm the United States. Even the Vietnam War, which affected all Americans and still reverberates today, was grossly asymmetrical: The Americans were fighting to prevent Communism from spreading; the Vietcong were fighting for their nation and their lives.
But World War I was a Great Power war in which every country was fighting for its existence. The German Fleet bombarded little towns on the English seaside. The British blockade against Germany was so tight that milk was available to people over six only with a doctor’s prescription. And on the Western Front, the carnage was unimaginable. By the end of November 1914 (four months into the war), Britain and France had lost almost a million men.
This difference in scale, impossible for us to understand viscerally, probably explains why the leaders of the Britain, France, and Germany were so willing to sacrifice human life. When a battleship sank, killing a thousand men, people seemed to mourn the loss of the ship more than the men. Similarly, during Britain’s disastrous campaign to force a fleet through the Dardanelle straits to attack Turkey, Winston Churchill urged his admiral forward even at the cost of his men: “The results to be gained are, however, great enough to justify loss of ships and men if success cannot be obtained without.”
That’s what’s great about history. You learn how what happened in the past affects your life today. But you also learn to put things in perspective. The things that we worry about now, others have worried about before. And the things that we most fear today, others have survived and withstood. Perhaps that’s another reason why Castles of Steel would make a great movie today.