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Guts and glory on the high seas

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea; Robert K. Massie; Random House: 880 pp., $35

November 16, 2003|Paul Kennedy | Paul Kennedy is the Dilworth professor of history and director of international security studies at Yale University. He is the author-editor of numerous books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," and is preparing a new edition of his 1976 book, "The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery."

Robert K. MASSIE is a nonfiction writer of a rare and perhaps vanishing sort. He is an independent author; that is, he pays his way in the world by his scribblings, and he lacks the institutional and financial protection that is afforded to university professors of history, such as Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Linda Colley, Jonathan Spence and, I admit it ... myself. All of us write works of history, and for a large and general readership, but we also have the security of an established university chair.

Massie has to fly -- or, rather, write -- by the seat of his pants. Fifty years ago, there existed many an author of historical works who lived that lonely sort of independent existence. (Think of Barbara Tuchman, C.V. Wedgewood or A.J.P. Taylor.) Now there are few.

This means -- and I am guessing here -- that Massie has had to choose his book topics carefully, balancing his passionate interest in details of the past (personal, cultural, anecdotal) with the need to draw out the reader's empathy and distill complex events for a general readership. This implies, too, a commitment to craftsmanship, the creation of historical atmospherics and the vivid description of characters and events. In all of this, Massie is a master storyteller, and "Castles of Steel" is no exception.

Massie's first works were about Russia, which he and his wife, Suzanne, visited so often and loved so well -- not Brezhnev's decrepit USSR but the Russia of churches and art, rivers and lakes, language and music. And of so much history. His bestselling work, "Nicholas and Alexandra," was followed by his fine, lively biography of Peter the Great and by a more general work on the Romanovs.

He and his wife described their explorations of Russian history and culture in a book simply called "Journey." While he established himself as the best-known non-academic chronicler of Russia, she was consulted during the 1980s by an admiring Ronald Reagan in his search to understand "how the Russians think."

But Massie felt the constant tug of his days as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he studied in depth the gripping and tragic story of the coming of World War I -- a conflict that destroyed not only the Romanov dynasty but much else besides. Believing that it was pre-1914 Anglo-German antagonism in particular that turned that struggle from being a European one into an epic, grinding, worldwide conflict, Massie spent years in the 1980s researching and writing his next book, "Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War."

This 1,000-page blockbuster tells the story of how Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany and King Edward VII's Britain fell into an ever-escalating race to build battleships that would give the winner control of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a sprawling but compelling narrative that places the Anglo-German naval competition in its geographical and technological settings (the coming of the all-big-gun battleship; the invention of mines, torpedoes, aircraft and submarines; the effect of the cable and wireless). But it also introduces the reader to those larger-than-life characters: the two monarchs, the young Winston Churchill, the irrepressible Adm. John "Jackie" Fisher, the saturnine, fork-bearded German Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz. The story ends as the "long nineteenth century" peace turns into war in August 1914, and two great fleets go to battle stations.

Twelve years after that publication, Massie resumes his tale in "Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea." This work has, unsurprisingly, many of the same characteristics that distinguished its predecessor: There is the sheer volume of detail, tempered by his fine prose and clever syntax; the sparse scholarly apparatus (my one big complaint is that it is difficult to check on the erudite references, as it was with "Dreadnought"); and the clever, Hornblower-like depiction of how a battle fleet action unfolds. It has, readers might note, little or nothing of the larger economic or domestic-political aspects of World War I, of "history from below," of the greater alliance diplomacy. It is a grand maritime narrative, and one has to accept it as such.

As you read Massie's account, early in World War I, of the Battle of the Falkland Islands -- in which a previously successful German squadron is battered to death by a faster, heavier British battle force -- you have the sense of how human beings encountered the sheer explosive power of modern weapons in the early 20th century.

Massie covers all the surface actions of World War I in true fashion, and from a very British viewpoint: early negligence, victory in the Falklands, the Battle of the Dogger Bank, the German bombardment of Scarborough Head, the Dardanelles operation, Jutland, Atlantic convoys and the last few surface operations. It is all very regular and correct.

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