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Engines of Destruction

1.

In these days when the American colossus grapples with scarcely visible assailants, many people feel nostalgia for the days of symmetric warfare: when two sides were more or less evenly matched and, after a good, clean fight, the best man won. That is certainly one possible inference to be drawn from the popularity of the swashbuckling historical novels of Patrick O’Brian. The gentlemanly wars waged by the navies of the European great powers seem like the antithesis of today’s ugly, asymmetric “war against terror.”

Today’s foe has woven himself into urban life, only to be revealed as a foe when he or his apparently harmless van explodes. The foe of the old wars at sea was elusive in a quite different sense—because of the vast emptiness of the ocean. Once spied on the horizon, however, he was not likely to be confused with innocent bystanders. At sea, the only collateral damage is to fish.

Today’s war has arisen from the very opposite of an arms race. Terrorists have found that primitive tactics like suicide bombing are the only way of hurting a power whose technological dominance of the battlefield simply cannot be matched. In the old days, by contrast, Britain’s naval lead, though substantial, was never out of sight. It was a perfectly reasonable strategy to try to build better, if not more, battleships than the British.

Robert K. Massie does not attempt to conceal his fondness for the good old days of sea power. Castles of Steel is the sequel to his Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, which took the story of the naval arms race between the two rival empires from its beginning in the late 1890s to the eve of war in 1914. Now, with the same literary flair, Massie describes what happened when the two great battle fleets at last confronted each other. He does so in a manner Patrick O’Brian fans will surely enjoy. The flap of canvas may have been replaced by the thunder of coal-powered turbines, the creak of wood by the screech of steel, and the crash of cannons by the deafening blast of high-explosive shells, but the essence of naval war seems little changed from the days of Horatio Hornblower. Engagements between the rival fleets are infrequent but spectacular. Much hinges on the ability of the rival commanders to locate and outmaneuver each other. Ultimate success depends on a combination of nauti-cal skill and what used to be called derring-do.

The latter is in especially plentiful supply in Castles of Steel. Captains refuse offers of rescue, preferring to go down with their ships. Entire crews disappear beneath the waves singing their national anthem. Men read Kipling’s “If” on the eve of battle. Captured officers dine with their captors.1 We are all familiar with the rude disenchantment that superseded such modes of behavior in the trenches. According to Massie, it was a very different story—indeed, a familiar old story—on the ocean wave. Disenchantment only afflicted one side, and then only at the bitter end.

2.

The subtitle of Castles of Steel—“Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”—is in fact ambiguous. Does Massie mean to suggest that the war was won at sea? Or does he merely intend to tell us how the war at sea was won? It is not entirely clear, though I think he inclines toward the former.

The case for the primacy of the sea war cannot be dismissed out of hand. It goes something like this. The war began precisely because the Germans challenged Britain’s naval supremacy.2 After it started it seemed possible that it might end with a decisive naval encounter. In Churchill’s famous phrase, the First Sea Lord Admiral John Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Jellicoe was too good an admiral to do that, though he was not quite good enough to win it in an afternoon either. But not losing was enough, since time was on the side of Britain, its empire, and its allies. They had the greater resources and were therefore better able to withstand that disruption of trade which became the secondary goal of the naval war after the primary goal of a decisive engagement proved unattainable. In desperation, the Germans resorted to sinking merchant vessels without warning (unrestricted submarine warfare, as it was known) but this merely helped to bring the United States into the war, making German defeat more certain. By 1918 the German navy, trapped in its docks, was as demoralized by four years of privation as German society as a whole. Having begun the war by coming into existence, the same navy ended the war by disintegrating when the sailors at Kiel launched the November revolution.

That, at any event, is what I take to be the argument of Castles of Steel when all the loving descriptions of climate, character, and combat are stripped away. I am not persuaded, however, that this argument is quite right.

For one thing, it is quite misleading to portray the war as the result of the Anglo-German naval arms race. Most contemporaries regarded that race as having been decided, in Britain’s favor, by 1912. What started in 1914 was a land war over the future of Eastern Europe between Germany and Austria-Hungary, on one side, and Russia on the other. France was bound to join in by its alliance with Russia; Britain chose to join in to prevent the defeat of France, though it was the German violation of Belgian neutrality that furnished the technical casus belli. The German generals who pressed for a preemptive war in 1914 were in no way deterred by Britain’s naval superiority. They considered it more or less irrelevant.

Once the war had begun, how important were the navies? Possibly, if he had been quite spectacularly inept, Jellicoe could have lost the war in an afternoon. But what is inescapably clear is that the Royal Navy could not have won the war in an afternoon, a week, a month, or even a year: the attempt to bombard and capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to gain control of the Dardanelles Straits was a dismal failure. “No human power could withstand such an array of might and power,” thought the expeditionary force’s commander as he headed toward the straits. He was wrong: Turkish guns and mines did it easily.

Moreover, Massie seems quite unaware of a number of important works that cast doubt on the importance of the Allied blockade of Germany in determining the outcome of the war. In The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation, Avner Offer showed that the wartime privation caused by the disruption of imports into Germany only really affected the health of marginal social groups (like the inmates of lunatic asylums and orphanages). For most Germans, the “hunger blockade” was more like a crash diet. Moreover, the food supply was improving during 1918; if food shortages had been the prime determinant of German morale, it would have collapsed earlier, in the notorious “turnip winter” of 1916–1917. Finally, we should remember the precise chronology of the German collapse. The naval mutiny at Kiel came three months after the decisive Allied victories on the Western Front. It was a symptom of German defeat in the land war, not a cause.

The most that can be said is that British naval superiority significantly reduced the likelihood of a German victory. But had the German offensives of the spring of 1918 caused a collapse of Allied morale along the Western Front, the war would have been over and the Royal Navy could have done little to keep it going. By the same token, even if the Germans had inflicted twice the damage that they did during the great North Sea showdown at Jutland, their armies would still have had to break through on the Western Front to secure victory.

One simple way to quantify the relative importance of the war on land and on sea is simply to consider the mobilization and casualty figures. In the British case, just over six million men enlisted or were conscripted during the war. Of these, 5.2 million (85 percent) served in the army, compared with 640,237 in the navy. In addition, the mortality rate in the army was roughly twice as high. That is not conclusive, of course, but it is certainly suggestive.

3.

Any portrayal of the war at sea that lays stress on the chivalrous values of the officer class risks understating the modern reality of this conflict. Naval officers may have talked the old heroic talk, but when they walked the walk on the deck of a dreadnought it was as technocrats in command of state-of-the-art killing machines, capable of hurling high-explosive shells up to 20,000 yards while traveling at over 26 miles an hour. The principal reason the Germans performed as well as they did, despite the numerical inferiority of their fleet, was that their gunnery was more accurate and their ships (thanks to thicker armor and watertight compartments) harder to sink. Both advantages reflected superior German engineering and pre-war training.

The British, by contrast, had too many incompetent officers (for instance, the disastrous flag lieutenant Ralph Seymour, who repeatedly garbled vital signals, or Captain Thomas Jackson, director of the Operations Division of the Admiralty, who specialized in misreading or ignoring crucial intelligence). In an earlier, tougher era of British naval discipline, duds like these would not have gone unpunished.

Yet in the final analysis it was the British, not the Germans, who grasped the essentials of modern naval warfare. Significantly, the first British naval action of the war—on August 5, 1914—was undertaken by the cable ship Teleconia; it very deliberately sliced through all of Germany’s international telegraph cables, which ran along the ocean floor to France, Spain, North Africa, and the United States. The British understood better than German military planners what a “world war” meant. Among other things, it meant cutting the enemy off from the global economy. As the Teleconia‘s mission suggests, the British also understood better than the Germans the importance of communications. The German navy began the war with three main codes. By the end of 1914 the British had cracked all three and were able, undetected, to read German radio signals throughout the war.

Above all, the British saw more clearly than the Germans the need to win the battle for what we would now call “world opinion.” To make the maritime blockade of Germany effective the British had to ignore international agreements, like the Declaration of London of 1908, which set out clear rules governing the treatment of neutral shipping in wartime, but which the House of Lords had wisely refused to ratify. Nor was the ruthless way the Royal Navy harassed neutral ships believed to be trading with Germany calculated to win friends abroad. Nevertheless, the British were adept at diverting attention to German misbehavior. For their part, the Germans failed to see that when they shelled British ports or sank merchant vessels without warning they were doing as much damage to themselves as to their enemies. The British and American press liked nothing better than tales of women and children blown to pieces or drowned by German Schrecklichkeit.

As the former German colonial secretary Bernhard Dernburg put it shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine:

The American people cannot visualize the spectacle of a hundred thousand…German children starving by slow degrees as a result of the British blockade, but they can visualize the pitiful face of a little child drowning amidst the wreckage caused by a German torpedo.

Just why 128 Americans should have felt entitled to cross the Atlantic with impunity on a British ship in the middle of a world war was never entirely clear. But instead of emphasizing this, the Germans struck commemorative medals to celebrate the Lusitania‘s fate—medals that were promptly seized upon and reproduced in London as examples of German viciousness.

Globalization, electronic communications, international law, and “soft power”: these are scarcely antiquated themes. On the contrary, their importance in the First World War illustrates well why most historians regard 1914 as ushering in a new historical age. To be sure, many of the individual participants continued to use the time-honored terminology of the European warrior class. Yet the resemblances between what they were doing and what had been done by their predecessors were superficial.

Castles of Steel will give pleasure to many readers. The lead characters are as strong as any historian could wish for—the mercurial Churchill, the explosive first lord of the admiralty “Jacky” Fisher, and the noble, self-effacing, but badly maligned John Jellicoe. The minor characters are skillfully brought to life. The battles are vividly described.

However, no one familiar with the subject should pick up this book expecting to learn much that is new. The author has read widely in the English- language literature but there are only seven German texts in his bibliography. To judge by the endnotes, very little of his research has been based on primary sources.

A more serious criticism is that, by relying so heavily on the memoirs of British statesmen and senior naval officers, Massie has made their world view his own, failing to understand that all their talk of “gallantry” and “dash,” like their recurrent dream of a “second Trafalgar,” was designed to gloss over the terrible modern power of twentieth-century sea war. Perhaps a little more reading of the letters and diaries of ordinary sailors, all too few of whom are quoted, might have provided a necessary corrective. Rather than “castles of steel,” the dreadnoughts were—as their sweltering stokers knew better than any officer—nothing more and nothing less than industrial engines of destruction.

  1. 1

    Commander Hans Pochhammer of the Gneisenau found himself sitting next to the British admiral Frederick Sturdee after the Battle of the Falkland Islands, simultaneously a prisoner of war and the guest of honor.

  2. 2

    In Massie’s words, “…the rise of the new navy…pushed Great Britain into the camp of Germany’s antagonists.”

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