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Book Review: Castles of Steel
Posted by: Dale Franks on Monday, September 11, 2006

Very little attention is given, nowadays to the Great War of 1914-1918. Indeed, in the last forty years, only two truly significant books about World War I have been written: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, and John Keegan's The First World War. Tuchman provides almost a minute-to-minute account of how the war started, and the first campaigns of August, 1914, while Keegan provides an unsurpassed general history of the war.

Now, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie joins their ranks with Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. The Great War was primarily a land war, so most of the conventional histories of the war concentrate on the familiar names like The Marne, Paschendaele, and The Somme.

Massey, however, tells the tale of the naval war—a war which spanned the globe—about which relatively little has been written. He chronicles the rise of the submarine from an untrustworthy little coastal vessel to a long-range weapon of devastating effect. He recounts how poorly prepared the British Admiralty was to fight a war for which they had been preparing for decades. He tells the story of a German government, so used to exercising power on land, yet, for the most part, fearful of doing so at sea. Indeed, he recounts how both the German and British navies, being afraid to take risks, declined opportunities for decisive conflict.

But more than a story of navies, it is the personal stories of the men who led them. Te lives of men who are hardly remembered any more—Jellicoe and Beatty, von Spee and Prince Louis of Battenberg—are recounted in mini-biographies that gives us essential glimpses of their characters, rather than a list of their accomplishments.

Castles of Steel provides us with a window into the Victorian world which these men inhabited, and which the war they fought destroyed. In many ways, those men stood on the cusp of two worlds, not fully men of the past, yet not fully men of the modern world.

As such, Castles of Steel is both a book about the death of the old order, and the birth of the modern world. Any serious student of military history should be sure to read it.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Quite a good book. Neat discussion of technical hubris, the Brit’s ahd trouble believing thattheir ships were inferior to the Germans, even if they were. Somewhat scathing of Churchill, an interesting take considering the Post-World War II hagiography of the man.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
A very good book. Massie also wrote Dreadnought which chronicles the run-up to WWI through the context of the German-English naval rivalry. While either book can stand on its own, I recommend reading both together.
Written By: Mike
URL: http://
I’m surprised you left The Pity of War: Explaining World War One by Niall Ferguson off the list of significant book about the war. While not completely satisfactory, it certainly offers a different look at the war.
Written By: Kevin Murphy
This is also a good book.
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
I haven’t read it but for an interesting take I’m contemplating:
German Army on the Somme, 1914-1916
Jack Sheldon
Usually the Somme is written from the Anglo perspective and it’s always a COMPLETE DISASTER. This is going to look at the German side and how bad the battle was for THEM. Could be a nice balance.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
If it’s the Somme you are interested in, try this. While it is mainly from the British viewpoint, the author also interviewed soldiers from the German side.
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://

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