One of Robert Massie’s books concludes with the line “When the last stroke fell, Great Britain was at war with Germany.”
Another one of his books ends with the sentence “The Great War was over.”
What lies between these two lines is an unparalleled work (more than 800 pages long) of history about the war at sea between Britain and Germany in the Great War. That book is [b:Castles of Steel|209881|Castles of Steel|Robert K. Massie|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1172707687s/209881.jpg|203146].
“Castles of Steel” is the sequel to Robert Massie’s 1000 page mammoth [b:Dreadnought|209889|Dreadnought|Robert K. Massie|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320477300s/209889.jpg|1415747] which chronicles the national rivalries (between Britain and Germany) that led to the first great arms race and eventually to the First World War. “Dreadnought” ends with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.
I started with “Dreadnought” and when I was about 100 pages in; I stopped and started reading “Castles of Steel” instead. Don’t get me wrong, “Dreadnought” is not bad. In fact, it’s a great work; and its greatness is what led me to stop reading it and start “Castles of Steel”. I just couldn’t stop myself.
But that’s one of the many benefits of reading history. You can either read it in chronological order, or if you want, you can read it in any damn order you like. Sure, reading in chronological order helps to understand the events more clearly, but even cursory knowledge of previous events would be enough to take you through the rest. That’s why I decided to read “Castles of Steel” before “Dreadnought”.
At the start of The Great War, fleet strategies still revolved around the three “Mahanian dogmas” - the cult of the big gun battleship, the iron rule of concentration, and the annihilation of the enemy fleet in a single decisive battle. It was put forth by [a:Alfred Thayer Mahan|4090051|Alfred Thayer Mahan|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1327933038p2/4090051.jpg], the American naval officer–turned–historian in his first major work, [b:The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1805|117154|The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1805|Alfred Thayer Mahan|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|1095220] which was published in 1890-1892.
In addition to this, the British public was still infatuated with the dream that the feat of Admiral Lord Nelson and his heroic victory in the Battle of Trafalgar would be repeated, where the British sunk 22 French and Spanish ships without losing a single battleship. The press and public alike were waiting for their next Trafalgar in The Great War. But it never came. The technology had improved leaps and bounds since that legendary battle and had changed all the rules of engagement. The transition from old tactics to the newer ones was gradual, which did come eventually, but not even at the end of The Great War. (Only with the sinking of “Repulse” and “Prince of Wales” in World War-II by Japanese airplanes, the era of battleship came to an end.)
The German navy began the war with three principal codes. The decisive advantage that the British had over their German counterparts was that that they were in possession of all three within four months of the war. By the end of the war, Room 40 (code-breaking unit) at the British Admiralty had eventually decoded 20,000 German naval wireless messages.
Without breaking the German codes, the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland would not have been fought. Nor, later, would the U-boats have been defeated as the British had no other way of knowing to be at the right place at the right time. Curiously enough, the Germans never doubted that their codes were compromised even though the ships of British Grand Fleet suspiciously arrived every time with greater forces whenever the ships of German High Seas Fleet went on a raiding mission.
Massie does a great job of describing all the major players of the war and among those, he does not spare Winston Churchill (who was First Lord of the British Navy in World War-I for some time) whom he describes as overzealous and often arrogant and who did not have the first-hand knowledge of naval tactics (as he was a politician, not a seaman) compared to the likes of Lord Fischer, Jellicoe and Beatty but who repeatedly put forth his own battle plans and tactics for the Grand Fleet, which often wrought disastrous results.
Churchill confiscated two Turkish battleships (which were being constructed in Britain for Turkey at the start of the war) by saying, “We could not afford to do without these two fine ships.” But when the Turkish acquired the German battle cruiser ‘Goeben’ which found a safe haven in Turkish waters while being chased by the British ships through the Mediterranean Sea, Churchill rumbled that Turkey’s behavior in the acquisition of the ‘Goeben’ (and ‘Breslau’) was “insolent,” “defiant,” and “openly fraudulent.”
Churchill’s war as The First Lord came to an end with the debacle at Dardanelles where he proposed to destroy the Turkish shore guns with the British fleet. Effective shore bombardment from the ships was considered impossible at that time. And with good reasons. The gunners of the ship could not correct their aim while firing on land for the lack of water spray which sprouts whenever a shell hits the sea water which could be used as a reference point.
So, even though Fischer opposed the attack on Dardanelles, it was proposed to land an army on Gallipoli. Hence, the front was stalemated yet again in a trench war. The Allies could not seize the ridges; the Turks could not hurl their enemies back into the sea; and the killing ground of the Western Front was reproduced at Gallipoli. The offensive eventually ended, along with Churchill’s and Fisher’s posts.
While Massie makes fun of Churchill, he praises Jellicoe as a consummate professional, calm, deliberate, and meticulous, with a thorough mastery of his ships and guns, acquired over a long career afloat and ashore.
On the other hand, Massie describes Beatty as brave, but high-strung and impatient for action. Beatty’s career had advanced in fits and starts. Brilliant performance under fire had led to rapid promotions, leapfrogging him over his contemporaries—but then he had held himself back by his own unorthodox and arrogant behavior. Moreover, Beatty had a troubled married life and also an extra marital affair, some details of which Massie describes shamelessly.
While his extra marital affair was in full swing, Beatty wrote and send some poetry to his lover, which Massie did not fail (with some glee, I suppose) to include in his book. Here’s to you and here’s to Blighty,
I’m in pajamas, you in a nighty,
If we are feeling extra flighty,
Why in pajamas and Why the nighty?
Well, whether Beatty was the hero of Jutland or not is still debatable (Massie thinks he was not); everyone could agree that he was no poet.
The Great War was peculiar in many ways. New technology was often ridiculed. But nothing seemed more contemptible and hilarious to the oldies of Royal Navy than the submarines.
Submarines were still referred as “playthings” at the start of The Great War and some considered it “ungentlemanly” to sink a ship with a submarine as it remained hidden until the very last moment (The submarines in World War-I had to resurface in order to fire their torpedoes).
No one at the start took submarines seriously. Some of the “tactics” (I am not going to call it ASW) that Royal Navy strategists came up with to “fight” German submarines were extremely ridiculous. Tactic 1: A few motor launches carried two swimmers, one armed with a black bag, the other with a hammer. If a periscope was sighted, the launch was to come as close as possible. The swimmers were to dive in and one man would attempt to place his black bag over the periscope; if he failed, the other would try to smash the glass with his hammer.
Tactic 2: Attempting to teach seagulls to defecate on periscopes.
My only gripe with this book is that Massie failed to mention the name of the genius who came up with the idea of teaching seagulls to defecate on periscopes.
But ridiculed as they were, U-boats did have a major impact on the war. During fifty-one months of war, German submarines sunk a total of 5,282 British, Allied, and neutral merchant ships totaling 11,153,000 tons at the cost of 178 U-boats and 511 officers and 4,576 men. Three hundred and ninety-two submarines had been built before and during the war; therefore, the loss rate was almost 50 percent. At the time of the armistice, the German navy still possessed 194 U-boats, with a further 149 under construction.
The surface boats never had such an impact on the war, although one early major victory for the British came at the Battle of the Falkland Islands where they sunk all the German ships. But that feat was never repeated.
But as this was the first war after major technological innovations, there were numerous accounts of “firsts” which might seem routine and boring to us today.
For example, The Cuxhaven Raid was history’s first aircraft-carrier-based air strike. It was also the first naval battle in which, on both sides, the striking forces were made up exclusively of aerial machines.
In Cuxhaven Raid, 150 British warships were to be employed to deliver to the German mainland exactly 81.50 pounds (weight, not the currency) of explosives. This was the combined weight of the bursting charges in the 27 bombs to be carried by the seaplanes.
As expected, hilarity ensued. Almost simultaneously, ten miles nearer the coast, another seaplane had landed alongside the destroyer Lurcher, from which Keyes was supervising his submarines. The pilot taxied up to the destroyer, shouted that he had only five minutes’ worth of fuel remaining, and asked the direction to the carriers. Realizing that the rendezvous was too far off, Keyes invited the pilot to come on board and took the seaplane in tow.
Here’s another one.Casting off the towline, he maneuvered so close to one of the newly arrived seaplanes that the pilot and observer were able to step directly onto the submarine’s deck; he told the two airmen in the other plane to swim to his boat.
Yes, you read that right. They actually stepped off an airplane directly onto a submarine, without even wetting their shoes. The other two were wussies, they had to swim for it.
One of the other major naval engagements of the Great War was the Battle of Dogger Bank. But as Room 40 already had the codes, the British knew Admiral Hipper was coming even before his ships left harbor. The result was that as Hipper’s ships departed, British warships were weighing anchor and heading for the Dogger Bank. Germany lost her battle cruiser ‘Blücher’ while the rest made it to port with more or less damage.
Although all these flavorless poking battles were followed enthusiastically by the people in both countries, the British were still waiting for their Nelson, whether he arrived in the form of Jellicoe or Beatty. On 31st May 1916, it seemed that the British’s Trafalgar had finally arrived at Jutland.
150 British ships were pitted against 99 of the Germans. Once again, Room 40 made it possible.
After much poking and thrusting, Britain lost 14 ships (3 battle cruisers, 3 armored cruisers, and 8 destroyers), while the German navy lost 11 (1 battle cruiser, 1 predreadnought battleship, 4 light cruisers, and 5 destroyers). British casualties were much heavier: 6,768 men were killed or wounded, while the Imperial Navy lost 3,058.
Battleships lost on either side: 0.
But the fact remained that the superior British fleet still ruled the North Sea and that was enough to cripple Germany’s international trade in the Great War.
So, although one can surmise from the figures that the Germans had an upper hand at Jutland, the status quo remained unchanged.
It was put aptly by a New York City newspaper: “The German fleet has assaulted its jailor, but it is still in jail.”
Finally the Great War ended, leaving the British relieved, the Germans chagrined but content, and the French furious.
The Germans scuttled their fleet at Scapa Flow so as not to let the victors enjoy their spoils of victory. The British were relieved as they didn't need any additional firepower and at last the second best navy in the world was totally destroyed. The Germans were content as they denied the victors their spoils. The French, on the other hand, were furious, as they were eagerly waiting to seize some excellent German ships for their own navy, but the scuttling spoiled their plans. No wonder the Versailles treaty came into being.