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on 4 December 2011
This is an exhaustive study - it is also an exhausting one. But bear with the near 800 pages, because you will be richly rewarded and put down the book afterwards with the feeling that you yourself were involved in this chapter of the First World War. In itself, this is a true measure of a first rate writer's skill; Robert Massie again shows he is unquestionably that. He provides some astonishing revelations regarding the workings of the British and German Admiralties and very interesting explanations about the U-boat threat; how the `moving square' for convoys defrayed that threat; the real reason Americans joined the war (very late) and why the German naval forces came so close to mutiny in the closing months of 1918. Key dramatis personae such a Fisher, Beatty, Jellicoe, Hipper, Scheer and Ludendorff are less fully drawn than those Massie so comprehensively describes in his Dreadnought, which is perhaps a shame. However, one does get a workable indication of the personalities - Lloyd-George comes out as a petulant, unpleasant, `Welsh Windbag' of a man and Beatty seems a duplicitous fair weather friend. But Jellicoe is undoubtedly the true and modest hero whose grasp and retention, against all arguments, of the Grand Strategy is the true measure of the man who won the war at sea. That he was so shabbily treated at the closing stages does some of his colleagues plus British government generally, and Lloyd-George in particular, no credit whatsoever. The battles are describe in immense detail, almost as blow-by-blow accounts - they would become boring without Massie's skill in setting the stage and progress of the engagements, coupled with his insights and descriptive power regarding, for example, the comparative advantages of ballistics and armour, the horrifying injuries and the huge dedication of all involved at the face of battle. All in all, Castles of Steel serves to underline how shockingly awful this war was, and why, with the entrenched prejudices of the time, it couldn't possibly have been avoided by Britain if Europe, and she herself, were not to be smothered by Germany's autocracy.
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on 6 November 2008
A magnificent book that should be read inconjunction with Dreadnought (the prequel to this tome).

Personally I preferred this book over Dreadnought as this focuses more on the personalities, 'action' and battles of the World War I rather than the politics that comprise the majority of Dreadnought, I thought this was the slightly easier read of the two. Reading some other reviews it seems that the preference between the books depends on which one you read first.

Overall a highly recommended read.

The best book on the subject by a (nautical) mile.
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on 16 August 2004
I have been a fan of Massie since reading his superb book 'Dreadnought'. I bought his latest book as soon as I saw it was available. It is very informative about sea warfare during WW1, without getting bogged down in detail. No doubt fine detail may be necessary if the subject is being studied for an exam, but not for those of us who simply wish to enjoy our historical reading.
I found it particularly interesting to discover the extent of the role of submarines during WW1.
Whilst perhaps not quite up to the superb standard set by 'Dreadnought' (hence 4* instead of 5), I am sure it will not disappoint.
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on 23 February 2005
Having read Robert Massie's earlier book Dreadnought, which I enjoyed so much I read it twice, I waited impatiently for this promised sequel, and I was not disappointed. Some books you hope will never end and this is one of them. There is not a dull page in the book. Massie brings characters alive with amusing anecdotes. You have probably read other accounts of the WW1 sea battles but they are dry by comparison. His cannot be equalled for well-paced storytelling, scholarly research and balanced judgments. He uses official and unofficial publications and diaries from both the British and German sides to describe the dilemmas the opposing commanders and politicians faced and why they acted as they did, situating each battle in its strategic context. I cannot recommend this book too highly.
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on 24 July 2007
To get the best out of Castles of Steel, it would be helpful to read Masssie's previous work Dreadnought, which charts the coming of the great war.

Castles of Steel is an impressive - and large - work, and offers the reader both the nuts and bolts of the naval battles and campaigns of the First World War, and a very strong insight into the political machinations that directed them. Massie's gift is that he can both narrate naval conflicts in gripping terms (and the complexity of Jutland tests any skills of narration), offer convincing analysis of both strategies and tactics, and simultaneously privide fascinating insight into the figures such as Churchill, Beatty, Jellicoe, Hipper, Scheer and the Kaiser - to name but a few of a very large cast. Few come out with much credit; the egotism and impulsiveness of Churchill and Beatty are there for all to see. Like Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, whose Jutland 1916 is strongly recommended as the next read for anyone hooked on the subject, Massie does vindicate the much maligned Jellicoe.

A couple of very minor niggles; the paperback edition is by no means full of illustrations. A few more, illustrating the differences between armoured cruisers, battlecruisers and battleships, given this is a time of unparalleled rapidity in warship evolution, would be very helpful. Whilst Castles of Steel has end-notes and a full bibliography, these are not referenced into the text, forcing the readers to break off and flick to the back, should they wish to investigate the source of a quote. As far as Massie's narrative is concerned, I have only one issue. The British blockade of Germany, which resulted in the deaths of 750,000 civilians, is often noted, but Massie does not investigate this critical aspect of the war, tending to stay within the military and political domains rather than pondering this significant pointer towards 'total warfare.' These are, however, minor niggles which should not detract from a significant work; I have read many books on naval history over the years, and without doubt this is one of the best. Highly recommended.
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on 27 December 2003
A marvellous evocation of the Great War at sea. Mr. Massie paints a breathtakingly broad canvas, filled with many characters with all their strengths and weaknesses, quirks and foibles. (He is unashamedly a fan of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the engineer of the victory at sea of the First World War who was as shabbily treated as was Air Vice-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the winner of the Battle of Britain in the Second. Funny people, the British.) He also captures technicalities, tactics, places, events with prose that never drops below readable and which is at times as exciting as any novel. A must-read for anyone interested in the history of the 20th century and a worthy follow-on from Mr. Massie's excellent "Dreadnought".
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on 1 December 2005
Having never read much about European history I was completely converted many years ago after reading Dreadnought. It was a pleasure to find this book continues in the same manner and I was not disappointed in any way.
The most appealing aspect of the book is the way Massie brings to life the details of politicians/admirals and then links these events in a way that illustrates the part they played in the grand scheme.
In particular I was left fascinated and exasperated at the personalities involved and how an individual's whim could so badly affect the way important issues, as warship design or where to start a new front in the war, were decided. The description of the Jellico/Beaty debate left me frankly amazed.
However the key to the book for me is that the subject, the war at sea, is covered from such differing angles as the politicians involved to the accounts of people who played a small part in the action. Additionally it is written in such a way that even knowing who won didnt detract from the suspense.
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on 19 August 2010
I started reading this book as i realized that i knew remarkably little about the naval adventures in world war I and wasn't sure who really had won the battle of Jutland. What i discovered was one of the best history books I have ever read, meticulously researched which harvests much from a wide range of sources to give a fascinating and one senses a definitive view into what happened together with the personalities and the broader circumstances in a very readable way. All aspects are covered from the technical details of the new inventions and developments to deep insights into personal lives, with deep coverage of the main English, German and American players and their motivations.

The pen portraits of the politicians and principal sailors are skillfully drawn - not too much but just enough to understand the main characters who did so much to influence the battles.

All in all an excellent read. It is a rare pleasure with such a fat book to be able to keep savouring the un-read text rather than viewing it as a chore to finish. This book is superbly judged - very well explained and with lots of interesting anecdotes and facts.
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on 19 January 2010
As a rule of thumb, the usual justification for a new history book is that it either introduces important new evidence or puts forward a striking new interpretation of the events it covers. Those that do not have a habit of swiftly being relegated to the remaindered shelves.

However, this book is one of those rare books that fails both these tests and yet is still very well worth reading -- and worth buying. There are two reasons for this; first, Massey's writing is of a very high standard; second, it fulfils the need for a handy account of the first world war at sea.

Among Massey's many strengths are his light touch and refreshingly non-partisan approach, which allow him both to steer clear of wartime propaganda and avoid taking sides in such tedious debates as the post-Jutland controversy.

While coverage of the war is not exhaustive, with Britain taking centre-stage and a number of more minor developments being omitted -- eg Souchon's exploits in the Black Sea and the events in the Adriatic -- the book makes no pretence to be either exhaustive or an academic history, and so this is not a serious fault. What it does do is to provide the reader with the main outlines, and do it well.

In particular, Massey has been very successful in melding developments at the strategic level with compelling eyewitness accounts that really bring events to life. The result is that the reader is left both with a good idea of what each side was trying to achieve, and what things were like at the sharp end.

Inevitably in a work like this, there are weaknesses, many of which could have been picked up by more knowledgeable editors. For example, one might well imagine that Lion was a twin screw vessel when in fact she had four; elsewhere the Hindenburg is wrongly described as having 15-inch guns. Another flaw is the relative lack of maps; while too many can often confuse the general reader, Massey has gone too far the other way.

All in all, a pretty fair book, which while having wide appeal to the non-specialist, will also be read with profit by those with a more serious interest in naval matters.
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on 27 January 2014
Massie writes with a comprehensive knowledge and compelling arguments about the many long-running controversies surrounding so many aspects of the first world war at sea: the personalities on both sides (Jellicoe "versus" Beatty, naturally), the speed versus armour in ship-building philosophy on the opposite sides, the "distant blockade" strategy of the British fleet, the German counter-strategy, and tactics in key encounters at the Dogger Bank and of course Jutland. He makes a persuasive case of how the war at sea was the key to winning the overall war. Germany found itself increasingly cut off from essential trade and supplies and the gamble to set the U-boats loose on neutral merchant shipping in the Atlantic eventually brought the US in with rapid and final consequences for Germany. The account of the debates between the commanders of the German High Seas Fleet, the prime minister, Bethmann-Hollweg and the supreme commander, the Kaiser, is remarkable in its detail and clarity. Much the same could be said about the retelling of the breakdown between Churchill and Fisher at the Admiralty in the earlier stage of the war and how that contributed to the disaster at Gallipoli, originally planned as a purely naval operation.

Behind all the grand strategies are the accounts of the battles, the ships and the men and the courage and failures and successes. The losses on both sides were relatively few but greater for the British although they won by winning the psychological blockade convincing the Germans by the British superiority in number of big ships and of guns to keep the High Seas Fleet (mostly) safely in Willhelmshaven and the Jade - only to be scuttled by their crews in Scapa Flow after the war. The reality was that British naval armour and gunnery were significantly deficient - as Beatty famously said at Jutland "there's something wrong with our bloody ships".

There are possibly a few minor flaws in this book. I would have liked a little more on the War Cabinet's strategy for the naval war as there is so much about the German side. I have also found a few repetitious passages as later chapters resume an earlier strand of the story. The author's extraordinarily extensive reading is slightly hidden from view and the many references to his sources are kept out of the text and have to be checked at the back of the book which many readers may be glad of. I suspect this may be to preserve the impressive flow and readability of the text. Overall these are as nothing to the lasting impact of a truly monumental book which the author tells us together with the earlier Dreadnought took 22 years to research.
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