Guts and glory on the high seas

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.

The centerpiece, if one can pluck it from this rich tapestry, is Massie's account of the Battle of Jutland from May to June 1916. This was the clash of the titans, the "castles of steel" to which the book's title refers. Alas, for the Royal Navy, Jutland was no Trafalgar (1805) nor a Leyte Gulf (1944), the only two other gigantic battle fleet actions that bear comparison but that ended much more decisively.

It was, instead, a messy affair in the North Sea mists, full of confusions, false alarms and bad signals. But it had its dramatic moments, including the spectacular destruction of no less than three British battle cruisers (due to their light armor and poor control against internal fires and explosions).

In this sort of history writing, I doubt if Massie has an equal -- perhaps John Keegan in his accounts of the chaos of land warfare in "The Face of Battle." There is a description by Massie of the destruction of the British battle cruiser Invincible that I have never seen before:

"When the German shells penetrated Q turret, the flash ignited the powder in the hoist and traveled down the turret trunk to the magazine, causing both Q and P turrets' magazines to explode. The whole central section -- including boiler rooms, coal bunkers and the two amidships turret systems -- was ripped apart in a gigantic ball of crimson flame. Masses of coal dust spurted from the broken hull, the tall tripod masts collapsed inward, and a ball of flame mounted into the sky followed by an enormous tower of black smoke. The ship broke in half and the two severed halves sank until each rested vertically on the bottom. Then, when the smoke had cleared, a curious sight was seen. As the ship was 567 feet long and the sea was only 180 feet deep, the bow and stem were seen standing separately -- fifty feet of bow and fifty feet of stern, each with red bottom paint and gray topside paint -- rising perpendicular out of the water. There were a few survivors nearby. These men waved as Inflexible and Indomitable swept past. 'I have never seen anything more splendid,' said an officer in Indomitable, 'than these few cheering as we raced by them.' "

This is a wonderful and special genre of history, just as wonderful as other genres -- be it an account of an individual slave woman on a Southern plantation, or a new study of President Kennedy and the Berlin crisis, or an insight on life at the Court of Mantua in the 16th century. Each approach has its audiences, and Massie certainly knows who his audience is. (As the Christmas season approaches, "Castles of Steel" is a fine recommendation for a gift.)

But it is more than that. It is a testimony to the sole, determined scholar who has a tale to tell and the wherewithal to tell it. It is a labor of love, in an age of sound bites. It is a fine display of the English language, unpolluted by quasi-scientific babble and unnecessary theorizing. And it tells a story.

When history ceases to do that, it will have little purpose left.

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