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Dreadnought & Saying Goodbye

April, 2013
By John Huckans

I've been reading Robert Massie's Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York: Random House, 1991) for much of the winter – it's not because I'm a slow reader, but Massie's  ability to breathe so much life into the history he knows so intimately makes the reader want to take plenty of time to absorb and reflect on what's been read. I wouldn't rush through one of Massie's books any more than I'd down a glass of the best oloroso or cortado Spanish sherry as if it were a pint of draft Yuengling.  Nothing against Yuengling – it's probably my favorite non-pretentious go-to lager.

The parallel narratives, from both the English and German perspectives, relying heavily on letters, journals, contemporary accounts and earlier histories, focus on the late Victorian and Edwardian periods when ship design and construction methods were changing radically, naval tactics were undergoing a major rethinking, and all of it happening in a relatively short period of time.

The transition from three-tiered, oak-hulled sailing ships of the line to battleships and cruisers built entirely of iron and steel, happened almost overnight while many older sailors still living, retained memories of Trafalgar and the original Dreadnought. In a background chapter devoted entirely to the transition from sail to steam, Massie describes the idiosyncratic behaviors of some of the commanding naval officers who were allowed to operate almost autonomously (as late as the 1870s), perhaps as compensation for the many months and years of separation from home and family.

...peculiarities appeared and eccentricities blossomed... Captain Houston Stewart of the three-decker Marlborough... enjoyed fishing from the window of his stern cabin when the ship was at anchor...Admiral Kingcome. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Station... delighted in beating the drum for night quarters himself... another British captain, invited by the governor of the nearest British colony to dine on the Queen's birthday fourteen days hence, declined on the ground that he would have a headache... (and) there was a great variety in hats. One admiral wore a tall white top hat, another a white billycock hat... Lieutenant Lord Charles Beresford ...(was allowed) to bring an elephant on board ...(who) lived in a house built on the afterdeck...

And so it went. The training of the sailors, particularly the yardmen, was especially harrowing. They had no choice but to find amusement in simply staying alive, as memorialized in Massie's narrative.

A sailing ship's most valuable men were those who went aloft (and) for the men who worked there, this interlocking web of wood, canvas, and rope made an extraordinary gymnasium in the sky.  Men scampered through the rigging, sometimes running along the yards without holding on even though the ship was rolling wildly...Everyone who went aloft went barefoot...because the grip of the toes was essential... (and) when winter came... men worked aloft in icy wind, sleet, and snow, dressed only in  flannel vests and trousers... The elite were the upper yard men (who in competitions) swarmed aloft, darting along the yards, shifting lines and moving sails with astonishing speed... (and) when a ship sailed for home from the Grand Harbor in Malta, a man would be standing erect on the top of each mast – main, mizzen, and fore... balanced more than 200 feet in the air.

And in naval engagements it was more common for sailors to be killed or maimed by flying splinters of oak than by cannon balls or grape-shot.

The rapid and extraordinary developments in naval technology coincided with the accelerating decline of the Ottoman Empire and was spurred by rising German militarism still feeling the adrenalin rush following Prussia's easy defeat of France in 1871. The new German confederation or empire, as it now fancied itself, was dominated by Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg, who between them controlled 31 of the 58 seats in the Bundesrat (the Federal Council). With 17 of the 31 seats, Prussia was more or less able to dictate foreign policy and England was getting the message.

The Russian navy had been humiliated in the Russo-Japanese war, and even if its Black Sea fleet had not been bottled up because of Ottoman control of the Dardanelles, it is doubtful whether it would have been of much help – at the time Russia's naval tactics were such that it would only have added more ducks to the shooting gallery that was the Strait of Tsushima.

Against this backdrop of growing cordial relationships between England, France and Russia largely fueled by worry over Germany's accelerated naval construction program and ultimate intentions, the Austrian and Russian foreign ministers (Aerenthal and Isvolsky) sought to exploit Ottoman weakness to their mutual advantage. Russia had been the traditional protector, at least in theory, of the Slavic populations of Serbia and the region, and the remaining bits and pieces of the Ottoman empire represented low-hanging fruit ripe for the taking by the European powers. In a clandestine back-room deal, Aerenthal agreed to back Russia's claim to free navigation through the Dardanelles provided Russia would stand aside while Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. In early October of 1908 Bulgaria proclaimed independence, and Aerenthal jumped the gun by formally annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, publicly embarrassing Russia which then stood accused of betraying the Balkan Slavs. All of it without Russia having received formal Austrian backing for its right to send its Black Sea fleet through the Dardanelles. And in the ensuing diplomatic turmoil Germany supported the Austrians, ethnic loyalties trumping royal family connections. Ratcheting it up even further, Germany threatened to back up Austria-Hungary militarily should Russia stand in the way of its expansionist plans.

The prospect of going from Ottoman to Austrian control held little appeal for the Serbs and the nationalist aspirations of the southern Slavs in general, and so Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand provided the convenient accident waiting to happen.

“Dreadnought” ends at the point when hostilities begin, and if I had to pick just one word to characterize any of Massie's historical works, that word would have to be poignancy, a feeling that suffuses much of his writing, especially that relating to the Romanovs (Massie's son Robert also suffered from haemophilia).  His ample use of personal letters, journals, and diplomatic correspondence bolsters the argument and makes the case, quite effectively I might add, that many of the politicians and diplomats of the major powers genuinely wanted to avoid war, but were ineluctably drawn in by Austria, which along with the Ottoman Empire, was a dead duck that hadn't gotten the news.  Of such situations tragedies are made.

With 90 pages of notes, bibliography and an index, there is plenty of documentation to support what I would unhesitatingly describe as one of the most important and readable histories of the period. There's much more that I could have added, but I have some news to pass along on an entirely different subject.


The issue of Book Source Magazine that you're now reading is the last that I will be directly connected with, and after 28 years and 4 months of uninterrupted publication, it's time to find out if anyone else would like to carry it into the future. Already several people have indicated some interest but as of this writing nothing is definite. There have been inquiries about the various bits and pieces, such as the stock of back issues, domain names, server space on the web-hosting service, archives, mailing lists, etc., and even though there's some financial incentive to pursue this route, we're reluctant to dismember the magazine unless there is no other choice.  And yet in another sense, there's a certain satisfaction in having things come to an end – maybe Aristotle was right after all. In any event, the next few weeks or months will tell us a lot.

The good news is that we're still quite active and have plenty of projects we're anxious to jump into that have been on the back-burner for far too long. More time spent with books, gardening, writing, kayaking, canoeing and travel are part of the plan and there's no reason to put these things off any longer. Raquel and I are looking forward to summers on the lake, in the garden, and sometimes on the road.

One of the things I'll surely miss is the contact with people who have been friends and supporters of this magazine since early 1985, and to our faithful advertisers and A-List subscribers who have kept this magazine going for so long, we owe a special thank you.