Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War

By Robert K. Massie
Published by the Ballantine Books, Reissued 2012 

This thick but not ponderous book leads up to the Great War by recounting much of nineteenth- century European history through the biographies of many of its leaders, some obscure. We learn about the dysfunctional family that ruled the great powers of Britain, Germany, and Russia: the bellicose, immature, insecure, arrogant, adviser-dominated, and frequently irrelevant Kaiser, a King who gradually ate himself to death, a prime minister reluctant to make decisions, and a German secretary of state whose lies almost caused a war over a worthless piece of beach in Morocco.

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The recounting of European history of that period is vital background to understanding the isolation of Britain that yielded to the necessity of relationships: a treaty with France that transforms a former enemy into an ally that England supports during the Moroccan crisis. By way of further background, Massie also covers the impact of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the effects of the reparations of that war.

The title implies, but the book does not fulfill, the significance of HMS Dreadnought and its class of battleships. The word does not appear for several hundred pages. The ships are discussed at length in the chapters concerning First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher and the naval arms race of 1910–1914, but are not really considered a factor in the opening of hostilities. Yet the building of the dreadnoughts reveals much about the changes wrought by technology, such as greater firepower, conversion of coal to oil, and growing German nationalism. While Jutland is not mentioned, the discussion of the design, construction, and deployment of battle cruisers does much to explain that fiasco.

Many of the leaders of the time were very dedicated hardworking office holders, a few were fools, and some were just colorful. Churchill's parents ignored him until he was an adult, but he shamelessly used his mother's contacts from among her numerous lovers to advance his career — or at least his fame and fortune, which were much the same.

Finally, the chain of events leading to the great catastrophe began with a small revolutionary group killing the Archduke, which in turn provided an opportunity for one nation to punish a weaker nation. The pace quickened as events spiraled out of control, with Germany's leaders pushed aside by generals who were sure they knew best. Those generals, however, other than Moltke, were not named, much less discussed.

You can enjoy reading Dreadnought as I did to learn about the personalities that created the events leading to the Great War. The book is excellent background material to the war and ends with Foreign Minister Grey's famous line as the war began about the lamps going out all over Europe. The book concludes effectively with a sense of the great oncoming tragedy.

I believe this book would be great preparation for the 2013 WW1HA Symposium because the subject matter fits the Symposium theme very well. Start reading now, though, because of the length of the text.

Ron Drees 


  1. GREAT BOOK,Expalins one the reasons the war was always under the surface....hidden like a bad dream that was going to blow up without anyone knowing how to stop it....

  2. Bravo. As we discussed briefly a few weeks ago, this book holds a lot of answers to the start of the Great War and really shows how irrelevant the Kaiser was to the overall beginning of the war. I will have to take it off the shelf and read it again. Cheers