One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.

Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.

Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.

Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.

The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.

Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.

Puck Magazine 1909, “No Limit” arms race, Wikimedia Commons

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.

I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.

The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.

However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.

In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.

Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.


I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.

The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.

Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Museums and Displays

One of the problems I have with going to a museum that touts its history collection and suggests that it will teach the visitor something about history is that for the most part the audience will take for granted that the museum will tell “the truth.”1

Often these displays will not actually lie to said visitor, but they will certainly mislead. For example, the USS Constitution Museum2 wanted to give a very, very basic overview of what the age of sail was about, that era of American Naval History (mostly the Barbary Wars) and, of course, the USS Constitution. In part because of not going into that detail and in many ways regardless of the detail the museum promoted glorification of sailing ships, the US Navy and the founding heroes of that body. For example, Stephen Decatur had a little bio, including his exploits on the Intrepid and as captain of the Constitution; William Bainbridge also had a plaque (both men won gold plaques for distinguished service and bravery), but while Decatur’s death was mentioned, what was not mentioned was that Bainbridge hated Decatur, was his second in the duel where he died, and did not intervene when Decatur had things set against him.

Another display talked about the foundation of the original six frigates (Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, and Congress) and how Joshua Humphrey won the contract to design the fleet. It didn’t mention that Josiah Fox also won the contract, that it was shared between the men and that Fox believed that Humphrey was wrong and therefore changed the design where ever he felt necessary.

The section about how the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli Harbor was glossed over, whereas the emphasis was on Bainbridge’s communications out of the prison and to Commodore Preble (who was praised as a hero and for Preble’s boys, without mentioning that he was unpopular and sickly), and, of course, on the daring raid to sink the frigate before the Tripolitans could refloat and rearm her.

I suppose that if someone wanted a passing understanding of that era’s naval history and a generic tale of what happened, then the museum was passable, but a bit small. It just seemed in many ways to be a glorification monument to the United States.

1 Very much the same is true for books, tv documentaries and teachers, but I visited the USS Constitution museum today, which is what made me think of this.

2 Which was decidedly underwhelming.