For the non-specialist new to this period of history, Robert Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War is a thorough and entertaining read. Despite its length, it is very readable and does not feel padded out or slow. This is a long book because it covers a lot, not because it has a self-indulgent author and a lazy editor.
Yet it is also a book which leaves much out, for it is a balancing act which is revealed in its title. Is this a book about British and German relations in the run-up to 1914 or is it a book about the origins of the First World War? The book veers between the two, covering far more than just British-German relations and yet doesn’t cover in much detail Austria and Russia – the two countries who kicked off the immediate chain of events which triggered war in 1914. Both those countries are bit players in the book, yet central to the very outbreak of a war that the title promises to tell the reader about.
Also bit players are wider factors, such as economic pressures or social trends, which get an occasional mention and little more. This is history as seen and shaped by the famous national figures, not history as shaped by economic and social forces.
The book takes it in turn to work around the main characters, often starting a chapter with a sparkling mini-biography of someone, giving their background and earlier career in some detail. This means there is some repetition in the book as the chronology is frequently backtracking to cover the same events as each new in-depth coverage of someone starts.
The repetition in itself is not tedious for the accounts of people are done well. It is however puzzling as the multiple accounts of the same events often vary rather in their details. This isn’t simply a matter of a clever author showing different information through the eyes of different people. It all seems rather more random than that, with both inconsequential details changing and even some of the substance too.
As an explanation of the causes of the First World War, the book does not really deliver – especially as it’s debatable whether the only real question for Britain was whether or not to take part and that a major war would have happened anyway – meaning the history of British-German relations and the naval race between them was a historical cul-de-sac rather than a cause of the build-up to cataclysm.
Yet despite all I’ve written, I read this book as quickly as I could. It’s hugely readable, very entertaining and packed full of illuminating mini-stories. Just don’t expect it to be all about naval matters or to give a rounded account of how the First World War came about.