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

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

by Robert K. Massie


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A gripping chronicle of the personal and national rivalries that led to the twentieth century’s first great arms race, from Pulitzer Prize winner Robert K. Massie
With the biographer’s rare genius for expressing the essence of extraordinary lives, Massie brings to life a crowd of glittery figures: the single-minded Admiral von Tirpitz; the young, ambitious Winston Churchill; the ruthless, sycophantic Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow; Britain’s greatest twentieth-century foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey; and Jacky Fisher, the eccentric admiral who revolutionized the British navy and brought forth the first true battleship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought.
Their story, and the story of the era, filled with misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and events leading to unintended conclusions, unfolds like a Greek tragedy in this powerful narrative. Intimately human and dramatic, Dreadnought is history at its most riveting.
Praise for Dreadnought
Dreadnought is history in the grand manner, as most people prefer it: how people shaped, or were shaped by, events.”Time
“A classic [that] covers superbly a whole era . . . engrossing in its glittering gallery of characters.”Chicago Sun-Times
“[Told] on a grand scale . . . Massie [is] a master of historical portraiture and anecdotage.”The Wall Street Journal
“Brilliant on everything he writes about ships and the sea. It is Massie’s eye for detail that makes his nautical set pieces so marvelously evocative.”Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345375568
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/1992
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 1040
Sales rank: 324,761
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991. His books include Nicholas and Alexandra; Peter the Great: His Life and World (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for biography); The Romanovs: The Final Chapter; Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War; Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea; and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Read an Excerpt

Victoria and Bertie
Queen Victoria was mostly German. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III, was a Hanoverian, a descendant of George Louis, Elector of Hanover, brought to England in 1714 and placed on the throne as King George I to ensure the Protestant succession. All of Queen Victoria’s Hanoverian forebears—King George II, his son Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his son King George III—married German wives, reinforcing the German strain on her father’s side. Queen Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria Mary Louisa of Saxe-Coburg, was German. Queen Victoria herself then redoubled the German fraction in the royal family by marrying her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, the son of her mother’s older brother. The Queen’s early environment was mostly German. Her governess was German; the cradle songs by which she was lulled to sleep were German; she heard nothing but German and spoke only that language until she was three. Her eager sympathy with most things German was due to her husband. “I have a feeling for our dear little Germany which I cannot describe,” she said after visiting Prince Albert’s birthplace.
The British monarchy, in the years before Victoria’s accession, had come on hard times. Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessors on the throne—George III, George IV, and William IV—have been described as “an imbecile, a profligate, and a buffoon.” Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, looked scarcely more promising. Retired from the British Army because of a taste for harsh discipline which had provoked a mutiny at Gibraltar, permanently in debt, a bachelor at forty-eight, he lived mostly abroad with his mistress of twenty-eight years, a French-Canadian woman named Madame de St. Laurent. Inspired in 1818 by an offer of an increased parliamentary subsidy if he would marry and produce a child, he ushered Madame de St. Laurent to the door and proposed to a thirty-year-old widow, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. They married and within ten months, on May 24, 1818, a daughter was born. Eight months later, the Duke of Kent, having made his contribution to English history, died of pneumonia.
The princess, second in line for the British throne, lived with her mother in practical, red-brick Kensington Palace, whence she journeyed from time to time to visit her aged uncle, King George IV. Early, she knew how to please. Climbing into the lap of the gouty, bewigged monarch, she would give him a beguiling smile and plant a whispery kiss on his dry, rouged cheek. “What would you like the band to play next?” the old gentleman once asked. “Oh, Uncle King, I should like them to play ‘God Save the King,’ ” piped the child. “Tell me what you enjoyed most of your visit,” King George said when it was time for her to go. “The drive with you,” chimed little Princess Victoria.
She understood that she was different from other children. “You must not touch those, they are mine,” she announced to a visiting child who was about to play with her toys. “And I may call you Jane, but you must not call me Victoria,” she added for emphasis. An exasperated music teacher once presumed to lecture, “There is no royal road to music, Princess. You must practice like everyone else.” Abruptly, Victoria closed the piano cover over the keys. “There! You see? There is no must about it!” When she was ten, she discovered and began to study a book of genealogical tables of the kings and queens of England. Startled, she turned to her governess and said, “I am nearer to the throne than I thought.” When her governess nodded, Victoria’s eyes filled with tears. Solemnly, she raised her right forefinger and made the famous declaration, “I will be good.”
In 1830, when Victoria was eleven, the death of “Uncle King” brought the Princess even closer to the throne. The new King, her sixty-five-year-old uncle William, had sired ten children, all illegitimate; Victoria, accordingly, was Heir to the British Crown. King William IV reigned for seven years, but at five A.M. on June 20, 1837, a group of gentlemen arrived at Kensington Palace, having come directly from Windsor Castle, where the King had just died. A sleepy young woman in a dressing gown, her hair still down her back, received them and they kneeled and kissed her hand. A reign of sixty-four years had begun. “I am very young,” the new Queen wrote in her diary that night, “and perhaps in many, though not all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that few have more good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right that I have.” The eighteen-year-old Queen, bubbling with youthful high spirits, provided a tonic for the British people, surfeited with foolish old men on the throne. On political matters, Victoria scrupulously followed the advice of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Their relationship was a blend of daughter and father, adoring younger woman and elegant, urbane older man—and sovereign and subject. The world thought Melbourne a cynic, but he charmed the Queen with his sophistication, his dry wit, and his deep devotion. She proclaimed him “the best-hearted, kindest, and most feeling man in the world,” praise endorsed when her beloved spaniel, Dash, came up to lick Lord Melbourne’s hand. “All dogs like me,” the Prime Minister said, and shrugged, but the Queen would not believe it.
The vicissitudes of politics removed Lord Melbourne but, in 1839, Victoria herself chose the male counselor who was to have the greatest influence on her life. Her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, three months younger than Victoria, had grown up a serious, purposeful child. “I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man,” he had written in his diary at age eleven. Victoria had first met her cousin before she came to the throne, when both were seventeen. “Albert’s beauty is most striking,” she told her diary. “His hair is about the same color as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.”
Subsequently, she noted further details: the “delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers,” the “beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.” Both knew that their elders hoped for a match. Still, the choice was up to her. She was almost ready to make that choice after watching him climbing the stairs at Windsor in October 1839. “It is with some emotion that I beheld Albert—who is beautiful,” she told her diary. A few days later, she invited Albert to come to her private audience room, where she proposed. Albert consented and began the difficult task of becoming the husband of the Queen of England. When he suggested, before the marriage, that it would be nice to have a longer honeymoon than the two or three days set by the Queen, she reminded him, “You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign and that business can stop and wait for nothing.” The marriage ceremony took place at St. James’s Chapel in London and the wedding night at Windsor. The following morning, the Queen rushed to her diary. Albert had played the piano while she lay on the sofa with a headache, but “ill or not I NEVER NEVER spent such an evening!!!. My DEAREST DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness, I never could have hoped to have felt before!—really, how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband!”
In the early months of marriage, Albert’s position was awkward. Victoria adored him and had insisted that the word “obey” remain in their marriage service, but, as he wrote to a friend, he remained “the husband, not the master of the house.” His position improved when, nine months and eleven days after the wedding, he became a father as well as a husband. The child was a daughter, Victoria (called Vicky by the family), rather than the hoped-for Prince of Wales, but this disappointment was overcome eleven and a half months later when Prince Albert Edward (known as Bertie) arrived on November 20, 1840, at Buckingham Palace. The Prince was baptized at Windsor on January 25, 1842, in the presence of the Duke of Wellington and King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who bestowed on his godson the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle. After the ceremony, Victoria wrote: “We prayed that our little boy might become a true and virtuous Christian in every respect and I pray that he may become the image of his beloved father.”
Bertie, installed in the nursery with an English and a German governess, began to speak bilingually; later, a visitor observed that the royal children “spoke German like their native tongue.” Bertie’s first words were mocked by his precocious older sister, and the Queen worried that her son “had been injured by being with the Princess Royal who was very clever and a child far above her age. She puts him down by a word or a look.” Despite their squabbles, brother and sister were close.
Queen Victoria gave birth four times in her first four years of marriage, six times in her first eight years, nine times in all. Surprisingly in that era, all of her children lived to adulthood. She did not enjoy the process of childbearing. “What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that,” she wrote eighteen years later when Vicky as Crown Princess of Prussia wrote rapturously about the birth of William, her own first child. “I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.”

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Dreadnought Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't beleive the bias baloney. This book is superb. It covers absolutely everything, the politics, colonialization, the Boer war,the Boxer Rebellion, Fashoda, the Morrocco Crisis, Agadir, the scheming of France, England, Germany and Russia and of course the building of the Dreadnought. The characters are true, the prose is crisp and each chapter easily accomplishes the writers goal of advancing the narrative. A 900 page book that never flags. The Germans are more intersting to me than the British. Kaiser William, Admiral Tirpitz, Bulow, Bismarck etc make for somewhat more compelling figures than Asquith, Lloyd George, Grey and Churchill. There is no panegyric to Churchill. He comes across as egotistical, pretentious, overconfident - all of which he was. And could there be a worse mother than Jennie Churchill? And at the end when the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey praises the German Ambassador Lichnowsky, ' for no man had worked harder to avert war...or more genuinely hated this coming war' you realize how the sweep of events had outstripped these men's abilities to control them. Of course, the book is also blessed with Mister Massie's perspicacious observations and analysis. A triumph by every meassure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the way history should be written.This is not so much about the battleship Dreadnaught as it is a fascinating detailed and above all readable treatise about the Victorian era politics of Britain and Germany.It is outstanding even though it is long you simply cannot put it down. But then this is Massie one not only of the best historians but also a very gifted writer. (Oh how I wish Niall Ferguson were that colorful of a writer!).Politics could be a very dry subject but Massie makes the characters come very alive even people that are somewhat colorless like Salisbury and Bethmann-Hollweg. Churchill and Bismarck are easy to describe vividly. Salisbury and Bethmann-Hollweg are not. Yet Massie manages that. Battleships and John Arbuthnot Fisher are entertaining. Yet Massie manages all his characters to be vivid and relevant. Truly great book.The only one that tops it is his Castles of Steel and Tuchman's Guns of August.
5hrdrive on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At times gossipy and over-long, but if you're serious about understanding the root causes of World Way One, this is one book you can't miss.
Whiskey3pa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just an excellent book on the lead up to war.
thorold on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an endlessly long, frustratingly gossipy account of the events that led up to the First World War. As usual with Massie, we learn about how Europe's political leaders dressed, what they ate, where they took their holidays and sailed their yachts, and a great many other things that can't possibly be relevant. Although the book is nominally about the naval arms race, it takes him about four hundred pages to get to the first mention of naval matters, and even then we don't get very much real detail.All the same, if you can manage to quell your impatience at his technique, it is a very engaging, readable book, the sort of thing to dip into with pleasure on long winter evenings. And anyway, the underlying story is so familiar that we aren't really that eager to find out how it ends. Some of Massie's opinions are maybe a bit facile - I've certainly read other accounts of Kaiser Wilhelm II that give him credit for rather more intelligence and put more of the blame for the lurch into war on Tirpitz and the general staff, but that doesn't really matter: this is the sort of book you read for entertainment rather than analysis.
KDGeorge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful history book, bringing the era, main players and a host of secondary characters to life. A wide ranging, in-depth and fascinating build up to WW1. Massie is excellent at giving views from all sides of the conflict ¿ and despite the door-stop size of the book, it is never boring. The title suggests it is an analysis of the capital ships programme ¿ but it is much, much more. By the outbreak of war on the last page, the reader has been made aware of the multiplicity of stepping stones to conflict that were laid throughout Europe. The ominous seeds of the Second World War can also be spotted. The only minor criticism that I can suggest is that the role of the German General Staff, (particularly Alfred von Schlieffen and the younger Helmuth von Moltke) does not get quite the same in-depth analysis as that of the other main protagonists, yet it was surely the unrelenting and rigid German mobilisation plan that finally pushed the great powers of Europe over the brink and into the conflagration of the First World War? Five stars.
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Very creative
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I am finding this book to be very imformative as to what transpired in Europe during the forty, or so, years prior to World War 1.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not a World War I buff, but the author very much held my interest. He seemed to try very hard to present all viewpoints fairly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a deaply flawed book.It buys into all the old anti-German propaganda myths about the events leading up to WWI.In fact the naval rivalry was started by the British militarists such as Churchill(who never met a war he didn't like) and Balfour as an excuse to build up its fleet.In fact the German fleet was never a threat to the British fleet,as the war showed, and it certainly was no threat to the combined fleets of England,France and Russia.The naval rivaly,largely imaginary to start out with,ended on Feb. 7,1913 when Germany agreed to build only 10 battleships for every 16 the British built,giving the British a permanent naval superiority.Unfortunately this did nothing to prevent the war because the British had already decided to destroy Germany.Of course the book contains the obligitory anti-German bias all books like this always have.Most of the German figures in the book are portrayed as monsters or lunatics of one sort or another while,of course,the war mongering British militarists like Balfour,Fisher and Churchill are all portrayed as heros.All in all this book is little more than yet another replay of 90 year old propaganda.