1916: Leonardo da Vinci battleship sinks – Italian dreadnought battleship “Leonardo da Vinci” capsized in 36 freaking feet of water after an internal magazine explosion, killing 248 men.
The months between Jutland and the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare were an eventful time elsewhere in the naval war, with things generally going the way of the Central Powers. The failure of Austria-Hungary’s spring offensive in the Alps left the Italian front stalemated, and the rival fleets did not attempt to engage one another in the Adriatic, yet the Austrians managed to keep the Italians on their heels. On August 2, the Italian navy lost a second battleship to Austrian sabotage, the dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci, sunk at anchor in Taranto harbor, then on December 11 suffered the loss of the pre-dreadnought Regina Margherita, which fell victim to a minefield off Valona, Albania. The French navy likewise lost two battleships: the pre-dreadnought Suffren, torpedoed by German U 52 off Lisbon on November 26, and the pre-dreadnought Gaulois, torpedoed by German UB 47 in the Aegean on December 27. Austro-Hungarian espionage in Italy remained a valuable asset to the Central Powers in the Adriatic and beyond, but the advantage did not last long into the new year. The Italians finally traced the enemy’s covert operations to the Dual Monarchy’s consulate in Zurich, which their own agents raided in February 1917, securing evidence that led to the arrest of scores of Austrian agents, effectively breaking the spy network.
In the Black Sea, the Russian navy spent the first half of 1916 supporting a Russian army offensive in the Caucasus. Russia’s second Black Sea dreadnought, the Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, saw its first action in this role in February 1916, leading a group including many of the pre-dreadnoughts that had been so active in 1914 and 1915. The same month, to support the Ottoman army retreating in the face of the Russian offensive, Vice Admiral Souchon took the Yavuz Sultan Selim as far east as Trebizond for the first time since December 1914, joined by the Midilli, finally back in action after being mined in July 1915. On April 4, off Suermene Bay on the coastal flank of the Caucasus front, the Midilli encountered the Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, whose 12-inch (30.5-cm) guns far out-ranged its own 5.9-inch (15-cm) guns, and miraculously emerged unscathed after being bracketed by a salvo. Russian naval support played a role in the fall of Trebizond, which the Turks abandoned on April 18. Afterward, the Black Sea Fleet convoyed 35,000 troops to Trebizond to secure the gains, in the process losing just one small transport, the 760-ton Merkury, which sank on June 20 off Odessa after striking a mine laid by UC 15 (272 dead). Despite facing an opponent that now included two dreadnoughts, Souchon remained responsive to Turkish appeals to use the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli not just to convoy, but to carry troops and supplies to the front. These were risky operations, taking them farther from Constantinople than Sevastopol was from Constantinople, and thus leaving them vulnerable to being cut off on their way home. On a homeward voyage in early July, the two warships were nearly intercepted by Vice Admiral Ebergard’s superior force, including the Imperatritsa Maria and Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya, waiting for them off the coast between Zonguldak and Constantinople, but Souchon managed to avoid the trap and reach base safely. Russian naval authorities used the episode as a pretext to sack Ebergard in favor of Aleksandr Kolchak. The forty-one-year-old Kolchak, a rising star within the officer corps, was already well known for his prewar exploits as an Arctic explorer and, more recently, his service in the Gulf of Riga in 1915. Promoted to rear admiral early in 1916, he received a second, extraordinary promotion to vice admiral when given command of the Black Sea Fleet.
Under Scheer’s leadership, the Germans had maintained the initiative in the North Sea throughout the year of Jutland, but his six sorties had resulted in just one battle, a tactical victory that had not altered the strategic situation. Scheer’s defense of his decisions on November 4–5, coming after his admission four months earlier that U-boats, rather than the battle fleet, represented Germany’s best hope in the war at sea, signaled the direction the German navy would take during the conflict’s last two years. Given the increasing disparity in strength between the British and German surface fleets, Scheer had no alternative. During 1916, the addition of eight new capital ships (six dreadnoughts and two battle cruisers) on the British side more than compensated for the three battle cruisers lost at Jutland; meanwhile, during 1916 the German navy added just the battle cruiser Lützow and dreadnought Bayern, only to lose the Lützow at Jutland less than three months after it was commissioned. At the end of the year Britain enjoyed a 2:1 ratio of superiority over Germany in capital ships, with forty-four in commission (thirty-three dreadnoughts and eleven battle cruisers), of which all but HMS Dreadnought were with the Grand Fleet at its North Sea bases, against which Germany could muster just twenty-two (eighteen dreadnoughts and four battle cruisers). The British battle fleet also enjoyed a growing qualitative advantage, including eleven capital ships armed with 15-inch (38-cm) guns against just one (the Bayern) on the German side. A reorganization of the High Sea Fleet late in the year eliminated the last squadron of pre-dreadnoughts, ships Scheer had left behind on four of his six sorties during 1916. Their manpower would be needed for the growing armada of submarines to be deployed when unrestricted submarine warfare resumed.
The initial success of Russia’s summer offensive against Austria-Hungary, led by General Aleksei Brusilov, prompted Romania’s entry into the war on the Allied side (August 27, 1916). While its army invaded Transylvania, its negligible navy was no match for the forces Souchon had based on the Bulgarian coast, at Varna and Euxinograd. Kolchak thus had to focus on the western Black Sea, and after the armies of the Central Powers counterattacked and quickly occupied most of Romania, the pre-dreadnought Rostislav on October 22 covered the evacuation of the main port, Constanza. Coinciding with the disappointment over Romania’s poor performance in the brief campaign, on October 20 the Russian navy suffered its greatest material loss of the war when a magazine explosion sank the dreadnought Imperatritsa Maria at anchor in Sevastopol, killing 200 and injuring 700. The demoralizing disaster came just as the Russians had begun to enjoy the benefits of their capital ship superiority in the Black Sea; afterward, they focused on replacing the lost dreadnought by accelerating work on its sister-ship, Imperator Aleksandr III, then still under construction at Nikolaiev.
Meanwhile, during 1916, Allied naval power played a central role in the increasingly heavy-handed attempts to coerce Greece to declare war on the Central Powers. By the end of 1915, the Allied bases on the islands of Corfu (for Adriatic operations) and Lemnos (for the Dardanelles) had been joined by an ever-growing army in the mainland enclave at Salonika, established for the belated attempt to save Serbia from being overrun by the Central Powers after Bulgaria entered the war. In December 1915, as Corfu became home to Serbia’s government-in-exile and the evacuated remnants of the Serbian army, King Constantine finally sacked the prime minister, Venizelos, and suspended the liberal Greek parliament. Lacking a pro-Allied advocate in any official capacity in Athens, the Allies nevertheless shipped the Serbian army to Salonika in the spring of 1916 and reinforced their own troops there, with an eye toward the eventual creation of a Macedonian front. After failing to disrupt the transport of the Serbs, the Germans had better luck against French troopships bound for Salonika, which ran unescorted, armed as auxiliary cruisers. U 35 alone sank the 13,750-ton Provence (990 dead) in February and the 14,970-ton Gallia (1,338 dead) in October, elevating its commander, Kapitänleutnant Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, to the status of most successful U-boat captain.
During 1916 the British actively recruited Greek irregulars for use in raids along the Turkish coast, and while the Allies did not recognize a rival government established by Venizelos at Salonika in August, they used the threat of recognizing it as leverage to demand that the Greek army provide their Salonika force with batteries of mountain artillery for use against the Bulgarians. When Constantine refused, the Allied Mediterranean commander, Dartige du Fournet, appeared off Piraeus on December 1 with a force including the dreadnought Provence and four Danton-class pre-dreadnoughts. He shelled Athens (with at least one round falling close to the Greek royal palace), then landed troops. Loyal Greek forces drove the Allied landing parties back to their ships, inflicting over 200 casualties, but the king finally conceded the mountain artillery and, the following month, agreed to withdraw the Greek army to the Morea, allowing the Allies to operate freely in the northern part of the country. Dartige du Fournet became the scapegoat for the bungled operation and at the end of 1916 gave way to Vice Admiral Dominique-Marie Gauchet. Greece finally entered the war on the Allied side in July 1917, after a French squadron landed 9,500 troops at Piraeus, this time unopposed, to force Constantine to abdicate.
With some justification, the Germans could point to the Allied violation of Greek neutrality as being no different from their own earlier violation of Belgian neutrality, but the analogy could not be carried too far, of course, because there was no Belgian Venizelos and no pro-German faction within Belgium clamoring for an alliance with the Central Powers. Indeed, while both sides in the First World War bullied weak neutral countries, just as both used poison gas on battlefields, used submarines to attack unarmed enemy ships, and used airplanes or airships to drop bombs on cities, the Germans bore the onus of having done all of these things first, of having, in each case, raised the stakes or escalated the conflict. As 1916 gave way to 1917, they prepared to do so yet again.